I’ve always been interested in tiny creatures. Well, perhaps ‘interested’ isn’t the right word. Perhaps I should say ‘fascinated’. I blame my father1.
For most of my life, it’s all been a bit random, so I’d see something with more legs than I have and quite a lot smaller than me, and I’d want to get a closer look and watch it for a while. Thanks to Dad, I grew up knowing roughly what most of the common ones were and I could name them by their common family names at least: that’s a woodlouse, this is a centipede, there’s a beetle, etc. As I grew older, I found that I knew a little bit more than most people. I found myself saying things like ‘that’s not a beetle, it’s a bug’, or ‘no, it’s not a centipede, it’s a millipede’ and getting mildly annoyed when people didn’t care and still got it wrong. And as time went on, the little creatures I could identify accurately increased, so that instead of saying ‘I found a beetle!’ I could say ‘here’s a Cockchafer’, or whatever. I was fairly indiscriminate, but during the last few years my fascination has focussed sharply on hoverflies.
Hoverflies are fascinating little creatures. You know those little stripey flying things that hover silently over flowers in the summer? A lot of people think they’re bees or wasps because they’re stripey, but they’re not, they are flies. They have no sting and they don’t bite. And – here’s the important bit – they are not all stripey. There are nearly three hundred different species of hoverfly in the UK, and they range from tiny black things to large furry bumblebee mimics that can sometimes even fool entomologists for a moment or two2. There are wasp and hornet mimics, as well.
Everyone knows that bees are important to us because they are pollinators3, but not everyone knows that hoverflies are, too. They visit flowers, they pick up pollen, they visit other flowers and drop some. And there are a lot of them. You might be used to seeing them only in high summer, but that’s because you’re not looking for them. This cool, windy, wet spring has meant that there are fewer hoverflies here than usual, but I’m still seeing them on all but the worst days. By the time Joe Public notices them, they are out in their thousands – and Mr Public will notice only a handful of species4.
So after a year or so of teaching myself to photograph them – which is surprisingly difficult, since like all flies they have excellent, wide-ranging, motion-detecting eyes, and can move like greased lightning if they feel threatened – I decided to join the Facebook group UK Hoverflies and began to submit records for my area. It’s run by entomologists who are experts in hoverflies and they are all lovely people who are endlessly patient with amateurs like me who just want to know. And so my interest was encouraged, and grew, and when I saw that a hoverfly identification workshop was being held in Shrewsbury in May I signed up for it5.
It was great! I learned so much more about hoverflies, and picked up some skills which will help me to identify them more effectively. Of course, to do it properly, I’d need to kill them, and look at them under a binocular microscope with a camera and screen6, which would set me back several thousand pounds, but at least I now know which features to look at and the best camera angles to try for and will be better able to identify the easier ones7.
I’m not into killing them. I can see why it’s necessary for it to be done by bona fide entomologists who are making what they call a ‘voucher collection’ and by bona fide entomological students who are seeking to become the next generation of experts, but it’s not for me. So there will always be some hoverflies I cannot identify properly8, and that’s OK.
We should all be concerned about helping pollinator numbers stay strong. Not everyone will be willing to go as far as me and have silage lagoons in the garden for hoverfly breeding, but we can all plant the right sort of flowers, can’t we? And – more importantly – stop using all those damned chemicals.
1 My father was an well-known entomologist, who studied beetles and took us kids on field trips. Unfortunately, he didn’t think it a subject fit for girls so although he told me the names of things when I asked, he didn’t encourage my interest.
2 Without pollinators, a lot of our food crops would not be possible.
3 If they catch them out of the corner of their eye while they are feeding on a flower in company with bees. Me, I’m not an expert, but I have to tell you that when I saw my first Volucella zonaria I honestly thought it was a hornet until I got the photos home and onto the computer screen where I saw that it was a hoverfly.
4 The stripey ones.
5 Rather rashly, as it happens. I hate driving long distances, and while I’m aware that a journey of two and a half hours is peanuts to some people, to me it is a Long Trip and I nearly chickened out. And because various things happened on the day I was due to leave, it was a nightmare journey which took nearly twice as long. But I got there! I was also terrified that looking down microscopes all day would give me a migraine (which incapacitates me and would have meant getting someone to take me back to my hotel, which would have been a tad difficult, since the type of migraine I get means I’d have trouble remembering the name of the hotel, let alone my room number), but thankfully that didn’t happen.
6 The camera and screen would avoid all neck strain and allow me to get on with the job without risking a migraine. I coveted it, but for an amateur like me, it’s an unjustifiable expense, which would be equivalent to a couple of weeks in Italy at a really nice hotel. I do have a hand-held digital microscope to which I could add lighting, a stand, screen, etc to at a relatively low cost (we’re talking hundreds rather than thousands), but as it is, it gives me a migraine.
7 Some need to be dead. You need to be able to move heads and wings and legs to see the hidden bits and sometimes you need to dissect them. I could get interested in that, but I don’t want to kill them, so I’d have to simply find them lying around with their legs in the air.
8 Yes. Quite often the stripey ones.