The Dipterists Forum – Twenty-Five Years On

Written by Howard Bentley

It is not easy to determine the exact date of origin of the Dipterists Forum because it didn’t spring into being fully formed, but rather evolved from pre-existing organisations. Here is a very brief look at the early history.

A recording scheme for craneflies was established by Alan Stubbs with entomologists from the British Museum (Natural History) as it then was, as long ago as 1973. This started an annual indoor meeting, residential field meetings and a regularly published newsletter, and so provided the template for the Forum’s activities. In 1988 Derek Whiteley began to produce the Dipterists Digest which was eventually taken over by the Forum in 1996. Recording schemes and study groups for other families of flies began to accumulate. In the early years, the bulk of the activities were organised by Alan Stubbs. By the early 1990s it was becoming clear that the organisation of Diptera recording had become large enough to require some sort of structure which could coordinate work by a larger number of people, and that a cash reserve was needed to cope with the demands of bookings for courses, field meetings etc. The stage was set for the establishment of a society, with a committee to run it, a constitution to give it structure, and a bank account. And so, in January 1994, a committee consisting of Alan Stubbs, Martin Drake and Stuart Ball began its work of constituting this organisation. So that was the real starting point of the Forum as we know it today; hence our present celebration of its 25th anniversary.

What’s in a name?

What a task that small committee had. Coming up with the name ‘Dipterists Forum’ was spot on. Forum – ‘a public facility for open discussion and the exchange of information’. What could more accurately describe the workings of the DF? But once the name was chosen, there arose what must have been a really sticky problem – do we need an apostrophe? And if we do, where are we going to put it? Well, a good case can be made to put one before the final ‘s’ in ‘Dipterists’, or after the final ‘s’. Perhaps that problem was just too difficult, and they avoided open warfare by deciding not to bother with one at all. By the end of their deliberations, when they had fixed the name, the aims and objectives of the society, the relationship with the British Entomological and Natural History Society (BENHS), the officers required and what their functions should be, procedures for holding meetings and so on and so on and so on, they could probably have taught the Brexit negotiators a thing or two. Seriously, that early task was enormous.

And they must have made an excellent job of it, for the constitution was agreed, and the Dipterists Forum was born and began work under its first chairman, Roy Crossley. And here we are, twenty-five years on, with a thriving community of mutually supportive dipterists, an unparalleled mix of professionals, amateurs with lengths of experience ranging from a few weeks to more than half a century, and complete beginners just getting going in this fascinating area of study. The DF is a unique, and a very British institution.

An organisation for all

If you mix the ignorant with the knowledgeable, and the ignorant want to learn and the knowledgeable are prepared to teach, then things can only get better. This is where the DF excels. It puts people like me – still a beginner, having started my study of flies only about a dozen years ago – in touch with entomologists with life-long experience of their specialities. An example: when I first summoned up the courage to have a go at the notoriously difficult Anthomyiidae, I wrote to Michael Ackland with a query about an identification, expressing the hope that I wasn’t wasting his time.  Michael is a man with an international reputation as one of the great experts of dipterology. I wasn’t sure I would even get a reply. What I got, the very next day, was not only an answer to my question, but a whole mass of background information, and the assurance that nothing concerning the Anthomyiidae would ever be wasting his time. I’ve had similar experiences with other professionals with high academic reputations, and I can honestly say that I’ve never been ignored and I’ve never had the brush-off from any of them. Every one has always replied to my queries carefully and courteously, even when the query only arose in the first place because of a silly error on my part. I know of no other organisation in any field where there is such fruitful cooperation between experts and beginners, amateurs and professionals. What better way could there be to disseminate information and bring new people into a field of study.

Year round activity

Now the Forum has a wide range of functions and activities: two excellent biannual publications, the Bulletin and the Digest; an annual long-weekend training course on particular families of flies held at the field studies centre at Preston Montford, many other training courses at numerous venues around the country, an adoption scheme for endangered species, and a presence at meetings of other organisations such as the BENHS and the Amateur Entomologists’ Society (AES) where we publicise study of the Diptera. Our website has discussion forums, test keys, help with identification and so on, and a brand new website has been launched and is still under development. Peter Chandler keeps the British checklist under constant review and publishes regular updates in the Digest and online. We now have a bursary scheme designed to help students and others to attend our Preston Montford meetings and Summer field weeks. A number of local groups for the study of Diptera have been started by DF members and are supported by the Forum. And we have a presence, indeed an increasingly important presence, on social media, including Facebook and Twitter.

The summer field week

For me, the greatest learning experience, and the core of the Forum’s activities, is the field meetings, especially the week-long residential experience that is the summer field week. For the benefit of those of you who have never been on one of these I’ll give you a very brief description: each day you get up in the morning, have breakfast (which usually involves a lot of fly-related conversation), decide where you’re going and who you’re going with, and set off. You then spend hours floundering about in bogs, struggling through undergrowth and walking for miles, then you return to your accommodation in time for dinner and more fly conversation. Then it’s off to the lab to start sorting and pinning your catch. You are constantly interrupted by people who want you to look at what they’ve caught, and you, in turn, are constantly interrupting everyone else. If you’re like me, you knock off at about ten o’clock because a fourteen hour day is enough, but people with more stamina and determination have been known to go on past midnight. This pattern is repeated each day. If you’ve had constant good weather, by about the Thursday you find yourself praying for rain so that you can do a bit of catching up with the pinning. At the end of the week you are well and truly shattered, and you have added enormously to your knowledge through the constant interaction with your colleagues both out in the field and in the lab. It’s exhilarating, exhausting, addictive and unforgettable, and I do not know of any other organisation which runs anything quite like the Dipterists Forum’s summer field meeting.

Past, present and future

When I first sat down to think about this article I started writing a list of names of people who have made great contributions to the establishment and development of the Forum. The list grew very long, and it soon became obvious that the task was beyond me. I have only been a member of the Forum for a little less than half of its existence, and I would have been sure to give offence by missing people out. So, I’ve mentioned only a few names here, and I don’t intend to mention any more. But before I finish, I must just name again one person without whom there is no doubt that the Forum would not exist: Alan Stubbs. Without Alan’s vision, his energy and his brilliance, the Dipterists Forum would not exist.

Let me finish with a look into the future. What about the next twenty-five years? This is not the place to write about the direction which the natural world looks likely to take; if you are reading this article you are no doubt well aware of that. So I will just end by saying that as long as there are flies left to study, and people left to study them, I have every confidence that the Dipterists Forum will carry on with its good work and inspire ever more people to take up the fascinating study of flies.

Dipterists Forum c. Nigel Jones On Meikle Kinrannoch. L-R Stuart Ball, Roger Morris, Iain MacGowan, Nigel Jones and Jan Billker. In search of rare upland Diptera.
Dipterists Forum c. Nigel Jones On Meikle Kinrannoch. L-R Stuart Ball, Roger Morris, Iain MacGowan, Nigel Jones and Jan Billker. In search of rare upland Diptera.



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