Today’s Pokémon are… not bees. We think.
As their species designation – the Bee Fly Pokémon – attests, Cutiefly and Ribombee are based (in Ribombee’s case, somewhat loosely and with the addition of fairy-like traits) on bee flies. Bee flies, as their remarkably inventive name suggests, are a family of insects within the fly order, Diptera, that pollinate flowers and look like bees, though they are usually smaller. They are related to predatory robber flies, and despite their fuzzy appearance, most bee flies are parasites that will lay their eggs on the larvae of other insects, typically beetles or solitary bees, resulting in the slow and gruesome death of the larvae. There are over 5000 species of bee fly around the world (because clearly the world needed that many), but the particular one referenced by Cutiefly is the adorable internet celebrity Anastoechus nitidulus, a rare species that lives only in southwest Japan, in the area around the city of Okayama. As far as I can tell, this species is so rare, and bee flies in general are so poorly studied by entomologists, that it doesn’t even have an English name – I’ve seen them called “tiger bee flies,” which I think is an attempt to translate the Japanese name toratsuri-abu, but in English the name “tiger bee fly” ought to refer to a different species of bee fly, the larger, blacker and more sinister-looking Xenox tigrinus, which can be found throughout North America. Thankfully, Cutiefly already represents a fully adult bee fly, so we don’t have to observe first hand the family’s parasitic tendencies; instead we see only the adults’ more palatable diet of nectar, which they harvest with their mosquito-like proboscises. Cutiefly and Ribombee express this through their flavour text, through the Honey Gather ability they share with Combee, and through their in-game distribution in the areas in and around Alola’s Oricorio meadows.
Unlike real bee flies (as far as we know), Cutiefly and Ribombee have the ability to sense the “auras” of living things. “Aura” here, we should notice, is not the same thing as the spiritual power that can be manipulated by Lucario and other Pokémon that learn the Aura Sphere attack (which Ribombee doesn’t get). This more famous and consequential “Aura” (capital A) translates a Japanese phrase (nami shirube) meaning something like “wave-guiding power,” whereas the “aura” that Cutiefly can see is referred to in Japanese by a simple transliteration of the English word “aura” (ora), presumably in reference to the colourful energy fields that New Age psychics can see around people and other living things. This latter phenomenon is perhaps best known for being bull$#!t, but we can’t hold that against Cutiefly; after all, we’re in an escapist fantasy world in which “life force” does seem to be a thing. What all this means is that, instead of being able to destroy their enemies with destructive blasts of radiant energy, Cutiefly and Ribombee can see flowers sometimes.
Don’t worry; I’m sure it’s worth it.
Cutiefly and Ribombee apparently use their supernatural sense mainly to locate flowers in bloom, because their auras shine particularly bright at that point in their life cycle. This allows them to pillage the flowers’ sweet, sweet nectar. They also sometimes cluster around certain people whose auras resemble those of flowers in bloom when they are emotional, presumably because those people are also frivolous attention-seeking decorations whose only real purpose in life is reproduction (listen, I’m a Grass-type specialist; I care about how flowers actually work; if you want someone to romanticise them, go talk to one of those hippy Fairy trainers). According to the Ultra Moon Pokédex, Cutiefly can also read opponents’ intentions in their auras to predict their actions, not unlike Espeon’s ability to sense the subtle movements of an imminent attack by reading air currents, thus explaining how such a small and fluffy Pokémon hasn’t yet been squashed into extinction. Given all that, it’s interesting that these Pokémon aren’t Psychic-types, especially since Bug/Psychic would be just as new a combination as Bug/Fairy, and even compared to other Bug Pokémon like Butterfree they can develop a fairly wide range of psychic powers. The lines are further blurred by the fact that “classic” fairies have insectoid traits – what is that makes Butterfree, for instance, not a Fairy-type? It could be that we should consider empathy-related abilities to be more a Fairy-type than a Psychic-type characteristic: consider here the addition of the Fairy type to the Ralts line, who formerly had the most overt focus on empathic powers of any Psychic-type, or the emotion-focused abilities of Fairy-types like Togekiss and Sylveon. That doesn’t really tell us anything new about Ribombee, but I’m willing to jump on anything I can get to try and understand what the Fairy type’s identity is supposed to be.
All of this aura-sensing stuff is done in aid of gathering the nectar and pollen of flowers to create a variety of different types of pollen balls. Adult bee flies, of course, feed on nectar, and in the process of gathering it they tend to pick up quite a bit of pollen in the same way as bees do. They don’t really do anything with pollen, though; that’s where the bee-like side of Cutiefly and Ribombee becomes more important. Adult honeybee workers mainly live off a portion of the nectar they collect for the hive, storing the rest of it as honey so they can eat during the winter. Growing larvae, on the other hand, need more protein as they develop, and they get this from pollen, which worker bees mix with a little bit of nectar and their own saliva and pack into hard pellets to store. The pollen then ferments into a highly nutritious substance called bee bread, which is an important part of the diet of larval bees. As far as I know, honeybees have never been recorded launching explosive pollen balls at their enemies in an attempt to cause them misery and dismay, but they are mysterious creatures whose ways are manifold and enigmatic, so it’s possible we just haven’t observed that yet. Like bee flies, Ribombee seems to be solitary, or at least the Pokédex makes no mention of complex social structures like those of honeybees, so they aren’t using their pollen balls to feed larvae. However, we know that Ribombee hates rain – she shares honeybees’ ability to predict weather conditions from changes in air pressure, and only goes foraging when the skies are clear for several days in a row. The ability to store food for her down time must therefore be quite important. Finally, to continue Cutiefly and Ribombee’s theme of things that are essentially bull$#!t, Ribombee’s pollen balls are sold in Alola as a “super-food,” much like bee pollen is in the real world. Real bee pollen is rich in protein and other nutrients, but like all “super-foods” its actual health benefits don’t even begin to live up to the marketing hype, and harvesting it in large quantities is extraordinarily wasteful because of its importance to the hive’s own life cycle. Of course, Ribombee is literally magic, and can produce a wide variety of different pollen mixtures with distinct positive and negative effects, so it’s just possible that the Alolans aren’t credulous morons for thinking it cures cancer or whatever. For more on what Ribombee’s pollen definitely can do for you, let’s talk about her Pollen Puff attack.
Pollen Puff is Ribombee’s signature move, a respectable Bug-type special attack that bombards a target with explosive pollen balls. In singles, whether to take this over Bug Buzz is kind of a matter of taste. Pollen Puff has 15 PP where Bug Buzz only has 10, but… eh, how often do you actually run out of PP on moves with more than 5, especially if you can afford PP Up? Bug Buzz is probably marginally better because of its 10% chance to reduce a target’s special defence. In doubles, though, Pollen Puff has a cool little dual-use utility function – if you target an ally with it, Pollen Puff will restore 50% of their health. Ribombee basically gets to know Heal Pulse without actually giving up a move slot for it, which is pretty nifty. That should already clue us in that Ribombee is meant to be a supporter. She’s deathly fragile against both physical and special attacks, but is actually the second-fastest Fairy-type in the game after Tapu Koko, and possessed of a very impressive support movepool. Want to slow or disable the enemy team? She’s got Stun Spore, and picks up Trick and Sticky Web (the speed-lowering field hazard) in Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, from a new move tutor and as a new egg move, respectively. Maybe protecting and healing your own team is more your style? Ribombee can learn Reflect, Light Screen and Aromatherapy. Prefer to play cheerleader with Baton Pass? Ribombee learns Quiver Dance, and the only other Pokémon with both are Venomoth and Masquerain, who have slightly better defences but are much slower and have weaker type combinations. Want to do something really weird and super dumb? Well, Ribombee’s got you covered there too, for what it’s worth, because she’s got Skill Swap, Magic Room, Wonder Room, Helping Hand, After You and Ally Switch. There’s even Speed Swap, an interesting new move from Sun and Moon that Ribombee can get as an egg move from Alolan Raichu, one of only two Pokémon that learn it naturally (the other is Pheromosa). Like Diamond and Pearl’s Guard Swap and Power Swap, it’s a fairly self-explanatory move: the user swaps the relevant stats with the target. Obviously this is a terrible thing for Ribombee to do in singles, where she’ll be faster than most of her opponents, but it could create some interesting combos in doubles by allowing her to bestow her excellent speed on a slow but powerful ally.
When Ribombee tries to do any fighting for herself, the picture gets somewhat less rosy. As we’ve already seen she gets Quiver Dance, and she has a respectable special attack score, so there might be an argument there for just taking three attacks – probably Bug Buzz, Moonblast and Psychic – and going to town. Fairy is such a good type that a boosted Moonblast is scary coming from just about anything; the trouble is that Ribombee has no special attacks worth using against Fire or Steel Pokémon, barring Hidden Power, so as Quiver Dancers go, she’s fairly easy to stop. Also, although Quiver Dance bolsters special defence, her physical defences will still have the consistency of fruit yoghurt. I don’t want to undersell Quiver Dance, because that move alone can work wonders for an otherwise mediocre Pokémon, but eventually you’re going to have to ask yourself why you aren’t using Volcarona, or even Venomoth, who has many shortcomings but outshines Ribombee on offence because the Tinted Lens ability makes his attacks almost impossible to resist. Ribombee can heal herself with Roost, but her defences are so flimsy that this is unlikely ever to be the best use of her time; better to use her speed with Baton Pass or U-Turn to just keep her from taking damage as much as possible in the first place. Despite a large and interesting support movepool, Ribombee has relatively few good options to add spice to a straightforward offence gameplan. Support is what she’s good at, and she has a large enough range of tricks that she won’t necessarily be predictable if she sticks to the utility side of things.
You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned Ribombee’s abilities yet, and that’s because they’re frankly not very important to her playstyle, or particularly inspiring. The Shield Dust ability negates the side effects of damaging moves, things like the burn chance of Fire attacks or the special defence penalty caused by Psychic (moves that don’t cause damage, like Will’o’Wisp, work normally). This is fine, but you don’t really need fancy debuffs to knock out Ribombee; plain old damage will do that. If you can be bothered chasing down a Cutiefly with their hidden ability, Sweet Veil, immunity to sleep is nice, especially in multiple battles where it will be shared with partners, and if nothing else it’s pleasingly thematic. The only other alternative is Honey Gather, which does nothing in battle, and… honestly it basically does nothing out of battle either; honey is only useful in Sinnoh (where it’s the only way to attract certain Pokémon like Cherubi and Munchlax) and Kalos (where it can trigger wild horde battles – but even then, Sweet Scent does the same thing and has unlimited uses). The ability is basically in the game to make absolutely sure that everyone knows how worthless Combee is – which I think is something we can all get behind.
The main draw of Cutiefly and Ribombee is their relationship to a particularly rare Japanese insect that has become surprisingly iconic in recent years, mostly for its obvious cuteness, which is probably a big part of why they’re Fairy-types (the most important attributes of most Fairy Pokémon being “cute” and “pink”). The result is appealing but a little bland – pollinating isn’t unusual enough a trait for Bug Pokémon to be particularly interesting, the similarity between flying insects and traditional Western fairies is a bit of an obvious direction to take for this type combination, and even weather sensitivity has sort of been done before with Masquerain (albeit in a way that seems at odds with his in-game characteristics). On the other hand, it’s a bit of exposure for an unusual insect that’s endangered and not yet very well studied by scientists. A wide range of support powers, combined with the possibility of going on the offensive with Quiver Dance, makes Ribombee interesting to use, though it’s a shame that her ability choices are so dull. Her fragility makes it difficult to claim that she can be top tier, and like many seventh generation Pokémon she’s much stronger and more flexible in doubles than in singles, but I don’t think there’s anything clearly wrong with her, and there are a couple of things she does arguably better than any other Pokémon. All said and done, I have to call this one at least passable.