Saturday, August 20, 2016

Don't Sweat 'em

During the heat of summer, we all perspire. Some insects find that bodily function irresistible. Among them are sweat bees, various flies, and even butterflies. It is believed that the salts, minerals, and other compounds in our sweat are necessary for these insects, and difficult to find elsewhere. While you might assume that any insect landing on you intends to bite or sting, rest assured these insects are harmless.

Female sweat bee, Halictus rubicundus

Solitary and semi-social bees in the family Halictidae are collectively known as "sweat bees" because of their habit of lapping up human sweat with their short "tongues." They may tickle at most, but if you smack one absent-mindedly, it may indeed sting if it is a female bee. Male bees lack stingers.

Two different sweat bees, both Lasioglossum species

Sweat bees come in a variety of sizes and colors, from miniscule brassy Lasioglossum species to brilliant metallic Agapostemon species (and related genera). Members of the genus Halictus are medium-sized and brown or blackish with white bands across the abdomen. Nearly all species nest in the soil, each female excavating her own burrow.

Female sweat bee, Agapostemon sp.

Compounding the problem of recognizing the different insects that seek out your sweat is the fact that many flies in the family Syrphidae are wrongly called "sweat bees" in casual and regional language. Syrphid flies are more properly called "flower flies" here in the U.S. and Canada, and "hover flies" in Europe.

Tiny Toxomerus syrphid flies are often mistaken for sweat bees

Like bees, they can be important pollinators of flowers, but it is in their youth that they are most beneficial. The larvae of many flower flies prey on aphids, which are major crop and garden pests. Thus, the more syrphid flies, the better, even if they do want to drink your perspiration.

Unidentified syrphid fly on my arm, lapping sweat

Plenty of other flies, mostly blow flies (family Calliphoridae), and flesh flies (family Sarcophagidae), will land on us, too. Even some tachinid flies (Tachinidae) will wander around on bare hands and arms. They may not all be there for moisture or salts.

Tachinid fly using me as a lookout post

Some of these flies may be males that are simply using us as convenient perches from which to defend their territory. They will periodically fly off to chase away competing males, or pursue passing females.

Some butterflies are well-known for requiring certain minerals to complete their life cycle. Usually, male butterflies congregate around mud puddles, puddles of urine or piles of scat left by mammals, or even rotting carcasses, where they obtain nutrients that they will pass to females during mating.

Hackberry Emperor butterfly getting salts from animal dung instead of sweat

Males with a higher mineral content are more desirable to females, though how this is determined remains something of a mystery. She puts the transferred chemicals to good use in producing her eggs.

Occasionally, some butterflies will use us as substitutes for their usual mineral resources. I once had a Hackberry Emperor butterfly land on my toe while I was sunbathing in a park in Cincinnati. I had another land right on my sunglasses in a different location in Ohio, but he viewed me as a convenient perch from which to defend his territory.

Female Lasioglossum sweat bee with tongue extended, lapping sweat

Most research into the attractiveness of human sweat to insects has been directed at blood-feeding insects such as mosquitoes and other biting flies. Consequently, there is relatively little known, and much assumed, about the fascination non-biting "bugs" have with our skin pore excretions. One thing scientists can agree on? Don't sweat the sweat bees.

Tiny female Lasioglossum sweat bee on my fingernail

Source: Gibb, Timothy. 2015. "Do Not Confuse Hover Flies with Sweat Bees," Purdue Plant & Pest Diagnostic Laboratory, Purdue Extension, Purdue University.

Unidentified tachinid fly grooming itself on my arm


  1. Nice article. Timely, concise, informative, and well illustrated

  2. I caught what I thought was a fly in my truck with a cupped and as I went to roll down the window it stung my finger. They say sweat bees have the mildest sting but don't believe that a bit. This was about the worse sting as far as pain goes in my life. It felt like a massive fire ant sting in one tiny area and lasted for three days with my finger swelling up like a plump sausage. I've been hit in the neck by hornets, and stung on my tongue by yellow jackets and also raise honey bees so I get stung by them but nothing was like this. I guess I just don't take to their venom. If you don't want these things on you, gently flick it off but don't cup it in your hand and try to toss it away.