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Fly nurseries....

Posted by Erica McAlister Nov 22, 2011

Thought that I had better get a blog piece in quickly as for the next couple of months it will be all about the travel.


So before I had off to the wilds, I thought that I would write about something that was brought to me by one of the Botanists; a most exciting specimen of some bracket fungus (Ganoderma applanatum). It was not the fungus that was intriguing me though but what was on it/in it .....


There were hundreds of galls caused by Agathomyia wankowiczii (I guess over a hundred years ago that name did not sound as silly as now!) larvae. This is a type of fly called the flat-footed fly (aptly named as they have enlarged hind tarsi i.e. large back feet!). Talking of silly names, there is a book called Bizarre Books, a compendium of Classic oddities by Russell Ash and Brian Lake and one of the books that they cite is our very own Peter Chandler's (of Diptera Handbook and Checklist fame) book 'The Flat-Footed Flies of Europe' - many many librarians etc found this title amusing!




See in the image above the enlarged final section of the hind leg - very distinctive!


Now in the UK we have 33 species of these relatively small flies although this little one is a fairly recent arrival to our shores. And it’s the only insect species to form galls in Fungus in Britain- a very special fly. The galls are where the larvae develop and they are able to do this as the fungus is a slow growing species and so does not decay before the grubs have developed. Once fully grown they create a whole at the top of the gall (which is the bottom as they are on the underside). Gravity does the next bit and once landed they dig down into the soil before eventually pupating and the adults emerge. The adults are either found running around on leaves (they feed on honeydew) whilst some species e.g. Microsania are known as smoke flies since they like to swarm in fires! (a rather unusual pastime). The species in question is also the only orange one in the UK (and it is bright orange!!) and so is conveniently call the Yellow flat-footed fly…….


Aga w 5 23rd Aug 018a.JPG

Agathomyia wankowiczii © Judy Webb. This is exceptionally yellow


Now very little is known about the distribution of these flies and we have none in the National Collection! but at least we do have this very fine specimen now to show off! If you do come across them though the Dipterists Forum would love to know their locality data


Agathomyia (2).jpg


It still amazes me that there is so much we don't know about the British Fauna - Just goes to show you how much is happening all around us without us realising.....


Again I have been absent too long with writing a blog piece. I had two started; one on a recent field trip down to Dartmoor with the Dipterists Forum and the second on the lopsided fly that I have been donated (believe me I will finish that one as it is a very cool story – albeit all stories about flies are very cool..but maybe this one is slightly more)



But instead I am sitting outside my hotel in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (ah the fun of fieldwork) writing a blog about a ‘Fight Club’ that I am due to participate in at The Natural History Museum on 23 September. This will be one small part of an enormous event – Science Uncovered 2011.



Let me fill in the details of what goes on. Basically we let the scientists loose in the Museum; out from their labs and officesJ. From behind the scenes about 300 of all sizes and hairstyles will be presented to all who care to attend (and there are many) this free event, from 4 in the afternoon till 10 at night.





This is Dr Mark Spencer pontificating about the finer points of some lovely plants (can you tell that I am not a botanist!!)



And there will be many different types of activities, ranging from desks (aka Science Stations) where we bring out our specimens, to forensic science demonstrations, to the ‘Fight Club’ in which I am involved, … and le't not forget bars!



In our Fight Club, Dr Richie Abel, and I will be arguing about keeping specimens both for perpetuity and accessibility. He will argue against the need to keep specimens accessible due to modern techniques of taxonomic identification whilst I will argue for the need for collections, such as ours, within which people can come and freely access the material. This is by no means a new debate; in fact my last blog piece was all about the subject of why we museum’s need to maintain collections and some of the many uses for them. This is one step further in the discussion as to why we need to let people have access to them. Let me begin to explain the case for and against this access and then you can respond.


The NHM has over 80 million specimens, with the entomology department having about 32 million of them (just a guess mind you!).



Some of the collection….




What’s the point of having all of these specimens you may ask? Well there are several (in fact there are many more than several but that would spoil the fight wouldn’t it if I gave away everything here!!). But let me just concentrate on one for the moment….



I covered in my previous blog piece about why there is a need for the killing of specimens as identification of invertebrates is very difficult when they are still alive.... Oh I knew that I could get genitalia into this piece if I tried!! Now Richie is the king of the MicroCT Scanner – a very fancy piece of kit that theoretically can do whole body scans of very small creatures (we have looked at the insides of beetles and moths). Ideally we can use this to make 3-dimensional images of the internal anatomy of any specimen that we choose to study.


This video on the Museum's website is of the external morphology of a Rhinoceros Beetle Oryctes boas


Imagine putting on some special goggles and being able to walk inside an insect! That would be most cool….some crazy entomological theme park….


But there are problems. My flies are very weak internally – not many of them have sclerotised genitalia (i.e. it is made from very soft internal tissues) especially the females. You need to use certain products to stain the material to ensure that they are seen by the scanner, which is permanent (how comfortable would you feel doing that with a Linnaeus type? Or one of Darwin’s specimens? Or the only specimen in the collection of a species?) But lets for argument sack ignore those issues. We scanned the specimen and now Richie has us throw away the material as we have a great 3D image of the specimen. Let’s say for arguments sake that we have also sequenced the specimen. And let’s say we have removed all the label data and uploaded this to the database. Oh and have digitally imaged the specimen, head, ventral (bottom up), dorsal (top down), both sides, wings and genitalia (I have a lot of rude insect pictures J). I think that’s it for now. So let’s get on with the other 31,999,999 specimens in the Entomology department……. we could throw away or lock up the present collection in say…quite a few thousand years! Dr Vince Smith and Dr Vladimir Blagoderov calculated recently that to digitise the Museum’s collection (that is just photographing a specimen and uploading the label data) would take 1400 years! …and that of course is presuming that we do not develop any new techniques to aid in identification (because that has not happened previously has it ;) ) and I wonder where we would get both the money and staff to do this?




We are just not ready to throw away the keys. And that is only for the specimens that are already in the collection. We have maybe in the collection a representation of half of the global diversity that is has been described on Earth but this is approximately only 1.9 ma specimens. Our present guess is that this does not even come close to the total number of species alive at the moment. In fact we think that we have a further 5 to 10 million to go. Only in the last few days was there a news piece on the work of estimating global species richness and the techniques that we would have to employ to do this.




We need these new techniques to help us identify things quickly but we need to retain the specimens as a reference for us to cross examine with these new specimens as already pointed out – we have not the time, money or equipment to do all of that at the moment!



A second point that Richie maintains is that OK we may need the specimens but why can’t we keep them locked up and away from harms way, with just the images on display/ online etc. The specimens are not just maintained in the museum for the scientists/academics/naturalists etc but also for all that want to look at nature. My argument for that is to just go and look at the galleries. Sure, we can all read books, download images or watch documentaries. But nothing will replace the experience of being able to stand next to the blue whale and take in the sheer size of it, or look at the diversity of insects in the Darwin Centre that is evident to the visitors as they walk around.



One way to think about this Richie, is to ask ‘why go on holiday?’ Why not just look at other people’s photos? If we are to inspire the next generation, and the generation after that to maintain the biodiversity of the planet then we need to engage them in the subject matter.






The blue whale




Specimens in the Darwin Centre Cocoon



P.S. If you would like to help us pick a topic for the Fight Club debates, visit this thread in our Science Uncovered online community and join in.


Many people, quite rightly, are very concerned about Biodiversity, that is the species richness and abundance of everything on the planet. We go around the world collecting and trying to identify species (not always as easy as you would think!) hoping to answer many questions relating to this topic.


In the UK, we are incredibly fortunate to have a plethora of recording schemes, ranging for my hopeless craneflies that loose their legs at every opportunity, up to birds and mammals, and many other animals, and let’s not forget the plants! These are all really important for us to track the species distributions patterns in the UK and also any changes in indigenous, as well as exotic species.


Biological record.bmp

Picture 1. Here is an axample for the Biological records Centre detailing some of the recording schemes in the UK


This helps us when it comes to conservation of species e.g. is the species locally common or nationally rare? Or both? Large Mammal, Plant and especially Bird recording communities (RSPB, BTO) can work very well with observational records i.e. records where the species being observed do not have to be killed in order to determine correct identification (although some may argue that many species have been misidentified even of the common species). However, when it comes to most of the invertebrates, and here I will specifically talk about the insects, this is not the common case. Many of the characters used to identify insects are often cryptic, how many of you regularly cut up genitalia? These, being internal are very hard to see when a fly is whizzing past your head


819022 (9).JPG

Picture 2. Here is the genitalia of a robberfly. Now you have to work out how many spines, what direction they are facing, general external shape etc...


Which brings me to the point of this blog. Recently there was a piece on the NHM website about the identification of a new stratiomyiidae, the drab wood soldier fly, Solva marginata record in the wildlife garden by one of my fellow entomologists, David Notton. There was a piece on the website and this was circulated to the Dipterist community and beyond! There were some comments back, some good, and some bad. ‘Excellent to have this fly turn up in the middle of London but why the anti-collecting comments on the photo?’


This is not the first time people have raised concerns about why you need to kill a specimen. This debate is springing up everywhere, with people arguing now that with the advent of online identification services such as i-spot and the museums own online identification service we don't need to do this! Many of these can be reliable and sometimes exceptionally useful (see my blog piece on the Beeflies).



Picture 3. Here is the Solva marginata. This was taken by Nigel Jones, a great UK Dipterists at Attingham Park, Shrewsbury


However, this is not always the case. Some recent work done for a master’s thesis by Claudia Watts, who is also a committee member for both the London Natural History Society and the British Entomological and Natural History Society found that many of the photographs that had been sent in for identification could not determine what the specimen was or only to a higher taxonomic level than species. Only 60% of the photographs of British aculeate Hymenoptera posted on wildlife social networking sites were able to be identified (the group that she was working on, which includes the bees, wasps and ants). An example that she gives in her thesis is shown here;


Untitled-1 copy.jpg


She states –‘A male bumblebee Bombus sp. The individual antennal segments can be counted to confirm this as a male, but the bee’s ‘tail’ is not visible, so despite the technical quality of the photograph, the specimen cannot be identified to species’


More and more are becoming concerned that people are relying too much on this form of identification, and not collecting, and therefore not enough specimens are being added to collections for posterity. A colleague and I recently ran an Introduction to Insects course at the NHM (which we will be running again!!) to front of house staff who deal with day to day questions from the public. Some of the more common ones are why do we have to kill specimens, don’t we have enough? The simple answer is no. And there are several reasons why this is the case;


Firstly, it is hard to identify many of the species unless you have the specimen there in front of you. Many of my flies are very small and therefore require looking at under a microscope to ensure correct identification.


Secondly, who is to say that the initial identification was correct? I had a lovely example of this recently where an expert on one group of flies came in to look through the British collection, and was shocked at some of the incorrect identifications. Upon examining the label he was even more amused to find that they were done by him many years previously!


Thirdly, without these specimens that go back many hundreds of years we would not be able to determine if there were any morphological changes (i.e. has the colour changed etc). Classic examples of colour change have been seen with the peppered moth but we also have examples of other changes such as size and patterns. By having specimens to go back to and compare with, we can determine whether these are true changes or not.


People will always be concerned about whether killing specimens will have a detrimental affect on the insect populations - surely if we are trying to maintain and enhance biodiversity the last thing that we want to do is go round removing more of them! Well this is definitely true for many of the vertebrates whose actual population numbers are very low. However, this is not the same with Insects where the population numbers are often enourmous -


This is a photo from an F-16 aircraft at Luke AFB showing a honey bee swarm...quite a fantastic photo.4604124773_0b5b51e767_o.jpg

Credit - MSgt Todd E. Enderle, 309 AMU/MXACW, 13 Oct 2005, submitted by Wayne Fordham, HQ AFCESA/CESM, Tyndall AFB, FL.


Now even if a hundred are killed you are not even scratching the surface. In a paper by Stuart ball and Roger Morris - they described a mark-release recapture experiment with hoverflies, which enables you to work out the true population numbers and found that they were sampling approximately 16% of the population - they simply were not reaching all of the population! Needless killing of individuals is wrong, but when it is to answer questions that are essential in understanding biodiversity, species interactions and population change linking into amongst other things global warning, then it is a vital component of scientific study.





Bee flies

Posted by Erica McAlister Apr 12, 2011

This week's blog I thought that I would write something bee flies. I am writing this for two reasons: one, they are often the first indicators of spring and two, a new species of bee fly has turned up in the UK. 


A couple of months ago I was on my way home listening to a pod cast when David Gibbs came on discussing these lovely flies. Now David knows a lot about these flies and proceeded to inform everyone of a new recording of a beefly species in the UK; this was important for two reasons, (1) it’s a new fly, bee fly at that, and they are great!, and (2) the identification came from an iSpot identification (more about this in a bit)!


We often get migrant species in the country - blown over the channel, hitching a lift on another animal or with us - but this one was very different and that is why it was more exciting. This one was in very good condition indicating that it had emerged as an adult here and so there may be more of them ...


So I am talking about Bombyliids, or Bombyliidae to be more correct. I have a large soft (and fluffy) spot for these flies; they have the most fascinating ecology being parasites of bees, wasps etc; they are some of the earlier flying flies of the season; and they are, I think, some of the most attractive little creatures. They are often very hairy and fly low down to the ground and they are out now!!! There have been sightings near here and I can’t wait to see one. But hurry as they are early season fliers. However, they like warm and sunny days which are a tad sparse at the moment!!!!


Within the UK there are not many species but here are the ones that you can find (although some of them are very rare!). I will break them down into their subfamilies and attach photos so you can see the differences. The photos are taken of our specimens in the British collection at the Museum.



BOMBYLIUS Linnaeus, 1758

canescens Mikan, 1796 +

discolor Mikan, 1796

major Linnaeus, 1758 +

minor Linnaeus, 1758


The BOMBYLIIDAE include the species that are the more well known species, including the commonest UK ones. There are four in the UK;


Bombylius canescens Mikan, 1796 – These are found in southern Wales and South-West England and are generally scarce across their range. There was one recorded from London but, as with many of these cases, lots of the records need to be verified ... and more importantly more need to be made! What I love about this species is that the females have been observed ovipositing (laying their eggs) by flicking their egg over or into burrows of bees using their legs! Wouldn’t that be an amazing sight!


Bombylius canescens.jpg

Bombylius discolor Mikan, 1796 - A smallish bee fly that has beautifully mottled wings. These are generally found in the Southern part of England but are fairly rare nowadays and are a UK BAP species. They parasitise the larger solitary bees (there are many records from the genus Andrena), which are active in the spring. As with much of our understanding about the ecology of all flies, much has to be determined as the exact hosts have yet to all be identified.


Bombylius discolor 1.jpg
Bombylius major Linnaeus, 1758  - This is the most common species and one of the early rises in terms appearing in the spring. One of the fun things about Bee flies is that when at rest their wings are fairly distinguishable from each other but in flight, these become a blur and so identification becomes harder


Bombylius major.jpg

Bombylius minor Linnaeus, 1758 – this is another one of the UK BAP species, commonly called the heath bee fly and is found on, heaths…..


Bombylius minor.jpg



THYRIDANTHRAX Osten Sacken, 1886

fenestratus (Fallén, 1814 - Anthrax)

VILLA Lioy, 1864

cingulata (Meigen, 1804 - Anthrax)

modesta (Meigen, 1820 - Anthrax) +

venusta (Meigen, 1820 - Anthrax)


There are again 4 species represented in Britain from the subfamily EXOPROSOPINAE and they differ considerably from the previous by all being short tongued species. We once had an enquiry at the Msueum describing a very small fluffy flying narwhal … we knew what they meant though!


Thyridanthrax fenestratus (Fallén, 1814) - this is a very distinctive species with blotch patterned wings. Alan Stubbs describes them wonderfully in his book on solider flies and their allies as having ‘extensive bold wing markings with some tiny clear windows!’ - I can picture them exactly.


Thyridanthrax fenestratus.jpg


The next three are from the genus Villa, which at genus level are fairly easy to recognise with their clear wings and their rather flattened blunt abdomens (this again is taken from Alan Stubbs brilliant book on British Soldier flies and their allies – he has such a lovely use of language!!). However species level identification is a tad trickier. The keys worry about scales on their abdomen, which inevitably rub off! And there are subtle changes in morphology from the norm which is not helpful – the insects play with us!!!


Villa cingulata (Meigen, 1804)   - a very rare species but this may be an artefact of poor sampling or people not turning in records. One place that is meant to be good to see them is the Warburg Reserve, just outside Henley


Villa modesta (Meigen, 1820) - The most widely distributed of the UK Villa species, mostly on sand dunes in England, Wales, Scotland and has been recorded in South-East Ireland.


Villa modesta.jpg

Villa venusta (Meigen, 1820)



Now this is a rare species, associated with Lowland heaths (it is an RDB2 species). There have been records from Dorset, Devon and Surrey but not for a long time.  However, we have no specimens in the British collection at all! They are found in mainland Europe and we have some from there but it would be really interesting to see if any are around. This in the past have been collected later in the season (mid-July to late august) which should tie in lovely with peoples summer holidays!!




PHTHIRIA Meigen, 1803

pulicaria (Mikan, 1796 - Bombylius) +


Phthiria pulicaria (Mikan, 1796) 


This tiny bee fly is recorded widely on sandy coastal areas of Britain. It is locally abundant on many sand dunes with some 25 known post 1960 sites. As with the other bee flies the larvae are parasitoids, with hosts including caterpillars of a micro-moth (Gelechiidae), but with greater time studying their biology it is assumed that many more hosts will be discovered (Stubbs & Drake 2001). Adults are seen from June to August and characteristically visit the flowers of various low hawkweed-type composites but they can often be overlooked as they are tiny!


Phthiria pulicaris.jpg

(isn't it a cutey!!!)


And Systoechus ctenopterus, the new one confirmed by David Gibbs, all very exciting! It is the first new bee fly on the British list for a very long time.



It looks a lot like some of the other bee flies but the position of cross-vein r-m differs in this species in comparison to the more common Bombylius species. In Bombylius it is approximately in the middle of discal cell (d), well beyond m-cu but in Systoechus these two veins are opposite.


Below is a typical wing of the Bombylius with all of the veins labelled. I spend a lot of time looking at wings trying to decipher what vein is what. This can often be very frustrating!! Also the banded appearance of the abdomen is a good indicator of this genus. As David states, the other species are from Southern Europe and less likely to have such distinct banding. In the museum collection we only have this species in the main collection as we have never collected any from the UK previously.




So this is great on two counts; one- a new species to Britian of a very cute little fly and two- it was identified through iSpot. This is an online service aimed at helping people with faunal and floral identifications. They have a team of experts (of which David Gibbs is one) dotted round the country to aid with identifications. These are not the only online places though – the Museum also do this and I have had many a request on random maggots and strange looking flies


Just before I finish this piece there is one final group of bee flies that I wanted to mention and they are in the genus Anthrax! Now these were included on the British list on the basis of specimens with locality data in Leicestershire, but it is now considered to be wrongly recorded as British. There is nothing scary about this genus though which is entertaining as we still have problems sending specimens from the main collection to people on loan- I mean, would you like anthrax in the post?


Ok so here is some of the recuration work that I do;


At the moment I am working on the Bombyliids - the bee flies, and I am recurating the subfamily Phthiriinae as I type . These are fairly small, stripy flies unlike our more familiar Bombylius major we see flying around our gardens.


Bombylius major.jpg


This collection was transferred some time ago from the very old slats into these unit trays which are no longer deemed acceptable housing - pests can get into the substrate etc, and many of the labels are completely out of date. As well as the poor housing the Museum was donated a large collection which I am incorporating into the main collection.. Sometimes the recuration is easy, all the specimens are correctly labelled and there have been no taxonomic revisions. Other times it’s not so easy….



Take this one for example. Here is a snapshot of some of the specimens in the unit tray

dolorosus williston.jpg.

And here is the description in the most up to date catalogue (2003);




Phthiria dolorosa Williston, 1901: 290. TYPE LOCALITY: Mexico (Guerrero) [L designated by Painter & Painter (1962: 35) in BMNH*].

Phthiria sororia Williston, 1901: 291. TYPE LOCALITY: Mexico (Guerrero) [3S in AMNH*].

DISTRIBUTION: Nearctic: Mexico (Guerrero, Hidalgo, Jalisco, Morelos, Puebla, Querétaro de Arteaga).’



What this description is telling us is that species dolorosa was originally described by Williston in 1901 in the genus Phthiria, and you can find this in that publication on page 290. The material that he used to base this new species on was from Mexico (Guerrero to be more precise).


This species is now no longer in the genus Phthiria, and in fact was moved to the genus Neacreotrichus by a husband and wife team Painter and Painter in 1962, but I will get back to this later. In the description we are also told that there is now a L in the BMNH (this means Lectotype in the British  Museum of Natural History, us!). Moving species around genera is a very common occurrence- taxonomists disagree all the time and sometimes species may move many times! It is hard to keep track of sometimes!!  



Here is the original description that Williston wrote about this species;


P. dolorosa williston orig description.bmp

He states that there were 6 specimens and the exact locality is given and that they were collected by H. H. Smith. We have four in the NHM and these are indeed the specimens mentioned in this description. The other two specimens are in another museum or lost with time (at least one is at the American Museum of Natural History AMNH).



I will come to the lectotype part in a moment. However, when there was no holotype designated (the specimen from which the species is described) then all or some of the specimens from the series that were collected are designated Syntype status, which is what originally happened here.


Now getting back to the present labels and the designation of lectotype; this is because an individual specimen needs to be the reference for the name, as when a name is based on a series of several specimens there may be problems if the series is later found to contain more than one species (as sometimes happens), and so one of the Syntypes is chosen as a Lectotype. So we can see that yes indeed we have P.dolorosa designated as LT and four PLT. From the most current catalogue we see that this was done by Painter and Painter in 1962. (i hope that you are all still following this!)


lectotype p.dolorosia.jpg

The label in the drawer though is now wrong and this is because when Painter and Painter decided that no this species does not belong in Phthiria (feminine) but instead Neacreotrichus (masculine) then the ending was no longer correct and so the feminine dolorosa became masculine dolorosus! This is because Latin names for both the genus and species have to be of the same gender. New labels to be made then .

dolorosus label.jpg

…. and there is a further mystery concerning this tray of flies.


When searching the original description Williston in 1901 designated all of these flies (from the then 2 species) as syntypes. This means that no individual fly was used as the Holotype. What has happened when Painter came along was that some of the other catalogues did not record this change in status so when you check the status of the specimen for example on the AMNH site it still has them listed as Cotypes (which is an old term for Syntypes);



this needs to be changed!


And to further complicate the matter - In the latest catalogue it also states that Phthiria sororia Williston 1901 (on page 291 for the original description) is a junior synonym of dolorosus. Again this was the lovely Painter couple in 1962;


Phthiria dolorosa Williston 1901.bmp

At the very beginning they describe P. sororia as a new synonym (i.e. they are infact the same species but as dolorosa was described first (albeit a few pages!!) it retains the name. In the collection there is the designation of Lectotype and Paralectypes; the lectotype designation for sororia is also in the extract from Painter & Painter’s paper! It’s in the paragraph below where they designate the lectotype for dolorosa, in this sentence: “The lectotype was selected from the Amula (Sept.) group”).




TL: Mexico, Guerrero, Amula (T BMNH)



Now on many sites and catalogues this species has been left as a cotype whilst others as LT’s and PLT’s!! So by updating our own catalogue and with the data being fully accessible on the web hopefully more people will respond to the change in status (it was only 49 years ago that it happened…. ) – if there were any changes though we would all the original labels on the specimens – in fact I would never remove a label but instead add one if I discovered new information on the nomenclature etc…you can often have large stacks of labels which can be problematic on a short pin!!



I will edit the database to update the nomenclature changes and if the types do not already have one, I will add a specimen number. These are so we can track all of the type material. The collection at the NHM is the most type rich in the world and we have rather a larger number of specimens to database!! We are progressing though and you can check on line how we are doing!!!


As well as the electronic editing we re-house the specimens in conservation grade unit trays. These are lined with plastozote – which is inert and so does not release any chemicals etc which could result in damage to the specimens. Everything from the glue that is used, the paper that the labels are made from to the wood that is used to construct the drawers has been researched to determine whether it is suitable for museum collections. We will spend a long time researching a new product before we use it. After all the collections date back to the 1680’s – we want to ensure that they are around for a few more years!!!


All done I move onto the next species. Only another 4000 to go .




So there has been a lot of talk in the media about the Terrible Hairy Fly and I thought that I would fill you in with some more details, including photographs of the material at the museum and tell you some more interesting facts about this amazing creature who, I have to agree does look a bit odd even to me!


We are talking about Mormotomyia hirsuta, which is the only species represented in this genus and this family. And to make matters more interesting we are not even really sure where they fit in with the rest of the Diptera! They have been tentatively placed near the Heleomyzidae (see below)



From the



But other authors disagree and have placed it in Hippoboscoidea (see but all agree that it is odd, an outlier that needs to be sorted.



This was problematic though originally as the material that we had was collected either in 1933 or 1948. During that period the techniques available to describe species were limited to morphological descriptions, which generally suit the purpose wonderfully. However this species is odd, very odd and traditional methods for placing it into an evolutionary tree were not coping. For the majority if museum specimens it has been very had to extract any genetic material from specimens this old; only recently have we been haven any successes. Also there had been numerous expeditions to find fresh material of this elusive fly after the first two collecting events but all were unsuccessful. So the specimens have just sat there, looking weird in the drawer. Until recently that is, very recently!



It is so not often that I get to do this, but to quote the Daily Mail ‘It went missing for 62 years, but now Africa's 'terrible hairy fly' has been discovered in remote caves in Kenya. The insect, which does not have fully-formed wings and so is unable to fly, is one of the rarest creatures in the world. 

Read more:



And it may have been due to it being Unable to fly and partial to breeding in bat faeces’ with the fly being ‘thought to live only in the dank, bat-filled cleft of the isolated rock in Kenya's Ukazi Hills’ ( that it remained undisturbed for so long.




But now two researchers, Dr Robert Copeland and Dr Ashley Kirk-Spriggs on an internally funded trip, have rediscovered them! And everyone in the fly world is very excited about it (they are…Honest!)



So let’s talk about them and then how exciting this find is!! The flies are sexually dimorphic things;  


hairy fly female.bmp


hairy fly male.bmp

The really hairy ones are the males and they are also much larger generally with much longer legs. These are specimens from our collection, part of the original series!!


But they both have only tiny hairy wings that will not be of much use in powered flight (see photo below from one of the new specimens found).


Terrible hairy fly.jpg

Copyright by original authors.



It is hypothesised that they cling on to bats to enable migration but as they have not been found anywhere else apart from the one cave, this may not be the case!! Now, due to this find there is a lot of material that can be sequenced i.e. they can determine where on earth these flies fit in with the rest of the flies and to further aid this they were able to collect puparia and larval material for scanning electron microscopy studies. This enables the researchers to give a complete morphological, molecular and life history account of this species – which is pretty much the best that you can do. J It is so exciting when a find like this occurs to answer such a large piece of the evolutionary puzzle (how everything is organised!)



And secondly, knowing that this species is alive and not extinct is fantastic! Although at the moment the species appears to be restricted to one locality, and maybe does not exist anywhere else, the researchers now studying the life history of this species hope to find similar sites elsewhere in Kenya where other populations may survive!



A very good story indeed!







Well it’s been a long time since I have posted a piece on the blog, sorry! So here are some of the things that have been preoccupying my time! Again I have been away on fieldwork (some more successful than others!!), we have had an all change in the department and I have been busy with visitors, projects and general day to day life!!


So firstly we have a new keeper (Dr Andy Polaszek, a hymenopterist!) and soon to take over as head of collections once Howard Mendel retires is Theresa Howard (My line manager!). It is sad in one way as it is the end of an era. Howard secured my first contract with the NHM and encouraged me with my work but I feel that the department is in good hands with Theresa to take us on through difficult times. We have a lot of work to do in a limited amount of time – but I guess that is a common problem.


As to more fun stuff ! I wrote most of this blog whilst sitting in a hotel in Sao   Paulo. We were due to go on fieldwork in Paraguay but that has been postponed and so I am utilising my time well here. It is the first time that I have seen the collection here which is the largest in Brazil. Carlos Lamas (a dipterist who specialises in beeflies) overseas the collection and I had great fun noising around in it. Although the collection is open (not in cabinets) they do not suffer from pests or changes in temperature or humidity and the collection is in very good condition. They do have a lot of work to do though as these pictures show!!!



Some unidentified material! (Figure 1)

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We also spent our time sorting out future collaborations and transfer agreements. Both sides are very keen to have a closer relationship. Dalton de Souza Amorim is another ‘fly man’ that I work with in Brazil. We are working on some ‘lost’ types which have been rediscovered in our collection in London. At the NHM we have an impressive new imaging lab in the Darwin centre and I am now beginning to play around with the system. We have a clever piece of software (not unique to the NHM) which allows us to create a picture which is composed of many images overlying each other so creating a greater depth of field. We can do this with specimens that are just 2mm and so enable us to look at the wings and the hairs on the genitalia!! I have been creating images of fungus gnat genitalia (it always gets back to that in the end) as well as helping the IPM (integrated pest management) group take photos of unidentified beetles found in the museum.


Dalton de Souza Amorim in the collection (Figure 2)

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I have written the second half of this blog again whilst sitting in a hostel in Sao Paulo but this time on my return from Paraguay and all that is good there. As most people are aware we have had to postpone the major collecting trip into the dry Chaco but hopefully that will still happen. However as several of us were already in the region, on our way, we headed to Asuncion to sort out some things. The people we met were incredibly helpful – most of them are hopefully coming on the trip with us and they will be amazing! A lot of them have spent time sampling around Paraguay and have a very good local knowledge. We spent some time in the Museum  of Natural History, which is the most compact little museum but crammed full of amazing specimens. But they stretch up to the ceiling with the gaps between the collections becoming smaller and smaller!



John Kochalka working his way through the collection! (Figure 3)

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It is warren of cabinets that all need looking in! I spent some time photographing all of the drawers of the Diptera collection and specific specimens inside.


An unidentified Tachinid (Figure 4)

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A drawer of unsorted material – the little flies in the bottom right corner with the orange labels are the ones caught in the Dry Chaco. (Figure 5)


Hopefully I will be able to pass these on to people to identify the specimens. Luckily they have started colour coding the material from the different biomes in the country. All the specimens that have not been identified and that are from the Dry Chaco have been photographed for identification! We have also agreed to sort out permits to exchange material across the museums to speed up the identification process! There are lots of people in Brazil for example working on groups that are unidentified in the museum! I also spent my time looking at the ‘crazy’ flies that the one of the invertebrate curators John Kochalka kept fishing out for me! There was a crazy thunder storm during the day and several leaks sprung from the ceiling luckily not in the collection though!


We were taken to a camp one night out of the city at a friend’s father’s Estacion! Oh and it was lovely. We went for a walk in the surrounding area – that was great – a mix of botanists and entomologists so the pace was very slow!! We climbed the only hill in the area (Paraguay is very flat) and enjoyed the great views from the top.



This is Juana De Egea, a very good Paraguayan Botanist (Figure 6)

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A robber fly just enjoying the sunshine! (Figure 7)



We set up a sheet at night for seeing what moths etc were in the area (there was no collecting just observing!). It was completely invaded by termites to start with which encouraged some of the other local inhabitants to visit us!



Please note the termite that didn’t make it into the mouth! (Figure 8)

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But there were many different types of moths, beetles, bugs but sadly no flies!



One of the many species of Moth. (Figure 9)

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So all in all a very positive outcome for the time we were there.


And on my return journey - I again spent some time in the Museum of Sao Paulo and we were able to look at all of the photo's that I took whilst in the Museum of Paraguay and we established that there were new species of Diptera just sitting in the collection as well as new records to the country! We are working on now describing the material!!



Posted by Erica McAlister Sep 3, 2010

I thought that i would just add some photos of a recent collecting trip with some of the volunteers.


at first the volunteers seemed very relaxed about the sampling...


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But soon they became more excited...



Action shot through some woodlands - James the volunteer at the front seemed to be the most excited all weekend!


and below is a typical dipterist pose....


See another one at it.....



and yet more....




...but once all of the flies have been caught (and killed!) it is down to the serious business of pinning and mounting the specimens.



and my, weren't they dedicated....




Kim Goodger and I gave them some pointers..




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and for three days we collected....


from woodlands after the rain..


(i would advise never approaching this group...)


through the salt marshes..




and up on the heathlands...




and the specimens arrived back at the Museum for the fun task of identification of the material...


final specimens.jpg


All in all, a good time was had by all!




Definitely organise a trip like that again!


Hi there blog readers!


Erica’s asked me to write a post telling you about my time volunteering in Entomology, and after a few days of procrastinating, I’ve decided to knuckle down and get to it. This is my second draft, my first ended up being half a dozen pages long and judging by the Doctor’s reaction, that’s a bit too long for a blog post...


alex and adam.bmp


I don’t know how to condense 6 months into a few paragraphs!!!


So here goes, my name’s Adam and I’m 28 years old (that’s young for somebody working at the museum). I’ve been volunteering in ‘Entom’ for almost six months, and it’s been quite an experience! I walked in through the staff entrance on Exhibition Road on a chilly afternoon in February with a notebook in my hand and absolutely no idea of what I had signed up for. During my induction I was privy to a number of interesting tales about my new supervisor, but thankfully most of them have turned out to be untrue (apart from the one where I was told she’s spectacular!).


I’m working as part of a team of 10-15 volunteers sorting through and classifying insect material that was collected from the rain forests of French Guiana at the end of last year. We essentially have twenty jars of insect sludge that’s been preserved in alcohol for the last six months and smells pretty bad! Inside each jar there are thousands of insects and we pick through them one by one and attempt to determine what they are. We normally classify to Order level (if you don’t know what that is then Google ‘taxonomy’), but with the help of Erica and an amazing collection of books in the museum’s libraries we’re starting to identify some families too. It’s really nice to be making progress...


...anyway, we’re a big group of volunteers, and we all have varying degrees of experience in the subject. I was worried when I first started volunteering that everybody was going to be spectacularly clever and that I wouldn’t have a clue what was going on. I was really happy when that didn’t transpire to be true! Everyone’s come from a different background, and everybody has oodles of character that they bring to the lab, but one thing that we all have in common is our willingness to help each other out if ever we’re stuck! It’s created a really dynamic environment and has enabled us to learn loads of stuff about Entomology that six months ago we simply didn’t know.


So everything’s going well. We’re learning new things all of the time, and we’re trying not to be too disruptive in the process.


The staff at the museum have been great too. There are so many volunteers, it would be easy to take us for granted, but that’s not been the case. Most people have been really welcoming, and helpful. We’ve often had the opportunity to explore other departments in the museum. I had a personal tour of the Entomology Library off-site in Wandsworth; I’ve been to see some amazingly weird and huge fish preserved in formalin in the basement of the Darwin Centre; I recently went on a tour of the photographic unit too and it was really interesting to see how specimens were photographed for commercial and scientific purposes...


...but after all that science, there comes a time in the day when the lights are dimmed and the visitors go home, and that’s when the NHM like to throw a party! I’ve been to three or four now and they’ve been great opportunities to get to know people working in the museum and other volunteers on a social level.


I’ve had a great six months, and wherever my life takes me from here I’ll always look back fondly on the time I’ve spent with Erica and The Volunteers. We’re going on a field-trip to Exmoor next weekend. We organised it between us; we’ve booked a little ‘bunk-house’ in the middle of the moor and Erica’s driving us down in a minibus. It’s going to be an adventure, and it’s one that I’m really looking forward to. I think another volunteer is going to write and tell you about that one!!


Let’s hope it doesn’t rain!!!



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!!




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!



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



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




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....)






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.



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)...



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



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)




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



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!!! (


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 ( 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!



they were so attentive as students!



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!)





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.



(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) 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 and the storage facilities for the Canadian Museum of Nature They were both very different! The first had the collections amongst the staff (in Diptera this included Scott Brooks, Bradley Sinclair and Jeff Cummings, 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


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




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!


And these were pretty smart too...



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....


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.

donkeys copy.jpg

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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!


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!....


Work experience

Posted by Erica McAlister Apr 6, 2010

As well as a marauding mass of volunteers….


french guyiana project.jpg
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....




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.


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 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.



I am pretending to concentrate!!




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




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



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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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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