Hoverflies, sometimes called flower flies, sweat bees or syrphid flies, make up the insect family Syrphidae. As their common name suggests, they are often seen hovering or nectaring at flowers; the adults of many species feed mainly on nectar and pollen, while the larvae (maggots) eat a wide range of foods. In some species, the larvae are saprotrophs, eating decaying plant and animal matter in the soil or in ponds and streams. In other species, the larvae are insectivores and prey on aphids, thrips, and other plant-sucking insects.
Aphids alone cause tens of millions of dollars of damage to crops worldwide every year; because of this, aphid-eating hoverflies are being recognized as important natural enemies of pests, and potential agents for use in biological control. Some adult syrphid flies are important pollinators.
The size of hoverflies varies depending on the species. Some, like members of the genus Baccha, are small, elongate and slender, while others, like members of Criorhina are large, hairy, and yellow and black. As members of Diptera, all hoverflies have a single functional pair of wings (the hindwings are reduced to balancing organs). They are brightly colored, with spots, stripes, and bands of yellow or brown covering their bodies. Due to this coloring, they are often mistaken for wasps or bees; they exhibit Batesian mimicry. Despite this, hoverflies are harmless.
With a few exceptions (e.g.), hoverflies are distinguished from other flies by a spurious vein, located parallel to the fourth longitudinal wing vein. Adults feed mainly on nectar and pollen. They also hover around flowers, lending to their common name.
Unlike adults, the maggots of hoverflies feed on a variety of foods; some are saprotrophs, eating decaying plant or animal matter, while others are insectivores, eating aphids, thrips, and other plant-sucking insects. This is beneficial to gardens, as aphids destroy crops, and hoverfly maggots are often used in biological control. Certain species, such as Lampetia equestris or Eumerus tuberculatus, are responsible for pollination.
An example of a well-known hoverfly maggot is the rat-tailed maggot, of the drone fly, Eristalis tenax. It has a breathing siphon at its rear end, giving it its name. The species lives in stagnant water, such as sewage and lagoons. The maggots also have a commercial use, and are sometimes sold for ice fishing.
On occasion, hoverfly larvae have been known to cause accidental myiasis in humans. This occurs when the larva are accidentally ingested on food or from other sources. Myiasis causes discomfort, pain, or itching, however, hoverflies do not normally prey upon humans and cases of myiasis from hoverflies are very rare.
Hoverflies are a cosmopolitan family found in most biomes, except deserts, tundra at extremely high latitudes, and Antarctica. Certain species are more common in certain areas than others; for example, the American hoverfly, Eupeodes americanus, is common in the Nearctic ecozone, and the common hoverfly, Melangyna viridiceps, is common in the Australasia ecozone. About 6,000 species and 200 genera are in the family.
While some hoverfly larvae are aquatic and are often found in stagnant water, those of species which prey upon aphids and other plant pests are usually terrestrial, residing on leaves. Adults are often found near flowers, their principal food source being nectar and pollen. Some species are found in more unusual locations; for example, members of the genus Volucella can be found in bumblebee nests, while members of Microdon are myrmecophiles, found in ant or termite nests. Others can be found in decomposing vegetation.