Apr 222015
March flies (Bibionidae) pollinating both flowers and each other.

March flies (Bibionidae; Bibio albipennis) pollinating both flowers and one another.

When it comes to pollination ecology research, bees are their own knees. Along with butterflies, birds, and bats, bees reign supreme as the queens of pollinator studies, with huge amounts of money and time spent each year trying to understand everything about their biology, from how they choose which flowers to visit, to the structure of their societies, and of course, why some species seem to be in decline. While some flies (like flower flies ­— family Syrphidae) are beginning to break into the hive of pollination research, bees so dominate the pollination ecology landscape that suggesting alternative groups, like other flies, may also be important pollinators can result in quizzical looks, derisive scoffs, and even disbelief at results that run counter to popular thinking.

The latter is exactly what happened when Dr. Katy Orford submitted a paper from her PhD that showed flies play a major role in grasslands pollination; the editor rejected it due to a lack of literature supporting her Dipterous conclusions. So, Orford set out to do what no one had done to this point: show beyond a shadow of a doubt that flies are important, and overlooked, pollinators.

Crane fly hanging out among the flowers.

Crane fly (Tipulidae) hanging out among the flowers.

Orford began by gathering and assembling previously published datasets that looked at the connections between pollinators and plants across the UK, specifically datasets that looked at plant-pollinator-visitation networks (what insects visit which plants based on observations) and pollen-transport networks (how many grains of each kind of pollen was found on each insect’s body). Orford immediately found that few studies had actually looked at these metrics for entire insect communities rather than just targeted groups like bees, but she ended up with a dataset spanning both natural and agricultural ecosystems that included over 9,000 insect specimens, 520 pollinator species, and 261 species of plants.

With her dataset in hand, Orford had four questions she wanted answered: how specialized are flies with regards to the plants they pollinate; how prevalent are dipteran pollinators in agriculture and how much pollen are they carrying; and most importantly, how do flies stack up against bees, butterflies, and beetles when it comes to transporting pollen?

Flies, it turns out, aren’t overly picky about what flowers they’ll visit and feed from. While flower flies visited a broader spectrum of the floral smorgasbord available in the study plots, they were found to be no better at transporting specific pollen species than the other fly families. This isn’t to say that there aren’t any specialized relationships between plants and flies (cacao and biting midges in the genus Forcipomyia being the most famous example of flowers and flies being in league with one another, much to our enjoyment), only that in the particular environments Orford examined she found no evidence for specialization among the residents.

When Orford looked at the composition of fly visitors on farms, non-syrphids were not only more speciose than their flower fly cousins, averaging 7 species to 3, respectively, but they also outnumbered them 4 to 1 in the sheer number of individuals. In fact, Orford found that only 3 farms out of the 33 she had data for reported more flower flies than other flies. Not only were non-syrphids more diverse and more abundant, but they also carried more than twice the number of pollen grains on their bodies as flower flies did in agricultural fields. All of this suggests that the role of syrphids in pollination ecology, a topic that has received at least some study at this time, may only be the tip of the iceberg when considering the importance of flies in agricultural pollination.

Urophora affinis (Tephritidae)

Urophora affinis (Tephritidae)

This is all well and good when deciding which flies are better pollen bearers among themselves, but how do they stack up against the rest of the competition? Do bees really pull their weight in the great pollen wars, or have flies been shouldering the load without us realizing it?

Unsurprisingly, bees are really good at carrying pollen. Not counting the pollen trapped in their specialized storage structures (like the corbicula of Apis mellifera, or the scopa of Megachilidae leaf-cutter bees), Hymenoptera still beat out all the other insect groups when the number of pollen grains on each individual was counted, while flies, butterflies and beetles were all found to be roughly equal in their carrying capacity. This result shouldn’t really come as a surprise, as bees have specialized branched hairs all over their bodies that have evolved to efficiently trap pollen, which is then combed out of the hairs and into their pollen storage structures. So while flies are usually pretty hairy, they’re essentially catching pollen with a comb, rather than the hair net that bees are employing.

But, while each individual bee may carry more pollen than each individual fly, Diptera are much more abundant, at least in agricultural settings. In fact, Orford found that two-thirds of all pollinating insects recorded in her agricultural datasets were flies. That means that when we talk about agricultural pollination ecology, which is predominantly focused on bees currently, we’re a long ways from seeing the complete picture.

Perhaps Wired's editors were on to something here. If it looks like a bee, and carries pollen like a bee, then...

Perhaps Wired’s editors were on to something here. If it looks like a bee, and carries pollen like a bee…

There was one other thing that Dr. Orford discovered, however. When she broke down her pollen-load data beyond just Hymenoptera and Diptera, and started looking at the pollen loads of bees and flies on a finer taxonomic scale, she found that, statistically speaking, flower flies carry just as much pollen on their bodies as European honey bees.

Does this mean flower flies are as effective pollinators as honey bees? It’s too early to say; honey bees may be better at transferring pollen from flower to flower and causing flowers to develop seeds; or they might not be. More research into the pollination efficiency of flies is clearly needed, but the potential implications of this pollen equality are staggering. Orford’s data shows that on farms, flower flies make up about 16% of all flower-visiting insects, while bees, butterflies and beetles together combine to make up only 33% of visitors. It’s very possible that we’ve been attributing a little too much success to those “busy” little bees.

Orford’s work presents another fly in the ointment, so to speak: if bee populations, including honey bees, are indeed declining as has been suggested by several recent papers and hyped by the media and special-interest groups like beekeeping societies, what’s happening with flies? Are they experiencing similar declines as social bees, or are they shielded from the effects of human-trafficked diseases and parasites, along with pesticide accumulation in hives by their solitary and undomesticated lifestyle? Are monocultural agriculture practices and denuded, degraded, and destroyed natural habitats reducing fly diversity in the same way that other pollinators appear to be experiencing? We just don’t know at this point.

And while bees become an increasingly popular talking point and agenda item for politicians, Diptera remain undiscussed. US President Barack Obama in particular has become a champion for bees, with a pollinator garden and bee hotels supposedly being built on the grounds of the White House. Why not monitor and speak up for all of the pollinators, two-winged or four, in President Obama’s backyard as Dr. Orford did?

Geron sp. (Bombyliidae)

Geron sp. (Bombyliidae)

Well, as she notes in the conclusions of her work, flies aren’t as easy to study as bees are. For one, flies don’t return to a predictable location such as a hive or nest like bees do, which makes observing and experimenting with them considerably more difficult. The other major issue, of course, is taxonomy. There are more than 6 times as many species of fly currently known than there are bees, and those flies are notoriously difficult to identify, even to the proper family in some instances, never mind trying to determine genus or species. While the flower flies have received a great deal of taxonomic attention in the past 50 years, and are generally more easily identified than most groups of flies, the same is not true for the top non-syrphid pollen carriers identified by Dr. Orford: Bombyliidae, Muscidae, and Calliphoridae, all of which pose significant identification and/or taxonomic challenges at the moment.

The solution? From Dr. Orford: “training in dipteran taxonomy should be more available to ecologists. Alternatively, specialist taxonomists should be included in research projects to prevent pollination biologists being deterred from recording Diptera due to identification difficulties”.

I couldn’t agree more.

Dipterists around the world are working hard to make the flies they’ve devoted their careers to more accessible, both through the publication of identification resources, and through the organization of workshops and other educational events. However, as has been shown by Dr. Orford’s work, we should expect a growing demand for keys and other identification tools, along with the people who create them, to usher in a new era of pollination ecology; an era defined by a greater understanding of pollinators of every ilk through collaboration and communication between Diptera taxonomists and pollination ecologists.

As for Dr. Orford, since successfully defending her PhD last fall, she’s taken a position working with government policy in the UK, providing an important voice for flies alongside those advocating for more “traditional” pollinators. As for her paper on grasslands pollination, whose initial rejection inspired this long-overdue look into the flowery lives of flies, now that she’s shown the pollination hivemind the importance of Diptera, she hopes her work will fly through the peer-review process.

Toxomerus marginatus (Syrphidae)

Toxomerus marginatus (Syrphidae)

Orford K.A. & J. Memmott (2015). The forgotten flies: the importance of non-syrphid Diptera as pollinators, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 282 (1805) 20142934-20142934. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.2934

May 172013

Field Guide to the Jewel Beetles of NE NA

Good news! Field Guide to the Jewel Beetles of Northeastern North America is finally shipping! If you pre-ordered a copy of the book and you live in Canada, you should be receiving the book any day now (if you haven’t already). If you don’t live in Canada, don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten about you. To make sure that all Canadian orders are filled (including those in forestry research departments and industry), international shipments are being held back a couple of weeks, but should begin shipping by early June.

Continue reading »

May 172012

Yesterday, UK photographer Paul Bunyard (@wildaboutimages) ran into a massive mating swarm of chironomid midges (family Chironomidae) while travelling through the Norfolk countryside, and shared some amazing images on Twitter (reproduced here with his permission).

I'm at a location where flys have just hatched they are ... on Twitpic

Photo copyright Paul Bunyard & reproduced with his permission

Continue reading »

Jan 042012

ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s not often that flies make headlines, and when they do it’s usually in a negative connotation (malaria, mosquitoes, black flies, etc). A new paper published Tuesday in PLoS ONE (Core et al, 2011) is certainly not helping this Detrimental Diptera Dillema (DDD), announcing that a species of scuttle fly (Phoridae) has been discovered parasitizing honey bees (Apis mellifera), one of the most loved insects on the planet.

Images of Apocephalus borealis and honey bees from Core et al., 2012

Fig. 2 - Images of Apocephalus borealis and honey bees from Core et al., 2012

Of course things attacking honey bees isn’t in itself news, especially in the age of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The real news here is that the scuttle fly, Apocephalus borealis, has seemingly switched hosts, previously known to be parasitic in bumble bees, paper wasps, and even black widow spiders (Brown, 1993). Other Apocephalus flies are better known as ant-decapitating flies, who’s larvae will pupate in the dismembered heads of their ant hosts. As for A. borealis, it’s association with honey bees was thanks to a serendipitous natural history observation:

(John) Hafernik, who also serves as president of the California Academy of Sciences, didn’t set out to study the parasitized bees. In 2008, he was just looking for some insects to feed the praying mantis that he had brought back to SF State’s Hensill Hall after an entomology field trip. He scrounged the bees from underneath the light fixtures outside the biology building.

“But being an absent-minded professor,” Hafernik joked, “I left them in a vial on my desk and forgot about them. Then the next time I looked at the vial, there were all these fly pupae surrounding the bees.”

San Francisco State University Press Release, January 3, 2012

After further observation, a few behavioural trials and some interesting molecular techniques, the research team found that not only were these scuttle flies parasitizing honey bees in the San Francisco Bay area, but also in migratory bee colonies housed in the Central California Valley and South Dakota, and also that infected honey bees would leave their colonies at night to fly away and die (often congregating at man-made lights and acting strangely); that all of the parasitized bees had been exposed to Nosema ceranae (a fungus which can lead to death from diarrhea and malnourishment) and/or Deformed Wing Virus (a disease that can cause malformation of a bee’s thorax and wings during pupation); and that some of the flies had evidence of these bee pathogens in their systems.

This is a lot of really interesting information for one study, but it’s not hard to see where the authors were going next with their story: scuttle flies could be contributing to CCD and posed a “new threat” to honey bees. The authors proceeded to pose a long series of questions regarding future areas of research, and how all of their findings could be detrimental to honey bee populations and the potential role these flies play in CCD. Overall, this is a very cool piece of natural history research, with a bit too much CCD hype for my liking!

You can see why the media has fallen in love with this paper; it includes flies (which no one likes on principle), honey bees (which everyone likes on principle), CCD (which scares the daylights out of everyone) and zombies (which also scare the daylights out of everyone). At the time that I wrote this post (midnight-ish Wednesday morning), I found 13 major news outlets or blogs from around the world which had covered the story (see list below).

This is where we have a problem though. Of the 13 stories I looked at, 8 of them had errors in their reports, of varying severity. What’s worse, all of the erroneous accounts were in major reporting outlets, potentially misinforming thousands of readers! It’s not surprising however, to see that 7 of the 8 stories that got things 100% correct were all science-focused publications/blogs, while one was a small-market news affiliate:

The Good

KQED News – ‘Zombie’ Parasite Preys on Bay-Area Honeybees, by Lauren Sommer

Observations (Scientific American Blog Network) – “Zombie” Fly Parasite Killing Honeybees, by Katherine Harmon

New Scientist LifeParasitic fly could account for disappearing honeybees, by Andy Coghlan

Science NowParasitic Fly Dooms Bees to Death by Maggots, by Erik Stokstad

MyrmecosDid a parasitic fly cause Colony Collapse in bees?, by Alex Wild

Not Exactly Rocket ScienceParasitic fly spotted in honeybees, causes workers to abandon colonies, by Ed Yong

The Bad

MSNBC (WebCite copy) – Stated bees which foraged at night were more likely to be parasitized than bees that foraged during the day (misinterpretation of Fig. 3A of Core et al., 2012)

Mirror (WebCite copy) – Stated that the parasite “is similar to one being found in bumblebees” (it’s not just similar, it’s the same species)

Press Association (WebCite copy) – Title states that the flies are linked to bee losses (not true, the connection between fly parasitism and CCD is simply proposed by the authors); Implied that bees are immediately turned into light-seeking zombies after the female fly lays her eggs (it appears to take up to a week for this to happen)

Daily Mail Online (WebCite copy) – Title states link between flies and global decline of bees (see above); Didn’t italicize species names (minor I know, but it bugs me)

CBC News (WebCite copy) – Implies that bees which foraged at night were more likely to be parasitized than bees that foraged during the day (see MSNBC)

io9 (WebCite copy) – “This parasite is a likely culprit (in reference to CCD – MDJ) because it does indeed force bees to abandon their colony” (authors say the fly may contribute to CCD, not that it is the likely culprit)

Daily Express (caching not allowed) – Implies that bees are parasitized in their hives and that they immediately “abandon their hives in a crazed state” (the authors are unsure of where the flies attack, but they know it’s not in the hive, and see the Press Association above); didn’t italicize species names (argh)

While I doubt that heads will roll at these institutions because of these errors (sorry, a little Apocephalus humour there), the moral of this story is that the science content the majority of the public is exposed to is not exactly the best science content available! Hopefully, as scientists and science writers continue to use social media and blogs, the good stories I featured here will reach more of the people who would normally only see the “bad” versions, imparting a correct and positive experience with the fantastic research being done every day around the world!


Update (Jan. 07, 2012, 20:30) Brian Brown, a co-author on this study and the world’s expert on these flies, has expanded on the natural history and taxonomy of the flies involved in this research on his blog ‘flyobsession’. The remainder of the research team behind this study will be setting up a FAQ to help ‘clarify’ some of the errors I reported on above, and are also beginning a new citizen science project to begin understanding how far flung this parasitism is.

Core, A., Runckel, C., Ivers, J., Quock, C., Siapno, T., DeNault, S., Brown, B., DeRisi, J., Smith, C., & Hafernik, J. (2012). A New Threat to Honey Bees, the Parasitic Phorid Fly Apocephalus borealis PLoS ONE, 7 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0029639

BROWN, B. (1993). Taxonomy and preliminary phylogeny of the parasitic genus Apocephalus, subgenus Mesophora (Diptera: Phoridae) Systematic Entomology, 18 (3), 191-230 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-3113.1993.tb00662.x PDF Available HERE

Dec 132011

Mendeley logoThe first step when starting any new research project is to become familiar with the past literature, and know who did what, and when. This is especially true for taxonomy, where each and every paper published in the past 250 years regarding the description of new species or discussion of the framework for the tree of life for any given taxon is relevant and needs to be examined. This can result in a huge library of publications to keep track of, for which there are a number of options available to the beginning biologist.

One in particular however, has something a little extra incorporated in it; a social network.

Mendeley was developed as a freely available, online, cloud-based reference manager, where individual users add citations & publications to a central repository, which in turn is accessible to all other users for building citation catalogs of their own. There are several benefits to this system, one of which is a recommendation of other publications which may be relevant to your field of research, some of which you may not have been previously aware of. The other benefit is of more use for evaluating the impact of a publication (including your own).

Mendeley Stats

User statistics for Gibson et al, 2011

Because all 1 million current users are building citation lists from the same pool, it’s possible to obtain basic demographics of the people reading your work. Take for example a recent paper I collaborated on regarding PCR primers specific for Diptera phylogenetics. 3 people (other than myself) have added the paper to their Mendeley citation list, with 2 working in the US and one in the UK. While these aren’t groundbreaking numbers, nor the stats overly informative, it’s encouraging to see researchers are noticing the work we did. I would like it if you could see who exactly was reading your papers, as I think it could be useful for finding future collaborators or potential advisors for graduate or post-doctoral work, but I’ll take the simple gratification that our work is being read by 0.0003% of the Mendeley community!

Mendeley has also incorporated several other networking tools, including profiles where you can share your CV, publications, funding sources and contact information (similar to the tools available to LinkedIn users), as well as infrastructure  for sharing publications and holding discussions specific to your field of research in both public and private groups. Being based primarily online, it’s pretty simple to add references to your library using available web browser add-ons, and there are also desktop & mobile clients available which allow you to access your reference library anywhere or while on the go, although I’ve found them both to be a little buggy and prone to crashing (on my iPhone 4S and Windows XP PC).

The central citation database built by the community of users also holds the potential for some interesting data-mining projects, like Roderic Page’s goal of linking species names with the literature containing their original description. If you’re interested in cybertaxonomy, I’d recommend checking out Rod’s blog for more information (it’s pretty cool, but a little on the technical side).

Ultimately, Mendeley is attempting to streamline the accumulation and distribution of scientific literature for researchers. If you’re looking for a reference manager, or are interested in exploring some of it’s capabilities, feel free to look me up; who knows how we might connect!



Gibson, J. F., Kelso, S., Jackson, M. D., Kits, J. H., Miranda, G. F. G., & Skevington, J. H. (2011). Diptera-Specific Polymerase Chain Reaction Amplification Primers of Use in Molecular Phylogenetic Research. Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 104(5), 976-997. Available online (OPEN ACCESS)

Apr 132011

My MSc Defense Poster


The Quest for the Master’s Degree is nearing it’s conclusion! If you’ll be in the Guelph area on Monday, I invite you to stop in and see what I’ve been up to for the past 3.5 years. I can promise plenty of taxonomic discussion (hopefully well defended by yours truly), plenty of pictures and diagrams, and the world premiere of 3 species new to science! There will be Timbits and coffee for those who require further encouragement/bribes.

The last month has been all over the place, with periods of extremely long days full of final revisions and paperwork, and an eerie academic Limbo without needing to work on my thesis for the first time in years. There’s always work to be done however, and I’ve been preparing the chapters for peer-reviewed publication. Once everything is said and done, I’ll be doing a series of posts reflecting back on my first graduate degree; the highs, the lows, and some tips for those considering doing graduate work in taxonomy. Until then, have a good weekend, and I’ll see you on the other side!

Apr 112011

This post is going to be longer and a little more technical than normal; feel free to jump in and out, or just check out some of the photos on your way to the conclusions. Although I may come across as critical and occasionally cynical at times, I’m not picking on anyone just to be a thorn, but rather to promote scientific discussion; I fully encourage you to join the discussion in the comments section. Finally, in the spirit of full disclosure, a portion of my graduate research was funded via the NSF Tree of Life grant behind this paper (although neither myself nor my research contributed to this project in any manner that I’m aware of), and one of my academic advisors is a co-author on the paper.

Asilidae with Prey - Ecuador

Robber Fly with Prey - Asilidae - Ecuador

Despite my best efforts here at Biodiversity in Focus, research on flies very rarely makes the mainstream media (besides mosquitoes, malaria and Drosophila of course), so when one of the most important papers on fly evolution was released and started making the science blog circuit, I was excited to see people taking an interest in Dipterology! There was one problem however, which is not limited to the blogosphere and this paper, but has been an increasingly common trend in insect systematics: the blind acceptance and assumption that a new phylogeny is the definitive answer because the researchers used an ever increasing number of genes. One influential blogger, who’s also an evolutionary entomologist, summarized the results of the Diptera tree of life as such:

But they’re solid results, since they’re based on lots of molecular data and the branch positions are well supported.   — Jerry A. Coyne, Ph.D

Similarly, the research team who published the tree are encouraging the idea that their results are infallible by labeling their work the “New Periodic Table of Flies”. A bold statement, and one that many taxonomists might be hesitant to make as it implies that they don’t expect future studies to return different relationships, much as the periodic table of chemical elements is not about to change. An analogy like this requires a strong body of evidence to support it, so let’s take a look at what they did and how the Diptera family tree looks!

Continue reading »

Aug 272010

One of the talks that drew the largest crowds at the 7th International Congress of Dipterology a few weeks ago was on the functional morphology and sexual selection in mating tsetse flies, Glossina pallidipes & Glossina swynnertonni (Glossinidae)*. Why was a talk on fly porn so popular you may ask? Well  Dipterists in general are always on the lookout for mating opportunities (of their research subjects – get your mind out of the gutter) and with the promise of videos and a new technique, it was like a moth to a flame (so to speak). The videos were amazing, and as of last night were made available via YouTube for the world to see! (Explanation after the videos)

Full speed video of G. pallidipes:

Slow Motion video of G. pallidipes:

Slow motion video of G. swynnertonni:

So what’s going on here? These are x-ray videos of copulation made by the research team using a synchrotron facility in Europe. The female (the abdomen on the right) has been glued to a stage and the tip of her abdomen placed in the path of the beam of x-rays. Barry White is piped into the chamber, candles are lit, the lights are turned down low, and the male is released into the chamber to do his thing (his abdomen is on the left). When coupling begins the x-ray beam is turned on and we get a very intimate idea of mating in tsetse flies! What we see happening is the phallus of the fly is the part that is thrust in and out within the vagina of the female (easiest to see on the first slo-mo video), and is apparently stimulating the female with ornate, inflatable projections. Possibly he is attempting to make her receptive to his sperm. Meanwhile on the outside, the hook pressing the outside of the female’s abdomen is also involved in stimulation. In this case, experiments have shown that these stimuli induce the female to receive and transport sperm, to ovulate, and to reject future mating attempts by other males. These routines are hypothesized to be an evolutionary race between the males to be especially effective stimulators, with the female requiring just the right touch to accept the males sperm and use it to fertilize her eggs. Ejaculation occurs only after many minutes of rhythmic thrusting and squeezing (in G. pallidipes, in the last minute or two of an approximately  45 minute copulation).

To the best of my knowledge this is the first time that anyone has seen what’s happening inside, in real-time, during copulation in flies. A really amazing insight into the mojo of flies, and hopefully a technique that can be used more in the future to untangle the complicated world of fly genitalia!

Thanks to the research team for making this video available:

R. Daniel Briceño, William Eberhard, Ernesto Chinea-Cano, Dariusz Wegrzynek, and Tommy dos Santos Rolo

ICD7 Talk:

Species-specific behavioral differences in male tsetse fly genitalia revealed by x-ray videos – R.D. Briceño, W.G. Eberhard, E. Chinea-Cano, D. Wegrzynek, T. dos Santos Rolo. Presented to the ICD7 Aug. 11 2010, San Jose, Costa Rica.

* – Tsetse flies are the group of flies responsible for commuting the trypanosomes that cause sleeping sickness in Africa, making them one of the most important human disease vectors on Earth.
UPDATED Aug-10-2010 4:00PM : In order to make sure the details of the research were correct I contacted Dr. Briceño, who kindly provided the information highlighted in BOLD. I’ve removed erroneous information from my initial post.
UPDATED MAR-9-2011: Here’s the reference to the published paper:
Briceño, R. D., D. Wegrzynek, E. Chinea-Cano, W. G. Eberhard and T. dos Santos Rolo “Movements and morphology under sexual selection: tsetse fly genitalia.” Ethology Ecology & Evolution 22(4): 385 – 391.

May 212010

Thought I’d pass along this golden egg, the Entomological Society of Canada has recently been given permission to scan and publish all 3 volumes of the Manual of Nearctic Diptera on their website, and it’s 100% free! The “Manual”, as it’s referred to, is as close to a Bible for North American dipterists as you can get, and includes keys to all* the genera of flies found north of Mexico! It’s been out of print for awhile now and bound copies are hard to come by (I just recently received a full like-new set this winter, and I’ve been searching for 4 years), which makes a digital (and searchable) version a real plus!

Here’s a quick breakdown of what’s in each richly illustrated volume:

Vol. 1 – Morphology and Terminology (great reference), Key to Families (adults and larvae), Keys to genera for all Nematocera (Culicidae – mosquitoes, Tipulidae – crane flies, Simuliidae – black flies, etc) and Orthorrhapha (Stratiomyidae – soldier flies, Tabanidae – deer and horse flies, Asilidae – robber flies, Bombyliidae – bee flies, Empididae – dance flies, etc)

Mosquito sitting on log in Ontario

Time to start ID'ing my Nematocerans, like this Mosquito (Culicidae)

Vol. 2 – Keys to genera for each of the following; Aschiza (Syrphidae – flower flies, Phoridae – scuttle flies, Pipunculidae – big-headed flies, etc), Calyptratae (Muscidae – house flies, Calliphoridae – blowflies, Tachinidae, Sarcophagidae – flesh flies), and most importantly the Acalyptratae (Micropezidae – stilt-legged flies, Tephritidae – fruit flies, Drosophilidae – vinegar flies, Sphaeroceridae – lesser dung flies, Ephydridae – shore flies, etc)

Soldier flies are your's to discover, like this <i>Stratiomys adelpha</i>

Soldier flies (Stratiomyidae) are your's to discover, like this Stratiomys adelpha

Vol. 3 – Phylogeny and classification of the Diptera

You can download your copy of the Manual here, and while you’re there check out some of the other titles that have been made available as well, including most of the Canadian Handbook Series, detailing some of the major insect and spider groups found in Canada! Thanks to the folks at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Spiders, and Nematodes, and the Entomological Society of Canada for making this possible!

* – all genera as of the late 1980’s that is, there have been a few changes since then, but this will still give you a great headstart
Jan 182010

Today I figured I’d introduce my study organisms, the Stilt-legged flies (Micropezidae) in the genus Taeniaptera (latin for ribbon wing I believe, referencing the bands on the wing).

Taeniaptera Micropezidae Fly Venezuela

(Click on the photos to view them larger)

I was first introduced to these flies in Amazonian Bolivia on a University of Guelph Field Entomology course (which was easily the best course of my undergrad). They are commonly encountered standing on broad leaves waiting for food to literally drop from the heavens (the females feed on bird droppings & monkey dung, and the males tag along to find a mate).  What makes these flies even cooler (I know, its hard to get cooler than feasting on fresh dung…) is their remarkable morphological and behavioural mimicry of parasitic wasps.

Ecuador Parasitic Wasp Braconidae

Ecuador Poecilotylus Micropezidae Fly

I came across these two specimens (a braconid wasp above and a Poecilotylus sp. fly below) while in Ecuador this past spring. Fairly similar at first glance, especially in the shadows of the jungle! The flies add to the deception with their fore legs, which they wave out in front of their bodies mimicking the constantly moving antennae of the wasps (notice the white bands on the wasp’s antennae and the white tips of the fly’s front legs).

Micropezidae Diptera Fly Bolivia Taeniaptera

So what am I doing with these attractive little buggers? Well, right now generic concepts (the characters that define a genus) of several genera including Taeniaptera are overlapping and ill-defined, resulting in confusion over the relationships between certain species groups. I am using morphological and molecular characters (DNA sequences) to find monophyletic groupings (groups descended from a single common ancestor as opposed to paraphyletic groupings where species from different ancestors are considered to be most closely related) of these species, which I can then confidently define as strongly supported genera. Think of it as untying knots in the branches of the tree of life!

I’ll provide updates on my work every once in awhile, but no worries, my posts won’t generally be as detail-oriented and will have more photos!