21. Bombyliidae – probability

19th April 2019

My reward for giving the lawn its first cut of the year, apart from having a tidy lawn, was to come across a bee fly feeding in the flower border. I rushed inside to get a camera, and when I got back it was still there, but as I tried to get close enough to get a picture it disappeared up to the roofline and away and never reappeared. If I had brought a net I might have had a chance of looking at it properly, rather than just seeing a brown, fat and furry body with a probing proboscis. Although its wings were always a blur, my impression was that they were darker at the front, which suggests the dark-bordered bee fly Bombylius major. Only four species in the genus are found in the UK, with the NBN maps below showing the records for, respectively, B. canescens, B. discolor, B. major and B. minor. The sparse Scottish records for B. canescens are all a hundred years old or more, so the distribution also fits B. major. Dare I submit the record to Bee-fly watch without a corroborating witness, a picture or a specimen, and with no possibility of using a proper identification key?

I do have a specimen of B. major in my collection with the label 27.4.80, Stanmer, Sussex, and the back of the label has the grid reference TQ348102 which means that I caught it on a Sunday just after the Easter holidays at a site a few hundred yards north of the Sussex University campus. This was probably on the path there that leads from there up towards the South Downs, and I suspect that this was the first bee fly I had ever seen since I would have certainly coveted one for my boyhood fly collection. The occasion was most likely a University Natural History Society field trip, since surely I wouldn’t otherwise have been on campus on a Sunday. I was the Secretary of the Society, or at least I was the one who wrote a newsletter each week, in my neatest writing, to be surreptitiously photocopied by a PhD student who had access to a departmental machine. The print run was fairly small and the feedback non-existent. Well that has all changed!

Now that I think of it, one of those newsletters may have featured my own drawing of this very fly, though I can’t seem to find a copy, so perhaps I have imagined it. At any rate, this is a marvellous fly, never to be forgotten by anyone who sees it in action, a hummingbird for northern latitudes and a sure sign that spring is, most probably, underway.

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