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Curator of Diptera's blog

40 Posts tagged with the entomology tag
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Well – I have had quite a week and all topped off with Dinosnores on Saturday night! The New Year has been great so far. We are more relaxed – the synoptic collection is finished and the labels for the drawers are being done. We have a list to go onto the Dipterists forum website that has all the missing species from the collection and we hope that this list will get much, much smaller!

 

I have managed to complete some tasks that have been taking ages! I have still some wings to cut of the fungus gnats but I hope to do some more of those later this week. They are being photographed and the images are great.

 

As well as this the loan system is up and running and I have been sending flies around the world. Before Christmas our Brazilian visitors brought back a loan, donated us some material and wanted to look at more of the collection. My colleague and I have been preparing the loan and all of the paperwork associated with this! We have to be very careful when donating or accepting any material as we are covered by the Museums Act. This applies to all our material, even removing a leg for DNA sampling is seen as destructive sampling and our actions have to be justified. This is generally a good thing as we are trying to preserve our biological heritage, not loose it. There was a time (long long ago) when many insect specimens were just thrown away – we don’t like to talk about it…..

 

We have been photographing types as well for external requests and as a secondary bonus, for adding to our database. I am sending some photos of a lovely little Acrocerid to the States. I love these flies (yes, I realise I say this a lot about many flies) – but these are very unusual. Shrunken little heads on a massive body!! I

 

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A lovely little acrocerid

 

I gave a small introduction talk to the students at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine this morning. It was a brief talk into the collections and use of the collections. It is always good to get a chance to wax lyrical about the collections.

 

And of course the Dinosnores sleepover on Saturday night! Wow – that was a high adrenaline event! I was due to give the talks with Nick Baker, who I had not met and only had one email and one phone call with! I was prepared to accept that this could be an unmitigated disaster! However he turned up half an hour before our briefing and we started bickering from the very first moment! (In a good way..) Our approach to many things is different but we both agree in the promotion of science, especially when it comes to the invertebrates. He also talks as much as I do, which believe me, is something! We swapped stories on who was bitten where and exchanged insect facts and hoped that that would be enough!

 

I had organised for a colleague in the museum to put a load of venomous insects into resin and I had some spiders in spirit material. I have given the talk on venomous and poisonous arthropods before and the main problem is that there is never enough time and the difficulty in seeing the specimens. The insects in resin were great to hand out to the audience and a lot of my colleagues would like their own collection!

 

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A bombardier beetle. They are able to squirt a toxin from their rear that are 100oC and they can twist their abdomens around and aim up to 30cm away!

 

We had three sessions in a row of hyped up children. I believe that there were about 300 (200 kids plus adults) and they were all so keen (even the kids…) There was one boy at the end who was such a keen entomologist that I thought he would dislocate his arm he was stretching it so far up to get noticed! Nick told stories of climbing into bed with caterpillars and I went for tales of necrotic wounds J I managed to wangle in a few fly stories including the phorids where the larva is inserted into the thorax, it then crawls through to the head, eating as they go, and causing the head to eventually fall off, in which the larva pupates J Brilliant

 

 

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A European Hornet.

 

I have a lot of time now for Hornets, they are very docile and although they can give a painful sting – they rarely do so! They are fairly uncommon in the UK.

 

It was a buzz talking that fast, about so many insects and arachnids, and in such rapid succession. Towards the end we had no idea which groups we had told what. We ended the talks with the live scorpions! It is entertaining to think that more people were worried about this than the jar of Lonomia (very old caterpillars). The fact that the specimens are all double bagged and in a sealed container with massive warning labels all over them should give some hint to how bad they are!

 

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Part of the label from the jar of Lonomia caterpillars!

 

All in all I thought that the event went well. We would have liked to talk longer but as with all of these events there never is! It was the first one though and so it will be interesting to see how the next one goes.

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Seasons greetings

Posted by Erica McAlister Dec 18, 2009

I have not posted for a while - sorry. This week has just been about parties though. The advantage of working in a place with many different departments is that there are many different departmental parties . However, I have been missing most due to illness - I promise to try not to be rude to people who have had flu again...(only to try mind you).

 

We had the museum party on Monday night which is down in the picnic area. Bangers and Mash theme and the food was proper old school stodge. It was exceptionally dark but that could have been on purpose . It is a nice chance to catch up with other people from the different sides of the museum. The 'life sciences' party was on Wednesday night with the theme of C and D in honour of the new building. Quite a few vampires, a dalmatian, the odd plant were among the many costumes. I went as Curator of Diptera...One colleague came with a chart attached to him with which you could change the reading depending upon what time it was and his level of conciseness . Watching serious entomologists etc dancing the maccarena has traumatised me though...

 

But back to work. I have been winding down for Christmas with all loans being on hold due to the Christmas post being crazy. I get to catch up on some paper work and answer all those emails that have been building up. I have many boxes of flies on my desk that I need to sort through. I am trying to edit the database at the same time and cross check that all of it is cited and refered correctly. It all takes time.

 

I have also taken on two Masters work experience placements. I love having people to work here - just ask anyone how kind and understanding I am...They have been given little projects working on UK flies - to recurate, identify and transfer information about any BAP species etc onto recording schemes. It will be great to get some of our specimen level data on the recording schemes (about time!) The Forum began to take information of the labels and we are trying to think about a quicker way of doing this. Any ideas?

 

I was also in the paper on Tuesday as well which resulted in my emitting a little squeal on the way home on the tube! Spelt my name wrong though! But yes we are doing a sleep over and the more I think about it the more that I am wondering why on earth!! 200 children!! At least I do get to go home at the end of the evening and have a massive glass of wine! I will be giving a talk on venomous and poisonous arthropods so that should relax the little darlings before they go to sleep

 

I have literally just recieved a consignment from French Guiana. Oh my, my christmas' for many years has just happened. Apart from me killing all of my colleagues with the smell of some highly distilled alcohol which leaked over the box - the pots are amazing. I have just had a poke in the smallest one and pulled out this many robber flies (please see photo below) - How cool is that!!! It will take a considerable amount of time just sorting this material to order! But so worth it. The material is fresh and from a part of the world that still contains good prestine habitat

 

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Ok I am off to play with the specimens

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It is a Tuesday morning and I have a stinking cold. I have this now as yesterday I spent the day recovering from the last three weeks and so my body thought it was time to give me all the infections that had been going around the department previously which it had been storing up for a special occasion!

 

The melt down has occurred through a culmination of the collection moving, a synoptic collection being created and the hosting of the Dipterists Forum at the weekend based in the New Darwin Centre. However it was fab. For months now I had been organising catering, room booking, way-signs etc etc with the rest of the team being enlisted to make labels, print forms, lug equipment around etc. And yet still on Saturday morning when everyone turned up there were still things that went wrong (not helped by the tube shutting both the district and circle lines!!! ). I guess that had to be expected.

 

But we had four fabulous talks on Saturday morning to an audience of just under 60 in the new Neil Chalmers Lecture theatre. First up was Chris Thompson (eminent American Dipterologist) who talked about the state of Diptera identification from it's beginnings to now. It is always lovely to hear someone from the States to say how brilliant the UK is about certain things, one of which is level of which our fauna is studied and the passion of the wider community for recording etc. This is seen with things like the hoverfly recording scheme. Looking at a world map showing spots where records had been added to GBIF etc. The UK is absolutely covered with the rest of the world showing a distinct lack of sites (apart from Chris's backyard!).

 

Next was the fabulous Geoff Hancock (Glasgow Museum - all the more fabulous for stepping in at late notice) who gave a talk on specific craneflies that you could identify through the pupal cases that they left behind. This is a secondary character that enables ecologists to monitor populations without killing any of the specimens so are crucial when dealing with rare and/or endangered species.

 

After coffee we started with Graham Rotheray (Edinburgh Museum) who discussed higher Dipteran larvae, specifically their feeding apparatus. Some excellent photographs showing the very reduced structures associated with the heads. And finally Stuart Ball who gave a talk on recent work on Hoverflies. Lot's of fun with modelling of the data! We dragged everyone upstairs to our lovely new common room giving a few people vertigo on the way for lunch! The afternoon resumed with the AGM followed by individual recording groups detailing the years activity. Some lovely photographs supplied by Judy Webb for Peter Chandlers Mycetophila talk.

 

Then off to the pub! followed by a meal. Brilliant

 

The next day a fair number of people returned to the museum for a tour and then to play in the collections! The tour started with Hannah Cornish giving an introduction and show round of the AMC for UK biodiversity.

 

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They were impressed by the space and hopefully you will see some workshops on Diptera identification being run from there soon. Next was the UK Diptera synoptic collection. This collection was finished on Friday at 4.15pm!! Nigel Wyatt, Kim G, Hannah and I have worked solidly over the last two weeks to get the collection in. I was a walking zombie often leaving past nine at night. One night even my Mum helped although she did spend a fair amount of time laughing at all the species names. But against much adversity it was completed (albeit the slide and the ones that we had no pads for! they turned up this morning!) But by the time the tour started 250 drawers were in the synoptic collection and being looked over by the amateur specialists. It was such a lovely site.

 

We then carried up to see the spirit collection (and try and presuade them that they wanted to help sort material ) followed by a look in the imaging lab. Finally we showed them the cocoon ends and the main British and World collection in their new homes. They loved it! People split off and either corrected the synoptic collection, retrieved data off labels, used the collection to aid in identifications, or generally just nosed around 'ohhing' and 'ahhing' every now and again. People donated material and there were many offers of future donations to fill the main gaps in the collection

 

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We have decided to hold another session similar to this in February before the sampling kicks in again to provide opportunities for the group to cross check material etc. My highlights were the hedgehog fly and i have to say I was very impressed with some of the Tachinids (not a group i usually look at). Stuart Balls comment of having walk through genitalia was my favourite of the day

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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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Normality

Posted by Erica McAlister Nov 3, 2009

We have been in the new building a couple of weeks now and things appear to be calming down. I have started sending out loans again as previously we held off on them due to the time involved to sort them out. Today I sent some of the largest Asilids (robber flies) from our collection to Belgium to be worked on. I do hope that they will get there ok. Each specimen is cross-pinned to ensure that it does not move around. The box is then sealed with cellophane and then this box is put in another box. It should be ok but we have had many an abdomen lost (not that anything is going anywhere for a while...). I have many current loans and many overdue loans. I have one that is overdue from 20 years ago and it is only one fly! I find it hard to believe that people take that long to look at one specimen. The more probable answer is that they have lost the material and do not want to disclose this fact! I would much prefer that they stated this though rather than being stuck in limbo! A few of us our discussing an elite loan recovery squad to jet off round the world, abseiling into museums, labs etc to find the missing specimens

 

Two of my colleagues and I did our first Nature live in the new Attenborough Studio last Thursday night. We were talking about flies, parasitic lice and parasitoids. It was nice to have a session that did not lookat all the traditional insects that everyone thinks of as cute or beautiful,and actually point out that these groups are incredibly important and show them some amazing specimens. Gavin Brood (the parasitic hymenopterist) did bringalong the worlds smallest insect so maybe they didn't get to see so much of some of them!! I brought along a Darwin specimen of a Therevid that was sent back along with many others from Valpariso, Chile. The fly had seen better days with three legs, a wing and its antenna missing!! We talked about the collection, collecting techniques and our individual areas of research. The public seemed to enjoy it and one was even heard commenting on the way out that they had no idea that scientists were witty . I guess the reason why we do this public outreach is the demystify ourselves as well as our work...

 

Below is a picture of some butterflies (honest). I used it to demonstrate that you can't just leave the collection, it needs to be checked regularly!!

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I have some Brazilian visitors over here at the moment looking at the Diptera collection. They both work at the University of Sao Paulo although at different departments within it with one of them working as the Head of Invertebrates at the Museum there. They have been impressed so far with the building and the collection. But already one has been working on unidentified material and found new species! The Brazilian Government has spent a lot funding the study of Taxonomy and it is obvious in the standard of researcher (we have many masters students requesting our material) that we see. They will be here for the next couple of weeks so I am hoping for a few more new species turning up

 

Right, off to an all day meeting.....

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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!

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So I am in the new Darwin Centre and unpacked. And I have to say it is lovely. I have my specimens that I am working on in a cabinet directly behind me. I have a spacious desk with all my catalogues arranged close by. I have a wet lab for sorting my specimens in alcohol a minute away. And it is so light that desk lamps are redundant. And I have a foot rest. I can finally get back to work (there is still the minor problem of the collection that is yet to move into the building though….early November for that and my, it will be crazy). And I have to find a quick route from my desk to the staff entrance..

 

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My bay

 

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View from our floor over the Cocoon

 

Yesterday, though, I got to work on some recuration. I had lent (and by that I mean the Museum) all of our Sisyrnodytes specimens to a researcher in South Africa. These are a genus of Robber flies and the researcher in question is a leading authority. The specimens returned some while ago but I have not been able to put them back in the collection as he had designated one a Lectotype and described two new species from the material.

 

When new species are discovered and named, if it comes from a series then the author may choose to call all of the specimens from the same collecting event etc ‘Syntypes’ (we often have 10+ syntypes). This is not very helpful when it comes to descriptions, so what often happens is that one of them at a later point will be designated a Lectotype. To have this accepted along with the new species that he described, he needed to publish his descriptions.

 

This has now happened so I am able to link the material to the publication, update our system and reinstate the material (all lovingly housed in new Museum standard trays) back into the collection. I have now only another couple of thousand drawers to recurate and a whole lot more of unidentified material…..

 

old style drawers:

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And my nice new ones

 

We are off on fieldwork tomorrow. We have five days based in BridgNorth, near Wolverhampton….Not familiar at all with the area so it should be interesting. It is with the Dipterists Forum and I think that there will be about 10 of us.Today and yesterday the three of us from the Museum that are going have been organising our equipment. We have nets, microscopes, wellies, id guides etc etc that are waiting to be loaded up.

 

These trips are brilliant for many reasons. We get to run round the countryside, we learn a lot more about the British Fauna and we get to socialise with some of the top Dipterists in the UK. We are prioritising at the moment for species that we don’t have in our collection. It does seem odd that there are some UK species missing from the national collection but it has not been a collection priority for a while.

 

This is all changing with the opening of the Angela Marmont Centre for UK biodiversity. With over 7000 species of fly in the UK we should be kept busy hunting for a while

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Leaving home

Posted by Erica McAlister Oct 1, 2009

When I first started at the museum I was based in the old Entomology building, full of old cabinets, rooms stuffed full of specimens and hidden corners.

moving desks (8).JPG I was only volunteering or on contract work and so my first 'real' home was in the Origins Gallery, half way along on the bounciest part of the floor (we are on a mezzanine which bounces quite violently at times). So it is with some sadness that I have now nearly packed it all up and am ready for our move to the Darwin Centre on Tuesday.

 

The amount of dust is ridiculous! All the little presents that I have been given over the last couple of years have now been boxed up and all books, microscopes etc are ready for the movers!moving desks (9).JPG

 

I have spent the day filing correspondence and incorporating loan material that has been returned, back into the collection. It is good to have a sort out now and again other wise I will end up retiring and there being boxes of material everywhere....

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Friday morning

Posted by Erica McAlister Aug 7, 2009
I have now contacted 6 farms/animal adventure parks for next weeks field work down in Somerset. I wonder what the farmers make of me requesting to suck up their mosquito population! Some refused point blank, others were worried due to TB and swine flu and they were not letting anyone in, but most were most obliging (one even said that she would prefer it if we removed all of their flies…) so we have our field sites, our field equipment is being organised, dry ice is in house, we have a freezer at a local University down south to store our specimens... all we have to do is hope that the weather will be favorable.

As well as doing this, we are finalising a visit from the ‘Tajiks’ – this is work that I am undertaking with Ralph Harbach, a leading mosquito systematist. We have been contracted to help the Tajikistan research institutes with their mosquito eradication program alongside Nigel Hill from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. We have already been over there to look at the field sites and see their facilities and their local museum and now we are organising a training trip for them here. It is a lot of work and that is before they have even turned up. We have them for three weeks and it is at the same time that the new Darwin Centre will be launching.

And I have some Brazilian researchers turning up then too….

We also have our synoptic collection to organise (we being Entomology but more specifically I mean Diptera). We are organising labels, trays and drawers but as of today there are not enough trays and drawers!! This is a usual problem as we are always needing these due to incoming material and the need to properly house our specimens.

I am already planning a holiday for after this period... some where very remote with some nice wine
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Hi, I'm Erica

Posted by Erica McAlister Jul 29, 2009
This is my first post! l will be writing about the life behind the scenes at the museum, mainly my work and my obsession with insects.

I have just arrived back from a lovely week away to the trauma of hundreds of emails, meetings, loans, identifications etc etc.  Everything is very busy in the Museum at the moment- it is the school holidays and the public areas are packed! And behind the scenes most of us are getting ready for the big opening and move into the new Darwin Centre. I am now just looking forward to moving into the new building – it seems to have been a long time ago that we moved out of the old Entomology builiding. I love my desk in the old ‘Origins Gallery’ (our tempory home) with the different animals carved into the stonework but i won’t miss the bouncy floor, the poor lighting and noisy staff

I am involved with many different projects at the moment including some on mosquitoes (in the UK and Tajikistan, Thailand and Vietnam), recuration of Bombyliidae (amazing beeflies), making slides of fungus gnat wings and organising a Dipterists Forum AGM and meeting here at the NHM. As well as this I have my day to day tasks which may include Loans of flies to people from around the world, answering enquiries about flies , and updating the database.  There are field visits to go on, samples to sort and and awful lot of specimens to look after!

at the moment i am trying to contact pigeon fanciers to see if they will let me sample mosquitoes in their lofts!
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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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