Asynchronous learning for fly identification?

For many years I’ve pondered structured ways to encourage people to spend time learning and enjoying to identify flies on iNaturalist.

I’m curious how many people may be interested in learning to ID flies by starting to make identifications with a sort of ‘senior consultant’ and ‘learning on the job’? I think that’s how almost all of the current top fly identifiers started out, including myself.

I’ve presented a description of how this might work here:

Thoughts would be appreciated!


I think this is a great idea and an excellent model for others to follow. Bibionid flies aren’t high on my personal priority list just yet, but if you know of a similar mentoring project with syrphid flies, maybe!


If someone is uninterested in Bibionidae but specifically wants help to start learning to identify Syrphidae, one of the genera Eristalis, Copestylum, or Toxomerus in North America would make a good starting point. We could follow the same framework described in the journal post that I linked above. I’m happy to do this with anyone who prefers.

I think that Bibionidae are easier for a beginner to identify than syrphid flies. If someone spends two weeks with my system and help to learn how to identify Bibionidae, I think they will probably come out in a better position to identify syrphid flies afterward.

What we’re learning here isn’t just “how to identify this specific group in North America.” What I hope we’re really starting to learn is how to organize our thinking, so that we can ultimately teach ourselves to competently identify any fly or insect group, anywhere in the world.


Thanks, that’s great. I hope you get a lot of response.


I hope so.

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I think that you have a good idea here. It will take a lot of time on your part shepherding people through the process, but it will work. What’s important is that it is a group that has a large reservoir of good photos, and decent characters that will show in photos.

I’d also encourage people to read original literature on their chosen group. BugGuide is a valuable resource for this. That generally includes more information than a guide does (including interesting stuff about the biology), and will familiarize people with keys. I have made (and continue to make) brute force IDs by just wading through picture after picture until I find a match, especially in the absence of an available key, but it’s a time-sucking, inelegant way to do it. It also frequently runs the risk of settling for a similar species because one was unaware of the full scope of the taxon. Been there, done that!

I have mostly gone the ‘on the job’ route, at least as far as Conopidae goes. My dive into iNat identifying was through becoming interested in a specific genus (Zodion :Conopidae), and then looking for information on them. No-one else was identifying them, so I took them on. It then turned out that Physocephala, also in Conopidae, had had good work done by the two of you, so I started doing them, too. This broadened to all the Nearctic Conopidae. I’m now wading through Physoconops.

I had an expert consultant to start with, but that was 30+ years ago in university. Since becoming active on iNaturalist, I’ve been picking up this and that all over, with frequent referrals to online sources for particular genera. Zachary has been a particular inspiration with his weekly get-togethers. E.g., his interest in Dolichopodidae successfully infected me, too. :-)


Projects like these are a beautiful illustration of the gems that sprout from the iNaturalist community. All the best wishes for the success of your project!


This sounds like a brilliant project! I am looking for ways to improve my fly ID skills - most of my experience is in the UK where there are some helpful resources (but flies are still very difficult) but I’d be happy to expand my range to other parts of the world. I’m currently spending some time in Hong Kong where fly experts are clearly thin on the ground!

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Great idea… I have a particular fascination for a number of fly families and would love to improve my IDing skills. Not sure how appropriate Canada and North America would be though to my decidedly Mediterranean “hunting” grounds.




I love your fly ID tools! I’m personally obsessed with moth identification, and I run into many cool flies in the field (they also come to my moth sheet). Your suggestion for working on Bibionidae had me selecting the link and I immediately recognized flies I had just been reviewing from photos taken in March in Ocala, Florida. The mating pair of totally different looking flies were actually sexually dimorphic members of this family. I did a quick look at Bibionidae species’ observations in Florida, and my flies look like the second most abundant species on iNat. From there I went into your guide and found my flies on Slide 54! I love your little range maps.
I’m wondering if there is a quick way to get to a particular Google slide, once I know the slide number and want to jump right to it?
I encourage anyone slightly interested in flies to take the challenge offered here. These fly people have a friendly community and are eager to help new identifiers. Meanwhile, I need to get back to my moths… :-)


we should connect within the European community, too :)

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I just uploaded three fly observations, and I can see a difficulty. These were such tiny flies that I could hardly avoid damaging them even picking them up with forceps. The problem when specimens are that small is that even turning them over, from dorsal to ventral, is a battle. Did you have a minimum size in mind when you proposed this method?

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I’m slightly confused by your question: a minimum size for the type of fly to be identified?

Yes. Mainly I was thinking in terms of the point at which handling a specimen under the scope (to get the needed characteristics) becomes unrealistic.

Not really, although this is a somewhat different topic. If your specimens are in ethanol, you can just use forceps to move them around, at any size. If they are dry, then I would point-mount them so that you don’t need to touch the specimen every time you need to turn it around.


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