I often refer to “beneficial insects” and “pollinators” as if I knew what they were. I’ve been quite content to say, “Cool!” to all the buzzing and partying going on in the flowers as I, confidently, drown or squish the familiar harlequin and cucumber beetles. Posting some photos on this blog and keeping a few thousand honeybees set me up to pay closer attention to the diversity of insects. I’ve developed some understanding for people who swat ‘n’ spray any flying insect that comes their way assuming that the bug has malicious intent regarding their well-being. I understand insofar as it is very difficult to tell what is what out there! With insects pretending to look like what they are not (a common insectile survival strategy), their ninja speed movement, and my gosh-darn aging eyesight; it is so much easier to assume! Let’s slow down a little, pull our hands away from the Raid can, and open up a browser. Let’s do a little research and practice looking at what the buzz is about.
Looks kind of like a bee, Doesn’t it? Tricky! Click on the link below the image and you will find that hoverflies are a beneficial insect for gardeners. Let’s start with some basics. Flies have six legs as well as segmented bodies…head, thorax, and abdomen. Flies do not sting, though, some can give a rather irritating bite (horseflies, blackflies, and mosquitoes to name a few). They have a large moveable head and eyes. They have sucking, piercing, and/or sponging mouth parts and proboscis. Their antennae are, generally, small and hairy. They have one pair of functional wings (as opposed to the wasp or bee which has two). They can have an inconspicuous pair of hind halteres. Halteres are bulb-like organs which evolved from a second pair of flying wings. They are thought to help with balance during flight.
A wasp has two pairs of wings; the hind wings being smaller than the fore. They have a distinctive narrow waist to their, generally, long slender body. Their head is smaller in proportion to their body as compared to the fly’s proportions. They, often, have large eyes. Wasps have smooth and shiny faces with chewing mouth parts. Their antennae are longer than a fly’s. Wasps are carnivorous. They are predators of other insects. Some wasps have parasitic behaviors. The parasitic wasp is very welcome in the garden. For one thing, they are known to take care of that tomato hornworm for you! Wasps do not collect pollen and you will not see a lot of hair on their body. The female wasp can sting and if she stings, she can live to sting again.
Confusion between honey bees and the more aggressive yellow jacket or hornet is, unfortunately, not uncommon. Montgomery County Beekeepers Association (MCBA) is trying to help us make this important distinction. Be sure to check out Charlie Breinig’s article that is posted on the MCBA site: Save the Bees in Plymouth Township. Bees are pollen collectors and will have hairy legs and body. Its body is rounder than that of the wasp but you will see a narrow junction between its thorax and its abdomen. The bee feeds on pollen and nectar. The female bee will sting only when protecting its hive or when being directly threatened. When the honeybee stings; the barb of the stinger holds tight to the victim so that the stinger is pulled from the bee’s abdomen and the bee dies. Since the carpenter bee and the bumble bee do not have barbs on their stingers they can repeat their sting. The male bee does not have a stinger. The stinger is actually called the ovipositor and is part of the female’s reproductive system. She will use the ovipositor for laying eggs as well as to sting.
As I worked on this post, I went outside with questions in hand. I saw tiny little black insects flying about the Queen Anne’s Lace. Flies? Parasitic wasps? I took a picture. I looked on the internet. I called to J so that he could take a gander. “You see the antennae? They’re pretty long. Shiny face. I think it’s a wasp…”
“Hey, J! What do you think of its mouth parts?”
BugGuide is a wonderful interactive resource. (If you haven’t gotten the bug yet; this site will surely do it for you!) For me, I will never be an expert in this identification venture but I sure am willing to stick my nose a little further into the diversity of life!
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