Gardeners cannot always be faulted for not understanding who their insect friends are. Entomologists have done a relatively poor job of advising the public on what garden insects are pests, and which are beneficial. It is especially problematic when you consider metamorphosis. You do not always know which larva corresponds to which adult, and whether both life stages are helpful or harmful. Case in point, larvae of flower flies (family Syrphidae), also known as "hover flies."
The overwhelming majority of flower flies in the subfamily Syrphinae are aphid predators in their larval stages. What you might easily mistake for just another flower- or foliage-munching caterpillar on your rosebush is probably one of these allies in your war on pests.
Not that you would even notice them, as they can be incredibly cryptic, disguised as a discolored patch on the edge of a leaf, or a shed pollen cone on a pine tree....
Female syrphid flies lay eggs in or near aphid colonies. The tiny larvae that hatch feed and grow, with three instars before pupation. An instar is the interval between molts. Despite its elastic appearance, the larva still has an exoskeleton that must be shed in order for the insect to grow larger. The final molt results in the pupa stage, a convex pear-shaped lump attached to a leaf, stem, or other substrate. The adult fly eventually emerges from the capsule-like pupa.
Most adult syrphids strongly resemble wasps or bees, to the degree that they frequently fool entomologists. Like their hymenopteran models, the flies are capable pollinators of various flowers, visiting blossoms for nectar and picking up pollen in the process.
Flower flies can be recognized by their hovering behavior (few bees are capable of hovering, oddly enough), enormous eyes that meet at the top of the head in males, and nearly meet in females, and only one pair of wings to a bee's two pairs. Flower flies also have very short antennae in most cases, whereas bees and wasps have longer, thicker antennae, often "elbowed" where the first, long segment is connected to the remaining shorter segments.
Lastly, while bees and wasps have chewing mandibles and sometimes a tongue-like arrangement of other mouthparts, flower flies have an extendable...."arm" tipped with a sponge-like pad. This organ is retracted under the fly's "chin" when not in use.
Syrphid flies are among the most abundant of garden insects, especially conspicuous in spring and fall when aphid populations are at their peak. Watch for them and be careful not to accidentally kill their larvae when you are contemplating taking aphid control into your own hands. Between syrphid larvae, lady beetle larvae, and lacewing larvae, you may not have to do anything to keep aphids from reaching destructive numbers.
Sources: There are several excellent online resources about syrphids.
Rotheray, Graham E. 1993. "Colour Guide to Hoverfly Larvae in Britain and Europe," Dipterists Digest. No. 9. Sheffield, England: Derek Whitely and the Royal Museum of Scotland. 160 pp.
Flower Fly Survey of Los Angeles County
University of California Integrated Pest Management website on syrphids.
Texas A & M University website