Photos of the Week – May 14, 2021

Next Thursday is World Bee Day. Prepare yourself for a deluge of social media and other information reminding you how dire the situation is for honey bees and why we need to save honey bees to save the world. If you can, try to redirect people toward the native bee species that really matter. If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you’ve heard why honey bees should not be the focus of our concern about pollinators. If you need a refresher, you can read this.

Native bees deserve a day of recognition. They deserve a lot more than that. However, it’s also worth remembering that bees are not the only group of pollinators that keep ecosystems humming along. Butterflies and moths are important. So are wasps, ants, and even beetles and hummingbirds. In some places, bats are hugely important too. But don’t forget about flies!

A fly (no idea what kind) feeds on a pussytoes (Antennaria) flower.
A bee fly feeds on stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida).

Flies are the most diverse group of insects in North America, with an estimated 61,000 species. Many of those species feed on pollen and/or nectar as adults. Some are specialist feeders on certain plants and others are generalists. Some flowers rely on flies for pollination, but for most, flies just provide some additional help – a little insurance in case native bees or butterflies can’t fully do the job (maybe because honey bees are suppressing their populations).

A hover fly on spiderwort (Tradescantia).

One of the reasons flies aren’t always recognized as important pollinators is that many of them are mistaken for bees. That’s understandable – many of them look a lot like bees, with similar body shapes, coloration patterns, and behaviors. One fairly dependable way to tell them apart is to look at the antennae. Most bees have fairly long antennae, but flies tend to have short little stubby antennae right between their eyes. Speaking of those eyes, fly eyes are usually noticeably larger than bee eyes too. If you’re really close, or are looking at a dead insect, you can count wings – bees have four, flies have two.

Flies tend to have huge eyes and short, stubby antennae, which helps distinguish them from bees.

Another reason to celebrate the value of flies is that they tend to play two roles during their lives – one as larvae and a different one as adults. Bee larvae spend their childhood in the nest their mom built for them (in most cases) and feeding on the pollen and nectar their mom brought to that nest. That’s nice, but they’re not really doing much for the world at that point, are they?

Fly larvae, depending upon the species, might be eating manure or rotting meat, eating roots or other parts of plants, or hunting down other invertebrates or their eggs for food. In some cases, their mom lays an egg on a live caterpillar or other insect so the larvae, upon hatching, can burrow into that creature and eat it from the inside out. These are all important roles in ecosystems that help regulate ecological communities. Oh, and by the way, fly larvae are hugely important food sources for many other animals.

PLUS, they help out as pollinators when they grow up. That’s their side hustle.

I don’t know what kind of fly this is, but it’s feeding on a curly cup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa) flower.
Tachinid flies are parasitoids and lay their eggs on other living creatures so the larvae can burrow into and eat them alive. It’s creepy, but a very important regulator of populations, including of many ‘pest’ insects.

So, on World Bee Day, and any day, really, let’s not forget about flies. Celebrate their diversity, the myriad roles they play, and even the horrific eating-creatures-alive-from-the-inside practices of a few of them. We’d sure miss them if they were gone.

Hover flies are small enough to be barely noticed, but are really abundant once you know what to look for.

Cranky Ecologist Quiz

I’m cranky today.

Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. It’s just one of those days when I have been focusing too much on the ignorance of others and the fact that people with loud voices (figuratively) become trusted sources just because they’re loud. No, I’m not going to give you examples. I’m sure you can come up with your own. It just drives me bonkers that people can be so easily misled.

To make myself feel better, I figured I’d impart some factual information and tip the scales just a tiny bit in the other direction. But I also decided to amuse myself at the same time. Hence, another goofy quiz. Enjoy. Or don’t, it’s all the same to me.

I feel better already.

Question 1: What species of bird is shown above?

A. Red-tailed Hawk

B. Common Nighthawk

C. Infrequent Morningdove

D. New York Post

E. Virginia Rail

F. Yellow-headed Blackbird (winter plumage)

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Question 2: Assuming for the moment the bird in Question 1 is a nighthawk (because it is), which of the following are correct names for the family of birds nighthawks belong to?

A. Nightjars

B. Nightmares

C. Goatsuckers

D. Cowtippers

D. Chickenfingers

E. B

F. A and C

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Question 3: Yes, I know it’s ‘mourning dove’ and not ‘morningdove’. I was doing a thing.

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Question 4: How many species of birds laid their eggs in this nest? (The nest was on the ground in a Central Nebraska prairie.)

A. 1

B. 2

C. 5

D. Isn’t the Virginia Rail a kind of dance?

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Bonus Question #1: Name one of the two species of birds that laid at least one egg in the above nest.

Bonus Question #2: Name the other species.

Bonus Question #3: Neither of those are questions, they are directives.

Bonus Question answers: 1. Brown-headed cowbird (light colored egg), 2. bobolink (other eggs), 3. ‘don’t be pedantic’.

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The answer to Question #2 is F. Read more here

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Question #6: What kind of insect is shown above? Hint: the inset photo shows one eating a cucumber beetle.

A. Mayfly

B. Damselfly

C. What happened to Question #5??

D. Dragonfly

E. None of the above.

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Question #5: Why do adult antlions (pictured above) look so much like damselflies?

A. They are both compound words

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Question #7: This Flodman’s thistle (Cirsium flodmanii) is a native wildflower in Nebraska and a terrific source of nectar and pollen for many invertebrates. What is the daddy longlegs (aka harvestman) doing below the flower?

A. Feeding on the nectar by biting through the bottom of the flower.

B. Pooping

C. Photosynthesizing

D. Dying

E. None of the above. It is dead. It got stuck to the very sticky underside of the flower and died.

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Question #8: What is this picture-winged fly doing on this Illinois tickclover (Desmodium illinoense) plant?

A. Feeding on extrafloral nectar

B. Hunting for even smaller picture-winged flies

C. Performing an upside-down mating dance

D. Dying because, like the daddy longlegs in #7, it got stuck on a plant and couldn’t escape.

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Question #9: This lightning bug (aka firefly) also died by getting stuck to the stem of an Illinois tickclover plant. This is ironic because…

A. It isn’t really a bug

B. It also isn’t really a fly

C. Its New Year’s resolution was to try to stick to one kind of plant

D. This quiz is getting dark

E. A and B

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Question #10: Why are plants killing so many insects?

A. Life is hard and then you die?

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The answer to #9 is E.

A. I don’t think you understand the meaning of irony.

B. How do you know it’s not C?

C. D is also correct.

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Question #12: On a scale of 1 to 10, how adorable is this lesser earless lizard (Holbrookia maculata)?

A. 15

B. You forgot Question #11

C. Sorry about that