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

  • flower fly
    The flower fly can often be mistaken for a bee or wasp.  
    DWIGHT KUHN
  • honeybee
    One way to distinguish honeybees from look-alikes is to look at their antennae, which, for honeybees, are longer than their heads.  
    DWIGHT KUHN
  • cottonmouth snake
    Cottonmouths vary in color from solid brown, black or olive, to patterns of these colors. They inhabit the South and lower Midwest.
    MASLOWSKI PRODUCTIONS
  • poison ivy and virginia creeper
    Poison ivy (left) and Virginia creeper (right) are commonly confused for one another.
    DAVID CAVAGNARO
  • rattlesnake
    Pit vipers (which includes the rattlesnake, shown here, and the copperhead and cottonmouth) are so named for their distinguishing facial pits. Located between their eyes and nostrils, these pits sense heat and help the snakes detect prey.
    DWIGHT KUHN
  • northern water snake
    Northern water snake
    RICHARD DAY/DAYBREAK IMAGERY
  • eastern coral snake
    The small and relatively mild-mannered eastern coral snake packs a potent bite, one that's potentially deadly to humans. It can be distinguished from nonvenomous look-alikes through which colors touch each other: "red touch yellow, kills a fellow."
    KENT/ANIMALS ANIMALS
  • scarlet kingsnake
    The nonvenomous scarlet kingsnake lives in part of the venomous coral snake's range, from North Carolina to east Texas.
    SHELDON/ANIMALS ANIMALS
  • Black bear
    One distinguishing feature of the black bear is how its body tends to tilt upward, whereas the grizzly bear tends to slope downward.
    BILL LEA
  • grizzly bear
    The grizzly bear has a more pronounced shoulder hump than the black bear.  
    BILL LEA
  • black bear face
    The black bear has a more oval face than the rounded face of the grizzly bear.  
    BILL LEA
  • grizzly bear face
    Note the short ears of the grizzly bear, compared to the comparatively larger ears of the black bear.  
    BILL LEA

  • flower fly
  • honeybee
  • cottonmouth snake
  • poison ivy and virginia creeper
  • rattlesnake
  • northern water snake
  • eastern coral snake
  • scarlet kingsnake
  • Black bear
  • grizzly bear
  • black bear face
  • grizzly bear face

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.



Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 64% Off the Cover Price

Money-Saving Tips in Every Issue!

Mother Earth NewsAt MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet's natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. You'll find tips for slashing heating bills, growing fresh, natural produce at home, and more. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.95 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.95 for 6 issues.

Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
International Subscribers - Click Here
Canadian subscriptions: 1 year (includes postage & GST).


Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter flipboard

Free Product Information Classifieds Newsletters