Life, but not as they knew it

Dead lions, dandelions, treacle, pollen & cesspools – the many facets of the drone fly’s life By Athayde Tonhasca

Tis seldom when the bee doth leave her comb, in the dead carrion.

Henry IV, William Shakespeare

If you take a close look at a tin of Lyle’s Golden Syrup, you will notice something peculiar: the image of a dead lion surrounded by a swarm of bees, and underneath the slogan ‘Out of the strong came forth sweetness’. The image is based on the Biblical tale in which Samson kills a lion, and later finds a honeycomb inside it. This supposedly inspired Samson to write a riddle: ‘Out of the eater came forth meat and out of the strong came forth sweetness’. Apparently the story impressed Scottish businessman Abram Lyle, and so one of Britain’s oldest brands was born; its logo remains virtually unchanged since 1885.

Golden Syrup

Lyle’s Golden Syrup. © Wikipedia Creative Commons.

The biblical quotation appealed to Victorian virtues, but the yarn about dead animals and bees is more than 2,000 years old: the Greeks and Romans believed that honey bees originated by spontaneous generation from oxen carcasses. The story inspired the poet Virgil around 29 BC: ‘from putrid gore of cattle slain/bees have been bred’. It also inspired Shakespeare.

The classical and biblical bees-from-carrion tale would be seen as just another myth from ancient peoples who didn’t know better if it wasn’t for the Russian diplomat and entomologist Baron Karl-Robert von Osten-Sacken. In 1893, the Baron suggested that ‘bees’ found around dead animals were in fact flies: not the expected blow flies and bluebottles, but the drone fly, Eristalis tenax.

The drone fly (a species of hoverfly) is native to Europe and one of the most common British hoverflies. In some years populations are boosted dramatically by immigration from the continent.  The name ‘drone fly’ comes from its resemblance, in appearance and behaviour, to honey bees. Males are territorial, chasing away other males and even bees, wasps and butterflies. The adults feed on pollen, especially from yellow flowers, and they are believed to contribute to the pollination of wild plants and some crops.

A male drone fly

A male drone fly. Like many fly species, males have larger eyes that almost touch, while female eyes are spaced apart. © Wikipedia Creative Commons.

After mating, females lay eggs near dirty, contaminated water such as manure lagoons, holding pits in livestock areas, ditches and wet silage. The larva has a long ‘tail’, which is a specialized respiratory structure that works as a snorkel, allowing the insect to breathe air from the surface. This respiratory appendage gives the larva its common name: the rat-tailed maggot.

a drone fly larva

A drone fly larva (rat-tailed maggot). © Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Baron von Osten-Sacken has shown that under the right circumstances, female drone flies lay their eggs in water accumulated on or around animal carcasses. As these flies look, buzz and fly just like bees, it is easy to understand how they were mistaken for honey bees emerging from dead animals. Hence another ancient myth was created.


To learn more about the drone fly, go to

University of Florida’s Featured Creatures page.

Steven Falk’s Flickr album.