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The Department of Entomology at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History holds one of the finest Diptera Collections in the world. The official abbreviation for citing this museum as a repository is USNM, which stems from the museum's original name, the United States National Museum.

While the collection is administered by the Smithsonian Institution, research and curation is conducted by scientists from three separate U.S. government agencies:

image of a fly on a flower

  • Department of Entomology, of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution,
  • Systematic Entomology Laboratory of the Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and
  • Walter Reed Biosystematic Unit (WRBU) of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, U.S. Department of Defense.

    Each of the three agencies has a different mission and focus on taxa to be studied. Smithsonian scientists tend to direct their research toward groups of broad ecological and evolutionary significance, whereas SEL dipterists primarily study taxa of agricultural and economic importance and provide identification services.

image of a mosquitoWRBU dipterists, in turn, focus on medically important taxa - vectors of human and animal diseases - for research, disease surveillance and medical/veterinary diagnostics.

The SI and SEL dipterists are located at the NMNH in downtown Washington, DC. The WRBU dipterists work at the Museum Support Center (MSC) a few miles southeast of Washington, DC, where the collections of medically important biting fly families as well as Chironomidae, Limoniidae, and Tipulidae are located.

The responsibilities for curation and loan requests are divided among the three agencies. To obtain a loan or other information about the diptera collection, please refer to the current list of contact people available here.

Off-site Collection Enhancement Program

The USNM provides the opportunity for established curators at other natural history museums to take over the curatorial obligations of entire insect families at their home institution. For Diptera, the following families are part of the Off-site Collection Enhancement Program and are not housed at the NMNH:

  • Bombyliidae and Mythicomyiidae at B.P.Bishop Museum (Neal Evenhuis),
  • Pipunculidae at the Canadian National Collection (Jeff Skevington), and
  • Celyphidae, Chamaemyiidae, and Lauxaniidae at the California Department of Food and Agriculture (Steve Gaimari).

If you are interested in specimens of these taxa, please contact the appropriate dipterist listed above.

Scope of the USNM Diptera Collection

The collection comprises close to 3,200,000 pinned specimens representing some 53,000 species (about ⅓ of entire Diptera species diversity). It includes more than 8,000 boxes of slide-mounted specimens, an extensive collection preserved in alcohol, and some 26,000 primary types.

Although there is material from all biogeographical regions, the New World is best represented. Of the 159 currently recognized families of Diptera (sensu Pape et al. 2011), all but two (Inbiomyiidae and Oreoleptidae) are represented. A species inventory is currently being updated, and soon, in addition to the list of species, we will have geographic data, i.e., country, U.S. states, and Canadian provinces, for the pinned collection on our departmental website.

Several large acquisitions or purchases, such as the collections of C.P. Alexander (1,600,000, 1981), P.H. Arnaud, Jr. (700,000, 2000), A.L. Melander (250,000, 1961), J.N. Belkin (200,000, 1980), S.W. Bromley (35,000, 1955), A.E. Pritchard (27,000, 1962), J.P. Duret (14,000, 1990), and L.E. Rozeboom (12,000, 1998), have greatly expanded coverage and added a considerable number of specimens.

Highlights of the collection

Nematocera”: crane flies (Limoniidae and Tipulidae, coll. of C.P. Alexander), mosquitoes (Culicidae, collections of J.N. Belkin, J.P. Duret, L.E. Rozeboom, SEL dipterist A. Stone, WRBU dipterists), biting midges (Ceratopogonidae, SEL dipterist W.W. Wirth), and gall midges (Cecidomyiidae, SEL dipterist R.J. Gagné).

CraneflyThe crane-fly collection is unsurpassed by any in the world and includes the C.P. Alexander Collection, probably the greatest private collection of flies ever made. More than 11,000 of the 14,000 known species of crane flies are represented in this collection by type specimens, 8,000 of which are holotypes.

The collection has long supported world class mosquito research. In the early 1900's pioneering work was done on the collection and culminated in a four volume publication of The Mosquitoes of North and Central America and the West Indies (1912–17) now available on the Biodiversity Heritage Library. The collection was built into the finest in the world by WRBU and its predecessors. In 1964, the Smithsonian contracted with the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command, to study the mosquitoes of Southeast Asia. This was continued until 1974 when a new contract was initiated for the Medical Entomology Project. The Mosquito Collection counts more than 760,000 pinned adult specimens, 350,000 slides, and includes some 1,500 primary type specimens.
image of a robberfly
Orthorrhapha and
Empidoidea: soldier flies (Stratiomyidae, SEL dipterist N.E. Woodley), bee flies (Bombyliidae, coll.of R.H. Painter), assassin flies (Asilidae, coll. of S.W. Bromley, A.E. Pritchard, SI dipterist T. Dikow), and dance flies (Empididae, coll. of A.L. Melander, P.H. Arnaud, Jr.).

The brachycerous Diptera are best represented by 3 families: bee flies (Bombyliidae), assassin flies or robber flies (Asilidae), and dance flies (Empididae).

The R.H. Painter Collection of Nearctic bee flies is particularly rich in material from the south-western U.S.A. and Mexico. The S.W. Bromley Collection of assassin flies along with that of A.E. Pritchard makes the USNM holdings of these predaceous flies outstanding. A.L. Melander was  a world specialist on Empididae and his collection brought to the USNM one of the most extensive collections of these flies in existence.

Syrphoidea and Acalyptratae: flower flies (Syrphidae, SEL dipterist F.C. Thompson), fruit flies (Tephritidae, SEL dipterists R.H. Foote, A.L. Norrbom, A. Stone), eye gnats (Chloropidae, SEL dipterist C.W. Sabrosky), snail-killing flies (Sciomyzidae, SEL dipterists L.V. Knutson, G.C. Steyskal), lauxaniid flies (Lauxanioidea), kelp flies (Coelopidae), sap flies (Aulacigastridae), as well as surf flies and shore flies (Canacidae and Ephydridae, SEL dipterist W.W. Wirth, SI dipterist W.N. Mathis).

Of the cyclorrhaphous Diptera, the acalyptrate families are all well represented. Due to the strong and continuing interest of the USDA SEL in fruit flies (Tephritidae), eye gnats (Chloropidae), snail-killing flies (Sciomyzidae), and leaf-mining flies (Agromyzidae), the USNM holdings of these flies are extensive. The shore flies (Ephydridae) and surf flies (Canacidae) also deserve particular note for the strong cosmopolitan collections built by W. W. Wirth, G.C. Steyskal, and W. N. Mathis. The collection of flower flies (Syrphidae) is also among the largest and most diverse in the world due largely to the efforts of F. C. Thompson.

Calyptratae: tachinid flies (Tachinidae, USDA dipterists D.W. Coquillett and C.H.T. Townsend, SEL dipterists C.W. Sabrosky and N.E. Woodley, SI dipterist J.M. Aldrich, coll. of P.H. Arnaud, Jr.), flesh flies (Sarcophagidae), and blow flies (Calliphoridae, USDA dipterist D.G. Hall, SI dipterist J.M. Aldrich).

Holdings of Tachinidae, Sarcophagidae, and Calliphoridae stand out among the calyptrate flies, although most of the families of this group are well represented. Many leading New World specialists on tachinid flies have worked with and left their collections to the USNM. This series of specialists began with D. W. Coquillett, who first monographed the Nearctic tachinids in 1897, and continued with C. H. T. Townsend, J. M. Aldrich, C. W. Sabrosky and now with N. E. Woodley. Many other tachinid workers have augmented the collection by adding their types to it. The USDA SEL purchase of the N. Baranov Collection in 1960 added much tachinid and sarcophagid material from the Old World. Thus the USNM collection of Tachinidae is unusually valuable. The collections of Sarcophagidae and Calliphoridae are also exemplary due to the contributions of such specialists as J. M. Aldrich, D. G. Hall, H. W. Allen, and H. de Souza Lopes.

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