Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography


with 33 comments

Genus Palpada Fly on Snow-on-the-Mountain 1190

The first day of August conveniently coincided with my first sighting of snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata) flowers for 2014—just barely, that is. You see, for each of these half-inch-across “flowers,” only the central part that’s inside the five little greenish bean-shaped lobes is actually a flower, and in this specimen those flowers hadn’t quite opened yet. And if we can stack illusion on illusion, from a distance even the plant’s much larger leaves often get mistaken for petals because of their prominent white margins.

In a different and seemingly purposeful deception, the insect visitor that you might take to be a bee is really a fly mimicking a bee, the better to make predators wary that it might sting even though it can’t. From pictures I’ve seen online, this fly appears to be in the genus Palpada, whose members are known as syrphid flies or flower flies.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 11, 2014 at 5:50 AM

33 Responses

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  1. How very beautiful. And I will even have to admit that the fly is beautiful, too.


    August 11, 2014 at 6:53 AM

  2. I think snow-on-the-mountain is one of the loveliest of the summer wildflowers. It looks fresh, cool and delicate even when it’s 95°F in the shade. And the little fly is cute. I found they’re also called “hover flies,” because of their tendency to hover about blossoms. I’ve always assumed I had little bees around my Cape honeysuckle, but it may be that I have these flies. I’ll have to look more closely.

    Your mention of mimicry reminded me of the monarchs and viceroys. I discovered there are differents sort of mimicry, and this fly is an example of the Batesian variety. Mr. Bates himself was an interesting fellow.


    August 11, 2014 at 7:55 AM

    • After you recently mentioned snow-on-the-mountain and after I took this picture, I went to a site in Cedar Park that last year had lots of snow-on-the-mountain plants, but this time I found only a few. Either we’re still too early in the season, or else this is another case where a species is lush one year and barely visible the next. Time will tell, as they say.

      Yes, do take a closer look at your little visitors, and you may well find that some of them are flies because there are many species of bee-flies in Texas. Like you, I’d run across the term Batesian mimicry, and now from your link I see that Bates even worked with Wallace, who independently formulated the theory of evolution, along with the now-better-known Darwin.

      The behavior that has led people to refer to many of these insects as hover flies has puzzled me for years, and I’ve often wondered why the insect doesn’t just land already (the frustration of a photographer waiting for a chance at a picture). There must be a reason why these insects hover so often, but so far I haven’t learned what it is (and I can’t say that I’ve looked very hard for a reason, either).

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 11, 2014 at 8:13 AM

  3. We call those sweat bees. They hover well and are hard to swat.

    Jim in IA

    August 11, 2014 at 8:29 AM

    • I’ve never wanted to swat one, but rather to get it to quit hovering and land on a flower or leaf already so I can take pictures of it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 11, 2014 at 11:11 AM

  4. Excellent shot! The Euphorbia family is fascinating –


    August 11, 2014 at 10:28 AM

  5. Wow. This photo is stunning on so many levels!

    Gena Fleming

    August 11, 2014 at 10:38 AM

  6. This is a FABULOUS photo…worthy of the all caps kudos! The detail is astonishing. I was thinking that was a funny looking bee! Thanks for an incredible post.


    August 11, 2014 at 11:38 AM

    • You’re welcome, Debi, and thanks for your ENTHUSIASM. One clue that this insect is a fly is its wrap-around eyes.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 11, 2014 at 11:43 AM

  7. What a beautiful plant. I’d like to see a photo of a clump of these if you have one. I have only ever seen the bright green or greenish-yellow Euphorbia.


    August 11, 2014 at 1:17 PM

  8. We tried some Snow in the Summer in the garden but it never made a return the following year. Nice shot with the little hover guy.

    Steve Gingold

    August 11, 2014 at 3:06 PM

    • You get enough real snow in New England (or at least you used to) not to have to worry about plants with snow in their name. And yes, these little hover guys are fun.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 11, 2014 at 6:03 PM

  9. Wow … another beauty! Why am I NOT surprised? The light falling on those two flowers below is just wonderful. And … what’s up with all of the animal portraits lately … I thought your interests were all things botanical? I’m glad that you’re beginning to see that members of the other Kingdoms hold interest as well. By the way … what lens did you use for this shot? D

    Pairodox Farm

    August 11, 2014 at 6:37 PM

    • Yes, I have been weaving a bunch of little creatures into the predominant botanical web lately. The truth is that I’ve been doing so all along, although a little more frequently for the last few weeks than before, to punctuate all the botanical pictures. If you were to click on the “insects” tag of this post you could scroll back through dozens of posts featuring insects over the past three years. Similarly, but to a lesser extent, you could look at the various spiders that have appeared here. Or try the catch-all tag “animals.” As a result of those hundreds of hits, I think you’ll relinquish the claim that I’m “beginning” to show interest in the non-botanical kingdoms.

      For this picture I used my 100mm macro, which is the lens I use most often of all. Recently I’ve been inserting a 12mm extension tube to get a little closer with my full-frame sensor.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 11, 2014 at 10:14 PM

      • What do you know about the relative merits of extension tubes, teleconverters, and diopters? Perhaps you know of a web resource that lists the pros and cons? I’d like to be able to 1) extend my 70-200mm a bit and 2) get in a bit closer with my 105 macro … will an extension tube do both of these things? D

        Pairodox Farm

        August 12, 2014 at 7:01 AM

        • An extension tube has no optics; all it does is move the lens farther away from the camera’s sensor, thereby allowing for closer focusing. The main drawback is that while the extension tube is in place you lose the infinity end of the lens’s focusing range, so if something that isn’t going to stay put suddenly appears at a distance you can’t just quickly refocus on it.

          Extenders add glass elements of their own, which is how they increase the focal length of the lenses you attach them to. Add more glass and you may, however slightly, lose some sharpness. A diopter is just glass added in front of rather than behind the lens.

          I expect a search will turn up plenty of articles discussing the three devices, so give it a shot.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 12, 2014 at 7:21 AM

  10. i love your posts, so much.


    August 11, 2014 at 10:56 PM

  11. What an exquisitely delicate flower.

    Emily Heath

    August 13, 2014 at 3:58 PM

    • I photographed some more of these today that were more florally (and even fruitfully) developed. What fun.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 13, 2014 at 5:33 PM

  12. May I paint this beautiful photograph of ‘Snow on the Mountain’ then post it on my watercolors blog? ( VisualFling.com )


    August 20, 2014 at 7:43 AM

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