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Curator of Diptera's blog

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How to catch a fly

Posted by Erica McAlister Sep 19, 2014

A short instructive video

 

 

By Erica McAlister and Douglas Downing

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So I am interrupting the Peruvian blog instalments for an exciting little group of flies. One of my colleagues - Hillery Warner - left this on my desk the other day. She works many floors above me on the mantid collection and whilst recurating that collection this little critter was discovered.

 

At first she thought it may have just been some ‘crud’ (my technical term), but very quickly realised what it was (after all, we are the Natural History Museum and can spot and describe insects from 100 yards – we're more likely to walk into walls etc than the average person but nevertheless very good at the little things) .

 

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Can you see it? Upon closer inspection I became very excited.

 

Ok here is a close up:

 

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Still nothing? a mutated spider maybe?

 

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The very strange-looking batlice fly.

 

The family of flies that I am writing about are the Nycteribiidae – the batlice flies. These are some of the oddest looking flies that you will come across. For a start they are wingless – and no they are not therefore referred to as walks… But we do know that they are flies as they have retained their halteres (balancing organs). Their weird body shape is because all of their wing muscles have atrophied – they have completely dissolved away resulting in an incredibly small thorax.

 

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The batlice fly has an extremely small thorax.

 

So the head and legs are basically dorsal insertions of the thorax – they stick out of the top of the fly rather than at the side which is the more usual way. It is really difficult to work out which way is up as the head does not resemble anything that you are used to.

 

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The head is the hairy ovoid structure inserted after the 2 front legs and is conspicuously small with either no eyes or very small ones.

And just look at their legs – amazingly well adapted for holding onto the fur of bats. Their tarsal segments are completely bendy with huge claws.

 

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Their legs are amazingly well adapted for holding onto the fur of bats.

 

Here is a lovely description of them from Metafysica:

The upper surface of the thorax is little more than a framework of hard chitin, joined together with large areas of soft membrane, and the head is a grotesque structure apparently sitting on top of the thorax. Indeed, any one seeing a Nycteribiid for the first time is likely to mistake the under surface for the upper, and fail to find the head at all!  The eyes are greatly reduced, and may be absent altogether. When they are present they are quite unlike those of other adult flies, being either a single, round facet, or two little lenses on a black mount.

 

These things are only on average 5mm but adaptation to their environment is what it is all about. So batlice flies, as the name suggests, live on bats – they are ectoparasites (living externally on the host) and feed exclusively on their blood (both the male and female flies). Every five days they take in their own body weight in blood. Little and often is definitely their motto.

 

What is odd about the specimen that appeared on my desk is that it came off a mantid – one could only presume that it was using the mantid for transport (phoresis) but that leads to the next question of where was the mantid? Was it hanging around caves etc? Very puzzling.

 

Globally there are 274 described species. Most of them are found in the old world tropics although there are species in the Neotropics and Europe. Upon researching this group most of the species that have recently been described are from South America although this is probably a reflection on how many dipterists live in South America rather than it suddenly being species rich.

 

SUBFAMILY

GENERA

DISTRIBUTION

HOST

Archinycteribiinae

Archinycteribia

Malaysia - Bismark

Megachiroptera

Cyclopodiinae

Cyclopodia>

Paleotropical

Megachiroptera

 

Dipseliopoda

 

Eucampsipoda

 

Leptocyclopodia

Nycteribiinae

Basilia

Worldwide

Microchiroptera

 

Hershkovitzia

 

Nycteribia

 

Penicillidia

 

Phthiridium

 

Stereomyia

 

Now within Europe we only have 13 of these crazy little things, but that drops to just 3 in the British Isles.

 

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There we go - the British pinned collection of batlice flies.


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The world pinned collection does not look that much better…

 

So I think that you may be able to work out from this that most of the collection is not pinned. Some have been nicely pinned (as pictured) but most of the time they are just mangled legs on a pin.

 

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Most of our collection of batlice flies is either preserved as slide material or spirit material.

 

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The slide material is of much higher quality than the pinned and you can see some very clear features – check out the shoulder pads on this one.

 

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This is the bulk of our collection – the spirit material. In the collection we have 235 species listed in the catalogue – which is excellent!

 

Now below is the page on batlice flies from the Dipterists Forum:

 

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Which leads me onto the very exciting larval stage – ahhh maggots – once more back into familiar territory. Now batlice flies, along with the rest of the Hippoboscoidea (the superfamily which includes this family and about 4 others – I say about as there is some dispute..), do not lay eggs. In fact, they are much more like mini-mammals (ok so I am stretching that one a bit). In fact they have a specific larval development referred to as Adenotrophic (gland-fed) viviparity (live birth).

 

All of the larval stages (of which this family has three) occur within a genital chamber. When they say there is very little parental care we can name hundreds of species within Diptera that do so. I know that I may come across as biased at times but flies really are the only species that you ever need to study. The head of the larva is enclosed in the anterior part of the uterus and receives nourishment from these milk glands.

 

The females leave the bat host when they are about to give birth (as it were). She crawls onto the wall of the cave and the pre-pupal stage emerges. This is an incredibly short stage as the larva pupate within hours. Now there are some great larval body adaptations to help this wee one stick to the cave wall. They are hemi ovoid – and have sticky secretions which are also helped by a narrow marginal skirt (see diagram below).

 

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The movement of the pre-pual stage ensures that it has an airtight seal. But – BUT -  just to make sure the female backs over it and presses down on it with her body! Incredible. If anyone has a film that I could see of that I would be forever in your debt! What a fantastically odd family.

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Sorry folks – my fault on the delay. Five million visitors and a conference have waylaid me in posting this! Worth the wait though…here's the next installment from my partner Dave, who joined our team of Museum scientists on a field trip to Peru earlier this year.

 

Day 3: San Benito to Cajamarca

 

Another early start. As the mountains began to blush with colour, we (I) loaded up the van with samples and sweepers and the ubiquitous “Fanny” trout and tomato sandwich materials. The idea was to get to Cajamarca, 150km away, by the end of the day. It is the main town in the region, and the only road for us was over a mountain pass some 50km away and then down by a similarly circuitous route. In all, some 150km away, which sounds a doddle, but by now I had an inkling what 150K would be like up here.

 

Erica here - just thought I would interupt at this point. On the previous trip Dave decided to track our movements. We had to travel 100km in a day and he informed us that Google said that this would take maybe two hours...10 hours later...

 

With the van wrapped, packed and strapped, we lurched once more upward on the dusty track in the cool morning air. Our pace was slow, all the better to spot more of the introverted nightshade family. Our first landmark was a village called Guzmango, where we might have stayed in had we made better progress the previous day. It looked close on a map, but it was also above us by some stretch – mile upon mile of precipitous mountain track with yawning roadside drops. I enjoyed this very much. Erica enjoyed it less – Erica’s happier when she’s driving, but seems to be quite a nervous passenger, even if my driving is impeccable.

 

Erica - ...

 

The scenery became more and more spectacular – much more like the prior idea I’d had in my head of Peru. We were now above 2,000m, and the vegetation was more varied – still dry, but with pines and deciduous trees dotting well-cultivated land. San Benito was far below us.

 

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Driving up into the moutains, with San Benito far below us.

 

As the road rose and we turned yet another hairpin bend, Sandy called for a stop – she’d spotted something. There was a good clump of Solanum habrochaites, the wild tomato we saw yesterday with its distinctive yellow flowers, nestled in the shady bend. I parked the beast, and the science people took up their weapons of choice, while I padded about enjoying the breathtaking views, taking field notes and observing the cows. Cows mean faeces and faeces means flies. I was learning.

 

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Erica and the team searching for specimens by the roadside.

 

Sandy interrupted my reverie with a job – collecting the seeds for DNA sequencing from another Solanaceae species – possibly a S. neorickii  – she had spotted on the verge. This was a wild relative of tobacco. Like many of the Solanum genus, it appears to like disturbed ground, and these plants were clinging to a road cutting. It has sticky ova protecting hundreds of tiny seeds. I collected a small handful, feeling pleased with myself, until Segundo revealed his fistful.

 

Meanwhile Erica and Evelyn flapped about filling flasks and baggies full of lovely winged beasties of every description – already enough for several hours’ pinning. We were ready to get a wiggle on, but all hopes of further progress were abandoned when Erica spied a lonely Bombyliid (beefly) minding its business on a roadside leaf. An excited Erica stalked clumsily upon it through the treacherous underbrush, I felt it polite to point out that there were clouds of them in the air above her head.

 

Erica - I would like to have thought as myself as an elegant creature of the countryside...

 

As Erica’s knickers eventually become untwisted, she was able to explain that this was a rather exciting beefly mating display. Other minibeasts flitted about in jubilant swarms enjoying the early sunshine, including a very handsome black bumble bee displaying unusual hovering behaviour.

 

No matter: all were swept into the nets with gruesome efficiency and inhaled into the killing jars. Many of the unfortunate beeflies were rewarded for their display with a dose of deadly ethyl acetate. Science is a cruel mistress.

 

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Animals obstacles on the dirt roads.

 

Eventually we were able to make further (slow) progress, every lurch of the truck met with protest, as I swerved goats and pigs and ambitious wheelchasing mutts, all the while stopping for samples along the way. We picked up more Solanaceae of various description, and an interesting purple Iochroma.

 

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A purple Iochroma found at the side of the road.

 

Our last morning stop was off the main “highway” and down an even narrower mud track, where I had to drop the crew off and keep driving in order to find a place to turn round. I don’t know how Segundo finds these sites, but you can bet we wouldn’t have without him. It was in the lee of a hill, facing a fantastic valley full of cornfields and grassland, some crops perched at seemingly impossible angles on the side of mountains. Here oxen will beat your tractor any day in a ploughing competition.

 

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We made slow progress along hillside tracks.

 

I noticed there were quite a few gum trees prevalent in the area. As they aren’t native I couldn’t fathom what they were doing up here, but Sandy says they were planted for firewood – quick growing and very flammable. I could have worked that out if I’d tried. Altitude?

 

We reached the top of the pass about noon. Time for a sandwich stop, and for me to properly take in the views at the top of the mountain. Some steps had been carved into the hillside where vegetables were growing. I ventured up, and soon started to feel how the altitude – about 3,400m – was indeed affecting my progress. Everything seemed a little a bit harder.

 

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After a climb up the hillside the effects of high altitude were more obvious than ever.

 

The steps began to peter out. Then they disappeared into a maelstrom of brambles. But as I reached the brow of the hill a hint of a way seemed to reveal itself. I followed it for a few metres, scratching the hell out of my legs then vaulted an ancient wall at the top to reveal a grassy oasis at the summit, surrounded by an unforgettable panorama.

 

Worth the effort. Driving, you don’t always get to appreciate the view until you stop.

 

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View from the top - well worth the climb.

 

Now it was a bumpy, dusty ride mostly downhill all the way to Cajamarca, still some way off.

 

I was expecting a smallish town, but it’s a sizeable settlement with some style – it has a lovely cathedral and church either side of a spacious Plaza de Armas, and atmospheric, narrow streets lined with colourful colonial mansions where campesinos in traditional dress mix comfortably with sharp-suited 9-5ers. Also, plenty of cheese shops. I found it bizarre that we reached such a place by dirt track.

 

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Cajamarca, our next stop.


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Beautiful old buildings in Cajamarca.

 

We checked into our hostel dead beat, dusty and desirous of a beer, but we’d had a good day and a terrific haul.

 

Erica - it was a great haul. Today (20 August) - all the material that I and evelyn collected and put into ethanol every night has only just been sorted into Order Level (beetles, bugs, flies etc)...As Dave comes to the end of the journey I may have some results to tell you about the amazing insects we found. Till next time!

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I have been away alot recently (that sounds familiar to all that know me) and one of those trips was a field trip to Peru. In fact I brought my partner with me to be our driver and field assistant. This is a big gamble - would we be able to cope without killing each other; would he understand and enjoy what we were doing; would he drive us off the cliff? These were all considerations that we pondered but eventually decided that it would be great - if we couldn't explain to him the value of our work then we reallly needed to work on our communication skills.

 

However it wasn't a holiday for him - as well as the driving we made him press plants, collect insects, take DNA samples, transcribe field data and also I made him write my blog . There was a lot so he will be doing it in instalments as he also has a day job . It has been enlightening reading it and seeing what we do through the eyes of another.

 

Without much further ado, I give you Dave:

 

For reasons best known to herself, The Doc thought it would be a good idea for me to come with her to Peru for two weeks as her field assistant/driver/Odd Job man. Part of the deal was to see if I could write her blog for a few days. Folly! The idea is that I might provide an outsider's perspective on what Erica does, as prior to this I had little experience with fieldwork beyond high-school geography. So I gave up two precious weeks of holiday and relented.

 

I've never been to South America. It's not something you pass up. I paid the air fare, but much of the (admittedly inexpensive) rest came free. As an editor in my job, at the very least this would be an opportunity for me to ask some awkward questions! So I'll be filling in for Erica and revealing what she and Dr Sandy Knapp, botanist extraordinaire and leader of this expedition, find in Darkest Peru (© Paddington Bear).

 

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The gang.

 

It took 20 hours of flying and 14 hours (más o menos) of driving to get our first sample, so let it be known that the Museum goes far for our money. We were joined by two wonderful spirits of the insect and plant world: Evelyn Gamboa of the entomology dept of the University of San Marcos in Lima (the oldest in the Americas) and later by botanist Segundo Leiva Gonzales, Director of the herbarium at Antenoar Orrego University in Trujillo.

 

First question: what are we doing here? Is it worth it? Is this some sort of jolly? I'd suspected Erica led a charmed life coming on these trips, which she called work. But I had to keep an open mind. So of course we're here to collect plant and insect samples. Specifically it's plants of the Solenacaea family (i.e. nightshades - wild relatives of our cultivated tomatoes, aubergines, potatoes and tobacco) - and the pollinators, pests and associated microfauna thereof. In particular, we'll be collecting diptera - true flies, which you'll all by now know about already if you follow Erica's blog.

 

Sandy says this is the first study we know of that samples both the plant and associated insect population together, in situ. The success of this trip - or otherwise - could have extensive repercussions for future study. Naturally, this trip will also add to the Museum's (and by extension, the world's) knowledge of these species, and will boost Segundo's university's collection. We'll also be able to tell what's happening to the distribution, prevalence and range of these species over time (many records go back decades).

 

And the data they find here could have a wide variety of applications. For example, a changing climate might put stress on current cultivars of tomatoes. Crossing these staples with certain varieties of their hardier Peruvian cousins might increase pest resistance, or tolerance to drier conditions for instance - agricultural benefits with with knock-on effects for food security, natural pest control, biodiversity and species distribution.

 

But, before all that can happen, we had to find them first. That meant a day of driving up the Panamericana north from Lima. We had the right car for it - a 4x4 Toyota the crew likes to call Freddie. It is owned by a man called Martin, who has never learned to drive it. I will be happy to test-drive it on this occasion. I will not be calling it Freddie...

 

 

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Dave and Freddy.


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Away from the sprawl of the capital

 

Once Freddie had escaped the sprawl and grubby winter permafog of the capital, we hugged the coast up the Panamericana and the fog lifted. The scenery slowly evolved from apocalyptic ashen desert into drifting caramel dunes, lonely pastel mountainscapes and roads that vanish on the horizon. We stopped in a roadside café made of reeds with a toilet located tellingly far from the main building that had no water, no toilet paper - but did have a colourful penguin collage painted optimistically on the outside. Yet here they served us the freshest and tastiest ceviche - perfect fodder when the thermometer is climbing above 30degC.

 

We spent that evening in Trujillo, where the crumbling colonial mansions and old courtyards of the old town seemed to me to be a vast improvement on what I'd seen of Lima at that point (which to be fair, was not much). Yet I felt I had been in the country for some time - a result of that temporal illusion you get when you're a bit jetlagged and you've crammed so much into a short period. But as Erica and I shared a beer at the end of a dusty day, I realised we hadn't even taken our first sample.

 

At 6.30 the next day we were off. We headed north again on the Panamericana and after an hour or two, turned right towards the distant mountains, roughly following the river Chicama. After a brief stop for grub in a charming market village called Roma we wound our way up a dry valley interspersed with fertile arable land into the foothills of the Andes. The dunes had given way to scrub - semi desert - where stately cacti pointed skyward and the road deteriorated into a dirt track full of entertaining potholes (n.b. not entertaining for everyone in the car). We stopped occasionally to sample the plants, and Erica showed Evelyn the ropes of how to collect with nets and Erica's primary weapon - the suction sampler. Basically this is a handheld vacuum cleaner with a net and container for catching the insects. Anyone wielding it looks like That Fourth Bloke in Ghostbusters. It looks daft, but it does its job. Vultures hovered hopefully in the blue as we inched inadvisably on.

 

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The variety of landscapes.

 

Hours of lurching later, Sandy bade us stop at a loop in the road, an unconvincing turnoff to a place called Colbot, having seen a likely candidate. Her instincts were correct - a single specimen of Solanum habrochaites clung defiantly to a cleft in the bend. This is a wild tomato species that is found on the western slopes of the Andes from central Ecuador to central Peru. This species is notable partly because, with a bit of crafty crossbreeding, it yields 20 times more sugar than the cultivated tomato - a matter of keen interest to the Heinz family.

 

Erica and Evelyn got out and swept their nets gamely - Erica performing a more detailed local sample and, as had been decided, Evelyn with a more free role, performing a general sweep in all the sites we encountered. Sandy cropped herself a small sample when they'd finished swishing. Here Erica discovered a beefly among the other unfortunate captives in her killing jar. As we know, Erica gets soppy about beeflies. But not so soppy as to let them go.

 

Segundo took a sample of Capparis scabrida - a relative of the caper plant - sprouting in the dry riverbed. Then Erica and Evelyn swept the hell out of this area with their nets and Erica seemed interested to have caught a micropezidae - stalky, stick-legged flies, which she feels are "quite funky".

 

We stopped for lunch here. A local cowherd came and joined us and he told us that there hadn't been any rain that year, and that it was making life difficult. I can but try and imagine. I was finding it hard to believe we would find much in this environment. But not for the first time I would be proven wrong.

 

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Life finds a way

 

A single mototaxi - a tuktuk - wobbled past us carting an old lady, probably from the market in Roma. We'd passed it several times and when we'd stopped to look for specimens and it had crawled past us, the tortoise to our hare.

 

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The 'tortoise' to our hare

 

The vegetation became more abundant, as the road gathered height, along with my spirits. Not that I wasn't fascinated with the desert but, given a choice, I much prefer the mountains and greenery to deserts, and the scenery was becoming more and more preferable.

 

Several stops and samples later, we made a final stop in a bend where a stream passed under the road a mile on from a charming mountain village called San Benito. This location was teeming with life. Humans included. Children from the nearby village came to say hello, all curious to see what these gringos were doing on their patch. All except one young lad, who was having a bad day and preferred to throw stones at his friends. For this, his big brother took him home upside down.

 

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Where there's water

 

 

Meanwhile, we swept for various insects, and I carried on my supplementary job of detailing the GPS location, weather conditions and general description of the sample site. I was also given the seed-collecting detail. Lots was found here.

 

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Sandy found three different kinds of wild tomato and then casually announced she had discovered  a new species of Browalia - a Solanacaea species sometimes grown ornamentally like petunias. This was something I found astonishing but to the experienced botanist, it was merely very interesting. And Erica discovered a few snail-killing Scyomyzids -the presence of moist liking flies was presumably testament to the damper conditions.

 

After an hour or so of sweeping, the mototaxi pottered round the corner, passed us again and disappeared round the corner for the last time. 

 

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Colourful buildings of San Benito.

 

 

After a welcome supper in a very rustic kitchen in San Benito, where Segundo secured us berths in a municipal hotel, Erica and Evelyn started pinning the specimens, Sandy set up her plant-dryer - an insulated stack of card and wood heated overnight by a small gas flame - and I started logging the samples we had found on Erica's ancient laptop. By the time we had finished it was time for bed.

 

 

But first I felt I should at least reacquaint myself with the night skies of the southern hemisphere and say hello to the Southern Cross. I avoid the overused word 'awesome' if I can, but it seems perfectly fitting here. I've never seen the stars quite as clear as that night in San Benito. I thought I had made some sort of mistake - but no, it wasn't low cloud, but the distinct ghostly veil of the Milky Way. '

 

To be continued....

 

 

So that was Dave's first thoughts on fieldwork with us..More blog pieces to follow....

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So this piece has come about because of my participation in Twitter's recent #MuseumWeek. This was a global series of twitter questions, answers, selfies, confessions, etc. about the work, specimens, collections and staff that reside in museums. As a consequence of I have been nominated to join in the '11 Museum Blogger Questions' by Emma-Louise Nicholls who wrote a fine blog piece herself, answering the same questions and then passed the challenge on to me to talk about my life in the Natural History Museum.

 

Right, I will get on and respond:

 

1) Who are you and what do you blog about?

 

I am one of the collection Managers at the Natural History Museum - I manage the team who are involved with the Diptera, Arachnida, Myriapoda and Siphonaptera collections and personally am responsible for part of the collection (the Larger Brachycera - big, chunky flies). We estimate that there are between 3 to 4 million specimens in the collection here but that is a conservative guess as there are many jars of unsorted material (volunteers anyone?).

 

So I blog about my professional life in and out of the Museum; the collections that I look after, the field trips I go on and all the other parts that make up an incredibly varied job! I sit at this desk below when i am not in the Darwin Centre Cocoon, or the lab responding to emails asking for flies that I will send off around the world.

 

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2) Which post on your blog did you have the most fun writing?

 

OK, so this is a hard one. It’s great writing about my field trips (e.g. Ethiopia or Tajikistan) as it helps me remember all of the fantastic things that I have seen and come across, as well as documenting some of the more interesting finds. However, in truth, writing the blogs about the specimens is what I really like. The one on Nemestrinidae was great because not only do I get to show off the specimens that usually remain hidden in closed cabinets but also I get to learn something along the way.

 

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One very beautiful fly

 

I spend ages checking the nomenclature, reading the publications associated with the material, imaging the specimens and so really get to know set parts of the collection. It’s a win/win situation. Although anytime I get to write about maggots is a bonus.

 

3) If you could nominate anyone to write a blog on the subject of your choice, who would you ask and what would it be on?

 

Dead or alive? Hmm, I think it would have to be Harold Oldroyd – a dipterist who worked in the Department many years ago. He worked on many groups of diptera and had an incrediable knowledge of both flies and the collections at the Museum.

 

Amongst his many achievements he wrote a book on the Natural History of Flies which is one of the most beautifully written books I have read - his language is charming and whimsical! - and it is the dipterists bible so I often refer to it.

 

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The dipterist's bible

 

It would be great to read him waxing-lyrical about all the additions and changes that have occurred in the last 50 years since this book was published. I think his take on the different ways in which we can use technology to help describe new species from highly specialised microscopes to molecular techniques would be most insightful.

 

4) Why do you work in a museum?

 

Because it is the best place to work - simple. Where else would you get such an interesting, varied job! One minute I explaining the mating habits of flies to 200 people, the next I am holding on to the side of Peruvian mountains, and then I am recurating a collection containing specimens that were donated by Darwin. I am sampled flies from poo all over the world - there are not many people who get to put that on their CV!

 

5) If you could spend a year in a ‘job swap’ with someone at another museum, who would it be?

 

Hmmm. OK would I go for specimens or the curator. Oh, this is hard. Right if you forced me to chose just one - it would be with Torsten Dikow at the Smithsonian. I really like the group of flies called Asilidae (Robberflies - see below) and he is one of the leading experts in the field.

 

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He also manages the fly collection there and thanks to his interests in the Asilidae, the collection is mighty fine.

 

6) If time and money were not an issue, which museum in the world would you most like to visit?

 

Easy - I want to go and see the Entomology collection at the Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii. It is an enormous collection with some excellent dipterists looking after it (and a real expert on Bombyliidae - the beeflies), and it contains so many endemic species only found in Hawaii. The collection also has the added bonus of holding the bombyliid collections from other institutes including the Smithsonian. In fact maybe I should change my earlier answer and spend the year there instead. It does have the added advantage of being in Hawaii...

 

7) What’s the one thing in your average week at work that you look forward to doing the most?

 

Looking at flies. I do this job primarily for the love of the insects that I work on. Identifying specimens and knowing that this information will be used to help us understand pollination events, climate change, vector distributions, etc. is just a bonus to looking down the microscope at some of the most gorgeous specimens.

 

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See....gorgeous!

 

8) Please share a museum selfie.

 

OK, here's me and Daz....

 

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9) If you could sell something in your museum shop (that you don’t already), what would it be?

 

Either sweep nets, microscopes or Steve Marshall's book on flies. I have all of these and would be loathe to part with any. Maybe skittles [the sweet] would be good as well, for when I get mid-day cravings.

 

10) What is it about the people you have chosen to nominate next, that made you think they were a good choice?

 

I am going to nominate my colleague Alessandro Guisti. He works on the more showbiz insects (butterflies and moths) but I dont hold that against him. There is always so much going on that sometimes the only way you can keep up with colleagues is to read about what they are doing via their blogs. He writes very well and you can really feel his passion for his subject matter.

 

The second is Richard Jones who, although he dosent work for a museum, did once spend some time working for one and I think would have an interesting slant on blogs

 

11) If you turned into a devious miscreant over night, which specimen in your museum would you steal and why?

 

Either one of the diamonds or one of the meteorites. I’m not daft though - not the biggest but one I can sell and then buy a tropical island and then carry on collecting flies. I wouldn’t take an insect as that wouldn’t be right…

 

OK nominated bloggers, it's your turn and here’s what you have to do:

 

Answer the 11 questions I have listed for you below (you can adapt them slightly to fit your blog if you wish).

 

Make sure you include the BEST BLOG image (see the top of this page) in your post, and link the blog back to me, or this blog post.

 

Think of who to nominate next, I’d recommend two or three though it is up to you, and either give them the same 11 questions or change them however you wish.

 

Your questions are;

 

1. Who are you and what do you blog about?

 

2. What blog piece did you enjoy writing the most?

 

3. What made you want to start a blog?

 

4. What is the best thing about working in a museum?

 

5. If time and money were not an issue, which museum in the world would you most like to visit?

 

6. What is your earliest museum memory?

 

7. If you could be the director of any museum, which one would it be and why?

 

8. Share a museum selfie?

 

9. If you could own a single object or specimen from a museum’s collections, which one would it be and why?

 

10. What is the most popular post on your blog?

 

11. What’s the oddest question you have received in relation to a blog post?

 

Good luck!

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Last week I and several colleagues (including Daniel Whitmore and Mindy Syfert) arrived back from deepest, darkest Peru. This is not the first time that I have been on a museum trip to Peru; in fact it is part of an ongoing investigation led by Dr Sandy Knapp and she joined us for part of it (read her blog about it).

 

So instead of telling you about the project (which Sandy has already covered) or about the amazing exciting insects there, I thought I would take time out to explain some of the less glamorous things associated with fieldwork. This little blog will detail the annoyances and the downright bizarre things involved.

 

First there are the 3 am drives to the airport; or rather the 2:30 drive because the taxi had arrived early. And so, on the day of travel, you find that your consumption of coffee increases exponentially... so, before I have left my flat I have my first coffee. Then your driver is Jensen Button and as such has broken every speed limit on the way to the airport and is exceptionally pleased with himself in the process. Consequently, you arrive at the airport way too early and there is nothing to do. An hour of twiddling thumbs sitting on my rucksack before the bag drop desk opens. I get through and have some more coffee.

 

Finally a few hours later, we board and depart during the most glorious sunset (ok, so that was nice). Then we arrive in Madrid, which I have to say is one of the worst airports in terms of having something to do; I have another coffee and wait a further four hours for my long haul flight. There is nothing to say about a flight that takes 12 hours apart from that it is not fun. Not at all. Especially when there is turbulence for half of it ... several glasses of wine and more coffee sorts that out though. My colleague Dan's flight was slightly more traumatic as he was surrounded by many children under the age of 2 :-)

 

So that was just the start of the trip - I wrote most of this blog sitting in my hotel room at the end with decidedly dodgy insides. I can't decide if it was the food, the altitude, a parasite or just the tiredness from these crazy roads but, at the time I was writing, all was not well in the land of Erica. I missed the last full day of fieldwork as well which was annoying, but just couldn't risk it.

 

The last time I was in Peru, we were on the road less travelled (as the Lonely Planet described our route). This time around, we didn't even make that! A few places that we were planning to stay were in the guide but often just with a passing reference. It was all up to Paul - our intrepid Peruvian Botanist - to lead us on our potato quest. Not always so easy in a country that does not really do road signs.

 

Let me continue with the less glamorous side to fieldwork. There are always the early starts (and not just the flight). Potatoes and tomatoes have to be sorted out...

 

So, the main reason why the team are in Peru is that at the Museum there is a group of us trying to establish what species of insects are associated with the wild relatives of potatoes and tomatoes. The collections of both the plants (Solanacea) and the known associated insects at the Museum are being digitised at the moment and that information will help us model the distributions. The fieldwork side, though, is to see what is actually there - there are many new species waiting to be described for both the insects and plants!

 

I never thought, however, that this would lead to me scrambling around cliff faces 4,000m up, looking for tiny potatoes, but that is what has happened. But the problem with these high altitude loving species is that we have to get up there in the first place. And this is why we have upsettingly early starts, to enable us to get high enough to find them.

 

high altitutde.jpg

Striking landscapes at high altitude, but don't try pootering here when you can barely breath...

 

For our first base of the trip we stayed in a town called Canta. We were only 2,800m above sea level but we could feel it - even walking up the stairs at this altitude was odd. And this was one of the lower altitudes of the trip!

 

We collected up to 4,800m - trying to pooter at this altitude is almost impossible – you have no ability to breath and so the fly just sits there on the leaf wondering what you are doing whilst you are desperately trying to suck the little thing up into a tube. If you have never experienced high altitudes it is like strapping an enormous rugby player to your chest as they hold on with an overpowering squeeze.

 

misty mountain hop.jpg

Canta and other high altitude towns were often shrowded in mist from about 3pm onwards, giving them a surreal appeal.

 

The accommodation is often not the most glamorous of hotels or field stations that you think of most of the time. Here we are all sleeping in one large room that felt like we had stepped out of a Enid Blyton novel ... except with added snoring ...

 

dorm room.jpg

Not the Ritz Hotel

 

Now, please, add ontop of the snoring: dogs barking, car horns and alarms, and weird South American pop music for the entire night, to truely immerse yourself in the experience.

 

So, if the early starts are not going to kill you, then the roads definitely will. As I have already mentioned above, these plants like to get up and around in the mountains which meant some long and sometimes dangerous journeys on less than great roads - I had my stomach in my mouth many a time ... And that's assuming that you could see the roads in the first place ...

 

13133787504_56f530d7f1_o.jpgThere's a road along the edge of the cliff here somewhere...

 

mist.jpg

Not sure where the road goes here ...

 

Then there was the traffic - there are crazy drivers over here. We learnt that road signs, regulations etc. are generally just there for their purely aesthetic qualities rather than anything else:

 

No adelantar (don't overtake): translation - of course you can overtake and the less you can see in front of you the better! Blind bend you say; we laugh in its face, haha.

 

40km speed restriction: translation - surely that is just for mototaxi? I am a car/lorry/bus and I laugh at that speed restriction; if I am not going double then I am not happy!

 

One-way: translation - really? I am sure that it will be fine if I go 'my' one way, they will move.

 

Solo carril (single lane): translation - surely you are joking? I know it is a mountain pass but I must get through now ...

 

No Mototaxi (on main road): translation - then I shall use the hard shoulder instead, that is not the main road ...

 

And as for livestock...

 

bulls.jpg

Charging bulls can be a little intimidating, even in a car

 

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... however, goats were better behaved

 

cows.jpg

... never trust animals with long eyelashes when they are on the road ...

 

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And, as for the llamas ... the guy was wearing a safety helmet!!

 

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And then there were the petrol stations ...

 

petrol.jpg

... but at least that one had a hose ... and a wall.

 

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"I nonchalantly lean at the possibility of a road existing here..."
We saw this a lot on the road too. Usually it meant that either there was no road to drive on, or that it had lots of potholes, or they were creating avalanches...

 

And more annoyingly sometimes there were good roads but we couldn't take them:

 

Me: Paul, why can't we take that road?
Paul: It's not good
Me: ... but it's much quicker
Paul: ... it's dangerous
Me (thinking about all crazy roads so far): Really?
Paul: Men with guns
Me: Oh... ok, let's go on other road

 

And what about the diet? Some of the food was a tad rich for my liking - check out these cakes...

 

cake.jpg

Ummm, cakes. Rich, rich cakes.

 

This was a country that eats guinea pig, both the populous and their pets. We came across a dog eating a guinea pig and I thought of how my sister would feel if she knew that my childhood pet was feasting upon hers!

 

We shopped everywhere for food. Street corners were a must but receipts for the inevitable claim forms at the end of the trip were often scraps of paper if anything!

 

shopping.jpg

 

Then of course there is the Health and Safety aspect of the trip. Not forgetting the dodgy stomachs resulting from god knows what there are the other things that we must consider.

 

You had to remember the repellent before collecting near a river or your life becomes a living hell. Dan (modelling the mere handful of bites) had to sit through several days of Mindy and I complaining about the couple we had ourselves, knowing that we were being smug in our irritations.

 

legs.jpg

Dan's legs model the latest must have fashion, just a 'few' bites

 

So next time you think that we are all swanning around having a lovely time remember that ... it is mostly true :-)

 

Even all the things that make fieldwork hard are also the things that we reminisce over and smile about! It is an amazing experience to be able to collect new material including new species from such remote and challenging places! You will often here us hidden in the corner of a pub trying to outcompete each other over who had the worst fieldwork belly or internal parasite. Sadly, my next tall pub tales will not be quite so good ... I did not get a human botfly this time!

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So Last week I performed a HUGE 9 minute set for a Museums show off. People from all over the museums and libraries sector come and present a skit on something about their work or their museum. Now I choose to highlight the wonderful creatures that are maggots. They are all over my desk, I get sent them in the post, yesterday I, alongside a colleague, were hunting for them in the wildlife garden, I was rearing them from poo in the towers – in fact, maggots are very dominating in my job. And quite rightly so.

 

So I thought that I would convert that into a blog about these fantastic things and why the collections and the staff at the Natural History Museum are so important with maggot research! I have briefly touched upon maggots before but i thought that I would go into some more detail.

 

 

Let’s first clarify what a maggot is. The term maggot is not really a technical term and if you type in ‘what is a maggot’ on Google you get this!

 

maggot definition.jpg

 

To this date I have never heard someone describe something they yearn for as a maggot but who can say what will happen tomorrow with language fashions.

 

The maggot is a juvenile or, as I prefer to call it, the immature stage of a fly. These vary in form across the order from the primitive groups of flies (Nematocerans) to the more advanced groups (Brachycerans). The primitive groups have a more defined form in having a distinct head capsule with chewing mouthparts and we refer to these as Culiciform (gnat shaped).

 

mossi larvae.jpg A mosquito larva which is culiform (gnat shaped).

 

Those more advanced flies whose larvae are without a head capsule and mouth parts that have just been reduced to hooks are called Vermiform (literally meaning worm shaped); and it is the later group that we generally call maggots!

 

blowfly maggots.jpgA slightly more informative picture of some Vermiform larvae - the maggots of a blowfly.

 

We can label describe these head capsules further into three types;

  • Eucephalic (distinct capsule and mandibles)
  • Hemicephalic (incomplete capsule and partly retractable mandibles)
  • Acephalic (no distinct capsule with mouthparts forming a cephalopharyngeal skeleton)

 

trichoceridae larvae c Matt Bertone.jpgA trichoceridae larvae (eucephalic) © Matt Bertone.

 

 

dipteraathericidae hemicephalic.jpgAn Atherceridae larvae (Hemicephalic).

 

muscinastabulans_t2.jpg

And a housefly maggot (Acephalic larvae).

 

 

However for the purpose of this blog I will use the term maggots to include all Dipteran Larvae as there are some very important (and incredibly attractive) larvae from some of the more primitive groups. And they differ from most other insect larvae by the lack of jointed legs on their thorax. Beetles larvae are grubs, Butterflies and moths are caterpillars, bugs just have mini-versions of the adults, but they all have jointed limbs.

 

tipulidae drawings.jpgAbove are some of the more incredible images of a cranefly larva. But these are not the heads of the cranefly larvae but rather their anal or posterior spiracles (breathing tubes). Anytime I need cheering up I flick through images of posterior spiracles.

 

cranefly-larvae-resize-12feb14.jpgMost people just view the larvae from either above or parallel but these are from bottom on! (these above diagrams are from the brilliant book by Kenneth Smith on Identification of British Insects) but as you can see some of the more interesting features are from this angle.

 

These spiracles form part of a breathing system that enables the maggot to breathe whilst feeding. These vary across the fly group with there being 7 different set ups of the spiracles.

maggot-spiracles--resize-12feb14.jpgLocation of spiracles on the body of a maggot, shown with dots and circles.

 

The above diagram from top left to bottom middle shows (by dots and circles) where the spiracles are on the body. Some systems are very common such as the amphinuestic set up being found in most Diptera whilst others are very specialised such as the proneustic systems (only found in some fungus gnats). Some of them have taken their spiracle and run with it (as it were). Check out the rat-tailed maggot below (larvae of a hoverfly).

 

rat tailed maggot.jpg

Rat-tailed maggot (larvae of a hoverfly).

 

The mouth can concentrate on ingesting food solidly – just imagine 24/7 eating. Now the maggot stage is the one designed for eating. I often wonder what it would be like to have the lifestyle of a fly – born, eat, eat, eat, eat, eat, mate, die…..and therefore they don’t have to have all of the equipment of the adult.

 

As I have already mentioned the larvae of Diptera do not have legs as other groups do such as the moths or the ants. This is because they are highly specialised examples of precocious larvae i.e. examples of very early hatching. And this is what arguably has lead to the most diverse range of habitat exploitation of all insects. They are plastic; they can squeeze themselves into tiny holes and between surfaces and therefore take advantage of so many different food sources.

 

In the wonderful book by Harold Oldroyd – The Natural History of flies - there is a sentence that states that the larva and adult are more different from each other than many Orders of Insects. And so in many ways with many species you could argue that flies fit two lifetimes into one as they are often completely different, both in form but also in diet and habitat.

 

Maggoty enquiries

 

The Diptera team have been talking maggots a lot recently. One of us, Nigel Wyatt, is something of an expert already on most things maggoty, working on most commercial, consultancy and public queries relating to maggots.

 

I had one recently from a friend of mine. She is a vet and one of her colleagues works with Police Dogs. Her colleague was a little confused and concerned about a maggot that was defecated by one of the dogs as she had not seen one so large before. My friend immediately thought of me and sent it to the Museum in a little tube of alcohol. Despite the alcohol it was quite fragrant by the time it arrived on my desk but it was easily identifiable as a cranefly larvae. Now cranefly larvae are incredibly versatile in terms of their habitat – they live in moss, swamps, ponds, decaying wood, streams and soil but as I far as I know the inside of a dogs alimentary canal is not a known habitat. They consume algae, microflora, and living or decomposing plant matter, including wood and some are predatory but parasites they are not. This one had miraculously come through the entire digestive tract of a dog without being destroyed. No harm done except to ones nasal cavities.

 

However, cranefly larvae or leatherjackets as they are sometimes called have caused some problems to lawns due to them consuming grass roots. Wikipedia – the great font of scientific knowledge cites from Ward’s Cricket's Strangest Matches ‘In 1935, Lord's Cricket Ground in London was among venues affected by leatherjackets. Several thousand were collected by ground staff and burned, because they caused bald patches on the wicket and the pitch took unaccustomed spin for much of the season.’

 

Apart from the staff who help with identifications we are helping further with outreach by helping with development of a new, hotly awaited book on British Craneflies. Alan Stubbs (not the retired footballer but the rather more impressive Dipterist and all round Natural History Good Egg) and John Krammer (retired teacher and superb Cranefly specialist) have been working on this fantastic tome for a while now and we have all been trying and re-trying the keys to ensure that they work. Preparations of gentailia, wings and larvae have been undertaken at the Museum on both Museum specimens and ones donated by John, and images and drawings of these been done. Carim Nahaboo has been drafted in for some of the drawings so expect great things.

fly-artwork-resize-12feb14.jpg

This is an adult Dolichopodidae but it is a fine example of Carim Nahaboo's artwork.

 

Flies and their offspring have a terrible reputation. People are disgusted by most of them. However, they are essential both for our health and habitat but also for telling us what is happening.

 

Dr Steve Brooks and his group at the Museum work on Chironomidae (non-biting midges), and more specifically the immature stages – their larvae. Chironomid larvae are quite primitive and as such have a complete head capsule which is … as the larval stages develop they shed their head capsules and grow new ones, and these discarded ones can be used to determine the environmental conditions of the habitat both now and in the past as well as monitoring heavy metals.

 

hgrimshawi-48125-1.JPG Head capsule of a chironomid, which can be used to determine past environmental conditions.

 

I first came to the Museum as a professional grown up thanks to Steve as I was conducting a study using Chironomids as indicators of environmental health as they are fantastic bioindicators. Many Chironomid species can tolerate very anoxic environments as they, unlike most insects, have a haemoglobin analog which is able to absorb a greater amount of oxygen from the surrounding water body. This often gives the larvae a deep red colour which is why they are often called blood worms. Although slightly fiddly as you have to dissolve the body in acid, the use of head capsules for identification (image above) is fairly straight forward. The little crown like structures that you can see are actually rows of teeth and these are very good diagnostic features. Steve has worked for a long time on the taxonomy of these species and his (and his groups) expertise has been used globally.

So as well as looking funky we can use them to tell us many things about the world of today and yesterday. More on maggots in the future.

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Once again I have given up the blog to a worthy lady who is also a volunteer for me - Jasmin Perera. Here is her account of our recent trip to the Isles of Scilly -  Cornwall's detachable toes!

 

Isles of Scilly 2013


Greetings! I am one of the many volunteers at the Museum working for Erica McAlister in the diptera section, and recently I got a fantastic opportunity to travel along with her and some of the other curators to the Isles of Scilly! (p.s Thank you Erica for involving me in this project)

 

The aim of the trip was to gather up-to-date information on the flora and fauna populating the islands by collecting as many specimens as possible. This information will be useful in so many ways and will hopefully provide us with a better understanding of how the environment around us is changing.

 

I was not just working alongside the dipterists but also with lepidopterists, botanists and hymenopterists, to name but a few. And so in the process I learnt about many different methods of collecting.

 

Day 1 – Settling in


Disembarking the ferry at St Mary’s Island we were greeted by Mark Spencer (a Museum botanist specialising in British Flora) who had arrived a couple days before us. He was the main organiser for the trip and with much excitement he led us to our unusual home for the week.

 

1 woolpack.jpg

Home sweet home – The Woolpack.

 

2 swallow.jpg

Residents of the Woolpack included this baby swallow.

 

3 sunset.jpg

Wonderful cup-of-tea views from the top of the bunker. Needless to say, lots of teas were made!

 

We had the privilege of staying in a world war bunker, named the Woolpack. Built in the early 1900s the bunker has had many residents from soldiers to vagrants, but is currently in the care of the Scilly Isles Wildlife Trust. And for one week it was home to a group of keen Museum staff and volunteers!

 

Day 2 – An early Christmas and majestic elms


On the first morning Martin Honey (lepidopterist) retrieved his light trap which he had placed outside of the Woolpack on the previous evening. The light trap consisted of a large round container filled with carefully arranged empty egg cartons and a very bright light bulb on top. A couple of us huddled around him as he revealed what treasures were hidden in the crevices of the cartons. It felt like unwrapping presents at Christmas!

 

4 moth trap.jpg

Image of a very unfocused Ruby Tiger, Phragmatobia fuliginosa.  In the background is the light trap, Martin’s leg and a male Four Spotted Footman, Lithosia quadra (in egg carton).


Martin was able to identify many of the specimens on site and explained that he follows a code while collecting;  He will only collect what is needed for scientific purpose and the remaining moths that can be readily identified are set free in dense vegetation near their place of capture. The last bit is especially important as it gives them a fighting chance (to not become a birds breakfast!).

 

5 holy Vale.jpg

Diverting off the footpath and into the elm wilderness - Holy Vale Nature Trail.

 

Now it was my turn - armed with my net and pooter, I went along with a fellow dipterist Zoe Adams and a Hymenopterist, Natalie Dale-Skey, to find some insects! We spent our first day exploring on St Mary’s Island, the main island. St Mary’s is one of the few places left in the UK where you can find mature elm trees after the devastating Dutch elm disease in the late 20th century wiped out most of the mainland UK population.

 

I felt very fortunate to be amongst these majestic trees whilst collecting on the Holy Vale Nature Trail. And more excitingly there were plenty of hoverflies in areas where the sun had broken through the trees’ high canopy, and crane flies in the lower vegetation. I also managed to catch a few Ichnumonids along the way.

 

Day 3 – Pelistry Bay


During the morning I wandered with Erica along Pelistry Bay, also on St Mary’s,  to get some sweep samples by the coast.

 

6 Pelistry Bay.jpg

Pelistry Bay – Bladderrack kingdom.

 

Walking on rocks covered in slippery bladderwrack seaweed, I soon realised my balance needed to be in sync with my sweeping and pootering action.

 

Day 4 – The Eastern Isles


Today we were very lucky as a few of us had the opportunity to visit the uninhabited Eastern Isles. Accompanied by the warden for the Wildlife Trust we sailed to Ganilly Island, which is filled with curious bees and beautiful landscapes. Trying to sweep proved tricky on the grassy areas due to the hundreds of solitary bees buzzing around my legs. I wish I had taken a picture of them as several sat sleepily inside the net refusing to leave.

 

7 Ganilly island.jpg

View from Ganilly Island.

 

Erica and I ended up on a rocky shore hunting for Asilids to the chorus of singing seals. Asilids are speedy little predators but Erica was a font of helpful tips when it came to catching these stealthy mini beasts: In order to catch one, you require a lot of patience! 

 

asilidae-fieldtip-scilly.jpg

Asilidae caught from West Porth Beach, Great Ganilly.

 

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Erica in a Fern jungle! On our way to Nornour island (in the background).

 

10 seal.jpg

Seals welcomed us to the Eastern Isles.

 

And so the waiting game began. Whilst being entertained by the song of a distant seal, Erica and I sat quite still on opposite rocks. Asilids wait for a fair while on a rock until a potential prey appears. Once one was spotted, we held our nets close to the ground, and crept towards it. When the Asilid is within ‘net range’, we lunged at the flies thrusting the net down over the individual. To my dismay, I need more practise but it was great watching Erica at work!

 

Day 5 – Ruby Cow Dung


On an overcast day we decided to stay close to bay and seek out the beautiful Ruby Cows that are being bred on St Mary’s island. The ‘Scilly’ cows are curious creatures and they watched and followed us swooping our nets and pootering flies within their enclosure.

 

11 cows.jpg

‘Peculiar human’.

 

However, it was not the cows we were interested in but their poo! We huddled around a fresh piece and watched male sepsid flies fluttering their wings in hope of attracting a mate. We were also hoping to see some Scathophagid flies mate. This is a far more barbaric ordeal compared to the Sepsidae as the female often gets ripped to shreds from a bombardment of eager males.

 

12 poo.jpg

Erica capturing the moment.

 

Each day ended around the dinner table, where people took turns to cook. We used a lot of local produce and any edible plants growing nearby like Rock Samphire (as sourced by Mark). It was a perfect time to find out what everyone had been up to and wind down for the night. One of the rooms in the bunker was converted temporarily into a lab and the ping-pong table in there did a good job as an insect pinning area!

 

13 lab.jpg

Behold: pinning area. I spent the evenings here perfecting the art of spreading out the wings and legs of tiny flies.

 

In summary this was a valuable and enjoyable fieldtrip in the most amazing location. With my specimens pinned I left feeling inspired and raring to go on another one! (hint, hint, Erica!)

 

12 film crew.jpg

Our field trip was even documented by a film crew!

 

Watch the Isles of Scilly fieldwork video to see more of our trip.

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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.

 

Untitled-1.jpg

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.

image2.jpg

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.

 

image3.jpg

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.

 

image4.jpg

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.

image5.jpg

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.

 

image6.jpg

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.

 

image7.jpg

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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Tangled up in blue…

Posted by Erica McAlister Jul 29, 2013

After all the talk (and film) about the bee-fly and its long proboscis, I thought you should see the actual insect with the longest proboscis in terms of body size - and of course it is a group of fabulous flies - but that goes without saying! So this week’s blog is all about tangle-veined flies, known as Nemestrinidae.

 

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Nemestrinus bombiformis - showing their lovely wings

 

What has sparked this blog piece was my finally looking through some recent material collected by a colleague Duncan, one of the other fly curators. He has recently returned from Morocco with loads of my flies - the chunky ones including bee-flies, robberflies and these tangle-veined flies. This reminded me about some that had been collected by another colleague in South Africa. So I went to find where I had stored them, and track down all the literature I would need to identify it. But along the way I became quite obsessive about this little family.

 

So what are these tangle-veined flies? There are about 300 species worldwide in 23 genera, although none, sadly, are found in the UK. There is still much confusion about this family and the subject is crying out for a major overview. These flies are most closely related to the hunchback flies also known as the spider-killing flies (Acroceridae); and as with the Bee-flies and the hunchback flies, the larvae of this family are also endoparasites.

 

The adults are generally medium-to-large flies, often with hairy bodies, but all with a complicated vein pattern on their wings.

 

nemestrinidae wing.jpg

 

They are often brightly coloured, but if you look through the collection you will see many covered in pollen, which gives an indication to what the adults are feeding on! Within the family, some species have atrophic mouthparts - that is, they are no longer there or they are non-functional but most have the characteristic tube-like proboscis, which is often very long.

 

In the collection at the Museum we have 149 species registered from 14 different genera. The Museum houses about half the number of described species of Nemestrinidae.

 

We are always trying to increase the collections and enable greater access to them. There is not much point to a collection that is hidden away, and we are gradually enabling more of our collections be digitised for online access, as well as tweeting and blogging about them informally.

 

Not much is really known about this family (a common theme across the whole of Diptera). We do have some fossils - the oldest recorded is from the Middle-Upper Jurassic Karabastau Formation (a geological formation in Kazakhstan; about 160 to 145 million years ago) but when it comes to the extant flies we still have huge gaps in knowledge.

 

We think all the species across the subfamilies have hypermetamorphosis larvae - that is, the larval stages go through distinctly different phases of their development. And all of the family parasitise other insects (as far as we know). The female is quite extraordinary, as she can lay several thousand eggs in her lifetime on plants and surfaces that are generally off the ground (a housefly only lays about 500).

 

After about 10 days, these will hatch into very mobile larvae. These will disperse readily, often helped by the wind, to seek out their hosts. They can survive for up to two weeks in this state seeking out their hosts. This is just as well as they have very active hosts - the larvae of subfamily Trichopsideinae are all parasitoids of grasshoppers; the Hirmoneurinae seek out scarab beetles; and with Atriadopsinae it’s bush crickets.

 

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(Images taken from US Department of Agriculture website)

 

Within our collection we have four subfamilies represented. There is still discussion about how many subfamilies there are and where the different genera should be placed but I will work on the basis of the following groupings for the moment.

 

      1. Atriadopsinae
        1. Atriadops
        2. Ceyloniola
        3. Nycterimorpha
        4. Nycterimyia
      2. Hirmoneurinae
        1. Hirmoneura
      3. Nemestrininae
        1. Moegistorhynchus
        2. Nemestrinus
        3. Prosoeca
        4. Stenobasipteron
        5. Stenopteromyia
        6. Trichophthalma
      4. Trichopsideinae
        1. Fallenia
        2. Neorhynchocephalus
        3. Trichopsidea

 

There are some nice features to tell these subfamilies apart. Being me I have to get genitalia into a blog post somewhere, and for a change it is the female genitalia that holds the key to their ID - or rather, it is her ovipositor (egg-laying tube). The subfamilies Hirmoneurinae and Nemestrininae have telescope-shaped ovipositors that have retractile segments like a pump-action egg-laying machine! The other two subfamilies have sabre-shaped ovipositors, which bare two very long and slender valvulae (a scientific term for Diptera lady bits) from which she shoots her eggs.

 

But there is a more obvious way the subfamilies can be split apart: by their mouthparts.

 

Medium proboscis.jpg

Hirmoneura anthracoides

 

They vary from rudimentary, reduced, short, medium and long - in some instances very long. In fact one species of Nemestrininae called Moegistrorhynchus longirostris has the longest mouthpart in relation to body size of any insect.

 

longirostris.jpg

When I came across these in the collection I actually squealed in excitement. They have such a long proboscis because of the flowers they feed on - plants with very long necks; mainly the orchids and the irises. They do not generally fly with them out in front of them but held underneath their body:

 

94123bfb176759057e8d7d00c84a23ef.jpgFrom http://www.ispot.org.za

 

In South Africa there are a lot of very long-tongued flies (as they are known). There are also horseflies that have evolved from blood sucking to nectar feeding, with the development a disproportionately long mouthpart. Philoliche longirostris (= "long mouth"... no point having different names if it the best descriptor!) is one such horsefly, and Dr Shelah Morati has a fab website with some amazing images of them.

 

The tangle-veined flies are also are adapted to feeding from long-necked plants.

 

long tubular flower - Lapeirousia oreogena by Judd Kirkel W.jpg

These irises seem to have 'landing strips' for flies

 

The irises in the photo above seem to have landing strips that help guide the fly in. Work conducted by Dennis Hansen when he was at the University of Kwazulu-Natal discovered that if you paint over these strips, the flies cannot find the nectaries at the base of the tube!

 

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From http://www.ispot.org.za

 

And many people have studied these groups, as they are amazing examples of co-evolution with very good models correlating corolla (the petals of the flower) length and proboscis, including work by Dr Bruce Anderson at the University of Stellenbosch! Great stuff!

 

The collection of tangled-vein flies the museum has been static for a while but we are now collecting more in South Africa, and recent additions to the collection prompted me to recurate the specimens. The drawers were shallow (resulting in many of the pinned specimens being put in in a jaunty angle) and they were also on slates.

 

uncurated nemestrinid drawer.JPG

Old-style storage

 

So after a week or so of updating the database and checking out any changes in nomenclature I have transferred the little cuties into new trays with spanking new labels into new deeper drawers. Job done!

 

curated nemestrinid drawer.JPG

New-style storage

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Beesquitoes...

Posted by Erica McAlister Jul 15, 2013

For all of those that missed the fabulous beeflies (and me..) on the One Show - you can now watch Beesquitoes online.

 

The two lads who spent all day filming these individuals managed to capture some amazing slow motion photography! Brilliant stuff.

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Potatoes in Peru

Posted by Erica McAlister Jun 11, 2013

I am in a hotel lobby in Lima, Peru (OK, that’s a bit of a lie - I was when I wrote this but now I'm back in UK…). There is, as with most cities globally, a high level of chaos around me involving road works, building works, giggling and cleaning. However I am in a happy place - mainly because I am in Peru and it is lovely to be back, but also because today I spent most of my time in the International Potato Centre (CIP) discussing a project and our projected findings with incredibly well informed folks (the Man of Potatoes below).  So let me fill you in with a few details...

 

Erica-1.jpgThe Man of Potatoes at CIP, Peru

 

This field trip is the first of many, which is part of a larger project looking at potatoes, tomatoes and aubergines, their wild relatives and their associated insect fauna. Botanists, entomologists, modellers and digitisers at the Museum have got together to look through the collections, mine them for data and then go out into the field to fill in the gaps in our knowledge to enable us to start to map what will happen to our economically important species in the future.

 

A couple of days ago, after months of planning, Dr Diana Percy (aka Psyllid lady; Psyllids are very, very, very small jumping bugs) and myself flew from a cold and rainy UK to a muggy and hot Lima to join various colleagues who where already there. 

 

Sandy Knapp, our intrepid leader, potato queen and lover of all things South American, was in Lima having come back from the field and took us this morning to the Institute. She has been working with various people at the Institute for a long time looking at the Solanaceae distribution in Peru but as well as working with the plants the Institute is also looking at the pest and pollinator species and their predators and parasitoids. This was great to hear as this was something that we were investigating too. The Centre consists of many plant workers, modellers, etc. and more importantly for me at this precise moment – entomologists.

 

We had a brief tour and then it was time for a very enlightening seminar (in Spanish) by Sandy to the group of scientists about Solanaceae and the work that she and other collaborators were performing involving the phylogentics of the group, as well as the project that we were undertaking over the next couple of years.

 

Erica-2.jpg

Sandy Knapp thanks collaborators on her project and shows a lovely photo of Tiina Saarkinen, who is in the field waiting for us to join her!

 

(Did you know that there are only 29 fossil records for the whole of Solanaceae? Which in laymen’s terms could mean that we have no real idea of where the potato came from…?)

 

Entomologists that we met were Dr Jurgen Kroschel as well as Veronica Cañedo Torres and Norma who were working on various agroecology and biodiversity studies focusing on potatoes and their associated insect communities. The facilities were great and we first walked into a lab where there were tiny pots containing one of the moth pest species.

 

Erica-3.jpgPots containing moth pest species of solanaceae

 

As well as looking at what species attack the potatoes they are looking at where on the plant the damage is occurring - i.e. is it the tuber (the lovely edible part) or is it the leaves, the stems etc; what part of the life cycle of the pest species is causing the damage (with the moths it is the caterpillar but with the beetles it is the larvae and the adult); but also which species are the most important and does it depend on where the plants are located (potatoes can be found thousands of meters up a mountain). So as well as the preserved material that they have caught out in the field through sweeping the plants, leaving out potatoes as bait, laying down pitfall traps etc they have reared material in the lab and have now colonies of the different insects.

 

We move past the living pots and head into the collection space proper. A lovely air conditioned room containing sealed cabinets full of wonderfully curated specimens. Veronica had prepared most of the material herself as well as identifying many of the species. There are, as with all collections, many more that had not been identified and this is where the collaborations between the institutes becomes fun - we can help each other out in terms of specimens and identifications and everyone benefits!

 

Erica-4.jpg

The fatties at the bottom of this drawer are tachinids which are fab parasitic flies.

 

Diana and I poked through the collections to gain insight into the types of species that they were collecting from the potatoes. Many of our preconceptions about which species would be present or would be more important were disbanded and the information that we gathered would help us strengthen our sampling strategy once we were in the field. (This is often the way of fieldwork - best laid plans and all that… flexibility is the name of the game... as well as entomological training; we have been trained by both the A-team and Blue Peter to enable us to build objects from a toilet roll and spare tyres to enable us to capture that elusive fly…)

 

We were then shown the rearing facilities - I could work here. We walked past carefully manicured gardens and trees with brilliant red tanager, the massive greenhouses that were chock full of potatoes, past the courts where dancing lessons were given on Wednesdays and into the new rearing facilities. Rooms with pots of insects in always makes me smile. Little containers, medium containers, large containers, all with potatoes and all with one species or another that is trying to maim or kill something.

 

Erica-5.jpg

Wounded potatoes

 

As well as the moths and the beetles, the major pests were the leaf mining flies which are easily recognisable by the excavated passage ways that they leave behind in the leaves.

 

Erica-6.jpg

Damage caused to leaves by leaf mining flies

 

These flies do not directly harm the tubers but reduce the overall fitness of the plant and so reduce the overall size and numbers of the potatoes.

 

They had large containers that housed either only flies or flies with different parasitoids to observe the affect of just pests or plant/pest interactions on the potatoes health. All very interesting stuff.

 

We left the Institute armed with scientific papers, species lists, sterilised sand (for rearing in the field ) and with more impatience to get into the field and see what was out there. Hopefully we will stop there once we are back from the field armed with more questions but sweetened with many specimens to look at and compare.

 

Good times lay ahead. more to follow on the search for wild potatoes and the joys of pootering at an altitude of 4,000m.....

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So it is 6:14 on a Monday morning - though, for me, it was really an hour earlier still because I am heading into Hamburg, Germany, to record for the final episode of the BBC Radio 4 series 'Who's the Pest?'. I am tired; the problem for me with getting up early is that - paradoxically - I don't sleep  well due to worrying that I will oversleep.

 

So I had some coffee ... but I was sure that none of that had to do with the general slightly crazy mood I was in. Instead I am sure that it had everything to do with the prospect of being suspended from the ceiling by technology that mimics fly feet! And it is to that end, that I am sitting on a very smooth and quiet train, looking out at the snow, and heading to meet Professor Stanislav Gorb, the inventor of the most amazing pieces of biomimicry.

 

Biomimicry is the study and application of biological organisms and adapting their effects for our own uses. We see a lot of natural mimics - to appear more dangerous to predators than they actually are, hoverflies use protective mimicry to look like bees and wasps, while spiders mimic ants to enable them predate on them (aggressive mimicry).

 

As a species we have long been interested in mimicry and have been trying to copy the natural world for our own benefit for thousands of years. We study and adapt insect gait in our robots (oh how we can learn from the mighty cockroach for this); we mimic the pheromones of moths to lure pests to traps and we copy their egg-laying abilities to make better hypodermic needles (needles that are so small as to not cause any reaction and ones that can actually bend out of the way of objects so as not to damage any of our vital organs) - all very funky stuff.

 

482px-Wasp_mimicry.jpg

Protective mimicry in action (taken from wikipedia):  'Two wasp species and four imperfect and palatable mimics. (A) Dolichovespula media; (B) Polistes spec.; (C) Eupeodes spec.; (D) Syrphus spec; (E) Helophilus pendulus; (F) Clytus arietes (all species European).
Of note, species C–F have no clear resemblance to any wasp species [THIS IS WHAT WIKI SAYS!]. The three hoverfly species differ in the shape of their wings and body, length of antennae, flight behaviour, and striping pattern from European wasps. One fly species (E) even has longitudinal stripes, which wasps typically don't. The harmless wasp beetle does not normally display wings, and its legs do not resemble those of any wasps.'

 

... But, right now, I want to talk about why I had been suspended from a ceiling in Germany like a one-armed orang-utan.

 

So we were ushered into a very high-ceilinged office and introduced to Stanislav and made to feel welcome. Gorb has three main interests when it comes to insects: plant-animal interactions; functional morphology and biomechanics; and biological attachment. It is this final area of research we will concentrate on today.

 

We have been using adhesives for an awfully long time. Archaeologists have discovered pots that have been held together by sap that are 4,000 years old. Scotch tape, as it is known comercially, was invented by Richard Drew in 1930 and we have been relying on it - and its relatives - ever since. But eventually it ceases to work; the glue dries out or it rots away, leaving a residue when you unpeel it from the binding surface.

 

Stanislav has been pondering these very problems for over 10 years - but through an entomologist’s insight. And a novel solution came from a slightly sensitive situation that a male beetle often finds himself in. Examine this photograph of some very down-and-dirty beetle porn.

 

mating-ladybird-beetles-creative-commons-copyright-nutmeg66.jpg

Steamy beetle action
© nutmeg66/flickr

 

I once worked on the heather beetle, Lochmaea suturalis, at the then Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, ITE, (now the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, CEH) in Dorset. It was an amazing time and I had quite a collection of beetle porn (although I was more fascinated when a beetle was parasitised by the Tachinid fly, Medina collaris, and I used to spend my lunch times eating sandwiches and watching maggots crawling out of their bums only for them to decide to crawl back in again ...).

 

medina-collaris-copyright-hakon-haraldseide.jpg

What a beautiful fly... Medina collaris
Used with permission, © Hakon Haraldseide

 

I digress … throughout the mating process, the male beetles have to cling on with utter tenacity while the female carries on her daily business. Not much will put a woman off her food … even in this situation! So how does he mange to do this? We know of many animals that have an amazing ability to climb up walls, with geckos being the obvious ones. But Stanislav looked at what was happening on the beetles' feet (or tarsal segments) as they are known.

 

Here is a leg of a beetle:

 

insect leg.jpg

 

Now, their tarsal segments can be hairy – really, really hairy.

 

New-Super-Adhesive-Mimicks-Beetle-Feet-2.jpg

 

This is an image from one of Stanislav's papers on the subject. Check out the mass of setae (the hair-like projections).

 

At the end of the setae are structures that range in shape from spatula shapes to mushrooms. So from the naturally occurring shapes Gorb, with the help of a development company, constructed some synthetic tape (called PVS in the image below). Here is a lovely piece on him explaining how the tape works.

 

beetle feet sem.jpg

(a) Scanning electron micrographs showing the mushroom-shaped setae in an attachment pad of a male beetle, Gastrophysa viridula, (b) biologically inspired mushroom-shaped microstructured PVS sample, (c) and the surface of the control PVS sample.

 

 

So now we have the tape ... how does this relate to me? Well this is how, with very little dignity, I am able to dangle from the ceiling - much to the amusement of everyone else in the room:

 

First time up, I fell off the ceiling! But this was because there was a screw loose, so the tape did not bind evenly. With the screw sorted, I was back up there again, holding onto a handle attached to a piece of tape that had just been shoved on to the suspended glass square. One-handed! Nearly wrenched my socket out but amazingly the tape held.

 

Just for the amusement of my producer I then repeated this several more times so she could record the right level of grunting! It’s not all glamour you know! However, it was amazing to see the application of taking a really small natural structure and using it for our benefit. We can use this tape for many different things, including mechanised arms that move around very delicate and clean surfaces such as those of mobile phones. No more smudges. And what is also fantastic about this tape is that it can be reused! Marvellous.

 

And I now have a small piece and am amusing myself in my flat sticking various objects to the wall ...

 

Listen to Who's the Pest? on BBC Radio 4

1

This blog article comes with a warning - for some reason my tolerance for what some may describe as revolting and distasteful seems to be very high. In fact I view those subjects that most people feel squeamish about as truly interesting - I think that nature is ingenious! So, in light of that forewarining, I will proceed…

 

I think that we are all aware that insects are great ... really great, attractive, adaptive, specialised little packages of wonder. And one thing that we should be ever so thankful for is that an awfully large number of them are decomposers. That is, they break down bodies ranging from large corpses to fallen leaves. And it’s not just the dead bodies that they break down - thankfully they remove waste too - so, think about a world without insects where we would be knee-high in faeces.

 

Many adult insects have developed novel ways to ensure that they are ready and waiting for fresh dung. Instead of locating freshly deposited material (I hope that you are not eating at the moment …), many species of beetle cling on to the ‘host’ and wait for them to defecate so that they can then fall off alongside their food. Check out the photo below with a family group (see doesn’t that sound cute!) of beetles clinging on to a monkey's nether region!

 

monkey bum.jpg

If you think this is extreme spare a thought for the poor dung beetle that hangs onto the backside of a kangaroo...
(Taken from Jacobs et al, 2008)

 

 

 

Sometimes insects take this life cycle a little too far even for me!

 

canthariasis.bmp

(From Encyclopedia of Entomology by John L. Capinera)

 

 

But let's get back to the main emphasis of the blog: flies and beetles are exceptionally valuable decomposers. The decomposing of animal and plant material is essential to ensure that there is a flow of nutrients round our ecosystems. When it’s not waste products, it's dead bodies. And that is what I want to concentrate on here today - what the flies do and how we can utilise this. Can you even begin to imagine what it would be like if there were not flies to break down the bodies of all shapes and sizes that would be littered around?

 

For the second episode of BBC Radio 4's Who's the Pest? I interviewed forensic entomologist Dr Martin Hall (aka Maggot Man), who works with me here at the Museum. 

 

Martin Hall plus mosquitoes - Bolivia.JPG

Maggot Man, Martin Hall, taking his work with flies very seriously! 

 

He’s a brilliant man and he is not alone in working on insects (specifically flies) and their use in forensic entomology. In the department there used to be Maggot Boy - but sadly his postdoc has come to an end - and there is also Amoret Whittiker (not Maggot Girl!). Amoret has recently been the star of the Radio four program The Life Scientific and if you think that I have some strange quirks ... She has also been described thanks to her work on forensic entomology as a Superhero of Science - something to aim for!

 

The maggot is a common name for the larval stage of the fly and is generally associated with the more advanced flies, such as the houseflies and blow flies. In his fantastic books called the Natural History of Flies, Harold Oldroyd described maggots as precocious because they emerged earlier from the eggs in comparison to most insects, and are more plastic in terms of their structure. This feature has enabled maggots to get into and survive in an enourmous range of habitats.

 

The field that Martin and Amoret work in, amongst others, is that of forensics and this has become oh so popular since the advent of TV series such as CSI and Prime Suspect, but the use of insects to help determine the time of death is not a recent phenomenon. At the Museum we have a famous jar of maggots (not often I get to put that into a sentence) that was a sample from the first successful use of insects to tie a murderer to a victim! This story begins with Dr Buck Ruxton, who was a practising GP in Lancashire in the 1930's and was generally well-liked and respected within the community within which he lived and worked:

ruxton.jpg

The rather dapper Dr Ruxton

 

Then, in September 1935, the bodies of his wife and maid turned up in small ravine miles away in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. He claimed that his maid had fallen pregnant and that his wife had run away with her to assist with an abortion so it couldn't have been him that killed them, guvnor. However, he was a sloppy man! Although their bodies were chopped up to make it more difficult to identify them, there were maggots still associated with the limbs and these were aged by Dr A.G. Mearns.

 

This provided a vital clue as to when the murders took place and it was this, coupled with the damning evidence that one of the newspapers used to wrap body parts was only found in Dr Ruxton's local region and not where the bodies were found, that led to the 'good' Doctor being found guilty and subsequently hanged.

 

So, you can see why they are precious maggots to us! For nearly 80 years we have been using insects as indicators of when and where death occurred to assist us in criminal proceedings in court, and we have long known about their effectiveness at turning up at the scenes of dastardly deeds.

 

In fact the ability to locate dead bodies is marvellous, and of primary importance are the flies from the family Calliphoridae, the blow flies. These include the common flies - the green bottles and the blue bottles - and many are very large and metallic-looking ... and arguably very attractive! These flies are always the first on the scene and they have an amazing ability to smell - they can detect a fresh corpse from up to 16 km away!

 

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How can you not but admire this beautiful little creature? A Chrysomya megacephala male

 

Now, we know that these types of flies only lay their eggs on dead material so the maggots only develop after death (maggots living on live flesh is a whole different but interesting subject ... and really not for the faint-hearted). So, if we find maggots that are five days old, we can confidently say that the minimum postmortem interval (PMI) is five days - i.e. death could not have happened less than five days previously (it could be more, but it can't be less). However, under different conditions and differing temperatures, the development rate of the maggots varies and this is why we are still studying these species. And we know this because researchers have been working on the development rate of these flies for years and years.

 

Martin and Amoret have at times had decomposing material in the tower at the Museum (this has sometimes resulted, in the dead of winter, an enormous blue bottle winging its way down the stairs to come and say hello to the rest of us whilst we have our lunch; very friendly I thought). Up in the tower they are creating different ambient conditions to enable them to work out how this affects the developmental rate of the maggots and therefore more accurately determine time of death.

 

This idea is being used on a much grander scale in America where, in Tennessee amongst other places, there are facilities where people have donated their own bodies(!) after death to enable in-depth research into the decomposition processes. The Forensic Anthropology Centre, more colloquially known as the body farm is one such place.

 

The facility is located in an area of secluded woodland where there are many different experiments performed to look at the impact of different environmental factors on decomposition. Amoret herself conducted some experiments here to determine how comparable pig and human decomposition was (it is!) and I recently attended an entomology conference in Knoxville and listened to lectures from many forensic entomologists that either work there or utilise the knowledge that it generates.

 

So the fly that everyone goes 'ugh!' at is in fact an incredibly useful agent of the law in addition to its being a rubbish disposal unit and a 'keep the community tidy' advocate! Brilliant things - I have long been fascinated with maggots and their fantastic adaptability to penetrate so many different feeding niches!

 

Listen to Who's the Pest online at the BBC website

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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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