Monthly Archives: June 2013

Aphids Aweigh – there are sailor aphids too!

In an earlier post I described the fascinating world of soldier aphids.  There are also some aphids that might, with a little bit of imagination, be called sailor aphids.  I first came across the phenomenon of aquatic aphids when I was doing my PhD at the University of East Anglia in the late 1970s.  At the time I was working on a beautiful little aphid, the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi , which characteristically has a rusty-brown bum.


At the time, the foyer of the Biological Sciences building was graced by the presence of a large aquarium. One day whilst waiting for my lab mates to join for the long trek to coffee, I was amusing myself by teasing the fish and noticed a number of aphids feeding on the water-lilies.  Two things piqued my curiosity, one they vaguely looked like my beloved study aphid and secondly they were feeding on the submerged stems, rather than on the leaves.  It turned out that they were indeed related to my aphid, I identified them as Rhopalosiphum nymphaeae the water-lily aphid, or more prosaically, the reddish-brown plum aphid! They are known to be able to feed underwater for some time as they are able to trap air on their bodies using specialised hairs and when large numbers of  aggregate on a submerged stem, the trapped air bubble sometimes covers the entire colony.  They can also apparently walk on water.  Unfortunately I did not have a camera with me and have so far not been able to find a picture demonstrating this phenomenon or their ability to remain submerged whilst feeding.  They are regarded as a bit of pest by some gardeners although they can also be used as a biological control agent.

Another aphid which might more appropriately be called a sailor aphid, is Pemphigus trehernei, which feeds on sea asters in the salt marshes of Western Europe, including those on the Norfolk coast in East Anglia (Foster & Treherne, 1975).  As you might expect given its habitat, it is able to survive being submerged during high tides, but what I really find amazing is that the first instar nymphs disperse by floating away on the sea, hoping to bump into another suitable sea aster on which to establish a new colony (Foster & Treherne, 1978).  Optimistic indeed, although I guess as they are still with us it is effective enough.  There is yet another intertidal aphid, Staticobium limonii, which is also able to withstand being submerged by high tides, but does not have the same ability as P. trehernei, 50%  of them being dead after 20 hours and all being dead after a mere 48 hours under water, compared with the 400 hours plus that some 10% of P. trehernei can manage (Foster & Treherne, 1976).  A pretty good attempt at holding their breath I reckon and a good reason to describe them as sailor aphids, although submariners might be a better description. And of course, yet another reason why I love aphids so much.

Centre, T.D., Dray, F.A., Jubinsky, G.P. & Grodowitz, M.J. (1999).  Insects and Other Arthropods That Feed on Aquatic and Wetland Plants.  United States, Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service Technical Bulletin 1870

Foster, W.A. & Treherne, J.E. (1975).  The distribution of an intertidal aphid, Pemphigus trehernei Foster, on marine saltmarshes.  Oecologia, 21, 141-155.

Foster, W.A. & Treherne, J.E. (1976).  The effects of tidal submergence on an intertidal aphid, Pemphigus trehernei Foster.  Journal of Animal Ecology, 45, 291-301.

Foster, W.A. & Treherne, J.E. (1978) Dispersal mechanism in an intertidal aphid.  Journal of Animal Ecology, 47, 205-217.

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Filed under Aphidology, Aphids, EntoNotes, Uncategorized

Arise, Sir Already Famous, Well Known, Rich or just Time-serving Jobsworth

Twice a year my blood pressure rises to dangerous levels.  Today was one of those days – the announcements of the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.  The other occasion is the New Year’s Honours List.  For those of you not members of the British Commonwealth or a citizen of the United Kingdom and associated overseas territories, let me explain.  Twice a year, Her Majesty’s Government chooses to honour people who have in the words of the Honours System web site made achievements in public life and committed themselves to serving and helping Britain.  They will also “usually have made life better for other people or be outstanding at what they do”.   There is a range of honours available, from Life Peerages (Barons and Baronesses), through varying orders of Knighthood (or Damehood) down to the lowly British Empire Medal.   In principle I have no objection to people being honoured in recognition for their good deeds and/or achievements.  What I do object to is the way the lists are dominated, despite claims of major reforms over the last twenty years or so, by the rich and the famous.  Well-known actors, sportsmen and women, acclaimed novelists, politicians, multimillionaires and musicians to name just a few, collect Knighthoods, are appointed Commanders of the British Empire (CBE) or Officers of the British Empire (OBE).  If you peruse the list in detail you will also find the odd Head Teacher, eminent professors and members of the caring professions in the top section of the honours.  You will also find a large number of government servants who receive honours for having done their jobs blemish-free until their retirement.  In the list of appointments to Members of the British Empire (MBE) and recipients of the British Empire Medal (BEM) you will however, find a higher proportion of the more mundane members of society.

It seems singularly unjust to me, that people who have made their mark, been recognised by receiving honours from their own industry, and live a very different life-style from the rest of the population, should then have yet more honours bestowed upon them basically for just being good at their day jobs.  In the real world, doing community service is much harder.  My 85-year-old mother-in-law for example, ran a Brownie pack for more than 40 years, has been involved in community service her whole life, in fact still does meals on wheels for what she calls the old folks, but has never asked for or received or even expected national recognition.  Yes she has done all this whilst raising a family and working full-time.  Who deserves an honour more, the multi-millionaire who takes a few seconds to write a cheque (albeit with several zeros) for charity or the hard-working members of society who does a full-time job and then in the evenings or weekends, gives up that most precious of commodities – time, to help others?   I know who I would honour for charitable services and it would not be the former.  If of course, the head of a multi-national corporation came home after a long day in the office and then went out after supper and helped at the local soup kitchen or ran a youth club or similar activity, then yes good on them and the honour would be well-deserved.

Of course the system is run by the establishment so the chances of changing it are slim to none.  There is however, at least in my opinion, a way in which this state of affairs could be rectified.  On the occasion of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, I wrote to her suggesting that to celebrate that landmark anniversary that she should institute a new parallel honours system for those truly deserving national recognition.  I suggested that it could be called the Elizabethan Order, with corresponding ranks to the current honours system, but recognising those people who have normal occupations, but give up their valuable personal time to help others.  It is easy to give money, but time is another matter.  As you may have gathered, she did not act on my suggestion.  This year, the sixtieth since her coronation, would also be an opportune occasion to establish a new honours system, but I will not be holding my breath.

I have a great respect for those local community activists who sacrifice their personal lives and if they are recognised, usually end up with the lower awards when they are manifestly deserving of great honours.  Truly in the words of Chaucer we should be recognising these “verray, parfit, gentil knyghts (and ladies)”


Post script

It has often puzzled me that certain of my left-wing leaning colleagues and friends from the ecological community, who have been honoured by receiving personal chairs or elected as Fellows of learned societies, should then accept what I perceive as debased honours.  Their response was that it was important that the general public should have their attention drawn to the existence of their discipline and that by accepting a knighthood or a CBE this was helping the cause of ecology/entomology/whatever by raising its profile.  I am not convinced and if perchance someone were to nominate me for an honour I am pretty certain I would turn it down.  Apart from my own jaundiced opinion of the system, my wife, who incidentally is a tireless worker for the local community (PTA, Community Centre, Youth Club, Community Band, Brass for Africa Charity Trustee, etcetera, etcetera) is a great opponent of the system and would almost certainly divorce me if I were tempted to accept.


Filed under Bugbears, The Bloggy Blog

Desperately seeking sources: the quest for the original citation

From 1993 until 2012 I taught a final year course at Imperial College called Applied Ecology.  The relevant part of the course blurb used to say:

Course Outline:  Applied ecology, philosophy and concepts.   Nature Conservation, Nature Reserves (history and philosophy), SSSIs, legal aspects, SLOSS, butterfly case studies.  Mammal conservation, issues and dilemmas.   Forestry and woodland management, effects of afforestation, effects on pest and disease incidence, conservation. Habitat creation and management.  Waterways and fisheries. Agroecosystems, agricultural practice and objectives, crop history and evolution, pest incidence. Organic farming, effects on pest incidence, weeds, workshops.  Pest management and the environment, residues, niche replacement, biocontrol, resistance, social and economic effects, IPM in harmony with conservationists. Sampling, forecasting and monitoring. Workshops and mini-conference. Visit to London Zoo (Captive breeding programme).

Those of you with eagle eye vision may have noticed that one of the topics covered was biocontrol; for those of you with vision more like mine, I have highlighted the word biocontrol in bold. As most of this course was material that I had lived and breathed either since I was an undergraduate, or as part of my professional research career (except for the rivers and lakes), I was in the enviable position of not having to do a lot of background research to prepare lectures and source material.  It was quite literally, sitting there in my head.  This did of course lead to some sloppy habits.  For example, as an undergraduate my crop protection lecturer at Leeds (the late Dr Noel Gibson) when telling us about biological control and its history, mentioned that the Chinese had, long ago, introduced ant nests to citrus orchards and to enhance their activities, stretched bamboo poles between trees.  So to my lazy self, this was a fact and thus when preparing my slide on the history of biological control I put it down as a fact without acknowledging any source [something I happily tell students and others off for not doing!].

bological control slide

I sort of felt guilty about this but always said in the lecture that this is what my lecturer had told me when I was an undergraduate and as none of the students ever asked me for the actual reference I let it slide.  Then one year (2006), I was reading a science fiction novel by a Scottish novelist, Kenneth McLeod, who just so happens to have a degree in zoology.  The book, as far as I remember, described the attempts of earth colonists attempting to establish crops on an alien planet.  Their crops were being devastated by pests and the xeno-biologist said, and I quote very loosely, as this was back in 2006, said (and I am sure you have guessed it already) “I remember my lecturer telling me when I was an undergraduate about how the Chinese used to facilitate biological control by running bamboo poles between orange trees so that the ants could be more effective”.  “Wow”  I said, and “Wow” again, because Ken McLeod had put a reference in a footnote, to Wheeler (1910).  So there was my source.  I now had a mission. Despite the fact that I had accepted the story as fact since 1976, I felt an urgent need to see the reference for myself.  Using the internet I tracked down a copy of Wheeler in an antiquarian book shop in Amsterdam and ignoring the sarcastic comments of my wife, purchased it on-line and waited impatiently for it to arrive.  As we were now in the Christmas vacation it didn’t arrive until the New Year.  I ripped open the parcel and was the proud owner of a copy of Wheeler’s Ants ; interestingly, the copy I now owned had once been in the library stock of Cornell University, so had made rather a long journey to end up in Bracknell almost a hundred years later.


I started to read it; luckily I didn’t have to go very far as there on page 9 was the story of the Chinese ants in black and white; unfortunately, it appeared that Wheeler was not the primary source, he was indulging in yet another bug-bear of mine, quoting someone,

Wheeler page 9

McCook (1882), who had quoted someone else (Magowan), without giving the original source.  So now I had to track down McCook!

McCook refs

Luckily, since Wheeler had actually cited McCook, I was able to do this successfully using the inter-library loan service.

McCook 1882

So now I had the citation for Magowan.  Unluckily it was in rather an obscure newspaper, The North China Herald.  This posed a bit of a problem and slowed my search down.  Luckily in recent years, there has been a huge international effort made into digitising newspapers and I was finally able to track down an electronic archive holding the relevant issue and

North China Herald front page

eventually find the relevant page.  Success, after almost seven years I had finally tracked down the original source of the ‘fact’ that I had been retelling for all those years. I felt quite

North China Herald page zoom 363

proud of myself , although my wife, who is not a scientist, says that this is yet another example of how weird we scientists are.  On the other hand, I was somewhat disappointed that I had only tracked it down to 1882 as I am sure that this must be an ancient agricultural practice with its roots, many hundreds, if not thousands of years in the past.  Perhaps my next self-imposed mission impossible, will be to find the oldest mention of the practice.

 Post script

Today, I just happened to be looking for a book in my office, when I noticed one of my old course texts, Van den Bosch & Messenger (1973),

Van Den Bosch    Inside van den Bosch

which I notice cost me £2 in 1976, actually quite a lot of money as my student grant was just over £600 in total.

Flicking the book open I soon found the page with the Chinese ant story on it and a citation to the 1882 McCook paper.  So, if I had thought to look at my old text-book I could have saved myself the expense of buying Wheeler’s book, which was not cheap.  But then if I had, I would never have discovered Wheeler and I would have missed all the fun of chasing the references down, so I think it was worth it overall.


McCook, H.C. (1882) Ants as beneficial insecticides. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences Philadelphia, 34, 263-271.

 van den Bosch, R. & Messenger, P.S. (1973) Biological Control, Intertext Books, New York & Leighton Buzzard.

Wheeler, W.M. (1910) Ants: Their Structure, Development and Behavior, Columbia University Press, New York & London.


Filed under Bugbears, EntoNotes, Teaching matters