How to ruin the planet in three easy steps

In the space of a week I came across three items that made me despair even more than I normally do for the healthy future of our planet.  Coincidentally I was reading Neal Stephenson’s novel Seveneves, which is also about the environmental destruction of the Earth as we know it, albeit by an external disaster and not by our own efforts.  In his novel, the World’s leaders come together to save some of humanity and the planet’s genetic resources, and not destroy it as we seem hellbent on doing.

Item 1

Browsing in a local supermarket I came across what was to me, a new phenomenon, so-called Smartwater!

planet-1

This is an example of how the fetish/obsession for bottled water has gone way over the top

Step 1 – find a natural spring
Step 2 – extract the water
Step 3 – distil the water to remove the natural ‘impurities’ (sodium, calcium carbonates etc. which are electrolytes) by steam distillation (requires energy, probably from non-renewable sources)
Step 4 – put back the minerals (electrolytes) that were removed by the distillation process
Step 5 – bottle in plastic (not glass) bottles
Step 6 – sell at inflated prices to mugs

What is wrong with tap water folks? :-(  If as some feel, that the tap water has a strong taste of chlorine, leave it overnight before using it.

Item 2

The belief by some commentators and members of the UK  electorate, that the European Union has environmental policies designed to thwart  business rather than protecting the environment.

planet-2

 

Item 3

The long-running debate about where to site another runway in the UK to expand runway capacity by 2030.  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/09/heathrow-airport-expansion-plan-may-be-put-to-free-cabinet-vote

planet-3

Not a beautiful morning, rather a sign writ large upon the sky, of how much environmental harm we are doing to the planet.

Rather than expanding runways and airports to encourage growth in air-traffic and the use of fossil fuels, we should be thinking of ways to cut it and reduce our carbon footprint.  Cat Stevens was thinking about this very issue in 1971 in his fantastic song “Where do the Children Play?”

Well you roll on roads over fresh green grass.
For your lorry loads pumping petrol gas.
And you make them long, and you make them tough.
But they just go on and on, and it seems that you can’t get off.

Oh, I know we’ve come a long way,
We’re changing day to day,
But tell me, where do the children play?”

 

On the plus side some nations seem to be taking a more responsible approach to the exploitation of finite resources.  I am happy to say France, the location of our future retirement home, is leading the way in reducing the use of plastics.  They are also way ahead of us in encouraging the use of solar energy by homeowners.

planet-4

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/france-becomes-the-first-country-to-ban-plastic-plates-and-cutlery-a7316816.html

It was also cheering to see that others share my views about the evils of air travel, as shown by the following two letters from the Guardian newspaper.  Perhaps all is not lost.

planet-5

planet-6

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/12/the-world-needs-leaders-who-refuse-to-fly-not-another-airport-runway-for-the-uk

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Bridging the gap – ENTO’16 at Harper Adams University

A couple of years ago, while attending a Royal Entomological Society Council meeting, I rashly volunteered to host ENTO’16, the annual meeting of the Society, at Harper Adams University*.  I confess, I did have a bit of an ulterior motive.  We entomologists had only been based at Harper Adams University since 2012 and I thought it would help with publicizing our new research centre and postgraduate courses in entomology and integrated pest management.  Once this was approved by Council I let my colleagues know that I had ‘volunteered’ them and also approached entomologists at our two nearest universities, Keele and Staffordshire and invited them to join our organising committee.  As this is about the event and not the administrivia, I will not bore you with the description of how it all came about, apart from mentioning that we chose as our theme, the Society journals to celebrate the 180th anniversary of RES publishing.

ento16-fig1

 

As a result of a poll of society members, we decided that the last day of the conference would be all about Outreach.  The morning session was devoted to talks for the delegates and the afternoon was open to the public and members of the university.  The Open session began with a talk by M.G. (Maya) Leonard, best-selling author of Beetle Boy, followed by exhibits and activities in the exhibition hall**.  In the spirit of outreach, we also persuaded our three plenary speakers to agree to be videoed and livestreamed to YouTube.  Their excellent talks can be seen by following the links below.

ento16-fig2

“How virulence proteins modulate plant processes to promote insect colonisation”

Saskia Hogenhout – John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqPH_h3xHoQ

ento16-fig3

“The scent of the fly”

Peter Witzgall – Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1PUxQGoAzE

ento16-fig4

“Citizen Science and invasive species”

Helen Roy – Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Wallingford, UK

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_Kyw2WeVC4

To make decision-making simple, we only ran two concurrent sessions, and hopefully this meant that most people did not have to miss any talks that they particularly wanted to hear. The conference proper began on the Tuesday, but about half the delegates arrived the evening before and enjoyed an entomologically-based Pub Quiz. The winning team perhaps had a slight

ento16-fig5

Preparing for the influx – student helpers in action

advantage in that most of their members were slightly older than average.

ento16-fig6

The winning Pub Quiz team sitting in the centre of the picture.

We felt that the conference went very well, with all the journals well represented, although getting systematic entomologists to speak proved slightly more difficult than we had anticipated.  The student speakers were terrific and the talks covered the gamut of entomology.  The venue, although I may be slightly biased, was agreed by all to be excellent and provided some superb photo opportunities.

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Main venue glinting in the morning sun

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Andy Salisbury enjoying the early morning view at Harper Adams University

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The RES President, a very relaxed Mike Hassell, opens the proceedings.

Other highlights were the two wine receptions, the poster session and the conference dinner at which Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse, who apparently has an inordinate fondness for beetles, received an Honorary Fellowship.

ento16-fig10nurse

Sir Paul Nurse on hearing that he is to receive an Honorary Fellowship.

The old cliché goes that a “picture paints a thousand words” and who I am to argue, so I will let them tell the rest of the story with the odd bit of help from me.

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A fine example of synchronised beard pulling

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Happy Helpers

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All the way from Canada

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Only at an entomological conference

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Entomologically themed fashion

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Bang-up to date topics

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Ambitious themes

ento16-cutts

one of our former-MSc students making an impact

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Impeccable dress sense from Session Chairs!

ento16-elena

Prize winning talks

ento16-poster-prize

and posters

ento16-punny-titles

Punny titles

ento16-jess

Enthusiastic speakers

I was reminded by Jess that I scolded her for not knowing enough entomology when I conducted her exit viva in my role as external examiner for the zoology degree at UCL🙂

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Engaging authors

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Proud to be Collembolaologists

ento16-smiles

Smiling faces (free drinks)

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Good food and drink (and company)

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Cavorting ceilidh dancers

 

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Phone cases to be jealous of

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Joining Darwin (and Sir Paul Nurse) in the book!

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and for me a fantastic personal end to the conference!

And finally

ento16-thanks

 

Post script

As it turned out, 2016 was a fantastically entomologically-filled year for Harper Adams.

ento16-respg

we hoste the RES Postgraduate Forum in February which I reported on earlier this year, and of course we also

ento16-entosci

hosted the fantastically successful EntoSci16.

 

Credits

The Organizing Committee

Andy Cherrill, John Dover (Staffordshire University), Rob Graham, Paul Eggleston (Keele University), Simon Leather, Tom Pope, Nicola Randall, Fran Sconce and Dave Skingsley (Staffordshire University).

The Happy Helpers

Ben Clunie, Liam Crowley, Scott Dwyer, Ana Natalio, Alice Mockford and Aidan Thomas

Music 

The Odd Socks Ceilidh Band

Wine Receptions

Harper Adams University and the Royal Entomological Society

Financial and Administrative Support

The Royal Entomological Society, Luke Tilley, Lisa Plant, Caroline Thacker and Megan Tucker.

Publicity

Adreen Hart-Rule and the Marketing and Communications Department at HAU

AV Support

Duncan Gunn-Russell and the HAU AV Team

 

*I am sure that this had nothing to do with the excellent wine that the RES always provides at lunch time🙂

**We were somewhat disappointed by the low turn-out for the afternoon session.  We had publicised it widely but obviously not widely enough😦

 

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Reflections on the dawning of the Anthropocene

We are now officially in the Anthropocene Age which is probably not a good thing.  It seems an appropriate moment to reflect on what we can do to halt, or at the very least, slow down, what seems to be an unstoppable race to extinction of most of the natural world.  We all know what the principal causes are despite the obfuscation and prevarication that surrounds the debate. Equally, we are also aware of the mainly political and economic pressures that are preventing us from doing something to ease the pain and suffering we are inflicting on the world. I am not going to rehearse the arguments, but instead I will let the following speak to us all about why we need to keep and enhance what nature we have remaining.

Anthropocene

“Though large herds of deer do much harm to the neighbourhood, yet the injury to the morals of the people is of more moment than the loss of their crops.  The temptation is irresistible; for most men are sportsmen by constitution: and there is such an inherent spirit for hunting in human nature, as scarce any inhibitions can restrain” Gilbert White (1788)

Passenger_pigeon_shoot

They didn’t know any better – Passenger pigeon flock being hunted in Louisiana (Credit: Smith Bennett, 1875/Public domain.)

Anthropocene 2.GIF

They should know better – mind boggling and shocking

“Really I did deserve a chastisement for my intrusion into the meadow, the disastrous consequences of which I now had power to perceive to the full extent. I had bruised the tender stalks of springing grass, broken quantities of buds, and destroyed myriads of living creatures. In my stupid simplicity I had never had any suspicion of the pain I caused while perpetrating these evil deeds, and had been in a state of delight at the profound peace pervading the country, and the charms of solitude” E van Bruyssel (1870)

Anthropocene 3.

“We can never afford to lose sight of past and present human activities in their effects on the vegetation of countries which have been long inhabited and densely populated, like those of Western and Central Europe” A G Tansley (1923)

“On the favourable side of the balance, I think that I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which escape attention, and in observing them carefully.  My industry has been great as it could have been in the observation and collection of facts.  What is far more important, my love of natural science has been steady and ardent” Charles Darwin (1929*)

“We have tried to conquer nature by force and by intellect.  It now remains for us to try the way of love It is impossible to use the full resources of the soil except with a mixture of plants (either grown together as in pasture or mixed crops grown in succession as a in a proper rotation of crops).  In monoculture it is impossible to keep disease at bay for long, and in addition it is impossible to feed animals properly except on a varied mixture” Lord Northbourne (1940)

Anthropocene 4.png

“The soil is among Nature’s greatest marvels. A clod of earth, seeming simple and lifeless, is now known to be highly complex in structure, its particles most elaborate in their composition, with numerous invisible crevices inhabited by prodigious numbers of living organisms inconceivably small, leading lives of which we can from only the haziest conception, yet somehow linked up with our lives in that they produce the food of plants which constitute our food, and remove from the soil, substances that would be harmful to us” Sir John Russell (1957)

“Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song” Rachel Carson (1962)

“I believe the strongest argument for keeping as much of the natural world as possible in the anthrosphere lies in the human need for variety, individuality, and the challenge of endeavouring to understand the nonhuman world.  I believe, too, that emersion in the world of trees, flower, and wild creatures is needed to nourish human attributes now in short supply: awe, compassion, reflectiveness, the brotherhood we often talk about but rarely practice except on the most superficial of levels”  Howard Ensign Evans (1966)

Epping

“I have heard it said more than once that the reason why there are more wire-worms afflicting the crops than in the past is that there are more tractors. The idea being that since the tractor-driven plough turns over three or four furrows at a time as against the horse-plough’s one furrow, the results is that birds get far fewer troughs in which to find worms,  Thus more worms are left in the soil.  It is an attractive theory, there is something cheering in the knowledge that Nature always hits back.  Everything in nature has a meaning and a purpose.  Everything is necessary to the universal scheme, every germ, every microbe, every pest.  When anything ceases to serve the harmony it dies out” John Stewart Collis (1973)

“Humanity now co-opts something in the order of one-twentieth of all the photosynthesis – the primal driving process of life on the planet – for its own uses.  And through its activities, Homo sapiens now threatens to alter the basic climatic patterns of the globe” Paul & Anne Ehrlich (1981)

“The rescue of biological diversity can only be achieved by a skillful blend of science, capital investment, and government: science to blaze the path by research and development; capital investment to create sustainable markets: and government to promote the marriage of economic growth and conservation” Edward Wilson (1992)

“Despite what developers will tell you about restoration, she said, once a piece of land is graded, the biologic organisms and understructure of the soil are destroyed.  No one knows how to really re-create that, short of years of hand-weeding.  Leaving land doesn’t work; the natives are overwhelmed by the invaders” Richard Louw (2005)

“Eventually some truth dawned: nature conservation is essentially concerned with mending the relationship between people and Nature, and is an expression of love for, and an interaction with, the beauty and wonder of the natural world, and with belonging in Nature” Matthew Oates (2015)

Enjoying Malham

“Evidence shows that loss of interactions with nature changes people’ s attitudes toward nature, including the values they place on it, their beliefs concerning the environment, their perceived norms of environmental ethics, and their willingness to protect nature” Soga & Gaston (2016)

I could go on, and on, but I think you get the picture.  We could have done so much so earlier.

Please share your favourite passages, be they gloomy or optimistic, by adding them to the comments.

 

References

Carson, R. (1962) Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin, USA.

Collis, J.S. (1973)  The Worm Forgives the Plough. Penguin Books

Darwin, C.  (1929) Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Watts & Co., London (

*published posthumously)

Ehrlich, P.  & Ehrlich, A. (1981) Extinction, Random House, New York.

Evans, H.E. (1966)  Life on a Little-Known Planet, University of Chicago Press, USA.

Louw, R. (2005)  Last Child in the Woods, Atlantic Books, London.

Northbourne, W.J. (1940) Look to the Land, J.M. Dent & Sons.

Oates, M. (2015) In Pursuit of Butterflies: A Fifty-Year Affair, Bloomsbury, London.

Russell, Sir, E.J. (1957) The World of the Soil, Collins, London.

Soga, M. & Gaston, K.J. (2016) Extinction of experience: the loss of human–nature interactions.  Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 14, 94-101

Tanlsey, A.G. (1923) Introduction to Plant Ecology, George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Van Bruyssel, E. (1870) The Population of an Old Pear Tree, MacMillan & Co. London

White, G. (1788) The Natural History of Selborne, Penguin Edition 1977.

Wilson, E.O. (1992) The Diversity of Life, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, USA.

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

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

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

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

Is it beacuse 1

 

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

Is it beacuse 2

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

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

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

Is it beacuse 3

Rampaging locusts and Peter Graves

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

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

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

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Michael Caine attempting to mimic a serious entomologist

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Julian Sands as the stereotypical ‘mad’ obsessed entomologist

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

Is it beacuse 6

even crickets masquerading as grasshoppers, or vice versa 🙂.

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

Is it beacuse 7

The unbelievably cute and anatomically incorrect

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

 

Post script

 

Is it beacuse 8

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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Creating space

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

Desk

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

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

Armoire

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

future office

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

View

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

Workspace Vinca

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

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

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

Fires near Vinca

I am on holiday after all :-)

 

A bientot a

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Is there a dress code for scientists?

Dresscode 1

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

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

Dresscode 3

 

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

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

Dresscode 4

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

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

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

Dresscode 5

Dressing not to impress, age 2, 8 and 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My inaugural lecture – sans tie

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

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

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

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

 

Post script

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

Dresscode 11

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

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

 

*you can also find him on Twitter @MCeeP

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

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

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

 

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Malham in the Sun – introducing entomology to budding ecologists

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

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

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

Malham 2

The long walk

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

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

DSCF7290

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

Malham 3

I seem to have done a lot of arm waving

Malham

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

Malham 5

Being cruel to trees

 

Malham 6  Malham 4

Some of the stars of the day

 

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

Malham 7

Fluorescing carabids

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

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

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

Malham 8

Much better than anything I could draw

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

Malham 9

Glorious Yorkshire

 

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

 

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Roundabouts – so much more than traffic-calming devices

Roundabout1

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

Roundabout2

They are a teaching tool,

 

 

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a research programme

 

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and a source of amusement and wonder.

 

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

Hook of Holland

or just plain fun!

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

Roundabout6

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

 

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

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

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

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

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The twenty tweet list

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

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

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From van Bruyssel – The Population of an Old Pear Tree

It is definitely worth a read.

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

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

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

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Using alternative technology to understand vine weevil behaviour.

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The glow in the dark sycamore aphid was also very popular

 

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

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How teaching led research – the Bracknell roundabout story.

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

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

I even composed a haiku for the occasion

Six-legged creatures;

Fascinating and diverse,

Beautiful insects

 

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I have been an entomologist for a long time.

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

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

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

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My final tweet

but also beautiful animals.

Giant Myzus

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

View

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

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

Grant

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

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

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

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

Graph

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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