Green Islands – mining cytokinins

A little while ago I wrote about the phenomenon of  “green islands” caused by ants keeping insect herbivores away from trees.   If, however, you work on leaf miners, the term green islands means something else entirely.  Instead of referring to a feature of the landscape, it refers to a feature of the leaf, which unless you are Toby*, is definitely not a landscape-level phenomenon 😊

While some insects, aphids for example, induce senescence to improve the quality of their host plant and some plants induce senescence and early leaf-fall in those leaves that have been colonised by gall aphids in order to reduce their infestation load (Williams & Whitham, 1986), there are other insects that try desperately to prevent senescence so as to prolong their feeding life on what would otherwise be a dead leaf.

Green island leaf mine of the moth, Stigmella atricapatella – Many thanks to Mike Shurmer for the photographs.

The phenomenon of the green islands in autumn leaves associated with leaf mining Lepidoptera has been known about for some time (Hering, 1951), but although the adaptive value of this was easy to see, the causal mechanism remained unknown for some time. Similarly, plant pathologists had also noticed that one of the symptoms of powdery mildew infections is the appearance of a green ring around the necrotic spot caused by the fungus (von Tubeuf, 1897); if not a green island, a green atoll 😊

Green island or green atoll? Powdery mildew on wheat

That fungi produced secretions containing plant growth substances such as the auxin (plant hormones) indole acetic acid has been known since the 1930s (Thimann, 1935) and it was later hypothesised that the levels present in the surrounding leaf tissue were associated with the resistance or lack thereof, to the fungal agent (e.g. Shaw & Hawkins, 1958). A further class of plant growth substances, initially termed kinins because of their similarity to kinetin (a cell growth promoting plant hormone, but later renamed cytokinins** (Skoog et al., 1965)) were discovered by Folke Skoog and co-workers (Miller et al., 1956) and linked to the production of green islands by plant pathogens (reviewed by Skoog & Armstrong, 1970).

“What about the leaf miners?” I hear you ask. You will be pleased to know that entomologists were not too far behind. Lisabeth Engelbrecht working on Nepticulid leaf miners on birch (Betula pendula) and Aspen (Populus tremula) set up a study (Engelbrecht, 1968) to test her hypothesises that the green islands were caused as a result of insect saliva or by the larvae physically cutting the leaf veins that would otherwise have delivered the chemical signal responsible for beginning leaf senescence. She discovered that the green islands contained large concentrations of cytokinin  (Engelbrecht, 1968) and working with other colleagues discovered that the labial glands of leaf mining larvae also contained cytokinin, but was unsure as to whether the cytokinin originated from the larvae or were formed in the leaf in response to chemicals in the saliva or frass of the larvae (Engelbrech et al., 1969), although if you read the paper it is quite clear that she is convinced that the source of the cytokinin is from the larvae and not the plant.

After all this excitement about insect produced cytokinin and green islands things seemed to go a bit dead.  I found a couple of passing references to the possibility that leaf mining Lepidopteran larvae use cytokinin to produce a green island to extend larval life after leaf abscission (Miller, 1973; Faeth, 1985) and an opinion piece discussing the possible adaptive role of using green islands to prolong larval life after leaf fall (Kahn & Cornell, 1983), but, surprisingly, nothing experimental to test this hypothesis. Oddly, I did find a paper testing the idea that early leaf abscission was an induced defence against leaf miners, where green islands were mentioned in the introduction but not mentioned again (Stiling & Simberloff, 1989).

Don’t get me wrong, plant pathologists and entomologists working on insect galls were still writing about the role of cytokinin (e.g. Murphy et al., 1997: Mapes & Davies, 2001), but leaf miner green island research seemed to have died.  Suddenly, however, in the mid-2000s the French ‘discovered’ leaf miners and David Giron and colleagues, showed how the leaf miner Phyllonorycer blancardella manipulates the nutritional quality of their host leaves by increasing the levels of cytokinin in the surrounding leaf tissue (Giron et al., 2007).

‘Green island’ formed by Phyllonorycter blancardella (From Giron et al., 2007).


As we know from aphids, where insects play, bacterial symbionts are never far away, and sure enough it wasn’t long before it was shown that Wolbachia ‘infections’ were helping the leaf miners produce their ‘green islands’. Wilfried Kaiser and colleagues treated leaf miner larvae with antibiotics to remove the symbiont and found that the ‘cured’ larvae, although still able to feed and form leaf mines, were unable to produce ‘green islands’ and the levels of cytokinin were much lower than that found in the ‘green islands’ formed by untreated leaf miners (Kaiser et al., 2010).

Influence of Wolbachia on green island formation. To the left, infected leaf miners (Phyllonorycter blancardella) happily surrounded by nutritious plant tissue; to the right, ‘cured’ by antibiotics, the leaf miner soon runs out of food (Kaiser et al., 2010)

The same group have also documented the mechanism by which the leaf miners and their symbionts work together (Body et al., 2013) and also, using molecular phylogenies and ecological trait data, shown that the existence of the ‘green island’ phenotype and Wolbachia infections are associated with the evolutionary diversification of the Gracillarid leaf miners (Gutzwiller et al., 2015).

You might expect that these findings would have stimulated renewed interest in the ‘green island’ phenomenon, but you would be wrong.  Despite the fact that at the time of writing this article (September 10th 2019) Kaiser et al. (2010) had, according to the Web of Science, been cited 105 times, only three papers dealing with this phenomenon have been published, the most recent appearing in early 2018 (Zhang et al., 2018) and, incidentally, by the same group that published the Kasier et al. (2010) study. It would appear that as with ‘green islands’, the study of the phenomenon is also very localised.


Allen, P.J. (1942) Changes in the metabolism of wheat leaves induced by infection with powdery mildew. American Journal of Botany, 42, 425-435.

Body, M., Kaiser, W., Dubreuil, G., Casas, J. & Giron, D. (2013) Leaf-miners co-opt microorganisms to enhance their nutritional environment. Journal of Chemical Ecology, 39, 969-977.

Engelbrecht, L. (1968) Cytokinin in den ,,grunen Inseln” des Herbstlauibes. Flora oder Allgemeine botanische Zeitung. Abt. , Physiologie und Biochemie, 159, S, 208-214.

Englebrecht , L., Orban, U. & Heese, W. (1969) Leaf-miner caterpillars and cytokinins in the “green islands” of autumn leaves. Nature, 223, 319-321.

Faeth, S.H. (1985) Host leaf selection by leaf miners: interactions among three trophic levels. Ecology, 66, 870-875.

Gutzwillner, F., Dedeine, F., Kaiser, W., Giron, D., & Lopez-Vaamonde, C. (2015) Correlation between the green-island phenotype and Wolbachia infections during the evolutionary diversification of Gracillariidae leaf-mining moths. Ecology & Evolution, 5, 4049-4062.

Hering, E.M. (1951) Biology of the Leaf Miners, Dr W Junk, The Hague, Netherlands

Herrick, G.W. (1922) The Maple Case-Bearer Paraclemensia Acerifoliella Fitch. Journal of Economic Entomology, 15, 282-288.

Kahn, D.M. & Cornell, H.V. (1983) Early leaf abscission and folivores: comments and considerations. American Naturalist, 122, 428-432.

Kaiser, W., Huguet, E., Casas, J., Commin, C. & Giron, D. (2010)  Plant green-island phenotype induced by leaf-miners is mediated by bacterial symbionts. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 277, 2311-2319.

Mapes, C.C. & Davies, P.J. (2001) Cytokinins in the ball gall of Solidago altissima and in the gall forming larvae of Eurosta solidaginis. New Phytologist, 151, 203-212.

Miller, C. O., Skoog, F., Okumura, F. S., Von Saltza, M. H., & Strong, F. M. (1956). Isolation, structure and synthesis of Kinetin, a substance promoting cell division. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 78, 1375–1380.

Miller, P.F. (1973) The biology of some Phyllonorycter species (Lepidoptera: Gracillariidae) mining leaves of oak and beech. Journal of Natural History, 7, 391-409.

Murphy, A.M., Pryce-Jones, E., Johnstone, K. & Ashby, A.M. (1997) Comparison of cytokinin production in vitro by Pyrenopeziza brassicae with other plant pathogens. Physiological & Molecular Plant Pathology, 50, 53-65.

Shaw, M. & Hawkins, A.R. (1958) the physiology of host-parasite relations V. A preliminary examination of the level of free endogenous Indoleacetic acid in rusted and mildewed cereal leaves and their ability to decarboxylate exogenously supplied radioactive indoleacetic acid. Canadian Journal of Botany, 34, 389-405.

Skoog, F. & Armstrong, D.J. (1970) Cytokinins. Annual Review of Plant Physiology, 21, 359-384.

Skoog, F., Strong, F.M. & Miller, C.O. (1965) Cytokinins. Science, 148, 532-533.

Stiling, P.D. & Simberloff, D. (1989) Leaf abscission – induced defense against pests or response to damage ? Oikos, 55, 43-49.

Thimann, K.V. (1935) On the plant growth hormone produced by Rhizopus suinus. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 109, 279-291.

Von Tubeuf, K.F. (1897) Diseases of Plants, Longmans, Green & Co, London.

Walters, D.R., McRoberts, N. & Fitt, B.D.L. (2008) Are green islands red herrings? Significance of green islands in plant interactions with pathogens and pests. Biological Reviews, 83, 79-102.

Williams, A.G. & Whitham, T.G. (1986) Premature leaf abscission: an induced plant defense against aphids. Ecology, 67, 1619-1627.

Zhang,  H., Dubreuil, G., Faivre, N., Dobrev, P., Kaiser, W., Huguet, E., Vankova, R. & Giron, D.  (2018) Modulation of plant cytokinin levels in the Wolbachia‐free leaf‐mining species Phyllonorycter mespilella. Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 166, 428-438.


*Toby Alone (La Vie Suspendue) by Timothée de Fombelle, is a fantastic novel, which I only fairly recently discovered, but can heartily recommend.

** Cytokinins are a class of plant growth substances that promote cell division, or cytokinesis, in plant roots and shoots. They are involved primarily in cell growth and differentiation, but also affect apical dominance, axillary bud growth, and leaf senescence. Wikipedia





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Pick & Mix 36 – something for everyone?

May Berenbaum has written an excellent editorial on the many failings of journal impact factors

Wow, a caterpillar that ‘shouts’ at would be predators

Ray Cannon writes about the wonders of dragonfly wings

More on insect declines, their causes and ways to minimise them

A pair of researchers found evidence that the insect population in a Puerto Rican rainforest was in free fall. But another team wasn’t so sure.

Failing exams doesn’t stop you becoming a professor

Why you should get out more – Visitors to urban greenspace have higher sentiment and lower negativity on Twitter

The Understory – excerpted from Robert MacFarlane’s recent book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey, “The Understory” is an examination of the life beneath the forest floor.

A fun visual time-line highlighting 100 years of UK forestry

Lovely obituary of a forest entomology legend – C.S. (Buzz) Holling

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Should a paper title tell you what the paper is about? Yes, but not the way Simon/Steve thinks

Image: You know what you’re walking into. © Gary J. Wood via, CC BY-SA 2.0

This is a joint post (argument and rejoinder) from Steve Heard and Simon Leather.  You can find it on either of their blogs.

Should a paper title tell you what the paper is about?  Yes, but not the way Simon thinks.

Steve opens with – A few weeks ago, Simon Leather blogged about one of his writing pet peeves: “titles of papers that give you no clue as to what the paper is about”.   I read this with great interest, for a couple of reasons – first, Simon is consistently thoughtful; and second, I’m terrible at titles and need to learn as much about good ones as I can!  Much to my surprise, I found myself disagreeing strongly, and Simon was kind enough to engage with me in this joint post.

I don’t mean that I disagree that a paper’s title should tell you what it’s about.  That’s exactly what a good title does!  My disagreement is, I think, more interesting.  Simon offered some examples of titles he scored as failing his tell-you-what-it’s-about criterion, and some he scored as passing.  I found myself scoring those examples exactly the opposite way: the ones that failed for him, succeeded for me; and vice versa.

What gives?  Well, most likely, I’m just wrong.  Simon has a couple of years more experience than me in science, has published many more papers than I have, and has significantly more editorial experience.  But “oh, I guess I’m just wrong” doesn’t make a very interesting blog post; so I’m going to work through my thinking here.

Here are two titles from Simon’s disliked list:*

Towards a unified framework for connectivity that disentangles movement and mortality in space and time

Seasonal host life-history processes fuel disease dynamics at different spatial scales

And here’s one from Simon’s liked list:

Ecology and conservation of the British Swallowtail Butterfly, Papilio machaon britannicus: old questions, new challenges, and potential opportunities

They’re on exactly opposite lists for me.  Simon dislikes the first one because “it takes until line 9 of the Abstract before you find out it’s about an insect herbivore, [and] until the Introduction to find out which species” (he dislikes the second for the same reason).  Simon likes the third because “you know exactly what this paper is all about”.  I think this is all wrong (sorry, Simon).   Since I’ve been writing about scientific writing as storytelling lately, let me put it this way.  Simon would like to know that the paper is “about” an insect herbivore, or “about” the British Swallowtail Butterfly.  But to me, that isn’t what it means to say a paper is “about” something – the study species is character, not plot.  Would you say that The Old Man and the Sea is “about” Santiago, or that Slaughterhouse-Five is “about” Billy Pilgrim?  Well, maybe in casual conversation, but not in a book review you were getting graded on.

I want a paper’s title to tell me about its plot.  By “plot”, I mean the questions the authors ask, and the way the experiments (or observations, or models) answer them.  That’s what a paper is “about” – the way The Old Man and the Sea is about a man’s struggle with his catch, his failing career, and his mortality (but I should stop before I venture further into literary criticism for which I am poorly qualified).  The “unified framework” and “seasonal life-history” titles tell me what questions the papers ask and answer.  It’s true that they don’t tell me which characters (species) they answer them with, but that’s not what I’m looking for in my first pass at a title.  And the swallowtail title?  It tells me nothing other than that the paper has to do with conservation of the swallowtail.  It mentions “questions”, but doesn’t say what they are; and it mentions “challenges” and “opportunities”, but these remain similarly shrouded.

A title that announces what species a paper is about doesn’t grab me, unless I already work on the species (or a similar one).  Who would pick up the swallowtail paper, except someone already interested in swallowtails or similar butterflies?  Is that the only audience the authors want?  What if the paper asks questions with implications for the conservation of mammals, or birds, or orchids?  Those audiences won’t be engaged.  With a title that announces what question a paper is about (and if possible, what the answer is), authors can recruit a broader audience.**  And readers can find out what species the question is asked with (and ponder whether the answer applies more broadly) at their leisure.


Should a paper title tell you what the paper is about?  Yes, but not the way Steve thinks.

Simon replies – I totally see where Steve is coming from with his point about plots and storylines and his references to Slaughterhouse-Five and the The Old Man and the Sea (although I could of course, somewhat tongue in cheek, riposte with a whole slew of titles such as Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield to name just a few.***) I think that I come at paper titles from two aspects of my academic profile.  First as an applied entomologist, I really do want to know if the paper is about the particular species or related group of species that I am working on – so referring back to Steve’s footnote about Tables of Contents (or even Current Contents)****, both of which I remember – yes, the title needs to be highly specific. Second, this is a debate I have had with conservation biologists working with vertebrate animals.

I am, as my Twitter handle indicates, an entomologist, and at the risk of being seen as narrowly partisan and parochial, means that I, and all other invertebrate zoologists, work on, until evidence is presented otherwise, the animals most relevant to ecology in general 🙂 . A paper on the movement ecology of zebras, for example, is unlikely to give me any insight into the migratory behaviour of aphids (of which there are more species than there are mammals), whereas an insect migration paper might give a mammal ecologist something to think about (incidentally I just realised that this helps Steve’s argument, in that an unwitting mammalogist might read an opaquely titled paper about insects). As a PhD student, when I first got interested in life history traits, I noticed that many vertebrate zoologists were publishing papers addressing concepts that were already well known to entomologists (e.g. Tinkle, 1969*****),  but not referring to those studies; so much so that I made rather a point of referring to vertebrate papers in my thesis whenever possible 🙂

And in the spirit of Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch, third, (yes I know I said two things initially) is the point I made in my blog post about ‘scientific fashion’ and what we now call ‘click bait headlines’ (my example of one of my own titles in that post underlines this very neatly).  On the other hand, as Steve and other commentators have pointed out, there is a cost to both download and citation rates when titles of papers are very specific and lengthy (Letchford et al., 2015), which is surely why high impact and more general journals encourage the titles I abhor, and Steve favours. A new pet hate of mine, and something favoured by high impact general ecology journals, are titles with question marks: it is obvious that the answer is always going to be yes!

A thought (oops, now a fourth point – the Spanish Inquisition strikes again) that occurred to me as I was writing this and beginning to feel that I was succumbing to Steve’s cogent and compelling arguments, has to do with science communication.  We are being encouraged (some would say forced) to become ever more open access so that in theory  the whole world can read our outpourings (although I suspect that most proponents of Open Access are more concerned with their ability to instantly access data, than for the general public to access the ever increasing number of academic papers).  If this is the case, then surely, rather than use titles that are said to increase scientific citation rates, we should perhaps be using very explicit titles that will enable the general public to know what to expect?

To wrap up: Steve admits to being terrible at titles, and to Simon being a more experienced author and editor than he is.  And yet Simon admits that Steve’s arguments had him (ever so briefly) questioning his own.  So we’d like to turn this over to you.  Where do you stand on titles, character, and plot?  Please tell us in the Replies.

© Stephen Heard and Simon Leather August 27, 2019

*^I decided that I wouldn’t actually read any of the papers.  I wanted to react to titles as I would if I encountered them in a Table of Contents (anybody remember those?) or in a Google Scholar alert.

**^The obvious compromise is a title that reveals both of those things.  I like that sort of title, although the cost is they can get long, and there’s empirical data suggesting that they reduce citation rates.

***^Steve can’t help himself, and footnotes Simon’s half of the post (chutzpah!) to point out that saying that David Copperfield is a novel about David Copperfield is true, but not particular enlightening.  He doubles down on his argument, therefore, while wondering what the Dickens was up with that particular novelist’s penchant for character-based titles.

****^I felt that as this is a joint effort with Steve, parenthetical interjections were essential 🙂

*****^Incidentally, the title of that paper fits Steve’s point under his second – that the ideal paper title reveals both character and plot, although this one does it even better: “Grazing as a conservation management approach leads to a reduction in spider species richness and abundance in acidophilous steppic grasslands on andesite bedrock”.

Letchford, A., Moat, H.S. & Preis, T. (2015) The advantage of short paper titles. Royal Society Open Science, 2, 150266.

Tinkle, D.W. (1969) The concept of reproductive effort and its relation to the evolution of life histories of lizards. American Naturalist, 103, 501-516.


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Talking the talk – my top tips for giving a good talk

I’m writing this a week before I’m due to give a talk at ENTO’19, the Royal Entomological Society’s annual meeting (I’m also on holiday in France, so don’t tell my wife that I’m working). I’ve been struggling a bit getting my talk prepared, probably because being on holiday makes it hard to concentrate on work, so to try and get in the right frame of mind I dug out the talk that I give to our PhD students about how to prepare for and give a presentation 😊 What I say in my talk, which is actually a demonstration, is that the pointers I give are transferable to all types of talk, be it a lecture to university students, a departmental seminar, a talk to a local natural history society, a garden club, a youth group or whatever. The general principles remain the same.  As this post is a result of me getting ready for a conference, I will, however, aim this at those of you giving conference talks for the first time, although I hope that some of you with more experience, will read this and add your thoughts in the comments section.

The first thing to remember, is that, as with writing a paper, you are telling a story.  You need a clear idea of where you are going, and in most cases, your audience also likes to know where you are planning on taking them.  It might seem trite and boring but a slide like this spelling out exactly what you are going to do in your talk, does no harm at all and also helps you get off to a good start, by allowing you to get your thoughts in order.

Tell them what you are going to tell them


So, what is your story?  How much time have you been allocated? Who are you talking to?  What do they know?  The more au fait your audience is with your subject area, the less time you will need to spend on your introduction and the more time you will need to spend on your results and what they mean.  On the other hand, if you are speaking to a more general audience you will need to have a relatively long introductory section in which you spell out why what you are talking about is important and worth listening to.

Keep your story straightforward, simple and linear.

You will note that I have put a bullet point called know your stuff.  By this I mean make sure you know something about the areas that your subject might impinge on.  You never know what someone might ask you, especially when you are talking to a general audience.  For example, whenever I am talking to natural history societies, garden clubs or Rotary Clubs, I always check what might be a problem in people’s gardens at that time of year, regardless of what subject my talk is about.  Entomologists are always being asked how to kill things. For a conference talk, you won’t have to be quite as broad as all that but do think about what sort of question someone not working in your discipline might come out with.  Going back to your timing and structuring, do remember to keep your conclusions (not discussion as you are not writing a paper), as simple and as short as you can.  Preferably one or two succinct bullet points, and whatever you do don’t start on to another slide.  My heart always sinks when I see a slide come up with the heading “Conclusions (1)”, because as sure as eggs is eggs, there will be another slide with the heading “Conclusions (2)”.  At a conference you are competing with a lot of other talks, you want to leave you audience with something that they can grasp easily and which when they leave the lecture theatre is firmly embedded in their minds. The more conclusion points you make the more confusion you sow, you want them to be talking about your work in the bar afterwards, not the number of slides that you had 😊

Avoid big blocks of text, even in lectures; anything that gets in the way of your story and makes it harder for your audience to understand what you are saying is not a good thing.

Not what your audience wants to see

In the same vein, and also something you should avoid, even in a conventional lecture setting, but definitely in a conference talk, are tables, no matter how simple you think they are.  Anything that needs the speaker to go through line by line, unless it is in a classroom situation where you are explaining the workings of a calculation, has no place in a talk.   Avoid tables, even simple ones, use figures instead.  People can absorb figures much more easily than they can text.  Keep thigs simple for your audience, don’t get in the way of your story by making things too complex.

Face your audience, speak up and make eye contact. I don’t mean find someone in the audience and stare lovingly into their eyes; scan the whole audience so they feel that you are speaking to them personally. Keep looking at the audience, don’t look at the ground.  Don’t use pointers* – they encourage you to turn your back on your audience, they reveal how nervous you are and if your slides are well designed you shouldn’t need them.

Use PowerPoint (or whatever you use for presentations) to point it out for you. Absolutely no need for a pointer, laser or otherwise.

You need to feel comfortable to give a good talk, and this can be affected by what you are wearing.  The degree of formality expected, will, to a certain extent, depend on your audience and your seniority.  I have written about this before, so will not repeat myself here, but my take-home message is to feel comfortable in yourself and if that means dressing smartly then so be it.

You may be wondering about how to remember what you are going to talk about, do you need notes? Fortuitously, this brings me on to aide memoires and hands and feet.  A good talk is a performance.  I am, like many scientists, (or is it just entomologists?), an introvert.  To give a good talk means engaging with people and projecting your personality.

A good talk is a performance.  Use those hands!

A good talk is a performance. This means that you may have to exaggerate parts of your personality, you need to be outgoing, voluble and perhaps even funny 🙂  I wrote about the dangers of unscripted humour last year; unscripted is the key word here.  To give a good talk, you need to feel at ease; as well as dressing comfortability and being confident about your story, you need to be able to tell your story without using notes.  Notes steal your spontaneity by encouraging you to read from them, they aid and abet introverts by giving you an excuse to look at them instead of the audience. Notes should be avoided. This is where rehearsal and acting comes to the fore.  I have been giving professional talks since my first disastrous PhD Departmental upgrading seminar in 1979.  I was nervous, ill-prepared, unrehearsed and, as result of a lunchtime drinking session to calm my nerves, slightly drunk.  Since that fateful day I have run through my talks at least five times.  When I say run through I mean I give my talk, albeit to an empty room, exactly as I am going to give it to a real audience, I use arm movements, I stride around the ‘stage’, I speak as loudly as I will on the day.  Treat your practice talk as a rehearsal but not as a ‘by rote’ script, otherwise you run the chance of losing the spontaneity factor. Your choreography and rehearsal should be the only aide memoires you need, although I do find it useful to have a little hint on a slide to tell me, for example, that the next slide is a picture, in this case a red bullet point.  Doing a proper, out loud performance also makes sure that you will keep to your time limit.

Two of the slides from my, because I have been on holiday, very under-rehearsed ENTO19 talk 🙂

Use your hands to emphasise points, there is nothing wrong with a bit of arm waving – I do it all the time as you can see from the title pictures 🙂 I also think, unless you arc anchored by a fixed microphone, to walk around a bit.  Movement adds life to your presentation.  If you just stand behind the lectern in the dark and fixed to the spot, your audience might as well listen to a recorded voice over.  Add personality to your talk by being an active participant although too much running around the stage and excessive arm waving might make your audience think that you are attempting take flight and prove distracting 🙂

Something to bear in mind if you are feeling apprehensive, is that the people in your audience have chosen to come to your talk because they are interested in what you are going to say. They have not, well I hope not, come to hurl abuse at you or laugh at your performance.  They are a self-selected set of fans, they have come to be informed and entertained, and, if you are confident, have a good story to tell and are well rehearsed, your talk should be fun for you and them.

And my final bit of advice. We all know when we have been at a good talk.  What was it that made Dr X’s talk so good, what did she do that you can ‘steal’ to make your talk even better.  Conversely, we have all been to bad talks, what made that talk by Professor Y so awful, what did he do that sent you to sleep or made you cringe?  Do you have any of those bad habits?  If so, brutally excise them from your next performance.


Post script

Don’t worry if you feel nervous before giving a talk, I still do after 40 years of standing up and talking at conferences and other venues.  A bit of adrenaline helps give your talk that ‘real’ feel.


*I’m not the only one who hates pointers, see this post by Steve Heard


Filed under Science writing, Teaching matters

Pick & Mix 35 – a real mixture from art to science

When tree planting actually damages ecosystems – interesting article from Kate Parr and Caroline Lehmann

What natural smaller changes in climate have done to human civilisations should really make us worry about what lies ahead

Studying the history of science is more than the interpretation of ‘landmark’ texts but must involve following ideas in circulation- studying both the people speaking on behalf of the dead scientists and the consumers of that information. Mendel as an example in this blog from the John Innes Centre.

Urbanisation of water courses has detrimental effects on damselflies

Mating damselflies from Ray Cannon’s excellent site

This recent paper suggests that plant sucking bugs feeding on plants (in this case citrus trees) where the levels of neonicitinoid insecticides are too low to kill the pests, can instead kill beneficial insects that feed on the honeydew produced by the pests

Do we realize the full impact of pollinator loss on other ecosystem services and the challenges for any restoration in terrestrial areas? Interesting article from Stefanie Christmann

Collaborating with artists to improve science communication

On a similar line, Peter Pany and colleagues at the University of Vienna, have come up with an idea to cure plant blindness or as they put it “to encourage plant vision

This artist’s oil paintings of women are considered the most realistic in the World



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All Among the Barley – an evocative and disturbing read

Readable Hardy

A summer between the wars

Rural lass recalls

I wrote this haiku immediately after reading Melissa Harrisons latest novel All Among the Barley, and tweeted it to her to let her know the admiration I felt for what I think is, to date, her magnum opus.  I hesitate to use the word enjoy, because, although this is a magnificent piece of writing, it is, in my opinion, an uncomfortable journey for the reader. Yes, my haiku is an adequate description

Melissa Harrison, All Among the Barley, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018


of the book, in as much as we spend a year in early 1930s rural England with the memories of Edith Mather, the sensitive and intelligent, teenage daughter of smallholder George Mather. Set as it is, the rhythm and texture of the farming year pervade the book but this in no way overwhelms the reader or the plot; it is an essential part of the narrative. The writing as a whole is lyrical, especially so when referring to the natural world.


“The bluebells would come out in Hulver Wood and our bees would wake and begin to forage; the grass would grow tall in the hay meadows and be mown, the peas would blossom once more and become sweet. And the cornfields would be green, then grow tall and turn golden; and so would pass the next year, and the next.”


It is hard to review this book without creating spoilers, so I am going to be deliberately opaque, but hopefully give you enough information to make you want to pick up, or buy a copy and immerse yourself in this lost world, that Melissa has stunningly recreated.  My arithmetic places the story in 1933 or 1934, a time of great upheaval in Europe and the UK. The rise of the unions, a deep distrust of foreigners, be they incomers or immigrants, overlaid on the, to some, fresh memories of the Great War, the insidious rise of fascism, and, despite burgeoning women’s rights,  a still, overtly patriarchal society, are the bricks on which this book is built.  The story is based firmly around the Mather family and Edie’s interactions with her recently married sister, her brother, her grandparents, her long-suffering mother and her prone to drunkenness father.  Add to this mix dark hints of witchcraft and a less than stable deceased grandmother, an unrequited relationship between Edie’s’ mother and the farm’s horseman, an overly amorous friend of her brother, a tincture of racism, the arrival of Constance, a liberated lady journalist from London, and you have the makings of a hugely compelling and gripping tale.

All is not as it seems and the twists and turns of this deceptively simple story will keep you by turns, charmed, horrified, puzzled and perhaps at times, in tears. I defy you to guess the ending.  It caught me totally by surprise.  I can only reiterate what I said at the beginning of this review, it may not be a comfortable read, but it is a magnificent piece of writing that deserves a huge audience.  I recommend it to you most strongly.



Filed under Book Reviews

What it says on the tin – should the titles of papers tell you what the paper is about?

I have recently discovered a new bugbear; titles of papers that give you no clue as to what the paper is about, even to the extent that reading the abstract still leaves you wondering if the paper is about an animal or a plant or whatever!  I may be exaggerating slightly, but perhaps not. My impression is, however, that in ecology, the higher the Impact Factor of the journal, the more likely you are to find papers with titles that are opaque to say the least.  Take a look at these for example, all taken from current issues of the journals and not involving a lot of searching or filtering.

Towards a unified framework for connectivity that disentangles movement and mortality in space and time

This one from Ecology Letters, it takes until line 9 of the abstract before you find out that it is about an insect herbivore, but you have to wait until the introduction to actually find out which species the authors are using as their exemplar.

Faster movement in nonhabitat matrix promotes range shifts in heterogeneous landscapes

Here from Ecology, it isn’t until line 8 of the abstract that you know what the subject organism of the paper is; on the plus side you do get the species name, a butterfly.

Seasonal host life‐history processes fuel disease dynamics at different spatial scales

Not an entomological example this time 🙂 This one from the Journal of Animal Ecology,  takes until line 7 of the abstract to reveal that the paper is about wild boar, not that you would have guessed from the title.

Non‐resource effects of foundation species on meta‐ecosystem stability and function

Another non-entomological example, this time from Oikos; you only have to read to line 6 of the abstract to find out that the paper is about mussel beds.

Contrast this with the next two journals, both lower impact than the previous examples, but still leaders in their fields with impact factors over the magic 2;

Ecology and conservation of the British Swallowtail butterfly, Papilio machaon britannicus: old questions, new challenges and potential opportunities

from Insect Conservation & Diversity, you know exactly what this paper is all about

The responses of wild jacamars (Galbula ruficauda, Galbulidae) to aposematic, aposematic and cryptic, and cryptic butterflies in central Brazil

and the same here for Ecological Entomology.

So what is it with these “guess what the hell this paper is about” titles?  There is a very obvious answer, but isn’t there always? It’s all about marketing. As authors we live in a crowded marketplace, as academics we are ducking and diving for tenure, grants, promotion and kudos in general; our currency is publications and the value of our currency is judged by citations, clicks and chutzpah. Back in the day, titles that began with the words “The effect of, the influence of …”, were, especially in the applied world, de rigueur. Nowadays, scientific writing courses and books about how to write paper, will all tell you that titles like that are the kiss of death, and won’t even get you past the Editor-in-Chief’s triage, let alone in the reviewers in-box. You need to sell your story, and ironically, it appears that selling your story means obfuscating it!

I’m as guilty of this as the next author.  My first papers stuck rigidly to the time-honoured applied format of titles such as “The effect of cereal growth stage and feeding site on the reproductive activity of the bird‐cherry aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi and “The effect of previous defoliation of pole-stage lodgepole pine on plant chemistry, and on the growth and survival of pine beauty moth (Panolis flammea) larvae”, even, when, as in the case of the latter, it was in a very ecological journal. Now, yes, I still do produce papers with similar titles, if I am aiming at a general ecology journal I succumb to the obfuscatory and hyperbolic, with the obligatory colon and question mark. I too have sold out. For many years I ran a paper writing course for postgraduates and final year undergraduates, part of which dealt with titles, and of course, I dealt harshly with the old fashioned, tell it as it is title, giving a personal example. Here is a paper I published with the informative title unlikely to grab the attention of a general audience:

“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.”

Here, however, is the snappy title that it was published under in Oecologia.  It used every trick in the trade, including hooking it on to, what was at the time, the latest ecological fad;

Sub-lethal plant defences: the paradox remains

In my defence line 1 of the abstract told you the plant species and by line 3 you knew it was pine beauty moth 🙂

The question that I would like you,  as fellow authors, to answer, is, have we gone a step too far, is it time to return to the honest, tell it as it is title, or are we doomed to an endless treadmill of devising ever more bizarre and over the top titles in that attempt to get ourselves noticed from the rest of the crowd?


Post script

I have, according to the Web of Science, published 207 papers, twenty of which include the words The Effect of and six, The influence of, in their titles, the most recent of which was in 2012.


If you are interested in title structure and choice, albeit from a social science point of view, then I thoroughly recommend this post by Patrick Dunleavy.



Filed under Bugbears, Science writing

Pick & Mix 34 – a very mixed bag

UK Butterfly numbers continue to nosedive, figures show

Not just in the UK, evidence of butterfly abundance declines in parts of the USA too

Fascinating read from Ray Cannon’s blog  – Polymorphic mating in bumblebee hoverflies

How ethically should we treat insects?

Can we grow crops without plant protection products – see this review by the European Commission for an in-depth analysis

Sloppy science – whose problem?

To me this is a perfect example of what happens when people pay to publish and publishing is outwith the control of learned societies – how this got through peer review is hard to fathom!

Science is in trouble when the getting of grant funding is seen as an end in itself rather than a means to the end of doing good research

Richard Jones asks how many ant fossils should there be?

Why lime trees (Tilia cordata) can kill bees.

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Filed under Pick and mix

It might have been wet, but we had a great time – British Ecological Society Undergraduate Summer School 2019 #BESUG19


The beginning of July was a busy time for me, first a week of my Crop Protection Summer School based at Harper Adams University and the following week saw me driving north to Scotland. This time I was heading for the Isle of Great Cumbrae and the Field Studies Council Centre at Millport.

My trusty, rusty car, safely on board the ferry to Millport, leaving grey Largs behind me. I had to drive as I didn’t think I could cope with the Vortis and other collecting equipment on the train 😊

This was the fifth time that I have had the privilege of being allowed to introduce the wonders of entomology to undergraduates aspiring to careers in ecology.  I first joined the BES undergraduate summer school team in 2015 at the inaugural event at Malham Tarn.  On that occasion I did it on my own but since 2016 the entomology team has been greatly strengthened by the very welcome addition of my former student Fran Sconce, now the Outreach Officer at the Royal Entomological Society.

When I arrived in the afternoon it wasn’t raining, although it was rather grey. Fran arrived shortly afterwards and we did the preliminary setting up, getting the lab ready, digging in pitfall traps and deploying the yellow pan traps.  I also gave Fran a quick tutorial in how to use the Vortis as next year, sadly, the Summer School clashes with the International Congress of Entomology which is where I will be instead.

Fran helping with preliminary setting up and learning (after all these years), how to use the Vortis suction sampler.

Yellow pan traps deployed in the hope that the rain forecasted for the night won’t make them overflow 😊

After we had got everything set up, we went for a drive round the island – it didn’t take very long but there was some spectacular scenery on offer, despite the grey skies.


View of Bute in the distance.

This must be fantastic when the sun shines.

We then joined the students for our evening meal; after a week of Harper Adams’s excellent catering, I can’t bring myself to call it dinner 😊  It was, however, a great chance to get to know some of the students ahead of our ‘Entomology Day’.  I also took the opportunity to go and listen to Natalia Pilakouta from the University of Glasgow who gave a very entertaining and informative talk about the effects of climate change on sociality.   A whole new concept to me; who would have thought that rising temperatures would affect how individuals interact.  What really made her talk memorable was that she interspersed human examples amounts the sticklebacks and dung beetles 😊 You can also find her on Twitter @NPilakouta

Chris Jeffs (another former student of mine) introducing Natalie Pilakouta for the first plenary of the course.

The bar finally opened at 9 pm where I hastily made my way to get a glass of red wine; after a lifetime of having wine with my evening meal, I was in sore need of this 😊.  It also gave me a chance to meet some more of the students and to get to know them a bit better.   Thence to bed hoping that the weather forecast for Tuesday was wrong.

Unfortunately the Meteorological Office got it right and the view from my bedroom window at 6 am was not quite what I had hoped to see.

The view from my window – Dawn Entomology Day!

Us entomologists are a hardy lot and despite the weather and the slight handicap it put on the use of sweep nets and other sampling devices we headed out to the field, but not before I had subjected the students to my introductory lecture extolling the virtues of insects and their extremely important roles in ecology.

A no-brainer really – if you are a zoologist/ecologist, insects are where it’s at 😊

Once out in the field, despite the rain we had a lovely time pooting, sweeping, beating and using the Vortis, all good fun and as my old games teacher used to say as he ushered us out into the rain to run a cross-country or play rugby, “Character building”.  More seriously though, it was a good introduction to ecological field work and the concept of environmental variability, the sun doesn’t shine all the time.

Sweeping, beating and sucking and perhaps contemplating a swim?

After forty minutes of running about in the rain we headed back to the lab for an hour of sorting and identification for everyone before we started the ‘expert’ session.  We were very pleased that 20% of the students stayed on for the extra hour of getting to grips with insect taxonomy.

Learning how to identify insects in the lab.

After the evening meal, it was time for the now, very traditional, glow in the dark insects and a lecture on moth trapping from Fran.

Using UV torches and fluorescent dust to track carabid beetles.

Fran lecturing on moth trapping and then with the early risers helping her and Chris Jeffs empty and identify the catch; one of which made a bid for freedom, necessitating a bit of ladder work 🙂

Despite the rain we did catch some moths, this Swallowtail for me at least, was the star of the show.

Moths identified it was time for breakfast and getting the car packed; luckily the nets had all dried out overnight and heading for the ferry and the long trip back to Shropshire. It was a great couple of days and I really enjoyed it and am incredibly sad that I will not be able to take part next year. The whole event is a great initiative by the BES, and I am glad that it and the allied summer school for ‘A’ Level students are now a firmly established part of the ecological calendar.   I have only described entomology part of the week, other things were happening; for an excellent account of the whole week I recommend this blog post by one of the students, and not just because she gave me a good report 😊  You can follow her on Twitter too @ecology_student and track down the other comments about the week by using #BESUG19

Although it rained quite hard at times we never had to use this 😊

In terms of hard-core entomology,  this was actually my second collecting insects in the rain experience of the year – you may remember it rained in Bristol!

I am very grateful to the British Ecological Society for inviting me to participate in the first ever Summer School and to keep on inviting me back.  Special thanks to Fran and Chris and also to Christina Ravinet (whom I also taught) from the BES for keeping things running so smoothly.


Filed under Teaching matters

Crop Protection Summer School – CROPSS 2019 – the grand finale?

The first week of July was a happy time but also a sad time.  I was privileged and very happy to spend a week with sixteen enthusiastic undergraduates keen to learn about crop protection, but at the same time, sad that the BBSRC funding to run my Crop Protection Summer School has now come to an end. Last year at this time I wrote about how pleased I was with the positive response of the students to working in, what to them, was a totally novel subject area.

Like last year, the Summer School started on a sunny Sunday afternoon, with an introduction from me about why crop protection was important and how Integrated Pest Management is all about ecology, NOT spraying and eradication, something I have been banging on about for many years and which needs to be reiterated again and again, so here I am reiterating it yet again 😊.

Our Sunday evening venue for the last two years, The Lamb Inn, the pub closest to the university, is closed at the moment so we

had to take a couple of taxis (large ones) to an alternative watering hole, The Last Inn. I was relieved to find that it was an excellent choice and we had a magnificent meal which I interrupted periodically to remind the students that they were also supposed to be doing a Pub Quiz 😊

As with last year, the quiz was all picture rounds.  The first round was all about charismatic megafauna (almost all answered correctly), then common British wild flowers (about 60% correct), common British trees (50% correct), common British insects (30% correct), I think you can see where I am going with this😊  This year, however, one of the teams cored 100% on the insect round thanks to the presence of an extremely keen entomologist, which meant I couldn’t feign resigned disappointment as much as I have in the past.

Catering for the rest of the week was in our excellent campus refectory and as last year, the students were all very complimentary about the quality of the food and the choices available.

We continued with the successful format of previous years, with specific days allocated to the main crop protection areas, agronomy, entomology, nematology, plant pathology, weed science and spray technology. Each evening after dinner, we had a speaker from ‘industry’; Jen Banfield-Zanin, a former student of mine who works at from Stockbridge Technology Centre, Rob Farrow from Syngenta, Bryony Taylor from CABI, Nicola Spence the Chief Plant Health Officer and Neal Ward from BioBest.  They were all very well received and had to answer a lot of interesting questions, both in the classroom and in the Student Union Bar afterwards.

The students and staff involved found it a very rewarding week, and as I did last year, I will let the pictures tell the story.

Let’s go on a nematode hunt! Matt Back briefing his troops

Sweep nets and pooters

Suction sampling with Andy Cherrill

Looking for weeds with John Reade

Labs and classrooms

Glorious weather and fantastic plants

Science communication and chasing fluorescent beetles in the dark

I think they liked the course and we loved their enthusiasm and commitment.

This year we did take the picture when we are all there!

Just to remind you why we need a well-trained youthful cadre of crop protection scientists.



I do hope that we will be able to secure some further funding to enable us to continue with this excellent initiative.  Perhaps the AHDB, the British Society of Plant Pathology and the Royal Entomological Society might consider chipping in?

Many thanks to Matt Back, Andy Cherrill, Louisa Dines, Simon Edwards, Martin Hare, Valeria Orlando, John Reade and Fran Sconce who all gave of their time freely to help deliver the course and to those MSc students who came and joined us in the bar.  I am especially grateful to our external speakers and their inspirational stories of how they ended up in crop protection.


Filed under Teaching matters