I am finding hoverflies increasingly fascinating, many species are attractive to look at, occur in different shapes and sizes and often having striking colours and patterns. They are particularly associated with flowers, from which they take nectar and pollen, which means I can combine my love of wildflowers with spotting the different species of hoverfly that feed on them.
There are 300 or so species of hoverfly occurring throughout Britain, and although we appear to be well-blessed in this corner of North Wales with a diverse array of species, I will probably only identify a fraction of that number and they’ll most likely be the biggest or showiest ones and the ones I see and photograph most often.( I haven’t even reached 20 species yet!). I am trying hard to identify those I photograph and to generally learn more about them; some are relatively easy as they are sizeable and disctinctively coloured or marked, but many others are tiny and a good number share similar colours and patterning, so it comes down to details such as colours of parts of legs patterns of veins on wings and even the minutiae of genitalia!
This is my personal collection illustrating some of hoverflies I have photographed to date; more will be added once I believe I have identified them correctly. If a hoverfly is included in a blog post I will include a link that will bring you here for more details about a species if you’d like to know more.
It is not intended to be an authentic identification guide, I am too inexperienced for that and may well make mistakes! If you spot any, mistakes that is, please let me know, I am more than happy to be put right and will correct any errors. All insects have been photographed locally in North Wales. Where possible I have used enlarged images, or more than one photograph to show as much detail on individual insects as possible.
My hoverfly identification bible is Britain’s Hoverflies by Stuart Ball & Roger Morris ISBN 978-0-691-16441-0 and much of the descriptive text of species is taken from there. Photographs are all my own work though, so please ask if you’d like to use any of them; I’m unlikely to say no, but always appreciate the courtesy!
A large tribe composed of 18 genera including nearly one third of our species and some of the most colourful and familiar of our hoverflies, most of which are moderate to large in size and have an abdominal pattern of black-and-yellow stripes or spots.
Small, elongate, black & yellow banded hoverflies with yellow faces, a yellow scutellum & prominent yellow markings on the side of the thorax. Males have a large genital capsule which forms a bulge under the abdomen and definite id is only possible in males based on genital characteristics. Females cannot be identified to species, but are often mistaken for other narrow-banded hoverflies such as smaller Parasyrphus.
Wing length: 5-7mm
1 British species
Episyrphus balteatus-Marmalade Fly
Size: Small – Body length 10-12mm
Distribution: Throughout Europe
Britain’s commonest and best-known of the hoverflies and commonly known as the Marmalade Fly. The adults are found almost anywhere there are flowers for nectar and are frequent visitors to parks and gardens as well as more natural habitats. They can occur in enormous numbers: adults are very mobile and migratory and can appear in vast swarms in some years.
Larvae are voracious aphid-feeders, feeding on a wide range of species.
* This is an extremely variable species, whose background colour is influenced by the temperature at which the larvae developed. Larvae in hot conditions produce adults with more orange markings (sometimes almost lacking any black markings), whilst those that develop in cooler conditions produce darker adults (sometimes completely black). Britain’s Hoverflies – as above.
5 British species – (1 illustrated)
Yellow and black banded hoverflies with a yellow face and the dusted thorax having a dull, bronzy-green appearance. There are three species (S.ribesii, S.torvus & S.vitripennis ) that are amongst the commonest yellow-and-black banded flower-visiting hoverflies, but they are hard to separate.
When to see it: It can be found from March to November with peaks in late May/early June and again in July to September.
Distribution– Throughout Europe and common throughout Britain. Found in gardens, hedgerows, waste ground and many other habitats. Males often create a ‘hum’ by vibrating their wings when resting and this sound is often a familiar background noise in woodland during the summer. It is multiple brooded.
*This species is almost identical to Syrphus vitripennis (Lesser Banded Hoverfly) except the female’s hind femur (top part of leg) is yellow rather than black. The males also have a very hairy base to their wings – another identifying feature.
There are four genera within this tribe including our largest genus (Cheiliosia). The humeri are hairy and the head sufficiently separated from the thorax to make them visible in many cases. Most species are black, but a few more brightly coloured.
38 British species
This genus has the largest number of species in Britain, all of which are basically black – although a few are furry.
Cheiliosia caerulescens – (A bee mimic)
Size: Wing length: 8.5-10.25mm
Often described as a bee mimic, although as quoted from Stuart Ball & Roger Morris, “it is not a very good one!”
When to see it:
Description: An attractive furry bee-like hoverfly with a band of long white hair across the base of the abdomen and dark wing markings. The scutellum and face are black.
Observation: These hoverflies are strongly associated with Hogweed, where adults can be found feeding & their larvae mine the stems and roots of the plant. Adults will also visit other umbellifers, so may be encountered outside the flowering period of Hogweed. Common & widespread in lowland localities such as woodland edges & road verges, but also in uplands wherever Hogweed occurs.
Unidentified as yet
An easily-recognised genus in which the thorax has a pair of broad, grey, longitutinal stripes and the abdomen has a metallic sheen. There are strong black bristles on the sides of the thorax; an unusual feature amongst hoverflies.
2 British species- 1 photographed
Wing length: 7.5 – 11.25mm
Description: A very attractive hoverfly with a metallic brassy bronze-gold abdomen. There are grey stripes running along the thorax, dark wing markings and the fly has yellow legs. The abdomen also has a border of strong bristles, which is an unusual feature in a hoverfly.
Observation: A woodland species which is often found basking on sunlit leaves, as the one in my first photograph, or on the trunks of trees, wooden posts and telegraph poles. They are less often seen visiting flowers, although the one I spotted spent some minutes visiting various flowers on a nipplewort plant. The species is widespread, especially in the south, but is rarely abundant.
Larvae live in sap runs.
Wing length: 6-9.5mm
Description: An unmistakable species with an orange abdomen and an obvious long projection (rostrum) that encloses the proboscis and allows the fly to feed on nectar & pollen in deep flowers, which other hoverflies cannot reach.
A common and widespread species with two generations; the earlier one flying in May-June and the later one from mid-late summer.
It is most common in woodland and on field edges, but can be found in most habitats. It visits a large range of flowers, including those with deep tubes, such as Bluebell and Red Campion, which other hoverflies are unable to access.
The larvae of Rhingia campestris live in fresh cattle dung, but have also been found in other enriched wet media such as silage. It has been found to be abundant in other areas with few cattle too, such as East Anglia, so breeding habitats other than cow dung appear to be significant.
To date I have only had one sighting of this species, as dated in the photographs above. Cattle are not abundant in this part of North Wales.
9 British species (1 illustrated)
Eupeodes corollae – Migrant Hoverfly
When to see it: March to November peaking in July and August
This is an attractive species, though males and females have quite different yellow markings; the yellow ‘commas’ on the male often merge together.Found where there are patches of flowers, in fields, road verges, gardens and alongside hedgerows.
Scaeva pyrastri – Pied Hoverfly
When to see it: May to November, peaking in August.
Description: A relatively large and conspicuous hoverfly with pairs of upward curving creamy-white bars on a black abdomen.
Similar Species: Dasysyrphus venustus
Habitat: May be found in gardens, wasteland and meadows.
UK Status: It is found across much of Britain though like many hoverflies it becomes rarer the further north you go.
10 British species (5 illustrated)
Eristalis pertinax- Tapered Drone Fly
Wing length: 8.25-12.75mm
Identification: Most distinctive features of this Eristalis are the yellow tarsi of the front and middle legs and the distinctly tapered-triangular shape of the abdomen, particularly in males.
The face has a narrow shiny black stripe down the centre that is set in a broad, dull darkened area.
Habitat: This species occurs almost everywhere, including upland moorland and may be seen throughout the warmer months of the year from March to October. It is one of the first species to emerge in the Spring when males are seen characteristically defending territory in woodland rides and around flowering bushes, although few females are seen at this time.
*Whilst similar to E. tenax (The Drone-fly), this species has a more tapering abdomen and it also has pale or orangey front legs. The pair of orange markings on tergite 2 of the abdomen are nearly always present, but tend to be brighter in summer specimens.
When to see it: Can be seen from April to November, with populations peaking in July and August
Description: A smaller member of the drone-fly group, it still has the stocky shape, but is distinguished by a completely pale dusted face. It can have quite variable markings on its body and some can be almost totally black.
Habitat: Widely found in gardens, on urban wasteland and in other open habitats.
Identification: An aspect of behaviour of this species assists with its identification: the males will hover above a female as she feeds on a flower. I captured this fascinating behaviour in the photograph below, taken during a walk on Bryn Euryn. Both sexes are variable in both size and colouration. There is a wing stigma that is usually small and sharp-edged.
Observation: A widespread species occurring in woodland rides, hedgerows and flowery meadows where adults visit a wide variety of flowers. It has a long flight period and can be abundant in mid-summer.
Description: Usually relatively large and more brightly marked than other Eristalis Wings have a prominent dark mark across the centre of each, (although this is variable in density & extent). Hind metatarsus is dark.
Habitat: Mainly a woodland and hedgerow species which is widespread but tends to be more abundant in the north of the country. It frequents hawthorn and bramble flowers. Males hover to defend a territory in a similar way to E.pertinax.
When to see it: Although it occurs in the Spring, Eristalis tenax is most abundant in late summer and often particularly numerous on ivy flowers. Females hibernate in sheltered cavities in caves and buildings.
Identification: A honey-bee mimic. Three characteristics distinguish this large honey-bee mimic from other Eristalis : the eyes have a vertical stripe of longer, dark hairs; the black facial stripe is very wide; and the hind tibia is distinctly enlarged and curved.
Habitat: Larvae live in highly enriched aquatic environments including slurry tanks and silage clamps, where they can sometimes occur in vast numbers.
A distinctive yellow-and-black species often described as a wasp mimic, but not very convincing.
1 British species – illustrated
When to see it: Widespread and abundant, adults occur from April to November and visit a wide range of flowers. They are also frequently seen basking on sunny leaves.
Description: One of the genera with a loop in vein R4+5; veins R1 and R2+3 reach the wing margin separately. It has a distinctively patterned thorax, with the dark area towards the back resembling the ‘Batman’ symbol.
Similar species: Well-marked adults are unmistakable, but the markings are variable. Poorly-marked individuals can be difficult to recognise and may initially be confused with other Eristalines.
Habitat: The rat-tailed maggot larvae live in wet hollows containing decaying leaves & twigs. Breeding sites are most often in woodland, but they are great opportunists and will breed in anything that holds water, such as a bucket or random plastic container.
Helophilus pendulus – The Footballer or Sun Fly
When to see it : April to November, very common from June to August with a peak in July.
Description: This hoverfly is sometimes called ‘The Footballer’ due to its striped thorax and the other common name ‘The Sunfly’ denotes its preference for bright sunny days. Although apparently distinctive, there are in fact several species with similar stripes which are difficult to tell apart. Males are more easily identified as the yellow markings on the abdomen segments are separated by a black band. In this species the black on the hind tibia is restricted to the distal third and the mid tibia is all yellow.
Habitat: Visits a variety of habitats in most sunny situations, including gardens, along roadsides, field margins etc.
5 British species- 2 illustrated
Volucella pellucens– Pellucid Fly
Identification: The largest and one of the most distinctive British hoverflies, with large white markings around the abdomen that contrast with the otherwise black thorax and abdomen.
Observation: Widespread and abundant. Adults are generally to be found in sheltered situations such as woodland rides and tree-lined paths. Both sexes visit a wide range of flowers and are seen in gardens. Males may hover at around head-height and defend a beam of sunshine.
Larvae live in the nests of a range of social wasps where they scavenge amongst the debris in the bottom of the nest cavity.
Observation: Widespread and increasingly abundant south of Cheshire and Humberside. Usually seen feeding on garden flowers such as Buddleiah.
Larvae live in the nests of social wasps that build in tree cavities, such as the Hornet where they scavenge amongst debris that falls to the bottom of the nest.