Not every fly that I catch is easily identified, even just to family. Some are so small that I am struggling to see any detail on them, or their legs are bunched in towards the body so that bristles are hard to make out, or the wings have folded across each other so the venation is obscured. Or they are acalypterates. For one reason or another, I am beginning to accumulate a bit of a backlog – a guilty conscience of flies in their own humiliating box. I could sit down and spend a lot of time trying to put a name to some of them, but the likelihood is that I will get grumpy and they will remain unidentified. Who doesn’t find the quick and easy job more tempting than the prolonged, difficult one, the gentle path rather than the high risk clamber to the summit?
So when my wife told me there was an “interesting fly” (note “interesting” and “fly” and that she alerted me to it … progress indeed!) in the porch and then when I saw what it was, it immediately jumped the identification queue. A brownish daddy-long-legs of this size would be bound to be a member of the family Tipulidae; I consulted the key and quickly proved myself correct.
Getting it down to genus and species would not be quite so straightforward, even using a modern key and with my boyhood collection to refer to. Just look at the work I had put into those carefully kept craneflies, each nestled on a pair of cardboard triangles, the box with its neat columns produced with a black thread, the labels laboriously typed out (capitals and underlining for family, capitals only for subfamily, initial capital for genus and none for species), the numbered labels all cross-referenced to individual record cards. I must have put a lot of time into identifying them, especially since I was using the slightly tricky and not very lavishly illustrated key by R.L. Coe (1950), which I had photocopied from Pelham-Clinton’s copy.
I particularly remember the excitement of finding Tipula maxima (the two large craneflies with strongly patterned wings in the bottom left in the box), to my mind the poster-species of the family. I caught them by the stream that ran along the edge of the back garden of my childhood home – that was on the 3rd July 1981 and I identified the following day. I would have just graduated from University and have been treating myself to some fly time in my last summer of freedom before starting a PhD on the molecular biology of influenza virus. But today the sun is shining, and it seems a shame to sit indoors fussing over wing veins, thoracic stripes and the cross-sectional shape of the bottom half of the ovipositor. I have been leaving my fly collecting for another day for most of my life – one more can’t hurt.