The bane of PhD students– the General Discussion

This year has been a bit of a bumper PhD submission year for me, five of my PhD students have come to the end of their time, and have submitted, or will soon be submitting their theses.  In my experience, 48 successful students and counting, it is relatively easy to reassure PhD students that their worries about the structure of their thesis, the appropriateness of their analysis and how many tables and figures they should have, are not justified. Many of them already have papers in print or in press by the writing-up stage so they only need a little bit of reassurance about the quality of their work.  The bit that seems to worry them most is the General Discussion.  My advice to them was, and is, the same as that given to me by my supervisor 37 years ago, “spread your wings, sell your work, don’t be afraid to speculate a little, enjoy yourself and make sure you don’t just summarise your thesis”. 

This uncertainty about how to handle the General Discussion is not just a foible of my students.  My impression over the last few years, borne out by the increasing frequency on which I comment on the shortcomings of the General Discussion of the PhD theses that I examine (now more than sixty) is that General Discussions are not what they used to be.  I too often find myself reading a series of lightly edited chapter abstracts, which in my opinion is not a General Discussion. Am I, however, suffering from grumpy old git syndrome or were General Discussions more general in the days of my youth?  How for example, does my General Discussion stack up compared with that of the modern-day PhD student? Did I practice what I now preach?

I do of course still have a copy of my thesis (Leather, 1980), two to be precise. Both my parents were biologists, albeit botanists, so I felt obliged to give them a copy, which I retrieved when clearing my Mother’s house after her death.  The upshot being that I have no excuse for not being able to find a copy from which to do a critical appraisal of my General Discussion. My thesis was written before Word Processors existed, and when computers occupied their own buildings. It was typewritten (by me using a Silver Reed A3 typewriter) and so no electronic copies are available.  As a consequence, I have had to scan the parts relevant to my story; hence the poor quality of the illustrations 🙂

At this point, I should point out that although I was trained as an agricultural entomologist and my PhD was about an agricultural pest, the bird cherry-oat aphid, my supervisor, Tony Dixon, was and still is, an ecologist.  Our lab was thus a mixture of pure and applied ecologists, some of whom weren’t even entomologists 🙂 This meant that I was exposed to a wider range of ideas than if I had just been in a lab of only applied entomologists.  Despite not being overly mathematical or theoretically inclined, I’m pretty much an empirical ecologist (field and lab), I was very impressed by the late, great E.C. Pielou, to the extent that I bought her book Ecological Diversity and read it cover to cover*.  Working with a host alternating aphid, I immediately latched on to her definition of seasonality as being synonymous with environmental variability (Pielou, 1975) and decided to coin a new term, seasonability** .

An excellent start, the title page doesn’t even mention the words General Discussion 🙂

 

I defined seasonability as being “the pre-programmed response to predictable environmental change” in  my terms this meant that the organism, in this case my aphid, anticipates the trend in conditions, something I, and a more mathematically inclined colleague did actually show a couple of years later (Ward et al., 1984).  I then drew the analogy that an aphid clone could be equated with Harper’s visualisation of a plant being constructed of a series of genetically identical modular units (Harper, 1977), i.e. each individual within the clone, although being genetically identical has a specific (and seasonal) function I also managed to slip in a reference to my other ecological hero, Dan Janzen at this point (Janzen, 1977) 🙂

I see that I was keen to introduce new terms, as my second figure shows.  I was amused to see in figure legend that I describe the x-axis as food quality but label it as host quality in the

A pretty lousy figure, but remember we had to draw our figures by hand in those days. Here I attempt to coin another new usage, this time refluence, to indicate the flowing back of the clone to the primary host.

figure, doing something that in later years I have waxed wrathfully against (Leather & Awmack, 1998; Awmack & Leather, 2002).  In this case, food (nutritional) quality is the term I should have used although I could argue that the build-up of natural enemies on the secondary grassy hosts and the predictable absence of natural enemies on the primary host, could justify the use of the term host quality, but that would be post hoc sophistry and best avoided 🙂

I was obviously also very keen to introduce new meanings to words as my third figure shows.

Yet another attempt to coin a new meaning for an existing word

 

At no point however, did I summarise what was in each chapter.  I referred in passing to one…”It is now fairly certain from the evidence presented on the effects of growth stage (Chapter 4) that..” and the four figures are unique to my General Discussion, even the two that contained data points, so I can pat myself on the back in that respect.  Although I did not extend my discussion to other taxa, I did range far and wide across the aphid world so I think that fulfilled the brief of spreading my wings, and boy did I try and sell my work.

I also notice that the 25-year-old me tried very hard to use a different sort of language in his General Discussion such as, “lends further credence to the concept of seasonability” which is followed in the next sentence by “..when the bursting of the buds of the tree host or resurgence of sap in the perennial herbaceous host, herald the start of egg hatch”. Yes, I actually used the word herald, but then, this is the guy who prefaced his thesis with these two quotes.

The Steinbeck quote (Doc from Sweet Thursday, does still sums up pretty much what I want to do with my life.

 

So what does the 62-year-old Professor of Entomology think about the efforts of his younger self?  I may be slightly biased, but I think it is a reasonable effort and as an examiner I wouldn’t have any major problems with it although I suspect that I would be tempted to have a gentle dig at the attempts to coin new terms. Overall I would rate it as B+.

In case you wondered , although I never published, or even tried to publish my General Discussion, all the ideas, except for the terms which were petty awful, (or naff as we would say in the UK), have made it into print at some time.

To reiterate, my advice to PhD students struggling with your General Discussion is “spread your wings, be bold, sell your work, don’t be afraid to speculate a little, enjoy yourself and most importantly,  definitely make sure you don’t just summarise your thesis”

References

Awmack, C.S. & Leather, S.R. (2002) Host plant quality and fecundity in herbivorous insects. Annual Review of Entomology, 47, 817-844.

Leather, S.R. (1980)  Aspects of the Ecology of the Ecology of the Bird Cherry-Oat Aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi (L.).  Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of East Anglia, Norwich.

Leather, S.R. & Awmack, C.S. (1998). The effects of qualitative changes of individuals in the population dynamics of insects. In Insect Populations In Theory and in Practice (ed. by J.P. Dempster & I.F.G. McLean), pp. 187-206. Kluwer, Dordrecht.

Harper, J.L. (1977) Plant Population Biology, Academic Press, London.

Janzen, D. H. (1977) What are dandelions and aphids? American Naturalist, 111, 586-589.

Pielou, E.C. (1975) Ecological Diversity, John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York.

Ward, S.A., Leather, S.R., & Dixon, A.F.G. (1984) Temperature prediction and the timing of sex in aphids. Oecologia, 62, 230-233.

 

*I also bought her book Mathematical Ecology but didn’t manage to read it cover to cover 🙂

**I had great hopes of getting my General Discussion published and my new term being adopted by ecologists around the world 🙂

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Challenges and rewards – Why I started, and continue blogging

If you are reading this article this afternoon (13th September 2017) it is quite possible that I am at this very moment giving my talk about the challenges and rewards of blogging to a live audience at ENTO’17 in Newcastle J  In my talk, I began by explaining how it was that I became a fan of social media, first Twitter and then as a blogger.  I have already written about my conversion in an earlier post and how much I feel that social media adds to academic life, so I will not bore you with the whole story again.

  Suffice it to say pre-Twitter and pre-blogging I was writing a lot, but mainly to the wrong audience.

The second part of my talk attempted to answer the following questions. As an academic why should you blog?  What are the benefits?  What are the risks?  What are the challenges? Is it part of your day job?  More importantly, how can you convince your university or research institute that you should spend office time blogging?  What follows is the ‘script’ of my talk.

I started blogging because I felt that the way I was trying to get the importance and wonder of entomology across to non-entomologists was too limited.  I was not interacting with enough people outside the field, I needed to widen the scope of my activities.  Yes I was going into schools and talking to natural history societies, gardening clubs and on occasions youth groups and organisations like the Women’s Institute or the U3A, but I was only talking to tens of people. I wanted (needed) to talk to hundreds, even thousands of people to feel that I had a chance of getting my message across that the future of the natural world lay in an understanding of the invertebrate world and not of the “large charismatic mega-fauna”.  Hence my leap into the world of Twitter, and certainly with a following of over 5000, I am now potentially talking to thousands of people, according to my analytics my Tweets earn nearly 5 000 impressions a day.   The trouble with Tweets is that by their very nature they are transient and flow down the Twitter timeline to obscurity at a tremendous rate.  They are also not easily reference-able.  A blog on the other hand, if hosted on a reputable site, is as permanent as anything is these days, and as each post has a unique address, also has the advantage of being able to be linked to and found by search engines.  It was thus a logical step to launch a blog which is what I did, and Don’t Forget the Roundabouts was born.

A blog is born

I did not take this step lightly.  As the point of starting a blog was to make an impact, it could not be anonymous.  The content of the blog needed the backing of my professional reputation to hopefully give it the stamp of reliability and authority.  I was, and still am, putting my reputation on the line every time I post a blog article. It was thus with some sense of trepidation that I went public.  Writing a blog is a whole different thing to submitting a paper to a journal where you are subjected to peer review and your readership is pretty much limited to people who are very similar to yourself and whom have access to scientific journals.  Anyone with access to the internet can find, read and comment on a blog. A scary thought.  I felt it was worth it and still do. There were two other reasons besides my wish to increase the range of my outreach and to increase the level of interactions, that made the idea of starting a blog seem logical.

Reasons to start a blog

As a teenager I loved English, both language and literature (I still do, I have a personal library of over 10 000 books) and even had aspirations of becoming a novelist.  As those of us who have been around for a longish time will know, as you become more successful at getting grants and increasing the size of your research group, you get further and further away from the bench and/or field and do more and more ‘editing’ and commenting on other people’s writing.  In my case this had resulted in me finding it more and more daunting when faced with a blank sheet of paper or an empty word processing document. I saw the prospect of producing blog articles as a way of getting back into the habit of starting from scratch and also of learning a more relaxed and accessible style ready for my retirement plans of writing “popular”* entomology books. Finally, I thought it might be fun, my late father often voiced the opinion (especially when I was a teenager) that I “loved the sound of my own voice”.  Writing a blog does indeed give me the opportunity to sound off now and then and I make all sorts of fantastic discoveries when I am doing the background research for an article.  I freely confess, I enjoy writing my blog immensely.  It really is great fun.

Is it all positive?  Of course there are challenges, it would be foolish to deny it.  Finding the time to manage a blog can be a problem.  I am not retired, I have a full-time academic position, running a research group, editing journals, reviewing papers and grant proposals, writing and co-writing scientific papers, sitting on committees, and of course teaching students, both undergraduates and postgraduates.   Writing a blog is yet another call on my time, but one I am happy to heed.   I do blog writing and research at work

Enough to put you off?

and at home.  My contract does actually have a paragraph that mentions outreach so I feel justified in doing this.  Another challenge that might seem daunting is that of coming up with topics to write about.  Before I went public, I wrote five articles and filled an A4 piece of paper with potential topics that I thought would be fun to write about and of interest to others.  In reality I found that just living life provides topics enough to allow me to produce an article every couple of weeks.  There is always something that sparks an idea for a potential blog article, be it a scientific paper I read, something in the news or even as has happened twice now, a piece of fiction.

A challenge to some bloggers is that of motivation.   Unless you happen to be paid to be a blogger or make a living from it, then it can be hard to make the time and take the effort to write something regularly.  Luckily for me, I am somewhat competitive, even when the only other entrant in the race is myself.  I set a target of two articles a month but regularly find myself doing three, just to make sure that I am ahead of schedule and also I get quite a buzz on ‘publication’ day when the daily view total shows a spike in response to your activity 🙂

The publication day spike

 I have to admit that the fact that WordPress generates a number of statistics that you can track and compare, gives me plenty of motivation 🙂

The other challenge which I alluded to is the slightly anxious feeling that you get every time you publish an article.  Firstly as I mentioned earlier, because I am blogging as me, I really, really want what I say to be correct.  I find that I do as much, if not more background reading for a blog article as I do for a scientific paper.  I definitely do a lot more historical reading for the blog articles because it is very interesting and I also find it fun to delve back to the origins of a topic.  If I had not written an article about aphid symbionts I would never have discovered that Thomas Henry Huxley had worked on aphids which made me even impressed with him than before. The other times that I feel anxious are when I publish something that Is not strictly within my field but moe of an opinion piece.  When I got upset about he British Ecological Society (BES) and their conference catering policy I wrote rather an angry, although, at least in my opinion, a well-argued article.  I was somewhat hesitant in pressing the publish button, but went ahead and did so, and then sat back waiting for the angry responses from vegetarians and vegans.  To my surprise the expected lambasting did not materialise and I received several complimentary comments and emails.

Having a go at the British Ecological Society https://simonleather.wordpress.com/2015/12/17/meeating-issues-with-the-british-ecological-society-why-i-boycotted-the-2015-annual-meeting/

The BES were even kind enough to publish a slightly edited version in their Bulletin.  In some ways I have been slightly disappointed that this, and other articles dealing with ‘controversial’ viewpoints have not generated more critical responses, although I guess I should count my blessings and not angle for brickbats.

Enough about the challenges, what about the benefits?  Have I made an impact?  As far as I am concerned the answer is a resounding YES.  I am read all around the world and I am pretty certain that my 175 blog posts have been read more than my 230 scientific papers.

A worldwide reach – I have been read by someone in almost every country in the world

I am particularly proud of having one of my blog posts referenced in a book about preparing for PhD vivas (Smith, 2013).

This post made an impact – https://simonleather.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/are-phd-examiners-really-ogres/

I have also been invited by magazines and societies to convert some of my blog posts into articles for publications aimed at reaching more general audiences in an accessible and informative way.

Making an impact and bringing entomology to a wider audience

More conventionally, some of my blog posts have gone mainstream and appeared in scientific journals, a bit of reverse outreach 😊

Some of my blog posts that have made it into the scientific literature

Something that may put people off blogging is the possibility that their employer may not see a benefit in their activity and only not encourage but perhaps even discourage, their staff from becoming bloggers.   It was to counter this perception that a group of like-minded bloggers and I got together to present an analysis of the value and impact of blogging in ecology.  It was an interesting and rewarding exercise** and last week we were rewarded by having our paper accepted for publication in a prestigious journal.

Squaring the circle – a mainstream paper about the benefits of blogging for scientists

Proof that this was a fun project to collaborate on and write about

I think that there is a very strong case for more scientists to become bloggers, but if you do decide to take up the challenge and become a blogger you should first ask yourself exactly what it is you hope to get from it.  Is it just for pleasure, is it for outreach, to practice writing or to draw attention to yourself to increase interactions with others in your disciplines?

Three simple rules to ease you into the blogosphere

Whatever your reasons there are things that you can do to make your blog a success and help you overcome the challenges I have outlined above.  First, be well prepared have some articles in reserve, especially when you launch your blog. It is also a good idea to post at regular intervals, not necessarily often.  Having a ‘deadline’ will help you with your writing and time management and people will start to expect to hear from and may even become subscribers to your blog.  It is also important not to get downhearted or impatient.  It takes time to build an audience.  Blogs grow at different rates depending on a number of factors including blogging frequency and audience interaction (Saunders et al., 2017).

A frequent poster

My blog, regular but not as frequent as Jeff Ollerton’s Biodiversity Blog

Finally, it is important to do as much as possible to publicise your blog, use the tag function to help search engines direct people to your blog and I would urge you to join Twitter and do remember to use all the publicise buttons that your blog host provides.

I look forward to seeing a plethora of new entomology and ecology blogs. Happy Blogging.

 

References

Saunders, M.E., Duffy, M.A., Heard, S.B., Kosmala, M., Leather, S.R., McGlynn, T.P., Ollerton, J. & Parachnowitsch, A.L. (2017) Bringing ecology blogging into the scientific fold: measuring the reach and impact of science community blogs. Royal Society Open Science,

Smith, P.H. (2013) The PhD Viva, MacMillan Education, UK.

*assuming anyone wants to read them of course 🙂

**there will of course be a blog about this in the near future.

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Entomological classics – the sweep net

I am certain that everyone who has studied biology at university and/or been on a field course, will have used a sweep net and heard the phrase “It’s all in the wrist”.  Along with the pitfall trap it is the most commonly used entomological sampling technique used today.  Although the premise is simple enough, a sturdy net, attached to a handle that is swept along, through or above low-lying vegetation, when used as a scientific tool and not just as a collecting device, things become somewhat more complex.  The sweep net, as an insect collecting device, has been around for at least 180 years, the earliest reference that I have been able to find being Newman* (1835).  There are a number of slightly later references in both general entomology texts and group specific books (e.g. Newman, 1844; Clark, 1860; Douglas, 1860; Douglas & Scott, 1865). Instructions for their use at this time are minimal, as this extract from Newman (1841) illustrates.

Newman (1841) a very brief description indeed.

This slightly later description of how to make a sweep net is, however, much more detailed, albeit somewhat sexist.

From Stainton (1852), although he seems to be quoting Newman.  Apparently Victorian men were unable to sew.

More detailed, albeit fairly basic instructions on how to use a sweep net can be found in those two invaluable sources, Ecological Methods (Southwood & Henderson 2004) (two pages) and Practical Field Ecology (Wheatear et al., 2011) (one page).  I was amused to see that the text in Southwood & Henderson was identical to that of the first edition (Southwood, 1966).

Now we come to the wrist action. There are a surprising number of ways in which you can swing a sweep net, but they all depend on the wrist moving your hand, and hence the net, in a figure of eight. The two most commonly used are what I think of as the one row side step, and the double front step.  In the former you walk in a straight line swinging the net backwards and forwards at your side, ideal for sampling a row crop. The latter, the double front step, is similar, but instead of swinging the net at your side, you swing it side to side in front of you as you walk along.  In a crop, this is great for sampling multiple rows, in a non-crop a good way of covering a nice wide area of vegetation. There are a further two techniques specifically designed for sweeping the upper part of vegetation, both originally devised for sampling soybean insects, the lazy-8 and the pendulum (Kogan & Pitre, 1980).  Both these involve having the net raised, the lazy-8 with the net raised above the crop at the back and front swings, whereas in the pendulum, the net is kept within the crop on the fore and reverse swings.  The final bit of wrist action, and arguably the most important and difficult to learn, is the flick-lock, which neatly seals the net and stops your catch escaping.

Having completed your sample of however many sweeps (remember a complete sweep is the figure of eight), and sealed your net, the next step is to transfer your catch to your collecting tubes, bags or jars.  A good sweep net, as well as being made from tough material, should be a bit sock shaped.  By this I mean that there is a ‘tail’ at the base of the net which helps make your catch more manageable if you are transferring directly to a plastic bag, as you are able to grab the net above the ‘tail’ end and push it into the collecting bag, before everting the net.

Two examples of sweep nets, a large and a small one.  You can also get a medium one in this series supplied by the NHBS web site for about £34. http://www.nhbs.com/professional-sweep-net

When I was a student, the sweep nets we were supplied with, were large enough to stick not just your head inside, but also to get your arms in, so that you could Poot up anything interesting, your shoulders forming the seal to the net.  Admittedly you did sometimes have an angry bee or wasp to contend with, but that was a rare event 🙂  Nowadays, sweep nets seem to be constructed on a much more modest scale, which makes sticking your head, let alone your shoulders into one, somewhat difficult.

Even the biggest modern one is too small for me to get my arms in to do some Pooting.

I was pleasantly surprised on an ERASMUS exchange visit to the University of Angers a few years ago, to find that the French, or at least those in Angers, were using sweep nets that were big enough for me to actually delve inside just as I did when I was a student 🙂

The joys of a sweep net with a view 🙂

Despite their undoubted popularity, value for money and relative ease of operation, there are a number of problems associated with sweep netting as a sampling technique.  Although these problems are summarised elsewhere (Southwood & Henderson 2004; Wheater et al., 2011) I can’t resist putting my own personal slant on the subject.

  • The type of habitat can have a marked effect on what you catch. Not all habitats are equally amenable to sweeping; spiny and woody vegetation poses more problems than a nice meadow and you need a really tough net for moorlands 🙂
  • A sweep net doesn’t necessarily give you an accurate picture of the species composition of the habitat. Not all insects are equally catchable, you are for example, much more likely to catch Hemipterans than you are Coleopterans (e.g. Standen, 2000)
  • The vertical distribution of the insects also affects what you catch. Many insects have favourite positions on plants e.g. the cereal aphid, Sitobion avenae prefers the ears and leaves, whereas the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi is usually found at the bottom of the plant (Dean, 1974).
  • The weather; anyone who has tried sweep netting during, or after, a rain storm knows that this is the ultimate act of folly 🙂 Wet nets and wet samples are not a marriage made in heaven.
  • Time of day can also affect what you are likely to catch, pea aphids for example, are found at different heights on their host plants at different times of day (Schotzko & O’Keeffe, 1989). To be fair, this is of course not just a problem confined to sweep net sampling.
  • Sweep nets have a fairly well-defined height range at which they work best, they are not good at sampling very short grass and once the vegetation gets over 30 cm you start to miss a lot of the insects associated with it as the net doesn’t reach that far down. Also the efficiency of the sweep netter is reduced.
  • Finally, how the hell do you standardise your sweeps, not only between sweepers, but as an individual? Additionally, can you reliably use them quantitatively? This has been recognised as a problem for a long time (DeLong, 1932).  No one disagrees that sweep netting, provided all the caveats listed above are taken into account, gives a very good qualitative and comparative idea of the arthropod community of the area you are sweeping and they have been so used in many important ecological studies (e.g. Menhinick, 1964; Elton, 1975; Janzen & Pond, 1975) and extensively in agricultural systems (e.g. Free & Williams, 1979; Kogan & Pitre, 1980).  Comparing any sampling technique with another is difficult, and any attempt to quantify a catch so that specific units can be assigned to the area or volume sampled is welcome.  This has been attempted for the sweep net (Tonkyn, 1980), although I confess that I have never seen anyone use the formula developed by him.  In fact, although, according to Google Scholar his paper has been cited thirteen times, only one of the citing authors actually uses the formula, the rest just use him to cite sweep netting as a sampling method. Poor practice indeed.

An illustration of how the various components of the sweep net volume formula is derived (from Tonkyn, 1980).

Sweep nets are, despite the inability to get inside them anymore, great fun to use, extremely good at collecting material for ecology and entomology practicals and of course, a great ecological survey tool when used properly.  Google Scholar tells me that there are over 38 000 papers that mention them.  That many people can’t possibly be wrong 🙂

References

Clark, H. (1860) Catalogue of the Collection of Halticidae in the British Museum. Physapodes and Oedipodes Part 1. Published by the Trustees, London.

Dean, G.J. (1974) The four dimensions of cereal aphids. Annals of Applied Biology, 77, 74-78.

DeLong, D.M. (1932) Some problems encountered in the estimation of insect populations by the sweeping method.  Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 25, 13–17.

Douglas, J.W.  (1856) The World of Insects: A Guide to its Wonders. John van Voorst, London.

Douglas, J.W. & Scott, J. (1865) The British Hemiptera Volume I Hemiptera – Heteroptera. Ray Society, Robert Hardwicke, London.

Elton, C.S. (1975) Conservation and the low population density of invertebrates inside neotropical rain forest.  Biological Conservation, 7, 3-15.

Free, J.B. & Williams, I.H. (1979) The distribution of insect pests on crops of oil-seed rape (Brassica napus L.) and the damage they cause. Journal of Agricultural Science, 92, 139-149.

Janzen, D.H. & Pond, C.M. (1975) A comparison, by sweep sampling, of the arthropod fauna of secondary vegetation in Michigan, England and Costa Rica. Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, 127, 33-50.

Kogan, M. & Pitre, H.N. (1980) General sampling methods for above-ground populations of soybean arthropods. Pp 30-60 [In] Sampling Methods in Soybean Entomology. (Eds.) M. Kogan & D.C. Herzog, Springer, New York.

Menhinick, E.F. (1964) A comparison of some species-individuals diversity indices applied to samples of field insects. Ecology 45, 859-861.

Newman, E. (1844) The Zoologist. A Popular Miscellany of Natural History, Volume 2. John van Voorst, London.

Newman, E. (1841) A Familiar Introduction to the History of Insects. John van Voorst, London.

Newman, E. (1835) The Grammar of Entomology. Frederick Westley & A.H. Davis, London.

Schotzko, D.J. & O’Keeffe, L.E. (1989) Comparison of sweep net., D-Vac., and absolute aampling., and diel variation of sweep net sampling estimates in lentils for pea aphid (Homoptera: Aphididae)., Nabids (Hemiptera: Nabidae)., lady beetles (Coleoptera: Coccinellidae)., and lacewings (Neuroptera: Chrysopidae). Journal of Economic Entomology, 82, 491-506.

Southwood, T.R.E. (1966) Ecological Methods, Methuen & Co., London.

Stainton, H.T. (1852) The Entomologist’s Companion; Being a Guide to the Collection of Microlepidoptera and Comprising a Calendar of the British Tineidae. John van Voorst, London.

Standen, V. (2000) The adequacy of collecting techniques for estimating species richness of grassland invertebrates.  Journal of Applied Ecology, 37, 884-893.

Tonkyn, D.W. (1980) The formula for the volume sampled by a sweep net.  Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 73,452-454.

Wheater, P.C., Bell, J.R. & Cook, P.A. (2011) Practical Field Ecology: A Project Guide, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.

 

*Of interest to me, but perhaps not to my readers, Edward Newman was one of the founder members of the oldest and most exclusive, yet low-key, entomological society in the world, The Entomological Club, of which I have the honour of being a member 😊 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Newman_(entomologist)  founder member of the Entomological Club

 

 

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Prunella – mistress of plasticity

Now that I have your attention, this is not an article about soft porn or fetishes, but rather a paean for that humble ‘weed’ Prunella vulgaris – Self-heal, Heal all, Woundwort, Heart of the Earth and many other names, depending on where in the World you come from.   Prunella vulgaris is in the family Lamiaceae, so related to mints and dead-nettles.  It is an edible weed, the young leaves can be used in salads and it can also be used in soups, stews, or used whole and boiled as a pot herb.

The instantly (to me at any rate) recognisable flower of Prunella vulgaris

Prunella as I will now familiarly call her, has a very wide geographical native range and has also been introduced into South America where she does very well indeed (Godoy et al., 2011).

Distribution of Prunella vulgaris, blue native, brown introduced. http://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:455176-1

 The name Prunella is derived from ‘Brunella’, a word which is itself a derivative, coming from the German name for quinsy, (a type of throat inflammation), die Braüne, which it was historically used to cure.  That is the other aspect of this glorious plant, it has many medicinal properties, hence the many common names refer to its healing powers, almost as many as Athelas of Lord of the Rings fame 😊  It was traditionally used in European herbal medicine for sore throats, fever reduction and like Athelas, for accelerating the healing of wounds (Matthiolus, 1626).  More recently it has become of interest as a possible cure for conditions associated with the herpes simplex virus (Psotováa et al., 2003) and inhibiting anaphylactic shock and other immediate type allergic reactions (Shin et al., 2001).  So truly a wonder drug, and again proving that “Old Wives Tales” are in many cases based on more than just superstition.

My interest in Prunella vulgaris, is however, based on its wondrous plasticity, as the three photographs below show nicely.  Depending on grazing (or mowing) pressure, Prunella can grow to reproductive maturity at heights  ranging from just over 2 cm to just under 30 cm. Truly remarkable.

I am of course, not the first person to be fascinated by this plasticity and the taxonomic and evolutionary ins and outs of this lovely plant (Nelson, 1965; Warwick & Briggs, 1979) but I still find it fascinating, and who knows, perhaps one day I might do some work on it myself 😊

The other thing that I like about Prunella is that she is also provides a living for aphids.  She has her own rare and specific one, Aphis brunellae, but is also kind enough to let a few other species make a living on her, Aphis gossypii, Aphis nasturtiiAulacorthum solani,  Macrosiphum euphorbiae, the ubiquitous Myzus persicae, M. ornatus and Ovatomyzus chamaedrys (Blackman & Eastop, 2006).

Aphis brunellae, rare in the UK – with thanks to the two Bobs for permission to use the photograph. http://influentialpoints.com/Images/Aphis_brunellae_colony_on_Prunella_vulgaris_c2015-08-21_15-37-27ew.jpg

 

Finally, you will have noticed that the Prunella aphid is A. brunellae, which is derived from the original name of Prunella (I guess Prunella Scales is happy, she could have been Brunella Scales).  Interestingly, her alter-ego was not removed until fairly recently, her tombstone is shown below.

References

Blackman, R.L. & Eastop, V.F. (2006) Aphids on the World’s Herbaceous Plants and Shrubs Volume 1 Host Lists and Keys.  Wiley, Oxford.

Godoy, O., Saldaña, A., Fuentes, N., Valladares, F. & Gianoli, E. (2011)  Forests are not immune to plant invasions: phenotypic plasticity and local adaptation allow Prunella vulgaris to colonize a temperate evergreen rainforest. Biological Invasions, 13, 1615-1625.

Matthiolus, P.A. (1626) Kräuterbuch.  Noringberg.

Nelson, A.P. (1965) Taxonomic and evolutionary implications of lawn races in Prunella vulgaris (Labiatae). Brittonia, 17, 160-174.

Psotová, J., Kolá, M., Sousek, J., Ívagera, Z., Vicar, J. &Ulrichová, J. (2003) Biological activities of Prunella vulgaris extract. Phytotherapy Research, 17, 1082-1087.

Shin, T.Y., Kim, Y.K. & Kim, H.M. (2001) inhibition of immediate-type allergic reactions by Prunella vulgaris in a murine model.  Immunopharmacology & Immunotoxicology, 23, 423–435.

Warwick, S.I. & Briggs, D. (1979) The genecology of lawn weeds III. Cultivation experiments with Achillea millefolium L., Bellis perennis L., Plantago lanceolata L., Plantago major L. and Prunella vulgaris L. collected from lawns and contrasting grassland habitats.  New Phytologist, 83, 509-536.

 

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Pick and mix 11 – Another ten links to look at

I’m still on holiday in France so just a series of links this week.


Links to things I thought interesting (picture is the room door of the Ibis Style hotel we stayed at in Paris)

 

Is “novelty” holding science back?

Using radio tagging to improve the conservation of stag beetles

How ‘Nature’ keeps us healthy, from potted plants to hiking

How scientists at Rothamsted Research and the University of North Texas have engineered a relative of cabbage to produce fish oil

Agricultural efficiency will feed the world, not dogma

A really interesting article about migration and movement of people

Dave Goulson’s work on pesticide residues in garden plants summarised by plant ecologist Ken Thompson

Using a field journal to strengthen learning

At the risk of seeming big-headed an interesting episode of Entocast

I don’t normally post about birds but after this golden oriole

committed suicide against our patio doors thought that this deserved a mention

 

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The Natural World in Haiku form

Traditionally in the world of journalism, August is regarded as lacking any news of note, and is, in the UK at any rate, dubbed the “Silly Season”.  In homage to that view-point, and instead of doing one of of my usual blog posts, I searched for all the haikus I have tweeted over the last three years and present them here for light relief.

 

Thirsty snails

Short of water, snails

Circle and swirl on the rocks,

Waiting for a storm.

All the stones of any consequence were encrusted with snails.  Then the rain came and they were gone.

Italy 25 July 2014

 

Evening lift-off

Italian evening;

Bats swoop as stag beetles lift

Into lurching flight

Note the hole in the left elytrum, the resident kitten at our Italian holiday villa really enjoyed herslf snatching the poor lumbering beasties (in this case a Rhinoceros beetle) out of the air ☹

Italy 27 July 2014

 

Breakfast?

Italian morning;

Lizards scurry on the stairs

as cicadas sing

Admittedly not on the stairs, but close enough 😊

28 July 2014

 

Seasons

 

Spring has sprung

 White, pink fluttering,

the gentle breeze scattering;

cherry blossom falls

Outside my office – 24 May 2016

 

Summer?

Blue sky, sun shining

Ducklings following mother

Winged aphids – summer?

4 May 2016

 

Summer?

Dull, damp, cold drizzle.

Clouds glowering down on me.

Flaming June my foot 😦

29 June 2017

 

St Martin

September sunshine;

Eating lunch sitting outside.

What could be better?

10 September 2014

 

On the way

 September morning,

Sunlit, moist mist-laden trees;

Autumn is coming

8 September 2014

Autumn

Crickle, crackle; leaves,

underneath my slipping feet.

Autumn is with us.

20 October 2015

 

I used to camp here as a lad!

Sodden tent, wet feet.

Rolling hills and drystone walls.

English Lake District

8 October 2014

 

Damp

How I hate mizzle;

as wet as real rain, but no

comforting refrain

26 November 2015

 

Satisfaction

Shuffling through brown leaves

On a sunny autumn day;

So satisfying.

2 November 2016

 

Wet Pavements in Lille

Desert boots are great

except when soles are holey.

Then rain means wet feet

10 December 2014

 

Transience

Icing sugar snow,

Gently being washed away;

Grey drizzle falling

29 January 2015

Miscellanea

 

Job downside

Academics hate

marking student assignments

on a sunny day

7 December 2016

 

Sunday lunch

 Butterflied mint lamb

roast potatoes and carrots;

apple and pear tart.

11 December 2016

 

Dedicated to @IMcMillan who spends a lot of time at stations

Cardboard coffee cups

tentatively raised to lips;

Morning commuters

7 July 2016

 

Definition

Searching for the why

and how things are like they are;

Entomology

20 December 2015

 

Blood Moon

Lustrous, silver orb

Bloody, awe-inspiring moon

Night-time amazement

28 September 2015

 

Evening entertainment

Bats, swiftly looping

Snatching insects from the sky

Feeding on the wing

26 July 2017

 

Regular readers, rest assured, normal service will be returned in the next post 🙂

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Pick and mix 10 – ten more links to look at

Links to things I thought interesting

 

Why conservation needs to work around people’s values

If you ever wondered why so many plants have wort in their name.

The academic work-life balance is so wrong.  Errant Science takes a humourous look at a very serious subject.

Learn about the biology of peaches and how to cook them

Interesting commentary on a  paper about how walnuts have invaded forest ecosystems

Continuing with the food theme, how a Swedish countess introduced potatoes to the European diet

Have you ever heard a hawk moth squeak?  Now you can and they use their genitals to make the sound 🙂

If you ever wondered how beetles fold their wings, then here is the answer.  Full details about a complex subject.

Polish scientists are looking at ways of making eating insects more appetizing

Finally, William Playfair the Scottish scoundrel who invented all the graphs we love to hate

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CROPSS – Inspiring biology students to consider careers in crop protection

A couple of years ago, the BBSRC decided to scrap one of their most successful and inclusive PhD training awards, the iCASE.    In their own words, BBSRC will no longer operate an annual competition for industrial CASE (iCASE) studentships, instead allocating the majority of these studentships to the BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTP) for awarding alongside their standard studentships.    At one fell stroke the BBSRC reduced the diversity of their PhD portfolio by a significant amount and also dealt a huge blow to those of us working in crop protection, at a time when food security and the need to feed the world is of paramount importance.  Later that year the BBSRC, possibly in response to those of us who kicked up a public fuss about the loss of the iCASE scheme came up with a very inadequately funded scheme called STARS aimed at getting undergraduates interested in some of the vulnerable skill sets that the BBSRC by their actions had made even more vulnerable.  Despite the paltry amount of money available I felt that I had to apply, if only because having complained about lack of funding it would show lack of commitment to the cause 🙂  I duly applied putting forward an application to run a one week crop protection summer school for fifteen students a year for three years.  I was successful and last week we ran our first CROPSS Summer School here at Harper Adams University.  We particularly targeted first and second year undergraduates doing biology and ecology courses at other universities with little or no agricultural content in their degrees.  Our participants came from the universities of Bath, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Liverpool and Swansea, and apart from one student who came from a farming family, they had no previous experience of agriculture, let alone crop protection.

The Summer School started on 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 🙂  This needs to be reiterated again and again and as loudly as possible. We then had an excellent dinner and I took them all to the bar where I cruelly subjected them to a Pub Quiz, all picture rounds.  The first round was all about charismatic megafauna (almost all answered correctly), then dog breeds (about 75% correct), then common British wild flowers (about 60% correct), common British trees (40% correct), common British insects (30% correct), I think you can see where I am going with this  🙂

The week was divided up between agronomy, entomology, nematology, plant pathology, weed science and spray technology, with a mixture of lectures, field work and laboratory work.  In the evening we had guest speakers from the different crop protection sectors, from the agrichemical industry through to government, our last speaker being the Chief Plant Health Officer, Nicola Spence.  The external speakers had been asked to explain how they had ended up in their current positions and to talk about careers in those areas.  I was very impressed with the willingness of the students to engage with the speakers and the questions they asked were extremely discerning.

We were very lucky to be blessed with excellent weather and the harper Adams University Catering Department came in for very high praise indeed J  apparently our catering is much better than at the universities represented by our delegates.

As the old adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words…..

Catching insects in the Natural England plots

Sorting pitfall traps catches

Plant pathology in the brand new labs

Heading off with John Reade to sample weeds

Enjoying the sun and spotting weeds

Simon Woods from the Engineering Department explaining the fine points of knap sack sprayers

Andy Cherrill extolling the joys of motorised suction sampling

Enjoying the bar with one of the guest speakers, Neal Ward

All in all, we all had a good time, and if you don’t believe me here are some of the responses from the student feedback

The students were great, enthusiastic, engaged and we really enjoyed the course and are very much looking forward to seeing a new CROPSS cohort next year.

Finally, for those of you interested, here is the timetable of the week:

 

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Pick and mix 9 – a few links to click

Links to things I thought might grab your fancy

Interested in plants?  Find the latest State of the World’s Plants report here

Butterfly lovers?  Special issue of Journal of Insect Conservation devoted to butterfly conservation

Communicating entomology through video

Speaking of which, I did one on aphids once upon a time 🙂

How bees see may help us develop better cameras

How bumblebee flight may help us develop better drones

The Sixth Mass Extinction of vertebrates on the way but what about all the invertebrates that keep the world functioning?

Interesting article on insect symbolism in 19th Century British art

Weirdly interesting art based on the “natural world” by Katie McCann

This account of sexism in academia shocked and horrified m

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My Bête Noire – The Journal of Vertebrate (oops sorry, Animal) Ecology

Back in 2014 I took the Journal of Animal Ecology to task for pretty much ignoring most of the animal world and publishing almost exclusively vertebrate papers.  Ken Wilson their Editor-in-Chief decided to check up on this claim and to his chagrin, found that I was right in my assertion 🙂

As a loyal subscriber to the print copy of the journal I am very aware of the front cover photograph and have had two occasions this year to publicly praise the journal for their invertebrate-themed covers.  Then I received the July issue which despite having an invertebrate themed In Focus article, featured a leopard as their poster animal.   Although I love cats, I feel that the mega-cats, and the other so-called large charismatic mega-fauna do ecology as a whole, and entomology in particular, a great deal of harm. They suck away much-needed funds and bright capable students into an area that is vastly over-supplied with resources that could be much more profitably used elsewhere, i.e. the study of our planet’s dominant animal inhabitants, the invertebrates.

Journal of Animal Ecology cover images 2017

 My first reaction to the leopard picture was to go through my shelves and look at all the front covers of the journal since they adopted the new size and format, to see how biased (I automatically assumed that they would be) they were towards vertebrates.   I was not surprised, there was indeed a very strong vertebrate bias.

Journal of Animal Ecology front covers, 2009-2016

Just over 80% of the covers had a vertebrate subject; taxonomically they break down to 50% mammals, 20% birds and 11% fish.   Considering the true species composition of the known number of vertebrates, mammals (less than 0.5% of described animal life, about 5 500 species) are vastly over-represented to say the least.  Fish people should be particularly incensed 🙂

Relative proportions of described animal life.  Fish as the most speciose vertebrate group get a picture 🙂  I apologise to any nematologists who might be reading this post 🙂

So what about the journal content, has editorial policy change since 2014 and how are the invertebrates doing?  Ken stated in his blog that taxonomically speaking the papers published in Journal of Animal Ecology were approximately, 30% bird, 26% mammal, 12% fish and 20% insect related. I did a quick count of the papers published in 2015 and 2016.  Things are changing, birds and mammals are down (24% and 22% respectively) and fish are on the up (17%), but vertebrates still account for 67% of papers published in the last two years. Although the journal is still very vertebrate biased that is a definite improvement, but still not back to the glory days of the 1970s,  Nevertheless, well done Ken and colleagues.  Progress is being made (whether deliberately or not) to redress the balance, but still much more is needed to put invertebrates in the lead where they deserve to be.   More insect front covers would surely be easy enough to implement and help reinforce the message that insects and other invertebrates are where most of real world ecology is to be found.  Over to you Ken 🙂

 

Post script

I always feel a bit guilty about taking the Journal of Animal Ecology to task, because when compared with the Journal of Zoology,  JAE are paragons of virtue in regard to publishing invertebrate papers but I guess that as a long-standing member of the British Ecological Society I feel a somewhat more proprietorial interest 🙂

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