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Sweden

Posted by Erica McAlister Jul 29, 2010

So I have been away for a while but I am back, and back for a while...I have re-found my bay, reacquainted myself with my colleagues, and once again eating food from my fridge!!

 

It is great to be back in the Museum. I still love walking in though the galleries entrance and then sneaking off through a back door that only staff are allowed to go through. Especially now as its school holidays and peak tourist season...

 

I was expecting more chaos and to be truthful there was a tiny bit of stress as on the first Monday that I got back I had an interview for a promotion!!! I guess the good thing was that I did not have much time to sit around worrying but then I also did not as much time to mentally prepare! However, by the Tuesday afternoon I was a Senior Curator and so a very very happy person .

 

However, The three weeks before have been spent in a very hot Sweden under the tutorship of Kevin Holston, a Dipterist and meta-data specialist at the Swedish Museum of Natural History. I had packed expecting it to be similar to Scotland in the Summer and so jumpers, long trousers and waterproofs '. However there was a heatwave for the whole time I was there and it was in the high twentys, early thirty's by Nine in the morning. And as there was no real night it just stayed hot!!

 

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So I was to spend three weeks learning more about data cleansing, data migration and data management systems and different online data handling and storage systems. That may seem a tad dull to most people but I am very interested in the way we collect data, manage it and then divulge it to the wider audience. It is all very well have 30 million insects in our collection but people need to know more about them, in terms of locality where specimen was caught, date it was caught and who caught it. This is the sort of information that is useful when looking at species distribution changes, invasive species, habitat preference etc and so can help us understand more about ecosystem function/change etc. Their museum is part of a Swedish Initive called DINA (Digital Information System for Natural History Collections in Sweden) which is trying to provide all of this data online for unrestricted access. In the Entomology department at the NHM, we have taxonomic information available and in Diptera's case, the Type species registered, but that is mostly all we have digitised apart from some photos. We need to figure out and prioritise what and how we get online and uploaded to GBIF (Global Biodiversity Information Facility) and/or  EOL (Encyclopaedia of Life) to enable a wider audience to be able to access our data. In Diptera there are approximetly 3 million pinned specimens so this is not some small task. It has been worked out that if we carry on at the present rate of digitisation of the collection it will take over 500 years!!

 

So I learnt about different raw data storage facilities, standards for data, flat and relational databases as well as having a look at their collections and Museum. It is a lovely building although having a heatwave in a non-air condition room with no fan or air circulation was not something i would want to repeat in a hurry. The exhibits were on the whole good; the human evolution gallery models were very realistic though which was a bit perturbing and walking through a giant human mouth was less than pleasant!

 

I went north one weekend and was able to go sampling with a friend for dragonflies. I usually just let these fly out of my net and kill the flies so it was odd to do it this way round!

 

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The photo above shows some of the traditional houses and hay stacks, there definitely was some glorious countryside!

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Tis' a popular site at the moment..generation of new insects

 

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Stockholm...many bridges. The boat behind had actually been converted into a youth hostel!

 

it was a great three weeks and I thoroughly recommend the Museum, Stockholm and Sweden! I stayed in the museum accommodation whilst I was there and under the bridge, across the road and then down the track was the Arboretum. It was very different from the surroundings of the NHM in london (see below....)

 

 

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Hunting in Pembrokeshire

Posted by Erica McAlister Jun 21, 2010

Well I have just been to some of the most glorious countryside in the UK. The Dipterists forum annual summer collecting trip was based in Stackpole, South Wales at a Natural Trust Centre. This was surrounded by wood, and fields, and Lakes (containing Otters although I did not see any!!) and the Centre itself had a large hall within which we set up our microscopes!

 

One of the lovely lakes that had Otters.

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It is always a great week, concentrating on collecting flies from as many different habitats as possible, to add data to recording schemes as well as building personal collections, and in our case building and maintaining the comprehensiveness of the National British Collection. We (another colleague and I) get to spend the week collecting, pinning and id’ing flies with some of the UK experts in a range of different fly groups. Alan Stubbs (co-author of British Soldierflies and their Allies, and British Hoverflies) is one of the main men (and very very good on craneflies) and an absolute ice-cream demon. Peter Chandler (co-author of ‘A Dipterist’s Handbook’ and the British Checklist of Diptera) is another and is the UK expert on fungus gnats (but not very good at opening ice cream tubs). They, and another 28 roamed the countryside for the best fly (and bee, sawfly, bug and the odd beetle! there were many groupies!!) John Kramer and Richard Underwood were also present who regularly volunteer at the NHM and again are very good Dipterists.

 

Please if you see these people do not approach (Dipterists at large)...

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After a long drive, we had nothing to do but eat, a consistently good theme of the week. We were allocated rooms and then set up our microscopes. We had a quick walk down to the Lake which in the setting sun was more than pleasant

 

Hunting started properly the next day. We set off to the Coast to sample amongst the Dunes. I had great fun chasing Robberflies, trying to poot’ Dolichopodids of the cliff face, attempting to catch shore flies (they fly so close to the surface you just end up whacking the net against the rocks!) and sweeping along the edge of a stream whilst paddling!! Oh sometimes, fieldwork is just so difficult I don’t know how I cope...

 

Fieldwork involves a lot of ice cream....

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The afternoon we moved on to woodlands (now here you will be pleased to know that I scratched my legs to death) and ended up at Scrubby Bottom where we were attacked by horseflies (which we killed and have subsequently pinned ).

 

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The evenings are spent eating, and pinning. We use Cherry Lorrel for killing the flies as it is not only an effective killer but it also relaxes the specimens as well and so we are able to pin them in the most appropriate way. You can stick a micropin through most of them and then pull out their legs, so that most of their limbs are elongated and the wings are carefully pinned, spread away from the body.

 

Here is a horse fly which has had it's wings spread out so we can clearly see the markings on the abdomen

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These are left in that position overnight to ensure that the legs, wings etc set in the correct position. We had prepared some little labels which enabled us to quickly sort the material into correct dates and sites.

 

The next couple of days were doing very similar things. We would gather around in the morning, pouring over maps. They had been highlighted with ‘hotspot’ areas of woodlands, marshes, dunes etc which were thought to be great for the little flies. Most people were collecting specific families of flies and therefore their requirements would differ. Peter was collecting fungus gnats and therefore preferred damp woodland, whilst I was hunting for Robber flies and so liked hanging out in the dunes. That must have been a lovely sight for the general public to see me on my hands and knees with my pooter tube in my mouth and a net in one hand poised, ready to catch a fly. There may have been a little bit of bad language as well when I missed them….

 

Me collecting from a stream (thanks to Ken Merrifield)

 

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We took one day off to collect on Skomer. I say take off as although I and the others did collect flies, I got very distracted by the Puffins . Amazing little things. The path ran alongside the cliff and as they land with their beaks stuffed full of fish, they wait for us humans to move aside so they can run over it and into their burrows. We had accidentally left a bag in the way and you could almost sense the impatience (and watch them tap their little feet in frustration) as they waited for us to sort ourselves out and move the offending article before shooting across!!

 

here it was waiting.....

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And then a mad dash across the path

 

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One of the most productive days was just down a country lane where there was a mixture of open habitat and closed canopy (and therefore a slightly damper area). Loads of lovely flies here including Horseflies (which I have to say are incredibly attractive J), Hoverflies and some Mycetophilidae (fungus gnats!)

 

As well as us Dipterists, we had some other entomologists sneak along with us including a sawfly specialist and a bee specialist. It is actually really nice to have a variety of people as you end up learning other interesting facts and how to collect different groups.

 

All in all a brilliant week. I have to say that is some of the loveliest countryside I have seen in a while. I can not believe that I have been all over recently and I seem to be raving more about what is on our own doorstep!

 

Excellent meadows for the hoverflies etc

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Am back in the Museum for a week as it is National Insect week and I am doing two talks!! It should be good as I just talk about how wonderful flies are!!! (http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/whats-on/national-insect-week/index.html)

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I am sorry - I have been away, again, several times..and well, it is hard to keep up to date with the blog...and so I have fallen behind, I can but apologise and add lots of pretty pictures in the hope of making amends!!

 

Ok so a couple of weeks ago I went to a NatSCA (Natural Sciences Collections Associations) conference, in Plymouth (http://natsca.info/content/about-us). It was a good conference and dealing with natural history on museum webpages. All sorts of talks about how different museums around the UK deal with their natural history collections and how they advertise them. So many people do not realise how many natural history collections are dotted about the UK, hidden within County Museums that house so many interesting specimens. I have just read something very sad about a natural history collection in Sao Paulo that was destroyed due to a fire. This is a very great loss for Natural History and societies like NatSCA are trying to prevent this type of loss through the mixing of procedures and ideas around UK museums. This conference brought home to us about the importance of the web and the use of museums and institutes to search for natural history information (we all do very badly!)

 

I have been teaching on a masters course last week down in Bristol on insect sampling and surveying including the use of insects for rapid bioassessment. I still really like lecturing (I did a lot before starting at the museum) as I basically like to talk about insects as much as possible! The course is designed for future ecolological consultants and I am always amazedat how few have actually studied insects before, most had conducted surveys with bats, newts etc. I will always argue that this gives you a very limited picture of the habitat etc.

 

Being away a lot at the moment i still have to keep up with the day to day life of a curator. I am still reciving loan enquiries and requests for other bits of information which i had to deal with. I have been sent requests for photographs of specimens, missing papers of an obscure reference from an even obscurer journal  as well as type specimens. I am very lucky though with very understanding colleagues at the moment who I am passing the urgent requests to! As it is there are many late evenings and weekend working to keep my head above water. It is unusual to be doing so much travel but everything seems to have come at once!

 

Oh and another Dinosnores...and then at 6.30 the next morning I was on another trip back to Tajikistan! It was just me retuning this time with our coordinator to train up the researchers on ELISA (Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) protocols. We had 3 huge bags of lab equipment which we were both surprised that arrived intact and unharmed! It was a very productive training session and by the end i feel that they were happy to carry out the procedure which is the outcome that we wanted.  It was odd teaching people how to use pipettes again!

 

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they were so attentive as students!

 

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Project Leader (sitting down!) and Dilsod, who looks like he is about to go running!!

 

And the final product (the yellow wells indicate that there is a positive identification for Malaria - although in this case we cheated to see whether the technique works!)

 

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We did not have any problems with flights this time although we did get stopped in Turkey to check whether we had recieved Polio vaccinations and if not, would we like to as there was a Polio outbreak in the city!

 

Oh and Dilshod named his daughter Erica, as she was born when he was over here being trained by me

 

When I got back to the Museum, there was the Internation Biodiversity Day, where the museum brought out a lot of collections that are normally hidden away, and Ed Baker and I gave a talk on Big and Beautiful Insects.

 

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(You may recognise some of these!!!)

 

I attended a conference in Ottawa last week, and spent the week before in New York on my way over as a minibreak but did manage to go and check out the American Museum of Natural History, which has a good biodiversity wall and some very old fashioned Dioramas.

 

Biodiversity wall

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It was all very dark but I guess many are after living in the Darwin Centre and having so much light. There were some good dioramas featuring earthworms though that i was particularly pleased about

 

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The conference itself was a SPNHC *the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections) http://140.247.98.87/ conference and the talks were manly from North American Museums and University collections. On the first day we went round two of the major collections in Ottawa; The Canadian National Collection (CNC) of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes http://www.canacoll.org/ and the storage facilities for the Canadian Museum of Nature http://nature.ca/en/home. They were both very different! The first had the collections amongst the staff (in Diptera this included Scott Brooks http://www.canacoll.org/Diptera/Staff/Brooks/Brooks.htm, Bradley Sinclair http://www.canacoll.org/CFIA/Staff/Sinclair/Sinclair.htm and Jeff Cummings http://www.canacoll.org/Diptera/Staff/Cumming/Cumming.htm, all of which are exceptionally good dipterists). This has its advantages in that you can access the material but there is no way you can control the environmental variables or pests!

 

Owen, the Collection Manager with one of the Drawers

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Cabinets full of Vials of Mosquito larva etc....

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The second storage facilities were state of the art and there was so much space. Oh how I would love space but sadly, in London, that is something that we do not have! However, they were distinctly lacking in flies!!

 

I loved this drawer!

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And these were pretty smart too...

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The talks themselves focused either on collection management and conservation or on digitisation of the collections. Everywhere is seeing a real push to digitise the collections, both the specimens themselves and the metadata attached to them. However, everyone faces the same problem in the lack of funding. Many discussions were given over to how we should be prioritising what we digitise! If anyone would like to volunteer to come in and photograph our specimens that would be most useful!

 

I gave a talk on the New Darwin Centre and how the museum was becoming much more interactive with the public (including this blog) as well as highlighting the research that is undertaken here. Sue Ryder from the department lead a session on Integrated Pest Management whilst Geoff Martin presented a poster on the Lepidoptera collection move. There were others from the NHM from both Zoology and Botany so it was nice to drink beer with colleagues in the pleasant evening atmosphere! It was the 25th Anniversary of SPNHC and there was a banquet towards the end of the week and man, the dancing!! I do not want to bring it to the front of my mind again let alone have it written down for all eternity in a blog

 

I have been back at my desk for a week! Trying to catch up. However I am posting this to you on a Saturday night (well technically Sunday morning) after just coming home from doing another Dinosnores. It was a good event again and no one cried, which when talking about all the insects etc than can kill you - I think is a positive. Tomorrow morning though I am off for a week to South Wales to catch flies with the Dipterists Forum - it will be great to go out hunting again....

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It has been a while since I have actually written anything on my blog but I have been away on fieldwork in Tajikistan. I was then one of the many people who were stranded due to the Volcano, but I will say more of that in a bit. Suffice to say that if being held up in a four start hotel overlooking the central plaza in Barcelona was a hardship then I need more of it please. Back to the field trip...

 

Ralph Harbach, the Mosquito Taxonomist and I are involved in a Mosquito Intervention Project having been contracted by the MOD to work as consultants. The plan was to assist several researchers from the Institute of Zoology and Parasitology, Tajikistan, on a study to identify and monitor the behaviour of the Anopheline mosquitoes, the mosquitoes that transmit malaria. The aim was to collect by various different methods (no cow under a tent this time or rampaging bulls... :) ) throughout the year to figure out what species was biting humans, were they vectors of malaria and when/where etc were people being bitten. All seems very straight forward.....

 

Well after a very entertaining couple of weeks last year when about 5 of them came over for training we went back to see how and if the work was progressing.

 

I went via Istanbul and had a couple of lovely days there as holiday before the fieldwork as a nice little break – thoroughly recommend the place!! But then I met Ralph in Ataturk Airport, in Turkey and we spent a couple of hours in the Business Lounge – oh how I could get used to those places!! After an uneventful flight we landed at Dushanbe, the capitol of Tajikistan at 3.30am!! The arrivals area is one large bunker type room with Policemen with the largest brimmed hats that you will ever see. For some reason the luggage took forever to arrive (we believe that the handlers did not want to get wet, the poor things!) and we finally arrived at the Hyatt around 5am! Quite tired by now!

The next day, or technically the same day, we were joined by one of the Project Coordinators, Mike, and we headed off for a lunch time meeting at the Institute. It is a basic place with what has to be one of the most horrendous toilets that I have ever used. Never be fooled into thinking that fieldwork is glamorous!

 

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But they put on an amazing spread for us! One of the things the Tajiks do well is eat. I came back from this fieldwork full – and mostly of bread. We ate, discussed the project, realised that lots of equipment had not made it from Russian across the Uzbek border! They were missing GPS' and Carbon Dioxide traps, the latter being quite critical for collecting insects! We also needed to sort out permits. These sorts of things always take longer than expected! The afternoon involved a long and complicated discussion with many initial misunderstandings due to communication breakdowns! The poor translators had to deal with several people talking at once, scientific jargon and understanding sampling design!

But finally, with the issues resolved, we headed back to the hotel to leave the next day to head of to visit the fieldsites.

 

We were staying three nights down in Qurghonteppa in the South which is where the NGO SwordeTeppe is based. Paul, Uhmed and Nizora (who came to the UK previously) all work there and acted as translators, drivers, coordinators etc.

 

Around 12 to 13 people went round the field sites – we must have looked a strange site. There were 3 different localities, three villages within each of these and then two houses per village. When we arrived at the fieldsites, the field investigators had started sampling for the mosquitoes although not how we were expecting them to!! There were little things that needed sorting from the start and there were many confusing conversations! By the end of the three days though I hope that we sorted out a fair amount of them

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Here is one of the houses that they used as a field laboratory with Ralph sitting in the middle trying to explain the principles of collecting sheets!

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Here is one of the field assistants with a suction sampler. They are needed for the collection of the day resting collection.

 

Every one of the houses that we looked at for sampling sites was full of the friendliest people. Sadly we could not stay long at each place which is probably just as well as I would have consumed a large quantity of tea! At one of the sites, there was a puppy, which although cute enough was covered in Hippoboscids (parasitic flies) and I spent some time, much to everyone's amusement, trying to get some of the animal!

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This woman was making bread for the family. They eat at least this many every day!

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Outdoor cooking was common with the massive pots of stew bubbling away.

It was a little later in the year that we went this time and the countryside was carpeted with lush grass. There were boys on donkeys, cars squashed full of old men, goats, lots of goats.

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On of the regions was close to the Afghanistan border and we had to go through a military checkpoint. It was all very serious till the Tajik soldiers started flirting! Well that's one for the grand-kids!!

It was difficult as well to determine the incidences of Malaria in the regions as the levels varied depending upon whether you asked the local doctor, the villagers or the field researchers!

After three days though of open roads we headed back to the Capitol to finalise the permits and take a trip up into the mountains. We have got permission to remove all Diptera (mosquitoes and more) which should turn up something exciting. The countryside was a lot lusher than the previous time that I visited but it was still fairly species depauperate as it is still recovering from intensive pesticide usage. The mountains were spectacular though and I would love to have had further time to run about them. We stopped at this Russian styled Thermal Spa – very amusing. I was shown around the ladies only section which included a woman behind a table housing you down, and an inverted shower...I don't really want to think about that!

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We left the country again at a silly time of the morning, being driven dazed to the airport at about 2.30 am! And then joined the rest of the world being stuck in a place that was not home! After being informed our flight was cancelled and the next one was not for a week we decided to take evasive action and caught a flight to Barcelona (well you would, wouldn't you) as the probability of getting back from there was greater. I had great plans of the British Army rescuing us but sadly we just ended up after a couple of days flying back!

 

Back in the UK though it soon became apparent that I would have to go back again soon to take equipment and assist on the training of ELISA (Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) which will enable them to detect the presence of malaria in the mosquitoes. My next week or two is filled with conferences, training courses, lecturing and preparation for the next trip! It will a busy couple of months!....

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Work experience

Posted by Erica McAlister Apr 6, 2010

As well as a marauding mass of volunteers….

 

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

 

Hey,

 

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

 

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

 

I will be here all next week.
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Well I have finally got a moment to sit down and write my blog. It has been a while but I have lots to say now. (Actually there is no difference there to normal…)

 

Last week saw the start of a group of volunteers going through the French Guianan material. There were many many applicants so we have decided to take them on in batches so I do not cause myself to have a breakdownL. The first group are underway and the second group will be contacted once I am back from Tajikistan (more about that later)

 

There are about 10 at the moment that are working through the material and learning the delights of beetles that don’t look like beetles, flies that look like wasps, earwigs that look like beetles due to no abdomens and many other sorts of craziness. They are all really enthusiastic which is great as there will be many long hours ahead trying to sort through this material. I leave them alone in the lab to sort and they separate the material into Petri dishes for me to check. I have seen some fabulous Bombyliids, some amazing Pentathalmids, Tachinids, Asilids and many more. Yesterday there was a very large tick in the sample, there have been pseudoscorpians J, as well as some crazy shaped Opiliones (harvestmen). It’s all good stuff! It is still going to take a fair amount of time though to sort through all of the material L but I will keep you posted.

 

And here is an example of them sorting the insects into the major groups with the Hymenoptera on the left, the Diptera in the middle and then coleoptera and others of the right and at the bottom.

 

Last weekend some colleagues and I went away on a Fly course. It was a starter course but I want to learn more about Acalyptrates of which I know very little as I do not curate that part of the collection. The course was at Preston Montford which is a fabulous place to hold entomology course (and others). I spent a large part of the course taking photos of the specimens to correctly annotate wing venations etc. The course is run through the Dipterists forum www.dipteristsforum.co.uk and it was great to have some very high level expertise at our finger tips! It is nice to get an opportunity to look at specimens again! A lot of my time recently has been taken up with visitors, loans and meetings L.

 

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I am pretending to concentrate!!

 

 

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John Ismay, a Conopid specialist amongst other things who lectured us.

 

 

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Here is an example of a Soldier fly wing (a Stratiomyidae) which I photographed using a dinolight and then annotated.

 

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And here is a hairy Tachinid fly

 

We had the annual Entomological dinner a couple of weeks ago which was a great excuse for a lot of entomologists to get together (in their hundreds!!) and rant all things insects, I pity the poor partners who are forced to attend these things J. The meal is held at Imperial  College (next door) so many use it as an opportunity to come and look at the collections during the day. I had a visitor that is investigating predatory gall midges, which I personally think should be discluded from Diptera as they are so hard to identify J. Another one was studying the genitalia of crane flies, whilst another was looking a Dolichopodidae (which do have the most exciting genitalia J). I have to admit that I had a sore head to next day when dealing with my volunteers.

 

We are also putting the final stages for the field visit to Tajikistan. I went last year with Ralph Harbach, who one of the worlds experts on Mosquitoes. We are trying to sort out visas and flights (arriving at Dushanbe airport at 3.30 in the morning!!!). This is the beginning of a project trying to study the mosquito population and the levels of the malarial plasmodium in the Country.

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Half term

Posted by Erica McAlister Feb 16, 2010

It's busy out there, very busy! It does not help that it is raining. But it is also very busy in here! At the moment I have two work experience students working in one of the cocoon ends sorting some British material and hopefully extracting localities data to be used for UK recording schemes. Two of our regular visitors have just turned up and they are straight away into recurating their group that they are working on (Agromyzidae). And I am about to spend the afternoon identifying British mosquitoes. We have to quickly identify the mosquitoes that we sampled last year that have been in the deep freeze ever since. This will involve us identifying them on blocks of dry ice or freezer blocks to ensure that there is no degradation of any virus DNA that the mosquitoes may have. I believe that we are going to have cold fingers

 

There was a meeting here last week for European Mycetophilidae several  workers. It is always nice to meet the people whom you have been corresponding with for a while and read their papers. Its a good opportunity to swap material and receive back material. One of them has donated some fungus gnats from Japan and I have spent the whole morning so far trying to enter all of the new data onto our database. I have only entered four of the 13!! oh well. The database is a vast and complex interactive entity (it is living!!) which is full of oddities that were migrated across when we finally combined all of the many different museum databases. This means though that we are cleaning constantly and so even the small entries may take time due to all of the different modules (i.e. the taxonomy, the collection event, the site where collected) that need to be edited. When you look at the online database you will find many mistakes- we are trying to clean but we have millions of entries .

 

We had another Dinosnores at the weekend and I think that it went well. It was very different this time as I was by myself and I had no one else to abuse on stage! I don't think that the first talk was as good but i loved the next two. The kids were really quite knowledgeable and this always helps. We had some live stick insects this times as well, the Anisomorpha, which exude and sometimes squirt a nasty toxin. They didn't do anything this time though... The male was attached to the adolescent female waiting for her to mature - a strategy that I am glad that most humans don't employ.....

 

And I am doing a Nature live tomorrow on my favourite insect (fly ) I have a soft spot for the robber flies but I keep getting sidetracked. I will get out some of the new material from French Guiana as i think that people will be amazed at how much variety there is in a sample.

 

Oh and I have a very large number of volunteers for my new material .

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Help - volunteers wanted

Posted by Erica McAlister Jan 29, 2010

Afternoon!

 

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

 

My French Guiana material needs to be looked at and I have advertised for volunteers.

 

https://gs12.globalsuccessor.com/fe/tpl_nhm01.asp?s=jsUrXCzMkBNsPpBkh&jobid=48317,4961231223&key=19345732&c=791225360298&pagestamp=sefoyrqffsklkvcqhs

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

fly.jpg

A lovely little acrocerid

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

bombardier beetle.jpg

 

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

 

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

 

 

Hornet head.jpg

A European Hornet.

 

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

 

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

 

toxic spines labels.jpg

Part of the label from the jar of Lonomia caterpillars!

 

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

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Us and Them

Posted by Erica McAlister Dec 30, 2009

I have titled this blog so as at the moment it really does feel like it! There are virtually no science staff (most are on holiday) but 5 million visitors!! The Museum is exceptionally busy at the moment and the fact that it has not stopped raining has compounded the problem!! The public are queuing around the ice rink!! Just getting through the public galleries is an ordeal!! I feel nicely tucked away in my bay just listening to the few other entomologists typing away . I have been reading papers on the use of museum specimens for DNA analyses and am now itching to get back into the lab and have another go at extracting. We are working on some UK mosquitoes at the moment that were collected from our various fieldtrips this year that have been stored in the freezer to prevent the DNA degrading.


I have spent the morning in the Specimen Preparation area in the Cocoon. I have been waiting to properly get my hands dirty with the material that came from French Guyana and so though that this would be the perfect opportunity. For some reason there are an awful lot of horse flies. Several of us have commented on this fact that when using malaise traps (tent like trap for catching small flying insects) there is always an abundance of them. The speaker system was not working though and I spent a long time scribbling down things for the public. These samples have an abundance of dung beetles, cockroaches, hymenoptera of all sorts, bark beetles and of course my babies! As well as all of the horse flies (and some long tongued ones!) and the robberflies there are also some very pretty soldier flies . I cant decide which is better - knowing that there is loads of new, undescribed species or being able to say what is in there already. It's all terribly exciting - I will calm down soon!

 

I was trying to write down little facts for the public as I sorted. I am not sure that they were happy about some of them. There are the Phorid flies of which some burrow down into coffins whilst others decapitate ants! Then there were the assassin bugs of which some are blood feeders on us! There are the dung beetles where i described my fieldwork of collecting them using various different types of dung....

 

...I will have to change the alcohol that the sample arrived in though as after two hours i was a little bit vacant to say the least!

 

This afternoon i am writing a case study for sampling insects in Costa Rica for a book to be published later on in the year. I have written a draft already but it needs to be more concise. I see an afternoon of red pen!

 

I am preparing myself for the sleepover as well. I have been revising my knowledge of all arthropods that can harm, maim, cause death etc. I will be such a hit at the New Years Eve party I am going to!

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Seasons greetings

Posted by Erica McAlister Dec 18, 2009

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

pot of mixed.jpg

Ok I am off to play with the specimens

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

AMC sign.jpg

 

 

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

 

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

 

dipterists in cocoon.jpg

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Synoptic drawers.JPG

 

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

 

open cabinats.jpg

Hello new;

 

new cabinets.JPG

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

 

Cocoon end.JPG

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Normality

Posted by Erica McAlister Nov 3, 2009

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

 

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

 

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

Damaged drawer.jpg

 

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

 

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

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Fieldwork in Shropshire

Posted by Erica McAlister Oct 16, 2009

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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Here's one of the pretty hoverflies.

 

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

 

syrphid larva.jpg

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

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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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