An entomological Milesian tale

Milesia virginiensisMilesia virginiensis2The common name for this wasp-mimicking fly is “news bee” or, more optimistically, “good news bee.” The moniker was given to the insect for its habit of zipping through the air toward a human then holding steady, imparting the news in a loud buzz. Once the news has been sung, the fly flings itself away to find another willing ear.

This habit might also account for the generic name of the species, Milesia (this one is Milesia virginiensis, I believe). Milesian tales are lurid, captivating short fables, named for Aristides of Miletus, “a writer of shameless and amusing tales with some salacious content and unexpected plot twists” (or so says that rock of classical knowledge, Wikipedia). A fly’s version of a Milesian tale would be fun to hear, but regrettably I could not translate the buzz that I heard in Shakerag Hollow and so missed this Dipteran’s narrative complications and witty innuendo. Maybe you can do better: my recording of the insect follows. The fly was perched on a leaf, washing its forelegs. Suddenly it launched itself and flew to me to give The News. Once done, the fly darted away to gossip at a fallen tree, then shot out of earshot.

(Web browsers differ in how they handle sound files, so I have uploaded two files: the first is mp3 and the second is m4a. You’ll either see a “play” button, an option to download, or both. The background sounds are cicadas and a Carolina wren.)

20 thoughts on “An entomological Milesian tale

  1. mowque

    I love when you talk about sound. Just yesterday i got away from the city and sat and listened for an hour or so in a semi-remote forest. It is always a great experience to just sit and listen to the ways of nature around you.

    Didn’t hear any of these bugs though!

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    This is a great story! Thank you for sharing it. Are these bees similar to hover bees? I’ve had those come up to me and hover in front of my face. But, they don’t tell me a story — they just look at me. They’re also very small. Great story!

    Reply
  3. David S Johnson

    “Let’s see. I’ll land on this leaf over here. Yes. And then wash my hands. Done. Hey, there’s some guy with a funny thing. It makes funny noises. What’s he doing? I’ll go up to his listening hole and ask.

    Hey mister, whatcha’ doin? Mister?

    Hm. No answer, guess I’ll fly over here. Did I wash my hands already? I’d better do it again just in case.”

    As always, great post David. I am uber impressed with the hand-washing shot.

    Reply
      1. David S Johnson

        I like to think that they’re plotting a delicious scheme. As you know, flies and other insects such as butterflies (who came up with that name?) taste with their feet. You can get a fancy dance from butterfly with something sweet at its feet. Flies wring as part of their preening, removing dust from their body and then dusting their ‘hands’ off. And we thought flies were nasty little critters. Why one family might do it more than others is a curiosity (= I don’t know).

        Reply
  4. Mary Beth Martin

    I’m always happy when I see a hover fly in the greenhouse because their larva eat aphids! I wonder if it is true for this species. Perhaps that’s the ‘good news’ they are trying to tell us, or they’re singing their praises because they are beneficial insects!

    Reply
  5. Fountainpen

    I just have bumblebees on my zinnias. They just keep
    telling me the same old thing: STAY AWAY FROM THIS FLOWER! IT IS MINE!
    Fountainpen (I still use fountain pens with real liquid ink!)

    Reply
    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Yes, the bumblebees are very fond of their food!

      And ftn pens with real ink are how The Forest Unseen was written: the physical contact with emerging words is important (ha! as I write on this keyboard).

      Reply
  6. Van Bunch

    David:

    Sounds great. Do you have or can you recommend a good site for a bird call identifier resource?

    When we visit our place in the wilds of Temnessee, we sure hear more than we see. It would be great to identify all those calls.

    Thanks

    Reply
    1. Anonymous

      I have been learning calls with larkwire.com. It uses a teaching mechanism similar to Rosetta Stone, only for bird calls. You can buy a little package of the 25 most common birds in your area for $3.95, or choose from a few other options. Just a bit of practice opened my ears to hearing more, and knowing what I was hearing.

      Good luck!

      Janet in South Carolina

      Reply
        1. Anonymous

          I have used Birding by Ear, but felt like it went too fast for me. Larkwire lets you choose the birds you want to focus on, gives tons of repetition, charts your progress, and gives variations on the calls. For a relative beginner like me, it has worked out better.

          Van, I would send you my Birding by Ear cds if you like. Just email me at jkhach@gmail.com. No charge :-).

          Reply
  7. kklinedinst

    Sometimes I see these when hiking, as I’m taking a break. Perhaps they are attracted to the salt in my sweat. I really had no idea that they were not wasps, so thank you for this post.

    I just found out you will be speaking at Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely, MD in September
    . I’m really excited about this, and hope to make it to your lecture. Adkins Arboretum in such a beautiful place to sit and listen to all that’s going on around you. I think you’ll also like their goats that live on the property–part of the grounds crew.

    Reply

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