Friday, August 30, 2013

The "News Bee"

It is Fly Day Friday, and I have been neglecting the Diptera for far too long. Last week, my wife Heidi and I were in Ohio where we saw many striking members of this order. Friday, August 23, we hiked the trail to Buzzardroost Rock, a preserve maintained by The Nature Conservancy in Adams County (south central Ohio). Near the top of the ridge we heard a loud buzzing and saw a large insect hovering in the sun near a large log. Periodically it would perch on a leaf or the ground and it was then apparent what it was: a flower fly in the family Syrphidae. This particular species was the spectacular Milesia virginiensis.

At 18-28.5 millimeters in body length, and brightly colored in yellow, brown, and black, this fly could easily be mistaken for a European Hornet or queen yellowjacket. The ominous droning buzz it makes only heightens the visual mimicry. Some speculate that this species mimics the Southern Yellowjacket, Vespula squamosa. Indeed, Southern Yellowjackets were also active in the area, but the workers are substantially smaller than this fly. It is too early for the yellowjacket queens to be appearing, but they make for a better “model” in both size and color pattern.

Milesia virginiensis figures in American folklore and superstition. It is still known in many hamlets as the “News Bee,” for it will sometimes hover in front of a person, as if it were “giving them the news.” It is also considered to be good luck if one of these flies alights on your finger. I was surprised that this particular individual allowed me a very close approach, so maybe it is not out of the realm of possibility than one of these insects could perch on a patient person.

Perhaps the idea of these flies broadcasting the local gossip stems from confusion with real bees. Another old wives’ tale suggests that a bee buzzing in one’s ear means that important news will arrive shortly.

Larvae of the News Bee apparently feed in the wet, rotting heartwood of stumps and logs, which might explain why this adult fly showed so much interest in the log. Males might recognize a log as a potential resource for females to lay eggs in, and guard a territory around it.

This species is found throughout most of eastern North America, from Kansas to Minnesota and Ontario, south to Texas and Florida. Nowhere does it seem to be abundant, however. Look for the adults from late May to November in southerly latitudes, and mid-summer to early fall elsewhere. Two other species in the genus, M. bella and M. sctutellata range in the southwest U.S. and southeastern U.S. (southeast Oklahoma to North Carolina), respectively.

Milesia virginiensis is also known as the Yellowjacket Hover Fly and the Virginia Flower Fly. While there are records of them visiting Queen Anne’s Lace, Rattlesnake Master, and other wildflowers, I personally have not seen them nectaring. Almost invariably, I find them hovering in sunny spots in the understory of hardwood forests.

Sources: Coin, Patrick, et al. 2012. “Species Milesia virginiensis - Yellowjacket Hover Fly,” Bugguide.net
Skevington, Jeff H. 2012. “Field Guide to the Syrphidae of Northeastern North America,” Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids, and Nematodes.

22 comments:

  1. I love the bit of folklore! I remember as a kid when flies like this one would hover in front of our faces--they seemed to be studying us. Never knew people called them news bees.

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  2. Thank you so much for sharing this information, Eric. You helped immensely in my recent search to figure out what insect was flying around inside my home! I featured one of your images and information here, with a hearty thanks: http://bit.ly/syrphid

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    1. You're most welcome! Thanks for passing along the good press!

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  3. My mother's grandmother was from Germany. She told her they bring news, good and bad, from Mother Hulda, a figure from German folklore. She has her adopted children make it snow by shaking out her goose down mattresses. Her children are the children who have died unbaptized so I guess she is a pre-Christian Mother Nature figure. In fact, my mom's grandmother was named after her!

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  4. Do news bees nest in the ground. I have seen a large bee carrying sucadas.They disappear and can only be going in ground.

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    1. First of all, these are not bees. They are flies, as discussed in the post. They do not "nest" anywhere. Also, what you are describing are wasps called cicada killers (Sphecius speciosus).

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  5. Thank you for writing about this species; I would not have been able to identify it without your blog! Had one in my garden and was taken with its size and intricate patterning. It was nectaring on Blue-stemmed Goldenrod and have a pic if you'd like.

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    1. Thank you for the compliments, Stephanie. I'd be happy to share a link to your image if it is posted elsewhere online, or you can do that in your next comment.

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  6. Another tale was told, that if a news bee lands close to u then u can slowly rotate ur index finger as u slowly reach for the news bee and be able to pick him up, they say it puts them in a trance..... I'm from Arkansas and I can for 100% truth it works I've done it numerous times...

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    1. I'll have to try that the next time I see one.

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  7. They will light on your finger, if you will just be patient & slowly put your finger closer to the news bee,remember go slowly & bring your finger from underneath him very slowly. I manage to get one to light on my finger "almost" every time I see one.

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  8. My Grandpa Bell called these "Billy Bees". There was a larger fly he called a "News Bee". It was larger and looked as if it was a bumble bee flying backwards with its stinger sticking out, due to the large proboscus.

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    1. Interesting. I suspect your grandfather was describing a bee fly (family Bombyliidae), or a hummingbird moth (genus Hemaris, family Sphingidae). Thank you for sharing that story.

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  9. I've heard them called horse fly catchers also.
    I have seen them Hoover a sweaty horse and capture and fly off with landing horse flys

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    1. You have this insect confused with a wasp called the "Horse Guard." I have a post on that one, too. :-)

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  10. I have see these flies all my life but didn't know they were called news bees until my dear departed wife called them that. I started calling them wanna bees because they're not really bees but it looks like they wish they were.

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  11. I have had one of these news bees hoover in front of me every morning as I sit on my patio for the last week and a half. It comes everyday to see me. I had no idea what it was and have been giving this news bee a gentle blow with my breath as it hoovers in front of me as I think it is so cute. I will try and get this good news bee to land on my finger next time.

    It is funny how they seem to be studying you but in a way that is not threatening. I love my little news bee. :)

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience! :-)

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  12. At the pond today, I heard my 6 year old command,” Good news bee, sit down!”. Taking me back to my girlhood, I asked him where he’d heard that and he replied, “Papa told me that when I see this bee.”. I teared up because I’d forgotten this and hadn’t heard it for years…but my Father has been teaching my sons since their birth to carry on the tradition of our ways. Little Ray also reminded me of the bad news bee and not to tell this bee to "sit down."

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    1. Thank you for sharing this story. :-)

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  13. Do they sting? I'm almost positive we have two of these news bees around our house that loves going in my husbands beer can..lol..also they hover in front of him and even land on his lips! Well just now one was hidden in my shirt and when I laid down it stung me! My husband put him outside thank god!

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    1. No, they do not sting. No species of fly can sting. It must have been an actual wasp or bee.

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