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.
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.ReplyDelete
You're most welcome! Thanks for passing along the good press!ReplyDelete
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!ReplyDelete
Do news bees nest in the ground. I have seen a large bee carrying sucadas.They disappear and can only be going in ground.ReplyDelete
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).Delete
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.ReplyDelete
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.Delete
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...ReplyDelete
I'll have to try that the next time I see one.Delete
If you talk to a news bee it will land and look right at you. If you’re patient it will come and sit on your hand… they really are good news. P.A. North CarolinaDelete
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.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
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.Delete
I am 67 and I still call them billy bees!!Delete
I've heard them called horse fly catchers also.ReplyDelete
I have seen them Hoover a sweaty horse and capture and fly off with landing horse flys
You have this insect confused with a wasp called the "Horse Guard." I have a post on that one, too. :-)Delete
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.ReplyDelete
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.ReplyDelete
It is funny how they seem to be studying you but in a way that is not threatening. I love my little news bee. :)
Thank you so much for sharing your experience! :-)Delete
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."ReplyDelete
Thank you for sharing this story. :-)Delete
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!ReplyDelete
No, they do not sting. No species of fly can sting. It must have been an actual wasp or bee.Delete
I often see these and my mother always told me they bring good news. I took photos of them many times trying to explain to folks that even though they look like a Japanese Hornet to just pay attention to what they do. I once saw another that was all black and immediately a yellow news bee flew straight into it for either an attack or mating. Every time the black one would go down it would recover and try to escape but the yellow one would have nothing to do with that and attacked it repeatedly until it finally escaped. RK
Can they bite? I know horse flies and deer flies bite and am just curious.ReplyDelete
No. Not all flies are biting flies. The overwhelming majority are beneficial to man, or of no direct consequence.Delete
I have never heard of this. Very interesting. Thanks for sharingReplyDelete
Thank you for your post. I can remember as a young boy, cutting firewood with my grandfather and seeing these flies. they would hover in front of us as is inspecting what we were doing. My grandfather called them "news carriers". I always love seeing these flies as they bring back great memories.
Sitting on our porch this afternoon we are seeing a bunch of these. Wondering if they are now becoming adults from our woods, they are pretty small. My mom used to tell us if they hover facing you, you will soon be getting good news. If they face away from you then you will soon be getting bad news.ReplyDelete
Billy Bee, Billy Bee Lite on me! They will lite on your finger.ReplyDelete
I was always told when one of them lands on you to say, "Good news stay, bad go away" so if it stayed you will get good news and if it goes away you'll get bad news.ReplyDelete
Cool! Thank you so much for sharing your perspective. :-)Delete
I met a news bee today. It wanted into our Forest Service, it kept bumping the window. So I opened the door and let it in. It entered and commenced to tour the truck. I got it to land on my finger several times too. It even got into a "buzz fight" with another bee that had the audacity to land on me.ReplyDelete
I think she likes me...
Thank you for sharing this story! :-)Delete
According to the experts on All Bugs Go to Kevin (https://m.facebook.com/groups/AllBugsGoToKevin/permalink/911756356346814/?anchor_composer=false)--and where I discovered Bug Eric!--they are great pollinators and their larvae eat aphids. Good news, indeed!ReplyDelete
These are much much larger than the Billy bees. I've enjoyed hanging out with both all my life. I was surprised to see someone else that knew what a news bee was. Thanks!ReplyDelete
I just saw one outside and was terrified and amazed at the same time. So loud and the ability to hover in one place for a long period. It just watched me much like a hummingbird or bumblebee.ReplyDelete
This page single-handedly saved the life of this insect today! Rural south of Chattanooga and I saw one a few weeks ago and it was huge! (We just moved from 8500 ft elev. in Colorado and they don’t make buzzy bugs that big, out there!) Today, another one was hanging around our deck. I had my baby out there and a bright pink hoodie and this thing made me think it was a murder hornet! I could barely get in the house without him, and then he sat and hovered like a micro-helicopter in front of my screen door once we were inside! His big black Madonna sunglasses made him look like an assassin spy-bee and we have been inside all afternoon since, googling this crazed giant buzzing hornet thing!ReplyDelete
Aw… & now learning that he is harmless, really made my day!!! I was close to getting bravery up to swat him… Im glad I learned all these facts before I killed a pollinator. Since stepping on a paper wasp in bare feet & getting stung on the neck by a wood scorpion while I was in bed, I’ve not had the best attitude toward all these unfamiliar bugs. Anyway.. thanks again for inventing this webpage so that I could find it. :)