In February of this year, I had the privilege of being flown out to Honolulu to inventory the USNM Bombyliidae – bee flies – collection currently housed at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum (BPBM) in Honolulu, HI. The Department of Entomology established the Off-site Enhancement Program allowing entire insect families to be curated by experts away from the museum in Washington, DC, and the bee-fly collection is the first and largest off-site enhancement loan.
For the past year and a half I have been working on a contract to inventory the pinned material of the USNM Diptera collection, no small task considering it is the largest Diptera collection in the world. To date I have counted nearly 2.6 million pinned specimens of Diptera in over 46,000 records, a record being either a species or the undetermined material of a family or genus. When finished, it will be the most complete species inventory of a megadiverse insect order, as Coleoptera (beetles), Hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps), and Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) have not yet been completely inventoried (although individual projects are underway).
In addition to counting the number of specimens for each record, I have also been recording the countries represented in each record (and for the USA and Canada, the states and provinces). Sometimes this can be a challenge, as many of the older specimens have hand-written labels, and sometimes only a city or region is written instead of a country. But it’s been a good geography lesson--there are very few countries in the world I have not seen written on the label of at least a few specimens!
The Bombyliidae is a large cosmopolitan family of flies with their greatest diversity found in tropical areas and subtropical arid climates. Many species have elongated proboscides which they use to feed on flower nectar while hovering, much like a hummingbird. The larvae, however, are predators or parasitoids of the eggs or larvae of other insects. The adults have evolved many interesting behaviors to deposit their eggs near a suitable host. Some species literally shoot eggs through the air into the burrow of a host insect.
At 80,858 specimens and more than 1,700 records (as it turns out), the Bombyliidae is one of the largest families in the NMNH collection. The family was sent to Hawai’i in 1990 as the first Off-site Enhancement Program loan under the care of Dr. Neal Evenhuis, who is one of the foremost researchers of bee-fly taxonomy in the world and has published numerous scientific articles on this subject.
With the help of the Bishop Museum staff, especially James Boone, the collection manager, I was able to inventory the entire family in just eight working days, which thankfully left a few days free to explore the city of Honolulu and the island of Oahu.
With a large collection, it’s surprisingly difficult just to arrive at some of the most basic data about it: how many specimens are there, how many species, and where are they from? This inventory is a big step towards the goal of digitizing data about the collection and making it available for researchers world-wide for the inclusion of the USNM specimens in their research projects.
Acknowledgement: Support for travel to the BPBM was provided by the C.W. Sabrosky Fund (with contributions by H. Williams)