Recently, I have misidentified a few critters in the field, only to realize what they really are when I begin editing them on the computer. For example,
Milkweeds have their own set of orange and black insects, some of which are distasteful, but most of which are simply mimicking the color patterns of the noxious individuals (like the Monarch butterfly).
It’s probably no accident that Box Elder bugs also cash in on this Milkweed mimcry complex, copying the pattern of the Common Milkweed Bug (top right above). It is also about the same size as the milkweed bug.
And then there is the “bee complex”. Everyone wants to copy the yellow and black pattern of the bees and wasps, cashing in on the threat of a painful sting.
There are obvious advantages for the mimic — gaining protection from potential predators who have learned that certain color combinations mean distasteful and/or dangerous prey. So, the nectar-loving, innocuous hoverfly seemingly poses a threat to would-be consumers of these bite-sized flies. This is an example of Batesian mimicry, where the model is toxic, but the mimic is not.
But in other cases, the mimic is just as distasteful and perhaps as lethal as its model. Naive Bluejays offered Monarch or Viceroy butterflies (sans wings) didn’t like either one of them and regurgitated their meal. Many species of bees and wasps similarly utilize the yellow and black warning coloration. These are examples of Mullerian mimicry, where the mimics and their models are both unpalatable or dangerous. What is gained with this type of mimicry most likely is reinforcement of the warning to potential predators, who because of one bad experience with a particular individual prey item, avoid anything that looks like that in the future.
There are many websites devoted to this topic; one of the more interesting (from Discover Magazine) can be found here, where you can read about other uses of mimicry in the natural world, like: