Pick & Mix 56 – gardens, forests, bogons, rewilding, ovicidal plants, David Attenborough, bucatini and faeces using bees

How to nurture Nature in your garden this winter

Conference in the time of corona: a beginner’s guide to hybrid conferencing

Liam Heneghan asks Can we restore Nature?

Why not visit and old growth forest in North America with Anurag Agrawal?

Where have all the bogons gone?

Some plants kill insect herbivores before they hatch

Why David Attenborough cannot be replaced

Was Thomas Cromwell the first rewilder?

Did you know that there us a species of bee that uses animal faeces to defend their colonies?

Are you a fan of bucatini? The great USA bucatini shortage of 2020

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The Natural World in Haiku Form – volume 4

Thanks to covid and cancer, I spent most of last year (2020) away from the campus.  Luckily, I live in a very rural area so I was able to do a lot of walking and interacting with Nature.  This year’s collection of haikus are thus geographically constrained.  I hope that some of them will strike a chord with some of you.

Memories

Oak, standing alone

Hoarding Nature’s memories,

Safe, beneath her bark.

February 6th 2020 Sutton

Nature prevails

Stalwart oak still stands.

Despite lightning’s flashing bolt

Nature will prevail

15 April 2020 Forton

Sentry duty

Oaken sentinels;

marking the perimeter

of the farmer’s field

Sutton 18th May 2020

Inner strength

Pointing at the sky

Twin stags, hoarding resources

Not ready to die

1st June 2020 Sutton

Fresh air

Busy buzzing bees
Old hedgerow oaks in a row
Loud Lapwings mewing

25th March 2020 Sutton

Covid-19

Together apart,

Socially distancing pines,

A sign of our times

24th March 2020 Sutton

Insect Heaven

Yellow furze crowned slope

basking in April’s warm sun.

Heaven for insects

22nd April 2020 Oulton by Sutton

Dandelions

Spherical fluffy

timely seed distributing,

dandelion clocks

4th May 2020 Sutton

Welcome trespassers

A part but apart,

encroaching the wheat desert;

delightful colour

16th August 2020 Sutton

Spring flush

Spring, pinkly blushing,

but soon to be clipped and hacked

By the groundsman’s shears.

Harper Adams 16th March 2020

Farmscape

Green ivy, brown thorn
frame the farmer’s verdant fields;
awaiting spring’s warmth

Sutton 28th March 2020

Sloe gin beckons

Blackthorn, lustrous white

brightening up our spring hedges;

later on, sloe gin

Sutton 10th April 2020

Wrekin view

Bird, high in the sky

Soars above the farmer’s fields;

Views Hazy Wrekin

Sutton April 3rd 2020

Grey

Sultry leaden sky.

Oh for a clap of thunder

To bring the rain down

May 26th 2020 Sutton

Wonder

Blue, glimpsed behind

the cloud rippled firmament.

A wondrous beauty

March 31st 2020 Sutton

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Roundabout review of the year 2020 – yet another bout of navel gazing

Welcome to my, now very, very definitely, traditional review of the past year.

Impact and reach

I have continued to post at about ten-day intervals; this is my 321st  post.  As I wrote last year, there never seems to any difficulty in coming up with ideas to write about; the problem is more in deciding which one to use and when.  As happened last year, some of my blogs have, albeit in slightly modified forms, made it into print (Montgomery et al., 2020).

Despite my proselytising, many of you remain lukewarm about the idea that social media has a place in science. I would, however, ask you to think once again and if you need any more convincing, read this paper that very clearly demonstrates the benefits arising from such interactions (Côté & Darling, 2018); evidence that science communication via social media is a very worthwhile use of our time. Highlights of the year included a joint blog with Stephen Heard, about paper titles. Covid and my fight against cancer meant that my outreach activities were somewhat curtailed although I did give a couple of talks via Zoom and took part in a podcast about the importance of insects. I also had three Skype a Scientist dates this year, two with schools in the USA and one with a school in Switzerland.  I really enjoyed the experience and hope that the pupils were as pleased as I was. If you have not come across this scheme, check them out here.

My blog had visitors from 179 countries, the same as last year (181 2018, 165 in 2017, 174 in 2016 and 150 in 2015), so my plans to achieve total global domination seem to be on hold 😊  My blog received 63 710 views (63 710 last year, 54 300 in 2018,  40 682 in 2017,  34 036 in 2016; 29 385 in 2015). As with last year, most views came from the USA, with views from India holding on to 4th place and Italy replacing Nigeria in tenth place.

Top ten countries for views

Top reads

My top post (excluding my home page) in 2020 was one of my aphid posts, but this year Not All Aphids are Vegans overtook  A Winter’s Tale – Aphid Overwintering, The latter is howevr, still the all time winner with over 16 000 views. Two of my personal stories, despite being published at the end of the year both made it into the top ten, namely, Why, to my wife’s dismay, I made a late academic career move and A cautionary tale – facing mortality and the work-life balance.  My top ten posts continue to be either about aphids or entomological techniques/equipment, which I guess means that I am filling an entomological niche. Aptly, my two posts about the loss of insects made it into the top ten this year.

I was very surprised to see that none of my insect apocalypse posts made it into the top ten.  How soon we forget.

My Pick & Mix link fests stalwartly dominate the bottom of the table, although the account of our summer holiday in Catyluna Nord in 2015 takes pride of place at the foot 🙂

Trends

I mentioned last year that the viewing figures for December were the lowest of the year, and speculated that perhaps my blog had reached an asymptote.  The first ten months of the year did indeed score lower than the corresponding months in 2019, but November and December bucked the trend with record numbers of views.

Tweeting for entomology

I still find my interactions on Twitter very rewarding, although this past year as with last year, I have become somewhat more political; Brexit and Trump, need I say more?  Most of my tweets are, however, still entomological and ecological and the increase in political comment has not stopped my followers from growing.  I finished 2019 with 8088 followers and begin 2021 with just over under 9000, 8983 to be precise.   Many thanks to all my readers and especially to those who take the time to comment as well as pressing the like button.  My top commenters, as indeed they were last year, were fellow bloggers, Emma Maund, Emily Scott, Jeff Ollerton, Amelia from A French Garden and Philip Strange.  I look forward to interacting with you all in 2021.

In theory I am semi-retired from my daytime job, academia but I hasten to add, not from entomology.  I do, however, seem to be spending considerably more than 60% of my time doing stuff that I thought I would no longer have to do 😦

This time last year, I reported happy to report that my proposal to OUP to write Insects – A Very Short Introduction had been accepted, but that I was behind schedule.  You may be pleased to hear that I submitted the completed manuscript ahead of schedule, albeit only two weeks, and am now waiting to hear what the reviewers thought.  My next project is The Secret Life of Aphids, watch this space.

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Overall I can’t say that 2020 has been a vintage year, two spells in hospital, lockdown and the continuing saga of the lunacy that is Brexit.  On the other hand, a lot of good things have happened; new friends, old friends and family all make life worth living, so in the words of the song “pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again”.

A Happy and Prosperous New Year to you all.

References

Montgomery, G., Dunn, R.R., Fox, R., Jongjejans, E., Leather, S.R., Saunders, M.E., Shortall, C.R., Tingley, M.W. & Wagner, D.L. (2020) Is the insect apocalypse upon us? How to find out. Biological Conservation, 241, 108327.

Côté, I.M. & Darling, E.S. (2018) Scientists on Twitter: preaching to the choir or singing from the rooftops?  Facets, 3, 682-694.

*The number of views for my annual reviews are as follows: 2014 (86), 2015 (110), 2016 (179), 2017 (115, of which 112 were in January).

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Why, to my wife’s dismay, I made a late academic career move

I decided early on in my undergraduate career that I wanted to be a university teacher, so I knew that I would have to do a PhD, which is what I did indeed go on to do.  My first degree, Agricultural Zoology (essentially applied entomology and parasitology), had engendered a love of the applied and my PhD and subsequent post-docs echoed this, I worked on cereal aphids and ways in which to control them without recourse to pesticides. I had noticed as an undergraduate that although my degree was applied, the staff teaching us, had not actually worked outside universities.  I felt that if I was going to be a successful applied academic I should have some experience outwith the university system and in 1982 found myself working as a research and advisory entomologist for the UK Forestry Commission based at their Northern Research Station just outside Edinburgh (Roslin). My original plan had been to stay there for about five years and then move into a Lectureship. Unfortunately, 1987 coincided with a dearth of positions within academia and it was not until

Senior Scientific Officer, Entomologist with the Forestry Commission Research

1992 that I made the transition, when I was appointed as Lecturer in Integrated Pest Management* at Imperial College, London, based at the Silwood Park campus.

Newly appointed Lecturer in Integrated Pest Management 1992

At the age of 37, and armed with 50 publications, six children and a spouse in tow, I think this probably counted as a mid-career move.  It was a great time to move to Silwood. The Centre for Population Biology, headed up by John Lawton was in full swing, with future luminaries such as Chris Thomas, Hefin Jones, Brad Hawkins, Bill Kunin, Andy Hector, Mike Hochberg, Suzanne Koptur and Shahid Naeem in post.  In what was then the Pure & Applied Biology Department, I was one of eighteen entomologists, pure heaven. Silwood Park had a vibrant coffee culture, in the morning over at the Refectory (Paddy’s), where bacon and egg butties (rolls)) were consumed in huge numbers and in the afternoon, tea was served by Pearl over at the Conservatory at the rear of the Main House.  In the summer, we would sprawl on the grass outside, exchanging ideas and discussing our research plans.  There were no silos, and there was a significant amount of inter-disciplinary mixing.  The ideal environment for productive and innovative research and I was content to imagine myself in situ until retirement beckoned.

Unbeknownst to me there was something rotten in the offing.  Back in 1986 the University Grants Committee assessed the quality of research being produced by UK universities to help guide them in allocating research funding. The Research Selectivity Exercise and the Research Assessment Exercise followed this in 1989 in 1992. The criteria used to assess university research standing, was, largely based on the impact factor of the journals that staff published in and the amount of research income won from research councils. The effect across those universities in the top tier was insidious but largely predictable. Despite over 50% of income being accrued from teaching, recruitment of staff became increasingly based on publications, leading in the case of the Biology Department at Imperial, to an influx of staff with publications in Science, Nature, PNAS and similarly high impact journals, much to the frustration of our Director of Teaching.  Effectively, every time a whole organism biologist retired or left, they were replaced by a molecular biologist.

Things got even worse when in 2001, Sir Richard Sykes was appointed as Rector (Vice Chancellor).  Coming from industry and with a reputation for asset stripping, the collegiate nature of Imperial College came under attack. Staff, who had, until then, been valued for their departmental contribution in terms of administrative roles and contribution to teaching now felt under threat and if unable to up their research profile, encouraged to seek early retirement, or in some cases, as when Imperial acquired Wye College, which was subsequently closed, made redundant. Despite having a large research group, albeit largely made up of PhD students my teaching load continued to increase.  I even ended up teaching forestry and plant biology, when the plant scientists were culled. Another example of how research trumped teaching was In 2007, when despite me pointing out that the youngest whole organism biologist was 52 (me), and the oldest molecular biologist 52, our Head of Department decided that we needed more systems biologists.

In terms of career progression, I had in the early days, done quite well having been promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1996 and Reader in 2002. By then, looking at Athene Donald’s list I see that I was pretty much doing a professorial role, serving on external committees, validating degrees for other universities and acting as an external examiner. I was also appointed as Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation and Diversity, a new journal for the Royal Entomological Society. My administrative duties had also continued to increase.  It was no wonder that my beard was getting greyer! I was however still preparing my own talks, although I will confess that a lot of my data analysis was being passed on to members of the group, duly acknowledged of course. I am extremely grateful that I have always had a loyal and very supportive research group, without their help life would have been impossible.  My thanks to you all (if any of you are reading this). Promotion to full Professor was by departmental or self-nomination and successful interview performance in front of a panel composed of the Principal of the School of Life Sciences and Deans from across the university. If you wanted to be nominated for promotion one had to submit a lengthy cv to your Head of Department and this was considered by the other Professors within the Department to see if you were worthy of being put forward. In 2010 I had two post-docs and eleven PhD students and 136 publications, so felt that I was ripe for promotion to full professor. To my disappointment, the Department thought otherwise and my name was not put forward. I shrugged my shoulders and decided that there was no point in trying again, especially as by 2011, I only had one post-doc so that year I didn’t bother putting my cv in despite being pressed by the Department to do so. The departmental panel however, to my annoyance, considered my cv in absentia and pretty much forced me to submit even though I pointed out that it was going to be a waste of time as my research group was now smaller. Nevertheless my cv was submitted to the university and I was duly called for interview.

Accompanied by my Head of Department I arrived in good time for my scheduled 45-minute interview.  The panel finally called me in twenty minutes late. The Principal of the School of Life Sciences, an immunologist of some repute, began by saying “Hello Simon, can you tell me what you have been doing since you were last promoted, if you can remember that far back”. I looked at the HR person in shock, expecting some sort of response but nope.  Anyway, I proceeded to tell the panel what I had been doing since 2002. At the end of my reply, her response was “So you count things”.  That immediately told me that I was not going to get promoted.  The questioning passed on to one of the Deans, who said, in an accusatory manner, “I see that you get a lot of prizes for teaching”. I explained that I liked students and felt that they deserved the best experience I could give them. That went down like a lead balloon. The second Dean said “I see that you don’t give very many plenary lectures”.  I replied that I received many invitations but that my teaching load made it difficult to accept them all. Next up was the third Dean, who remarked on the fact that I only had one post-doc and that my research group was mainly PhD students.  I replied that yes, this was the case but that for the last 18 years I had been providing the Department with a steady and substantial income.  Then back to the Principal, who asked me why I hadn’t published in Science and Nature recently. Those of you who are applied entomologists will know the answer to that one 🙂 So that was it, twenty five minutes and I was dismissed, the interview panel were back on schedule, and of course I was not promoted.  My Department, to give them their due, appealed against the decision, pointing out that that I was actually doing more teaching than anyone else in the Department including the Teaching Fellows and that my research income was above the Departmental average.  The Faculty response was that perhaps if I did more teaching they could consider me for promotion via a teaching route.  I laughed hollowly. That was pretty much the final straw, it was obvious that the Faculty of Life Sciences had no interest in my research. My Department on the other hand relied on me and the other whole organism biologists to run six MSc courses and to service several undergraduate modules**.

It became increasingly obvious that things could not carry on as they were. My teaching and administrative loads were becoming ridiculous.  There were only four entomologists left in the Department and the coffee culture had almost disappeared, most groups staying in their silos and only venturing out at lunchtimes. I was seriously considering early retirement although I was reluctant to do this, as I was sure that with my retirement the last entomology degree in the UK would quickly disappear.  Then Peter Mills, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Harper Adams University, approached me and asked what it would take to get us surviving applied entomologists to move.  I told him and was reassured that this was all possible.  With some trepidation, I agreed and we moved despite some half-hearted attempts by the Department to get us to stay.  I don’t think that they actually believed that we would leave a world-class institute to move somewhere that they had never heard of. I have never regretted the move. It was great to be in an environment where our skills were appreciated and back in a collegiate and collaborative atmosphere with an excellent coffee culture and to cap it all, better research facilities than we had had at Silwood. I take some pleasure in pointing out that I moved from a research intensive institute to a more teaching focused one, but halved my teaching and administrative loads. As a result of having that extra thinking time I very soon won two research grants. Domestically it was a bit hard as my wife couldn’t find a similar job in Shropshire so we ended up as two-house family, commuting between each household on alternate weekends, but entomology in the UK at postgraduate and undergraduate level is now in safe hands with a number of newly appointed entomological staff.  Though as my wife points out, if I had taken early retirement we would now be safely ensconced in France with full residency and not being subjected to the horror that is BREXIT.

*the last time that my Department advertised so specifically for a post.  Subsequent job adverts were along the lines of “in the area of ecology, evolutionary biology…”

**I confess I was rather pleased when I heard that Imperial had to close those six MSc courses because of a dearth of staff able to teach on them, although I was sad that after almost a century, postgraduate entomology was no longer being taught at Imperial.

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Pick & Mix 55 – carbon footprints, magic mushrooms, ecological fiction, royal rewilding, fluffy pterosaurs, invasive toads and much more

Offsetting your carbon footprint is not as simple as some think

The mystery of feather origins: how fluffy pterosaurs have reignited debate

Science isn’t broken –  It’s just a hell of a lot harder than we give it credit for.

The diet of invasive toads in Mauritius has some rare species on the menu

Liberty cap: the surprising tale of how Europe’s magic mushroom got its name

Did you know that horseshoe crabs are used to test vaccines?

Some great ecological fiction, from Barbara Kingsolver to the Moomins

Should the Queen rewild Balmoral?

Wonderful moths

The more species of bird you see the happier you feel – link to actual paper here

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The reports of my death were greatly exaggerated and even more embarrassingly, they were by me :-)

To paraphrase Mark Twain (1838-1910) “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated ” I recently underwent major surgery to remove a tumour from my oesophagus. The operation was successful, and I am now at home recuperating. Unfortunately, in the days immediately following surgery, I developed post-operative hallucinations, apparently fairly common for those of us over 65.

 

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible | The Renaissance  Mathematicus

 

These hallucinations were extremely vivid, and to me, convincingly real and personally threatening. I may write about the experience later when I feel a bit stronger. To cut a long story short, I embarrassed myself on Twitter, caused anxiety to family and friends and in the blog post preceding this, suggested that it would be my last ever as I would be dead soon 🙂 As you can see, I am still with you and once the post-operative pain becomes more bearable, and allows me to concentrate for longer periods of time, I hope to be writing my usual blog entries. In the meantime I am ‘out and about’ on Twitter, although not quite as actively as before.

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Pick & Mix 54 – lots do with food, invasive species, horror films, urban biodiversity, museum collections, corona virus spread and much more

The last post – been fun but nothing lasts forever

Why eating an invasive species won’t solve the problem

Freshwater horror films, but where are the ecosystems? 🙂

The state of Nature in the UK is not as good as it should be

Museum collections are really useful research tools

Encouraging urban insect life – great article by a former student

A soundscape of what Somerset might have sounded like 2000 years ago

What does organic food really mean?

Is liquorice safe for all of us? This sweet treat could kill some of us

The witches’ brew of frogs, snails and newts – perhaps not quite as advertised?

A really effective explanation of how corona virus is spread and the importance of masks and ventilation

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A cautionary tale – facing mortality and the work-life balance

Back at the end of July last year, the day before we set off on our annual summer road trip to our house in the Languedoc, my wife, who had left for work a couple of minutes earlier rushed back into the house to tell me that her car engine was on fire! Not the best of news to hear especially as it was her car that we had booked on to the Chunnel and Car Train 😦  As she had only got a couple of metres I volunteered to push it back into the parking bay, a task initially hampered somewhat by the non-release of the handbrake. To cut a long story short, and not to dwell on the exchange between my wife and I, the car was safely re-parked and my smaller car pressed into service for the trip to our French house. 

I had, in the throes of pushing the car felt something ‘pop’ and developed a pain in the mid-thoracic region, which I initially attributed to a strained muscle.  The pain was still with me two days later when we arrived in Paris to drop our car off at Paris Bercy Auto Train terminal and enjoy a couple of days sightseeing. I also started to feel a bit tired and my appetite was not as healthy as it usually was when facing French cuisine.  By the time we reached Vinca my appetite was a mere shadow of itself and I was feeling distinctly weak and feeble (feek and weable as we say in the family).  I also noticed that (those of you of a nervous disposition might want to skip this bit), my stool looked like molten tarmac.  I concluded that it wasn’t a strained rib or a muscle causing me pain, but an upper gastro-intestinal bleed.  Having being brought up in a household where going to the doctor was a last resort* and despite having a pretty good command of French, I felt that my medical French was not up to discussing my bowel movements, so decided to give it aa day or two to see what happened. Sure enough after a couple of days my appetite returned, the pain had disappeared, my stool was normal and I no longer felt dizzy after climbing the stairs.  I told  myself that everything was fine and enjoyed the rest of our break.  Three weeks later we were back in the UK, and after a bit of internal debate I broke the habit of a lifetime and booked an appointment with my GP.  After listening to my story, she referred me to the local hospital for an endoscopy to see what might have caused the bleed. I won’t dwell on what an endoscopy is like, but if you do have one I recommend that you take up the offer of the sedative 🙂 The endoscopy revealed that I had Barrett’s oesophagus, (caused by years of untreated acid reflux**) and a suspicious area from which the consultant*** took a biopsy.  It turned out that I had early stage oesophageal cancer, which came as a bit of a shock.  I was initially booked in to have my oesophagus removed, which as he said might seem to be like taking a sledgehammer to crack a walnut but would give me pretty much close to a 100% chance of being alive in five years time. These are odds with which I am willing to live 🙂

My consultant surgeon’s sketch of my cancer and of the proposed treatment, which involves massive thoracic and abdominal surgery.

I was scheduled for the operation in early January but then the surgical team decided that as it was early stage that they could try a less invasive procedure and go in via the mouth and pretty much scoop and suck the tumour out. This would involve a much shorter time under anaesthetic and only a day or so in hospital. This seemed a good idea to me and so they went ahead and removed the tumour.  I had a week or so when it was incredibly painful to swallow anything solid; chocolate mousse, panna cotta, rice pudding, mashed potato and mince were fine and soup as long as it had no tomato in it.  I also managed to lose a kilogram, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a weight loss programme. I was then supposed to be monitored frequently to check that all was well, but along came the dreaded virus and I wasn’t scanned until August when, despite having no symptoms, it turned out that the tumour was not only back, but bigger (4 cm).  The surgical team decided that the best option would to be put me on pre-operative chemotherapy. They decided on quite an aggressive regime (FLOT) as I was, surprisingly fit; one of the disturbing things about my cancer is that I have had no symptoms.

My chemotherapy details.

To facilitate this I was fitted with a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC line), which was quite an experience but totally painless.

My apparatus – I was surprised at how quickly it became a part of everyday life, although unfortunately I developed a blood clot in my sub-clavian vein, which means injecting myself in the stomach with tinzaparin soiudum every day.  This is, or so  I was told, quite a common side-effect of the PICC line.

The overnight infusion pump – the main problem, where to put it when in bed, under the pillow, tucked next to your tummy or….

As I mentioned earlier, the tumour has not caused me any discernible problems, the treatment, in particular the chemotherapy, has, although I have been fairly resistant and not needed the extra anti-nausea tablets or those for constipation and diarrhoea. I have, however, suffered considerable hair loss, most of my head hair, except for the grey ones fell out within the first three weeks so I am now left with a grey fuzz.  My very bushy (and not very popular with my wife) eyebrows are a shadow of their former selves, my famous entomological beard is almost non-existent and my nostrils have no hair left at all.   My body hair, in the main, is still there, although my armpits and my scrotum are as smooth as smooth 🙂 The biggest physical effect was a reduction in my energy levels which meant that my lunchtime walks became much shorter as the chemotherapy progressed.  Now, after five weeks without, I am back to my usual walking speed and distance (5 – 7 km daily, with the occasional 10K thrown in for good measure) and hopefully, am now in a robust enough state to deal with the rigours of my imminent surgery.

Before moving on to my work life balance I must thank all the NHS staff I have encountered over the last year or so, whom despite being grossly overworked and underpaid, have been unflaggingly cheerful and helpful. I am especially grateful to the specialist staff of the Lingen Davies Chemotherapy Day Unit for their exemplary care and attention and for inadvertently, providing me with an entomological bonus 🙂 We are so lucky to still have a National Health Service that is relatively free. We must look after it.

Bonus entomological display at the Lingen Davies Chemotherapy Day Unit, Royal Shrewsbury Hospital.

I am also grateful to family, friends and colleagues, some of whom are also friends, for their support during these trying times.

I wrote about the academic work life balance a couple of years ago when I semi-retired, so this seems a good time to revisit the subject.  I wrote that I hoped reducing my hours would have an equivalent effect on the time I would spend on the bits of the job that I dislike such as administration, marking, and committee meetings. Unfortunately, except for a couple of committees, nothing really changed, except that my workload allocation went from 113% to 105% :-). Before the virus, changed all our lives, I had adopted a working pattern of 100% at the university for a term, then a month in France at our French house, then back to the university for a term and then back to France and repeat. This had the advantage of keeping me away from the office and putting me in a completely different environment in which I was able to work on my alternative projects – the books. Covid and my treatment has of course, changed this and I have been confined to a single location, which has meant me trying to remember not to do office work (albeit remotely) two days every week, which is not as easy as it seems.  It did have an unexpected bonus, much more time in the countryside and the opportunity to get closer to Nature, something I hadn’t being doing as much of as I should have been. As the end of summer approached, I decided that the time to retire officially would be when I became eligible for my state pension in March 2021, and, not without some qualms, submitted my retirement forms accordingly.   If the university feel fit to offer me a new part-time contract (nothing has so far materialised), I would be willing to accept it as long as it involved no administrative role or the setting and marking of exams and assignments, the three things I hate most about academia. What I have missed enormously is the contact with the students and the opportunity to stand in front of them and expound, or should that be profess, about entomology to a live audience.  I hope, that one day, in the not too distant future, I will be able to do so again.

Wish me luck and I hope to be back on line sometime fairly soon.

I’m out the other side – seems to have gone wll, but I am a bit sore and two weeks ahead of hospital to look forward to

*my sister almost died of meningitis when she was two, because my father thought she just had a bit of a temperature

**if you suffer from acid reflux more than once a month, I recommend you to go and see your GP immediately

***coincidentally he did his PhD at Imperial College at the same time as I was Deputy Director of the Graduate School of Life Sciences and Medicine, so I will have judged his poster at the annual postgraduate colloquium. This may, or may not, be a good thing 🙂

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A rose by any other name – In praise of the Rosaceae

I’ll start with a question. What do Lady’s Mantle, Great Burnet, Agrimony, Mountain Avens, Cotoneaster, cinquefolil (Potentilla), strawberries, raspberries, cherries, sloes, apples, rowans and almonds all have in common? The answer may come as a surprise to many; they are all members of the Rose family. This may shcok some of you, but I don’t have a great deal of time for the domesticate hybrid tea roses so common in many gardens.

Hybrid tea rose – looking nothing like the real roses

I think they’re vastly overrated and as many varieties do not produce pollen or nectar as far as insects are concerned they are a waste of space. My experience of working on members of the Rosaceae arose as a by-product of working on the bird cherry-oat aphid, the primary host of which is the bird cherry, Prunus padus (Leather & Dixon, 1981), and the bird cherry ermine moth, Ypomeuta evonymellus which specialises on the bird cherry (Leather & Lehti, 1982). Strangely, it was my interest in island biogeography, in particular the species-area relationship, that got me hooked on the Rosaceae.  I had noticed while sampling bird cherry trees that relatively few insects attacked them, and so wondered if they were special in some way compared with other species of Prunus, and sure enough using host plant records, they did seem to be less insect friendly than their congeners (Leather, 1985). Having got hooked on counting dots on plant distribution maps and realising that the Rosaceae would be a great plant family to test the idea that the species-area relationship would be improved by confining it to a single family (Kennedy & Southwood, 1984), I embarked on a marathon dot counting and host plant record seeking quest (Leather, 1986).

For the paper, I restricted my analysis to the 59 species that Perrings & Walter (1962) listed as native or naturalised to the British Isles, but there are of course many more members of the Rosaceae than that to be found in Britain. They are an extremely important plant family both economically and horticulturally speaking, with over 2500 species in 90 genera to choose from (Sytsma, 2016). The Rose family is divided into four subfamilies based primarily on their fruit. The Amygdaloideae, those species characterised by the possession of fleshy stone fruits, almonds, cherries, peaches, plums etc. The Maloideae, trees with pomes, fruits in which the floral hypanthium becomes fleshy, e.g apples and pears. The Rosoideae, which includes species such as roses, and burnets, with dry fruits that do not open (achenes), and the brambles, raspberries and strawberries, which have drupelets, small, aggregated drupes, and finally the Spiraeoideae, species with dry fruits that open on one side (follicles) e.g Spirea, Physocarpus).

Rosaceous fruit

To me, however, the thing that makes a rose a rose, is the flower. Typically, rose flowers have five sepals which are easier to see before the flowers open and five petals, although there are always some exceptions; for example, Mountain

Sepals for the uninitiated; luckily I have a rose bush that seems to be able to flower all the year round (this picture taken October 28th)

Avens, Dryas octopetala, which as the name tells us, has eight petals but still manages to have that rose ‘look’.

Dryas octopetala an exception that proves the rule J By Jörg Hempel, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28317727

As you might expect from a family that has produced the much loved (but not by me) hybrid tea roses, not all the flowers are white, even within the same species, brambles for example, range from the ‘normal’ white to rich

Pink hedgerow brambles, Sutton, Shropshire September 2020.

pinks, and many of the herbaceous members have bright yellow (e.g. Agrimony and Wood Avens) or orange (e.g Water Avens) flowers.

Delicate herbaceous plants with white and yellow flowers.

White flowers do, however, seem to be the rule in the woodier members of

Shrubby bushes with white flowers.

the family, although pink shading is not uncommon.


Tall fruity trees with white flowers some with pink hints.

The ways in which the flowers are presented can also vary between species, single flowers being the exception rather than the rule.

Cloudbursts (corymbiform panicle),  racemes and compound cymes, but still roses. Fun fact, Meadowseet, Filipendulal ulmaria, is rich in salicylic acid and can be used to cure headaches.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this ramble through the roses as much as me, but finally, as an entomologist, it would be remiss of me not to point you at one or two spectacular examples of insect-rose interactions.

References

Kennedy, C.E.J. & Southwood, T.R.E. (1984) The number of species of insects associated with British trees: a re-analysis. Journal of Animal Ecology, 53, 455-478.

Leather, S.R. (1985) Does the bird cherry have its ‘fair share’ of insect pests ? An appraisal of the species-area relationships of the phytophagous insects associated with British Prunus species. Ecological Entomology, 10, 43-56.

Leather, S.R. (1986) Insect species richness of the British Rosaceae: the importance of host range, plant architecture, age of establishment, taxonomic isolation and species-area relationships. Journal of Animal Ecology, 55, 841-860.

Leather, S.R. (1991) Feeding specialisation and host distribution of British and Finnish Prunus feeding macrolepidoptera. Oikos, 60, 40-48.

Leather, S.R. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1981) Growth, survival and reproduction of the bird-cherry aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi, on it’s primary host. Annals of Applied Biology, 99, 115-118.

Leather, S.R. & Lehti, J.P. (1982) Abundance and distribution of Yponomeuta evonymellus (Lepidoptera,Yponomeutidae) in Finland. Notulae Entomologicae, 62, 93-96.

Perring, F.J. & Walters, S.M. (1962) Atlas of the British Flora. BSBI Nelson, London & Edinburgh.

Sytsma, K.J. (2016) Rosaceae, Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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Pick & Mix 53 – pandemics, thanotosis, cats, going to work when you shouldn’t, salted sloes, dangerous grapefruit, butterflies, rapid evolution in flowers and Georgina Mace

Pandemics are not just for animals – trees are suffering too

How do you know when an insect is dead?

Environmental protection laws allow for harm to the environment. For far too long, harm to “others” has only really considered humans. The link to the original paper is here

When it comes to letting cats out it turns out that there are five types of cat owner ranging from the concerned protector to the laissez-faire landlord

When being there costs the economy more than not being there – presenteeism

Some plants are changing the ultraviolet profiles of their flowers to make sure that pollinators can still find them despite climate change

If you are interested in how appearance dates for UK butterfly species have changed since 1976, then here are the data

Most people have heard about sloe gin, but have you ever tried salt-fermented sloes?  Here is a recipe from Jeff Ollerton, perhaps better known as a pollinator ecologist, but also not afraid to think outside the box J

All about citrus and especially why grapefruit and whatever medication you are on, might not mix well

Very nice obituary about my former colleague Georgina Mace – conservation scientists extraordinaire

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