by Sandy Garland

Notes on a talk by Dr. Jeff Skevington, Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, 14 September 2017

Jeff started by showing us a number of newspaper and magazine stories about bees that have featured a photo of a fly by mistake. Bees are what we think of when someone says pollinator, while flies go unrecognized for themselves or their importance as pollinators. For our agricultural crops, 39% are pollinated by honey bees, 23% by native bees, and 38% by other pollinators, most of which are flies.

Flies are less efficient at pollination than bees, but make up for that by visiting flowers more often. They travel farther than bees, thus increasing the chance of out-crossing (moving pollen between plant populations). They also do not “steal,” i.e., eat pollen, so are more likely to transfer it to another plant.

Flies are active at different times of the day and year and at different temperatures than bees. For example, hover flies are often active very early in the season and will fly on cool rainy days when bees don’t. There are 550 species of hover flies in Canada, making them the largest group of non-bee pollinators.

Non-bee pollinators get little attention. In a project Jeff was involved in recently, 200 scientists were studying pollinators; only 5 or 6 were looking at non-bees.

What is a fly?

Here are some clues to distinguishing flies from bees:

  • flies have one pair of wings instead of two like bees; the other pair are halteres, which act as gyroscopes allowing flies to manoeuvre when flying
  • adult flies have sucking mouth parts as they eat nectar
  • fly larvae are simple and have no legs
  • flies’ heads are almost entirely eye, whereas bees usually have a space between their eyes
  • the antennae of flies are usually very short; bees’ are longer and bent


The families of pollinating flies are all among the top fly families in terms of numbers of species.

Tachinidae – Bristle flies
Have bristles, a “spare tire” under their scutellum, and are parasitoids.

Bombyliidae – Bee flies
Important pollinators in arid and semi-arid areas. Come out in early spring to visit the first flowers. As larvae, they attack bees and wasps. Good at hovering.

Empididae – Dance flies
Tiny, so important pollinators of tiny flowers. Both larvae and adults are predators. When mating, males present females with a silk ball, sometimes containing prey. Sometimes females also give a present to males.

Muscidae – House flies
Important pollinators in the Arctic and in early spring.

Calliphoridae – Cluster flies and blow flies
Cluster flies are predators on earthworms; these species are not native. Blow fly adults visit flowers; most are metallic.

Syrphidae – Flower or hover flies
Not found in dry areas; prefer moist habitat. Attack aphids. Visual key to the 76 genera –


Not only are these flies good pollinators, but, according to Jeff, they may also be useful as decomposers and in sewage treatment.

Supplementary information

Pollinator flies found at the FWG (* means non-native; diamond indicates species found during bioblitz in 1996, but not since)

Bombyliidae Bee flies
Bombylius sp. Bee fly
Bombylius major Bee fly
Exoprosopa decora Bee fly
Poecilanthrax tegminipennis Bee fly
Sparnopolius confusus Bee fly
Villa cf. alternata Bee fly
Calliphoridae Blow flies
♦Calliphoridae, several spp. Blow flies
Lucilia sp. Greenbottle fly
Conopidae Thick-headed flies
Physocephala sp. Thick-headed fly
Zodion sp. Thick-headed fly
Zodion intermedium Thick-headed fly
Empididae Dance flies
Platypalpus sp. Dance fly
Rhamphomyia longicauda Dance Fly
Muscidae Muscid flies
*Coenosia tigrina Muscoid fly
Lispi sociabilis Muscoid fly
Muscina assimilis Muscoid fly
Schaenomyza litorella Muscoid fly
Syrphidae Flower flies or hover flies
Allograpta obliqua Hover fly
Chalcosyrphus curvaria Hover fly
Epistrophe sp. Hover fly
Eristalis sp. Hover fly
Eristalis arbustorum Hover fly
Eristalis dimidiata? Hover fly
Eristalis flavipes Hover fly
Eristalis tenax Hover fly
Eristalis transversa Hover fly
Eupeodes sp. Hover fly
Helophilus sp. Hover fly
Lejops lineatus Hover fly
Lejops subgenus Anasimyia Hover fly
Melangyna lasiophthalma Hover fly
Paragus angustifrons Hover fly
Parhelophilus laetus Hover fly
Platycheirus quadratus Hover fly
Somula decora Hover fly
Sphaerophoria sp. Hover fly
Spilomyia longicornis Hover fly
Spilomyia sayi Hover fly
Syrphus sp. Hover fly
*Syritta pipiens Hover fly
Temnostoma alternans Hover fly
Temnostoma balyras Hover fly
Temnostoma barberi Hover fly
Toxomerus geminatus Hover fly
Toxomerus marginatus Syrphid fly
Tachinidae Parasitic flies
Cryptomeigenia simplex Parasitic fly
Cylindromyia interrupta Parasitic fly
Gymnosoma sp. Parasitic fly
Hemyda aurata Parasitic fly
Panzeria sp. Parasitic fly
Parasetigena silvestris Parasitic fly
Winthemia quadripustulata Parasitic fly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *