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Curator of Diptera's blog

25 Posts tagged with the flies tag

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


pot of mixed.jpg

Ok I am off to play with the specimens


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.

Synoptic drawers.JPG


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


open cabinats.jpg

Hello new;


new cabinets.JPG

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.


Cocoon end.JPG

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.


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!



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!!

Damaged drawer.jpg


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.....



Posted by Erica McAlister Sep 24, 2009

The museums business is all about taxonomy. We spend days studying specimens, trying to identify new material from other specimens within the collection and working through all the published material relating to the species or similar species. If you have ever read a taxonomic paper to say that they are dry is to say that Oliver Reed occasionally liked a wee tipple.... They are in a world of their own and each group of insects I have ever worked with have their own style of writing or different diagnostic characteristics that I have to get my head around.


I have just been reviewing a paper that is comparing the thoracic spiracular gills of a pupae of a limoniid, often referred to as pupal horns . My volunteers and I often work on a much more simpler taxonomy.


Yesterday for example I had a volunteer (another museum member of staff who helps out ever now and again to play with my cool flies) who was sorting through material that was collected from a malaise trap (this is very similar to a tent that traps flying insects) from Kenya in 1970. We have hundreds of jars like this that need sorting!. He was very excited about the stalk-eyed fly with boxing gloves. You know exactly what he means by that and it is much shorter than 'reduced tarsa on the foreleg with swollen tibia'. They are very cool flies. Then you have the flies with the big stabby mouthparts, the flies with the massive heads, the flies with the massive humped backs (these are acroceridae and you do get some in the UK and if you ever come across them living I would love to see them) etc.


Apart from destroying the very good world of taxonomy I am busy trying to sort out all of my correspondance ahead of the move to the Darwin Centre. We start packing next week and all of the returned loans I have on my desk need to be reincorporated back into the collection. I have some Brazilian visitors coming over for November and I need to ensure that I have things organised for them, such as passes, keys etc. I am in the habit of delaying and so always get told off for not sorting things out within the correct time period . And I have to sort out some field work that I will be undertaking in October, which will be great!


We are in the SPA this afternoon or the box (the display room) in the new Darwin Centre as we like to call it. I have some flies that I need to cut the wings off so that should appeal to any small child ....


I am glad that this week is coming to an end. And I am glad that the new Darwin Centre building is finally open and hopefully things can settle down a bit, a maybe, just maybe, I can spend more time looking at flies .


We are just about (the Diptera team) to start our move into the new building. We move a couple of weeks before the collection so it will be a tad hectic for a time - we have announced to all visitors, borrowers etc that we are closing down for a time to enable us to deal with this process as painlessly as possible. Some removals man came to look at my bay (and laugh) to discuss how many crates, packing etc. I have drawers of pinned specimens from Costa Rica, I have vials of samples from the UK, I have tubes containing Nigerian flies littered throughout my will all need sorting. I am looking forward to finally moving though as although this building is gorgeous (we are in the main old building) it is dark and all I hear are other curators discussing their boiler problems .


At the same time we are creating a synoptic collection to go into the Angela Marmont Centre for UK biodiversity. The UK diptera species number is very high (over 7000 which is more than Lepidoptera and Coleoptera combined) we have lots of labels to make. I have found the most recent checklist of British species (from the Dipterists forum website) and am basing the collection on that. Our main British collection has a fair few species missing so this is a good opportunity to try and rectify this by either more collecting or asking people to donate material. The British diptera are often ignored by amateurs who go for the beetles and moths, which are easier to identify (no genitalia preps there....) but some of our flies are beautiful - check out some of the craneflies such as Ctenophora or Nephratoma . and who can fail to love a dolichopodid showing off over a pond .Once the labels have been made, and the drawers and trays turn up, then it's all hands to the decks to transfer the specimens in time for the Dipterists Forum AGM which we are holding the Museum in November . I will dedicate some time this afternoon though to identifying some more British material which will be a lovely way to finish one of the more stressful and at times depressing weeks that I have had here (drawers and trays seem to rule our lives )
So I have finally said goodbye to the Tajiks. It has been nearly two weeks of mosquito fieldwork, lectures, larval rearing, crashing minibuses, lab techniques, Brighton Pier, Elisa techniques to determine malarial parasites, Salsa dancing, pinning adults (mosquitoes that is) to name just a part of it. We went out for a final meal last night and all toasted ourselves on how brilliantly it went! Really looking forward to going back over to Tajikistan next year.

We were in one of the final meetings yesterday trying to sort out the methodology of the sampling strategy and it was amazing that even that still needed lots of work. It is the critical part of the project – without a sound scientific methodology the results could at best be unclear and at worst, meaningless. We were not sure half the time whether it was a language barrier or a scientific one. There will lots of emails of the next couple of months to see how things are going. They got to go on a tour of the new cocoon area of the Darwin Centre before they went to play on the interactive displays. My lovely interpreter squealed at the video I filmed in Thailand and Vietnam. They were taking photos of the video…….


I had to spend the afternoon in the SPA (specimen preparation area inside the cocoon). This is the bit on the tour where a scientist sits in a preparation area and the public can ask them anything about what they are doing. We had the press yesterday. I took along some recuration work that I needed to finish soon, but with one thing and another it is not progressing as fast as I would like. The work is the bee-fly collection and I love bee-flies (Bombyliidae) – amazing flies, small, furry with a long proboscis (mouth part) and they are parasites of ants J. My favourite flies do tend to be the bitey stabby piercing maiming ones – must be something about my personality.  Anyway, the press…well I don’t think that they were particularly interested in my flies (I never understand when people aren’t….) but they liked the building and I think that they understood the concept. Some of the papers had quotes of ‘10 million bugs’ amongst other things……that would be something if that was true but there are only approximately 3 million (true bugs that is). I do believe that a bit of my hand made it into the metro though….I will be in the ‘box’ tomorrow, again recurating bee-flies but this time to the international press so I will try and drum up some more enthusiasm for my little ones.


Working at weekends

Posted by Erica McAlister Aug 16, 2009
It is Sunday morning and I am in work. I will be giving a Nature Live today about my job in the Museum and my favourite insects. Just checked on the web page and they have a massive stag beetle connected to my talk. But I am talking about flies! Oh well.

I was in all day yesterday talking to some of our corporate sponsors' families. I gave four talks on venomous and poisonous arthropods and I think that I may have traumatised some of the people. It is amazing how much people do and do not know.

I am still recovering after my fieldwork down in Somerset. It was lots of fun though and I will write a little piece with photos about that soon. I am off on holiday tonight so away from the blog. I am really looking forward to some sleep. I am trying to tidy my desk at the moment as there are flies all over it that need to be put away etc. Other members of my department leave me little jars of flies from their collecting holidays - what nice presents we leave for each other

I am also playing with my new toy today, which is a dinolight microscope which is fab. I have it set up to the computer and it takes lovely photographs. I have some beetle bums to take some photos of to send to someone in Brazil!

Have a nice week – I will.

Pinning flies

Posted by Erica McAlister Aug 4, 2009
We undertook some fieldwork on Bookham Common a while back, which was being filmed by the BBC.  We set up some pitfall traps, a malaise trap (a tent!) and then undertook some canopy sampling. I have finally had a bit of time today to start sorting through these specimens. The beetles have been studied from many years on the common and so it is nice to look at the fly population. There are lots of fungus gnats, Dolichopodids, hoverflies, houseflies, and some robber flies (which are very cool). I have only just started on the pinning of the specimens from the malaise trap and there are several hundred to do!! Once pinned, I will sort to family level and pass them on to the appropriate people to identify if not within my area.  It’s good to be able to look at specimens as most of the day I have been answering emails and constructing lists. Tomorrow I will be spending the entire day making labels to put in our new Synoptic collection.

I have just recieved an internal grant to have someone recurate and incorporate a collection of fungus gnats from Russia into our collection. This was a research collection and all the names are in Russian, some on dodgy pins, there is dried up genitalia everywhere (a common problem!!) and no label saying that the material is ours. Our new assistant has her work cut out!


Posted by Erica McAlister Jul 29, 2009
OK. So i will not be finding out about sampling in pigeon lofts till thursday night but in the meantime we have hopefully organised sampling in Hounslow Farm and Richmond Park, fingers crossed. Going to suck the mosquitoes of pigs and Alpacas

Also just spoke to an old friend of mine about sampling down on the Somerset Levels, again for mosquitoes, as he works at a University down there. This is critical as we need a minus 80 freezer (he is a microbiologist - very handy) to ensure that the genetic material of the viruses (if there are any) does not denature.  The area should be great mosquito habitat and we need to contact some farmers to see if we can sample round their cow sheds etc. It is so much more complicated sampling in the UK as in Thailand/Vietnam everyone had a cow shed!!

Started working on the synoptic collection of UK Flies today that will be going into the New Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity. This is where we luck out as there are a lot of species of flies in the UK (more than beetles and butterflies and moths put together!). Just doing the labels for the collection will take a couple of weeks! It will be good to have them more accessible though.

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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