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,”
Skevington, Jeff H. 2012. “Field Guide to the Syrphidae of Northeastern North America,” Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids, and Nematodes.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Off to Ohio

I am off to Ohio this week to visit friends in Cincinnati; and to facilitate an Advanced Naturalist Workshop for the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History. The subject is true bugs and it will include PowerPoint presentations, field trips, and lab work on how to identify the different families of Heteroptera.

Blogs will resume after I return, and with a lot more frequency come October as I edit images and find out what subject matter I have to share. I hope all of you are enjoying time in the field yourselves, and not missing me in the least!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

How to Make Friends with a Scientist (or Offend One)

I am a writer first, and an entomologist second, but I am certainly accessible to the general public and usually like it that way. That said, there is a certain etiquette that a “layperson” should use in approaching a scientist. Here are some things to consider when you are making a request of my time and expertise.

Do use e-mail. Electronic mail is generally an excellent way to approach an expert, if the person makes their e-mail address public. Do not, however, leave the subject line blank. That is a sure fire way to get me to kick it to my spam folder without even opening the message. Indicate in the subject line if you are familiar with the expert from meeting them personally on a prior occasion, from their blog, or from a website like or Politely introduce yourself in the body of the e-mail, and then make your request. Conclude by thanking the person in advance for their time.

Use proper spelling and grammar. I am immediately turned off by incorrect spellings, texting shorthand, and poor grammar because I am a writer (and sometimes editor). Your inattention to detail tells me you don’t really care about making a good impression; and you obviously don’t want to invest any time on your end. So, why should I invest any of my time?

Do not attach unsolicited images. It is widely known that many a computer virus is introduced to a machine via e-mail attachments. State in your initial e-mail whether you do have images, and ask if you can send them once the expert replies to that first e-mail. Alternatively, find out before you even e-mail whether the expert is affiliated with a service like (I volunteer there myself),, or, and reach them that way instead.

Don’t put the person on a pedestal. There is a fine line between being appreciative of your interactions with a scientist and worshipping that person. A simple “thank you,” with or without an exclamation mark, is just fine. Constantly praising the expert publicly via social media may cause the person to go into hiding, or take out a restraining order. Just sayin’.

Don’t pit experts against each other. These days, everyone wants a second opinion, and that is probably not a bad idea. However, I know I don’t like to furnish someone with an answer to their query only to be told “Thank you; by the way, Dr. So-and-so said it was this species….” You have just made me feel redundant, and/or stupid if the other expert’s answer differs from mine. Query both experts at the same time for transparency. I can always stand to learn something, and I don’t mind being corrected, but don’t go behind my back.

Don’t abuse the privilege of access. I certainly don’t mind periodic requests from the same person to identify this image or that specimen, or offer advice on the spider in the bathroom, but infringing on a person’s time week after week becomes tiresome at best, and eventually irritating. I appreciate curious people, but you have to learn patience, too. Remember, you are not the only person making requests; and, speaking for myself, I’m not retired yet.

Consider making a donation. I won’t ever request remuneration for my services to individuals, but my account does have that option, as does this blog. If you value what the scientist or expert is doing, then consider saying thank you with a small donation, either to the person, or an organization or cause close to that person’s heart.

Don’t have a hidden agenda. I often receive e-mails praising my blog, but then the person goes on to ask me to let them write a guest blog, promote their business for free, or otherwise do them a favor that will earn them notoriety or income by riding on my coattails. Guess what kind of language I use in my reply? Yeah, even I have limits to my kindness.

I think I value simple courtesy and politeness above all else when someone seeks to interact with me for the first time. I very rarely turn anyone away. I’ll sooner set them straight on how to address experts than “stand them up” by not replying. I have gotten some nasty replies when I’ve done so, though, because no good deed goes unpunished. Carry on.

Note: Image above by Arthur V. Evans depicting myself and professor Jeanne Bellemin of El Camino College.