Monthly Archives: April 2013

Big is not always better: How big should a conference be?

I recently spent three very enjoyable days at a conference (Environmental Management on Farmland 23-25th April 2013, Brigg) jointly organised by the Association of Applied Biologists and the British Ecological Society.  The conference was held in response to the forthcoming Common Agricultural Policy reforms about the greening of the CAP.  Talks and posters were presented by a range of participants including economists, farmers, entomologists, ornithologists, representatives from the agrichemicals companies and agro-ecologists.   Participants ranged from PhD students to long-established scientists from universities and government organisations.  I give this preamble to show that this was a multi-disciplinary conference covering a wide range of subjects.  There were however, only 70 registered delegates.   The organisers considered this a very successful conference.  Contrast this with the British Ecological Society annual general meeting that I attended just before Christmas last year (18-20 December 2012) in Birmingham.  This was a very well-attended meeting, over 700 delegates, with a huge number of concurrent sessions covering a wide range of subjects in ecology. The organisers considered this meeting a huge success with more delegates attending than had done so for a number of years.

I have attended the BES annual meetings since I was a PhD student 35 years ago and thus have a long and affectionate association with the meeting and the society.  Ask me which meeting I found the most useful and I will however, have to say the small AAB meeting.  I must confess here that I am not actually a fan of big meetings; I have made it a point over the years not to attend the major international jamborees and only occasionally attend European meetings, generally restricting myself to meetings where the delegate list does not exceed 300 or so.  Why do I take this stance you may ask?

Why do we go to conferences I ask?  If asked most people would, I guess, say to hear about new developments, meet up with old friends and make new connections and networks.  Huge international conferences in my mind, only address the second point and then only if you make prior arrangements.  Too many people make it almost impossible to find people who you know are there and people rarely give talks about unpublished results.  The bigger the conference, the more dispersed the delegates are; at the BES in Birmingham we were staying in hotels scattered around the city centre, so the chance of eating communal breakfasts was much reduced.  There is also a tendency at big conferences for people to stick together with people they know.  So at the BES everywhere I went I saw Silwoodians (people from the Silwood Park campus of Imperial College, London) talking with other Silwoodians, ex-Silwoodians talking to other ex-Silwoodians, Silwoodians talking to ex-Silwoodians and so on.  I met only one two people at the BES conference meeting.  Bob ‘O’ Hara and Darren Evans if you were wondering, and I had sort of met them on Twitter earlier in the year.  Those non ex-Silwoodians that I knew and spoke to, were people I had met many years ago as a young ecologist at previous BES meetings when numbers were in the 200-300 range or so.  In contrast, at the smaller meeting that I have just returned from, I spoke to 38 people, 26 of whom I had never met before.  I discussed four possible project applications and agreed to examine a PhD thesis!  So in my opinion, a huge success on all fronts, except possibly for agreeing to examine the thesis.

On the possible downside, at small conferences/workshops, sessions are consecutive, so nowhere to hide, and there are fewer stalls/book sellers to wander around in between sessions or if you feel you need a rest from the talks.  I am not saying that young ecologists and entomologists should not go to large international conferences, but just suggesting that they are much more likely to get to meet and interact with the VIPs at smaller meetings/workshops than they are at a very large meeting.  At the big meetings the VIPs are usually booked into different hotels, have pre-arranged meetings and will be in committee meetings and if in the bar, surrounded by their old friends.  Only the bravest and brashest PhD student is willing to break into such a circle.

Surrounded by acolytes

At the smaller meeting you will be staying in the same hotel with them, possibly having breakfast with them and they will not be surrounded by the great and the good.  They might even buy you a drink. So yes, the thrill of a big meeting is undeniable, but in terms of future contacts, small is beautiful.

That said, the BES do arrange some really useful postgraduate workshops at their Annual meeting, which gives PhD students the opportunity to interact with each other, make those contacts that will enable them to have old friends to talk to at future meetings, and meet some of the VIPs that would normally not be reachable.  Plus of course, it is a great opportunity to gain some superb practical life lessons.

In summary, I think you just have to think, what is it that you actually want out of a conference, how much is it going to cost in time and money, and then make the appropriate decision.

Perhaps INTECOL will prove me wrong?


Filed under Bugbears, The Bloggy Blog

The Curious Case of the Shark-finned Aphid

The large (giant) willow aphid, Tuberlolachnus salignus, is, in my opinion, one of the world’s greatest unsolved mysteries.  This aphid is sometimes regarded as being the largest aphid in the world.  It can reach a length of 5 mm, can weigh up to 13 mg as an adult and the new-born nymphs weigh about 0.25 mg (Hargreaves & Llewellyn, 1978).  You can get an idea of how big it is from the picture below.

willow aphid on finger

This is pretty big for an aphid, although not quite as big as one of my former PhD students (Tilly Collins) liked to pretend!  The picture below used to appear on her website and was the envy of a number of Texan entomologists.  Tuberolachnus salignus, as you might expect, since it feeds through the bark and not on leaves, has rather a long set of stylets, up to  1.8 mm, more than a third of it’s body length (Mittler, 1957).

tilly on aphid

This picture emphasises the first mystery: what is the function of the dorsal tubercle, which so closely resembles a rose thorn, or to me, a shark’s fin.  Nobody knows.  Is it defensive? Unlikely, since T. salignus being a willow feeder is stuffed full of nasty chemicals and very few predators seem to want, or be able to feed on it.  They feed in large aggregations on the stems of their willow tree hosts and can have serious effects on tree growth (Collins et al., 2001).  As the aphids produce a lot of honeydew, they are often ant-attended  (Collins & Leather, 2002) and these also deter potential predators.  In fact the aphid colonies produce so much honeydew in the summer that they attract huge numbers of vespid wasps that are in search of energy-rich sugar sources at that time of year.  These too are likely to make potential predators and parasitoids think twice about approaching the aphids.


Photograph courtesy Dr Tilly Collins

The wasps also cause a problem for researchers and when Tilly was doing her PhD, she used to have to confine her fieldwork to those times of day when the wasps were not around.   In addition, if you crush one of the aphids you will discover that it stains your fingers bright orange and that this stain will last several days if you don’t try too hard to wash it off.  If you get this aphid ‘blood’ on your clothes they will be permanently marked and Tilly used to say that she ought to be paid an extra clothing allowance.

Tuberolachnus salignus, is as far as we can tell, anholocyclic, no males have been recorded and no matter how hard people have tried to induce the formation of males and sexual females, they have not been successful.  This is however, not the second mystery.  The mystery is that every year, in about February, it does a disappearing act and for about four months its whereabouts remain a mystery (Collins et al., 2001).  So we have an aphid that spends a substantial period of the year feeding on willow trees without leaves and then in the spring when most aphids are hatching from their eggs to take advantage of the spring flush, T. salignus disappears!  Does it go underground?  If so, what plant is it feeding on and why leave the willows when their sap is rising and soluble nitrogen is readily available?

So here is a challenge for all entomological detectives out there.  What is the function of the dorsal tubercle and where does T. salignus go for the spring break?

Truly a remarkable aphid and two mysteries that I would dearly love to know the answers to and yet another reason why I love aphids so much.

Collins, C.M. & Leather, S.R. (2002) Ant-mediated dispersal of the black willow aphid Pterocomma salicis L.; does the ant Lasius niger L. judge aphid-host quality. Ecological Entomology, 27, 238-241.

Collins, C. M., Rosado, R. G. & Leather, S. R. (2001). The impact of the aphids Tuberloachnus salignus and Pterocomma salicis on willow trees. Annals of Applied Biology 138, 133-140

Hargreaves, C. E. M. & Llewellyn, M. (1978). The ecological energetics of the willow aphid, Tuberolachnus salignus:the influence of aphid Journal of Animal Ecology, 47, 605-613.

Mittler, T. E. (1957). Studies on the feeding and nutrition of Tuberolachnus salignus (Gmehn) (Homoptera, Aphididae). I. The uptake of phloem sap. Journal of  Experimental Biology, 34, 334-341

Other resources


Filed under Aphidology, Aphids, EntoNotes, Unsolved mysteries

I believe in Ecology but is it a deeply held faith?

I was interested to see reported in the press this Sunday (7th April 2103) a number  of stories with a range of headings such as those from the Sunday Times’ “Sorry, boss, you can’t deny me my fertility rites” and inside, “Vegans can milk equality rights”  as they reported on the latest update to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s  guidelines to Religion or belief in the workplace.

The Mail on Line seemed particularly interested in vegans going by their use of capitals in their headline

What struck me though was that ecologists now seem to be covered by the act and are  to quote one of the examples cited in the guidelines to the updated act, “able to tell colleagues that they are irresponsible to drive to work”.  Again as an ecologist, you are able to tell your employer that you refuse to fly as you believe that this will harm the planet.  This latter I find particularly amusing, as most ecologists and conservation biologists I know, seem to fly all around the globe at the slightest provocation and the choice of international conference venue seems to depend on its remoteness and beauty, and not on how easily delegates can get there by rail and/or ferry.  In fact, I am one of the few ecologists I know that does actually refuse to fly.  I have not flown since my eldest daughter got married in Australia in 2002.  In fact, slightly tongue in cheek, the closest thing I have to a bible is The Man in Seat Sixty-One, a site I recommend to all those, who like me, like to travel in style and comfort, and not as a sardine.

On a serious note however, how do you prove that you are a bona fide  ecologist ?  If you are a member of a religious organisation you can direct your boss to the relevant baptismal entry or get your local minister or priest to vouch for you as a card-carrying Christian.  Presumably as a fully paid up member of the British Ecological Society, I can claim that I am indeed an ecologist, but does that mean I believe in ecology in the same way that atheists don’t believe in gods or people with religious beliefs believe in their god(s)?


Indeed, should I have the same rights as people with deeply held religious (non)beliefs to claim special privileges in the work-place.  As an atheist and an ecologist, I would seem to be doubly blessed to misuse a metaphor or two.   What about all those non-professional ecologists out there, people who care passionately about the health of the world’s ecological health?

mother earth cartoon

How do they prove that they are ecologists?  It all seems a bit odd, or, even over the top to me.  Why ecologists in particular?

Why not entomologists? After all we as a group, amateurs and professionals alike, dedicate an enormous amount of time and passion to our favourite groups. And as that great geneticist Haldane, is famously reported as saying, (incidentally in a footnote of Hutchinson’s famous religiously titled 1959 paper) and I quote verbatim “There is a story, possibly apocryphal, of the distinguished British biologist, J.B.S. Haldane, who found himself in the company of a group of theologians. On being asked what one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of his creation, Haldane is said to have answered, “An inordinate fondness for beetles”

In conclusion, yes it is encouraging to know that ecology is being taken seriously by the Equality and Human Rights Commission but should ecology be regarded on a par with religion?  Or for that matter should people with dietary preferences also have those rights?   If so, how many other scientific or other disciplines, should be treated as articles of faith?  Where do we stop?

Hutchinson, G.E. (1959)  Homage to Santa Rosalia or Why Are There So Many Kinds of Animals?  American Naturalist, 93, 145-159


Filed under The Bloggy Blog