Like everything in nature, mimicry is complex and nuanced.
People manage their appearance with clothing, jewelry and hair styles to present a particular image of themselves to the world.
Deception is often involved. A muscled, leather-clad, tattooed man may be a powder puff, but his fearsome exterior projects a formidable – “don’t mess with me!” – presence.
Insects are masters of this bluff. There is a vast array of harmless flies and beetles for example, that have evolved to look like dangerous bees and wasps. This allows them to conduct their business with openness and swagger instead of cowering beneath a leaf or skulking in the undergrowth.
But, like everything in nature, mimicry is complex and nuanced. The viceroy butterfly famously mimics the poisonous monarch butterfly. For years it was assumed that the viceroy was free-loading on the monarch’s distasteful reputation, offering nothing in return.
As is often the case in science, this explanation proved too simple. Research revealed that the viceroy doesn’t taste good either, so the two unrelated species actually reinforce each other’s security.
The bumblebee serves as a common model for mimicry. The snowberry clearwing moth, unarmed and likely quite tasty, looks like a large bumblebee and no doubt gains some protection from this resemblance.
Some robber flies also look like bumblebees, but their motives extend beyond mere protection, to the sinister. Robber flies mimic the nectar-sipping bumblebees to ambush their prey. They loiter around flowers, waiting for pollinators like bees, wasps and flies to sidle up to the floral bar for a drink.
Then they pounce. Imagine the surprise of the victim held firmly in the robber fly’s grasp: “But…but… you’re a bumblebee – you don’t eat meat – lemme go!”
Humans have come lately to the art of deceit. Insects have been practising it for millions of years.