Monthly Archives: October 2015

Underinvestment is not going to produce STARS – BBSRC take note

Earlier this year, the BBSRC at the stroke of a pen, deprived several strategically important and vulnerable research skills and capabilities areas in biosciences of approximately £9 000 000 per annum  by funneling iCASE funding to a number of universities already awash in cash and with little or no interest in vulnerable skill-sets. Now, the BBSRC in a feeble attempt to remedy this seriously misjudged action, has announced their new STARS programme. I quote from their website

“Our STARS programme aims to support the development of strategically important and vulnerable research skills and capabilities in the biosciences. Awards are available to develop postgraduate-level training in areas of significant need for clearly defined academic and industrial sectors”


Reasons for such additional support include, but are not restricted to:

A lack of training and/or capability in specific areas, or a need to up-skill individuals within a specific area

An identified need to attract researchers into the area

A need to build capacity in a new or emerging research area

A need to transfer technical and commercially relevant skills to/from industry


Delivery of training may be achieved by one or more of the following methods:

Research Experience Placements Summer research placements for undergraduate students in the middle years of their studies, to attract them into further research in a strategically important or vulnerable research area

Skills schools in strategically important and vulnerable research areas, including: Development of new skills schools

Expansion of existing institutional/regional activities for national reach

Expansion of existing activities for participation by BBSRC-funded researchers at any level (PhD, postdoctoral researcher, research fellow, research leader)

Development and delivery of training resources through other mechanisms, such as development of e-learning modules or other online resources



Up to £250k is available per year to support training activities through the STARS programme. There will be three calls per year. Awards are flexible and may be used to support strategic and vulnerable skills for a short, discrete period or for up to three years of recurrent funding.

According to the web site and after an incredulous email by me to the BBSRC, it turns out that this magnificent windfall is expected to fund 30 projects – do the sums and this averages out at just over a princely £8000 each! My colleagues and I felt (and still feel) that this really does not show a serious commitment by the BBSRC to vulnerable research skills and capabilities. Rather, it shows complete disdain and contempt for the areas that they claim to be concerned about;

“We welcome applications for support of any research capability within our remit, but particularly those highlighted in the Review of Vulnerable Skills and Capabilities, published in January 2015 (see downloads) and especially in relation to capabilities within the following areas:

Maths, statistics and computational biology

Physiology and pathology of plants, animals and microbes

Agriculture and food security”


Beggars, however, cannot be choosers and so my colleagues and I duly downloaded an application form and submitted an application to run a one-week summer school in crop protection (entomology, plant pathology, plant nematology and weed science) for three years for 15 undergraduate students per year. Notwithstanding the small sums of money available, the form required inputting a disproportionate  amount of information; asked for a business plan and detailed information, concerning in the case of a taught summer school, details of lecture content and delivery, and financial support or other from interested parties and the institution providing the service. In terms of person-hours the delivery of such a course far outweighs the paltry sum of money available; in fact the time taken to put together the application itself, if costed at FEC (full economic costs), would also eat substantially into the monies potentially available. I could borrow more from my bank as a personal loan with considerably more ease, less paperwork and probably with a considerably greater chance of success.

BBSRC you cannot be serious!


Post script

In case anyone wonders why I have chosen to illustrate this post with a photograph of a somewhat sceptical looking elderly gentleman, let me explain. The picture shows my late father, Robert Ikin Leather (1924-2007) who is a perfect example of one of the vulnerable skills set that our proposed summer school would highlight and attempt to remedy. He was a traditional agricultural plant pathologist who could go out into the field, recognise symptoms and diagnose diseases, as well as identifying them in the laboratory and conducting field research. He is no longer with us, as are the majority of people who shared his skills. Plant pathology in the UK is in dire straits as are weed science, plant nematology and to a slightly lesser extent, entomology. To reiterate my earlier point underinvestment in training and research in these areas is not the way to solve the problem.


Filed under Bugbears

When frustration becomes serendipitous – My second most cited paper

For most of the 1980s and the early 1990s I worked for the UK Forestry Commission as a research and advisory entomologist. As a civil servant I was subjected to a lot more rules than I am now as a university academic. The most frustrating set of rules in my mind, were those associated with publishing papers. The initial consultation with a statistician before your experiment was planned and any subsequent collaboration with the analysis was very sensible, and I had no problems with that part of the process at all. Our statisticians were very good in that they helped you decide the analysis but expected you to learn GenStat (the Forestry Commission standard statistics programme) and do it yourself unless you were really stuck.

The next bit was the frustrating part. When it came to writing papers you first submitted your paper to your line manager. They then read your paper, very frustrating indeed for me, as my immediate boss considered papers a very low priority and it could be several months before he got around to passing it back with comments and suggestions. Then it was passed to a member of one of the other department such as silviculture, tree breeding or pathology for them to read and make comments. The idea behind this being that it helped make the paper accessible to a wide audience, again a good idea. The problem at this stage was that once again your paper was likely to be a low priority, so yet more delay. Once that was done you then had to submit your paper to the Chief Research Office for him to read and comment on, so once again yet more delay. This meant that quite often it was a year before you actually were able to submit your paper to a journal, which could be deeply frustrating to say the least.


In 1986 a new journal to be published by the British Ecological Society was announced, Functional Ecology. In those days, the dreaded Impact Factors had not yet raised their ugly heads, and one tended to publish in journals relevant to your discipline, or, as in this case, the fancy took you.  I thought it would be cool to publish in the first issue of the first volume of this new journal.  I therefore set to work, with the help of one of our statisticians to produce a paper about life history parameters of the pine beauty moth, from a more ecological point of view and not from the more applied view-point of it as a forest pest (my job remit). I was very proud of the paper and confess to having got somewhat carried away in the discussion, so much so, that it was suggested by all who read it in the very lengthy internal appraisal process, that most of the discussion should be cut as being too far away from the main story. As the process had taken so long already I decided to go with the flow and eventually submitted my paper about a year after first writing it, incidentally giving my statistician a co-authorship. It was accepted and did indeed appear in the first volume of Functional Ecology, albeit the last of the year (Leather & Burnand, 1987)! It has to date (14th October 2015) being cited 53 times, by no means a disgrace, but certainly not my second-most cited paper.

I mentioned earlier that I was really proud of my discussion and I decided that I was going to publish it regardless. I reworked it slightly and submitted it to Oikos as a Forum piece, taking the calculated risk of not submitting it through the official Forestry Commission system. My reasoning was, that a), it was unlikely to be read by anyone in the Forestry Commission, being a very ecological journal, and b), if challenged I would say that it had already been seen by the powers that be, albeit not officially. To my relief it was accepted as is (Leather, 1988) and my immediate boss never mentioned it. To my surprise and delight this is now my second-most cited paper, having so far acquired 207 citations and still picks up a reasonable number of cites every year. I guess that I should actually be grateful to all those internal referees who insisted that I cut my discussion down so drastically.


Leather, S.R. (1988) Size, reproductive potential and fecundity in insects: Things aren’t as simple as they seem. Oikos, 51, 386-389.

Leather, S.R. & Burnand, A.C. (1987) Factors affecting life-history parameters of the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea (D&S): the hidden costs of reproduction. Functional Ecology, 1, 331-338.


Post script

In case you wondered, my most cited paper is an Annual Review paper, written with one of my former PhD students, Caroline Awmack, and now has almost a thousand citations (994 as of today).


Awmack, C. S. &Leather, S. R. (2002). Host plant quality and fecundity in herbivorous insects. Annual Review of Entomology 47, 817-844.



Filed under Bugbears, Science writing, Uncategorized

Can hawkmoths remember being attacked?

As our summer holidays are usually in the south of France or Italy I expect to see a plethora of insects whilst sitting on a sun-lit patio with a glass of wine or beer to hand. I am rarely disappointed, this year (2015) swallowtails being very common. Also present, although not as abundant as I have seen in some years, was the European hummingbird hawkmoth, Macroglossum stellatarum, perhaps my favourite moth. Given that they were foraging so close to my watering hole, it seemed a great opportunity to use my new camera. I was able to capture images of the swallowtails, who obligingly remained still at the crucial moment I took the picture.


Swallowtail butterfly, Super-las-Illas, France, August 2015

I was however, unable to get a decent still shot of the hawkmoths so had to resort to the video mode.


Hummingbird hawkmoth, Super-las-Illas, France, August 2015. For the live action version see here

It was whilst trying to get a successful shot of these incredibly active insects that I thought I might catch one and slow it down in the fridge and thus be able to get a nice close up picture. As usual I had forgotten my butterfly net (one year I will actually remember to pack it) so had to improvise with a T-shirt and stick. Needless to say this was not very successful and I only managed a glancing ‘strike’ on my chosen victim. Not surprisingly he/she flew off. What was surprising was that the flower bed remained hawkmoth-free for about an hour or so. Once they returned I had yet another unsuccessful attempt at capturing one, and again noticed that they disappeared and did not return for another couple of hours. Intrigued I repeated my unsuccessful capture attempts (deliberately this time) over the next few days and found this behaviour repeated. So, no problems if I stood there and filmed/watched them, but if I tried to catch them, off they went (I was unable to see where) not to return for a couple of hours. I hypothesised that they must be able to ‘remember’ being attacked and that this was a predator-avoidance mechanism.

I knew that adult lepidoptera in general are able to ‘remember’ host suitability for oviposition sites and alter their concept of a good quality host depending on the suitability of the previous host plants that they had landed on and the number of eggs left in their reproductive tract.

Host acceptability model

A very simple model to illustrate the trade-off between host plant acceptance, egg load and time in lepidoptera. I thought I had published this figure somewhere but apparently not 🙂

Adult lepidoptera such as the green-veined white butterfly, Pieris napi (Goulson & Cory, 1993) and the Monarch Butterfly, Danaus plexippus (Rodrigues & Weiss, 2012) are also able to remember (retain) learned information about suitable feeding resources e.g. those flowers that are likely to give them the most nectar and this is also true for the hummingbird hawkmoth which is able to remember flower preferences even after hibernation (Kelber, 2010).

Although adult lepidoptera have a number of predator avoidance mechanisms, e.g. mimicry, aposematism, unpalatability or innate behaviours (e.g. Roper & Redston, 1987; Bowers, 1980; Greig & Greenfield, 2004; Stevens, 2005) I have been unable to find any reference to them being able to ‘remember’ being attacked and then avoiding the area for some time afterwards. There are, on the other hand, many papers about predators learning to avoid distasteful lepidopteran prey but nothing about adult lepidoptera learning to avoid predator-rich areas. This would seem a ‘sensible’ trait to evolve so I am surprised that no one seems to have tested its existence. Please let me know if you have ever come across any references to this sort of behaviour or feel free to conduct the experiment formally.


Agnew, K. & Singer, M.C. (2000) Does fecundity drive the evolution of insect diet? Oikos, 88, 533-538.

Bowers, M.D. (1980) Unpalatability as a defense strategy of Euphydryas phaeton (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae). Evolution, 34, 586-600.

Goulson, D. & Cory, J.S. (1993) Flower constancy and learning in foraging preferences of the green-veined white butterfly Pieris napi. Ecological Entomology, 18, 315-320.

Greig, E.I. & Greenfield, M.D. (2004) Sexual selection and predator avoidance in an acoustic moth: discriminating females take fewer risks. Behaviour, 141, 799-815

Kelber, A. (2010) What a hawkmoth remembers after hibernation depends on innate preferences and conditioning situation. Behavioral Ecology, 21, 1093-1097

Rodriques, D. & Weiss, M.R. (2012) Reward tracking and memory decay in the Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus L. (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae). Ethology, 118, 122-1131

Roper, T.J. & Redston, S. (1987) Conspicuousness of distasteful prey affects the strength and durability of one-trial avoidance learning. Animal Behaviour, 35, 739-747

Singer, M.C. (1984). Butterfly-host plant relationships: host quality, adult choice and larval success. In The Biology of Butterflies (ed. by R.I. Vane-Wright & P.R. Ackery), pp. 81-88. Chapman & Hall, London.

Stevens, M. (2005) The role of eyespots as anti-predator mechanisms, principally demonstrated in the Lepidoptera. Biological Reviews, 80, 573-588





Filed under EntoNotes