Episyrphus balteatus, the Marmalade Hoverfly, was first given its Latin name by the Swedish entomologist Charles De Geer in 1776, yet it had already been accurately painted by Jan Van Huysum in about 1718 - in a painting entitled Still Life with Bird’s Nest, currently displayed in Edinburgh’s National Gallery of Scotland. This small (wingspan ~ 8 millimetres) hoverfly is now understood to be a powerful migrator across Europe, its larvae eating aphids by the ton, and itself a nectar feeder that pollinates as it goes. The numbers involved are huge and some authorities (Exeter University) suggest that it may - with one other hoverfly species - contribute to a level of crop pollination in the UK that is the equivalent of that done by the honey bee.

To my eye, ‘balteatus’ is as beautiful a pollinator as any to be found in our gardens. That females have recently been proven to use the sun as a navigation aid as they migrate (flying low against the wind) through the valleys of the Pyrenees adds to their allure.

Episyrphus balteatus, copyright Rob Tomlinson, 2023
Episyrphus balteatus (female), copyright Rob Tomlinson, 2023

Jan Van Huysum’s 1718 painting Still Life with Bird’s Nest, shows what is - to my knowledge - the first appearance of balteatus in art. The detailed portion below is from just below the bird nest, and shows this accurate depiction close-up.

Jan Van Huysum, 1718, Still Life with Bird's Nest
Jan Van Huysum, 1718, Still Life with Bird’s Nest
Jan Van Huysum, 1718, Still Life with Bird's Nest
Hoverfly detail within Jan Van Huysum, 1718, Still Life with Bird’s Nest

True, the wings in the painting are angled more at 90 degrees from the thorax than one sees in the field, and the painting of the first section of the abdomen lacks a little verisimilitude, but this remains a balteatus, as no other hoverfly comes even close to resembling it. The differences between these species in the 18th century mattered as much as as they do today. People would have seen them on flowers throughout the summer, just as we do today. Their prowess as pollinators could have been imputed even before science confirmed it by measurement. And - glory be - they neither sting nor bite. No hoverfly does that.