Battle of the Beetles – Kunoichi Beetle Girl – Maya Leonard Does it Again!

Battle of the Beetles, M.G. Leonard, 2018, Paperback, ISBN 9781910002780, Chicken House Publishing Ltd., Frome, UK.

I’m sad, I’m satisfied, I’m very impressed, I’m in a dilemma.  I’ve just finished reading Battle of the Beetles, the final instalment of M.G. Leonard’s Beetle Boy trilogy, which means, very sadly, that the adventure is over ☹

I’m satisfied, nay, very satisfied, because this final volume has lived up to the expectations raised by the previous two in the series, Beetle Boy and Beetle Queen.  I’m very impressed because Battle of the Beetles is so much more than an adventure story.  As well as being thrilling, heart-stopping, and full of action, it is also educational and raises some very important and thought-provoking issues.  I’m in a dilemma, because how can I review this excellent book without giving away spoilers?

First, just to reiterate this is a great book. It is a literary roller-coaster, featuring jungle escapades, martial arts, near-death experiences, family reunions, coleopteran gymnastics, terrifying events, pathos, bathos, scatological humour and a happy ending. In summary, a fantastic couple of hours entertainment.  If you have read the first two books in the series, you won’t be disappointed; buy or get someone to buy Battle of the Beetles for you as soon as possible.  If you haven’t read the earlier books you have some catching up to do 😊

The underlying theme of this instalment is metamorphosis and physiology and be warned there is some very memorable and slightly disturbing imagery connected with these themes.  You will never see Silphids (carrion beetles) in the same way again. Speaking of imagery, the illustrations by Karl James Mountford are stunning.  While amusing and entertaining there are some very serious underlying concepts that hopefully will not be overlooked by readers.  We learn about environmentally friendly means of pest control, e.g. pheromone disruption and the very successful and relevant real-life Sterile Insect Techniques (SIT). SIT was pioneered as a control technique against the screw worm, a serious pest of cattle in the USA (Baumhover et al., 1955; Knipling, 1955) and is now seen as a practical way forward for mosquito control or eradication (Benelli, 2015).  This may however, be the first time it has been mentioned in a work of fiction for children. Another first for Maya Leonard 🙂 The lack of undergraduate entomological training in the UK also gets a mention; the good news is that the MSc in Entomology at Harper Adams University is shortly to be joined by a new undergraduate degree, Zoology with Entomology 😊

The most thought-provoking theme is, however, that of rewilding, much in the news these days.  How far would you be willing to go to conserve species and protect the environment?  At one stage I almost felt sympathetic towards Lucretia Cutter; a truly brilliant twist to the story.  I don’t think I can say much more without giving too much away.

Embrace your inner beetle, throw away your prejudices and enjoy this fantastic adventure.  An enthralling read for everyone aged nine and above, including entomologists and ecologists.

References

Baumhover, A.H., Graham, A.J., Bitter, B.A., Hopkins, D.E., New, W.D., Dudley, F.H. & Bushland, R.C. (1955) Screw-worm control through release of sterilized flies.  Journal of Economic Entomology, 48, 462-466.

Benelli, G. (2015) Research in mosquito control: current challenges for a brighter future. Parasitology Research, 114, 2801-2805.

Knipling, E.F. (1955) Possibilities of insect control or eradication through the use of sexually sterile males. Journal of Economic Entomology, 48, 459-462.

 

Post script

I must also compliment Maya and her copy editor.  This is one of the most typo-free books I have read for some time.  I only found one error/typo, bearing used instead of baring.  Excellent proof reading.

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Pick and mix 15 – some results from sampling the World Wide Web

Prospects for UK agriculture post-Brexit look grim

It wasn’t just green plants that helped oxygenate the Earth

Will meat no longer be on the menu by 2100? A speech from the Oxford Farming Conference

A fairer food supply system?

An interesting account of agroecology in two different continents

Climate and weather are not the same thing – Donald Trump and his ilk need to realise this

What Chernobyl did to insects – an artistic exploration

Some amazing natural history art from almost 300 years ago

Ray Cannon on a big black beautiful bumblebee

Ecological guilt trips, me I gave up flying almost twenty years ago

 

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The Academic Work-Life Balance – Doing what you enjoy for as long as you can

I am very lucky.  Unlike many people, I have essentially been paid to do what I love for my whole life.  My job is my hobby, my life even. I get paid to study and talk about the natural world, insects in particular, and have done so for the past forty years.   How lucky can a person be?   That said, it hasn’t been 100% fun all the way.

As I enter semi-retirement (3 days a week) I thought I would be self-indulgent and reflective (navel gazing in other words) and share a few thoughts about my academic work-life balance past, present and future.

http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-unbalanced-scales-stevn-dutton.html

 

As a PhD student the scales were very heavy on the research side.  Apart from some demonstrating in the labs and a few Maths tutorials (BIO101) it was reading, writing and research.  Albeit this involved weekend working, but as there was plenty of time doing the week to fit in games of squash (our lab had a very competitive squash ladder) between field and lab work, it was pretty much fun all the way.

The PhD and first job– research heavy, a fun time

My first ‘permanent’ job was with the Forestry Commission, where I was based at their Northern Research Station, just outside Edinburgh.  My first few years were almost idyllic, lots of field work in remote parts of Scotland, the ability to have PhD students, giving guest lectures at Edinburgh and Aberdeen Universities, and an official ‘side-project’ time allowance which allowed me to write papers on a diverse range of subjects not included in my job description, e.g. my foray into species-area relationships (Leather, 1985,1986,1990,1991).  By the end of my time there however, government policy had changed, and we, even as a research organisation, were very much ‘customer facing’ and freedom to do less applied research was very much restricted to our own time.

Early academic life – when grant writing had some rewards and didn’t seem to take up as much time

It was thus a huge relief when I joined Imperial College at their world famous, and at the time, very collegiate, Silwood Park campus.  I was able to have coffee with luminaries such as Mike Way, Mike Hassell, John Lawton, Stuart McNeill, Val Brown and Nigel Bell as well as to rub shoulders with up and coming stars such as Sharon Lawler, Lindsay Turnbull, Jeremy Fox,  Chris Thomas, Shahid Naeem, Mike Hochberg, Charles Godfray and many others.  I could research any topic I wanted to as long as I got funding (and I did) and my teaching load, if not as light as some within the department, was manageable and very enjoyable.

It starts to tip

 

Administration has never been my thing, but as I got more senior, more administrative stuff came my way, and in my last few years at Imperial College where I was the Postgraduate Tutor, a role combining pastoral care and regulatory matters, such a chairing all the MSc exam boards and monitoring PhD student progress.  Luckily, I was very ably helped by two fantastic people, Diana Anderson and Janet Phipps.  Without them my life would have been a misery and the paperwork in an awful mess, to put it mildly.   I also ended up on a lot of college committees as well as taking on a number of external roles; editing, refereeing, external examining etc.  At the same time, Imperial College, as a joint consequence of appointing Sir Richard Sykes as Rector and the Life Sciences Faculty adopting a largely publication metric-based approach to new appointments, started to replace retiring whole organism biologists and entomologists with molecular biologists and mathematical ecologists.  Not necessarily a bad thing if managed sympathetically, but they still expected the same course content to be delivered by the few remaining whole organism biologists.  To give you an idea, when I joined the Department in 1992 there were 18 entomologists, when I left there were three of us.

My teaching load soared, while the departmental average was 25 hours per year, my personal load was 384 hours and I was also having to run a research group! The collegiate atmosphere was also very much eroded as was the attitude toward students.  When I first started at Imperial as a Lecturer, only Senior Lecturers and above could “Process” at the graduation ceremony in the Albert Hall. By the time I left, Teaching Fellows were being asked if they would like to attend. The majority of Faculty saw no benefit to them in attending.  A sorry state of affairs as far as I was, and am concerned.  Seeing our graduates happy and smiling with their families is such a buzz; why would anyone want to miss that?  We also had a change in our Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUGS), our former DUGS ‘s philosophy was to give the students the best possible experience with the resources available.  Our new DUGS’s was completely different.  His opening address to the Faculty went along the lines of “I know you don’t like teaching…” (this upset quite a few of us who did and do enjoy teaching) and his underlying philosophy was, as far as I could make out, how can we make the students think they are getting a great experience without expending too much time on them.  I was very pleased to make my move to Harper Adams University in 2012* where collegiality and student provision were, and still are, very much more valued; all Faculty are expected to attend the student graduation event unless they have a very good excuse😊

The things I have disliked the most over my career are grant applications, over long committee meetings, unnecessarily complex paperwork, office politics and marking assignments and exams.  On the plus side have been my good colleagues, lecturing, field courses, research project supervision at all levels, the opportunities to do outreach, and the students who have made it all worthwhile.

With retirement comes the opportunity to dump most, if not all, the things I dislike, and to concentrate my efforts on those aspects of the job I love the most, teaching, outreach and writing.  In the main, I have had a great time as an academic, but in the present climate, I would think very hard about advising my PhD students to take up an appointment in a Research Intensive university in the UK, especially if the value their family life and their mental well-being.

Hoping to spend more time in France 😊  The biggest challenge will be developing the ability to say no.

 

 

References

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. (1990)  The analysis of species-area relationships, with particular reference to macrolepidoptera on Rosaceae: how important is data-set quality ?. The Entomologist 109, 8-16.

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

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The Roundabout Review 2017

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

Enjoying the summer sunshine at our house in Vinca, France

 

Impact and reach

I have continued to post at about ten-day intervals; this is my 187th post.  The more I write the easier it seems to become, and I seem to have no huge problems in coming up with ideas to write about.   As happened last year, some of my blogs have made it, in slightly modified forms, into print. My most satisfying outcome was a joint effort, arising from my desire for comparative blog statistics as reported in last year’s review.  Some of my favourite bloggers and I got together and we produced a paper all about blogging!

I was also invited to give two talks about my blogging and tweeting, one at ENTO17 in Newcastle, the other, much more scary, was  a keynote address at the National Biodiversity Network Conference in Cardiff, where I was filmed live on Facebook.  For those of you who remain lukewarm about the idea that social media has a place in science, I feel that this is pretty convincing evidence that science communication via social media is a very worthwhile use of our time.

My blog had visitors from 165 countries (164 last year and 150 in 2015), so it looks like my international reach has probably peaked but as there are only 195 countries in total, I guess reaching 85% of them is a bit of an achievement.  My blog received 40 853 views (34 036 last year; 29 385 in 2015).  This year, for the first time, the majority of my readers came from the USA, with views from India moving from 8th to 5th place.

Top ten countries for views

Top reads

My top post (excluding my home page) in 2017 was one of my aphid posts,  A Winter’s Tale – Aphid Overwintering,  which came second last year.  although my all-time winner is still Not All Aphids are Vegans with over 6 000 views.  My top ten posts tend to be either about aphids or entomological techniques/equipment which I guess means that I am filling an entomological niche.

Top Ten Reads 2017


Trends

There still seems to be no signs of the number of people viewing my site reaching an asymptote, or, for that matter, taking off exponentially; just a straightforward linear relationship.

New Year 4

Interactions

My top commenters, were the same as last year, Emma Maund, Emily Scott, Emma Bridges, Jeff Ollerton, Amelia from A French Garden and Philip Strange.   Many thanks to all my readers and especially to those who take the time to comment as well as pressing the like button. I look forward to interacting with you all in 2018.

 

Twitter

I continue to tweet prolifically and  find my interactions on Twitter very rewarding.  I have this year become somewhat more political; Brexit and Trump, need I say more?  The majority of my tweets are, however, still entomological and ecological and the increase in political comment has not stopped my followers from growing.  I finished 2016 with 4960 followers and begin 2018 with almost a thousand more, 5860.   It would have been to hit the 6 000-follower milestone before the end of the year.

The Future

This coming year is also marks a change in circumstances for me as I have partially retired,  the idea being that I will spend more time doing the things I enjoy and perhaps finally get some of my book projects off the ground.  I have a number of projects planned   ranging from a field course handbook to a popular science aphid book, if you can imagine such a thing 😊 The idea is that I will spend a significant proportion of my time in France where I hope that the wine and superb scenery will inspire me to great things.

And if anyone is worried that this means that the entomological provision at Harper Adams University will be diminished, rest assured.  My reduced contract means that we have been able to appoint a very talented junior member of faculty, Heather Campbell (@ScienceHeather) whom I am sure will be a great success.  Additionally, as I will be doing pretty much the same teaching as I have always done, our entomology provision will actually increase.  A win-win as far as I am concerned.

Contemplating new horizons?

 

A Happy and Prosperous New Year to you all.

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Merry Christmas

Hope you all have a great Christmas and a Happy New Year.  Many thanks to all my readers and especially to those of you who share my posts on Twitter and other social media platforms.  It is much appreciated.

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Pick and mix 14 – Ten more links to things that you may have missed

Mixed bags

 

I always said that I could taste tea bags, now it turns out to have been the pesticides 🙂

If you are in Finland you might like to try this bread

Celery is much more interesting than I thought

We need to rethink how we produce and distribute food

I hate marking and perhaps with reason?

Why eradicating mosquitoes might not be such a good idea after all

You may find this disturbing – the only species we should worry about conserving is us

And here is an alternative viewpoint in response to the above

When to Pay for Scicomm, When to Get Paid for Scicomm, and When to Scicomm for the Love of It

Help the UK Met Office understand how people interpret different visual models of climate data

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All work and no play – not what a university education is all about

The university landscape in the UK has seen dramatic changes since 1992 when the former polytechnics were encouraged to apply for independent degree awarding powers and moved, from what had, until then, been an almost entirely teaching and training role, to invest more in their research capabilities.  At around the same time there was a push to massively increase the number of students receiving a university education; when I was an undergraduate in 1973 about 7% of us went to university, now it is closer to 50%.  As a result class size has risen as there has not been a proportional increase in the number of university teaching staff and there has, at least in the biological science areas that I am familiar with, been a tendency to replace whole organism practical classes with computer-based alternatives.

Another thing that has changed in the last few years has been the scrapping of maintenance grants and their replacement with student loans and the introduction of tuition fees.  Maintenance grants, which I was lucky enough to receive, were means tested, universally available and paid directly to students.  Tuition fees were paid by the respective Local Education Authorities and did not feature in a student’s world.  We had no idea how much they were and no need to know.  Now students take out loans for both their fees and maintenance, saddling them huge debts for a large proportion of their working life or forever.  My daughter who was lucky enough to only experience the £3000 tuition fees, is on course to pay her loan off next year at the age of 33.  Those who pay £9000 per annum are looking at much longer debt-ridden lives.  Now that universities compete for students, and students rightly or wrongly, see themselves as paying for their education, the culture of universities and their view of students has, and not very subtly, changed and probably not to their benefit.  The managerial staff now see students as customers and not learners and this puts pressure on the academics to deliver courses that students like and not courses that students need.  Academics will know exactly what I mean 🙂 More positively, it does mean that most academic staff who stand in front of students have at least some teaching training and many now have a formal teaching qualification.

A particularly cynical recent development has been the ploy of selling the idea that shortening the time that students spend at university will benefit the students financially without reducing the quality of the degrees awarded.

“The two-year degrees will cost the same as a three-year course, meaning annual fees for them will be higher. Ministers are expected to table a bill to lift the current £9,000-a-year cap on tuition costs so that universities can charge higher annual rates.

The Department for Education has stressed that the fast-track degree would carry the same weight as the current undergraduate model. Universities will be able to charge more than £13,000-a-year for a three-year degree cut down to two years. Annual fees for a four-year course trimmed to three years could rise to £12,000 a year. The proposals will apply to institutions in England.

The fee hike would be strictly limited to the accelerated courses and universities would have to prove they were investing the same resources in the fast-track students as in those studying for a conventional degree. Education ministers think that the reduced timeframe will appeal to those who are in a hurry to get into, or return to, the workplace.

Those who take up the new qualifications would forgo the traditional long summer and winter breaks in exchange for the faster pace of the degree. Although the fees for each year could increase, it is thought the system would appeal to students keen to cut down on living and accommodation costs.

The promotion of two-year degrees was a manifesto pledge from the Conservatives. Universities minister Jo Johnson is expected to tell a meeting of Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ body, on Friday: “This bill gives us the chance to introduce new and flexible ways of learning.”

You can read the full article here.

The Conservative Party, whose MPs are largely Oxbridge educated non-scientists, are very much in favour of this.  They obviously remember their days as students with few lectures, long vacations and plenty of time to spend on the river or in their elite dining clubs, with careers in politics already assured, regardless of degree results.  Proponents of the two-year degree, and note, that we in the UK already have the shortest university degree system in the world, obviously have no idea of a) how universities work, b) how students learn and c) what a university education is all about and d) science.

To put it succinctly and in words that politicians may understand, although as many of them will have gone to ‘crammers’ to ensure their entry to their elite Public schools, they may not.  A university education is not just about learning facts and passing exams.  Students need time to listen, read, think, experiment, digest, learn, analyse, evaluate, criticise, synthesise and importantly, make contacts* and even more importantly, enjoy life.   When I interview students for a PhD position or a place on my MSc course, I am looking for well-rounded individuals with a zest for learning and life, the ability to think critically and to get on well with classmates and colleagues.  I would most definitely NOT consider taking on a two-year biology graduate to do a PhD or job and I think that this would go for the majority of my colleagues.

Many universities already have four-year degree courses on offer and many more are setting up and planning new four-year courses. They and employers, recognise the value of that extra year in education, be it in an industrial placement or an extended research project.  In my experience, graduates from four-year courses are much more rounded, both as people and as scientists and this is already apparent in their final year of study.

There is now some disquiet from a member of the House of Lords, Lord Adonis, that universities are planning on charging more per year for running two-year degrees than they currently charge for three-year courses. He sees this as a ‘rip-off’.  If, however, as the government claim, that the two-year degrees will be the equivalent of the current degrees then that implies the same amount of resource will be devoted to them, so why should they be less expensive?  You can’t have it both ways. Quality comes with a price.

Finally, it is not just the students, what about the staff involved with delivering the new degrees? One of the selling points of a university degree in the UK is that a significant proportion of the teaching is, or should be, delivered by research active academics.  If this does go ahead, and I cannot see a lot of the research intensive universities doing so, I suspect that the staffing will tend to fall upon teaching only faculty with the more research active staff contributing to the longer degree courses.  The ‘long vacations’ are when those faculty members with dual teaching-research roles, do their thinking, writing and research.  The new proposal would definitely result in a two-tier system to the detriment of both the students enrolled on them and the staff tasked with their delivery.

If we as a nation, want well-rounded and productive graduates, then we should seriously be looking at extending the length of degree courses, not shortening them

Perhaps MPs should take a look at their own ‘term’ times.  Think how much work they could get done if they gave up their long vacations 🙂

 

*

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Cockroach – an unlikely pairing

Cockroaches, like aphids, tend to get a bad press, the former as objects of disgust, the latter as pests. This is of course because our perception of cockroaches is heavily influenced by the scuttling, slithering and susurrus images that haunt our memories from watching too many reality TV shows and horror films*.

Cockroaches are members of the superorder, Dictyoptera and are placed in the order Blattodea, (derived from the Latin, blatta, an insect that shuns light) which, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, along with the termites (inward et al., 2007).  When I was a student termites had their own Order, Isoptera; molecular biology and DNA studies have a lot to answer for 🙂  There are currently, about 4,600 described species, of which thirty are associated with humans and a mere four which are considered to be pests (Bell et al., 2007); see what I mean about a bad press.  They have a global distribution but are mainly associated with the tropics and sub-tropics.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (and whom am I to doubt them?), the name “cockroach” comes from the Spanish word cucaracha, transformed by 1620s English folk etymology (where an unfamiliar word is changed into something more familiar) into “cock” (male bird) and “roach” (a freshwater fish).  I find this a little odd.  Given that the Romans were trading globally before they colonised England, it seems unbelievable that the Oriental and German cockroaches would not have made it to the British Isles and become a familiar pest, before the early seventeenth century.  That said, Robinson (1870) suggests that according to Gilbert White the Oriental cockroach Periplaneta orientalis, sometimes called the black beetle (e.g. Blatchley, 1892), was not introduced into England until 1790.  A reference in Packham (2015) however puts its introduction as 1644, which fits better with the OED’s date of derivation of the word.  I would, despite this, still suggest that the Romans would have been the more likely ones to have brought it to our shores.  I think it quite likely that anything that scuttled along the ground and was dark in colour would have been referred to as a black beetle, so my view is that our pestiferous cockroaches have been around much longer.  Any sources to prove/disprove this will be welcome.

Our native cockroaches, as opposed to those that have become naturalised, are shy, retiring, quite rare and located mainly in the south of England, where they dwell peacefully among the trees and heather, a situation that has remained largely unchanged for almost 200 years (Stephens, 1835).  Their names, except for Ectobius pallidus, seem to indicate an origin from farther afield, or perhaps just reflect the origin of the entomologist who first described them  🙂

Ectobius panzeri, The Lesser cockroach (distribution from the NBN Atlas)

Ectobius lapponicus, The Dusky cockroach (Distribution from the NBN Atlas). It is also known as the Forest cockroach in Hungarian   http://regithink.transindex.ro/?p=8782.  According the NBN Atlas it has been recorded as eating aphids.

Ectobius lapponicus showing the wings unfolded.

Ectobius pallidus, the Tawny cockroach (also known as Mediterranean Spotted Cockroach) (Distribution from the NBN Atlas)

 

Cockroaches, unlike ladybirds and aphids, don’t seem to have amassed a huge number of weird and wonderful names in other languages.  If anyone has some good examples to add, please let me know.

Albanian kakabu

Basque labezomorro (labe = oven, zomorro = bug)

Bulgarian хлебарка khlebarka

Finnish torakka

French  cafard (in English melancholia)

German kakerlake

Hungarian csótány

Italian scarafaggio (sounds like a character from an Opera)

Latin blatta

Latvian prusaku

Polish karaluch

Spanish cucaracha

Swedish kackerlacka

Yiddish tarakan

In terms of aesthetically pleasing versions I found Armenian ծխամորճ and Thai แมลงสาบ the most satisfying, and Japanese definitely the most abrupt  ゴキブリ

And to end,  a fun fact that might make some of you disposed to look more kindly upon the cockroach “The Cockroach is the natural enemy of the bed-bug, and destroys large numbers” (Packard, 1876).

 

References

Bell, W.J., Roth, L.M. &  Nalepa,  A.A. (2007) Cockroaches: Ecology, Behavior and Natural History.  The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Blatchley, W.S. (1892) The Blattidae of Indiana.  Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science, 1892, 153-165.

Brown, V.K. (1980)  Notes and a key to the Oothecae of the British Ectobius (Dictyoptera: Blattidae).  Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, 116, 151-154.

Inward, D., Beccaloni, G. & Eggleton, P. (2007) Death of an order: a comprehensive molecular phylogenetic study confirms that termites are eusocial cockroaches. Biology Letters, 3, 331-335.

Packham, C. (2015) Chris Packham’s Wild Side of Town. Bloomsbury Press, London.

Packard, A.P. (1876) Guide to the Study of Insects and a Treatise on those Beneficial and Injurious to Crops. Henry Holt & Company, New York.

Robinson, C.J. (1870) The cockroach.  Nature, 2, 435.

Stephens, J.S. (1835) Illustrations of British Entomology; or a Synopsis of Indigenous Insects. Volume VI. Mandibulata.  Baldwin & Cradock, London.

 

 

 

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Pick and mix 13 – Ten more links to things I found of interest

A mixed bag

 

Asian hornets in Spain via Ray Cannon

Unusual dragonfly behaviour via the Bug Blog

Practice what you preach – ecologists shouldn’t fly, I certainly don’t 🙂

Charley Krebs asks how randomly do ecologists sample and does it really matter?

Steffan Lindgren reviews Alexander von Humboldt

This is the link to the paper reporting the huge decline in insect abundance that made all the headlines the other week.  Scary stuff.

This is a link to Manu Saunders’ excellent blog post putting those same headlines in perspective

A great post about why anyone from any background should be able to study and work in science

A poem about how some flowers help bees find them using nanoscale ridges

Using natural history collections as primary data for ecological research

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Creeping and crawling through children’s literature – A meeting of “two cultures”

Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend an unusual conference in Cambridge, “A Bug’s Life; Creeping and Crawling through Children’s Literature”.  It was unusual for me, as first it was at a weekend, second it was about insects in children’s books and third, all the other presenters and most of the delegates, were academics and PhD students from English departments.  I owed my presence at the conference as a result of my social media activities, in this case my Blog, as Zoe Jaques the organiser, had come across one of my diatribes about the lack of entomological accuracy in some insect themed books for children.  Zoe contacted me earlier this year and explained about her plans and wondered if I would be willing to contribute in my role as a professional entomologist with all expenses paid.  I didn’t take much persuading as I found the whole concept intriguing to say the least, and as an added bonus the guest author was the hugely successful Maya Leonard, author of Beetle Boy, Beetle Queen and the soon to be released, Battle of the Beetles.

I arrived at Cambridge Railway Station on the Friday night direct from France, having left Vinca at 8.45 am, to catch the train to Perpignan, then on to Paris on the TGV, then to London on the EuroStar, arriving in Cambridge courtesy of the local train, just after 9 pm.  A short taxi ride took me to Homerton College where Zoe had kindly arranged for me to stay in one of their excellent guest rooms.   After an excellent breakfast I made my way to the conference venue, following the very appropriate guide beetles 🙂

Our beetle guides

Once there I met the equally appropriately garbed Zoe and started to mingle with the delegates and other speakers, who among others, included Imogen Burt from BugLife

Zoe Jaques – the brains behind the conference, resplendent in beetle regalia.

 who opened the conference with a talk about the importance of insect conservation and the horrific and very inaccurate headlines perpetrated by the media to sell copy.  The conference programme was fantastic with a range of speakers from the Emeritus Professor, Peter Hunt, who invented the discipline of children’s literature in the UK to current PhD students such as Catherine Olver and Maggie Meimaridi with their delightfully punning talk titles, “Beeing oneself: individualism in twenty-first century fiction for teens” and “A ThousAnt plateaus”, respectively. There were a lot of puns buzzing and flying around at this conference, including a laugh-out loud presentation from Melanie Keene, “Bees and Parodies”.  We also had talks on insect scaling and cognition, fear of insects, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, racism and prejudice, and not strictly literature, a very entertaining talk by Zoe and her colleague David Whitley on the insects of Pixar animation.  My talk, not very imaginatively, was titled “The good, the bad and the plain just wrong”.  I focused mainly on the anatomy and taxonomic accuracy or not, displayed in children’s book, from the 1850s through to the modern-day.  This was a very personal selection, based on books that I had read as a child or read to my children, with a few examples from books I have come across in the last few years.  I mainly blamed the illustrators, although to be fair, some have done excellent jobs of portraying insects accurately and sympathetically.  I will be writing about this in a future post.

Maya Leonard completed the line-up with a totally Powerpoint-free extempore talk about her journey from entophobe to bestselling entophile; a ten-year journey.  A fantastic experience, if you ever get the chance to hear Maya speak, make sure you take the opportunity.

An experience not to be missed – Maya in full flow.

The “Two Cultures” in the title of this post refers to the idea of the novelist C P Snow, who at the time (1959) felt that science and humanities were two different antagonistic cultures, with science and scientists being looked down upon and scorned by those who inhabited the world of the humanities.  Put simply, Snow’s criticism was aimed at the fact that while those in the humanities felt that scientists were ignorant if they had not read Shakespeare, they did not perceive it as a failing if they were unable to state the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  This attitude may still persist in certain parts of the educated elite, in that it is seen as something to be proud of to say for example, that one is rubbish at maths, but that someone saying they have never read Jane Austen is seen as reprehensible.  This may no longer be the problem it was in 1959, although looking at the politicians wielding power in Westminster at the moment, the number of those with science degrees or an understanding of science, is lamentably low. There are indeed, as Maya pointed out in her talk, a lot of well-educated people, who know little or nothing about the natural world, entomology in particular.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not about how much better educated scientists are than those with degrees in the humanities, or those in the humanities giving short shrift to the ideas of scientists.  After all this conference was all about exploring the portrayal of an important part of the natural world; Insects and their allies, and seeking the viewpoint of a professional entomologist. Hardly the actions of Luddites unwilling to engage with new viewpoints.  I too was there to learn, as well as to inform.  In fact I was very apprehensive about my presentation.  As I pointed out in the introduction to my talk, although I have given talks to a diverse set of audiences, ranging from The Brownies to the Inner Wheel I had, until then, never given a talk to a room full of professional critics 🙂 I needn’t have worried, my talk was very well-received and generated lots of very perceptive and interesting questions.

I learnt a lot in the course of the day, not least the difference in how much can be read into the attitudes of the author and the subliminal messages that go unnoticed by the child reader, or as in my case, the adult reader, but are picked up and debated by those trained to absorb more from what they are reading than is actually on the printed page.  Although a great fan of Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series I had never taken on board the symbolism inherent in, for example,  A Hat Full of Sky’ until I heard Catherine Olver’s excellent talk on the symbolism of bees and hive minds in what I now know as YA (Young adult) fiction.  Similarly, until pointed out to me by Sarah Annes Brown during her talk on “Insects – a liberal litmus test?” the possibly racist and stereotypical portrayals of the characters in George Selden’s A Cricket in Times Square had completely escaped me.  I obviously spend too much time stressing out over the biological and anatomical aspects of the insect characters 🙂

The other thing that struck me very strongly was the difference in way in which language and PowerPoint was used by the speakers.  Biologists (and I think most scientists) are taught that the ideal slide should have no more than six bullet points and that under no circumstances should a slide be filled with a single block of text.  It this came as a surprise that we were asked on a number of occasions to spend a couple of minutes reading and digesting the contents of a slide filled from top to bottom with a quote from a book or paper.  I was also struck by the difference in the language used, “contextualise” and “narrative” being the two most common examples of words that are rarely uttered at an entomology conference.  That said, I confess that I used the word narrative several times in my own talk, but only one of my slides contained a quotation 🙂

The conference was an entertaining, educational, enjoyable and exhilarating experience and I am very grateful to Zoe for allowing me to take part in it.  I think the “Two Cultures” have a lot to learn from each other and Zoe is to be congratulated on having the idea and the perseverance to bring the project to fruition.  I very much look forward to future collaborations with her and others from the world of humanities.

And there were appropriate cakes 🙂

If you want to see the Tweets associated with the conference check out #bugznkidzlit

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