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Curator of Diptera's blog

3 Posts tagged with the volunteers tag

Let there be maggots...

Posted by Erica McAlister Jun 25, 2012

Well the one good thing about the weather being so awful is that is has forced me to be desk bound and so I am finally getting round to sorting material from previous field trips (both mine and other material that has been donated).  This has been both dry material that has been pinned and wet samples that have been collected some way or another into alcohol. There is nothing quite like the smell of stale alcohol on your fingers...


One of the projects with loads of material is in collaboration with the soil biodiversity group within the Museum and their volunteers (we love our volunteers!). The NHM have been sampling in the New Forest for many years now collecting soil surface invertebrates from Winkler bags.



Image from


Material, such as leaves, is placed inside the trap and the insects etc gradually fall down into the collecting pot below. It is a passive way of sampling for insects and you can collect from a known area so make very good cross site comparisons. However, from the samples, certain groups were ignored, deemed too difficult for non specialists to deal with. This is hopefully were team Diptera come in! We are trying to develop a simple key for New Forest Diptera larvae to enable the team of volunteers to be able to go through these groups.


The larvae are important as they contribute much to the break down of leaves and therefore nutrient recycling. However, there are huge gaps in our knowledge of fly larvae – the Dipterists Forum state ‘at present it almost seems that most adult flies arise by spontaneous generation, as was commonly believed two or three hundred years ago!’ because of this lack of knowledge!!


Nigel Wyatt, resident specialist in all things maggoty spent some time last week teaching the rest of us lesser mortals the finer details of identifying specimens with limited features:



Kim, Nigel, myself and new recruit Duncan.


Although this is not the clearest of photos it does show us all happy. This is because Nigel was here to help us. When he left we fell apart and struggled to identify anything further!!!!! Ho hum...


However there are a few that are just very bizarre…


cranefly larvae.jpg


What is not obvious about the above image is that is it's posterior end of a crane fly larvae ... I will not say anything more on the subject on the grounds of public decency ...


But the tears will hopefully be worth it. This project is part of a much wider one trying to develop a larval collection for British Diptera as there are limited such collections, except with the aquatic larvae (but even then it is not exhaustive). In doing so we have been routing around the main spirit collection to see where there is any room - the problem with doing this though is that I tend to get myself side-tracked by other jars of really interesting specimens.


The spirit collection is jars in trays on shelves in cabinets looking suspiciously like this….



The samples shown here are from various trapping events from the past that still need to be sorted. We have several cabinets and know that we are probably sitting on much undescribed material.


However, below these traps were some random jars. Check out these wonders:



A lovely jar of bot fly larvae - what more could a girl ask for?


Or what about this one:



Please excuse the blurred picture but I was probably over excited at the time with my finds. These are some more flies with the very small eggs at the bottom, on top of them are the larvae and then the top layer is the adults - granular convection before your very eyes (the brazil nut effect where the large nuts always end up at the top).


So a picklers life for us for a while trying to sort this all out


Work experience

Posted by Erica McAlister Apr 6, 2010

As well as a marauding mass of volunteers….


french guyiana project.jpg
I also take on work experience students who are in Year 10 (this means nothing to me). I thought that you would like to know what he thinks of it so far....




My name is Elliot Neillands and I am currently doing work experience in the Entomology Department with my supervisor Erica McAlister and one thing I’ve learnt so far from “working” here is that a lot of Entomologists have an un-healthy obsession with genitalia simply mention the word and they get all excited and worked up about how they are going to dye, dissect or scan a poor fly or beetles whatsits. And yet they insist it’s perfectly natural and healthy even to poke about an insect’s nether regions. Although they seem to be perfectly friendly I often wonder if they are actually bordering on the insane. But in all fairness they have been extremely nice despite some scarring conversations involving masking tape.


I have actually been doing some pretty interesting things here including sorting a bowl of tiny insect soup from French  Guiana into their groups. I have learnt the proper names for some of the groups including Diptera for flies, Hymenoptera for bees, wasps and ants and lepidoptera for moths and butterflies. I have also learnt how to tell these groups apart using their number of wings and the structure of their body. I had the pleasure of enlightening some students (yes, from uni) about how the bark beetle was attracted to ethanol of which all of the insects were drenched in with the smell leaking onto me (this lead to some vicious look from old ladies’ on the tube.) My next task of the day after writing this is to remove the wings from flies which I find Ironic since that is often in the nature of cruel little children to do, albeit they will be dead when I do it (I think.)


I will be here all next week.


Help - volunteers wanted

Posted by Erica McAlister Jan 29, 2010



This is just a quick post as at the moment I am trying to edit the database and sort out all the dirty records! I have two work experience students who are recurating some of the British collection and edit the records as they go along. There have been so many changes from when these records were originally added and now, with many species having been synonymised (they are now recognised as not valid species) and many having been misidentified in the first place! I have about 8 screens open on my monitor and a pile of books to check all the references and the currently agreed names. But enough of my friday afternoon fun...


My French Guiana material needs to be looked at and I have advertised for volunteers.,4961231223&key=19345732&c=791225360298&pagestamp=sefoyrqffsklkvcqhs


I have a selfish reason for this in that i will get to spend a fair amount of the time with the volunteers going through the material. If anyone would love to come and help, please do!


Right back to work. I have an A-level tour group on Monday morning which i have to bring down some exhibition drawers of non-diptera material to my cocoon end (it's mine you see ). We are explaining the relevance of Museums collections and how we enhance them. I get to talk about fieldwork!


Speaking of which - i was very happy to learn that I will be off to Stockholm, Sweden to carry out a work placement there for three week. I am just trying to figure out dates (in between other bits of fieldwork, tours, Dinosnores, training courses and the rest!!) but it should be a very useful trip. I will be working with a researcher who as well as looking at Stilt flies also deals a lot with specimen level databases. He should hopefully be able to show me the many different ways in which he enables his collection to be accessed on line. That might not sound like the most exciting thing in the world I realise but it is all about enabling greater access to the collections, which has to benefit everyone!


I have digressed! I really must get back to work now....

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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