In this article, we talk about whether hoverflies are harmful like their similar-looking insect friends, the sweat bees.
Hoverflies are known to mimic the appearance and movements of insects like bees and wasps to stay protected from predators.
But do they also mimic the stinging abilities of these insects? Are they harmful to humans? Are they venomous/poisonous? How are they different from bees?
Let us find out in this article.
What Are Hoverflies?
Hoverflies get their names from their tendency to hover around flowers like a drone. These insects are also called flower flies or syrphid flies.
Their larvae are great at hunting and taking down aphid populations. Also, since the adults actively consume nectar and pollens, they are considered excellent pollinators.
Their body shape is quite similar to bees. Some species also have black and yellow markings on their body, making them look quite similar to wasps and bees.
A healthy adult flower fly can show an average growth of 1/4-3/4 inches and can usually be spotted near aphid colonies, laying eggs.
Due to their exceptional pest-controlling capacity and pollination services, they are considered beneficial insects.
Do They Sting?
Hoverflies might look like bees, wasps and other stinging insects, but they are pretty much harmless.
These flies do not possess a stinger and will not harm humans and pets.
At times you might find them landing on you, especially if you have beads of sweat coming out on a hot summer day.
They do so to suck the tiny sweat droplets to obtain moisture and salt.
Are Hoverflies Dangerous?
As stated above, hoverflies are not at all dangerous. These insects do not bite or sting. They are considered highly beneficial as they eliminate aphids and promote pollination.
Hoverflies and Batesian Mimicry
These insects mimic the appearance and behavior of stinging insects like bees and wasps to stay safe from predators.
Since they look similar to wasps and bees, potential predators avoid attacking them.
This happens because the predators are scared that they might sting and harm them.
Also, the bright colors indicate that hoverflies taste unpleasant and are not a good meal or snack.
The drone flies often copy honey bees to steer clear of predators like birds and lizards.
How To Differentiate Between Hoverfly vs. Sweat Bees
Like adult hoverflies, sweat bees are attracted to saline water like sweat beads. Since hoverflies look similar to bees, it is easy to misidentify sweat bees to be as hoverflies.
Sweat bees are dangerous and will deliver painful stings. Therefore, it is crucial to identify and differentiate these insects.
Here are a few differences, including the physical and behavioral traits between the two.
Pair of wings
Hoverflies only have a single pair of wings. All the members of the fly families have the same number of wings.
The sweat bees have two pairs of wings, which indicates that they belong to the bee family.
You can often see hoverflies hovering around bright yellow flowers. They can stay suspended in mid-air and can alter directions at excellent speeds.
The bees cannot do the same. If you find small bee-like insects flying around flowers like a drone, it is a hoverfly.
What they look like
If you look closely, you will notice sweat bee bodies are covered in a layer of fine hair. Hoverflies have hairless bodies and comparatively brighter bodies.
Sweat bees have dark eyes like yellow jacket wasps, and they are much bigger than hoverflies.
Also, you will observe that sweat bees have metallic-colored heads. They look exactly like miniature bees. In some regions, they are also known as baby bees.
What they eat
Hoverflies and sweat bees are attracted to the saline sweat beads on humans. The hoverflies are also active consumers of nectar, pollens, and garden pests like aphids.
Their larvae also eat eggs in aphid colonies.
These insects are harmless, but they might irritate you by buzzing around in search of sweat.
The sweat bees, despite their name, are comparatively less attracted to sweat. They only crave it when it is nearby and available.
Ability to sting
Hoverflies look like bees, but this appearance is to fool predators into considering them dangerous.
In reality, these insects do not possess any stingers and are entirely harmless to humans and pets.
The female sweat bees, on the hand, have a prominent stinger and can inject little venom into human and animal bodies.
Sweat bee stings can be painful; therefore, you must never fail to identify them as hoverflies.
A few species of sweat bees are solitary in nature. Here every female bee builds her individual nest in a small underground hole.
Some species of these bees are social and live in colonies. Each colony has different roles, like the queen, workers, soldiers, and more.
Hoverflies are mostly solitary, but you can spot them gathering in large groups in foraging sessions.
Frequently Asked Questions
What happens if a hoverfly bites you?
Hoverflies are entirely harmless to humans. These insects do not possess any stinger and won’t bite.
Hoverflies are highly beneficial as they help you get rid of garden pests like aphids, scale insects, and more.
They are also active consumers of pollens and nectar, making them excellent pollinators.
Gardeners make efforts to attract these flies to their gardens.
Why do hoverflies land on you?
Hoverflies are highly attracted to the salt present in sweat. Hence, it is common to see them buzzing around you on a sweaty summer afternoon.
They will gently fall on your skin to drink the saline sweat drops.
This won’t cause any harm to you, but it can be irritating to bear the sight of them buzzing around you.
What do Hoverflies do?
The larvae of hoverflies are enemies of problem-causing pests like aphids. They are experts in tracking and hunting down aphid populations.
Also, you can often find the adults hovering around bright flowers in search of pollens and nectar.
These insects are also fond of the salt present in human sweat. As a result, you might find them falling on a sweaty person’s body.
Why do flies hover in your face?
If you find hoverflies buzzing around your face, they are chasing the sweat beads on your head.
Yes, hoverflies are attracted to the salt present in human sweat, and they love to lick it off our bodies.
To avoid such interactions, keep your face dry and use sweat repellents.
Having a bunch of hoverflies in your garden is one of the best ways to keep aphids and other garden pests at bay.
But you must understand that they look similar to bees, and if you bring the wrong insects into your garden, you will be on the receiving end of painful stings.
Use the information from this article to identify them and to stay safe. Thank you for reading the article.
Considering how closely these insects resemble bees and wasps, it is no wonder that many of our readers have inquired about their stinging capabilities in the past.
Sample some of the emails sent to us, checking in on what to do with these bees hovering over our readers’ faces!
Letter 1 – Hover Fly
What kind of bee?
I’m helping my son with a school project. We are taking pictures of different insects on our property. This bee was found near our pond. We have been unable to find out exactly what type of bee it is. Can you help us out?
Thanks in advance!
Ruthie & Mason Rodgers
Hi Ruth and Mason,
This is not a bee, but an American Hover Fly, Metasyrphus americanus. You can tell flies from bees because flies have two wings and most other insects, including bees, have four wings.
Letter 2 – Hover Fly
I captured this beautiful looking fly in late July in Dublin, Ohio. Please could you identify. Thank you.
Collectively, the flies in the family Syrphidae are known as Hover Flies, Flower Flies or Syrphid Flies. Your species is a real beauty, Spilomyia interrupta.
Letter 3 – Hover Fly
Here’s a picture of a hoverfly I took in my garden. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and I took this during April on a pea plant. It’s a pretty common hoverfly (as in I found it on Google), but I was just wondering what it was doing on my pea plant. I think I might have been laying eggs where there were aphids (it was hovering around my cabbage as well). There was another picture of this fly on your site. I think it’s a Scaeva pyrastri.
Thank you so much for sending us your image of a correctly identified Hover Fly, Scaeva pyrastri. According to BugGuide, a larva may consume 500 aphids in its lifetime. We will, however, correct some grammar. When the descriptive common name for an insect includes multiple words, like hover and fly, they may be joined or kept separate, but they do follow certain rules. A Hover Fly is a true fly, so the words are kept separate. A Dragonfly, Dobsonfly and Butterfly are not true flies, so the words are connected.
Letter 4 – Hover Fly
Greetings from Topeka, Kansas,
I have a couple pics here of a hover fly, sort of a hornet mimic. Handsome little fellow. (OK I have no idea about it’s gender) It was very patient too, as I had to keep nudging him/her with my finger to get a face shot. Peace! –
This lovely Hover Fly is probably Spilomyia longicornis, or a closely related species. This fly mimics Polistes Wasps or Yellowjackets. According to BugGuide, this is a widespread species in the eastern states.
Letter 5 – Hover Fly
Bee looking fly.
October 12, 2009
Found this summer during August and during the day.
Los Angeles, CA.
This is a Flower Fly or Hover Fly in the family Syrphidae. We have matched it to the species Eristalinus taeniops by comparing your images to photos posted to BugGuide. The species is only listed in California according to BugGuide.
Letter 6 – Hover Fly
Bee Fly – Villa sp?
June 11, 2010
I think I have this fly identified as being in the Bombyliidae family, specifically Villa sp. Am I correct? Thanks for your help!
Though your fly looks like a bee, it is not a bee fly. It is a Flower Fly or Hover Fly in the family Syrphidae. We have matched it to an image on BugGuide, also from California, that is identified only as the genus Copestylum. We believe it most resembles Copestylum marginatum, but all the images on BugGuide appear to be females. Your fly is a male as evidenced by the closeness of his eyes. Females have a space between the eyes.
Letter 7 – Hover Fly
Location: Lexington NC
August 5, 2010 6:46 am
This little fella was loud and fast..
Landed and posed on my arm 🙂
Rick Nelson (SCWIDVICIOUS)
Dear Rick, AKA SCWIDVICIOUS,
However did you manage to get such clearly focused photographs shooting one handed? We believe your fly is Meromacrus acutus after looking at numerous images on BugGuide.
I have a lot of practice shooting our gorgeous little friends, many that are much smaller than him. Lots of experience in macros, so he is a rather large target. He really did just land on me and pose. I already had the camera, got 3 shots of him before he buzzed off. That’s a great compliment, thank you.
Letter 8 – Feather Legged Fly
Location: southwestern pennsylvania
June 2, 2011 10:34 pm
hello, I was walking around my farm with my camera and saw this stunning bug, a fly? or what else could it be.. gorgeous
We are relatively certain this is a Hover Fly or Flower Fly in the family Syrphidae, but we haven’t the time at the moment to browse the images on BugGuide to verify that identification and perhaps provide a species name.
thanks so much, i browsed bug guide and didn’t find anything.. I will continue to search around thanks again!
Kevin Moran provides an ID: August 17, 2014
Feather Legged Fly: Trichopoda lanipes
Letter 9 – Hover Fly: Volucella pellucens
Location: Cumbria, UK
June 19, 2011 2:13 pm
Hi there, great wesbite! Could you please let me know what this bug is?
It was in my friend’s room in the Lake District, UK today. It’s late spring/early summer just now and it was mid afternoon.
He said it was about an inch long.
black & white wasp with translucent upper abdomen
Location: Cumbria, UK
June 19, 2011 3:15 pm
any idea who this fellow is? i found him in my room this afternoon here in the English Lake District. he was about 1-1.5 inches long and most closely resembled some kind of a wasp in shape.
any help greatly appreciated!
Dear Chogma and dougal,
Within about an hour of one another, you each sent the same image for identification. This large Hover Fly, Volucella pellucens, is written about on the Nature Spot Leicestershire & Rutland website as being: “Sometimes called the Pellucid Hoverfly, this is one of the largest flies in Britain. It has a striking ivory-white band across its middle and large dark spots on its wings.” You may read more on TrekNature.
Letter 10 – Probably Flower Fly
Subject: Daniel – Strange Fly
Location: Hawthorne, CA
November 29, 2012 11:37 am
I pulled this guy out of the bird bath a while back and cannot, for the life of me, figure out what kind of fly it is. Any ideas?
Signature: Thanks, Anna Carreon
We believe this is another Flower Fly or Hover Fly in the family Syrphidae, but we haven’t the time this marvelous rainy morning to sift through the possibilities on BugGuide. Let us know if you have any luck with species ID.
Letter 11 – Hover Fly or Flower Fly: Spilomyia foxleei
Subject: Wasp maybe?
Location: Boise, Idaho
October 12, 2013 3:41 pm
I was photographing bees on Aster flowers and found this guy roaming around too. He kinda looks like a yellow jacket or wasp, but I can’t find out what exactly. I’m sure one of you would know right away.
Signature: John Howe
This is a Hover Fly or Flower Fly in the family Syrphidae, and many members in the family are amazingly effective mimics of wasps and bees. We believe your Hover Fly is in the genus Spilomyia, based on photos posted to BugGuide which indicates they can be identified as being “Very convincing mimics of wasps: pattern of pigment on eyes hides ‘fly eyes’; ‘V’ mark on thorax (scutum, in front of scutellum); short antennae.” Our best guess is that this is Spilomyia foxleei based on photos posted to BugGuide.
Letter 12 – Hover Fly
Geographic location of the bug: California
Time: 07:21 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman: Bee
How you want your letter signed: What kind of bee
This is not a Bee. It is a Hover Fly or Flower Fly in the family Syrphidae, a group that includes many members that mimic stinging Bees and Wasps for protection as the Hover Flies neither sting nor bite, and they benefit from being mistaken by predators for stinging insects. We identified your individual as Eristalinus taeniops on The Natural History of Orange County. The gap between the eyes on your individual identifies her as female.
Letter 13 – Hover Fly
Geographic location of the bug: Scottsdale ,AZ
Time: 03:27 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman: I was in my car at lunch June 7th, at noon, with my windows open and it was about 95 degrees out. This fly looking thing flew into my car and perched itself right above my head. It was mostly beige and brown kind of resembled a bee but looked more like a fly. To me it looked like it had a very pretty pattern. The more detailed photo in unretouched, the close up color is enhanced to look more like what I saw rather than what the camera saw.
How you want your letter signed: Alison O’Konski
This is a harmless Hover Fly or Flower Fly in the family Syrphidae, and many non-stinging members of this family mimic the colors and markings of stinging Bees and Wasps as a defense against predators. We matched your image to an image of Copestylum apiciferum on the Natural History of Orange County site and we verified that identification on BugGuide where the range map incudes Arizona.
Letter 14 – Hover Fly
Subject: What is this fly?
Geographic location of the bug: Los Angeles County, CA
Time: 09:04 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman: I found this small fly on my kitchen window. Do you know what it is?
How you want your letter signed: SoCalFly
This is a Hover Fly or Flower Fly in the family Syrphidae, but we are uncertain of the species. Many members of this family mimic stinging bees and wasps for protection, despite being harmless themselves. The Natural History of Orange County has many similar looking individuals.