Hornet Mimic Hoverfly: Essential Facts Uncovered

The hornet mimic hoverfly is a fascinating insect that bears a striking resemblance to wasps and bees. This clever mimicry provides them with a form of protection from predators. Despite their appearance, hoverflies are harmless, as they do not bite or sting. They belong to the family Syrphidae, with many species exhibiting this intriguing adaptation.

In gardens, hoverflies play a crucial role as beneficial insects. Adult hoverflies are attracted to nectar-filled flowers, while their larvae act as voracious predators of aphids, helping to keep their populations under control. Due to their ecological importance and captivating appearance, understanding the hornet mimic hoverfly can be a valuable addition to your knowledge of the natural world.

When observing hoverflies, it’s essential to recognize their distinguishing characteristics. They can be differentiated from wasps and bees by their single pair of wings, compared to the two pairs found in their look-a-likes. Moreover, hoverflies often exhibit a unique hovering flight pattern, which can be a reliable indicator of their true identity.

Hornet Mimic Hoverfly: Overview

Volucella Zonaria

The Hornet Mimic Hoverfly, scientifically known as Volucella zonaria, is a species of hoverfly that shares a striking resemblance to the European Hornet (Vespa crabro). This species can be commonly found in urban areas and gardens across southern England, including cities like London, Bournemouth, and Reading1. Although it is generally considered rare, recent sightings indicate an increase in their population, which could be attributed to climate change2.

Appearance and Identifying Features

  • Large eyes
  • Banded abdomen with black, yellow, or orange stripes
  • One pair of wings
  • Short antennae

These features help distinguish the Hornet Mimic Hoverfly from its lookalike, the European Hornet.

Size and Distribution

Comparison Table

Feature Hornet Mimic Hoverfly European Hornet
Size 15-20mm 18-25mm
Kingdom: Animalia Arthropoda Arthropoda
Class: Insecta Diptera Hymenoptera
Family: Syrphidae Diptera Vespidae

The Volucella zonaria is one of the largest hoverfly species in Great Britain, measuring between 15-20mm. Its distribution is mostly limited to the south of the UK, but due to climate change and the availability of food resources in urban areas, their range is expanding northwards3.

As part of the Syrphidae family, these flies play a beneficial role in the environment by pollinating flowers and providing natural pest control for aphids4. Moreover, these harmless mimics do not possess stinging capabilities, making them safe to observe in nature and urban areas alike.

Life Cycle and Behavior

Mating and Larvae Development

  • Mating: Hoverflies typically mate in the spring and summer months (May to October).
    Adult hoverflies perform courtship behaviors to find a suitable mate1. After mating, female hoverflies lay their eggs on plants with abundant aphid populations.
  • Larvae Development: Larvae emerge from the eggs after a few days. They are voracious predators, feeding on soft-bodied insects like aphids2. The larvae develop rapidly, going through several instars before pupating. The adult hoverflies emerge after pupation, ready to begin the cycle again.

Pollination and Food Sources

  • Pollination: Hoverflies play a significant role as pollinators, visiting various flowers for nectar and pollen3. While not as efficient as bees, hoverflies contribute to pollination by transferring pollen between flowers as they feed.
  • Food Sources: Adult hoverflies primarily feed on nectar from flowers, while larvae feed on soft-bodied insects like aphids.

Migration Patterns

  • Migratory Behavior: Some hoverfly species have migratory behaviors, following seasonal fluctuations in temperature and food availability4. These migrations can cover large distances, even crossing continents.
  • Movement Timing: Hoverflies typically emerge in the spring and become more active as temperatures rise. They are most commonly seen from May to October5.

Comparison Table: Hoverflies vs Social Wasps

Feature Hoverflies (Hornet Mimic) Social Wasps (e.g., Vespa velutina)
Appearance Resemble hornets; black and yellow striped body, harmless6 Smaller than hornets; black and yellow striped body, can sting
Pollination Act as pollinators, visiting flowers for nectar and pollen7 Not significant pollinators, but serve in the ecosystem as predators
Food Sources Adults feed on nectar; larvae prey on aphids8 Feed on other insects, fruits, human food sources
Social Behavior Solitary; do not form colonies9 Form nests and colonies, aggressive when threatened10

Interactions with Other Species and the Environment

Predators and Protection

The hornet mimic hoverfly has evolved various survival techniques to protect itself from predators like birds. Some traits include:

  • Imitating the appearance of a hornet
  • Emitting a buzzing flight sound

These features can intimidate or confuse predators, making the hoverfly less attractive as prey. For example, its resemblance to a stinging hornet deters birds from attacking.

Potential Threats and Climate Change Impacts

Hornet mimic hoverflies face various threats:

  • Habitat loss due to human activities
  • Pesticide exposure affecting their populations

Additionally, climate change impacts the environment and can indirectly affect hoverfly populations. Warmer temperatures may lead to:

  • Changes in insect migration patterns (source)
  • Shifts in the floral resources they rely on for survival

Comparison of Hornet Mimic Hoverfly Threats

Threat Consequence
Habitat loss Reduced availability of shelter and resources, impacting their populations
Pesticide use Direct harm during larval and adult stages, reducing their numbers
Climate change Altered patterns of migration and floral resources, affecting their survival

Careful protection of their habitats and responsible use of pesticides are crucial for preserving hornet mimic hoverfly populations and ensuring they continue to play a vital role in pollinating plants and controlling pests.

Identification Guide and Resources

Visual Identification Tips

To identify a hornet mimic hoverfly, pay close attention to the following characteristics:

  • Size: Hoverflies are generally smaller than hornets.
  • Wings: Hoverflies have one pair of wings, while hornets have two pairs.
  • Eyes: Hoverflies have large eyes, covering most of their head.
  • Color: Hoverflies often mimic hornet’s color patterns, like black and yellow or brown and orange.

Use these visual tips to differentiate between a hornet mimic hoverfly and a European or Asian hornet:

Feature Hornet Mimic Hoverfly European / Asian Hornet
Size Smaller Larger
Wings One pair of wings Two pairs of wings
Eyes Large eyes, covering most of the head Smaller eyes, relative to the head size
Color Mimics hornet’s color patterns (black and yellow or brown and orange) Black and yellow (European); black and orange (Asian)

Online and In-Person Resources

To help with your identification process, consider using these resources:

  • iNaturalist: A community-driven platform where you can upload photos of insects and get identification help from experts and other users.
  • OSU Extension Service: Offers resources for insect identification and a professional examination of your samples.
  • Syrphid flies – UMN Extension: Provides information on syrphid flies, which includes hoverflies.
  • In-person assistance: Contact your local university or research center with an entomology department for help with identification.

Remember to report any rare sightings of hornet mimic hoverflies in Great Britain to contribute to scientific research and monitoring efforts.

Footnotes

  1. https://www.nature.com/articles/93854 2

  2. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16777900 2

  3. https://www.naturalworldheritage.org/biodiversity/species/sp-hornet-hoverfly 2

  4. https://entomology.ces.ncsu.edu/biological-control-information-center/beneficial-predators/hover-fly/ 2

  5. May to October

  6. Harmless

  7. Pollination

  8. Food Sources

  9. Solitary

  10. Social Wasps

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Hornet Mimic Flower Fly

 

Subject: Queen Bald Face Hornet??
Location: Alstead, NH
July 28, 2013 7:30 pm
Hello…I can’t seem to find a clear picture of the Queen Bald Face Hornet. Is that what this is? Thanks. 🙂
Signature: AnnMarie

Flower Fly
Flower Fly

Hi AnnMarie,
Your photographs are awesome.  Though it resembles a Bald Faced Hornet, this is actually a Flower Fly or Hover Fly in the family Syrphidae.  Count the wings.  Flies have two wings and other winged insects have four wings.  Your Flower Fly is
Spilomyia fusca and according to BugGuide:  “Black with white markings that mimic Baldfaced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata). Second tergite entirely black. Eyes pale, with dark spots and vertical bands. Antennae short, fly-like.”

Flower Fly
Flower Fly

Letter 2 – Hornet Mimic Hover Fly from the UK

 

Subject: Wasp or vespa cadro
Location: Forest of Dean United Kingdom
July 18, 2017 11:23 pm
What’s this please
Signature: Haydee

Hornet Mimic Hover Fly

Dear Haydee,
This is neither, though it is a very effective mimic.  This is a Hover Fly in the family Syrphidae, and as you can see from the British Hoverflies site, many species are very effective mimics of stinging bees and wasps, which serves as an effective form of protective coloration for this harmless flies that are beneficial pollinators.  We believe your individual is a female (space between eyes)
Volucella zonaria based on images posted to British Hoverflies.  According to NatureSpot:  “This is a hornet mimic and is one of our largest and most spectacular hoverflies which can be recognised by its yellow and black banded abdomen. It is chestnut on tergite 2 and also on the scutellum and much of the thorasic dorsum.”  NatureSpot also states:  “This species became established in Britain in the 1940s and has very much a southerly distribution with most records coming from south of a line from the Severn Estuary to The Wash, however it seems to be expanding its range.”  iNaturalist calls it the Hornet Mimic Hoverfly.

Thank you so much I’ve had everyone guessing on social media.. Great to know so I can give feedback xx

Letter 3 – Hornet Mimic Hover Fly from the UK

 

Subject:  Identify Insect
Geographic location of the bug:  Essex UK
Date: 09/03/2021
Time: 07:28 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Hi
Spotted this apparently resting on the ground and wondering what it is. Don’t think I’ve ever seen the like.
Can you help?
How you want your letter signed:  John

Hornet Mimic Hover Fly

Dear John,
This is a Hornet Mimic Hover Fly,
Volucella zonaria, a harmless species of Fly that benefits by mimicking stinging insects.  According to Wildlife Trusts:  “At almost 2cm long, the hornet mimic hoverfly is the largest hoverfly species in the UK. As its name suggests, it is an excellent mimic of the hornet, but is harmless to humans. Only a very rare visitor to the country up to the 1940s, it has become more common in Southern England in recent years, and is still spreading northwards, perhaps as a result of climate change. It is particularly prevalent in urban areas. The adults are migratory and the larvae live inside wasps’ nests.”

Hornet Mimic Hover Fly

Thank you so much for that. We were intrigued about the strange insect.
You have been most helpful.
John

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

    View all posts
  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

    View all posts

6 thoughts on “Hornet Mimic Hoverfly: Essential Facts Uncovered”

  1. Hi all,
    identified a Hornet Mimic Fly today, thanks to your site as my insect book didn’t show it. Location was my garden in Poole, Dorset.
    Great site! Love it

    Reply
  2. Hi all,
    identified a Hornet Mimic Fly today, thanks to your site as my insect book didn’t show it. Location was my garden in Poole, Dorset.
    Great site! Love it

    Reply
  3. Found a Hornet Mimic Fly in my conservatory around noon today – 19th August 2021. Persuaded not to dispose of it so slid it into a yogurt pot and let it go. Not seen one before, Very distinctive yellow plate on its face.

    Reply
  4. Just seen what appears to be a Hornet Mimic hover fly pushing it’s way into a wasp nest in the wall of my house. It was at least three times the size of the wasps (which ignored it for the five minutes it spent trying to get in). My only doubt about identification is that this is in Sale, Greater Manchester when website distribution says it is found mainly in the south up to Leicestershire.

    Reply

Leave a Comment