Skip navigation

A new week

Posted by Erica McAlister Sep 1, 2009
Well, nearly the end of today

So far – I got absolutely soaking cycling in to work, I’ve had one pupal death and three larval deaths over the weekend but I have three adults which are now pinned (mosquitoes ) , a meeting on the databasing system, visitors, and several loans to prepare….. on my desk i have a load on new flies that a colleague has given me from his garden as well as some from Cameroon that a student dropped off (albeit he has bugs confused with flies….)

But the Tajiks are at the London School to study some techniques so at least i can relax. The mini-bus went back today and no one has screamed at me because of the damage…..We took the Tajiks to a Salsa club on Friday night to show them some of London and it was their first night club!! and then on Saturday (and Sunday and Monday) we were in to monitor the mosquito larvae that are developing in one of the labs in the tower. We have a little production line. Bowls at the front for the very small larvae, once the develop to about the 4th in-star stage (just before they pupate) we separate them out into their own breeding tubes. Then when they pupate we remove the skin and store in alcohol, to which we will add the pupal skin when the adult emerges. Once the adult has emerged we have to leave it for 24hours to let the genitalia rotate into place . It’s all going well.

We have a new visitor in Diptera today from Spain who will be with us for a month. It is all becoming a rush at the moment as we are beginning to shut down the hatches to the collection in preparation for the move. It feels like this ominous event looming towards us…..


Posted by Erica McAlister Aug 26, 2009

I have a splitting headache :(


But on the bright side we are off again tomorrow (The Tajiks and several of us NHM staff) to Vauxhall Urban Farm on fieldwork. I must admit that it does seem that I spend an awful lot of time sucking up insects, and yes at the moment I am. This is a tad unusual though. I am usually more tied to my desk and as a result my desk is a mess (if anyone wants to volunteer to come and organise it I would be most grateful) and I have loans needing to do and visits to arrange from other countries, as well as a new short term contract to organise involving amongst other things fungus gnat genitalia :) they have all dried up and we need to rehydrate them…


I am sitting at my desk recovering from my first day back in the ‘office’… head is thumping. I have had a nasty cold the last two days of my hols (which were fab as I went sailing in Cornwall!) and I was a tad worried that I had the dreaded SF…but as of 6.30 this morning it seemed ok! 


So where do I begin? I think I will start at the last bit of fieldwork that I undertook with another colleague Kim. We headed down south to lovely Somerset. It was sooo nice. We went down on the Monday having arranged to see five farms and one animal park over the course of three days.  My friend from Bath Spa University had arranged for us to use their freezers, which although were not minus eighty meant that the dry ice that we kept the dead specimens on would last the distance. 


The first farm was a goat farm – it was great. 100s of them (i think 800 to be precise) just staring at us, bleating away with their funny little giblet things dangling from their throats (no idea what they are all about). Then we went onto a cow farm that had a massive outside brush which the cows could use as a type of car wash – brilliant. Both very successful placed for mosquitoes and the second had a house that I would love to live in .


Day two and brilliant sunshine and we were off to the animal farm. I love these places and so do the mosquitoes . In with the pigs, the llamas, the sheep, the donkeys- just everywhere!! We caused much amusement to the holiday makers and the very charming owners' son spent the morning with us…a nice bonus! After lunch we went on to another cow herd. Not as many mossis here but the cows were very friendly. The guy that I had contacted was the owners' son and he had forgotten to mention it to his father. We got accosted by a rather confused gentlemen wondering what on earth we were doing wandering round his yard with suction machines strapped to our backs. 


The final day we went to a lovely little farm that had cottages to let (beautiful next to a river, hares in the field). We did not find any in the cow sheds. the problem with modern day farming methods is that they are so very clean!! But we did find some males along the river so that was good. The afternoon was at a rather enthusiastic females farm who wanted us to remove every single fly. She was being plagued by house flies but they were the wrong sort of fly for us! But we found some and some larvae and so were very pleased to have a 6/6 success  


We drove back to the museum on Thursday. We stopped at a service station on the way back and Kim bought one of those teddies that was in Ice age (the one with the nut..never seen them sorry). We were getting back into the car when a wasp followed us in. You would have been impressed by the professionalism of two museum entomologists. Kim pelted it from the car taking her new teddy with her and I was laughing so much I couldn’t get the wasp out of the car…people just stared at our incompetence..  but we made it back in time for the friends and family event for the opening of the cocoon in the Darwin Centre.


Finally saw the game that I helped with and am completely embarrased about myself…how many years will this exhibit be for? I am praying for some minor electrical fault..Apart from that it is looking good. Each time we see it more things are completed. Not long now before the official opening. Not that we Dipterists will be in the building yet as our collection does not move till October. 


Then on Friday, Saturday and Sunday I gave 7 talks……I was numb by the end of it…The first five were for our corporate sponsors. I talked to mainly children about venomous and poisonous arthropods..and I think either managed to scare them into never leaving their homes again or creating monsters that their parents will hate after they have poisoned a sibling by making them eating ladybirds (apparently there was a friend of the department who could speciate ladybirds by licking them as they have a unique taste). Still, maybe there will be a few that will start looking around them at the smaller more important things in life.


The Sunday talks were about my work in the department. I just get to talk about me collecting and killing which is what most people focus on. Oh and how do I identify and sex them….it is tough talking genitalia to a mixed aged audience.  I needed my holiday.  And then today. I arrived, the Tajikistanis arrived.  And we headed down to Kent to look for mosquito larvae. Which was successful. They turned up however with no wellies, no rain coat and the translator was in stilettos! Oh well, I have taken undergraduate students out in worse! It was a fab British summer day as well, one minute lovely sunshine and then the clouds would open lots of squeals as everyone pegged it to the minibus….It was interesting that they had said that they had all done this sampling before and knew all the procedures and then once in the field they seemed to have forgotten everything (again reminding me of undergraduates). But we got larvae and quite a few of several different species. They are now in the tower of the museum hopefully growing into adults (and then we kill and pin them!)  however my day was not complete until I smacked the hired minibus into the scaffolding of the freezers in the back car park…most annoying and I am blaming it on the blue car parked really close…  I have no idea how the next three weeks will be as this is only day two of their visit. I think that I may be tunrning to vodka…


Working at weekends

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

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

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

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

Have a nice week – I will.

Friday morning

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

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

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

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

I am already planning a holiday for after this period... some where very remote with some nice wine

Pinning flies

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

I have just recieved an internal grant to have someone recurate and incorporate a collection of fungus gnats from Russia into our collection. This was a research collection and all the names are in Russian, some on dodgy pins, there is dried up genitalia everywhere (a common problem!!) and no label saying that the material is ours. Our new assistant has her work cut out!
And now we are going on fieldwork to Somerset next week and I have just got us in at another crazy kids animal farm down there!! My job is most amusing at times…

Fieldwork on the farm

Posted by Erica McAlister Aug 3, 2009



We had the most exciting fieldwork on Friday.  The first part of the day was spent on an Urban Farm. There were four girls (including me) and a French man carrying out this particular fieldwork and therefore lots of cooing over the animals. We were looking for mosquitoes and were armed with two backpack aspirators, a hand aspirator and a sweep net.


To be truthful, we were not expecting much as sampling can be very hit and miss (that will amaze people who are always being bitten!) but we were most surprised as we sucked up hundreds of specimens (now sitting in a minus 80 oC freezer awaiting DNA/RNA procedures). We also got nibbled by alpacas, screamed at by sheep and gobbled at by a ridiculous turkey – i just don’t understand those animals at all….


We then went onto Richmond Park to see if there were any resting adult populations that we could find there. We knew that this would be hard and we did not come across any. However we were also sampling for flies in general and so the afternoon was not altogether a right off (there were ice creams too :) ) It is lovely to get back into the field collecting.


The photos are from the farm and show some of the treacherous conditions that we have to sample in…



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

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

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

Hi, I'm Erica

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

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

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

at the moment i am trying to contact pigeon fanciers to see if they will let me sample mosquitoes in their lofts!
1 2 3 4 5 Previous Next

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.

View Erica McAlister's profile