Where have all the insects gone? Perhaps they were deterred by Editorial Board composition!

In a recent Animal Ecology in Focus blog post, the Executive Editor of Journal of Animal Ecology, Ken Wilson, made a spirited response to my well documented Twitter comments about the lack of insect papers in the journal and also highlighted by me in the recent JAE Virtual issue which I compiled to celebrate National Insect Week 2014. Ken had been somewhat sceptical about my claims but when he analysed the data he found, much to my gratification 😉 that I was correct; the number of insect papers published by Journal of Animal Ecology, has indeed fallen steeply since the 1970s, and this was true for two of the other journals from the British Ecological Society’s (BES) portfolio, Journal of Applied Ecology and Functional Ecology.

Fig 1 JAE

Figure 1. Trends in the number of citations per taxon in Journal of Animal Ecology (reproduced from Ken’s post).

Ken also looked at Ecology, published by the Ecological Society of America and Oikos, published by The Nordic Society Oikos. In both cases he found that insects and other invertebrates had held their own over the last forty years.

Fig 2 JAE

Figure 2. Trends in the number of citations per taxon in Ecology (data for the period 1978-1990 are excluded due to poor data quality). (again reproduced from Ken’s post)

Ken refutes any claim of editorial bias, acceptance rates for insect papers are similar to those for vertebrate papers, and hypothesizes that the reason insect and invertebrate papers have declined in the BES journals is due to the subject areas favoured by the journal i.e. demography, evolutionary ecology, spatial ecology and disease ecology; fields that in the UK are dominated by vertebrate ecologists and/or the rapidly decreasing number of entomologists employed by UK universities. This may be a contributing factor, but entomologists in the UK and worldwide also work in these fields, so it cannot be the whole story. He urges the entomological community to submit more papers to the journal in order to redress the balance.

Interestingly enough, the response among the Twitter community seemed to show that most entomologists did not perceive Journal of Animal Ecology as being insect friendly and in some cases it was seen not just as a vertebrate journal, but as an ornithological one, echoing a comment made by Jeremy Fox over at the Dynamic Ecology blogThese data are consistent with the rumor I heard back when I was a postdoc, that JAE got so many bird-related submissions that they had to work hard to avoid turning into an ornithology journal.”

So what has changed since the 1970s? Back when I was a PhD student, ecological entomologists had no hesitation in submitting their papers to Journal of Animal Ecology, Oecologia and Oikos, or if their work was applied, then Journal of Applied Ecology was a first choice venue, with Annals of Applied Biology also considered a logical place to submit entomological papers. Looking back at the papers published from my PhD work, I find that I published one in Journal of Animal Ecology (Wellings et al, 1980), one in Journal of Applied Ecology (Leather et al, 1984 (back in the early 1980s Journal of Applied Ecology could take over a year to make a decision), and three in Oecologia (Leather et al, 1983a,b; Ward et al., 1984). Of my other more applied work, three were published in the Annals of Applied Biology and the rest in specialised entomological journals, (five in Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, and three in the Journal of Applied Entomology).

So why did entomologists have no hesitation in sending their papers to Journal of Animal Ecology and Journal of Applied Ecology in the 1970s. A quick look at the Editorial Boards of the two journals, admittedly much smaller than those of today, shows us that in 1977 (when I started my PhD), Roy Taylor (entomologist) and Malcolm Elliott (fresh water ecologist) were editors of the former, with and editorial board consisting of T B Bagenal (fish), R A Kempton (statistics), Mike Hassell (entomologist), John Krebs (birds), John Lawton (entomologist), A D McIntyre (marine invertebrates) and John Whittaker (entomologist); Journal of Applied Ecology jointly edited by entomologist, Tom Coaker and botanist R W Snaydon, had a slightly larger board, eleven in total, five botanists, two more entomologists, an invertebrate ecologist, an environmental physicist and two vertebrate ecologists. So for both these journals, vertebrate ecologists were in the minority.

Moving on to 2014, what is the current composition of the two boards? Journal of Animal Ecology, is dominated by vertebrate ecologists, 62%, with only 25% being invertebrate specialists. Journal of Applied Ecology is also dominated by vertebrate ecologists, 48%, with 28% being plant scientists of various hues and only 21% being invertebrate ecologists. Now let’s have a look at the two journals where there has been no change in the proportion of invertebrate papers published; Ecology is remarkably balanced, although invertebrates are under-represented; 27% plants, 27% vertebrates, 26% invertebrates, 9% microbial. Oikos has an even better board composition, 41% being invertebrate ecologists, 29% plant ecologist and a mere, although still over-represented, 17% being vertebrate ecologists.

In summary, although I am sure that there is no explicit bias against invertebrates by the Editors of either Journal of Animal Ecology or Journal of Applied Ecology, the very fact that their Editorial Boards are dominated by vertebrate ecologists acts as an attractant to vertebrate ecologists and as a deterrent to entomologists who thus choose to submit their papers elsewhere, resulting in the vertebrate dominated situation we see today.

Towards the end of Ken’s excellent post he says “Well, if the number of papers we published on each taxon reflected the number of species on the planet, then for every 1000 insect papers we publish, we should publish just 31 papers on fish, 13 on reptiles & amphibians, 10 on birds, and a miserly 5 papers on mammals! Clearly, this would be ridiculous”

Why would this be so ridiculous I ask? This is another good example of institutional vertebratism. After all, as Ken points out to us entomologists (and of course this includes Ken himself) “for taxon-specific papers, there are plenty of excellent specialist journals” This applies equally to the vertebrate world, so why shouldn’t a journal of animal ecology be dominated by invertebrates?



Leather, S.R., Ward, S.A. Wellings, P.W. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1983) Habitat quality and the reproductive strategies of the migratory morphs of the bird cherry-oat aphid Rhopalosiphum padi. Oecologia, 59, 302-306.

Leather, S.R., Ward, S.A., & Dixon, A.F.G. (1983) The effect of nutrient stress on life history parameters of the black bean aphid, Aphis fabae Scop. Oecologia, 57, 156-157.

Leather, S.R., Carter, N., Walters , K.F.A., Chroston, J.R., Thornback, N., Gardner, S.M., & Watson, S.J. (1984) Epidemiology of cereal aphids on winter wheat in Norfolk, 1979-1981. Journal of Applied Ecology, 21, 103-114.

Ward, S.A., Leather, S.R., & Dixon, A.F.G. (1984) Temperature prediction and the timing of sex in aphids. Oecologia, 62, 230-233.

Wellings, P.W., Leather, S.R. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1980) Seasonal variation in reproductive   potential: a programmed feature of aphid life cycles. Journal of Animal Ecology 49, 975-985.



Filed under Bugbears, Uncategorized

10 responses to “Where have all the insects gone? Perhaps they were deterred by Editorial Board composition!

  1. Humphrey Crick

    Nice blog! Even if you take a parochial conservation view, things are not what they should be! If one looks at the animals listed on s41 of the NERC Act (listing priority spp in England) then about 60% are insects, and fish, mammals and birds account for only about 9% each. There is a huge amount of info that we don’t have about even the basic ecology of many of our threatened species of insects. So there is fantastic scope for entomologists to research and publish in BES journals! We need more entomologists (and this is coming from an ornithologist!).

    (not to mention the even more dangerous lack of expertise in fungi (upon which many of our vascular plants depend), lichens, bryop[hytes, soil biota and marine inverts!)


  2. Interesting post Simon, you raise some important points. I wonder if part of the problem is the trend for more recent PhDs in ecology to do less and less field work, relying on previously collected data for their research. Of course there’s more data available for vertebrates, making them the obvious choice of organism on which to focus. When they in turn become professional academics the trend is reinforced. And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say.

    I drew attention to this in a recent post: https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/7-minutes-is-a-long-time-in-science-7-goals-is-a-big-win-in-football-bes-macroecology-meeting-day-2/

    I recall Paul Harvey giving an invited lecture at a BES Winter Meeting years ago, where he outlined some of his approaches to using phylogenies to infer ecological and evolutionary processes. At one point he made an off-the-cuff remark to the audience that they would “love this, you’ll never have to do field work again”. There was embarrassed laughter, and a lot of muttering and grumbling. But perhaps the birds have (literally) come home to roost.


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  4. I am 72 years old and from the age of three I used to wander the fields and waste land around Mill Hill in North West London. Every piece of land that wasn’t built on was alive with insects that were flying, crawling, jumping, hopping etc. From the age of 14 I took up wild life photography and would travel the South of England with my entomologist friend. There was no visible drop in insect numbers up until the mid 1980’s. In the past 3 years I have travelled the country from Northumberland to Sussex. Regularly I stop the car and search the area along the road on both sides. Usually I fail to find a single insect. I visited Austria last year and spent much of the time searching the wild areas near the towns. Apart from small specimens of butterflies I saw little else. I believe scientists and the bio tech companies, plus GM maniacs etc, with government approval,are poisoning and polluting our planet. Parliament cannot be trusted. The public needs to be made aware so that pressure can in the short term be brought to bear on politicians. Ultimately we need to discard the fraudulent party system and get people elected we can trust in each constituency. Public apathy is a big problem. This near total loss of insects cannot be ignored. The consequences are alarming.


    • Without being facetious Bernard, I think that you need to look in places other than along the side of roads. The field sites I use (often urban) are teeming with insects. Yes we have lost species, but there is no evidence for “a near total loss of insects”, as citizen science bee and butterfly survey projects have shown.


  5. Many people have commented on the disappearance of certain insects like butterflies, moths and ladybirds,the ones that most people notice the most. Hover-fly numbers are also down but the public was generally unaware of them. Unless you are wildlife-observant and over 35-years-old you cannot compare how things were to how they are now. No doubt ripping up the hedgerows and the introduction of chemical fertilizer had a major effect. If we allow the government to encourage speculators to build all over our once pleasant land things can only become more serious. PS I cannot remember the last time I saw the once-common grasshopper.


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