Bees have a bad rep, despite their general inoffensiveness to people who do not bother them and their indispensable provision of sweet goods and critical ecosystem services to mankind. But it's a fact that their characteristic hum and buoyant flight, borne out of a need to find nectar, cart a pollinic load and recall in interpretative dance the direction and distance of fruitful meadows, are sensory triggers that inspire hesitancy in limbs afflicted by the memory of pain and excite the instinct to play safe than court misery.
On the ground and in the trees, ants enjoy the dubious flattery of spiders, true bugs, young mantids, katydid nymphs and beetles that gain freedom from myrmecophobic hunters by impersonating the formicid hordes. In the air, bees and wasps are aped by several families of flies, beetles and moths, which mimic the stinging sisters with varying degrees of success. But such is the reputation of hymenopterans for a stab in the back of the hand that these mostly harmless insects get a free ride from a sense of alarm calibrated loosely enough to regard every buzz as a potential risk. The effectiveness of this immunity, borrowed with no guarantee of returns to the original models, is evident in the ability of copycats to get away with but a fleeting resemblance to a threatening order, in their display of bold markings, furry bodies and a purposeful approach to flower beds.
Warning colours and negative associations pay off only in daylight; thus, arctiids with fierce stripes flutter through void decks and coffeeshops to the disconcertment of urban warriors, while sphingids in the genus Macroglossum confuse armchair naturalists more familiar with virtual birds at their fingertips than real fowl at hand. Members of another group of diurnal hawkmoths, bearing hyaline wings and waspish abdominal patches, are less likely to be mistaken for exotic hummingbirds than robust hymenopterans as they dart from bloom to bloom. One such flyer, frozen in motion as it sipped from a fan flower at the Settlement of Christmas Island, floated before the open palms, repeatedly backing out and zooming in while skirting the waxy foliage, on which lurked green mantids, brown grasshoppers and the webs of gold-bellied weavers.
These hirsute moths probably arrived on this isolated rock on friendly tradewinds or as larvae on imported cash crops. In colonial Malaya, it was their threat to the latter that made Cephonodes hylas a catalyst for an avian invasion. The coffee hawkmoth, which is otherwise content to feed on native species of Rubiaceae, so troubled caffeinated plantations in Selangor that house crows were imported from Ceylon in 1903 to decimate its caterpillars. This experiment in biological control flew the coop when the corvids found better pickings in the yards of the Klang Valley and beyond, thereby condemning the local robusta industry to a clearwing foe and unleashing a flock of intelligent gangs on an alien peninsula.
Other bee-mimics, on account of their insignificance as vermin or vectors of disease, receive much less attention from the economically driven side of tropical entomology. Thus, it was much harder to pinpoint the identities of two large bombylids found near the foot of the bund at Pulau Semakau, where tattered sprigs of what appeared to be Premna corymbosa sprawled over the rocks. Four genera – Ligyra, Bombylius, Petrorossia and Toxophora – are known from Singapore, and it is possible that one of the two, a plump thing with tinted wings, caramel-brown torso and a pale band across the abdomen, is Ligyra chrysolampis, a species widely distributed in the region. The other fly, a blip of golden-brown, could be a congener, although Poecilanthrax and Villa have been suggested. Whatever they may be, the imposters were happy to comb the wall and to hover at length as they fed, treading lightly at times on the ragged foliage and lifting off with an audible whirl to flit with menace and offer the empty threat of honey for nothing and cheek for free.