Safe or Sorry? Look-Alikes in Nature

Here’s how to distinguish some of nature’s harmless and potentially harmful look-alikes.

| June/July 2007

The trail I was hiking skirted a popular picnic area, and as I passed a family having lunch the mother suddenly shrieked: “Sara! Get down from that fence! It’s covered with poison ivy!” The little girl, about 5 years old, leapt to the ground and stared at the accused leafy monster, her eyes wide with alarm.

I winced. Clearly the vine curling over the fence wasn’t poison ivy, but Virginia creeper, a somewhat similar-looking — and entirely harmless — plant. A case of mistaken identity had needlessly frightened the youngster and sullied a carefree family outing. Ironically, as I glanced at the scene again, the mother was standing, open-sandaled, in a patch of actual poison ivy.

There are many look-alikes in nature, and while most pose little urgency, it’s important to know how to tell hazardous flora and fauna from similar-looking safe species. In most cases, the knowledge simply allows you to enjoy the outdoors more fully, without worry; in others, it can make the difference between safety and personal risk.

Bees & Wasps vs. Flower Flies

Bzzzzt! Watch out for that fuzzy, yellow-and-black striped ... fly? A variety of harmless insects fool bug-gobbling predators by wearing the same watch-out-I-sting gang colors as bees or wasps. The most common are syrphid (or flower) flies, a large family of imposters that are startlingly convincing. But the truth is, they don’t have stingers and couldn’t hurt a ... well, you know.

Many syrphids buzz just like their ouch-instigating counterparts, and can be alarmingly bold. The yellowjacket hover fly has a habit of buzzing up to a person and hovering there for a moment, as if to say, “Boo!” At least a dozen other flower flies resemble yellowjackets, while many others mimic honeybees, bumblebees, carpenter bees and all manner of wasps.

Syrphid flies are important pollinators, and the larvae of many species are voracious predators of plant-sucking aphids. The next time a beelike insect buzzes at you, don’t be too quick to hit the panic button.

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