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Curator of Diptera's blog

4 Posts tagged with the angela_marmont_centre tag
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This blog piece is written by the young and keen Victoria Burton, who rashly agreed to come away with the Museum's team of dipterists and the Dipterists Forum to Speyside in Scotland....here is her story.

 

Hello, I’m Victoria and I have just finished an MSc in Taxonomy and Biodiversity,  run here at the Natural History Museum, London.

 

I am also a fly fan, so when Erica mentioned there may be a space on the Museum’s collection trip to Scotland with the Dipterists Forum I had to tag along! As a born and bred Southron this was my first trip over the border and a great opportunity to see some of the habitats and species which are not found ‘down south’.

 

The trip started on a Saturday in September with an early meet up at the Museum to pack equipment into our hired people carrier or ‘van’ as it became affectionately known, before the long drive north. This was also a good opportunity to get to know the fellow dipterists I would be staying with for the next week and their dipteron predilections:

  • Duncan, our native interpreter/navigator.
  • ‘New boy’ Dan, fan of bristly flies.
  • Zoe, who spent a lot of time paddling for simuliids.
  • Vladimir, fungus gnat aficionado.
  • Not forgetting ‘The Boss’ Erica herself whom we rescued from the side of road after she was rudely dumped by an incompetent taxi driver!

 

After democratically deciding who would be sharing a room, copious wine and conversation were had before I retired, excited for my first visit into the wilds of Scotland. This began with being introduced to Dipterists Forum members and the customary discussion over maps.

 

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Suggestions for a collective noun for dipterists?

 

We started with the Rothiemurchus Estate and on my first step into the Caledonian pine forest I was immediately struck by the wonderful scent of pine. The dipterists disappeared in all directions, and I began the sweep-stick head in net-poot ritual, although I had many escapes being distracted by the yummy bilberries (or blaeberries as they are known here) appearing in my net.

 

There were lots of the big hoverfly Sericomyia silentis, the first time I had seen live individuals; this impressive hoverfly became a familiar sight over the week, and always made a big fuss when caught in a net.

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Sericomyia silentis having a wash and brush up on a leaf.

 

A long day of diptera in the field is inevitably followed by a long evening with diptera in the laboratory and so with a little bit of table rearrangement we soon had a makeshift lab in our cottage.

 

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Must be the cosiest ‘lab’ I have ever worked in.

 

Our second day took us to Inshriach Forest, first stop Uath Lochans. These lochans, which our ‘native’ informed us meant ‘little lochs’ were breathtakingly still in the morning light, with a perfect reflection of the sky and mountains.

 

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The beautiful Uath Lochans.

 

Around the lochans grew a colourful springy patchwork of heaths and other plants, mosses and lichens, dotted about with fungi including bright red Russula.

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Bright red Russula fungi.

 

A handy boardwalk has been constructed around the boggy edges of the Lochans, from which I swept an amazing little fly. Running around in the pooter it looked like it was wearing boxing gloves and I was soon informed it was a shore fly (Ephydridae) called Ochthera.

 

Back in the lab I was encouraged to unhinge its raptorial forelegs, which inspire its common name, mantis fly. There is a lovely description in Colyer and Hammond’s Flies of the British Isles in their engaging style describing its “terrible fore-legs” with “tibiae curved and folded back upon the femora like the blade of a pocket knife, forming a trap from which the unhappy victim has little hope of escaping”.

 

Raptorial forelegs occur widely in insects, famously in the mantids, but also other groups of flies such as the hybotid dance flies which we found lots of during the week, and mantisflies, which confusingly are neither mantids nor flies but in the order Neuroptera.

 

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The mantis fly Ochthera (probably O. mantis).


On day three we visited sites around Carrbridge, where I swept my first ever hippoboscid in Beananach Wood - these were Lipoptena cervi, the deer ked. They are very strange, flattened flies resembling lice, and must look even more louse-like when they settle down on a host and shed their wings; indeed Carl Linneaus originally classified them with headlice. Another peculiarity is that the females produce just one big larva at a time, nourishing it mammal-style inside their body, giving birth just when it is ready to pupate – aw.

 

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Lipoptena cervi - I went a bit lepidopterist with this specimen, the wings are normally held over the abdomen, but you do get to see its bristly bum.

 

On Wednesday we headed to the seaside to visit Culbin Sands but unfortunately the weather was miserable (dreich in Scots-speak) so a midweek day off was announced.

 

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Dan and Vladimir make a valiant effort to catch seaweed-inhabiting flies.


We met up with Duncan’s mum Sheena, aunty Moira, and friend for some tea and cake in Elgin before being brought to meet the Gordon clan and fed fresh homemade drop scones (Scotch pancakes) complete with homemade fruit preserves – heavenly!

 

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Duncan's Aunty Moira and scones.


More deliciousness was to come when it was revealed that Duncan’s cousin Euan worked for BenRiach local distillery, so before long we were whisked off for a private tour and tasting session! Despite (or maybe because of) all the whiskey I managed my turn to cook dinner and all survived.

 

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Euan presiding over the tasting session (whisky taxonomy?).

 

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“And not a single fly was caught that day…” (Actually we did get a few!)

 

The fourth day of our trip arrived with better weather and surprisingly few sore heads, and we headed off to Insh Marshes which I was much looking forward to since I had heard great things about it, and I was certainly not disappointed. It was one of those sites that whisper “I’m special”.

 

On sorting my catch later I found my first ever pipunculid, or big-headed fly, which I like to describe as “massive head, all eyes”. Their heads are also notorious for falling off, so I was quite proud when I managed to micropin my specimen without casualty, only for this to be dashed when I later staged it.

 

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Zoe and Erica sweeping their way along a valley in Insh Marshes.


Our last collecting day took us to some calcareous sites, and after nearly a week of acidic habitats it was quite a contrast to see some calcicole plants, many of which I am very familiar with, living as I do between two great ridges of chalk in Hampshire. Our first site was Fodderletter, a tiny but wonderful unimproved wetland SSSI huddled away on the Glen Livet Estate. Here we found lots of lovely big blowflies feeding on ragwort flowers, including the giant Cynomya mortuorum which caused much excitement, only slightly deadened by Alan Stubbs stating “oh yes it is quite common in Scotland”.

 

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Handsome male Cynomya mortuorum with its lovely orange face and ‘mane’.

 

I was fortunate to catch a female on our next site, Creag Chalcaidh Quarry near Tomintoul. This was an intriguing site with springs spilling through the old quarry walls, producing chalky mats of algae. There were lots of unusual craneflies, which I don’t yet ‘do’ - their tendency for legs to fall off bothers my perfectionist nature, although this is soon to be addressed on a cranefly identification course.

 

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Alan hunting rare craneflies in classic dipterist pose.

 

Our final site of the day, and indeed the trip was Bochel Wood, where I managed to catch an empid along with its meal, a bibionid. Since dipterists are, in my partner’s words “obsessed with genitalia” it would be remiss if I didn’t include a photograph of the impressive equipment possessed by this Rhamphomyia.

 

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Crazy, crazy genitals…

 

On that note I’d better hand back to Erica, after raising a wee dram to great food, drink and company, and above all great flies!

 

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A chilly Culbin Sands group shot.


With thanks to Daniel, Duncan, Erica, Vladimir, Zoe and the Dipterists Forum

Thanks also to Chris and the Angela Marmont Centre for use of the photo stacking system.

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Next Friday, 27th of September, the Museum is once more opening its doors to the great and unwashed (oh sorry that is the staff...) for an afternoon and evening finding out what our scientists get up to behind the scenes. It is Science Uncovered 2013!

 

I’ll start the day in a relaxed fashion... I will be either hosting two or three Dinosnores shows for the kids of Kensington and Chelsea (up to 500 children...). I will be talking about the most venomous and poisonous insects, spiders and scorpions, and bringing out from the collection specimens to highlight these facts. 

Su-post-1.jpgThe bombardier beetle and its volitile behind...

 

There are always a lot of questions and faces being pulled, as well as some charging round as very angry bees…

 

Later on in the day we open our doors fully to the after-hours events and it is here that the chaos ensues. There will be hundreds of scientists of all forms and persuasions touting specimens that have rarely been brought out to the public. And amongst those will be me, with me maggots. 

 

There are stations dotted around the Museum with different themes e.g. Antarctica, Evolution, Space and the best one, Parasites and Pests. I was offered a station in the woods but decided that it was parasites that I wanted. I spend a lot of time discussing maggots one way or another and generally in a way that causes people to feel squeamish.

 

Su-post-img2.jpgThe maggots will be out in force at Science Uncovered.

 

But I thought that it was time to right a wrong. Many of these parasites and pests (the maggots are the dominant - and sometimes only - feeding stage of flies) are actually essential in limiting the effects of pest species as well as maintaining balance within an ecosystem.

 

So instead of just bringing out my maggots in skin, the jars of myasis flies and so on, I will bring out the adult flies and show everyone common species found in their gardens and talk about what their larvae do. An example is the wonderful Episyrphus balteatus, the marmalade hoverfly which is incredibly common throughout the UK.

 

Su-post-img3.jpgEpisyrphus balteatus, the marmalade hoverfly

 

I have just been collecting down in the Isles of Scilly and then I high tailed it up to the Cairngorms in the Scottish Highlands. And the marmalade hoverfly was common everywhere I went. This little beauty can crush pollen as an adult but it is the predatory nature of the larvae that I am interested in. These and many other species in this family feed on aphids! They love them! Can’t get enough of them!

 

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Dipterists undercover in Scotland...

 

Then there are the aphid midges, Aphidoletes aphidimyza, who graze on over 70 species of aphid. The larvae are vicious little predators and can consume over 80 aphids a day!!

 

Predatory_midge.jpgPredatory aphid midges, Aphidoletes aphidimyza.

 

 

And let’s not forget the truly wonderful parasitic flies – the Tachinids, whose larvae live and eat inside many a troublesome insect. Chris Raper, who is one of the leading Tachinid experts, will also be there on the night representing the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity – I suspect that he will have a few drawers of flies too….

 

But I can’t help myself and so I will bring out some of the parasitoids that we would not necessarily approve of, as they kill solitary bees and other associated kin – the Acroceridae or hunchback flies. These are too cute to be real. And yet, they have the most fascinating larvae. These youngsters have two different body forms – one for high-tailing it into the nest and the second for lazing around, gorging themselves till it’s time for them to pupate!

 

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The hunchback fly - cute are they not?

 

And have I said that there are bars? Always best to grab a scientist in their favoured environment – flies and wine…a winning combination.

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It is Monday morning, and I am tired! Not the best way to start the week but then again last week was a week from Hell. I was staying too late everynight and by Friday has lost most of my powers of speech (most unusual for those who know me and luckily recovered by the recuperative ability of London Pride..)

 

It started off ok. We had completed some fieldwork down on the Isle of Grain in Kent. This is a fantastic place to collect mosquitoes and we have been sampling here for a long time. It is a desolate place (fantastic for birds though) which has a post-apocalyptic feel about it.

 

My two companions have not been to Kent before and their are not sure that it being named the Garden of England is not totally apt! (for this part anyway!!) But We went off looking around all the abandoned bunkers, jumping over ditches with the back pack aspirators on, searching for the resting adults. We did not have much luck to start with as the day was very windy and so not very conducive to any slightly exposed resting populations. However, we did come across the mother load (technical term...) in one bunker that involved a lot of manoeuvring around very sharp vegetation. I have to say sampling in a bunker that reeks of urine is not the most pleasant... There were several species resting together and we are hoping to turn up something interesting. They are now all back in the lab in -80oC freezers waiting for us to morphologically and molecularly identify them. There will be a lot of lab work coming up.

 

But the fun that has been occupying us in collections has been the move and on last Monday things become hectic for two reasons; Firstly we have to get a synoptic collection of Diptera into the new Angela Marmont Centre by the 28th of November as this is when we are hosting the Dipterists Forum AGM at the NHM; and secondly, the whole collections move for Diptera starts today...I am crossing everything...

 

So I will start with the synoptic collection. What we are doing here is having a selection from the British collection of up to five flies from each species described from the UK. We have at the moment a separate British collection and after printing off and slicing up over 7000 labels we are making up new drawers of these specimens. These will then be available for the general public to consult. This project has been beset by problems with drawers and trays not being available for one reason and another for ages. Finally on monday though we started moving specimens into the new drawers and there have been many late nights in the collection areas trying to move as many specimens as possible before the move started this monday. The completed drawers look great though and it is now possible to see where the wholes in the british collection are and try and persuade people do donate us material to fill these gaps. .Below we have the new drawers ready for the specimens to go into.

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As to the collection move, my boss has spent weeks ensuring that the collection move plans are completely accurate for the company that have been hired to move the drawers from their temporary home into the cocoon. We have moved things around so that the collection just follows the numbering system of one of the most used catalogues. This is not taxonomically accurate nowadays due to reviews, taxonomic changes etc that are happening at a fast rate in Diptera (there are a lot of described species that we were/still unsure about they phylogenetic relationships and a lot more yet to be described) it was decided that this would be the simplest. We at least now exactly where everything is. The drawers at the moment though are covered with labels, colour coded and instructions plastered on them. As I said at the beginning I have everything crossed as these are my babies that they are moving. Bye bye old cabinets and room

 

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Hello new;

 

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I do know that I will squash or be squashed one day . However, as well as the new cabinets, we now have these fantastic cocoon ends within which to work.

 

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A tad messy at the moment but give us a bit of time to sort it out and it will be like home .

 

We hope to have everything sorted by the 27th as on the 28th is the Dipterists Forum AGM which is being held at the NHM. This is a two day meeting, with talks and the AGM on the first day and then on the Sunday, everyone that wants to will have an opportunity to have a look at the British Diptera collection for the purpose of checking their own material as well as extracting distribution data of our specimens.

 

http://www.dipteristsforum.org.uk/t445-Dipterists-Days-2009.html

 

It will be the first time that the AMC is used for this purpose and we are all looking forward to it. I was amazed to discover in the process that we have someone in the museum specifically for the purpose of producing way signs!

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Fieldwork in Shropshire

Posted by Erica McAlister Oct 16, 2009

Ok, so before my main post I just want to add a little side note that if anyone missed the new 'David' documentary (I was on fieldwork), that after about 24 minutes in there is the most fantastic piece of film showing stalk-eyed flies inflating their stalks. Brilliant...love the flies

 

But back to fieldwork. With a car packed with microscopes, field guides, pinning equipment and exciting new camera lens we (Kim and I) set off for Bridgnorth, Shropshire. And what a lovely place it was! We arrived early and as the others were not due till 7.30 we went for a walk to and around the town. I have a new macro lens for my camera to enable me to take loads of insect pictures but I need a little more practice; it does not help when the insect is moving, the leaf that it is on is moving and me too! We collected comments from the passers by, with one even saying I reminded him of his son....It is a lovely town though, on two levels connected by the oldest and steepest inland funicular railway - one whole pound for a return journey!

 

We met Roger Morris, who organises the fieldmeetings of the Dipterists forum back in the B&B and then the rest of the motley crew back in town. Found a restaurant that made the best pies . Food and nutty ale are very important components of fieldwork. The others were Alan 'Mr Whippy' Stubbs, Peter 'Gnatman' Chandler, Chris 'Spiderman' Spiling.  (A photo below of gnat man in action!). We were joined during the course of the trip by Hannah 'happily married' Cornish and Malcom 'extender net' Smart - a Robber fly expertpeter bum.jpg

I think that just after this photo was taken was my first field injury of the trip. I too had my head in a net sucking up flies into my pooter when I realised that I had not just swept up flies but also a wasp...and she was a bit angry. I was stung three times (I still have the lumps) on my head and she got stuck in my hair! But I calmly took my hair out of its ponytail and tried to ensure that she had finally got away. I asked Alan to check as he was the closest. Upon telling him that I was attacked and that I needed him to check for the wasp his reaction was - 'it's gone' and then he walked off!! I could have been dying!! I fell down a whole that resulted in one leg and foot become oxidised .

 

The practice of the meetings is to conviene at one of the B&Bs that we are staying at, check the maps, and then head off in convoy for some net action. We travelled around three counties hunting for flies on this trip and I have to say that I was very impressed. The mornings were cold and so we got to relax and try and identify material from the previous days - the flies would not be out in the cold . We averaged three sites a day. We were specifically trying to find fungus gnats, craneflies and platypezids. I did not get any of the latter . Afterwards we would go back and pin for a couple of hours before dinner and then for a few more after dinner. We came home with a lot of material that we can add to the synoptic collection for the AMC (Angela Marmont Centre). There were relatively few gnats though as there was very little fungi. The area has not had much rain at all and everywhere was very dry. We were hoping for over a hundred but not sure that we got 50 (species not individuals). But as the fauna was so deporporate we actually managed to identify a fair chunk of the material and we have got many different hoverflies, gnats, craneflies, muscids etc etc.

 

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Here's one of the pretty hoverflies.

 

We were also shown the larval habitats of hoverflies with Roger carrying out some excavation work on plant roots (they were all put back afterwards...well apart from one....but enough said).

 

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All in all, very successful. It was good to get back into the field and see different parts of the UK. I need to work on my macrophotography but sitting in front of me at work are boxes of material that will keep me going for a while!



Erica McAlister

Erica McAlister

Member since: Sep 3, 2009

I'm Erica McAlister, Curator of Diptera in the Entomology Department. My role involves working in the collection (I have about 30000 species to look after and over a million specimens), sometimes in the lab, and thankfully sometimes in the field.

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