Journal Editing – Why do it? Masochism, machisimo or just plain nosiness?

I have been involved in scientific journal editing since the mid-1980s when I took on the role of Editor of an in-house newsletter run by the UK Forestry Commission’s Forest Research arm, EntoPath News. This basically involved writing short articles about what was going on in Forest Research and persuading colleagues to write about their research, mainly for a lay audience. This was pretty much a home-made effort, typed up and then photocopied by members of the Typing Pool (now those were the days!). Then in 1991 I was asked if I would like to edit Antenna, the in-house journal of the Royal Entomological Society. This was a step-up – we actually had a printer, although this was in the days of cut and paste when cut and paste meant exactly that. I was sent the proofs in what were termed galleys, long sheets of printed pages, together with template pages, marked out with blue lines to indicate margins etc. I then grabbed a pair of scissors and a pot of glue and literally cut the proofs to fit the pages and then glued them on to the templates. These were then returned to the printer who in due course produced a set of page proofs which I had to check and approve and these were then returned to the printer and then finally the finished version would appear.

Antenna 1993

Nowadays of course all this has long departed and Antenna is a much glossier and electronically produced affair.

Antenna 2012

I was next asked if I would like to edit Ecological Entomology a much grander job all together and one that I did from 1996-2003.

Ecological Entomology 2001

 

When I first started editing Ecological Entomology, all manuscripts were submitted as hard copy paper versions (usually three copies) but with an accompanying floppy disc. The review process involved posting out the hard copy to possible reviewers, usually without any preliminary enquiry as to the willingness of the referee to undertake the task, although as time passed we did start to ask referees beforehand by email. The use of paper copies enabled referees to write directly on to manuscripts and also allowed me as an Editor to mark required changes. My Editorial Assistant also imposed stylistic and language change to manuscripts. Accepted manuscripts were always returned with a huge amount of mark-up for authors to attend to and incorporate into their finished version which was returned on disc together with a paper copy. It was quite interesting to see how many authors were so enamoured of their original version that they tried to pull the wool over my editorial eye by returning an appropriately edited paper version but their original manuscript on the disc! These were most severely edited by my Editorial Assistant ;-)

I then had a couple of years off as a full editor but remained on the boards of Ecological Entomology, Journal of Animal Ecology and Agricultural & Forest Entomology, all of which I still do despite becoming one of the Senior Editors of the Annals of Applied Biology in 2005 and in a moment of weakness not only agreeing to become the Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation & Diversity in 2006, but to launch it from scratch!

One of my conditions for agreeing to edit Insect Conservation & Diversity was that we would be on-line submission from Day One. Interestingly enough we were the only journal of the Royal Entomological Society’s large stable that were. This year the last of the journals finally gave in and became on-line submissions only.

One of the things that I have noticed with most of the journals that were originally paper-based submissions is that the instructions for authors still refer back to the paper submission days – why for example do we need to upload tables and figures separately – why don’t we just incorporate them in the text in the way they would appear in print and submit one file? Old habits die hard I guess.

So why do I edit journals? The simplest answer is because I enjoy it, I find it interesting, albeit sometimes frustrating, especially when authors send you papers that are completely out of the scope of the journal, or formatted in the style of the journal they have just been rejected by! You also find out that some papers come with a referee repellent attached to them. Some papers you get the right number of referees agreeing immediately, others that look perfectly acceptable often take ten or eleven referee requests before you get your two referees.   I have written about the search for referees before so will not dwell on this part of the editing process. On the plus side you get the chance to read things that you might not do normally and, by judicious choice of your editorial board can influence the papers that are submitted to your journal.

How hard is it to be a journal editor? Not as hard as you might think. We certainly don’t do the same job that we used to; the red pen is a thing of the past. To a certain extent we act as filters, deciding which papers we are going to send on to our Associate Editor, so we do have to read everything that is submitted, although some are very easy to ‘instant reject’ and need little more than a cursory skim. The harder ones are those that are perfectly sound but don’t have the right feel for the journal, the ones that you know are going to be rejected but which are perfectly publishable, just not in your journal. In some of these cases you might have to pass it on to an Associate Editor, as with the best will in the world you can’t be an expert in everything.   The Associate Editors choose the referees and make a recommendation to you as the Editor; you then have to read the paper again and see if you agree with his/her recommendation. As an Editor you have to be tougher than your Associate Editors because of space requirements and the fear of a fall in your Impact Factor or submission rate. When I first started editing, Impact Factor was not a consideration; now we are, despite our belief that it is an imperfect metric, all aiming to be the best. We also have pressures from the publishers to increase the speed of our decision-making processes which is why the decision ‘reject and resubmit’ is now becoming increasingly common and ‘major revision’ less common.

Rejections can sometimes result in not only angry emails from rejected authors but also, but not that often, disgruntled Associate Editors. When I first started editing I was more prone to backing down when contacted by an author demanding a recount, especially if it was someone who I knew quite well. I soon learnt though that if you stood your ground firmly it was better for you and the authors, as they were all too often rejected after another round of reviewing. Your friends generally understand this quite soon and as professionals realise that you have to be impartial. That said, I did find it very hard when I found myself rejecting a paper submitted by my old PhD supervisor. He appears to have forgiven me ;-)

Do we get paid as editors? It depends on the journal; some pay a fairly generous stipend, but remember most of your editing takes place at home and at weekends, so some compensation is appropriate. The Royal Entomological Society journals don’t pay their editors but do treat them very well and pay for travel to some conferences and meet their registration and accommodation costs at most of their own conferences.

So what qualities are needed to be a journal editor? A thick skin, the ability to make a decision and not to keep asking for yet another opinion; you’re the final arbiter, make that decision and stick with it; the detachment to be impartial and go with the science not with your own personal prejudices or friendships. You also need to be aware of what other journals are doing and be constantly thinking of ways to improve your journal; it is very tempting to think that everything is fine so why change things. Personally I feel that an Editor should step down after about seven years or so as there is a tendency to get very parochial and stuck in a rut. You can definitely get very possessive about ‘your’ journal if you are not careful. [Note to self, I have edited Insect Conservation & Diversity for almost eight years now and I have had an approach from another journal, but I would really miss those Royal Entomological Society Publication Committee meetings ;-)]

Do I regret being an Editor?  Not one little bit. It is actually a great job and one that I can thoroughly recommend to anyone who is offered the chance.

Post script

Apropos of my mention of submitting paper copies to journals, I do feel that authors do not get the same amount of feedback from referees as they used to. Referees who take the time to download a pdf version and annotate and comment directly are definitely in the minority. This means that most referees only comment on the scientific details and all those helpful hints about punctuation and style are omitted. As a referee I do sometimes make suggestions for rewording and overall grammatical suggestions, but line by line editing which I used to do is now a thing of the past.

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Look Back in Angers – Teaching in France but not in French

I have long been aware of the Erasmus Programme (European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students) having had many Erasmus students in my classes over the years whilst at Imperial College.  It was however, only after moving to Harper Adams University, that I found out that there was also a similar programme to enable academic staff to spend time teaching at sister institutions.  I was contacted earlier this year by Joséphine Pithon from the Ecole Supérieure d’Agriculture d’Angers who wondered if I would like to come across to Angers a city I am ashamed to admit that I had very little knowledge of.  The chance of spending a week in France, my favourite holiday destination, was too good to turn down and my wife Gill was also very keen to have a short break and refresh her French language skills.  To cut a long story short, on Monday 24th March, we caught the Eurostar to Lille and then the TGV on to Angers, arriving mid-afternoon in, to our dismay, a very wet Angers.  We booked into our hotel, found somewhere not too far away to eat and then retired to deal with emails (sad to say we had both brought our laptops with us) and for me to double-check that my lectures were ready to deliver.
Tuesday dawned warm and sunny, much to Gill’s relief who had a day of sightseeing planned and I walked to ESA, which was only ten minutes away, collecting a roundabout on the way, albeit not as  spectacular as those in the south of France.

Roundabout Angers

 I arrived at a very welcoming ESA and managed to  make myself understood at reception and was introduced to my first class, a group of third years getting their first introduction to

ESA welcome

entomology.  It seemed to go well and despite me lecturing in English they asked a lot of pertinent questions. I then gave them two lectures on sampling and survey methods before going for lunch with my hosts.  I must give the staff canteen (cantine) a rave review – for less than €5 we got a three course lunch with coffee. Then it was back to lecture to a fourth year group about biological control and pest management, again to a very interactive group of students.  Then it was the short walk back to the hotel followed by an excellent meal in the city centre with my new French colleagues.  On the way we admired the bendy trams and marveled at the ingenuity of having ‘green’ tramways wherever possible.

 Tram  Tram lines

The next day I gave a seminar and then we headed out into the field with the third year students to collect insects and other invertebrates using a mixture of methods, pitfall traps, yellow pan traps, pooters, beating trays (known as Japanese umbrellas in French), sweep nets and extendable butterfly nets.  French students in the field are very similar in

Students getting briefed            Pan trap                Angers fieldwork

Extended net             Head first               Using  the pooter

behaviour to their British counterparts ;-)  Then it was the end of the day and time to relax and find somewhere nearby to eat and get ready for a morning in the laboratory on Thursday.

Thursday morning was spent with the students helping them identify the various organisms that they had brought back from our day in the field.  It appears that whilst students have to wear lab coats staff are exempt!  Our lab manager at Harper Adams would never allow that; I am frequently being told off for popping into the lab sans coat.

Busy in the lab

In the lab I had to use my French a bit more as some students were better than others at English and in a one to one situation I feel a little less hesitant about demonstrating my inept language skills.  I think we all had a fun morning and learnt a lot from each other.  After an excellent lunch it was time for a break; there is no teaching at ESA on a Thursday afternoon so I was free to join Gill for an afternoon of sightseeing around Angers.  Needless to say it began to rain!  Nevertheless we saw the magnificent Château d’Angers, once the home of René I a most impressive building even in the rain and with a nice entomological surprise on the ramparts; beehives..

Chateau 2           Chateau                Bee hives

And of course a mini-vineyard complete with a rose bush at the end of the row to give early warning of mildew infections! Great to see pest management in action;-)

Vine yard  Rose at end of row

Thursday evening saw us at a great little restaurant in the city centre where we met up with Professor David Logan a plant physiologist at the University of Angers, and someone I had previously only met on Twitter.  He introduced us to a couple of very nice local wines and we had a superb (and very reasonably priced) meal. It was a great end to a fantastic and educational trip.  I think it is very impressive that the French students are willing and able to be lectured to in English.  I am ashamed to say that I think that very few of our own students would be able to cope with a week of teaching in French!

Given the chance I would definitely like to repeat the experience and spend more time there.

Post script
Whilst roaming the corridors of ESA I came across a departmental notice board where I saw this cutting from the February issue of the L’Éleveur laitier a French agricultural magazine, and was very amused to see how they portrayed British farmers!

How they see us

 

 

 

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The Three Rs of Science – Reading, Writing and Reviewing

And before anyone jumps in and says there are 4Rs in Science i.e. Reading, Research, Writing and Reviewing, I am including research as part of writing as without research you would have nothing to write about.  This post is mainly about writing for publication as I have written about refereeing and reading in earlier posts.  Almost twenty-five years ago I designed and implemented a scientific paper writing class for the undergraduate course that I used to run at Imperial College; later I re-tooled it as part of our postgraduate training programme and it was later rolled out across the university graduate school as part of the Doctoral Training Programme.

The first question I would ask students was “Why do scientists write papers?”  Undergraduates usually responded that scientists wrote to tell the world and their peers about what research they had done and thus advance science and prevent duplication of effort.  My response to this was that if they really wanted to publicise their research and make it accessible to the world they would publish their work in the popular press which has a lot more reach than a scientific journal.  After a bit of prodding they would then decide that perhaps it was for peer recognition and subsequent scientific validation via the review process.  Postgraduate students reached this stage more quickly and also understood that they needed to publish to make their cvs competitive and also of course to stake a claim to a particular research area to help with obtaining funding.

The first step in this journey is to do some good science!  Before setting out on the publication trail I also think that one should ask yourself if your work is important, although of course this is pretty subjective.  I am sure that all of us if asked, would consider that what we do is important enough to be published.  Next ask yourself if the experimental design or methodology is sound and if the work has been done well.  This will save time and remove some of the pain likely to be met during the review process.  Most importantly, at least in my opinion, is to ask yourself if there is a story.  There needs to be a strong narrative if you want to get people to read and cite your paper.

As a first time author you definitely need to ask advice about who does what, where you will send your paper and it is usually a good idea to get some agreement on authorship order earlier and not later.  Even as an experienced author I think that this sort of discussion can be very useful.  At the very least it will help you decide what particular slant your story will have.

Remember, have a clear story to tell and also remember that complexity is not the same as learning; keep your language simple, concise, precise and incisive and even at this early stage, make sure you follow the journal style!

At this point in the course I would put up this table and ask the students what each column represented.

Paper table

They would quickly guess that the first column represented the traditional layout of a scientific paper.  The other two columns took a bit longer, especially for the undergraduates until I asked them how they read papers when gathering material for their assignments and they were then able to identify the third column as how they, and most of us tend to read papers.  If the title seems interesting then we read the abstract, zip down to the results, see what the authors said about them, then check the introduction and then check the references for follow-up literature.  Methods and materials usually trail in at the end and then only if you have some doubts about what the authors have said or if you want to do something similar.  Then you look at the results again and you might look at the acknowledgements to see where they got their funding and to guess how many times they had to revise the paper (how many anonymous referees they acknowledge).

The middle column represents how most of us now write papers especially in these days of cut and paste. We follow the line of least resistance, start with the title to give us a starting point, our methods should have been written already in our lab books, the results come next and then we get on to the harder bits, the Introduction and the Discussion; acknowledgements flow logically from this and then it is a matter of adding the references and perhaps the hardest bit of all, the abstract or summary.    By the time you have done all this, your initial title almost certainly will no longer appeal to you so you come up with something new and more fitting.

Although this tends to be how we write papers I am not sure that it is actually the best way.  In the days before personal PCs some of us had access to typing pools and even if we didn’t, we either wrote our first drafts in long-hand or at a typewriter.  This meant that we got all our material together, had a long think about what we wanted to say and actually started at the beginning and worked our way through the paper in the same order as it would be printed.  Some people argue that this meant that ‘flow’ of those papers was smoother and more coherent.  I don’t think I know anyone who actually writes like that anymore, but I am happy to be contradicted.

Regardless of the fact that most of us live in a cut and paste world I am going to work through the various bits of a paper in the usual printed order.  Remember you are telling a story and there are a lot of rival authors out there competing for space in the top journals and you have to convince the journal editor and two or three referees that your paper is the one that should see the light of day in their journal.

You need a title; ideally it should be short, snappy and very importantly informative, although perhaps not too informative.  In the course I ran, I presented this to the students as a somewhat tongue in cheek example;

The effect of two lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta Douglas ex Loudon) seed origins (South coastal and Alaskan) on the growth, survival and development of larvae of the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea (Denis & Schiffermuller) in the presence and absence of predators in a Scottish field site.

This although informative is not necessarily going to gain you readers or publication in a high impact journal.  In fact the external pre-REF (Research Excellence Framework – UK academics will know what this is) consultant employed by my university to help decide which papers should go forward for assessment was very clear that titles beginning with The effect of were very unlikely to receive high scores by the external assessors.

As it happened, the work I had done which is very clearly described by the informative title above was actually published as

Leather & Walsh title page

Not very informative but it certainly got a readership.

The abstract is perhaps the least favourite bit of a paper for authors; I certainly find them difficult and invariably save them to last.  They are however, extremely important and according to Wiley-Blackwell, publishers of the journal that I edit (Insect Conservation & Diversity) they are much more important than we as authors realise – they and the title are the ‘hook’ that gets your paper downloaded and hopefully read and then cited.  You should thus not just rush it off in a couple of minutes.  Think hard about what you want to say and what it is that is likely to get someone to download and read your paper.

Next is the Introduction, here you should put your work in context, remembering that it is not a literature review but make sure that you do cite some of the earlier relevant work as well as the more recent literature.  State the problem clearly and indicate who else has tried and failed and why your work is special and how you have succeeded where others have failed.

Now for the Materials and methods section, which to me is the most important part of the paper.  This is where you as a referee or reviewer should go first.  This is the detail that matters.  If the methodology is flawed then it doesn’t matter how great the writing is or how fancy the statistics, the paper should be rejected.  I think it is deplorable that there are now a number of ‘high impact’ journals that have relegated the methods to a subsidiary position, almost hiding them away and placing the results at the front end of the paper.  This is tantamount to telling reviewers that the methods don’t matter, just look at the results.  I have heard however, that some of these journals are now reconsidering this policy after some embarrassing publicity.

My advice to students is that the methods should contain as much detail as would be required for someone else to repeat your work without having to contact you.  So for example, the species involved, cultivars and phenological stage of the plants used, the sample size; for field work, the site details, the equipment used but not necessarily the supplier, unless of course it is very specialist, and the statistical treatment and assumptions.

The results section is your showcase.  Decide which display method is best for the message you want to get across and then pick out the most important points from your tables and graphs and turn them into a commentary, but DO NOT discuss them.  For the figures and tables do make sure that you follow the journal style.  Make sure that the figure and table titles are informative and comprehensive; in the days before Japanese journals published in English, the only English bit of the papers were the figure and table legends and it was possible to get a very good idea of know what the paper was about from them. Keep symbols simple and check line thickness.

The Discussion section is where you discuss YOUR results, highlight the strengths and weaknesses of your approach, underline your most important results, compare them with similar data and interpret your results in the broader view.  It is always a good idea to show how you addressed your initial hypothesis.  This and the methods section are the two sections where you can try and pre-guess the reviewers and get your retaliation in first.  If you can answer the reviewers before the questions are raised in their reports it increases the chances of getting your paper accepted.

Again, DO NOT use convoluted and obscure language and do AVOID jargon and pretentious statements.  As scientists our job is to communicate, not just to our peers, but to a wider audience. Quite often the reason our results are misinterpreted by the popular press is not because they are doing it on purpose but because we have obscured what we have said by using over-complicated language.  Be clear, use simple everyday words where possible, e.g.  laid rather than oviposited and be concise.

Speaking as an Editor I like acknowledgements to be brief, but do appreciate that there are funding agencies and helpful colleagues to thank.  I would advise against too much flippancy as after all you are advertising yourself and some people do read them.

Finally, the references; are they COMPLETE? Do they follow the journal style?  Editors do check and if you have had the misfortune to be rejected by your first choice journal, it does not go down well with the Editor of your second choice journal if you haven’t made thee effort to change the formatting!  Do text citations and bibliography agree?  Check and recheck!

So now are you ready to release your pride and joy into the wild to suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” more commonly known as editors and referees?  Actually no, that was just the first draft!  DO NOT SUBMIT IT YET.  Pass it around for comments; if you are a PhD student your supervisor definitely needs and wants to see it!  Let colleagues read it too and for communication test, get a non-specialist to read it.  If they can understand what you did and what your central message is then you have cracked the communication barrier.  Do listen to what people say, rewrite it!!  Be brutal in revision!  It is better to revise before submission than to have your paper rejected without the chance to revise.  Pass it around again. Then and only then, log on to the journal site and start the submission process, but do remember to read the guidelines for authors before you press the submit button!

Submit button

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The Verrall Supper 2014 – Moving into the 21st Century?

 

Last year with a certain degree of trepidation I organised The Verrall Supper for the first time on my own!   For those of you not in the know, I am a member of The Entomological Club (http://entomologicalclub.org/), the oldest entomological society in the world.  I am also, despite the grey beard, the youngest member of the Entomological Club, and more stressfully, have the job of being Secretary for the Verrall Association of Entomologists.   As the Verrall Secretary I have to organise the annual Verrall Supper http://entomologicalclub.org/page8.html .  The object of the Verrall Association of Entomologists is to continue the tradition of an annual supper of entomologists begun in 1987 by the late Mr G. H. Verrall as the Annual Entomological Club Supper. This is a chance for amateur and professional entomologists to meet once a year at a social gathering to exchange ideas, make new friends and meet old ones.  To say that it was a very traditional event, even old-fashioned is perhaps an understatement.  Women were not invited to the supper until 1962 and there has been only one female member of the Entomological Club to date, the late great Dame Miriam Rothschild.  Until recently, dress for the event was formal, a lounge suit; a prerequisite that prevented me attending for several years, since I have not owned  a suit since my first wedding in 1977 (although I did wear a hired suit for my eldest daughter’s wedding eleven years ago in Sydney; hired by her I might add).   I finally accepted an invitation to attend the Verrall Supper some twenty years ago and compromised my standards somewhat by replacing my jeans for smart trousers and my desert boots with shiny shoes.

All that said, I don’t want you to get the impression that the Verrall Supper was, or is, a stuffy event.  Get a large number of entomologists together with a supply of alcohol and good food and you are guaranteed to have a good time, even if over half the guests are well past their prime.  Given my famed lack of sartorial elegance, it was somewhat of a surprise when I was admitted as a member of The

   Michale Way and me

Me with the late great Michael Way (my sponsor for the Entomological Club).

 Entomological Club in 2011 and given my transgressions against the Verrall dress code (I accidentally turned up in jeans one year), it was an even greater shock to be chosen to succeed  “Van”  as Professor Helmut van Emden is known to entomologists all over the World, as the Verrall Secretary.

The reason that I find organizing the Verrall Supper more stressful than you might expect is that the former Verrall Secretary, Van, organized the event for forty years, yes 40 years!   He thus, understandably, has a somewhat proprietorial interest in how it is run under its new management.  Those of you interested in knowing how my first year went can find an account in Leather (2013).  I had added to the stress quotient by making a number of changes to the event, first by changing the venue from Imperial College to the Rembrandt Hotel, just opposite the Victoria & Albert Museum , second by changing the ticketing system, thirdly by altering the seating allocation method and  introducing round tables and finally by changing the dress requirement from lounge suits to smart casual (before I became a member of the Entomological Club, I had already started to subvert this rule, not actually owning a suit of my own anyway).   I am told that the evening was a great success; I was too stressed to really notice but certainly the emails that I received after the event put my mind at ease.

This year I introduced yet another change, email invitations and renewals.  Last year we collected as many email addresses as possible, well Clive Farrell actually did the collecting, but it was a joint decision. Despite a few ‘undeliverables’ the email booking system worked remarkably well and 185 entomologists ranging in age from 21 to well over 80 turned up at the Rembrandt Hotel on March 5th  where they were greeted by the ever-dependable Clive Farrell and one of my ex-PhD students, Dr Jennifer Banfield-Zanin, whom had met me earlier in

Jen & Clive

Jennifer Banfield-Zanin and Clive Farrell attempt to keep track of the attendees

the day to discuss some papers were are writing and found herself co-opted to collect money from those members without cheque books.  I should point out that people pay a subscription to join the Verrall Association of Entomologists, not to pay for the dinner.  The dinner, which comes with wine (another new innovation), is part of the membership package.  The subscription is traditionally not fixed, rather, an amount is suggested, with the expectation that most will pay it and that a significant number will generously exceed it and thus enable the less well-off to attend without undue hardship.  This is a tradition that I fully support, although I fear that not enough of the newer well-salaried members are aware of this expectation.  This year we had 46 female members including Marion Gratwick who was one of the first ever women to attend the Verrall Supper.  My aim next year is to try to get to an even sex ratio.  It was nice to see so many of my ex-students, PhD and MSc plus lots of Tweeters.

I leave you with assorted scenes of revelry and intrigue!

Mike Claridge and Ward Cooper

Ward Cooper and Professor Mike Claridge – discussing a future book deal?

Ashleigh & Craig

Ashleigh Whiffin and Craig Perl – two of the first Harper Adams University MSc Entomology graduates, now at Edinburgh and Sussex respectively.

Charles Godfray & Keith Bland

Charles Godfray & Keith Bland – Keith taking advantage of the relaxed dress code!

Ex-students table

Everyone facing the camera at this table is an ex-student of mine!

Mini-beast Mayhem and co

None of these are ex-students of mine!  Also proof that not all entomologists are male or old.

Flic and Fran and Carly

Chatting about Collembola?  Flic Crotty & Fran Sconce deep in conversation.

Gia and Tilly

Gia Aradottir and Tilly Collins

Tilly was my first Giant Willow Aphid PhD student and then was co-supervisor with me of Gia, who was my latest Giant Willow Aphid PhD student and we still don’t know where it goes in the winter!

Helen Roy, Gordon Port and John Whittaker

Helen Roy, Gordon Port and John Whittaker.  A shared interest in aphids and ladybirds.

Top Table 2

One half of the Top Table – Van, Gill van Emden, Chris Lyal, Richard Lane and Mike Siva-Jothy

Top Table 1

Top Table – without The Verrall Secretary; conspicuous by his absence – he must be taking photos ;-)

Minin Beast at table

@MiniBeastMayhem (centre stage) enjoying her first ever Verrall with among others, @MadAboutCaddis, and @Nyctibiidae

The Logan Team

James Logan and team – trying to drink the bar dry despite London prices!

Charlotte & Joe

Charlotte Rowley & Joe Roberts (Harper Adams University PhD students)

Ailsa McLean

This makes me feel old – Dr Ailsa McLean – her Dad and I were PhD students together and I can remember her in her pram!

The Bar

Entomologists at the bar!

Happy Diners

Happy Diners – including Hugh Loxdale and Helen Roy

I hope that this fairly random assortment of pictures gives you some flavour of the evening and also highlights the fact that the Verrall Supper is no longer entirely populated by old grey-bearded entomologists, although of course there are still some of us left ;-)

Leather, S.R. (2013) The Verrall Supper 2013 – New organiser – New venue.  Antenna, 37, 138-139

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Entomological classics – The clip cage

Mention clip cage to an aphidologist and the chances are that they will smile and begin reminiscing about the days when they had to sit down and spend hours refurbishing and making new ones; if they were lucky enough to be in a big research group as I was, they will have had the fun of the communal clip cage renovation day, otherwise they will have laboured doggedly away on their own.  Mention clip cage to an entomologist and they may have heard of them, but probably not used them; to a non-entomologist you will be talking gibberish.  In fact, this week at the beginning of a lecture to the MSc Entomology course here at Harper Adams, I held a clip cage in the air and asked those who knew what it was to put their hands in the air, less than a third were willing to hazard a guess.  For those of you who don’t know the answer, clip cages were invented, or at least revealed in the scientific literature by two Canadian entomologists MacGillivray & Anderson in 1957.  Their purpose, to keep aphids confined individually to leaves of a plant in a simple and effective way.

Clip cages in action

Before this aphidologists generally used to confine them in large cages covering whole plants, (Davidson, 1925; Kennedy & Booth, 1950).  This allowed the aphids to select their own feeding sites but which of course made knowing what an individual aphid was doing in terms of longevity and fecundity quite difficult.  Kennedy & Booth (1950) were very much aware of this and attempted to solve the problem by using this using this rather over-engineered reproduction cage

Kennedy reproduction cage

This cage, although doing the job was difficult to make and also required a somewhat complicated method of attachment to the plant so as not to pull the leaves off, hence the birth of the

Kennedy leaf cages

MacGillivray  and Anderson clip cage.  In 1958 another Canadian entomologist Noble described a variant on the MacGillivray & Anderson version where instead of a muslin lid, a cork was used , the theory being that you didn’t need to open the clip to check what the aphid was doing and risk it falling off the leaf, something aphids seem to delight in doing , especially when you are six

 Noble Clip cage

 days into obtaining seven-day fecundity readings!  Incidentally, this version of the clip cage has resulted in one of my favourite bug-bears, as many people tend to cite Noble (1958) when referring to clip cages, that is if they actually remember to cite anyone at all, and of course they are using the MacGillivray & Anderson version.

Since then the humble clip cage has become the standard way for aphidologists to keep aphids on single leaves of their hosts plants.  They have also been used to confine young Lepidopteran larvae to leaves (Moore et al, 2003) but due to the frass production of lepidopteran larvae are better suited to aphids whose honeydew causes less of a problem for cage cleanliness.  They are very versatile and can be made in different sizes to suit the host plant.   All you need are hair clips,  Perspex tubing and the wherewithal to cut it to the right size, some foam or sponge, fine muslin or  similar textile and a waterproof adhesive.

Clip cages      Big clip cages

Clip cages are not perfect. There are some drawbacks;  for example, if you don’t move them slightly every day the leaves can develop chlorosis which of course will change the performance of the  aphids  and there is some evidence that the leaf can suffer some physical damage (Moore et al,  2003) and that even if you do move the cages the aphids can behave slightly differently than those in  whole plant cages (Awmack & Leather (2007), but as long you are aware of the possible drawbacks  clip cages remain an indispensable tool for those wishing to study single aphids on whole plants.

And of course, there is the immense satisfaction and sense of achievement of being able to make your own equipment relatively simply and inexpensively.  That said, I certainly received some strange looks when I was working in  Finland and found that there were no clip cages in the lab and had to attempt to buy hair clips in  down-town Helsinki.

Awmack, C. S. & Leather, S. R. (2007).Growth and development. In Aphids as Crop Pests, 135-151 (Eds H. F. Van Emden and R. Harrington). Wallingford: CABI.

Davidson, J. (1925) Biological studies of Aphis ruimicis Linn. factors affecting the infestation of Vicia faba with Aphis rumicis.  Annals of Applied Biology, 12, 472-507

Evans, A.C. (1938) Physiological relationships between insects and their host plants I. The effect of the chemical composition of the plant on reproduction and production of winged forms in Brevicoryne brassicae L. (Aphididae).  Annals of Applied Biology, 25, 558-572

Kennedy, J.S. & Booth, C.O. (1950) Methods for mass rearing and investigating the host relations of Aphis fabae Scop.  Annals of Applied Biology, 37, 451-470

MacGillivray, M. E. &Anderson, G. B. (1957). Three useful insect cages. Canadian Entomologist 89: 43-46.

Noble, M. D. (1958). A simplified clip cage for aphid investigations. Canadian Entomologist 90, 60.

Moore, J.P., a, J.E., Paul, N.D. & Whittaker, J.B. ( 2003)  The use of clip cages to restrain insects    reduces leaf expansion systemically in Rumex obtusifolius Ecological Entomology, 28, 239-242

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How ready is the UK to combat current and future threats to our forests and woodlands?

Almost exactly two years ago (February 2012) a consignment of ash trees sent from a nursery in the Netherlands to one in Buckinghamshire, were confirmed to be infected by the fungus causing ash dieback, Chalara fraxinea.  By October of that year, it had been confirmed by Food & Environment Research Agency (FERA) scientists to be present in a number of woodland sites within the natural environment.  The story was quickly picked up by the national press http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthnews/9660538/Ash-dieback-now-beyond-containment.html and other media http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20079657 and articles about the severity of the disease and our inability to control it spread proliferated at  a fantastic rate.  Partly as a result of this, the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce was convened by the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor in November 2012.  I was invited to be a member of the Taskforce which was an independent, multi-disciplinary group of members of the academic community, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/200428/tree-taskforce-tor.pdf and very willingly, agreed to serve on it.   Our remit was to “provide advice on the current threats to tree health and plant biosecurity in the UK and make recommendations about how those threats could be mitigated”.   What surprised me and other members of the Task Force was the interest and emotional responses that ash dieback generated among the general public.  After all, a few years earlier another one of our iconic tree species, oak, was under threat by another fungal disease, Phytopthora ramorum, somewhat misleadingly known as Sudden Oak Death, which despite its potential threat to cause landscape level changes comparable with those caused by Dutch Elm Disease (Potter et al., 2011) failed to cause the same  level of media hysteria.  Our best guess for why there was such an outburst of press and media coverage and subsequent public concern about ash dieback, was that the Chalara outbreak was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  People, had perhaps become sensitised to forestry due to what seemed to be a constant stream of stories of threats, both man-made, such as the proposed sell-off of parts of the Forestry Commission’s estate by the UK government in 2010 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/countryside/8082756/Ministers-plan-huge-sell-off-of-Britains-forests.html and natural, such as Sudden Oak Death and other pests and diseases.

For the record, although Chalara  fraxinea is now being treated as a quarantine pest under national emergency measures and is widespread across the  United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, it no longer makes the front pages of our national newspapers.

Ash dieback distribution

http://www.forestry.gov.uk/chalara

We in the Tree Health Taskforce did not just consider ash dieback; we reviewed the whole range of biotic threats, both current and future, and highlighted a number of reasons that we felt had contributed to the problems and made recommendations about how these could be rectified.  In essence, how could we stop yet another ash dieback scenario occurring. Our joint report was published in May 2013 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/tree-health-and-plant-biosecurity-expert-taskforce-final-report.  One of our major findings was that the UK as a whole lacked, or would shortly lack, enough trained personnel able to recognise and respond to threats to our forests and woodlands from native and alien pests and diseases.  One of the more immediate outcomes of our report was the rapid commissioning of some research to determine just how serious the situation actually was.

The results of this report were published by Defra on February 5 of this year,  TH0115 Strategic Analysis of Capability and Capacity to undertake Tree Health Research and Evidence Activity in the UK.  The report highlighted research and evidence themes identified by key policy stakeholders and forest researchers from the university sector, research institutes and forest industry.

Ten themes were identified – Horizon scanning, Pathways and trade, Pest and pathogen biology and epidemiology, Detection and surveillance, Ecological patterns, Control and Management, Adaptation and resilience in forests and forestry, Governance and contingency planning, Economic evaluation and analysis and finally Public engagement, communication and citizen science.

Three of the themes – Pest and pathogen biology and epidemiology, Control and management and Adaptation and resilience in forests and forestry, were identified as areas where existing research providers lack current capability and/or capacity in one or more types of expertise.

The report also highlighted that there are serious skills shortages in the UK in mycology, plant pathology and entomology, especially in relation to forest health. Even in those disciplines where universities still run undergraduate degree courses, tree specific expertise such as silviculture, the care and cultivation of forest trees, was also noted as being in short supply.

So how did we get into this mess?  Why are we seeing what appears to be an unprecedented assault on the UK by invasive forest pests and diseases (Defra 2013).  Exotic and invasive insects are not a new phenomenon in the UK; the European spruce sawfly, Gilpinia hercyniae was first recorded in 1906, the Douglas fir woolly aphid Gilleteela (Adelges) cooleyi) in 1913, the web spinning larch sawfly Cephalcia lariciphila in 1953, Megastigmus spermotrophus, the Douglas fir seed wasp since at least the late 1940s,  Ips cembrae, the large larch bark beetle, since at least 1955

Ips cembrae

Ips cembrae  http://www.padil.gov.au/pests-and-diseases/Pest/Main/135614

and the great spruce bark beetle, Dendroctonus micans since at least 1973 (Crooke & Bevan, 1957; Bevan 1987).  Apart from Dendroctonus, none of these insects has however, had landscape level effects or for that matter, made the headlines to the same extent that ash dieback did.   Since the beginning of the current century the situation has changed dramatically, the influx of tree pathogens has continued to rise at an almost exponential rate and the number of potentially landscape changing insect pests has also seen an increase e.g. the horse chestnut leaf miner, Cameraria ohridella, first seen in London in 2002  (Straw & Williams,  2013) is now found as far north as Liverpool in the West and North Yorkshire in the East (personal observation); the pine tree lappet moth Dendrolimus pini, established in Scotland since 2004.  The oak processionary moth, Thaumetopoea processionea, has been firmly established in London since at least 2006 and looks set to spread further north and west (Townsend, 2013); it is probably only the bizarre weather we have had the last couple of years that has slowed it down slightly.  The Asian longhorn beetle, Anoplophora glabripennis, caused some concern when an outbreak was found in 2012 in Kent; the eradication of which resulted in the felling of several hundred healthy trees.

Anapolophora

Anopolophora glabripennis  (source USDA)

A related species, the Citrus longhorn beetle A. chinensis, is often intercepted but so far is not known to have established in the UK (Nigel Straw personal communication.)

Given the time that it takes for an exotic insect to reach noticeable population levels, all these insects may have actually established four or five years earlier and it could already be too late to eradicate these pests.  Attempts to eradicate the Oak processionary moth from London have, for example, now ended and been replaced by a policy of containment and eradication is only attempted in the case of new outbreaks outside London (Forestry Commission 2013).  Another species which has often been intercepted since the 1970s, is Ips typographus, a severe pest of spruce.  Other possible invaders include the pine processionary moth Thaumetopoea pityocampa, other Ips species attacking pine and spruce, and of great, and increasing concern, the emerald ash borer, Agrilus planipennis, a native of Asia which is now spreading rapidly outwards from Moscow (Straw et al., 2013).

Agrilus_planipennis_001

Agrilus planipennis  (source Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources – Forestry Archive)

So what may have caused this flood of new forestry pests in the UK?  The most obvious change to forestry practice in the UK which undoubtedly influenced the rise of the exotic conifer pests of the first half of the 20th Century was the large-scale afforestation programmes of many non-native tree species, brought about by the formation of the Forestry Commission in 1919.  This rapid afforestation of sites, many of which had not had trees on them for centuries,  provided new hosts for native pests and pathogens and inadvertently allowed the introduction of non-native insects.  The other major change over the last 50 years or so is in global trade patterns; the world is a much smaller place, goods travel extremely quickly, come from much further afield and in greater volumes.  The ability to transport living plant material has also much improved.  In pre-container and pre-bulk air transport days, goods that were packed with unprocessed or poorly processed timber (pathways exploited by many bark beetles) took many weeks to make the long sea voyages and the insect pests often did not survive to make it to land and a new host plant.  Long sea-voyages also meant that the transport of living plant material and their accidental insect passengers also had less chance of surviving to reach the UK.  Another major change to our trade habits is the “instant tree/garden syndrome” where developers and the general public are no longer willing to wait several years for their trees to grow; rather they plant semi-mature trees, many of which come from outside the UK and which come with very large root-balls.  It is impossible for the Plant Health and Seed Inspectorate (PHSI) service to check the huge volume of soil associated with these roots and many organisms must be entering the UK unbeknownst to the very over-stretched PHSI.

An often overlooked change that I am certain has contributed to the large-scale invasion of tree pests and diseases, is a result of re-organisation of the Forestry Commission.  Prior to 1990, the Forestry Commission had a localised approach to forest management.  Most forest blocks or amalgamations of them had a Chief Forester or Head Forester in charge of them.  He (very rarely she), lived in the near vicinity and much like the old village Bobby, walked his beat regularly.  Changes in forest health were thus much more likely to be spotted early and a forest pathologist or entomologist from either The Northern Research Station (NRS) or Alice Holt called in to make an assessment as to the cause of the problem.  I worked at NRS during the 1980s and early 1990s so have had personal experience of the effectiveness of this system.  By 1990, the Forestry Commission had amalgamated many forests and the number of District Offices was much reduced with a consequent reduction in the number of foresters living in near to individual forest blocks.  Forest health problems were thus much less likely to be noticed at an early stage.

The other major change was the decision to shift research to amenity forestry and away from commercial production forestry leading to a reduction in the number of entomologists and pathologists employed by the Forestry Commission as budgets were redirected.  There are now no longer enough key personnel in these disciplines to cope adequately with current problems, let alone those likely to arise.  At the same time within the university sector, the way in which government-funded universities was changed  to a system based on the outcome of the notorious publication metric based Research Assessment Exercise.  This disadvantaged academics specialising in niche applied disciplines such as entomology and plant pathology whose research output rarely, if ever, made it into the hallowed pages of Nature and Science.  Recruitment of staff in these areas in the research intensive universities was severely curtailed and retirees replaced by molecular biologists or vertebrate ecologists publishing in so-called ‘high-impact’ journals (Leather, 2009).  Universities have also replaced many specialist niche degrees with more broadly based subjects perceived to be more attractive to students.  As a result, teaching in these areas has also suffered and very few biology undergraduates in the UK today have any experience with whole organismal biology or the field and taxonomic skills needed be able to recognise forest health problems outside in the real world (Leather & Quicke, 2010).  The situation is now very critical, with, as far as I know only two forest entomologists (if you count me) and one forest pathologist teaching in UK universities today.  This is not a healthy situation for the country and we in the Tree health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce highlighted the need to address key skills shortages in this area as an urgent priority (Defra, 2013).

Worryingly, the problems do not just lie with exotic and invasive pests.  There are a number of long-established native pest species that still need research into their control and management.  The large pine weevil Hylobius abietis, which in the words of the

hylobius2

Hylobius abietis adults

first Forestry Commission entomologist J W Munro writing just ten years after the formation of the Forestry Commission stated “The pine weevil (Hylobius abietis) problem still occupies the attention of the Forestry Commissioners” (Munro, 1929).  The same statement is still as pertinent today although control measures for this insect have evolved greatly from the early use of DDT and organophosphates to more sophisticated, but possibly no more effective, biological control options (Torr et al., 2007).  The pine beauty moth, once a harmless indigenous moth species, rose to become a notorious pest of the introduced Lodgepole pine during the 1970s and still continues to pose a threat to Scottish plantations today (Hicks et al., 2008).   The often over-looked pine looper moth, Bupalus piniarius, may yet cause problems to our native Scots pine (Straw et al., 2002a). The green spruce aphid, Elatobium abietinum  has never gone away (Straw et al., 2002b) and may, if climate change predictions  are correct, make Sitka spruce a non-viable crop in the UK (Straw et al., 2009).

This is a problem we ignore at our peril.  Action needs to be taken, sooner, rather than later. As conventional chemicals are withdrawn and fewer chemicals approved for use in forestry, the emphasis must inevitably shift to biological control methods using classical natural enemies or biopesticide approaches with entomopathogenic fungi or nematodes or microbially derived pesticides such as Bt which was used against the Oak processionary moth in Berkshire in 2013.  We may even be able to develop even more specific methods such as pheromone disruption combined with improved tree resistance (Leather & Knight, 1997).   We need to improve quarantine measures, develop better detection methods and urgently provide more funding to enable the employment and maintenance of an expanded Plant Health Inspectorate as recommended by the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce (Defra, 2013) and by TH0115.  The latter report highlighted the widespread concerns about the lack of undergraduate and even more critically, the lack of MSc and PhD opportunities in forestry and tree health in particular.

A key recommendation of the report is that funding needs to be put in place to support postgraduate level teaching and training support. This is to make sure a new generation of people capable of working in the tree health area, assisting a smoother and more efficient transition from broad-based undergraduate biology degrees to PhD level research.

To staff the proposed new inspectorate and to make sure we have a new cohort of well-trained forest health experts, we need to encourage newly qualified undergraduates to take up the existing training opportunities at post-graduate level, such as the MSc courses run in Entomology, Integrated Pest Management and Conservation & Forest Protection at Harper Adams University by offering government bursaries.  We are planning to launch new MSc courses in Plant Pathology, Plant Nematology and Forestry Management from September 2014.  We also offer undergraduate degrees in Countryside and Environmental Management and Wildlife Conservation and Natural Resource Management, both of which have significant woodland and forest-related elements

In addition, we need to persuade UK universities to employ forest entomologists and pathologists in academic posts by increasing the amount of appropriate whole organism research funding in these areas.  The Forestry Commission’s Forest Research arm also needs to be able to expand its staff in entomology and pathology to enable it to cope with existing and future threats to our forest estate.  Without such capacity building the future of forestry in the UK is uncertain to say the least.

Post Script

At the risk of seeming to blow our own trumpet still louder, another recommendation from the recent Defra report is that a virtual Centre for Tree Health Science should be created. This would be created by linking together those organisations currently active in the field and with appropriate training provision available.  A number of recent key appointments and the newly launched multidisciplinary Centre for Integrated Pest Management (CIPM) mean that we at Harper Adams University are also in an excellent position to undertake research in this area.  We are, as I write, involved in projects on Oak Processionary Moth and Acute Oak Decline.

References

Bevan, D (1987) Forest Insects.  Forestry Commission Handbook 1, HMSO, London.

Crooke, M & Bevan, D (1957) Notes on the first occurrence of Ips cembrae (Heer) (Col., Scolytidae). Forestry 30, 21-28

Defra (2013) Tree Health and plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce Final Report.  https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/tree-health-and-plant-biosecurity-expert-taskforce-final-report

Forestry Commission (2013) The Oak Processionary Moth http://www.forestry.gov.uk/opm#description accessed 23 October 2013

Hicks, BJ, Leather, SR & Watt, AD (2008) Changing dynamics of the pine beauty moth (Panolis flammea) in Britain: the loss of enemy free space? Agricultural and Forest Entomology, 10, 263-271.

Leather, S.R. (2009) Institutional vertebratism threatens UK food security. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 24, 413-414.

Leather, SR & Knight, JD (1997) Pines, pheromones and parasites:a modelling approach to the integrated control of the pine beauty moth. Scottish Forestry 51, 76-83.

Leather, S.R. & Quicke, D.L.J. (2010) Do shifting baselines in natural history knowledge threaten the environment? Environmentalist, 30, 1-2.

Munro, JW (1929) The biology and control of Hylobius abietis L. Part 2. Forestry 3, 61-65.

Potter, C., Harwood, T., Knight, J.D. & Tomlinson, I. (2011) Learning from history, predicting the future: the UK Dutch elm disease outbreak in relation to contemporary tree disease threats. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 366, 1966-1974. http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/366/1573/1966.short

Straw, NA. & Williams, DT (2013) Impact of the leaf miner Cameraria ohridella (Lepidoptera: Gracillariidae) and bleeding canker disease on horse-chestnut direct effects and interaction. Agricultural and Forest Entomology 15, 321-333.

Straw, NA, Armour, H & Day, KR (2002a) The financial costs of defoliation of Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) by pine looper moth (Bupalus piniaria). Forestry, 75, 525-536.

Straw, N.A., Timms, J.E.L., & Leather, S.R. (2009) Variation in the abundance of invertebrate predators of the green spruce aphid Elatobium abietinum (Walker) (Homoptera: Aphididae) along an altitudinal transect. Forest Ecology & Management, 258, 1-10.

Straw, NA., Fielding, NJ, Green, G & Price, J (2002b) The impact of green spruce aphid, Elatobium abietinum (Walker), on the growth of young Sitka spruce in Hafren Forest, Wales: delayed effects on needle size limit wood production. Forest Ecology and Management  157, 267-283.

Straw NA, Williams, DT, Kulinich O & Gninenko, YI (2013) Distibution, impact and rate of spread of emerald ash borer Agrilus planipennis (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) in the Moscow region of Russia.  Forestry 86, 515-522

Torr, P, Heritage, S, & Wilson, MJ (2007) Steinernema kraussei, an indigenous nematode found in coniferous forests: efficacy and field persistence against Hylobius abietis. Agricultural and Forest Entomology 9, 181-188.

Townsend, M (2013) Oak processionary moth in the United Kingdom. Outlooks on Pest Management 24, 32-38.

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It’s a Wonderful Life – an Inordinate Fondness for Insects

On Tuesday (4th February) I had the very pleasant task of escorting the MSc Entomology and Integrated Pest management Students from Harper Adams University on a trip to visit the Entomology Department at the Natural History Museum, London.  Despite having to leave at six in the morning all the students were on time (I hesitate to add bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as that would be a patent untruth), but they were there on time.  I almost didn’t make it on time, as being a Yorkshire man, I decided that rather than leave my outside light on all day, I would try to make it to my garden gate in the dark.  Consequently, I had a very close encounter with my garden pond and turned up at the coach with a wet sleeve, a bruised knee, skinned knuckles and one leg of my jeans tastefully decorated with pond-weed.  Still the four-hour journey from Edgmond to London gave me plenty of time to dry out ;-)

We arrived as planned at 10 am and were met by Max Barclay , the Collections Manager of Coleoptera  and Hymenoptera, otherwise known as @Coleopterist who first told us that there were 22 000 drawers of beetles surrounding us, much more than either the Dipterists or Hymenopterists would be able to show us!

Beetle Collection

He did confess however, that he was no longer able to claim that beetles were the most speciose group in the world and that the famous quotation might now have to be “ an inordinate fondness for wasps (or possibly flies)”.  Nothing daunted he wowed us with the largest beetles in the world, the aptly named Titans, quickly followed by a few of Charles Darwin’s collection from his famous HMS Beagle trip.

Max Titans   Darwin's

Next came some glorious metallic coloured specimens which looked as if they had been painted; interestingly if they had been painted, they would actually be too heavy to fly.

Gold beetles

Max kept the students, and me, enthralled for some time and then led us upstairs to the Coleopterist’s Offices.  These were fantastic; thanks to an added mezzanine floor, they get to work surrounded by carvings and magnificent windows.  What a fantastic place to work.

Beetle offices  Max talking in offices Office space  Owl

Some of the researchers such as my friend Chris Lyal @Chrislyal are so dedicated that they rarely leave their chairs resulting in dramatic wear patterns ;-)

Chris' chair

Next on the agenda was the Hymenopteran collection where we were greeted by Gavin Broad also known as @BroadGavin, the Senior Curator of Hymenoptera.  I don’t want you to think that entomologists are competitive and try to out-do each other, but

Gavin Broad

 we were shown the longest wasp in the world; quite impressive, but not a patch on the Titans ;-)

Longest wasp

This was followed by a fantastic selection of wasp nests (of which I only show a few),

Wasp nest 1   Wasp nest 2

including one wearing a tweed jacket and woolly jumper!

Wasp nest jumper

We left the Hymenopteran collection with a reminder of how few taxonomists there are and how much material needs to be sorted and identified; the picture shows just a tiny fraction of the material that comes in each day.

to be sorted

After lunch we joined Erica McAlister @FlygirlNHM, the Collection Manager for Diptera, Fleas and Spiders.  She regaled us with stories

Erica

of bot flies, maggot-ridden corpses, showed us the maggots from the Ruxton murders (a forensic entomology first)

Ruxton maggots

and demonstrated how some flies twerk!  I really should have had a video camera.  I must also not forget to mention how many boxes of Dipteran specimens there are still left to identify and catalogue.  Again this is only a small selection.

Flies to sort

Erica then led us into the bowels of the museum to see some of the largest invertebrates on the planet, giant squids,

Squid

albeit not insects but quite impressive.  These are not on display to the public because they are preserved in formaldehyde, now deemed to be too dangerous to expose to all and sundry, despite the fact that as a school boy and undergraduate I spent a lot of time dissecting specimens preserved in the stuff, and as I recollect, not wearing gloves or face masks!  If you do want to see it, it is possible to take a free tour of the Spirit Collection http://t.co/U49HRoFbhV.  It was then time to get back on the coach and head back to Shropshire and Harper Adams University.   Here I am, captured on film by one of the students @Ceri_Watkins  as I try to make sure that everyone gets back on to the coach!

Loading the bus

All in all, a most enjoyable day and many thanks to our hosts for making it so memorable.

Post Script

I think that the thing that impressed us most was the enthusiasm everyone we met had for their particular group.  Even we general entomologists tend to have a favourite group of insects, in my case aphids, but the passion that Max, Gavin and Erica have and displayed for their specialities, is something very special indeed.  People tend to think of insect taxonomists as weird, introverted, bearded old gentleman.  Anyone who has the privilege to meet any of our three hosts will realise how wrong this stereotype is and will wonder why the Government and Research Councils are so reluctant to adequately fund proper taxonomy.

Without a thorough knowledge of the taxonomy and diversity of insects and allied organisms we will continue to be at risk from invasive pests and diseases.  If we don’t know what is out there, then how can we be ready to protect our crops and environment from outbreaks, or indeed, know how and what to protect to preserve the wonderful biodiversity which our planet supports.  It is time to admit that the funding for the study of vertebrates needs to be scaled back by at least 90% and those resources diverted to the identification and study of the biology and ecology of the dominant animal species of the world, the invertebrates.  In case anyone thinks that I am total partisan, I would also call for 20% of the funding devoted to vertebrate research should be dedicated to training plant scientist and funding whole organism botanical research.  Please spread the message.

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