I keep getting fooled by flies that look like bees, a characteristic that helps ward off predators who think that they’ll sting.

First I noticed dozens of hoverflies, or syrphid flies, on spiderwort. Their bodies look like bees but they have fly heads. They’re a good pollinator.


Then I noticed two different “bumblebees”:

unknown on “tiny monster” geranium

and Eristalis tenax on yarrow.

And then there’s this guy. I was walking through the garden one sunny, warm afternoon and noticed a giant bumblebee, the biggest one I’ve ever seen. It looked like a scruffy tired old thing resting on a milkweed leaf.

I ran inside to try to identify the species of bumblebee, then realized that once again that I was seeing a fly, not a bee. The good bugs that are coming to our native plants are enticing some predators, namely robber flies (or assassin flies). These flies hope that other insects will think they’re harmless bumblebees – but then they ambush the other insects.

There were at least two in the garden, as shown in this blurry video:

At that point I was too spooked and quickly fled – making sure not to turn my back to them. Though to be fair, even though they look creepy and threatening, neither was interested in sticking around when I came near.

This one was watching an American Lady butterfly five feet away, though it flew away as soon as it saw me:

I also saw one that had already caught a honeybee. When it saw me trying to move in closer for a photo, it dropped the poor (dead) bee and flew off.

I haven’t seen them again since that day, though I’m sure it won’t be the last time they try to make a meal out of the insects in our garden.

one ladybug on top of a yarrow stalk

It’s pollinator week, which celebrates the bees, bugs, and birds that help about 90% of flowering plants reproduce, including about one-third of the food we eat.

That’s a good excuse for me to spend a lot of time poring over the hundreds of photos I’ve taken already this year to see how many insects I can identify. (I’m not good at bird photos.) Each year seems to bring a greater diversity of bugs to our yard, perhaps because each year we’ve been removing more grass while adding more native plants.

I had to cross three insects off this list because while they may be beneficial, I just learned that they’re not pollinators:

But many of the flying creatures in the garden are pollinators. Like this Eastern tiger swallowtail on dianthus / pinks:

Eastern tiger swallowtail on dianthus

I am fascinated by these teeny flies that mimic the look of bees. I first thought they were bees and searched and searched for their identity before I remembered that some flies look like bees, and sure enough, these heads look like fly heads. With that clue in hand, it took about 10 seconds to find the correct ID, syrphid flies (or hoverflies).

A bigger syrphid fly (Ceriana vespiformis) on Golden alexanders… or is it? The body looks like ceriana vespiformis, but the antennae look like a potter wasp:

hoverfly on golden alexanders

About two weeks ago there were up to a dozen ladybugs crawling all over (and mating on) the yarrow at any given time. At the same time there were hundreds of aphids. Now the aphids are gone (no doubt due to the large presence of both ladybugs and damselflies) and now the ladybugs are gone, too.

mating ladybugs following a single ladybug across a yarrow leaf

The most popular plant so far has been the baptisia. It has been a, ahem, hive of activity.

There’s no evidence yet of monarch caterpillars in our yard even though there are at least 35 common milkweed plants about to bloom, so I will share this caterpillar I saw in a friend’s yard on Sunday:

monarch caterpillar on the underside of a milkweed leaf

More posts about pollinators

Welcome to summer! It seems like a new flower starts blooming every day – and on most days, more than one new flower. Last week’s multiple inches of rain helped that process immensely. Here are the most recent blooms in our garden.

Golden Alexanders:

Two kinds of dianthus / pinks:

Purple smoke wild indigo:


Trollius “new moon”:

“Tiny monster” geranium:

The last flower to start blooming this year was one solitary goldenrod. Almost immediately, dozens of little bees found it.

more than a dozen little bees on goldenrod

I saw more types of insects on the goldenrod than I saw on any of our other flowers. Someday I hope to be able to identify bees, but for now I’ll just say there were a lot of bees. A big yellow-and-black beetle hung out for one afternoon, and several mosquitoes even stopped by frequently.

goldenrod with a bee, mosquito, and beetle

This video shows how busy the goldenrod was on a late-summer afternoon:

I spent a lot of time watching the insect activity in the flower garden this year. Some of the plants seemed to be bee magnets, like this catmint that has grown in our yard for years:

bee pollinating catmint

Though bees aren’t the only insects that are attracted to the mint plants. Here’s a cabbage butterfly on catmint:

butterfly on purple giant hyssop

Last year, a new plant sprouted but didn’t flower before winter. This year it got an earlier start and we discovered it was a motherwort. It didn’t take long for the bees to find it. A few bumblebees, in particular, spent lots of time visiting the little pink blossoms:

bumblebee pollinating motherwort

And then there’s the purple giant hyssop. We got this plant last year, but it tipped over in a windstorm and didn’t grow very tall. This year, it was huge, and the bumblebees seemed to go crazy fluttering up and down the flower spikes. There are three bumblebees in this photo, though it wasn’t uncommon to see at least a dozen at a time:

bumblebees on purple giant hyssop

This grasshopper was always on the hyssop, no matter when I looked:

grasshopper on purple giant hyssop

This monarch was so patient as I took dozens of photos:

monarch feeding on purple giant hyssop

…and video. Bumblebees also make an appearance, along with one Japanese beetle:

And once the plant was finished flowering, the goldfinches moved in to eat the seeds. There are two in this photo, one hiding in the middle:

goldfinches on purple giant hyssop

Plant sources:

  • Motherwort: Arrived in our yard in 2013 (first flowered and identified in 2014)
  • Mint: Came with the house
  • Purple giant hyssop: Friends School Plant Sale, 2013