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Nature

The hoverflies of Heene Cemetery

There can be no better example of species variation than the hoverflies that live alongside us here in Britain. Perhaps they move too quickly or are too small for us to notice the detail, but their variety deserves close attention. Some have yellow and black hoops on their thoraxes. Others have stripes instead, as if wearing a football shirt. Some are entirely black or brown. Some species even have lighter colours in summer than in spring, aiding their temperature regulation. There are sleek and silent ones, and there are buzzing bumblers. Many resemble wasps, bees or flies – and even hornets. As usual with nature, variety is the norm.

In Heene Cemetery, we have spotted 26 different species of hoverfly, but in Britain over 280 have been counted. (We’ll try to update this page whenever we find a new hoverfly species.) As we have observed elsewhere on this website: a very special wildlife gardener, Jennifer Owen, spent 35 years cataloguing everything in her own eighth-of-an-acre garden in Leicester. She notched up a remarkable 2,673 different species, of which some 2,204 were insects. A Wikipedia article on her says that she counted 91 species of hoverfly in 14 years. Worldwide, there are perhaps 6,000 species.

Let us introduce you to the species that we have found so far, then we’ll look at their significance. The following photographs were all taken in the Cemetery.

A gallery of Heene Cemetery’s hoverflies

Batman Hoverfly (Myathropa florea), Heene Cemetery, August 2020. (Is this your idea of a ‘typical’ hoverfly?)
Large Tiger Hoverfly (Helophilus trivittatus), Heene Cemetery, September 2021
Tiger Hoverfly (Helophilus pendulus), Heene Cemetery, May 2022
Common Drone Fly (Eristalis tenax), Heene Cemetery, September 2022
Hornet Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria), Heene Cemetery, July 2021. (Photo credit: Emma Cameron.)
Platycheirus scutata, Heene Cemetery, May 2023
Common Spotted Field Syrph (Eupeodes luniger), Heene Cemetery, March 2022
Long Hoverfly (Sphaerophoria scripta), Heene Cemetery, May 2022
Narcissus Bulb Fly (Merodon equestris), Heene Cemetery, May 2022
Thick-legged Hoverfly (Syritta pipiens), Heene Cemetery, May 2022
Stripe-backed Fleckwing (Dasysyrphus albostriatus), Heene Cemetery, April 2022
Spring Epistrophe (Epistrophe eligans), Heene Cemetery, April 2022
Meadow Field Syrph (Eupeodes latifasciatus), Heene Cemetery, August 2021
Marmalade Hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus), Heene Cemetery, May 2022
White-footed Hoverfly (Platycheirus albimanus), Heene Cemetery, October 2023
Wasp Plumehorn (Volucella inanis), Heene Cemetery, June 2022
Humming Syrphus (Syrphus ribesii), Heene Cemetery, June 2022
Blacklet hoverfly 1 (Cheilosia sp.), Heene Cemetery, June 2022
Gossamer Hoverfly (Baccha elongata), Heene Cemetery, July 2022
Superb Ant-hill Hoverfly (Xanthogramma pedissequum), Heene Cemetery, August 2022
Lesser Bulb Fly (Eumerus funeralis), Heene Cemetery, August 2022
Plain-faced Dronefly (Eristalis arbustorum), Heene Cemetery, July 2023
Orange-belted Plumehorn (Volucella inflata), Heene Cemetery, July 2023
Tapered Drone Fly (Eristalis pertinax), Heene Cemetery, July 2023
Stripe-faced Dronefly (Eristalis nemorum), Heene Cemetery, July 2023
Truffle Blacklet (Cheilosia soror), Heene Cemetery, August 2023

The English ‘common names’ used above are not always agreed upon, so the Latin name is the usual handle of a hoverfly. They all belong to the family Syrphidae, whose speciality is to hover around flowers, feeding on nectar and pollen.

It’s clear that their appearance, size, shape and colour are delightfully varied, yet hoverflies all share the same underlying characteristics.

For a start, hoverflies do NOT sting. Wasps have the ability to sting repeatedly, and bees will die after they have stung you just once. A bee’s barbed sting lodges in your skin and tears itself out of their abdomens, doing irreparable damage to them. Some flies (such as horseflies) will bite. Hoverflies do none of this, so there’s no need to keep your distance from them.

Hoverflies are typical insects in that they metamorphosize from egg to larva to pupa to adult. They are also typically smart enough to lay their eggs on or near the food source of their larvae. This can be in underground bee or wasp nests or near aphid colonies. Hoverfly larvae are voracious aphid eaters, making them the gardener’s – and farmer’s – friend.

As well as being pest controllers, hoverflies are quintessential pollinators. Many of the photographs above have caught them in the act. Their hairy bodies are designed to carry pollen from flower to flower as they visit plants, both wild and cultivated – and as they go to work in crops. After wild bees, hoverflies are the second-most important group of pollinators.

Many hoverflies are entirely native to Britain, but others arrive in waves, migrating in from Europe. Astonishingly, a recent article in Science reported that a billion hoverflies migrate to the UK each year, resulting in huge benefits to farmers. They have even shown up in traps on North Sea oil platforms, having flown over open water. Large numbers sometimes arrive at Britain’s beaches, and are mistaken for wasps.

It’s not just people who mistake hoverflies for a different species of insect. Hoverflies are superb mimics. These palatable insects have evolved the colour patterns of noxious insects. The main predators of hoverflies in Britain are spiders, dragonflies and wasps. It used to be the Spotted Flycatcher, a bird that these days is less commonly seen in Britain. It’s thought that hoverflies developed their camouflage colours and shapes when birds such as this were much more abundant. Even so, birds learn to tell the difference between hoverflies and wasps: the former they eat whole, while they have been observed ripping the sting out of wasps before guzzling them!

Mimicry as a means of defence is only part of the story, as there is also mimicry as a means of subterfuge. Many hoverflies need to pretend to be a different type of insect, such as bees, bumblebees and wasps, so that they can slip into their nests and lay eggs, which will eventually turn into larvae that will feed on the prey.

In spite of this clever mimicry, hoverflies are short-lived, having an average adult lifespan of about 12 days (although some can live for nearly two months). This fragility serves to remind us that – as with all wildlife – decline is the depressing story of our times. Since 1900 the number of species of hoverflies being seen in Britain has fallen by about 55%. The root causes that we see across the board are implicated: habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change. Encouraging pollen-bearing plants and flowers in the Cemetery, and never using pesticides, are the best ways that we can help. We should be doing the same in our gardens and parks, and on many of our roadside verges.

[This post was last updated on 23rd August 2023.]

Written by Rob Tomlinson

If you would like to support the work of the Friends of Heene Cemetery, you can become a member at an annual fee of £5. Contact the Membership Secretary, Friends of Heene Cemetery, c/o 77 Northcourt Road, Worthing, West Sussex BN14 7DU. The Friends are ‘recruiting’ at the moment and would welcome volunteers interested in participating in these species counts, in the site’s management, in researching the burials, and in many of the administrative tasks. For more information, please contact Sue Standing on 07771966846 or suestanding@hotmail.com. The Cemetery is open on Tuesdays and Saturdays between 2 and 4, weather permitting. Come and pay us a visit!