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Curator of Diptera's blog

4 Posts tagged with the arthropods tag

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!


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


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.

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