Darwin’s Legacy: Keeping Order

It’s hard to keep up with Erica McAlister as she darts through the labyrinth comprising the entomology department at London’s Natural History Museum. She’s eager to show off its treasures: iridescent beetles from South America, bugs with plantlike bodies, damselflies and dragonflies from around the world. “I was bitten by that, showing off,” she says, pointing to a wasp spider (Argiope bruennichi) in a case displaying preserved arachnids. She was at a party, trying to impress the guests by determining the spider’s sex, when it bit her. “I could probably give you a tour of things that have bitten me,” she says.

Instead, the current tour reaches its climax at the end of the corridor. “This is my room,” she says, pushing through a door to a corner room filled with several rows of 5-foot-tall green metal cabinets, stacked two high. The cabinets house the museum’s collection of insects from the order Diptera–the true flies, which include gnats, midges, and mosquitoes. McAlister, 35, is one of three Diptera curators among the entomology department‘s curatorial staff of about two dozen.

McAlister shows off the Diptera collection like an adoring parent: the lovely bee flies; the curious hairy legs of the robber fly; the amazing eyes of the stalk-eyed flies; the mosquito with feathered mid-legs that look like legwarmers; U.K. crane flies with wide wingspans and long, delicate legs; the horse fly with a 2-inch-long proboscis; the bot flies that lay their eggs on mosquitoes for transportation. “There’s so much diversity,” she says. “They’re amazing, insects.”

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