Monthly Archives: July 2015

Being inspired by the BES

This week (20th July) I have had the privilege of being able to interact with 50 undergraduates (mainly just finished their first year) under the auspices of the British Ecological Society’s new undergraduate summer school held at the Field Studies Council’s Malham Tarn Centre. The scheme enables aspiring ecologists to have “an opportunity to enhance their existing knowledge with plenary lectures from senior ecologists, fieldwork, workshops, careers mentoring and more at a week-long residential course” This was especially pleasurable for me because as a school boy and student I spent several enjoyable camping holidays at Malham and it gave me an opportunity to take part in a field course again, something I have missed since leaving Silwood Park where I ran the now defunct annual two-week long Biodiversity & Conservation field course. The programme included two ecological luminaries and old friends of mine, Sue Hartley from the University of York and plant scientist and author, Ken Thompson formerly of Sheffield University and also Clare Trinder from the University of Aberdeen.  Also in the programme was conservation biologist, Stephanie Januchowski-Hartley,  and additional input from the Chartered Institute of Ecology & Environmental Management (CIEEM), microbial ecologist, Dr Rob Griffiths from CEH and ecologist Dr Peter Welsh of the National Trust.

I arrived mid-morning of the Tuesday, having driven up from Shropshire to Yorkshire the night before, having taken the opportunity to stay in the old family home in Kirk Hammerton before it is put up for sale. Whilst there I also set a few pitfall traps to collect some insects that we might not catch otherwise. As it happened they were a dismal failure, returning mainly spiders, harvestmen and woodlice, plus one nice carabid beetle, more of which later. The weather didn’t look all that promising for an insect sampling session but I kept my fingers crossed and hoped that it wouldn’t rain as much as it did almost 40 years ago when my best friend from school and I aborted our camping holiday at nearby Malham Cove after three days of solid rain 😉

Malham Tarn

Malham Tarn – not quite raining

  I was greatly amused on arriving to be greeted by a very large arachnid lurking on an outhouse.

Malham spider

We breed them big in Yorkshire!

Malham Tarn FSC

Malham Tarn Field Studies Centre

After checking my equipment and locating suitable sampling sites I joined the students, Karen Devine, the BES External Affairs manager and some of the PhD mentors for lunch. After lunch it was my slot, a chance to infect (sorry, inspire), fifty ecologically included undergraduates with a love of insects. After being introduced by Karen I launched into my talk to a very full room of students.

Karen Devine

Karen instilling order and attention 😉

Ready to be inspired

Ready and waiting to be inspired

The undergraduates came from thirty different UK universities with a strong female bias, 34:16. Exeter University had four representatives, with Reading, Liverpool John Moores, UCL and Bristol with three each. I was sorry to see that there were no students from my Alma mater Leeds, or from my former institution, Imperial College, once regarded as the Ecological Centre of the UK, although UEA where I did my PhD, had two representatives.  There was also one representative from my current place of work, Harper Adams University. Incidentally one of the students turned out to have gone to the same school that I did in Hong Kong, King George V School, albeit almost fifty years apart; a small world indeed.

I set the scene by highlighting how many insect species there are, especially when compared with vertebrates.

The importance of insects

The importance of insects and plants

Number of animal species

Or to put it another way

After a quick dash through the characteristics of insects and the problems with identifying them, exacerbated by the shortage of entomologists compared with the number of people working on charismatic mega-fauna and primates, I posed the question whether it is a sound policy to base conservation decisions on information gained from such a small proportion of the world’s macro-biota.

Then we were of into the field, although not sunny, at least it was not raining so I was able to demonstrate a variety of sampling techniques; sweep netting with the obligatory head in the bag plus Pooter technique, butterfly netting, tree beating and, as a special treat, motorized suction sampling, in this instance a Vortis.

Sampling

With aid of the PhD mentors and Hazel Leeper from the Linnaen Society, the students were soon cacthing interesting things (not all insects) and using the Pooters like experts.

Students sampling

Getting close up with the insects

I also let some of the students experience the joy of the Vortis, suitably ear-protected of course. All good things come to an end and it was then time to hit the microscopes, wash bottles, mounted pins and insect keys.

In teh lab

Getting stuck in – picture courtesy Amy Leedale

Down the microscope

What’s this?

I was very impressed with how well the students did at getting specimens down to orders and families and have every confidence that there are a number of future entomologists among them. After the evening meal, Kate Harrison and Simon Hoggart from the BES Publications Team introduced the students to the tactics of paper writing and publishing which I think they found something of an eye-opener. The students, after a rapid descent on the bar, enjoyed a Pub Quiz whilst I relaxed with a glass of wine until it was dark enough for me to demonstrate the wonders of using fluorescent dust to track our solitary carabid beetle using my UV torch before heading off to bed.

Fluorescent carabid Eloise Wells

Glow in the dark carabid beetle – the bright lights of Malham Tarn – photo courtesy of Eloise Wells

I was sorry to have to leave the next morning, it would have been great fun to have stayed the full week, but next year I do hope to be able to be there for at least two days and nights so that we can do pitfall trapping and light trapping and of course, have more fun with fluorescent insects.

I hope the students found the whole week inspirational and useful, I was certainly inspired by their obvious enjoyment and interest and will be surprised I if do not come across some of them professionally in the future.

Well done BES and congratulations to Karen and her team for providing such a great opportunity for the students. I am really looking forward to next year and being able to see great Yorkshire features like this in the sunshine 😉

Yorkshire grit

 

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When did research diversity stop being a good thing? Another threat to UK applied agricultural sciences

If, as is well documented, lack of diversity in cropping systems is bad for agricultural production (Johnson et al, 2006: Iverson et al., 2014), then those running the BBSRC should ask themselves why it is a good idea to reduce the number of UK universities they fund that are capable of first class work in the agricultural sciences, particularly crop protection.

Monoculture

http://heckeranddecker.wordpress.com/2008/10/14/feeding-the-next-city/

 

Normally at this time of year I am desperately putting the finishing touches to a couple of applications for BBSRC Industrial CASE studentships (iCASE).   In past years, at the beginning of May, those of us in the majority of UK universities without access to Doctoral Training Partnership funding, make our way to the BBSRC Industrial CASE studentship page to check when the closing date for applications are.  Imagine my shock to find that “this inclusive, very successful and effective programme  appears to have been hi-jacked by the fat cats of the UK university sector.  Yet another example of the “haves” getting more at the expense of the “have-nots”.

BBSRC will no longer operate an annual competition for industrial CASE (iCASE) studentships, instead allocating the majority of these studentships to the BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTP) for awarding alongside their standard studentships.  

“The decision to cease the annual iCASE competition for individual studentship projects was taken for a number of strategic and operational reasons, primarily in recognition that the cohort-based approach, as exemplified by the DTPs, provides the gold standard in modern bioscience training, and one which BBSRC was keen to ensure all our funded students had the opportunity to take advantage of”

A more cynical reading of this is ‘it saves the BBSRC administrative time and the costs associated with having to have the applications reviewed by the Training Awards Committee’.   I also take exception to the implication that the only universities in the UK that have a cohort-based training approach are those in receipt of a DTP.  At Harper Adams University we have a well-established cohort-based doctoral training system.  I would be very surprised indeed if we are unique in this aspect of our PhD training amongst the other 100 UK universities outwith the BBSRC DTP programme.

The BBSRC web site goes on to stare “In addition, it was agreed that devolving responsibility for the recruitment and selection of students and collaborators to the DTP partner organisations (of which there are in excess of 45 within 12 partnerships across the UK higher education and public sector research sectors) would improve links between them and local companies, and increase the ability of institutions to act quickly and agilely in allocating projects to these companies, without the delays associated with a large national competition.”

Having moved from a university with a BBSRC Doctoral Training programme and seeing the difficulty and lack of willingness that staff in the other Departments within the School had in finding industrial partners I lack confidence in the ability of such departments to improve links.  As applied, whole organism ecologists/biologists, my former colleagues and I, benefitted immensely from our more molecular-based colleagues’ lack of real industrial contacts and were able to make good use of their unused CASE allocations.  The named grant holder of the DTP grant at the time, told me during a coffee break at a BBSRC Training Awards Committee meeting that he felt the whole CASE scheme was a waste of money.

The iCASE scheme was an opportunity for first class researchers from DTP excluded universities and from ‘Cinderella’ disciplines, e.g. entomology, integrated pest management, non-molecular plant sciences, such as plant pathology, plant nematology, weed science and forestry, which are incidentally recognised by the BBSRC and other learned bodies as being nationally vulnerable ‘skill sets’ to obtain funding that they would otherwise not have access to.  It is a sad fact of life that the universities that hold BBSRC DTP grants long ago decided that possessors of the above vulnerable skill sets did not publish in high enough impact journals and either made them redundant or did not replace them when they retired.

The decision by the BBSRC to further disenfranchise those many excellent applied agricultural scientists is perverse and much to the detriment of UK agriculture.  Given the growing need for sustainable farming systems worldwide it is hard to understand or justify the thought processes that led to this very ill-judged decision.

Ironically it is not just those of us in universities without BBSRC DTP provision that found the removal of the iCASE scheme bothersome.  A day or so after my discovery of the death of iCASE I received an email from a friend of mine at another UK university which is part of a DTP.

 “On a separate issue – no doubt you’ll have registered BBSRC removing the iCASE fund.  Allegedly we will now absorb more projects into our regional  “Doctoral Training Partnership”, but as these are only 2.5 years  for the main project (after all the associated training) it doesn’t always lend itself to the same sorts of projects as iCASE”

And finally, just to highlight the vulnerable skills-sets issue that the BBSRC seems determined to worsen.  I am, as some of you may know, Editor-in-Chief of the Annals of Applied Biology.  I recently received this email from one of my Editorial Board, a whole organism plant pathologist with field experience.

“Dear Simon

 I think that the time has come for me to step down from the editorial board of the Annals of Applied Biology.  I have been doing this for fourteen or fifteen years and I am due to retire from my current post in the Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute in the next few months.

 It has been a privilege, and at most times, highly enjoyable to be part of the editorial board of Annals which is a really good journal.  In a highly competitive world AAB has maintained and indeed increased its reputation.  The standard of papers published is very high and the range of papers received from across the globe is sometimes astonishing.  It has certainly been frustrating at times identifying suitable referees for papers, and as research scientists seem to be under more and more pressure of time it is easy to understand why they are often reluctant to take on extra duties.  However peer review is at the very centre of how science works so it is important that everyone takes their responsibility seriously.

 I would love to be able to recommend a replacement but just now plant pathologists, certainly in the UK, are very thin on the ground.”

I contacted the President of the British Society of Plant Pathologists to see if he could offer me any suitable suggestions for a mid-career plant pathologist with field experience.  Sadly, the majority of  UK Plant Pathologists in the right age range with suitable publishing experience, are molecular biologists.  I eventually filled the gap, but had to appoint a Plant Pathologist from a US university, where happily, universities still recognise the need for field and whole organism plant pathologists and their importance in ensuring global food security; something that most research intensive UK universities and the BBSRC seem to have forgotten.

References

Iverson, A. L., Makin, L. E., Ennis, K. K., Gonthier, D. J., Connor-Barrie, B. T., Remfret, J. L., Cardinale, B. J. &Perfecto, I. (2014). Do polycultures promote win-win or trade-offs in agricultural ecosystem services?  A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Ecology 51: 1593-1602.

Johnson, M. T. J., Lajeunesse, M. J. &Agrawal, A. A. (2006). Additive and interactive effects of plant genotypic diversity on arthropod communities and plant fitness. Ecology Letters 9: 24-34.

 

Post script

As I knew we were expecting a visit from Jackie Hunter the Chief Executive of the BBSRC, I deliberately held back posting this until I had had a chance to ask her directly about the demise of the iCASE scheme. Jackie was very willing to speak to me about this issue.  The main reason for the removal of the scheme appeared to be the costs of administration and of reviewing the proposals. She assured me that the interests of people like me had been taken into account by giving more money to the ten companies  which hold grants in their own right and also by expecting greater flexibility from the existing University DTP grant holders, by which I took to mean that they would be encouraged to collaborate with the ‘have-nots’. This may seem laudable were it not for two facts; of the ten industrial DTP holders, five are pharmaceutical companies holding just under half of the grants and the academic DTP grant holders are greatly lacking in agricultural expertise. I also suspect, given the shortage of available PhD studentships in comparison with staff numbers within most university departments, that a big stick will be needed to encourage any cross-fertilization with non-DTP holders. I will, however, wait and see if Jackie’s optimism is well-founded, although I will not be holding my breath 😉

Post post script

 The importance of diversification in research funding is not just a hobby-horse of mine.  See for example, this excellent post by Stephen Heard writing on why it is a bad strategy to centralise research funding.

 

 

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Insect egg mimics – plant parts that pretend to be insect eggs

Back in the 1980s I was a forest entomologist working for the UK Forestry Commission at their Northern Research Station based just outside Edinburgh.  I was working on two important pests of Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea and the European pine sawfly, Neodiprion sertifer.  The pine beauty moth lays its eggs in short rows on the upper surface of pine needles in late spring/early summer.

Panolis eggs

Eggs of the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea  (Image courtesy of Stanislaw Kinelski, Bugwood.org http://www.invasive.org/browse/detail.cfm?imgnum=1258002).

They are pale yellow when first laid and gradually darken as they mature becoming a deep violet colour just before they hatch.  The eggs of Neodiprion sertifer are also laid on the upper part of the pine needles, but are ‘injected’ just under the cuticle of the needle.  After a few days a small necrotic patch develops at the oviposition site.

Neodiprion eggs

Eggs of the European pine sawfly, Neodiprion sertifer (image courtesy of A. Steven Munson, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org http://www.forestryimages.org/browse/detail.cfm?imgnum=1470178)

Spring field work for me was several days of rather tedious egg counting and as I scrutinised hundreds of pine needles, I noticed that some of the needles had little flecks or balls of resin on them,

Resin flecks

Resin flecks on bristlecone pine, Pinus arsitata – often confused with scale insect infestations (Photo by Hans G. Oberlack via Wikipedia).

which were, especially on gloomy days in the depths of the forest, quite easy to confuse with pine beauty moth eggs.  Other needles had discoloured areas that looked like pine sawfly eggs or also a bit like pine beauty moth eggs, depending on how they were arranged.

Egg mimics

Possible insect egg mimics on pine needles

Long days working alone in a forest allow one the time to think and it occurred to me one day that if I was being fooled by these ‘pseudo eggs’ then perhaps egg-laying pine beauty moths and pine sawflies might also be getting confused and avoiding laying eggs on these apparently already infested needles.   I wondered if there was any evidence to support my far-fetched hypothesis and to my delight found a paper by (Williams & Gilbert, 1981) that demonstrated quite convincingly that passion-fruit vines, produce structures resembling eggs of Heliconius butterflies and that these deter them from laying eggs on them.

Egg mimics 2

Egg mimics on passion flower leaf – Photo by Lawrence Gilbert http://plantmimicrybz2820.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/the-passiflora-genus.html

I also found papers that showed that other Lepidoptera (Rothschild & Schoonhoven, 1977; Nomakuchi et al., 2001) and beetles (Mappes & Mäkelä, 1993), are able to discriminate between leaves that already have eggs laid on them and avoid laying more eggs on those leaves, thus reducing larval completion.

Although I never formally checked it, I got the impression that needles bearing ‘egg mimics’ had fewer pine beauty moth eggs or pine sawfly eggs laid on them than those without.  Another question that could be easily looked at is whether pine trees in areas that have had outbreaks have more speckled needles than those in non-outbreak areas.  I always meant to do some formal sampling and a proper experiment to back up my feelings, but never found the time to do it.  I am pretty certain that I am unlikely to get round to doing this in the near future (if ever), but I would like to know if this is indeed another example of  a plant mimicking insect eggs.  I would be very happy indeed if any of you feel like testing my hypothesis and look forward to seeing the results in print.

 

References

MacDougal, J.M. (2003)  Passiflora boenderi (Passifloraceae): a new egg mimic passionflower from Costa Rica.  Novon, 13, 454-458

Mappes. J. & Mäkelä, I. (1993)  Egg and larval load assessment and its influence on oviposition behaviour of the leaf beetle Galerucella nymphaeae.  Oecologia, 93, 38-41

Nomakuchi, S., Masumoto, T., Sawada, K., Sunahra, T., Itakura, N. & Suzuki, N. (2001) Possible Age-Dependent Variation in Egg-Loaded Host Selectivity of the Pierid Butterfly, Anthocharis scolymus (Lepidoptera: Pieridae): A Field Observation .  Journal of Insect Behavior, 14, 451-458.

Rothschild, M. & Schoonhoven, L.M. (1977) Assessment of egg load by Pieris brassicae (Lepidoptera: Pieridae). Nature, 266, 352-355.

Williams, K.S. & Gilbert, L.E. (1981) Insects as selective agents on plant vegetative morphology: egg mimicry reduces egg laying by butterflies. Science, 212, 467-469.

 

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