Monthly Archives: January 2013

Not all aphids are vegans

Typically we think of aphids as plant pests, existing solely on a diet of plant sap that they obtain by tapping into the phloem tubes of plants, using their specially adapted piercing mouthparts (stylets). These when viewed externally,  when the aphid is feeding on the plant, look fairly straightforward as in this beautiful photograph of the Oleander aphid, Aphis nerii, from Lisa Sell’s great blog site Zen Through a Lens

aphis nerii Stylet

The stylets can, however, actually take a rather convoluted route to their destination .

aphid mouthparts

Adapted from Roger Blackman (1974).

This is, however, not the whole story.  Some years ago when I was a PhD student, I was looking after a friend’s pea aphid (Acythrosiphon pisum) culture, whilst he was on holiday.  One day, whilst adding new pea plants to the cages, I became aware of a sharp stinging sensation on my wrist.  Looking down I was somewhat surprised to find that I was being probed by an aphid.  After my initial shock I decided that the aphid had been confused by the pea plant scent on my hands and decided that I was a suitable host plant to investigate.  The incident was not repeated although the story has become a feature of my lectures on aphid biology.  Many years later, one of my PhD students who was working on the Asian ladybird, Harmonia axyridis,  which she used to feed on pea aphids, came and asked me if I had ever heard of aphids eating each other as she had noticed that some of the juvenile pea aphids appeared to be feeding on some of the adults.

Pea aphid attack

My response was in the negative, but I said I would do a bit of research on the subject for her.  To my surprise, I found a short note (Banks et al., 1968), where the authors described not only incidents of aphids acting as cannibals and feeding on each other,  but also of aphids acting as predators and feeding on the eggs of ladybirds and lacewings, a reverse of the normal situation.   They also described an even more interesting report of what might have been biological control of  a plant pest by another plant pest – in this case hop feeding mites were apparently being eaten by aphids, unfortunately not names so I was unable to follow it up.  One of the authors also reported seeing many incidents of cannibalism by the aphid Megoura viciae, during some of his experiments.   They also noted that there was a report of an aphid species that was capable of causing swellings and rashes on people in what is now Taiwan.  I tracked the paper down (Takahashi, 1930) and had it translated by a PhD student and the paper was indeed entitled An Aphid that Bites People.  Apparently the gall forming aphid, Ceratoglyphnia (Astegopteryx) styracicola, (pictured below alongside the gall)

Ceratoglyphnia styracicolaCeratoglyphnia styracicola gall

is well-known to attack people who stand or sit underneath the snowbell tree, Styrax suberifolium, which incidentally has rather nice flowers.


The result of being ‘bitten’ by the aphid is a red swelling that disappears after an hour or so, but leaves a very itchy rash that can persist for two to three days.  In fact this phenomenon is so common that people avoid passing underneath infested trees.

So those of you who thought that only your house plants were in danger from an aphid attack better watch out!

Aoki, S. & Kurosu, U. (2010) A review of the biology of Cerataphidini (Hemiptera, Aphididae, Hormaphidinae), focusing mainly on their life cycles, gall formation, and soldiers. Psyche

Banks, C.J., MaCaulay, E.D.M. & Holman, J.  (1968), Cannibalism and predation by aphids.  Nature, 218, 491

Blackman. R. L. (1974)  Aphids, Ginn & Co.

Takahashi, R. (1930) An aphid that bites people.  Transactions of the Natural History Society of Formosa, 20, 43-44.


Post script


And new in 2015, here is an aphid that sucks the blood (haemolymph) from ant larva!  Aren’t aphids wonderful?


Filed under Aphidology, Aphids

My Uncle and cousin were spies!

Actually it was my great-Uncle and my third cousin once removed but that doesn’t make for such a snappy title.  One of the joys of family history research is that every now and then you come across something really unexpected and the fact that I had two spies in my family was no exception.  The two in question are John Henry Leather (1893-1958), my grandfather’s youngest brother and Sir Desmond Falkiner Morton 1891-1971), my third cousin once-removed.  This post shows you how useful newspaper archives can be.

NPG x25675; Desmond John Falkiner Morton by Howard Coster

I knew of the existence of both of these characters from my family tree and that both had served in the army during World War 1.  What I hadn’t realised was how involved they were with the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). As I got more involved with my family tree I first found out that Desmond Morton or Sir Desmond as he later became, had been Sir Winston Churchill’s personal spymaster, and I often used to get great pleasure of mentioning my relationship to him, whenever he was featured in a World War 2 film.  He, Sir Desmond that is, is often portrayed as being in the next room to Churchill in his secret bunker, ever ready to spring out and offer advice.  His life is well documented in a book by Gill Bennett,  (Churchill’s Man of Mystery: Desmond Morton and the World of Intelligence Routledge, 2009).

Desmond Morton book cover

He was, by all accounts, and very appropriately, highly secretive, kept very much to himself and died a bachelor.  What I hadn’t realised until very recently however, was that he was Catholic and not only a Catholic, but Master of the London Branch of the Civil Service Catholic Guild.  Our family has been staunchly Church of England (at least those of us who are not humanists) for as long as we have existed in the Parish Records.  It appears from an article in the Catholic Herald of 23rd February 1951, that he was received into the Catholic Church after the Battle of the Somme, which like many of the other men involved in that bloodbath, obviously affected him greatly.  The following year, he was wounded very badly, and never fully recovered, despite living to a fairly respectable age.

Much, much more fun, was my great-uncle John, who unfortunately died before I was born.  I learnt of his exploits from my second cousin Chris Bennett (no relation to Gill Bennett) who sent me an article from the Cleckheaton Guardian describing his arrest and trial in Paris in 1926, where he had apparently been spying on our noble allies the French. He was a much more louche character as can be seen from this rather poor photograph.

John Henry Leather spy a

The case is rather nicely summarised by this excerpt from a book review by David Jones

Yet another example of British spying in France, this one in the wake of the First World War, provides a little comic relief. In December 1925, the Surete arrested three male British subjects and two French female accomplices on charges of espionage. All were convicted in subsequent proceedings. The leading figure in the case, Capt. John Henry Leather, and his two colleagues, Ernest Phillips and William Fischer, were employees of the Paris office of the Burndept Wireless Co. They also all had recent backgrounds in British military intelligence. As of 1925, in fact, Leather was still attached to MI2(b), the War Office outfit handling intelligence in Western Europe. The Foreign Office, Air Ministry and Admiralty ritually denied any connection to the men. Naturally, no one asked the “Agency That Didn’t Exist,” MI6. But there was no doubt about the guilt of Leather and his pals. Their undoing came about because he and Fischer had developed rival romantic interests in one of the French femmes, Marthe Moreuil, better known as “Mlle. Foxtrot,” whom they had used to coax information out of smitten French officers. For reasons never made clear, Moreuil tossed a packet of love letters out the window of a train, but managed to include a stash of compromising documents. These were retrieved by a curious farmer who dutifully turned them over to authorities. The main target of the Leather gang’s espionage was the French air force, then reckoned by London as the only air force that could pose a threat to Britain.

For more details of his career and life see Phil Tomaselli’s book Tracing Your Secret Service Ancestors published by Pen & Sword in  2009 and an article by Chris Bennett published in 2002  (see Leather Lives, ed. S R Leather, Leather Family History Society).  After he left the SIS he founded the Bromley Little Theatre which he managed and also acted as a Director for many of the productions, until his death in 1958.  After his death the theatre commissioned this rather handsome plaque.

John Henry Leather spy

Interestingly enough, my Uncle John (John Adams Leather 1916-1997), was also an actor and artist Their artistic talents have, however, not revealed themselves in me, unless you consider lecturing to be equivalent to an acting profession.  The spy gene, however, might have had its chance had I been less of a non-conformist in my youth.

Simon Finland 1981

After receiving my PhD in 1980, I was awarded a Royal Society Fellowship to work in Finland.  At the time, although Finland was a resolutely independent country, their history and proximity to what was then the USSR, meant that they had very close trade and diplomatic links with that state.  Shortly before I was due to depart from England I was approached by a certain department within Her Majesty’s Government and asked if I would be willing to discreetly sound out and observe Finnish attitudes to their neighbour.  I was totally outraged and told them where to put their proposal.  I was also somewhat shocked to think that they would think that I, a Private Eye subscriber at the time, would even contemplate doing such a thing.  Given what I know now about my family’s connection with the Intelligence Services, it possibly makes a little more sense.  Who knows, I certainly don’t.


Filed under Roots

Magic roundabouts – postscript

I have just had the opportunity to take some photographs of what used to be the most biodiverse roundabout in Bracknell, the Sports Centre Roundabout.  Just before Christmas I reported that there had been a large number of trees and shrubs felled, many of them native, reducing what was a very heterogeneous habitat to a much more uniform one.  You can see the before and after pictures below.

Sports Centre Roundabout

Sports Centre Roundabout

Sports Centre Roundabout felled 2012 - Copy      Sports Centre Roundabout felled 2012a - Copy

It is a shame that it is winter and that the leaves have fallen, but I think that you can get the picture.  it is particularly sad as we have recently published a paper showing that native trees are particularly useful on roundabouts for both insects and birds (Helden et al., 2012).







Helden, A. J., Stamp, G. C. &Leather, S. R. (2012). Urban biodiversity: comparison of insect assemblages on native and non-native trees.  . Urban Ecosystems 15: 611-624.

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Filed under EntoNotes, Roundabouts and more

Magic roundabouts – not just traffic calming devices

Roundabouts or traffic circles as they are known in some parts of the world, are a common feature of modern life.  They can range greatly in size; some are big enough to house small communities such as the Shepherd & Flock roundabout on the outskirts of Farnham, Surrey, which has it’s own pub,

Shepherd & Flock Farnham

whilst others are simple grass covered circles, such as the one shown below on the outskirts of Bracknell, Berkshire.  Others, even if lacking pubs, may have a mixture of different plants present, some even with mature trees on them, such as the Sports Centre roundabout also in Bracknell.

Simple roundabout   Diverse roundabout

Traditionally, roundabouts have been thought of as simple devices to regulate the flow of traffic and were usually circular raised areas of tarmac, stone, concrete or brick.  More recently however, town and city councils began to add plants and/or artwork.   Some of my favourites in this latter category are found in southern France as shown below or in the title picture of my blog site.


Ecologically speaking however, roundabouts are even more interesting.  For almost fifteen years, I and a number of my students, from undergraduate to post-graduate, have been investigating the ecology of roundabouts and other green spaces in the town of Bracknell, Berkshire.  What started as a purely pedagogic exercise (Leather & Helden, 2005a), turned into a voyage of discovery and a realisation that roundabouts are, and can be, great sources of biodiversity (Helden & Leather, 2004), and in addition, could perhaps act as nature reserves (Leather & Helden, 2005b).  With close attention to mowing regimes (Helden & Leather, 2004) and increasing the proportion of native trees and other plants on them, it is not only insect diversity that is enhanced, but birds also (Helden et al., 2012).

We have found that roundabouts behave very similarly to biogeographical islands, i.e. the bigger they are and the more diverse the habitats present, the more diverse and interesting the fauna that can be found on them.  For example, we found the rare and endangered bug (Hemiptera) Gonocerus acuteangulatus, alive and well on one of the roundabouts and amusingly, another species, Athysanus argentarius, usually found in coastal locations.  Perhaps the salt from winter gritting operations fooled it.

Gonocerus acuteangulatus


Roundabouts may not be the equivalent of tropical forests but, they and other urban features such as suburban gardens, as demonstrated by Kevin Gaston and colleagues in a series of ground-breaking papers arising from the BUGS project in Sheffield and Jennifer Owen in her 30-year study of her Leicester garden (Owen, 2010), are immensely valuable tools for enhancing and conserving biodiversity in our increasingly impoverished world. We have much more to report, from bees, to butterflies and even woodlice.   Watch this space for future instalments.

Helden, A. J. & Leather, S. R. (2004). Biodiversity on urban roundabouts – Hemiptera, management and the species-area relationship. Basic and Applied Ecology 5: 367-377. & Leather2004.pdf

Helden, A. J., Stamp, G. C. & Leather, S. R. (2012). Urban biodiversity: comparison of insect assemblages on native and non-native trees.  Urban Ecosystems 15: 611-624.

Leather, S. R. & Helden, A. J. (2005a). Magic roundabouts?  Teaching conservation in schools and universities. Journal of Biological Education 39: 102-107.

Leather, S. R. & Helden, A. J. (2005). Roundabouts: our neglected nature reserves? Biologist 52: 102-106.

Owen, J. (2010 ) Wildlife of a Garden: A Thirty Year Study,  Royal Horticultural Society, London


Filed under EntoNotes, Roundabouts and more

Not all aphids are green and black

There is a common misconception aided and abetted by their common name of greenfly and blackfly, that aphids are either green or black.  Although many aphids are indeed green, many are other colours.  In fact, it is possible, with a little imagination, to construct an aphid rainbow.aphid rainbow

What I find even more interesting is the fact that some aphid species exist in more than one colour form (morph).  The pea aphid for example, has green and pink clones, Myzus persicae (the peach-potato aphid) can be green or red, the rose aphid, Macrosiphum rosae, pink, brown or green.

rose aphids Macrosiphum rosaeThe grain aphid, Sitobion avenae, is even more versatile, and can be light green, dark green, brown, pink and also a sort of mottled green-brown.  Even more interesting, green S. avenae can give birth to brown offspring and brown to green.



Perhaps one of my favourites is the small willow aphid, Aphis farinosa, where green mothers give birth to orange offspring which are clearly visible within their mothers before birth.

Aphis farinosa

Although this aphid striped like an Everton mint is quite fun too.

               Everton mint aphids

Why some aphids have different colour morphs is not really understood, although some authors have hypothesised that it may be a response to high temperature (Dixon, 1972) or an adaptation to avoid parasitism and predation (Ankersmit et al., 1981; Losey et al., 1997).   The pigments are in the haemolymph and may be controlled by some of the endosymbiotic bacteria that help aphids rule the world (Jenkins et al., 1999).

As a further point of interest, some of the pigments produced are almost like dyes.  If, for example, you squash a giant willow aphid, Tuberlocahnus salignus, not only will it stain your fingers bright orange, if you then wipe your fingers on your clothes they will be stained permanently.   Luckily, your fingers will return to their normal colour in a day or two.


Ankersmit, G. W., Acreman, T. M., & Dijkman, H. (1981). Parasitism of colour forms in Sitobion avenaeEntomologia experimentalis et applicata 29: 362-363.

Dixon, A. F. G. (1972). Control and significance of the seasonal development of colour forms in the sycamore aphid, Drepanoisphum platanoides. Journal of Animal Ecology 41: 689-697.

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

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


Post script

I have just received my latest copy of Antenna, the house magazine of the Royal Entomological Society and was vey pleased to find an article about aphid colours.  Definitely worth reading if you can get hold of a copy.

Dransfield, R.D. & Brightwell, R. (2015) Colour in aphids – aposematic, cryptic or both?  Antenna, 39: 60-71


Filed under Aphidology

Not Jiminy Cricket but Gregory Grasshopper – someone ought to tell Walt

Something that really bugs me is the way that so many cartoonists, artists and animators don’t get their insect details right. Too few legs, legs arising from the abdomen, mandibles when there shouldn’t be any, too many wings, too few wings, the list goes on.

jiminy_cricket cricket Pinocchio
Jiminy is clearly not a cricket – perhaps not even an insect?

Call me a pedant but I thought artists were supposed to be observant. Artistic licence is well and good but the Disney character Jiminy Cricket really annoys me. Not enough legs, or if present, hidden under his clothes and if he is an insect, clearly a grasshopper! Even the original artist didn’t get it right, but at least it has some cricket features, although in some ways it resembles a cockroach as does the one in the mural below.


A shame Walt didn’t do his research either.

med-MeadowGrasshopperF_Bradgate_7July05 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A meadow grasshopper (courtesy of NatureSpot and a Great green bush cricket (courtesy of to put things in perspective.


Filed under Bugbears

How many people in a town before it stops being a community?

I have just returned from a 5k walk around two of Bracknell’s housing estates, one brand new, the other one originating from the establishment of Bracknell as a new town in the 1960s. Although I passed several people on the way round and nodded and said Good Morning, I received only one acknowledgement. The rest either walked on by or studiously avoided eye contact. This is in marked contrast to Edgmond and Newport in Shropshire, where I spend my working week. There, not only do people nod and say hello, many even engage you in conversation. Bracknell has a population of just over 50 000, Newport has just over 11 000, Edgmond, just over 1 500. Edgmond is where the inhabitants engage you in conversation. Does anyone have some real data out there?

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Filed under The Bloggy Blog, Uncategorized

Happy New Year

To start off 2013 I have decided to blog. This is not a daily blog. It will be infrequent, but I suspect I will add items at least two or three times a month. I am also going to try to blog in 140 words or less ie a macro-micro blog. Hopefully this will keep me from being verbose, pompous and pretentious. My wife would say that I can manage all three in far less than 140 words. When I feel the subject deserves it I will allow myself a few more words. Even then, however, I will limit myself to no more than 600 words.

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