Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Fieldwork fun: Eristalis tenax and pollinator diversity

The field season is on in earnest now. Yesterday I was surveying blooming plant species at my field site, taking photos of the blooming plants as informal vouchers for now (vouchers = samples to prove that I correctly ID'd the plant, often collected specimens deposited at an herbarium in my field), and I managed to snap this awesome shot:

Eristalis tenax on Achillea millefolium
This guy is rather interesting, and not just because close-up shots of insects are cool by default.

I am pretty sure this is Eristalis tenax (a.k.a drone fly), and positive that it is a syrphid fly (a.k.a. hoverflies or bee flies). Syrphid flies are a group of flies which are bee or wasp mimics, meaning that they have characteristics resembling those of bees or wasps, which in theory is an antipredator adaptation conferring the advantages of the mimicked species against particular predators. E. tenax, our awesome, rather big (13-15mm wingspan [1]) syrphid fly is native to Eurasia [1] and was introduced to North America [1] before 1874 [1]. It is now widespread in North America [1,2].

The larval stage of this species is rather unappealing (called a rat-tailed maggot) and can pose problems particularly at agricultural sites, where they can become overabundant in ponds and livestock areas [3]. There have been cases of accidental ingestion of the eggs/larvae and subsequent myiasis (infestation by flies) of humans, causing unpleasant illness etc., but apparently the myiasis is treatable [3].

E. tenax is a pollinator, as adults feed on nectar [3] and so can be pollen vectors. indeed, although we tend to think of bees when we talk about pollinators, there are many other types of pollinator: flies, syrphid flies, butterflies, moths, skippers, wasps, birds, bats... There is even one documented case (research article) I am aware of where a lizard was demonstrated to be a pollinator!

I went digging around in the literature about E. tenax and found a study which compared the efficiency (transfer of pollen per visit) and effectiveness (number of visits per unit time) of E. tenax (and several other non-managed species) at pollination of Brassica rapa var. chinensis (pak choi) [link to open-access article]. The researchers conclude that E. tenax is equally effective and efficient as A. mellifera (European honeybee, a managed pollinator of considerable economic importance which is used extensively globally as a crop pollinator) on an individual basis as a pollinator, but due to much lower numbers of individuals in the populations of this and other alternative pollinators, A. mellifera remained the most important effective pollinator.

Just for fun, here's another syrphid fly I've photographed before. I think it's Toxomerus marginatus, but I'm not positive on the I.D. I am fairly sure it's at least in the genus Toxomerus, but I may be wrong about the species.

Toxomerus marginatus (?) on Rudbeckia hirta

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