The unsung beauty and diversity of flies drives our Diptera curator to research their lifestyles and improve their image.
A childhood spent outdoors meant Dr McAlister was often climbing and falling out of trees, which gave her ample opportunities to study the local insects.
She later formalised this interest by volunteering with the Countryside Wardens and studying biology at university, where an enthusiastic lecturer would scoop up flies in nets and describe all their weird and wonderful lifestyles.
During her PhD work on insects Dr McAlister made contact with a fly expert at the Museum and became fascinated by the collections. She volunteered to work on them before landing a permanent job as the Curator of Diptera.
Flies have a bad reputation since most people only think of houseflies throwing up on their food or mosquitoes ruining a nice summer’s day. But Dr McAlister says that really they are fascinating creatures and many are misunderstood. For example hoverflies, which superficially look like bees, are some of the UK’s top pollinators, helping to propagate crops and flowers.
‘They’re ubiquitous. They’re found in every environment, you can even get marine flies. Flies do everything; they fill every ecological role, and are found in every ecological niche.’
They can also be beautiful, says Dr McAlister, like the bumblebee robberfly (Laphria flava). ‘But even though they’re cute and fluffy, don’t be fooled by their appearance,’ she says. The robberflies are predators, capturing other insects before dissolving their insides and sucking them out.
As well as looking after our fly collections and adding new species, Dr McAlister is involved in a range of innovative research projects, including investigating forests in Ethiopia as reserves for pollinators, looking at potential new crops high up in Peru, and studying viruses in mosquitoes in the Camargue, France.
When not scouring the world for new flies and a better understanding of their role in the environment, Dr McAlister tries to ‘spread the fly love’ and quash our knee-jerk reaction to swat!