Is it because I is a social insect? Horrific cinematic misrepresentation of insects

It is night, we are outside a typical mid-western suburban house; lights shine through the drawn drapes as the camera pans across the lawn and miraculously slides through the window glass into the living room.  There are four people, a middle-aged man, slightly greying, watching the TV, his wife, a blond attractive woman in her late thirties, is holding a glossy magazine, glancing from it to the glowing TV set and back again.  Two children, a teen-age girl with braces,  blond hair tied back in a pony-tail, her thumbs busy on the touch screen of an expensive looking cell ‘phone, sits opposite her brother  oblivious to the world around him, head phones clamped to his ears, hands moving almost too fast to see as he destroys the enemy forces ranged against him.  The camera changes angle and moves closer to the ceiling; we hear a faint scritching, scratching sound, and as we zoom in to the dangling light fitting we see a chitin clad leg push through the gap between the flex and the fitting, followed by another leg. Next two ferociously barbed mandibles attached to an alien-looking head with dead black eyes and twitching antennae appear and the rest of the body pushes through the gap, to stand quivering on six long legs.  It peers cautiously around, turns as if beckoning and is joined by first one, then two, then a whole swarm of identical creatures.  They spread out across the ceiling and gather in four swollen, evilly pulsating mounds, one above each unsuspecting human.  Then, in response to an invisible signal, they drop silently from the ceiling.  We hear frenzied screaming and the sound of tearing flesh as the giant mandibles of the evil mutant ants get to work.  The screaming stops and the camera zooms in to reveal four perfectly stripped skeletons, only identifiable by the phone and braces, the magazine, the skull wearing the headphones and the TV remote clutched in a bony hand.  Arghh, Hollywood strikes again!

Equally possibly we could have seen a blond toddler clutching a toy spade prodding a mound of soil in his garden, followed by a swarm of ants rushing up the handle of the spade, which engulfs him so quickly that he doesn’t even have time to scream.  Then the more and more anxious calls from his Mum and the screams that follow as she finds his skeleton in the garden clutching his little spade.  Sometimes these scenes of soon to be disrupted idyllic family life are preceded by a scene in a jungle/municipal dump/deserted field/derelict building somewhere as the evil/careless scientist/factory owner/farmer drops/dumps illegal chemical/genetic mutation/radiation source next to an ant/wasp/bee nest.

Insect horror films have been around for almost as long as the medium in which they appear [for a much more scholarly dissertation of the phenomenon I recommend Leskovsky (2006)], but it was in the 1950s that the cinema going audience became subjected to a plethora of movies* featuring scantily clad screaming females and evil arthropods swarming across their cinema screens.  Although the phenomenon of death by bug took off in the 1950s, films glorying in the ‘evilness ‘of the arthropod world can easily be found in every decade since.

Is it beacuse 1


Just some examples of how insects have been depicted by Hollywood since the 1950s

Is it beacuse 2

Spiders also get as much, if not more, bad press as insects

There have been many theories put forward as to why deadly giant bugs should have captured the minds of the movie makers and their audiences, ranging from the fear engendered by the Cold War and the image of the swarming communist hordes, the fears of radiation-induced mutations**  (Biskind, 1983),  the well-meaning scientist whose experiments go wrong (Sontag, 1965), UFO sightings and bizarrely, to worries about crops being eaten by pests and the growing awareness of the dangers of over-use of pesticides (Tsutsui, 2007).

This fear of agricultural pests running amok resulted in an insect species not often featured in Big Bug Movies, the locust.  In the Beginning of the End, (1951),

Is it beacuse 3

Rampaging locusts and Peter Graves

an agricultural scientist, played by Peter Graves (more famous to my generation as the star of Mission Impossible), who, in trying to feed the world, uses radiation induced mutation to successfully grow gigantic vegetables. Unfortunately, the vegetables are then eaten by locusts (the swarming phase of short-horned grasshoppers), which, contaminated by their unnatural food source, also grow to a gigantic size (a theme addressed much earlier by H.G. Wells in his novel The Food of the Gods). The giant locusts then attack the nearby city of Chicago, apparently, or so the poster for the film implies, focusing their attention on scantily clad women.  According to Wikipedia, the film is generally recognized for its “atrocious” special effects and considered to be one of the most poorly written and acted science fiction motion pictures of the 1950s.  Mission Impossible indeed!

Another possibility to explain the attraction of insects for the makers of horror films is the ability that insects have to reproduce rapidly and quickly achieve huge populations.  Leaving aside horror films, this characteristic causes concern to humans anyway.  Couple this with the often perceived super-mind of social insects and their demarcation into different castes and it is easy to understand why the concept of swarm intelligence and hive minds has captured the imaginations of film makers and horror and science-fiction writers.   A quick Google search for headlines about swarming bees and ants is enough to show the fear that the non-entomological public seem to have for these natural, and essentially harmless, phenomena e.g this story from last month about a grandmother being chased by bees, or this scare story from last year about flying ants. The use of negative imagery associated with social insects has not just been the prerogative of film-makers.   When Billy Graham opened the 1952 US Senate with a prayer he warned against the ‘barbarians beating at our gates from without and the moral termites from within” and Sir Winston Churchill also referred to the hive mind of the communist threat (Biskind,1983).

Whilst on the subject of horrific misrepresentations I can’t let the opportunity pass to mention two of what I consider to be the most unbelievable entomologists ever portrayed in film.  Michael Caine in The Swarm (1978) and Julian Sands*** in Arachnophobia (1990).  Neither of them does our profession any favours.

Is it beacuse 4

Michael Caine attempting to mimic a serious entomologist

Is it beacuse 5

Julian Sands as the stereotypical ‘mad’ obsessed entomologist

In marked contrast to the horror films aimed at adults, when it comes to the younger end of the market, insects are much more friendly and non-threatening,

Is it beacuse 6

even crickets masquerading as grasshoppers, or vice versa 🙂.

Insects for kids, even from more than a century ago, were portrayed as cute, lovable and anatomically and biologically incorrect and this has continued to the present day.

Is it beacuse 7

The unbelievably cute and anatomically incorrect

On the other hand, I guess that as long as they make children less afraid of insects then I can’t really complain.  I have, however, no evidence, that children who enjoyed Antz and the Bee Movie, have grown up into adults less likely to run screaming when confronted at close quarters with bees and ants🙂

Do let me know if you have evidence to the contrary.



Biskind, P. (1983) Seeing is Believing.  Henry Holt & Company, New York.

Leskovsky, R.J. (2006)  Size matters – Big bugs on the big screen. Pp 319-341 [In] Insect Poetics (ed. E.C. Brown), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Sontag, S. (1965) The imagination of disaster [In] Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Penguin Modern Classics (2009).

Tsutsui, W.M. (2007) Looking straight at Them! Understanding the big bug movies of the 195os.  Environmental History, 12, 237-253.


Post script


Is it beacuse 8


This may have been the first film to feature insects; not a horror film per se, but the fly was apparently fixed very securely (and ultimately fatally) to the match head, so it was a pretty horrific experience for the poor fly.


*I of course, was brought up calling these films but I know that the majority of my audience, even those from the UK, use the word movie🙂

** I particularity like the title of his hypothetical example of the genre, The Attack of the Giant Aphids🙂

***Totally irrelevant, but I used to go drinking with his big brother Nick in my student days🙂



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Creating space

Don’t worry,this is not an article about home improvement🙂 I am one of those people, probably like many of you, that needs the right ambiance to be able to sit at my computer and produce deathless prose. Despite owning a laptop I am not able to write anywhere and any-when, the creative juices only seem to flow when I am surrounded by a suitable amount of office clutter.


So when at work but travelling, and even if equipped with my lap top, I find myself unable to write on the train or ferry, be it papers, books or blog posts. Although I can read papers or theses, or mark essays, I am unable to write the reviews or comments; I apparently need to be sat at an ‘office’ table/desk, with plenty of paperwork to hand.

As I write this, I am on holiday in our future retirement house in Vinca in the Languedoc-Roussillon, France.  At the moment, our French house is somewhat devoid of furniture, although the previous owner left behind several rooms full of clutter, including unopened DVDs of Jean Paul II and an armoire full of French versions of Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin et alia.


As you can see, my office to be is nowhere near to being a suitable working environment yet,

future office

although as I have mentioned earlier, the view is fantastic.


My current working space is in what we are jokingly calling the “Versailles Salon”

Workspace Vinca

and means that I am working standing up, great for emails and checking Twitter, but not ideal for someone with a bad knee and somewhat footsore from all the walking we have done on holiday so far :-)

Although I am on holiday I feel a certain amount of self-inflicted pressure (guilt) about my blog schedule, a new post about every twelve days and so I stupidly promised myself that I would stick to this schedule despite being away from my desk. I even half-prepared a post on insects in horror films, hoping that I would be able to polish it off in between beers, walks in the hills, glasses of wine and dips in the swimming pool. As you may have guessed this did not work, hence the post that you are reading now. Big Bugs in Horror Movies will have to wait a few more weeks for its release🙂

The sun is shining and the pool is a shimmering blue, and although we are temporarily cut off from the rest of France by a rather large scrub fire, I feel somewhat more relaxed having at least written something, albeit rather lacking in entomological content.

Fires near Vinca

I am on holiday after all :-)


A bientot a


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Is there a dress code for scientists?

Dresscode 1

A couple of weeks ago, Mathew Partridge*, who writes at Errant Science posted a blog about what to wear at an academic conference.

Dresscode 2I tweeted the link to his post, adding that I was one of the scruffy (comfortable) ones. This generated a few comments, the more thoughtful of which suggested that what to wear at a conference might be affected by more than comfort and one of my female Tweeps made a very good point about not adopting a too simplistic viewpoint to the matter.

Dresscode 3


It was not necessarily all down to feeling comfortable, different rules may apply to different people. Amy Parachnowitsch over at Small Pond Science, has also written about this apparent dichotomy between male and female scientists’ approach to conference wear.

As I sat down to write this I logged on to Twitter to find the conversation shown above and came face to face with this photograph from the then curator of BioTweeps, zoologist, Dan Sankey who tweets as @inspiredanimals, which reinforces the stereotypic male academic ‘scruff factor’.

Dresscode 4

Dan Sankey from Swansea University**, Biotweeps Curator July 11th – July 15th 2017

Part of my teaching involves a lecture to the MSc students about how to give a good talk, be it a job interview, a conference or as part of an outreach programme. As well as the usual tips about content and delivery, I also cover dress and ask “Is there a dress code?” The answer to which of course, is “yes and no, it depends”.   So what do I mean by this?  The secret to giving a good talk, leaving aside having good content and being well prepared, which gives you the confidence to stand in front of an audience, is to feel comfortable in yourself.  I am firmly convinced that unless you feel comfortable, your talk will not be as good as it could be.  There are two aspects to feeling comfortable, one is knowing your stuff and feeling that you can handle any questions that might be put to you.  The other is feeling that you are relaxed (as much as you can be when standing in front of an audience) and comfortable in yourself.  I firmly believe that as people, we should be accepting and not judge people by appearances, but rather on who they are inside.  Yes, I know this is difficult, because as humans, we all have some prejudices***, no matter how hard we try to overcome them.  As scientists, we should be even less swayed by appearances as we are trained to look at data impartially.

I mentioned in my original Tweet about the Errant Science post, that I was a comfortable scruff. I have always been somewhat cavalier about my dress and general appearance, even as a school

Dresscode 5

Dressing not to impress, age 2, 8 and 18

I may have been lucky that I was a product of the 1960s and ‘70s when conformity was not the ‘in-thing’. I had long-hair until I was in my mid-thirties, despite working for the less than progressive Forestry Commission for ten years. I never found that my judgement as to the identity of a pest

Dresscode 6

The long-haired undergraduate morphed into an equally long-haired research scientist

problem or ability to lead a research project was questioned by the foresters in the field or the Forestry Commission higher-ups, although my refusal to wear a tie or have my hair cut may have had something to do with not being put in charge of the entomology section on the retirement of my immediate boss🙂

When I was being interviewed for academic jobs, I was faced with a bit of a dilemma. I was not just out of a post-doc or graduate school. I was an established scientist and was being interviewed by panels including people I knew quite well, who had seen me at conferences and knew how I dressed in a professional setting, in my case, jeans, shirt-sleeves and desert boots.  So, if I turned up for an interview in a suit (I don’t own one) and tie, they would know that I was pretending to be something I certainly wasn’t.  On the other hand, if I turned up in blue jeans and shirt-sleeves, they might assume that I wasn’t taking it seriously.  I thus compromised but salved my conscience at the same time; I wore black jeans, a new pair of desert boots and a crew-neck sweater, that way the panel could assume I was wearing a tie and if they didn’t look too closely, that I was wearing proper trousers and not jeans.

On becoming a university academic and having kids in school, I did get my hair cut, although my dress style remained stubbornly, desert boots, shirt sleeves, jeans and corduroy jacket. I must confess that in my first term of teaching, I did wear chinos, but soon reverted to jeans as I just did not feel comfortable.

Dresscode 7

The New academic, short-lived chinos and shortish hair.

But I digress, back to being comfortable and giving a talk. I tell my students that the dress code is up to them. How comfortable do they feel? If they feel that the expectation of the audience or interview panel is that they should be dressed more formally than their every-day dress, then they, as the interviewee, will feel more comfortable and more confident if they make some compromise in that direction. As a prospective employer or supervisor, it doesn’t make a difference either way as I hope that I always judge by qualifications and ability and not by appearance. As a presenter at a conference or as advisor on a government committee, I always assume that I have been asked along for my expertise and not for my fashion sense so even for my inaugural lecture I adopted my usual relaxed style.

Dresscode 8

My inaugural lecture – sans tie

I freely admit that I am somewhat privileged, I am white, male, older than a lot of people and a senior academic, I am at that place in my career, where I can, if I wanted to, pretty much ignore convention, but there are certain situations where that would make me and my audience feel uncomfortable or discombobulated. There are thus occasions when I do wear a tie, some are one-offs, such as my eldest daughter’s wedding (she hired a suit for me and her brothers) and when we launched the Centre for Integrated Pest Management at the European Parliament in Brussels.

Dresscode 9

Suited and booted for my daughter’s wedding and wearing a tie in Brussels

Although I firmly believe that I do not judge conference presenters and attendees by their appearance, there are obviously people out there who do and apparently, as shown above and below, female scientists**** feel that they are judged in this way.

Dresscode 10

As someone who is happily married to a lady who eschews make-up and revels in her natural highlights (she is going grey) I am perfectly at ease with the concept of dressing to please yourself and not the audience. On the other hand I do not think that a presenter who dresses more formally for their talk, than when listening to others talk, should be looked down upon or indeed judged in any way.  If that makes them feel more comfortable, then that is their choice.  And if you are unsure about what your prospective employer or audience expect, being smart rather than scruffy is to err on the safe side.  I would like to think that male ecologists and entomologists have similar views to me, but perhaps we should be asking ourselves, why it is that female scientists in particular, feel that they are being judged by how they look and if it is caused by male bias and/or female peer pressure.   I suspect that it is a bit of both, but welcome all comments.


Post script

I have to confess that there are annual occasions when I also wear a tie. I always wear a tie and shiny black trousers and shiny shoes for the annual graduation ceremony. The tie helps the medieval dress stay in place and it is not my day, it is the student’s and their family’s day and they expect something a bit special, so feeling uncomfortable for a few hours is a small price to pay. The other

Dresscode 11

Very formal dress and ‘smart casual’ for the Verrall Supper. The drink helps.

annual outing of the tie is the Verrall Supper of which I have written on more than one occasion.  For many years I boycotted this event as the invitation specified lounge suit, something I refused to own let alone wear.  I finally accepted the invitation but did not wear a suit, although I did compromise and wore shiny shoes and proper trousers and the obligatory tie.  Now that I am the Verrall Supper organiser, the dress code is smart casual, whatever that means, and I turn a blind eye to those younger than myself who turn up in jeans J


*you can also find him on Twitter @MCeeP

**for those of you not familiar with the Swansea University campus, it is almost on the beach.

***in my case, I find tattoos and other examples of self-mutilation, e.g. body piercings (including ear rings), cosmetic surgery, high heels, and even hair dying, very hard to understand, but I hope I do not let it interfere with my judgement of the quality or worth of the work of that person as a scientist or a human being.

****and possibly those from other disciplines too, but I have no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise.



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Malham in the Sun – introducing entomology to budding ecologists

Last year I wrote about my experience of being a tutor at the British Ecological Society’s Undergraduate Summer School at the Malham Tarn Field Studies Council site. I really enjoyed myself and also found it very refreshing to have the opportunity to interact with 50 bright young proto-ecologists. It appears that the students also enjoyed themselves as I was invited back this year to repeat my performance. I was very happy to accept the offer, after all, any chance to visit the county of my birth (Yorkshire) is not to be sneezed at and with the added bonus of being able to talk about entomology to a new audience thrown in I would have been made to turn it down. Thus it was that I headed up the dreaded M6 motorway on a sunny Monday afternoon (July 18th) with joy in my heart and a car boot full of entomological equipment and identification keys. The M6 did not disappoint and I spent an hour sweltering in the summer sunshine very slowly (very, very slowly) making my way through the inevitable road works. Luckily, being one of those people who likes to arrive early for appointments, I was only fifteen minutes late collecting my trusty assistant, Fran Sconce, from the very picturesque Settle Station and then heading up on to the FSC Malham Tarn site.

Malham 1
The weather on arrival was in marked contrast to last year.

We unloaded the car and just had time to set up 35 pitfall traps before heading in for the evening meal after which the students went on a long walk to Malham Cove.

Malham 2

The long walk

 I walked part of the way back with them but turned back in time to get to the bar🙂  for a very welcome drink, before retiring to bed.

The next day was even hotter, and we spent the morning setting up the labs and teaching areas.


This year, as well as the fifty undergraduates we had ten sixth form students from several different schools in London.  Last year interacting with a class of fifty had posed certain difficulties, so this year we divided the students into two groups and ran the session twice, once on the Tuesday afternoon and then again on the Wednesday morning.  This worked extremely well and meant that Fran and I and the PhD mentors assigned to us, were able to spend much more time with each student and also meant that we were not as rushed off our feet as we would have been otherwise.  So a win/win outcome, although I did have to give the same lecture twice in 24 hours which was an interesting experience.  On the Tuesday afternoon, I started with my lecture on why entomology is important and an overview of the insects.

Malham 3

I seem to have done a lot of arm waving


We then went outside and I demonstrated sampling methods while the students baked under, a by now, extremely hot sun, before sending them off to empty and reset the pitfall traps and collect other insects using nets and beating trays.

Malham 5

Being cruel to trees


Malham 6  Malham 4

Some of the stars of the day


Then it was back to the labs to identify the catches before the evening meal and refreshing drink or two in the bar*.   After the bar closed we had the fluorescent beetle extravaganza.  Last year I demonstrated the use of fluorescent dust on one hapless carabid beetle.  This year I used ten, and two different coloured dusts.  The beetles were then released after dark in

Malham 7

Fluorescing carabids

the courtyard outside the teaching labs where they were photographed fluorescing colourfully under my UV flashlight, as I ‘chased’ them around the arena, much to the delight of the watching students.

As the weather forecast was not very good for the Wednesday morning, we did the insect sampling first, in case the forecast rain was as heavy as predicted.  As it turned out, apart from a short sharp shower, whilst I was demonstrating sampling methods, the sun came out and there were plenty of insects to collect before I did my lecture and we headed in to the labs for another ID session.  All too soon the session was over, and Fran and I, after a hasty lunch, drove back down to Shropshire.

I think that the BES summer school is a superb idea and that the students get a great deal from it.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope that I get the chance to be involved in any future summer schools.  I was also greatly impressed by the 6th formers who certainly seemed to enjoy my entomology session, one of whom produced this excellent drawing.

Malham 8

Much better than anything I could draw

For those of you on Twitter #bestug16 will give you a flavour of the whole week.

Malham 9

Glorious Yorkshire


*staffed that evening by the son of my best friend from school!


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Roundabouts – so much more than traffic-calming devices


I have often been asked why I work on roundabouts, or urban green spaces, if you want to sound more scientific and ecological. Roundabouts to me are not just traffic-calming devices.


They are a teaching tool,




a research programme



and a source of amusement and wonder.



They are islands of calm among a sea of traffic, a haven for wildlife amidst a tarmac and concrete jungle.

Hook of Holland

or just plain fun!

So, next time you are waiting to enter a roundabout, don’t just think of it as an impediment (or aid) to your journey, but as a haven of wild-life, an urban nature reserve


or even as a work of art, especially if you are in France🙂



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Getting a buzz with science communication – Reflections on curating Realscientists for a week

My week on Realscientists was a direct result of National Insect Week, a biennial event organised by the Royal Entomological Society (RES) to bring the wonders of entomology to a wider audience*. I had never thought about being a curator for Realscientists although I have followed them for some time.  Back in February however, one of my PhD students who has been involved with National Insect Week on more than one occasion, suggested that I might apply to curate RealScientists during National Insect Week as the RES Director of Outreach, Luke Tilley, was hoping to be on Biotweeps during National Insect Week as well.  To make sure that I had no excuse to forget to do it, she very helpfully sent me the link to the Realscientists web site and instructions on how to apply🙂

Duly briefed, I contacted Realscientists and to my surprise and slight apprehension, was given the slot I had asked for, the week beginning 19th June.  As my curatorial stint drew closer I began to worry about what I was going to tweet about and how to fit it into my day-to-day activities.

I made a list of twenty pre-planned Tweets to give me an outline script to work from. I managed to include all but one into my week as curator, the one about why you should want to work in entomology.


The twenty tweet list

I felt that my whole week was addressing this point so there was no need to belabour the point any more.  I also received an email from Realscientists with a Vade Mecum of how and what to tweet.  I was somewhat concerned by the section on how to deal with trolling, but I needn’t have worried, as far as I could tell I received no overt abuse**.

The big day approached, which as my actual launch was at Sunday lunchtime caused some slight logistical problems, but easily solved by making lunch a bit later than usual. As it was a Sunday I basically kept it light, introduced myself and tweeted a few insect factoids and pictures, including some great images from van Bruyssels The Population of an Old Pear Tree.  I have my own hard copy of the 1868 translated edition, but if you want to read it on-line it is available here.


From van Bruyssel – The Population of an Old Pear Tree

It is definitely worth a read.

I also had to make a decision about how much time I was going to spend Tweeting. The previous curator had only done about 10-15 tweets a day, which is what I usually do.  The curator before her, however, had done considerably more.  As my stint as curator coincided with National Insect Week and as my contract with my university does actually specify that I do outreach***, I felt that I could justify several hours a day to it and that is what I did, and managing to fit quite a bit of the day job in between.

In between tweeting images and fantastic insect facts I tried to get some important messages across to my audience.  I started with what some might  term a “conservation rant”, basically bemoaning the fact that although insects make up the majority of the animal kingdom, conservation research and funding is very much biased toward the vertebrates, largely those with fur and feathers.  I also pointed out that most statements about how we should go about conservation in general is based on this unbalanced and not very representative research.  Taxonomic chauvinism has annoyed my for a long time🙂


That rant over I introduced my audience to the work our research group does, biological control, chemical ecology, integrated pest management, agro-ecology and urban ecology and conservation. Our use of fluorescent dust and radio tagging to understand insect behaviour aroused a lot of interest and comment.


Using alternative technology to understand vine weevil behaviour.


The glow in the dark sycamore aphid was also very popular


Midweek I translated one of my outreach talks to Twitter and in a frenzy of Tweets introduced the world to Bracknell and the biodiversity to be found on its roundabouts and how an idea of how to teach locally relevant island biogeography and conservation, turned into a 12 year research project.


How teaching led research – the Bracknell roundabout story.

In between these two main endeavours, I tweeted about the influences that entomology has had on art, literature, popular culture, religion, medicine, engineering, advertising, economics, medicine , fashion and even advertising, using a variety of images.


Our new insect-inspired smoke detector attracted a lot of love and envy.

I even composed a haiku for the occasion

Six-legged creatures;

Fascinating and diverse,

Beautiful insects



I have been an entomologist for a long time.

and told the story of my life-long love of insects, incidentally revealing some of my past hair-styles and exposing my lack of interest in sartorial elegance🙂

My overall message for the week was, and hopefully I got this across, is that we should be much


more aware of what is under our feet and surrounding us and of course, that aphids are not just fantastic insects


My final tweet

but also beautiful animals.

Giant Myzus

Model Myzus persicae that I recently met in the Natural History Museum

And finally, would I do it again? Yes most definitely. I ‘met’ a lot of new and very interesting people and had some really good ‘conversations’.



Harrington, R. (1994) Aphid layer.  Antenna, 18, 50-51.

Huxley, T.H. (1858) On the agamic reproduction and morphology of Aphis – Part I. Transactions of the Linnean Society of London, 22, 193-219.

Leather, S. R. (2009). Taxonomic chauvinism threatens the future of entomology. Biologist 56, 10-13.



*I was one of the original ‘founders’ of National Insect Week so have always tried to be involved in some way with the event.

**or I am so thick-skinned I didn’t notice it🙂

***or as Harper Adams University quaintly terms it, “reach out”





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Data I am never going to publish in peer-reviewed journals

I have got to that stage in my career where retirement is no longer a distant speck on the horizon; something that 20 years ago I never even thought about, but which now I am actually looking forward to reaching. Don’t get me wrong, I have, in the main, enjoyed what I have been paid to do for the last 40 years, but I’m looking forward to a change of pace and a change of priorities. I’m not planning on leaving entomology and ecology, or putting my collecting equipment in a cupboard, throwing my field guides away and burning all my reprints in a huge bonfire. Nor do I plan on deleting my EndNote™ files and database when I retire to our house in Languedoc-Roussillon to sit next to the pool with a never-emptying glass of red wine and gently pickle myself in the sun*. I’m just looking forward to approaching it in a different way; my plan is to stop initiating the writing scientific papers, but instead to expand on the outreach, to blog more and to write books for a wider audience. I want to spread the joys and wonders of entomology to the world, and hopefully, supplement my pension a bit to make sure that I can keep that glass filled with red wine and heat the swimming pool in the winter🙂

I’m planning a gradual retirement, a slow(ish) canter towards the day (September 30th 2020) when I finally vacate my university office and move full-time into my converted attic in the Villa Lucie surrounded by my books and filing cabinets with a superb view of the mountains.


The view from my study to be – I will have to stand up to see it, but exercise is good for you🙂

I have already reached a number of milestones, I took on my last ever PhD student (as Director of Studies) this month (June 7th) and submitted my final grant application as a PI (June 10th).


I must admit that it is a bit of funny feeling, but a remarkably rewarding one in many ways. I look at my former colleagues who have already retired productively and enjoyably, and I’m envious, so I know that I am making the right decision despite the slight feeling of apprehension. I now have a dilemma. As Jeff Ollerton points out, when you have been around a while, in my case it is almost 40 years since I started my PhD**, you build up a substantial amount of data, especially, if as I have, you have supervised over 150 undergraduate research projects, an equal number of MSc research projects and over 50 PhD students. Much of these data are fragmentary, not significant or even lost (sadly when I moved from Imperial College, they threw away the hard copies of my undergraduate projects, although I can remember what some of the lost data were about). My ten year sycamore and bird cherry aphid field study from my time in Scotland (1982-1992) remains largely unpublished and my huge twenty year sycamore herbivores data set from Silwood Park (1992-2012) is in the same boat, although parts of the data are ‘out on loan’ to former students of mine and I hope will be analysed and published before I retire.

This leaves however, the data, some of it substantial, which I would like to see the light of day, e.g. a whole set of rabbit behaviour data that I collected one summer with the help of an undergraduate and MSc student, which surprisingly revealed novel insights. Other data, perhaps not as novel, may be of interest to some people and there is a whole bunch of negative and non-significant data, which as Terry McGlynn highlights over on Small Pond Science, does not necessarily mean that it is of no use.   I have, as an example of fragmentary, not entirely earth-shattering data, the following to offer. Whilst monitoring aphid egg populations on bird cherry and sycamore trees, in Scotland between 1982 and 1992, I occasionally sampled overwintering eggs of Euceraphis betulae, on some nearby birch (Betula pendula) trees and of Tuberculoides annulatus, on an oak tree (Quercus robur) in my back garden in Peebles.

As far as I know there are no published data on the overwintering egg mortality of these two aphids. Although novel for these two aphid species, the observation of the way the egg populations behave over the winter and the factors causing the mortality have already been described by me for another aphid species (Leather, 1980, 1981). I am therefore unlikely to get them published in any mainstream journal, although I am sure that one of the many predatory journals out here would leap at the chance to take my money and publish the data in the Journal of Non-Peer-Reviewed Entomology :-) I could of course publish the data in one of the many ‘amateur’ type, but nevertheless peer-reviewed journals, such as Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, The Entomologist’s Record, The Entomologist’s Gazette or the British Journal of Entomology & Natural History, which all have long and distinguished histories, three of which I have published in at least once (Leather & Brotherton 1987, Leather, 1989, 2015), but which have the disadvantage of not being published with on-line versions except for those few issues that have been scanned into that great resource, The Biodiversity Heritage Library, so would remain largely inaccessible for future reference.

I thus offer to the world these data collected from four Betula pendula trees in Roslin Glen Nature Reserve in Scotland between 1982 and 1986. On each sampling occasion, beginning at the end of October, 200 buds were haphazardly selected and the number of eggs present in the bud axils recorded. Sampling continued until egg hatch began in the spring.


Figure 1. Mean number of eggs per 100 buds of the aphid Euceraphis betulae present on four Betula pendula trees at Roslin Glen Nature Reserve Scotland***.

The number of eggs laid on the trees varied significantly between years (F = 20.3, d.f. = 4/15, P <0.001) ranging from 12.75 eggs/100 buds in 1983-84 to 683 eggs/100 buds in 1986-87. Mortality occurred at a regular rate over the winter and ranged from between 60% in 1985-86 to 83 % in 1984-85, averaging out at 74% over the five-year study.

So in conclusion, no startling new insights, but just some additional data about aphid egg mortality to add to the somewhat sparse records to date (Leather, 1992). Perhaps it is time for me to write another review🙂


Leather, S.R. (1980) Egg survival in the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi. Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 27, 96-97.

Leather, S.R. (1981) Factors affecting egg survival in the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi. Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 30, 197-199.

Leather, S.R. (1986) Insects on bird cherry I. The bird cherry ermine moth, Yponomeuta evonymellus (L.). Entomologist’s Gazette, 37, 209-213.

Leather, S.R. (1989) Phytodecta pallida (L.) (Col.,Chrysomelidae) – a new insect record for bird cherry (Prunus padus). Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, 125, 17-18.

Leather, S.R. (1992) Aspects of aphid overwintering (Homoptera: Aphidinea: Aphididae). Entomologia Generalis, 17, 101-113.

Leather, S.R. (2015) An entomological classic – the Pooter or insect aspirator. British Journal of Entomology & Natural History, 28, 52-54.


*although in light of the recent horrific BREXIT vote this may now not be as simple as it might have been😦

**I must confess that I haven’t actually published all the data that I collected during my PhD. I rather suspect that this will never see the light of day🙂

***Data from 1986-87 are not shown as their inclusion makes it very difficult to see the low years. I can assure you however, that the mortality rate shows the same patterns as the other years.



Filed under EntoNotes, Science writing

Ten papers that shook my world – Solomon (1949) – quantifying predator efficiency

Solomon, M. E. (1949). The natural control of animal populations. Journal of Animal Ecology, 18, 1-35.*


According to Google Scholar there are 1149 (only 773 in 2013)citations to this paper, an average of 17.1 citations per year, compared with the 12.5 I reported back in 2013.  Although influential, it had a slow start, only 383 citations being recorded for it between 1949 and 1993. Since 2000 it has averaged about 48 citations a year (760 in total), 225 of those since 2013.** To the modern reader this paper comes across as wordy and discursive, more like a popular article than a scientific paper. This does not, however, mean that the science and the man behind the article were not first class. Journals had less pressure on their space in those days and scientists had more time to think and read. If only it were so now. Despite the relatively low number of citations, this paper has had an immense influence on the study of population dynamics, although I will have to confess, that for my generation who were undergraduates in the 1970s, Solomon’s little Study in Biology*** book, Population Dynamics, published in 1969, was our main, if not only, encounter with his work.

Solomon 1

Making sure that nobody could claim my copy of Population Dynamics

Solomon terms

Here Solomon introduces the term functional as in a density related response

Nowadays we remember the paper as the first one to formalise the term ‘functional response’ although the early citations to this paper are in reference to density dependence, competition, population regulation and population variability e.g. (Elton 1949; Glen 1954; Southwick 1955; Bakker 1963). Interestingly, one of the earlier papers to cite Solomon, (Burnett 1951) presented functional response curves but did not mention the term (Watt (1959)). To add further insult to injury, Holling (1959) in the same year, in his classic paper in which he described and numbered the types of functional responses did not even refer to Solomon, rather deferring to Watt’s paper (loc. cit.). Since then, with the likes of Varley, Gradwell and Hassell (1973) and luminaries such as Bob May (May 1978), this paper has been cited often, and justifiably, and continues to influence us to this day, including the author of this eulogy (Aqueel & Leather 2012). This paper as well as being  the first one to formalise the term ‘functional response’ was the first attempt to draw together the disparate conceptual strands of the first half of the twentieth century work on population dynamics in one coherent whole. Truly, a remarkable and very influential paper.



Aqueel, M. A., & Leather, S. R. (2012) Nitrogen fertiliser affects the functional response and prey consumption of Harmonia axyridis (Coleoptera: Coccinellidae) feeding on cereal aphids. Annals of Applied Biology, 160, 6-15.

Bakker, K. (1963) Backgrounds of controversies about population theories and their terminologies. Zeitschrift fur Angewandte Entomologie, 53, 187-208.

Burnett, T. (1951) Effects of temperature and host density on the rate of increase of an insect parasite. American Naturalist, 85, 337-352.

Elton, C. (1949) Population interspersion: an essay on animal community patterns. Journal of Ecology, 37, 1-25.

Glen, R. (1954) Factors that affect insect abundance. Journal of Economic Entomology, 47, 398-405.

Holling, C. S. (1959) Some characteristics of simple types of predation and parasitism. Canadian Entomologist, 91,385-398.

May, R. M. (1978) Host-parasitoid systems in patchy environments: A phenomenological model. Journal of Animal Ecology, 47, 833-844.

Solomon, M. E. (1969) Population Dynamics. Edward Arnold, London.

Southwick, C. H. (1955) The population dynamics of confined house mice supplied with unlimited food. Ecology, 36, 212-225.

Varley, G. C., Gradwell, G. R. & Hassell, M.P. (1973) Insect Population Ecology: An Analytical Approach. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford.

Watt, K. E. F. (1959). A mathematical model for the effect of densities of attacked and attacking species on the numbers attacked. Canadian Entomologist, 91, 129-144.


Post script

A few months ago I was privileged to be given Robert Tillyard’s excellent The Insects of Australia and New Zealand (first published in 1926), by a former colleague of mine.


What made this even more special was that it had originally belonged to the great Maurice Solomon when he was a student, and contained some of his original annotations and revision notes.

Solomon combo



*This is an expanded and updated version of the article I wrote as part of the British Ecological Society’s Centenary celebrations in 2013

**It is probably wishful thinking, but I might be tempted to think that by writing about this influential but somewhat overlooked paper, I increased the number of citations, so had a positive influence🙂

***The Studies in Biology series, published by the then Institute of Biology (Now Royal Society of Biology), were excellent little books and the series on plant physiology were the main reason that I passed my first year plant physiology module as an undergraduate at Leeds University. I am reliably informed that there are plans to revive the series next year.



Filed under Entomological classics, Ten Papers That Shook My World

Not all aphids have the same internal biomes

Headline message for those of you too busy to read the whole thing

Aphids have mutualistic symbiotic bacteria living inside them, one set, the primary endosymbionts, Buchnera aphidicola are obligate, i.e. in normal circumstances, the aphid can’t live without them and vice versa. All aphids have them. The others, the secondary symbionts, of which there are, at the last count, more than seven different species, are facultative, i.e. aphids can survive without them and not all aphids have them or the same combination of them. These can help the aphid in many ways, such as, making them more resistant to parasitic wasps, able to survive heat stress better and helping them use their host plants more efficiently. Hosting the secondary symbionts may, however, impose costs on the aphids.

Now read on, or if you have had enough of the story get back to work 🙂

Like us, aphids have a thriving internal ecology, they are inhabited by a number of bacteria or bacteria like organisms. The existence of these fellow travellers and the fact that they are transmitted transovarially, has been known for over a hundred years (Huxley, 1858; Peklo, 1912)*, although their role within the body of the aphids was not entirely understood for some time, despite Peklo’s conviction that they were symbionts and transferred via the eggs to the next generation. Some years later the Hungarian entomologist László Tóth** hypothesised that aphids because the plant sap that they feed on did not contain enough proteins to meet their demands for growth, must be obtaining the extra nitrogen they needed from their symbionts, although he was unable to prove this empirically (Tóth, 1940). This was very firmly disputed by Tom Mittler some years later, who using the giant willow aphid, Tuberolachnus salignus, showed that aphid honeydew and willow phloem sap contained the same amino acids (Mittler, 1953, 1958ab). It was not only aphidologists who were arguing about the nature and role of insect symbionts, as this extract from a review of the time makes clear,

It is not our purpose here to harangue on terminology; suffice it to say that we will use “symbiote” for the microorganism and “host” for the larger organism (insect) involved in a mutualistic or seemingly mutualistic association.” (Richards & Brooks, 1958).

Interestingly it is in this paper that they mention, using the term “provocactive” the use of antibiotics to create aposymbiotic individuals in attempts to prove that the symbionts were first bacteria, and second, benefiting their insect hosts. The concluded that there was enough evidence to suggest that the endosymbionts were involved in some way in the nutritional and possibly reproductive processes of the insects studied, mainly cockroaches. At the time of the review no similar work had been done on aphids. A few years later though, two American entomologists sprayed aphids with several different antibiotics and found that this caused increased mortality and reduced fecundity when compared with untreated ones (Harries & Mattson, 1963). Presaging its future dominance in aphid symbiont work, one of the aphids was the pea aphid, Acyrthosiphon pisum. Antibiotics were also shown to eliminate and damage the symbionts associated with Aphis fabae followed by impaired development and fecundity in the aphid itself adding yet more evidence that the symbionts were an essential part of the aphid biome (Ehrhardt & Schmutterer, 1966). There was, however, still much debate as to how the symbionts provided proteins to the aphids, and although light and electron microscopy studies confirmed that the symbionts were definitely micro-organisms (Lamb & Hinde, 1967; Hinde, 1971), the answer to that question was to remain unanswered until the 1980s although the development of aphid artificial diets (Dadd & Krieger, 1967) which could be used in conjunction with antibiotic treatments, meant that it was possible to show that the symbionts provided the aphids with essential amino acids (Dadd & Kreiger, 1968; Mittler, 1971ab).*** Although the existence of secondary symbionts in other Homoptera was known (Buchner, 1965), it was not until Rosalind Hinde described them from the rose aphid, Macrosiphum rosae, that their presence in aphids was confirmed (Hinde, 1971).   Of course it was inevitable that they would then be discovered in the pea aphid although their role was unknown (Grifiths & Beck, 1973). Shortly afterwards they were able to show that material produced from the symbionts was passed into the body of the aphid (Griffiths & Beck, 1975) and it was also suggested suggested that it was possible that the primary symbionts were able to synthesise amino acids (Srivastava & Auclair, 1975) and sterols (Houk et al., 1976) for the benefit of their aphid hosts (partners). By the early 1980s it was accepted dogma that aphids were unable to reproduce or survive without their primary symbionts (Houk & Griffiths, 1980; Ishikawa, 1982) and by the late 1980s that dietary sterols were provided by the primary symbionts (Douglas, 1988).


Primary symbiont (P) in process of dividing seen next to secondary symbionts (S) and mitochondrion (m) from Houk & Griffiths (1980).

Despite the huge amount of research and the general acceptance that the endosymbionts were an integral part of the aphid’s biome “The mycetocyte symbionts are transmitted directly from one insect generation to the next through the female. There are no known cases of insects that acquire mycetocyte symbionts from the environment or from insects other than their parents” (Douglas , 1989), their putative identity was not determined until 1991 (Munson et al., 1991), when they were named Buchnera aphidicola, and incidentally placed in a brand new genus. Note however, that like some aphids, B. aphidicola represents a complex of closely related bacteria and not a single species (Moran & Baumann, 1994). Research on the role of the primary symbionts now picked up pace and it was soon confirmed that they were responsible for the synthesis of essential amino acids used by the aphids, such as tryptophan (Sasaki et al., 1991; Douglas & Prosser, 1992) and that it was definitely an obligate relationship on both sides**** (Moran & Baumann, 1994).

Now that the mystery of the obligate primary endosymbionts was ‘solved’, attention turned to the presumably facultative secondary symbionts, first noticed more than twenty years earlier (Hinde, 1971)***** began to be scrutinised in earnest. Nancy Moran and colleagues (Moran et al., 2005) identified three ‘species’ of secondary bacterial symbionts, Serratia symbiotica, Hamiltonella defensa and Regiella insecticola. As these are not found in all individuals of a species they are facultative rather than obligate. The secondary symbionts were soon shown not to have nutritional benefits for the aphids (Douglas et al., 2006). They are instead linked to a whole swathe of aphid life history attributes, ranging from resistance to parasitoids (Oliver et al., 2003; 2005; Schmid et al., 2012), resistance to heat and other abiotic stressors (Montllor et al., 2002; Russell & Moran 2006; Enders & Miller, 2016) and to host plant use (Tsuchida et al., 2004; McLean et al., 2011; Zytynska et al., 2016).

And finally, Mittler (1971b) mentions the reddish colouration developed by aphids reared on some of the antibiotic diets and hypothesises that this may be linked to the symbionts. I have written earlier about aphid colour variants and the possibility that the symbionts may have something to do with it. The grain aphid, Sitobion avenae has a number of colour variants and it was suggested that levels of carotenoids present might have something to do with the colours expressed and that in some way this was controlled by the presence of absence of symbionts (Jenkins et al., 1999). More recently Tsuchida and colleagues in a series of elegant experiments on the ubiquitous pea aphid, have shown that the intensity of green colouration is dependent on the presence of yet another endosymbiont, a Rickettsiella (Tsuchida et al., 2010). The authors hypothesise that being green

Pea aphids colour

Elegant demonstration that in some strains of the pea aphid, green colour is a sign of an infection by Rickettsiella (Tsuchida et al., 2010).

rather than pink or red, may reduce predation by ladybirds as has been suggested before (Losey et al., 1997).

New secondary symbionts continue to be discovered and with each discovery, new hypotheses are raised and tested. It would seem that there is a whole ecology of secondary symbionts within the aphid biome waiting to be explored and written about (Zytynska & Weisser, 2016). What are you waiting for, but do remember to come up for air sometime and relate what you find back to the ecology of the aphids🙂



Buchner, P. (1965) Endosymbiosis of Animals with Plant Microorganisms. Interscience, New York.

Dadd, R.H. & Krieger, D.L. (1967) Continuous rearing of aphids of the Aphis fabae complex on sterile synthetic diet. Journal of Economic Entomology, 60, 1512-1514.

Dadd, R.H. & Krieger, D.L. (1968) Dietary amino acid requirements of the aphid Myzus persicae. Journal of Insect Physiology, 14, 741-764.

Douglas, A.E. (1988) On the source of sterols in the green peach aphid, Myzus persicae, reared on holidic diets. Journal of Insect Physiology, 34, 403-408.

Douglas, A.E. (1998) Mycetocyte symbiosis in insects. Biological Reviews, 64, 409-434.

Douglas, A.E. & Prosser, W.A. (1992) Sythesis of the essential amiono acid trypthotan in the pea aphid (Acyrthosiphon pisum) symbiosis. Journal of Insect Physiology, 38, 565-568.

Douglas, A.E., Francois, C.M.L.J. & Minto, L.B. (2006) Facultative ‘secondary’ bacterial symbionts and the nutrition of the pea aphid, Acyrthosiphon pisum. Physiological Entomology, 31, 262-269.

Ehrhardt, P. & Schmutterer, H. (1966) Die Wirkung Verschiedener Antibiotica auf Entwicklung und Symbionten Künstlich Ernährter Bohnenblattläuse (Aphis fabae Scop.). Zeitschrift für Morphologie und Ökologie der Tiere, 56, 1-20.

Enders, L.S. & Miller, N.J. (2016)Stress-induced changes in abundance differ among obligate and facultative endosymbionts of the soybean aphid. Ecology & Evolution, 6, 818-829.

Griffiths, G.W. & Beck, S.D. (1973) Intracellular symbiotes of the pea aphid, Acyrthosiphon pisum. Journal of Insect Physiology, 19, 75-84.

Griffiths, G.W. & Beck, S.D. (1975) Ultrastructure of pea aphid mycetocystes: evidence for symbiote secretion. Cell & Tissue Research, 159, 351-367.

Harries, F.H. & Mattson, V.J. (1963) Effects of some antibiotics on three aphid species. Journal of Economic Entomology, 56, 412-414.

Hinde, R. (1971) The control of the mycetome symbiotes of the aphids Brevicoryne brassicae, Myzus persicae, and Macrosiphum rosae. Journal of Insect Physiology, 17, 1791-1800.

Houk, E.J. & Griffiths, G.W. (1980) Intracellular symbiotes of the Homoptera. Annual Review of Entomology, 25, 161-187.

Houk, E.J., Griffiths, G.W. & Beck, S.D. (1976) Lipid metabolism in the symbiotes of the pea aphid, Acyrthosiphon pisum. Comparative Biochemistry & Physiology, 54B, 427-431.

Huxley, T.H. (1858) On the agamic reproduction and morphology of Aphis – Part I. Transactions of the Linnean Society of London, 22, 193-219.

Ishikawa, H. (1978) Intracellular symbionts as a major source of the ribosomal RNAs in the aphid mycetocytes. Biochemical & Biophysical Research Communications, 81, 993-999.

Ishikawa, H. (1982) Isolation of the intracellular symbionts and partial characterizations of their RNA species of the elder aphid, Acyrthosiphon magnoliae. Comparative Biochemistry & Physiology, 72B, 239-247.

Jenkins,  R.L., Loxdale, H.D., Brookes, C.P. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1999)  The major carotenoid pigments of the grain aphid Sitobion avenae (F.) (Hemiptera: Aphididae).  Physiological Entomology, 24, 171-178.

Lamb, R.J. & Hinde, R. (1967) Structure and development of the mycetome in the cabbage aphid, Brevicoryne brassciae. Journal of invertebrate Pathology, 9, 3-11.

Losey, J. E., Ives, A. R., Harmon, J., Ballantyne, F. &Brown, C. (1997). A polymorphism maintained by opposite patterns of parasitism and predation. Nature, 388, 269-272.

McLean, A.H.C., van Asch, M., Ferrari, J. & Godfray, H.C.J. (2011) Effects of bacterial secondary symbionts on host plant use in pea aphids. Proceedings of the Royal Society B., 278, 760-766.

Mittler, T.E. (1953) Amino-acids in phloem sap and their excretion by aphids. Nature, 172, 207.

Mittler, T.E. (1958a) Studies on the feeding and nutrition of Tuberolachnus salignus (Gmelin) (Homoptera, Aphididae). II. The nitrogen and sugar composition of ingested phloem sap and excreted honeydew. Journal of Experimental Biology, 35, 74-84.

Mittler, T.E. (1958b) Studies on the feeding and nutrition of Tuberolachnus salignus (Gmelin) (Homoptera, Aphididae). III The nitrogen economy. Journal of Experimental Biology, 35, 626-638.

Mittler, T.E. (1971a) Dietary amino acid requirements of the aphid Myzus persicae affected by antibiotic uptake. Journal of Nutrition, 101, 1023-1028.

Mittler, T.E. (1971b) Some effects on the aphid Myzus persicae of ingesting antibiotics incorporated into artificial diets. Journal of Insect Physiology, 17, 1333-1347.

Montllor, C.B., Maxmen, A. & Purcell, A.H. (2002) Facultative bacterial endosymbionts benefit pea pahids Acyrthosiphon pisum under heat stress. Ecological Entomology, 27, 189-195.

Moran, N. & Baumann, P. (1994) Phylogenetics of cytoplasmically inherited microrganisms of arthropods. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 9, 15-20.

Moran, N.A., Russell, J.A., Koga, R. & Fukatsu, T. (2005) Evolutionary relationships of three new species of Enterobacteriaceae living as symbionts of aphids and other insects. Applied & Environmental Microbiology, 71, 3302-3310.

Munson, M.A., Baumann, P. & Kinsey, M.G. (1991) Buchnera gen. nov. and Buchnera aphidicola sp. Nov., a taxon consisting of the mycetocyte-associated, primary endosymbionts of aphids. International Journal of Systematic Bacteriology, 41, 566-568.

Oliver, K.M., Russell, J.A., Moran, N.A. & Hunter, M.S. (2003) Facultative bacterial symbionts in aphids confer resistance to parasitic wasps. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 100, 1803-1807.

Oliver, K.M., Moran, N.A. & Hunter, M.S. (2005) Variation in resistance to parasitism in aphids is due to symbionts not host genotype. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 102, 12795-12800.

Peklo, J (1912) Über symbiotische Bakterien der Aphiden. Berichte der Deutschen Botanischen Gesellschaft, 30, 416-419.

Richards, A.G. & Brooks, M.A. (1958) Internal symbiosis in insects. Annual Review of Entomology, 3, 37-56.

Russell, J.A. & Moran, N.A. (2006) Costs and benefits of symbiont infection in aphids: variation among symbionts and across temperatures. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 273, 603-610.

Sasaki, T., Hayashi, H. & Ishikawa, H. (1991) Growth and reproduction of the symbiotic and aposymbiotic pea aphids, Acyrthosiphon pisum mainatained on artificial diets. Journal of Insect Physiology, 37, 749-756.

Schmid, M., Sieber, R., Zimmermann, Y.S. & Vorburger, C. (2012) Development, specificity and sublethal effects of symbiont-conferred resistance to parasitoids in aphids. Functional Ecology, 26, 207-215.

Srivastava P.N. & Auclair, J.L. (1975) Role of single amino acids in phagostimualtion, growth, and survival of Acyrthosiphon pisum. Journal of Insect Physiology, 21, 1865-1871.

Tóth, L. (1940) The protein metabolism of aphids. Annales Musei Nationalis Hungarici 33, 167-171.

Tsuchida, T., Koga, R. & Fukatsu, T. (2004) Host plant specialization governed by facultative symbiont. Science, 303, 1989.

Tsuchida, T., Koga, R., Horikawa, M., Tsunoda, T., Maoka, T., Matsumoto, S., Simon, J. C. &Fukatsu, T. (2010). Symbiotic bacterium modifies aphid body color. Science 330: 1102-1104.

Zytynska, S. E. &Weisser, W. W. (2016). The natural occurrence of secondary bacterial symbionts in aphids. Ecological Entomology, 41, 13-26.

Zytynska, S.E., Meyer, S.T., Sturm, S., Ullmann, W., Mehrparvar, M. & Weisser, W.W. (2016) Secondary bacterial symbiont community in aphids responds to plant diversity. Oecologia, 180, 735-747.



*I should point out that although Huxley clearly described the structure and contents of the mycetocytes he had absolutely no idea what they were and what function, if any, they had. Despite the many authors who supported Peklo’s claim that the contents of the mycetocytes were bacteria he was still having to defend himself against detractors more than 50 years later (Peklo, 1953).

Peklo, J. (1953) Microorganisms or mitochondria? Science, 118, 202-206.


**not to be confused with the László Tóth who vandalised Michelangelo’s Pietà

***interestingly, although the existence of primary symbionts in aphids and their possible role in aphid nutrition was by then firmly established, my vade mecum as a student, Tony Dixon’s Biology of Aphids, makes no mention of them at all, although first published in 1973. The first edition of Aphid Ecology (1985) also by Tony Dixon, only devotes three quarters of a page to them, but by the second edition, published in 1998, they get a whole chapter to themselves.

Buchnera appears to have been ‘lost’ but replaced by a yeast like symbiont (Braendle et al., (2003).

Braendle, C., Miura, T., Bickel, R., Shingleton, A.W., Kambhampari, S. & Stern, D.L. (2003) Developmental origin and evolution of bacteriocytes in the aphid-Buchnera symbiosis. PloS Biology, 1, e21. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0000021.


*****although Huxley’s description of the unknown structures that he saw in aphids in 1858, does seem to include secondary symbionts as well as the primary ones.


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Filed under Aphidology, Aphids

Does naming your study animals introduce observer bias?

I think, that most, if not all entomologists, will confess to a bit of funding envy when talking with those of their colleagues who work with the “undeserving 3%”, the large charismatic mega-fauna and the modern dinosaurs. The terminology gives us away, although the evidence is overwhelmingly on our side (Leather, 2009).  As entomologists, particularly those of us working in the field, we are used to reporting numbers collected in the tens of thousands (Ramsden et al., 2014 ), if not the hundreds of thousands (Missa et al., 2009) and  even a short six-week study can result in the capture of thousands of ground beetles (Fuller, et al., 2008).  Naming our subjects, much as we love them, is not an option, even if we wanted to. Even behavioural entomologists counting individual flower visits by pollinators are used to dealing with hundreds of individuals.   In the laboratory, although numbers may be smaller, say tens, we still assign them alphanumeric codes rather than names, even though one might look forward to counting the number of eggs laid by the unusually fecund moth #17 or hope that aphid #23 will be dead this morning as she is becoming a pesky outlier for your mortality data🙂

Our colleagues who work with mammals in the field, seem however to adopt a different strategy. It appears quite common for them to name their animals as the following examples from Twitter make clear.


From her dissertation field note book, Erin Kane @Diana_monkey but not yet published.

Published data in McGraw et al., (2016) are from another study where the animals are not named.


Anthropomorphic judgement values


Anne being very involved with her cheetahs, although the paper (Hillborn et al., 2012) does not mention them by name.



Another example of subjects with names Hubel et al., 2016), but this time named in the paper.


Although in the description of methodology and results animals are referred to as subjects, the Table gives it away! (Allritz et al., 2016).


Another example of named subjects (Stoinski et al., 2003).


More named subjects (Dettmer & Fragaszy, 2000), but as these were captive the names almost certainly not chosen by the observers.


In this case (Blake et al., 2016), use no human-based names either in the methods or tables, so exemplary, although of course I have not seen their field note books🙂

My concern, highlighted by these examples, is that by naming their study animals, the observers are anthropomorphising them and that this may lead them to inadvertently bias their observations. After all, the names have not been chosen at random, and thus could influence the behaviours noted (or ignored). I say ignored, because of two very specific examples, there are more, but I have these two to hand.

Victorians used birds as examples of good moral behaviour, erroneously believing them to be monogamous, probably because of seeing the way they fed their chicks cooperatively. Tim Birkhead (2000)* quotes the Reverend Frederick Morris who in 1853 preached  “Be thou like the dunnock – the male and female impeccably faithful to each other,”  and goes on to point out that despite a hundred years of ornithological science it was not until the late 1960s that  the promiscuous behaviour of female birds was revealed, interestingly enough coinciding with the new moral code of the 1960s.

Descriptions of penguin homosexual behaviour and their penchant for acts of necrophilia so shocked George Levick’s publishers that they removed them from his 1915 report but printed them and privately distributed them to selected parties marked as “Not for Publication” (Russell et al., 2012).  He also transcribed his descriptions of this ‘aberrant’ behaviour in Greek in his notebooks, presumably to make it less accessible.

And finally from me, this recent report about ‘sacred and ritualistic’ behaviour in chimpanzees Kuhl et al (2016),   where, I feel the authors have really allowed themselves to over-anthropomorphise with their subjects, very much to the detriment of scientific  detachment.  I have yet to find an entomologist who agrees with their interpretation.

AND NOW SOMETHING NEW for my blog, an embedded comment/riposte. I thought that it would be useful to get a response from someone who works on large charismatic mega-fauna and who names their subjects.  Anne Hilborn, whom many of you will know from Twitter as @AnneWHilborn, has kindly agreed to reply to my comments.  In the spirit of revealing any possible conflicts of interest I should say that I taught Anne when she was an Ecology MSc student at Silwood Park🙂

Over to you Anne…..

“Hello, my name is Anne and I name my study animals.”

Decades ago this might have gotten me jeered out of science, the assumption being that by naming my study animals I was anthropomorphizing them and that any conclusions I drew about their behavior would be suspect. Thankfully we (at least those of us who have the privilege of working on megafauna) have moved on a bit in our thinking and our ways of doing science.

There are two parts to Simon’s concern about naming study animals. One is that naming leads to anthropomorphization, the second is that the anthropomorphizing leads to biased science. I would argue that the naming of study animals doesn’t necessarily increase anthropomorphism. On the Serengeti Cheetah Project we don’t name cheetahs until they are independent from their mother (due to a high mortality rate).  During my PhD fieldwork I spent a lot of time following a young male known as HON752MC (son of Strudel).  Several months after I started my work he was named Boke. My interest in his behavior, my chagrin at his failures and happiness when he had a full belly didn’t change when he was named. Many of us get emotionally attached on some level to our study animals, whether they have names or numbers.

An interesting thing to ponder is that if naming does lead to anthropomorphizing, does it only happen when human names are used? What human characteristics am I likely to attach to cheetahs named Peanut, Muscat, Strudel, Fusili, or Chickpea?


As to whether anthropomorphism leads to biased science… it definitely can if, as Simon points out, certain behaviors are not recorded because they do not fit the image of the animal the researcher had in their head. I don’t have any data on this, but I suspect this is extremely rare now days. Almost all researchers have had extensive formal training and know the importance of standardized data collection. I study cheetah hunting behavior, and I record how long a cheetahs spends spend stalking, chasing, killing, and eating their prey. I record the number of animals in the herd they targeted, how many second the cheetah spends eating vs being vigilant, and at what time they leave the carcass. No matter my personal feelings or attachments to an individual cheetah, the same data gets recorded.

Research methods have advanced a lot in the past decades and we use standardized methodologies and statistics expressly to prevent bias in our results. Anthropomorphism is just one possible source of bias, others include wanting to prove a treasured hypothesis, the tendency to place plots in areas where you suspect you will get the best results, etc..

As Adriana Lowe (@adriana_lowe ) puts it “Basically, if you’ve got a good study design and do appropriate stats, you can romanticise the furry little buggers until the cows come home and it won’t have a massive effect on your work. Any over interpretation of results would get called out by reviewers when you try to publish anyway.”

Simon points out examples of people being shocked when birds didn’t follow the dictates of contemporary human morality. I would like to think that biologists no longer place human values on animals. I can admire hyenas because the females are bigger bodied and socially dominant to males, but that doesn’t mean I draw parallels or lessons from them to human society (not in the least because the females give birth through their elongated clitoris and the cubs practice siblicide). As scientists we are capable of compartmentalizing, of caring deeply for our subjects, of shedding a tear when Asti turns up with one cub when previously she had five, without that changing the way we record data. In our training as biologists, we are taught not impose our own feelings or values on our study animals. We may find infanticide in lions (Packer and Pusey 1983), extra pair copulations in birds and primates (Sheldon 1994, Reichard 1995), or siblicide in boobies (Anderson 1990) to be repugnant, but we record, analyze, and try to publish on the phenomenon all the same.

To go on the offensive, there are ways naming study animals actually improves data collection.

Again, Adriana Lowe “If you’re doing scan sampling for instance, so writing down all individuals in a certain area every 10 minutes or so, names help. At least for me, it’s harder to remember if someone is M1 or M2 than Janet or Bob, particularly if you have a big study troop/community. So it can improve the quality of the data collected if you’re less likely to make identification errors.”

Because of our own training and peer review, assigning emotions or speculating about the intent on animals rarely makes it into scientific papers. However the situation is very different for those of us who wish to present our results outside of the ivory tower. While fellow scientists might be willing to wade through dry descriptions about how M43 contact called 3 times in 4 minutes when he was no longer in visual contact with M44, the public is not. Effective science communication needs a story and an emotional hook to draw people in. It is much easier to do that when you tell a story about Bradley and Cooper and not M43 and M44.  I will admit this does get into grey areas with the type of language we use outside of scientific papers. I tell stories about the cheetahs in my blog posts and even assign emotions to individuals. But if I am answering questions from the media or the public, I am still very careful not to make any definitive claims about behavior that haven’t been backed up by statistical analysis.


Here I use language and make assumption in tweets that I never would in a scientific paper.


There are a lot of issues that negatively affect the objectivity of science ie. the majority of funding going to well established entrenched researchers, papers being reviewed primarily by people from the same school of thought, the increasing pressure to have flashy results that generate headlines, but naming of study animals is not high on the list.


So now, over to you the readers, what do you think? Please comment and share your views or at the very least, please cast your vote.





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Post script

I said that entomologists don’t name their study animals but they do name their pets. Some of our PhD students had an African flower


Soulcleaver; despite his name he seems quite cute when viewed side-on, perhaps even with a cheeky grin, although as an entomologist I couldn’t possibly say that🙂

beetle, Mecynorhina ugandiensis, which they named Soulcleaver, and I know that some beekeepers name their Queens


*note that Tim Birkhead also falls into the very trap that he describes by using the word promiscuous in the title of his book, a human judgemental term relating to moral behaviour, multiple mating would have been more appropriate.





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