Preparation of Flies Stored in Ethanol (WORD) (back to Sampling and and Specimen Preparation)

As transmitted from Jeff Skevington (, Research Scientist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and CANPOLIN member;  to Elizabeth Elle (  Slightly modified by EE.

Pan trapped syrphid flies often shrivel up when pinned after storage in ethanol, which makes identification difficult.  The following procedure will ensure the flies keep their shape which facilitates ID.  Note that other types of flies caught in pan traps (ie muscids, and even some larger syrphids like Merodon spp.) don’t seem to need this procedure as they hold their shape just fine.  When in doubt, err on the side of caution or do a test on some netted specimens that you immerse in ethanol--you want nice looking specimens that will impress the taxonomists, so they’ll help you with the tough stuff! 

To Dry the Flies:
1. Flies should be in alcohol after coming out of your traps.
2. Put in bath of half alcohol and half ethyl acetate. Leave at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.  NOTE:  flies must move directly from alcohol to the mixture; washing in water (as is done when washing/fluffing bees for pinning, see Sam Droege’s Very Handy Bee Manual) will lead to flies shriveling up despite your best efforts. 
3. Put into bath of pure ethyl acetate. Add a couple drops of glycerin to keep specimens somewhat supple.  Leave at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
4. Remove flies and place on paper towel so that their wings open up nicely.  Jeff notes that this can be a bit tricky but we’ve had no problems;  might depend on species.

Notes on drying:
1.  We’ve noted no obvious difference between 4 hours and overnight, at least when specimens were kept in 70% ethanol in the freezer for only 1-2 months before processing and pinning.  We also notice no difference between 70% ethanol and 95% ethanol.
2.  We tend to re-use our baths, and at least within a field season there are no negative effects of this.  We pull the syrphids out of the ethanol in which we’ve stored all our pan-trapped specimens from a given date and pan color, and put them (and a label) into the first bath right away.  We then go ahead and wash and pin our bees and the other (robust) flies, and place a marker in the box of pinned specimens where the syrphids will go once they’ve been through the baths.  This way we can keep everything from one pan-trapping episode and pan color together until we’ve made proper labels. 

To Pin Dried Flies:
1. Dried flies can be brittle and so difficult to pin.  We pin normally if we can, and if not, we glue flies directly to the side of the pin (normally the right side of their body, just as might be done with very small bees).  If the flies are very small, use points.
2. Alternatively, you can pin them while they are in alcohol and then move them through the baths already pinned.  This requires a lot more liquid and more space, and you must use pins that have hammered heads if you do this (tephlon heads fall off after immersion in ethyl acetate).  Jeff says that Asta makes stainless steel pins that work well for this, though they are not great pins otherwise. We have always just pinned normally, no problems.

nserc uog © 2009 NSERC-CANPOLIN