FEBRUARY
1994

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

02-24-94

Bee or Fly? - The Bugonia Myth

To most people, bees and flies look very much alike. Both groups of insects have clear wings. Many bees and some flies have fuzzy little bodies. Some flies even embellish the similarity by buzzing just like bees.

But there are differences between the two groups of insects. For instance, flies have only two wings and bees have four. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, knew about the difference in wing numbers. He also recognized another difference between bees and flies — some bees sting and some flies bite! According to Aristotle, “Four-winged insects have the sting in the tail, and the two-winged ones...have the sting in the front of the head.”

Historically, the confusion regarding bees and flies was no doubt enhanced by a group of flies that mimic bees. One such fly is known as the drone fly. The drone fly looks like a bee, buzzes like a bee, hovers like a bee, frequents flowers like a bee and even, when disturbed, acts menacingly just like a bee.

However, it is not a bee. Drone flies can't sting. They can't even bite as some flies do. Very few animals, including humans, question the authenticity of a drone fly when confronted with this insect. Once stung, twice shy explains how the system works.

It was the mistaken identity of the drone fly that probably contributed to the ancient idea that honey bees were ox progeny spontaneously generated from the carcasses of cattle. Drone fly immatures, called rat-tailed maggots, feed in rotting, decaying material like an animal carcass. Ancient people, who did not understand the life cycles of insects and witnessed the emergence of bee-like insects from the carcass, wrongly concluded they were generated there.

So prevalent was this idea that the genus name of the honey bee is Apis, after the sacred bull worshipped by ancient Egyptians. This mistaken idea regarding honey bees is called the Bugonia myth.

This idea is recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible in the book of Judges. Samson had made a journey to find a wife, and on the trip he killed a lion. Sometime later he returned with his family, and in Judges 14: 8 we read, “...and he turned aside to see the carcase of the lion: and, behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcase of the lion.” So Samson and his family ate some of the honey. This was the basis for Samson's riddle: “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.”

The Bugonia myth raises interesting prospects relative to what Samson was eating from the carcass of a lion. Was he eating honey, or might he have been dining on rotten flesh and drone fly maggots?

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann