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In praise of hover flies, or a little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Against my better judgement, the September sunshine has lured me out of my flat, and my broken toe grumbles sullenly as I shuffle under the railway bridge. At the far end of the tunnel, a man on a ladder is applying white paint to the wall with a roller. At first I fear it’s anti-graffiti paint, but when I return after a few minutes’ sheep-watching at the city farm, he’s atop the ladder, iPhone in one hand, brush in the other, sketching out the initial lines for a new painting. I admire the skill and patience of street artists, especially those whose work doesn’t attract the price tag of a Banksy. It takes some kind of grit when you know your efforts are going to be obliterated in days, or mere hours. I think perhaps these wielders of spray cans have learned something crucial about the impermanence of life that I have yet to grasp.

Onward to the community garden, and my eye is drawn to the bed of marigolds that have been left to grow wild and golden. Insects of all kinds love marigolds, and I love photographing insects, so it’s one of my favourite places. A plump hover fly is doing what it does best above one of the taller flowers, and I’m away with the camera.

It seems incomprehensible now that I lived more than sixty years with no idea what a hover fly was. Until around four years ago, I believed firmly that any black-and-yellow creature that buzzed was either a bee or a wasp. Bees were revered as pollinators and creators of honey. I remember the hives at the end of my grandfather’s garden when I was a child, and the honey, dark as treacle, that we ate with bread and butter when we went to tea. Wasps, on the other hand, were reviled as disruptors of summer picnics, and served no useful purpose at all, that I could discern.

I’d discovered the sting in both their tails at an early age, and had no wish to repeat the experience. My father once told me that my grandfather used to let his bees to sting his hands because their venom relieved rheumatism, but I strongly suspected the mere pain of the stings would be sufficient to take his mind off anything else that ailed him. While I’d never have killed either a bee or a wasp, I was more than happy to keep a safe distance from both. All that changed one summer afternoon in this very garden, when I discovered the delights of bee photography.

In the early stages of obsession, my sole aim was to take a photograph of a bee, preferably in flight and hopefully in focus. This wasn’t easy, given that everything I knew about the technical skills of photography could have been written on the back of a postage stamp. But it’s not for nothing I’ve been called a stubborn woman (the description was less polite, but I’m trying to make this a family-friendly post) so I persisted. The camera came with me everywhere I went, and if a yellow-and-black-striped creature crossed my path, I snapped at it like a hungry frog.

The first lesson was that bees move incredibly fast. If you don’t use a high shutter speed, you’re not going to get a bee in flight, but you’ll probably get some great shots of flowers. Next, as I peered at ever more bees through my brand new macro lens, I began to see where the myth that they’re aerodynamically incapable of flight must’ve originated. If you watch an average bee launch itself backwards from a flower, it really doesn’t look as if it ought to be able to fly. But what’s an average bee? There are around two hundred and fifty species in the UK, depending on your source of information, and that’s not including a couple of creatures that look like bees but actually aren’t. Ah, don’t you just love the precision of Google? But maybe it’s not simple inaccuracy. In truth, it’s likely nobody knows the precise number of bee species. Science is a journey of constant discovery, rather like my photography.

I was walking home from work one summer afternoon when things began to get complicated. The black-and-yellow creature in my sights didn’t look like any of the bees I’d ever seen. It was hovering just above its target flower, which made it easy to get a reasonable shot, and when I got home, Google told me it was a hover fly. I’d never heard of a hover fly, but I wasn’t much fazed. So, there was a buzzing thing out there that didn’t fit my wasp versus bee world view? I didn’t see the need to change. It was an anomaly. A harmless fly, masquerading as a major player. A sheep in wolf’s clothing.

Fast forward two years, and we’re all in lockdown. I’m spending my allotted hours of exercise meandering in a meadow, and as spring melts into summer, I’m on an unexpected learning curve. Not only am I discovering more plants and grasses than were dreamt of in my philosophy, but I’m seeing ever growing numbers of black-and-yellow anomalies hovering over them. There are large flies and tiny ones, long ones and round ones, fat, thin, brightly striped and subtle ones. I’m fast becoming fascinated.

Google tells me around two hundred and seventy species of hover flies have been identified in the UK. Its circumspect use of language suggests there may be more, as yet unknown, and I’ve always loved a mystery. Hover flies are more diverse and mysterious even than bees, it seems, and I lived sixty-three years with no idea they existed. How did that happen? Happily, their hovering habit means they’re far easier than bees to photograph in flight, and they don’t have a sharp end either. Knocking sourdough baking off the top spot, hover flies become my new lockdown obsession.

An image of my grandfather watching the bees explore his hands has stayed with me ever since my father told me the story. Grandad himself loved a story. I can remember him on his deathbed, telling tales of the canary girls in the mustard gas factories of the First World War, their skin stained yellow by the chemicals they used. My son, not yet five years old, was so absorbed by the story that he fell off the bed into the laundry basket. He still remembers the moment as vividly as I remember the bees.

When Grandad died, I decided to find out how much truth there was in the idea that bee stings could cure arthritis. This was 1988, the low-fat era of the F-plan diet and Edwina Curry’s obsession with eggs. The books I consulted assured me the idea had no basis in scientific fact, so I filed it under Painful Old Wives’ Tales, and quietly forgot, until the bee obsession struck.

One of the things I love about real science is that it’s not afraid to change its mind when faced with new evidence. The certainty of that late 1980s belief has yielded to more recent research that suggests Grandad might not have been wholly crazy after all. It’s possible bee venom might actually contain compounds with anti-inflammatory properties, that had yet to be discovered when I raided the public library, more than thirty years ago. It was around the same time as I began to fear my grandfather’s suffering might have been in vain that David Icke discovered the Queen was a lizard. I have no idea how he came by such knowledge, but his belief has been unshakeable for more than three decades. I assume he’s kept up with the latest research, and his findings have never been superseded, but maybe … just maybe he’s simply avoiding knowledge which might call old certainties into question.

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, especially when it challenges our most cherished beliefs. The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off, as Gloria Steinem apparently liked to say. I’ve been reading Padraig O Tuama’s In the Shelter:Finding a Home in the World. He quotes a Dictionary of Etymology, which ‘notes that a particular Germanic rootword contributing to [the word] ‘believe’ means ‘to make palatable to oneself”. Real knowledge is seldom palatable. The truth is usually not what we want to hear. In fact, sixty-seven years and more on this beautiful planet have shown me exactly how little I really know about anything, which wasn’t in the least what I expected when I set out. Nonetheless, there’s something deeply magical about inhabiting a world filled with unfathomable mysteries, impermanent certainties, limitless questions, circumstances wholly beyond my control … and picnic-disrupting wasps, of course.

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