Biology in the News Explained

Cool Bugs #3 – Fly wasp mimics

I thought about doing a post on all the wasp mimics out there, but within the flies (Diptera) there are plenty, and it clearly evolved multiple times – in most cases, not all the species within the following family are mimics. Obviously it would be some benefit for any insect to be thought a wasp by a vertebrate predator. Flies cannot sting for defense, so some of them just look a lot like wasps so predators will think they can sting. The ways in which they mimic wasps are fascinating.

The following families include wasp mimics: Micropezidae, Conopidae, Mydidae and Syrphidae. I’m surely missing some – don’t be shy about pointing it out, all you Dipterists out there.

There is a whole family of bee mimics as well, the Bombylidae (the bumblebee genus is Bombus). They are big fuzzy things (below right), but if you look closely, you will see only two wings, which gives away their lineage – all bees and wasps (and all orders of insects except for the flies) have four wings.

But I’m more interested in the wasp mimics here. I’ll start with my favorite, a Micropezid I caught in Costa Rica, at the La Selva research station. These are fantastic mimics, and a still photo just doesn’t do them justice because their behavior is an important part of the package. You can see the fly has a pointy abdomen, which helps, and when grabbed, it pokes its abdomen into the grabber’s skin repeatedly as if to sting. (Kinda cute, since it’s completely harmless.) The other important combination of morphology and behavior has to do with the long forelegs, which end in white tips (which you should be able to see in the photo, along the edge of my thumbnail). In the tropics especially, the long antennae of stinging wasps have white or yellow tips. Flies, as a group, have very small antennae, but this family of flies has long legs. It was a quicker evolutionary step for the mimic species to use its forelegs to mimic antennae, than to develop long antennae itself. So you will see this fly walking rapidly along leaves in the manner of wasps, tapping its forelegs in front of it just as wasps use their antennae. It’s really amazing to watch. (Although this fly family is more ubiquitous in the tropics, there are North American species and I have seen them in central Virginia.)

Conopids have a generally different look, mimicking thread-waisted wasps (Sphecidae) rather specifically. A common wasp-mimic morphology is to have a somewhat constricted abdomen, because a distinguishing character of the Hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps) is a distinct constriction in the first few abdomenal segments, which means that hymenopterans are more or less restricted to liquefied foods, but also allows flexible reach for the abdomen when stinging prey or for defense. The conopids combine this with the elongated abdomen characteristic of sphecid (digger) wasps. I’m not aware of any specific behaviors that help promote their ruse.

Some Mydidae (mydas flies) apparently go for the pompilid (spider wasp) look. According to the source for this photo of Mydas clavatus, Tom Murray, it is mimicking spider wasps in a particular genus, Anoplius. Pompilids have a quite characteristic look of a black body and darkly pigmented wings. The photo on the right is Anoplius.

The syrphids (hoverflies) are not so precise in their mimicry. Here are two, with one clearly mimicking a bumble bee, and the other just looking generally wasp-like with its black and yellow markings. Their behavior does not necessarily contribute to the show; as their common name suggests, syrphids spend a lot of time hovering, which is generally unwasplike.

Thus mimicry takes many forms. It is interesting that some mimics seem to be modeling specific insects while others just seem to have the general look of wasps or bees. Does the selection pressure differ for these mimics, and why? Perhaps the generalist mimics live where there are a big enough variety of stinging Hymenoptera that they don’t need to get specific. Why do some converge on specific families? Is there a dominant model present in those habitats? I’ll admit up front that I have not done a literature search, so I don’t know what is known specifically about the evolution of mimicry in these groups. I just like them because they are so cool.

The only picture of mine above is the worst one by far, of the micropezid. The syrphids and Anoplius come from Forestry Images, a wonderful image database, and the rest are by Tom Murray, and used with his permission. See many wonderful fly images of his here.

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