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Time to thank the humble hoverfly

Friday 24 September 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who this spring was deeply worried about the lack of honey bees on his allotment, is now enjoying a boom harvest thanks, he believes, to the humble and much misunderstood hover fly

EARLIER this summer, on one of those glorious heat wave days in June before the rains came, I was walking through a public park towards a family seemingly enjoying a picnic when, suddenly, screams split the air and the family split up like the Red Arrows doing a cloud burst.

One little girl ran towards me, another hurtled off in the opposite direction and their mother, a woman in her early thirties at a guess, jumped up and down, waving her arms in distress as if fighting some invisible monster.

Hover fly: gardeners friend

“It’s bees, ‘undreds of ‘em,” cried the oncoming girl. “We’ll all get stung.”

I approached the mother, asking if I could be of assistance, and she pointed at a crowd of flying insects which were hovering over the brightly coloured picnic cloth lying on the grass. “Those wasps are all over the place,” she complained. “We’ll have to pack up and go back to the car.”

I looked down. There was not a wasp nor a bee in sight. But there was a small cloud of hover flies which seemed to be attracted to the red and green picnic blanket or – as the girls drew nervously nearer - the Wellington boots they were wearing, those highly fashionable multi-coloured things in pink with blue floral motifs.

I assumed this little family were towns folk because the mother clearly had no idea of the difference between wasps, which sting at little provocation; bees – both bumble and honey – which will sting only when in mortal danger; and hover flies, which do not sting at all.

Because of this ignorance, she was unable to teach her children some of the important basic knowledge any youngster should have for a day out in the country, the sort of things I was taught as a three or four year old by older children. I tried to explain that they were in no danger but, looking back as I walked on, I saw they were packing up and leaving anyway.

This sad story came to mind this week when I was still harvesting handfuls of glorious yellow courgettes in my allotment and wondering what to do with the seven plump marrows I have stored in my cold frame. These are in addition to the two in our cellar which have lain there for several weeks, and the three or four I have already given away.

We are, quite frankly, getting a bit fed up with marrow and courgette after gorging on them since June – brought on by that wonderful early sun and then filled to alarming size by the rains that fell monsoon-like in July and August.

Yet five months ago, I was seriously worried that I would have any flowering crops at all this year because of an alarming shortage of honey bees which seemed to be approaching a national – and international – crisis.

British honey bees have suffered grievously in recent years from a mite spread disease called varroa but, worse still, there were fears that a mysterious plague called sudden colony collapse, which has wiped out billions of bees in America, might spread to the UK.

Even in that fine spell of weather in early summer, I could count on one hand the number of honey bees I saw in the allotment, although I grow flowering shrubs to attract and feed them. Then came the wet and windy so-called “high summer” – you couldn’t get much lower this year – and conditions which, even had there been bees about, they would have been reluctant to fly.

The answer, of course, is the humble hover fly

Yet here I am, autumn on the doorstep, with a glut of marrows and a freezer full of beans – broad, runner and French – all from flowering plants which to produce their bounty need insects to propagate them. So to what, apart from the hard working but solitary bumble bee, do I owe a vote of thanks?

The answer, of course, is the humble hover fly, which has been so prolific this summer that a columnist in the Sunday Times wrote that they had colonised her kitchen and she couldn’t get rid of them. That, as far as I can recall, was the first time that the hover fly had made the national press, so we journalists have done the little beast an injustice.

There are some 270 different species of hoverfly in this country and, yes, some of them do look like wasps with yellow and black striped bodies but smaller: many others are nothing like. Unlike bees and wasps, which have four wings, hover flies have just two but in flight they move so quickly that you could never tell.

They hover, just like it says on the tin, and no other insect - with the possible exception of some dragon flies - can remain stationary in the air, usually in front of some flower or coloured item like a picnic cloth which they are inspecting as a potential food source. They feed on pollen and nectar like the bees. In doing so, they are propagating our plants with the added bonus for us that they also prey on aphids – green- and black-fly – which are among gardeners’ most loathed enemies.

Hover flies in fact deserve a metaphorical pat on the back – a real one would present certain problems of size – so don’t swat them away and under no circumstances use chemical sprays on them. They are holding the garden fort until the bees hopefully make a come-back. As valuable friends, they deserve our respect – and our thanks.

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