The Great Pretender: The Hoverfly

Hoverfly is the master of disguiseThere’s a good reason why some bugs disguise themselves as another insect – it tricks predators like birds into thinking they are dangerous. One example of a bug in disguise is the hoverfly, which is easily confused with a wasp.

There are over 270 types of hoverfly in Britain and about 120 of them have the distinguished black and yellow markings of a wasp. Some hoverfly’s look like honey bees (shiny brown, orange and black), bumblebees (furry) or hornets (huge wasp-like insects which although big and scary aren’t as ill-tempered as wasps).

The hoverfly doesn’t have a sting in its tail and is completely harmless and thus attracts an unfair negative and sometimes aggressive responsive from humans. So how do you tell the passive look-a-like hoverfly from it’s stinging want-to-be wasp? The good news is that the hoverfly’s disguise isn’t perfect and if you look carefully there are a few tell-tale clues:

Hoverfly has one pair of wingsHow to ID a Hoverfly

Eyes: large and round, especially large in some males so they can spot females better.

Antennae: short and stubby.

Thorax: only one pair of broad wings, usually held out flat in a backwards V shape when resting.

Abdomen: without a narrow waist; although a very few secretive species have perfected the narrow waist disguise.

Flight: World class hoverers. Some species can fly absolutely still in mid-air, then suddenly dart-off.

Sting: Absolutely none. Deep down all hoverfly know this but some are in denial and may still pretend.

Plus-points: apart from the no-stinging quality of their personality their larvae eat greenfly and can chomp through 50 aphids a day.

Lifestyle: Some hoverfly keep up their wasp pretense by living in wasp nests. Others live in compost heaps or take shelter in old trees.

A wasp has kidney shaped eyes and narrow waistHow to ID a Wasp

Head: Eyes smaller than the hoverfly and slimmer. Tend to be kidney shaped, pinched in around the antennae.

Antennae: Long and slim.

Thorax: Two pairs of wings. The front pair are large, the back wings much smaller. Wings are held directly over the back when resting.

Abdomen: The very narrow waist is a key give-away.

Flight: A casual, bobbing motion whilst searching for food.

Sting: Only the queens and female workers sting.

Lifestyle: Live in a nest made from paper. By the end of summer it is normally the size of a football and can contain 10,000 wasps. When the first frost comes the wasps return to the nest and die. The queens find somewhere sheltered to overwinter.

More information about wasp activity and a live map of wasp sightings in Britain can be found at

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