The Stinger Swindler

Which bug is the greatest superhero?
Hoverfly marveller Vicki Hird answers

Three people, one big question. In this edition: superbugs

Rebug your attitude

Vicki Hird is the author of the brilliant book, Rebugging the Planet (Chelsea Green, 2021), which is full of tips and reasons to help fill our planet with more bugs – she’s the guru of British garden buglife. You’ll never look at a worm in the same way again. She’s also head of sustainable farming for Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming. Having literally written the book on bugs, Vicki had a lot of candidates to choose from. Here, she states her case for the hoverfly, which is vital for pollinating crops, but under threat of extinction in Europe.

Vicki Hird’s 3-minute noodles

“Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It’s superbug! Hoverflies can fly as fast as 40 kilometres an hour and also make remarkable long-distance journeys. Some, like the marmalade hoverfly, climb up to 1,000 metres to get the strong headwinds across Europe, then fly more than 100 kilometres a day, eating aphids along the way. It’s been calculated that between one and four billion migrate in and out of southern Britain each year. It’s a major fly highway up there.

The hoverfly’s most awesome talent is their brilliant mimicry. They look and even act perfectly like bees and wasps, with a combination of stripes, hairy bodies, thin waists or even stinger-like moves, to deter enemies and confuse us all. We have 270 UK species all trying to look like someone else. It is one reason I wrote Rebugging the Planet as we need to rebug our attitudes and learn how most bugs are useful in some way – so we stop hurting them.

You can usually tell a hoverfly from the wasps and bees they are trying to mimic, as they hover (hence the name!) over flowers and make quite a noise. They won’t sting or harm you at all.

They are the second-best pollinators on the planet. A huge amount of our food, plants, trees and basically everything that depends on these (including us!) need hoverflies. Their pollination and aphid munching services are pretty important for our food supply.

Baby hoverfly maggots eat aphids. When they hatch out of their eggs as small larvae, they happen to be incredible predators and eat vast quantities of bugs like aphids and thrips, so hoverflies can be a real gardener’s and farmer’s mate. They also eat plants, plant bulbs, and even other larvae in their own nest. The larvae of the golden hoverfly grow within the woody debris of the rot hole where they feed on bacteria and other microbes. Some species feed on dead insects.

And they’re no strangers to extreme conditions. Take the high winds and cold temperatures up in their 1,000-metre highway. Millions manage to survive that hostile environment. I particularly like the rat-tailed maggots, which are the larvae of the dronefly, which emerge in stagnant and polluted ponds. There are few predators to eat these grubs, and the tail is actually a tube to breathe air from the surface.

Bugs are just so extraordinarily diverse, that I had a really hard time choosing which to put in Rebugging the Planet to show what they do and why they are crucial. Hoverflies are a particularly great way to show the range of talents – the mimicry, the very different food sources they have evolved to eat, the importance for us, and so on. But my book is full of other remarkable bugs too.

The next Hollywood superhero blockbuster: The Hoverfly! A superb idea! Why no-one has done this yet, I don’t understand. They would be a goodie, but disguised as a baddie, infiltrating the baddie’s gang and listening to all their devious plans. Then they’d fly to a great height to escape predation and send messages via wing beats to the good gang’s lair. I’m not saying the hornet mimic hoverfly (the largest hoverfly in the UK at 2cm long) is a good example, but their larvae live in the nests of wasps and don’t get stung because they eat all the debris (basically do the cleaning). A good trick for a double agent.

But this hero has its enemies too. Hoverflies, like most small bugs, are juicy prey for many larger beasts – birds and small mammals. But the biggest threat, as usual, is us. We use every means to eliminate the smaller creatures from our gardens and farms with pesticides, fly traps and so on. More folk need to know how important they are and provide a refuge in their gardens, parks and green spaces. We can all get rebugging.

We can learn a lot from these superbugs. Their mimicry tells us so much about how nature adapts. We can learn techniques to live our lives better and use gardens, green spaces and farmland better – if you have a good range and number of hoverflies visiting, you are doing something right. We can probably learn flying techniques too as they hover so well – scientists study insect flight to learn how to make drones.

Ready for the sting in the tale? Though some hoverflies brilliantly mimic wasps, there is, ironically, a wasp that is a hoverfly parasite: the hoverfly parasitoid wasp. It is rather beautiful, but gruesome. It lays its eggs using a long tube in its rear, the ovipositor, into the larvae of hoverflies. The eggs hatch and munch through the larvae, eating it alive.

There’s so much more to learn about hoverflies. BugLife has great resources, as does Insect Week. Being able to identify one of the 250 species we have in the UK is a fun, but hard, thing to do! And, of course, you can get yourself a copy of Rebugging the Planet.

Time’s up!

What’s so good about this?

We need to start seeing bugs as superheroes, and that’s exactly what these three insect-lovers are doing. If we get to understand the brilliant work bugs are doing to keep our planet healthy, perhaps we’ll be better equipped to help them thrive.

Are you curious about the amazing superpowers of the hoverfly – and other bugs? Follow @vickihird to bug out.

Meet the writer

Katie Dancey-Downs writer profile

When she’s not pretending to be a beaver holding back the rivers, Katie Dancey-Downs is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for human stories, nature and culture. She’s travelled the world to report on issues such as vegan activism in Toronto, regenerative farming in India, and the destruction of Sacred Natural Sites in Kenya. She can usually be found with her head in a book, stomping through the forest, or wishing she looked cool on a surfboard. Follow @Katie_Dancey.

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