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OK, I have decided to create #Worldrobberflyday. All the time now, we hear that this large mammal or that large mammal has a 'day', and that got me thinking. Buglife have an invertebrate of the month, but even they are not very often the lesser-known insects, including the flies.

 

And I wanted global. Let the world celebrate! Why is it always the large stuff or the pretty (and, in my opinion, slightly less important) species? So I thought about it and decided it was about time that we championed more aggressively the rights of the small and endangered flies. These creatures are some of the most charismatic animals on the planet. The robberflies, or Asilidae, are truly worth celebrating for their looks, for their behaviour, for their good deeds to us, and because many of them are threatened.

 

The UK boasts 28 species of Asilidae (OK, so that's not a lot in terms of flies, but hold on – we have only 30 native terrestrial mammals, of which 17 are bats and 2 are native marine mammals). Globally there are more than 7,500 species, and as such, it is one of the largest families of insects today. In fact Torsten Dikow, a world expert on this group, has them as the third most speciose group of diptera. This is a group, therefore, that has a large impact on the environment in which they live.

 

Asilidae are Brachycerans (Fig. 1), which are the more advanced and robust flies. Asilidae are known from the Jurassic era, but some of the more important finds are from the Cretaceous, including those from the Crato Formation of north-eastern Brazil (approximately 112 million years old). This site is truly extraordinary in terms of the invertebrate remains that were found there (and just another reason for me to get back to Brazil!).

 

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Figure 1. Phylogenetic arrangement of Diptera showing the more advanced Brachycerans and the position of the Asilidae (robberflies) within it.

 

It was again Linnaeus, or Linne, who described these flies in his 10th edition (1758) Systema Naturae when he erected the genus Asilus. Within this, eleven species were described and then a further four were added in the 12th edition. You may be unsurprised to know that most of these are no longer in the original genus! Ten have been moved to other genera, three we are unsure of due to the original descriptions being vague, so that leaves only two in the genus.

 

However, the species Asilus crabroniformis, commonly called the hornet robberfly in the UK – and the type species of the family – still sits within this genus in all its magnificence. The division of flies into different families came later with Latreille, a very eminent entomologist who tried to put some more organisation into the entomological hierarchy in 1802. Since then we have increased the number of species and have split the family into many subfamilies –14 in fact (Fig. 2) But as regular readers know, Dipteran taxonomists are still not satisfied and expect more movement in the future.

 

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Figure 2. Subfamilies within Asilidae (image is Tigonomiminae © Thomas Shahan).

 

Even still, you can comprehend how much work has gone on into understanding the relationships within this family so far.

 

Moustaches and mouthparts

 

So why are people interested in these flies? Well once more, this is a family of flies that rock! And these rock harder than most. All armed with moustaches and powerful piercing mouthparts, these predators are aptly named, as they truly are the most vicious and effective aerial predators. These flies are venomous, probably both as adults and as larvae (although we know so very little about the offspring). The adults are able to catch, then sedate, their prey whilst on the wing, suck out the contents and then drop the husk of what was once a living breathing entity. It's almost poetry.

 

And to be fair, to catch these little predators you often have to become a predator yourself. There is no majestic leaping around the countryside, freely swinging your nets with wild exuberance: instead you must 'become the fly'. You stalk it; determine where it rests and then strike. If you are me, this is often followed by a squeal of delight or a wail of despair. I once spent a glorious afternoon on one of the Isles of Scilly at the beach (obviously working very hard) trying to stalk these flies. My volunteer and I tried to work in unison hunting them, and I could almost hear the flies mocking us…

 

The adults are most active during sunny, hot conditions. Again, another reason for loving flies – they have an affinity for the nicer weather conditions.

 

Although these flies range a lot in size, from 2mm to 6cm, they all share distinctive features that help identify the family. The adults have enormous eyes, which is one of the many tools that make them such efficient predators. And it also helps us recognise this family easily. The bulbous eyes and the distinct dip between the two eyes are very characteristic (see Fig. 3). They can swivel their heads around and their eyes can see what's going on behind them as well.

 

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Figure 3. My, my... what big eyes you have...!

 

Some of them scout amongst the grasses, their rapid wingbeat enabling them to turn whilst hovering. These truly are the stealth-bombers of the insect world.

 

The leptogastriniiae are the skinniest of the Asilidae, with very long bodies and legs. They use these long, gangly first two pairs of legs to catch their prey whilst – we think – using the third pair to stabilise themselves. Not all actively scan like this: some will sit and wait, only darting out to impale their prey when they are ready. If fact, there are several different ways in which they hunt and, as with all good scientists, someone has devised a terminology for all of these (Fig. 4)

 

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Figure 4. Lehr (1979) from the Geller-Grimm Asilidae site.

 

For that is another characteristic of this group – a well-formed, stout beak often hidden in a luxurious moustache or, more correctly termed, a mystax (Fig. 5).

 

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Figure 5. Mouthparts of a robber fly (Brachycera: Asilidae). an=antenna; cl=clypeus; ip=hypopharynx; li=labium; ls=labrum (epipharynx); m=mystax; ms=maxillae; oc=eye; pm=maxillary palpus © Giancarlo Dessì. Licensed under CC BY NC SA 3.0 US.

 

It is the needle-like hypopharynx (Fig. 5) that pierces their prey. This is not for the faint-hearted, as they often try and pierce the soft parts of the insect, such as the neck or sometimes the eyes. They have this moustache (Mystax – Fig. 5) to help protect their mouthparts from the flailing prey.

 

They don't have to flail for long, though, as the fly injects saliva that contains nerve toxins that paralyse the prey, and proteolytic enzymes that dissolve the insides. They are nasty for insects, spiders, and occasionally a very unfortunate hummingbird, but apart from giving a nasty jab, they are not dangerous to humans. Research done by Adamovic in 1963 found that injecting robberfly saliva into invertebrates kills them instantly, but they never inject venom into humans. There are several researchers in the Natural History Museum who are now studying the venoms within these flies, so watch out for future Museum publications to follow what is happening in this field.

 

But this leads me to one of the first reasons that these flies are very important. It's because they are such good predators. Within the UK, between 1930 and 1933, Hobby produced a list of the prey records (Fig. 6).

 

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Figure 6. Hobbies lists from Stubbs and Drake 2014.


We have spent the last century working out the prey species and now have a greater understanding of the potential impact these flies can have in helping control populations of species that we often consider as pests – with aphids being a classic example. Although they are opportunistic species, they can have an impact on the overall densities and therefore become the gardener's friends.

 

Flirty flies

 

So let's move on to courtship. As with most creatures, some do, some don't; with some species the males just grab, while others put a fair amount of time and effort into it and have different modifications on their bodies to both attract the opposite sex as well as hold on to them. And it's not just the males that do the flirting. Oh no - there are some females that entice the male.

 

The rather unusual courtship of the British robberfly Choerages marginatus was described by Ian Rabarts in 2009 (paraphrased from Alan Stubbs' rather amusing synopsis on the subject, in his and Martin Drake's book British Soldierflies and their Allies): Firstly the flies recognise that (a) they are the right species, and (b) that they are of the opposite sex (a very good start in most situations to do with copulation leading to fertilisation).

 

Then they check out each other's hunting moves and, if OK, the female stands facing the male in a sort of 'yeah, you'll do' posture. After this, she flies in a slow 'flaunting' circuit (hussy) very similar to that of a prey item (all very kinky). He attacks when he sees her 'shimmer-strip', whereupon she slows down her flight, but flies in an angular pattern. He realises then that this is his lady and adjusts his attack from one of capturing prey to one of copulation.

 

Alan then states in his book: 'Failure [of copulation] results in going back a few steps in the courtship sequence.' A not-unfamiliar event…

 

Bob Lavigne, a collaborator of mine and another international robberfly expert, wrote in 2003: 'It is postulated that courtship first developed when male search flights (which end abruptly with copulation), were consistently unsuccessful.' It sounds so final when it ends with copulation!

 

In fact, reading the literature when it comes to robberfly mating in copulation has been very entertaining. Morgan (1995) records that another species that were just about to do the do were scared off by a sheep! Given the size difference I too in a similar position may have been scared off...

 

But check out Pegesimallus teratodes (Fig.7) – these have amazing structures on their hind legs. These are used in the dance of the males to attract the females –they are indeed the peacocks of the robberfly world.

 

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Figure 7. Pegesimallus teratodes and its amazing legs.

 

And that is not all that is fantastic about the males. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the genitalia of the males (Fig. 8).

 

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Figure 8. The male Pegesimallus teratodes with his rather impressive genitalia.


And then there are specimens in our collection that we think give us an indication of a courtship story, although I doubt we will ever be able to find out for certain. Take, for example, two specimens of Mallophora infernalis from our collection (Fig. 9). Now, had the female caught the bush cricket and the male had thought:“Excellent! Both food and sex!”? Or, had the male caught the cricket to attract the female? Either way, it was not going to end well for the bush cricket (or in this case for the robberflies).

 

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Figure 9. Male and Female of Mallophora infernalis who were caught mid air carrying this bush cricket.

 

So whether there is dancing, waving, differences in wingbeats, or offerings, the end result hopefully is the production of eggs. And blimey, the females have a big range of ovipositors (egg laying tubes) (Fig. 10)!

 

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Figure 10. Ovipositors (adapted from Stubbs and Drake 2014).


Now this is where it gets tricky, as we know less about the egg and larval stage than any of the others. And this is the main reason why we should be concerned about these gorgeous creatures – many of the UK species are rare. We have no real idea for many species globally but can only assume that this is the case everywhere. In fact, several of our UK species are protected.

 

However we don't know much, if anything, about many of the species' diet, where they live, development and so on. In Collins' book The Conservation of Insects and their Habitats, he discusses how little is known about the species, despite the fact that they are classed as threatened.

 

Take one of the most charismatic insects in the UK (no bias there) the hornet robberfly Asilus Crabroniformis – a mimic of (you guessed it) a hornet. There is still very little information. Previous work dating back to the 90s states that the eggs were laid in or under the old dung of cows, horses and rabbits, and soil nearby. Maybe the adults (and subsequent larvae) are that flexible in their habitat? The larvae are then thought to feed on dung beetles but again this has only been observed (and not by many authors) during late-stage instars. What do the little ones eat? It is a UK priority species and we need to know more about it. How can we consider conserving a species (if it needs it) if we don't know where it is or what it's getting up to? It's like a wayward teenager.

 

Now, if you want to know more about what is going on with UK robberflies, there are loads of pages giving you what information there is.

There is a nice little piece by naturespot (Fig. 11) featuring some of the UK species, and of course you must check out the Dipterists Forum for all of their information.

 

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Figure 11. Nature spot.

 

But what we really want now is information coming the other way. Personal observations in the field, the location of eggs and the like, and species distributions are all critical in ensuring that we maintain and enhance our existing populations.

 

Martin Harvey @kitenet runs the UK recording scheme for these wonderful little animals (See Fig. 12 or visit the website) and you can send all your records to that site. Martin also runs many courses on these as do others in the Dipterists Forum, so sign up and go along to them.

 

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Figure 12. The Soldierfly and allies recording scheme, which includes the robberflies.


So there you go - robberflies are amazing, and they do need celebrating. And if you still need convincing here is a little fluffy one to tug at your heartstrings. When asked what is my favourite fly, Laphria flava is at the center of my heart (Fig. 13).

 

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Figure 13. Laphria flava male.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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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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.

Stackpole.jpg

 

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....

Roger, Alan, Claudia and Stuart small.jpg

 

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 ).

 

scrubby bottoms.jpg

 

 

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 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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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!!

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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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So I am in the new Darwin Centre and unpacked. And I have to say it is lovely. I have my specimens that I am working on in a cabinet directly behind me. I have a spacious desk with all my catalogues arranged close by. I have a wet lab for sorting my specimens in alcohol a minute away. And it is so light that desk lamps are redundant. And I have a foot rest. I can finally get back to work (there is still the minor problem of the collection that is yet to move into the building though….early November for that and my, it will be crazy). And I have to find a quick route from my desk to the staff entrance..

 

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My bay

 

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View from our floor over the Cocoon

 

Yesterday, though, I got to work on some recuration. I had lent (and by that I mean the Museum) all of our Sisyrnodytes specimens to a researcher in South Africa. These are a genus of Robber flies and the researcher in question is a leading authority. The specimens returned some while ago but I have not been able to put them back in the collection as he had designated one a Lectotype and described two new species from the material.

 

When new species are discovered and named, if it comes from a series then the author may choose to call all of the specimens from the same collecting event etc ‘Syntypes’ (we often have 10+ syntypes). This is not very helpful when it comes to descriptions, so what often happens is that one of them at a later point will be designated a Lectotype. To have this accepted along with the new species that he described, he needed to publish his descriptions.

 

This has now happened so I am able to link the material to the publication, update our system and reinstate the material (all lovingly housed in new Museum standard trays) back into the collection. I have now only another couple of thousand drawers to recurate and a whole lot more of unidentified material…..

 

old style drawers:

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And my nice new ones

 

We are off on fieldwork tomorrow. We have five days based in BridgNorth, near Wolverhampton….Not familiar at all with the area so it should be interesting. It is with the Dipterists Forum and I think that there will be about 10 of us.Today and yesterday the three of us from the Museum that are going have been organising our equipment. We have nets, microscopes, wellies, id guides etc etc that are waiting to be loaded up.

 

These trips are brilliant for many reasons. We get to run round the countryside, we learn a lot more about the British Fauna and we get to socialise with some of the top Dipterists in the UK. We are prioritising at the moment for species that we don’t have in our collection. It does seem odd that there are some UK species missing from the national collection but it has not been a collection priority for a while.

 

This is all changing with the opening of the Angela Marmont Centre for UK biodiversity. With over 7000 species of fly in the UK we should be kept busy hunting for a while

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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!