In the second of a three-part series on Olympic Peninsula insects, we’ll look at some flies, a sawfly, a wasp, a few bees, and an ant. To quote local entomologist Richard Lewis, insects “are so interesting, important, and intertwined with all life, there seems to be no end to their intrigue. I am still just as thrilled every time I see a cool bug as I was 30 years ago.”
I used to think that all bees, wasps, and flies (except for houseflies) were just “bees,” and that they would sting me. I’d never heard of beneficial insects. I’ve since learned that only 1-3% of all insects are actually considered pests. Insects are invaluable in the pollination of our native plants and food crops. Insects and spiders are essential to the diet of 96% of North American terrestrial bird species. And native bees rarely sting people.
I was surprised to learn that flies, unlike most insects, have only two wings. In fact their scientific name, Diptera, means two wings. Almost half of the following photos are of flies, to show their variety and, yes, their beauty. (Note that houseflies are not included!) As Merrill A. Peterson writes in his superb field guide, Pacific Northwest Insects, we have 4,000 fly species in the Pacific Northwest. He explains my initial confusion grouping flies with bees, as “many fly species have evolved to mimic bees and wasps.” Look at the antennae and the eyes if you’re deciding between flies and bees, as a fly’s antennae are usually very short. Large, bulging eyes are another indication of flies.
1. Here’s the only Woolly Bee Fly (Systoechus) I’ve ever seen. Looking like a miniature stuffed toy, this tiny fly wields its narwhal-like proboscis as it feeds on a cinquefoil near Hurricane Hill. Bee flies hold their proboscis straight; unlike butterflies, they cannot curl them up.
2. The Narrow-headed Marsh Fly (Helophilus fasciatus) shows a beautiful variation on the yellow-and-black we see in many bees, wasps, and flies. It’s in the Syrphidae family, called “flower flies,” or “hover flies.” It’s walking on a native penstemon leaf in my Port Townsend garden.
3. Here’s another flower fly, Yellow-shielded Quicksilver (Hadromyia pulchra), feeding on Yarrow nectar at the summit of Mt. Townsend. I post “observations” on iNaturalist, a free online citizen science project, where there’s a project called “Flies of US and Canada.” Experts have helped identify some of my 28 species of flies.
4. Have you ever noticed flies on the beach? I photographed this Long-legged Fly (Melanderia mandibulata) with my macro lens, allowing details to emerge, like large green eyes framed in beige, a green and turquoise hairy body, and iridescent wings. These social flies seemed to sip from barnacles during the low tide.
5. If you’re trying to photograph wildflowers in the Olympic Mountains, and an enormous, hairy fly zooms in to feed on the flower, it may be a Bristle Fly (Tachinidae). I’m not sure of the species of this Bristle Fly, as there are over 400 species in the Pacific Northwest!
6. This Common Sawfly (on the right) is actually not a fly, but our first Hymenoptera, the insect order that includes bees, wasps, and ants. This sawfly is in the Buckhorn Wilderness of the Olympic Mountains, flying toward a wildflower called Sharp-tooth Angelica (Angelica arguta), which already has a beetle feeding. (Part 3 of this series will include beetles.)
7. The Western Sand Wasp (Bembix americana) is the only wasp in this series, and a spectacular one with a large head, bright green eyes, and yellow legs. I found this one emerging from a hole in the dunes on Indian Island, as they are burrowing insects. You can also find them in summer on the sandy path near the lighthouse at Pt. Wilson.
8. Another insect with green eyes is the Striped Sweat Bee in the subgenus Agapostemon. These are known as “metallic green sweat bees,” and they are attracted to human sweat for what is, to them, nutritious salt. Fortunately, this one didn’t approach me when I got out my macro lens at North Beach.
9. The fuzzy Black-tailed Bumble Bee (Bombus melanopygus), also called the Orange-rumped Bumble Bee, is native to our West Coast. It’s not a specialist; it feeds on a variety of plants. I’ve seen it on Yarrow, Western Bog-laurel, and here on Northern Goldenrod on Mt. Townsend.
10. The Yellow-faced Bumble Bee (Bombus vosnesenskii) is the most abundant species of bee from British Columbia to Baja California, and it’s frequently sighted in our area. I’ve seen it on thistles, lavender, dandelions, and Salal, and it’s used as an agricultural pollinator. Look for its black body with yellow face and head, and another yellow stripe near the tail end of its body. Notice its straight proboscis and long antennae.
11. The European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) is the most common honey bee in the world, and one of the first domesticated insects that’s now on every continent except Antarctica. Merrill A. Peterson describes its head and adjacent mesosoma as “densely clothed in golden setae.” I’ve found it on our native Gumweed (Grindelia integrifolia), as in this photo, covered in pollen.
12. Finally, the only ant in this series, and a very common one locally. Have you noticed ant hills over a yard wide and a foot tall? They are built by the industrious Western Thatching Ant (Formica obscuripes), by up to 40,000 workers in one colony. Look for their red heads. And don’t worry, this photo was taken with a macro lens.