Subject: What’s this bug?
Location: South Africa
December 4, 2014 10:46 pm
On a recent trip to a game reserve in South Africa (Pilanesburg), we stopped at a picnic area and came across these weird looking “flies”. They where large, being approximately 2 cm long and there where about 20 of them in one concentrated area. They where very lethargic and did not fly off when approached or even moved with a stick. They move slowly.
Signature: Regards, Sean
To say that we were taken aback when we first viewed your images is an understatement. We could not even decide if this was a wasp or a fly. The general shape of the body indicated to us that it is a fly, yet the head almost looked more like a wasp. To further complicate matters, our first stop for South African identifications, iSpot, is currently doing a site migration and though we found images that looked similar, we were unable to read about those sightings on iSpot. We eventually located a posting on FlickR that identified this unusual fly as a Rooikopvlieg, Bromophila caffra.
Searching that scientific name lead us to Beetles in the Bush where a lengthy posting provided a common name of Buzzard Signal Fly. According to Beetles in the Bush: “It is a member of the family Platystomatidae, commonly known as signal flies and part of the great superfamily Tephritoidea of fruit fly fame (i.e., true fruit flies – not “the” fruit fly which belongs to the family Drosophilidae and which are more properly called vinegar flies). … But what about Bromophila caffra? Aside from being one of the most recognizable of flies in Africa, it’s sluggish disposition and apparent noxiousness were obvious even to early naturalists. Marshall (1902) noted the similarity of its coloration (black body, blue wings, red or yellow head) to that of two Pompilus spp. and one sphecid wasp with which it occurred sympatrically.” In closing, Beetles in the Bush coins a heretofore lacking common name with this justification: “I find it surprising that a large, strikingly distinctive, abundant insect such as Bromophila caffra should lack a common name, but it appears this is the case. None was given in Field Guide to Insects of South Africa, nor amongst the several South African wildlife and dipteran websites which I encountered featuring photos of this insect. In thinking about what common name Bromophila caffra could have, I can’t help but draw comparisons between this insect and the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), or “buzzard,” of North America (despite their belonging to entirely separate phyla). Both species are among the larger members of their respective orders and make their living eating repulsive foodstuffs. Hulking black with naked, red, plastic-like heads, most predators regard them as too vile and noxious to bother with, leaving them free to pass their lives in unmolested disdain. With this in mind, I hereby propose ‘buzzard signal fly’ as the official common name for this insect.”