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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.