Monthly Archives: March 2016

Baxter Saves the Day – Beetle Boy – a tour de force by M G Leonard

Beetle Boy front

Beetle Boy, Chicken House Books, Paperback  ISBN: 9781910002704  £6.99

 “The sad fact is, that the number of insect is in decline. As we destroy their habitats, so we destroy their species, but we desperately need them. If all the mammals on the planet were to die out, the planet would flourish – but if all the insects disappeared, everything would very soon be dead.”

Not that I am biased, but any book that has the above in it gets my vote. Joking aside, this is a real gem of a book.  Although aimed at a younger audience than me, I found this a fascinating book.  I read it in one sitting, on the coach returning from a visit to the entomologists at the Natural History Museum, in company with the MSc Entomology students from Harper Adams University; a very appropriate setting.

Darkus, whose father, Dr Bartholomew Cuttle, a closet entomologist and the Director of Science at the Natural History Museum in London, has disappeared in mysterious circumstances, is one of a pair of unlikely heroes who help make this story the tour de force it is. The authorities believe that Dr Cuttle suffered some sort of breakdown and has walked away from his responsibilities.  Newspaper headlines ensue and the distraught Darkus, who remains convinced that his father has been spirited away or worse, now regarded as an orphan by social services, as his mother died four years earlier, is sent to an orphanage where he receives an unfortunate hair-cut.  Fortuitously, three weeks later, his eccentric Uncle Max, a somewhat unconventional archaeologist, returns from Egypt and Darkus is allowed to move in with his Uncle, who houses him in his attic, where he unknowingly meets his best friend to be, Baxter, and the adventure begins.  You will have to excuse this breathless introduction, but all this happens in the first sixteen pages!  What a roller-coaster of a read.

Next he is sent to a new school, (the worst nightmare for those of us of a nerdish persuasion) where he is befriended by two odd-balls, the lanky Virginia and the small, pale, bespectacled Bertholt.  We have school bullies, beetles with more than a dash of humanity mixed in, an evil businesswoman with a dark past and even darker secrets, a beautiful heiress thrown in for good measure, very odd neighbours, a secret den, evil henchmen, poison gas, death, destruction, entomology, successes, setbacks, laughter and sadness but a happy ending.  This is a story with something for everyone.  This is what my father, if he were still alive, would have called a rattling good yarn and I would agree with him wholeheartedly.

This is a hard book to describe without introducing spoilers so I am not going to give away any more of the plot than I already have. Imagine a mix of Swallows & Amazons, Stalky & Co*, the Famous Five, Five Find-Outers and Dog**, Artemis Fowl and any other of your favourite young detectives/adventurers that you can think of, and you will get somewhere close to imagining what a gripping read Maya Leonard has produced.   Beetle Boy owes nothing to any of these books, I only use them to illustrate, that in my opinion, this book is destined to join the classics.

It is of course the beetles that really make this book stand out from the crowd, and in more than one way, the fore edge of the book is decorated with beetles; beetles inside and out, what more can an entomologist ask for?

Beetle boy fore edge

Maya Leonard is a superb ambassador for beetles; they form an integral part of the story working in partnership with the human protagonists. She also subtly introduces the wonderful diversity of the beetle world to the non-initiated.  How many books can mention tiger beetles, powder post beetles, blister beetles, bombardier beetles, rhinoceros beetles, titans, stags, harlequins,  Goliath beetles and dung beetles and keep the plot moving along at a breath-taking pace.  Outside an entomology text book I don’t think I have ever come across so many beetle references.   Not only has Maya Leonard mentioned the beetles by name, she has managed to endow them with believable personalities but in a very unsentimental way, although that said, there is a very tragic scene near the end of the book.   I have been a professional entomologist for almost forty years and, yes some of what happens in this book might not be entomologically feasible, but the story carried me along on waves of excitement and totally enthralled and enchanted me and that is what matters.  I liked this book very much.  In fact, I was so excited about this book that I couldn’t wait for an appropriate grandson’s birthday so sent it to their mother, my daughter in Australia, for her birthday, and suggested that she could make it a family readathon 🙂

Maya Leonard, on the behalf of entomologists everywhere, I salute you. Roll on the sequel.

Dung beetles ZSL

The wonderful dung beetle sculpture at London Zoo.

Postscript and notes

Did I say that I really liked this book 🙂

*Rudyard Kipling’s fictionalised account of his school days at the United Services College – coincidentally, the character based on Kipling, is nicknamed Beetle! Well worth a read and in my opinion, possibly the inspiration for Frank Richard’s Billy Bunter books.

**Less well-known than the Famous Five, but I actually liked them better 🙂 http://www.enidblytonsociety.co.uk/five-find-outers.php

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What use are bedbugs?

As an entomologist, I have, over the years, become used to being asked by non-entomologists “What use are wasps?” My wife and mother-in-law being frequent interrogators. What they actually mean is “What use are Vespids?”, in particular what the Americans call yellow jackets, and their ilk.

Wasp

Not a bed bug – The European wasp Vespula germanica https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_jacket#/media/File:European_wasp_white_bg.jpg

I now have a well-polished response where I explain that wasps are beneficial insects keeping the caterpillars that eat their garden plants under control and that the occasional hole they make in my interlocutor’s soft fruit is just payment for the job they are doing. I am not saying that this answer always satisfies them, especially if their plums have been devastated, but at least they agree that there is some justification for their existence.

Unfortunately I now have a new question to answer. Last summer (2015) my wife and I took our usual holiday to France. We put our car on the Brittany Ferry, m/V Mont St Michel, and after a drink in the bar retired to our cabin, 9108 in case you want to avoid it, me in Bunk A my wife in Bunk B.

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Sailing in comfort?

The next morning my wife was not a happy lady and the question I now have to answer is “What use are bedbugs?”!

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The bed bug culprit, Cimex lectularius and victim

I have in the past made a convincing case (well I think so) for the usefulness of mosquitoes compared with pandas, but I suspected that making a case for the usefulness of bed bugs that would satisfy my wife, might be more difficult.

Even the Encyclopaedia of Life has nothing good to say about bed bugs. For evolutionary biologists, ecologists and entomologists, bed bugs are very useful in allowing us to relate horror stories about non-conventional sex. Male bed bugs favour a very robust approach to reproduction, as they indulge in what is somewhat coyly termed ‘traumatic insemination (Reinhardt & Siva-Jothy, 2007). Basically they don’t bother with the female genital opening, they mount the female and search for a pouch (Organ of Ribaga or ectospermalage) on the underside of the female (they have been known to mount other males) which they pierce with their intromittent organ (penis) and into which they release their sperm. The spermatozoa then migrate through the body of the female to the oviduct, taking from 2-10 hours to do so (Cragg, 1920). Apparently males never use the genital tract for insemination (Reinhardt & Siva-Jothy, (2007). This somewhat unconventional approach to mating has, as you might expect, harmful effects on the female, with life spans being reduced by about 30% or even causing death (Morrow & Anrnqvist, 2003), multiple matings can be particularly damaging (Mellanby, 1939).

For their human hosts, bed bugs can have a number of unpleasant effects (Reinhardt & Siva-Jothy, 2007), ranging from psychological distress, allergic reactions as in the case of my wife, secondary infections and economic costs, especially if you are an hotelier. All in all, not a very promising candidate for being useful to us humans 🙂 I was beginning to feel that bed bugs had no redeeming features and that if there was a coordinated campaign calling for the destruction of the entire species, I would be unable to defend them. Then a former student came to their rescue. In desperation, I had emailed Mike Siva-Jothy at Sheffield University who has worked on bed bugs since the late 1990s. He passed my email on to Sophie Evison (a former MSc student of mine) and she came to their rescue as follows

I’ve had a think about this, and I think there are two approaches: 1. dazzle them with the traumatic insemination story or 2. Forensics. I’ve not looked into it, but I’m pretty sure a situation could arise where the contents of a bedbug could drop someone in it, or even perhaps prove an alibi! Do you think your wife would accept that as reasonable?”

I was pretty certain that my wife would not be happy with option 1, but felt that option 2 was definitely worth following up. I very quickly found a paper (Szalanski et al, 2006) in which the possibility of testing the DNA of the blood found in bed bugs was suggested as having a possible forensic application. According to Wikipedia (well if it is good enough for my students) there has already been some success in real life using this very approach. I was now pretty confident that I had found an answer to the question posed by my wife. To be fair, I tested both of them out on her. As predicted, she did not buy the evolutionary biology aspect of the traumatic insemination story as being of any use, but as a great fan of the CSI and NCIS TV shows, she has grudgingly accepted that there is indeed a use for bed bugs! I just hope that all the bed bugs out there appreciate all the effort I have gone to on their behalf 🙂 If anyone else has further suggestions please let me know.

References

Cragg, F.W. (1920) Further observations on the reproductive system of Cimex, with special reference to the behaviour of the spermatozoa. Indian Journal of Medical Research, 8, 32-79

Mellanby, K. (1939) Fertilization and egg production in the bed-bug Cimex lectularius L. Parasitology, 31, 193-199

Morrow, E.H. & Arnqvist, G. (2003) Costly traumatic insemination and female counter-adaptation in bed bugs. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B, 270, 2377-2381

Reinhardt, K. & Siva-Jothy, M. (2007) Biology of the bed bugs (Cimicidae). Annual Review of Entomology, 52, 351-374

Szalanski, A.L., J.W. Austin, J.A. McKern, C.D. Steelman, D.M. Miller, and R.E. Gold. 2006. Isolation and characterization of human DNA from bed bug, Cimex lectularius L., (Hemiptera: Cimicidae) blood meals. Journal of Agricultural and Urban Entomology, 23, 189-194.

 

 

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Ten papers that shook my world – Lewis (1969) – the importance of (h)edges for natural biological control

In 1969, Trevor Lewis, of what was then the Rothamsted Research Station (now Rothamsted Research), published two landmark papers (Lewis 1969ab). These papers, in which he described the importance of hedges as habitats for insects (Lewis, 1969a) and in acting as possible sources of natural enemies able to colonise nearby fields (Lewis, 1969b) were to have a profound effect on me and generations of applied entomologists and pest mangers to the present day.

In 1976 the UK experienced what is now recognised as the warmest year of the 20th Century.  It was also the year that I started my final year as an undergraduate.  Before entering our final year we had to do a research placement or project.   I opted to do my project at home, I was making very good money as a temporary postman and as I usually finished my round by 10 am, I had plenty of time during the rest of the day to get to grips with my project.  I had come across the Lewis papers in lectures and thought that it would be interesting to do a similar study; given the weather I was also keen to spend as much time outside as possible 🙂 My Uncle James owned a local farm and was happy for me to sample some of his hawthorn hedges, so sampling hawthorn hedges was what I did during July and August of the glorious summer.

Simon summer 1976

The intrepid student entomologist; trusty bike, clipboard and a copy of Chinery*. Note the wellington boots despite the heat 🙂

The hedges

The hedges in question – three types of management

As I mentioned earlier, 1976 was the warmest year on record at the time, and I see from my report that during August I was recording temperatures in excess of 25oC, even in the hedge bottoms.

Hedges project

The report

What is interesting is that although 1976 was one of the famous ladybird outbreak years (in fact last week I was interviewed by the BBC about my memories of that very same event) I didn’t record more than a handful of ladybirds in my surveys.  Perhaps inland Yorkshire just wasn’t attractive enough 🙂

Overall my results showed that over-clipping resulted in more crop pests being present and that hedges with less clipping supported a greater diversity of insect life than the more managed ones, very similar to results being reported today (e.g Amy et al., 2015).

Sadly, although Lewis’s two 1969 papers and to a certain extent his earlier paper in a much harder to access source (Lewis, 1964), led on to the concept of conservation headlands (Sotherton et al., 1989) and ‘crop islands’ (Thomas et al., 1991), which are an integral part of European Union subsidised farm payments, it was included in an influential review article (van Emden & Williams, 1974).  As pointed out recently by Terry McGlynn over at Small Pond Science, this often rings the death knell for a paper’s citation score.  As a result,  Lewis (1969b) has only been cited 91 times since 1969 and is barely remembered at all.   I remember being invited to be a facilitator at a Populations Under Pressure conference workshop on this very subject at the NERC Centre for Population Biology at Silwood Park about fifteen years ago and being surprised that none of the participants had even heard of Trevor Lewis let alone read his papers.

Simon PUP

At the Populations Under Pressure conference brandishing my undergraduate hedgerow report!

The subject of hedgerow and crop edge management is still a highly important research area today, and you will be pleased to know that in the latest paper just submitted from my research group, we cite both of Trevor’s 1969 papers. Hopefully this will do something to redress the balance and bring Trevor some of the recognition that he deserves, however belated.

 

References

Amy, S.R., Heard, M.S., Hartley, S.E., George, C.T., Pywell, R.F. & Staley, J.T. (2015) Hedgerow rejuvenation management affects invertebrate communities through changes to habitat structure. Basic & Applied Ecology, 16: 443-451

Chinery, M. (1973) A Field Guide to the Insects of Britain and Northern Europe.  Collins, London

Lewis, T. (1964). The effects of shelter on the distribution of insect pests. Scientific Horticulture, 17: 74–84

Lewis, T. (1969a). The distribution of flying insects near a low hedgerow. Journal of Applied Ecology 6: 443-452.

Lewis, T. (1969b). The diversity of the insect fauna in a hedgerow and neighbouring fields. Journal of Applied Ecology 6: 453-458.

Sotherton, N.W., Boatman, N.D. & Rands, M.R.W. (1989) The “Conservation Headland” experiment in cereal ecosystems. The Entomologist, 108: 135-143

Thomas, M.B., Wratten, S.D., & Sotherton, N.W. (1991) Creation of ‘island’ habitats in farmland to manipulate populations of beneficial arthropods: predator densities and emigration. Journal of Applied Ecology, 28: 906-917.

Van Emden, H.F. & Williams, G.F. (1974) Insect stability and diversity in agro-ecosystems. Annual Review of Entomology, 19: 455-475

*I still own that copy of Chinery which was a present for my 20th birthday – take note of the date if anyone wants to send me a present or card 🙂

 

Chinery

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The Verrall Supper 2016 – even better than last year

The first Wednesday of March has for many years meant only one thing to many UK entomologists – the Verrall Supper. I have written about the Verrall Supper previously on more than one occasion, so this will be largely a photographic record.

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Van (Professor Helmut Van Emden) ready and set for the arriving Verrallers

This year’s Verrall Supper took place on Wednesday March 3rd at The Rembrandt Hotel, South Kensington. This year we had a further increase in numbers attending the meal at the Rembrandt Hotel, 190 compared with the 181 the previous year.  We are now facing a bit of a dilemma, we have reached the maximum number that the Rembrandt can accommodate and as the general consensus is that it is a great venue, I am reluctant to try and find an alternative venue, but equally I don’t want to restrict membership.  According to Van, the number of Verrallers making merry, once topped the 300 mark.

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Marion Gratwick possibly the longest-serving Verraller, certainly the longest serving female member, although her claim to have attended 58 Verrall Suppers has been called into question as the first female was not admitted to the Supper until 1962; the arithmetic does not add up 🙂

Unfortunately, despite my ambition to get a 50:50 sex ratio, we still only managed to attract 55 female guests, the same as last year, which as we had a slight increase in total numbers meant that female members only accounted for  29% of the Verrallers.  I must try even harder next year.  For those interested in such statistics, we had twenty vegetarians, four diners unable to cope with gluten and only two vegans.  The average age, has, I am sure gone down, as I felt that the of number of those sporting grey or white beards, bald pates and grey hair were definitely outnumbered by the younger generation.

It was, as usual, great to see so many of my ex-MSc Entomology students, from both incarnations of the course, Silwood Park and Harper Adams University, many now doing PhDs, and many post-PhD and in their turn teaching future generations.

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A new generation of bearded entomologists. Alex Greenslade and Andy Salisbury, both former  MSc students,  one now doing a PhD, the other Senior Entomologist at RHS Wisley and both modelling entomological ties.

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Charlie Rose, the youngest Verraller (possibly ever).

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Professor Helmut Van Emden and Chris Lyal both of the Entomological Club.

 

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The Verrall Supper organiser at the start of the evening, with Alex Austin, Sarah Arnold, Jennifer Wickens (I think, I have an excuse, she is one of identical twins, both entomologists) and Denise Gibbons.

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Linda Birkin (fomer MSc student, now PhD at Sussex) and Ailsa McLean, Oxford University.

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Max Barclay, the Verrall Lecturer.

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High Loxdale savouring his pint.

 

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Mark Ramsden (ADAS) former PhD student and Chris Jeffs (Oxford), former MRes student.

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Tracie Evans (former MSc student) and Van Emden Bursary winner and Victoria Burton

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Charlie Rose, with current and former Harper Adams University MSc students, Alice Mockford, Jenna Shaw, Scott Dwyer and Jordan Ryder.

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The venue – ready and waiting and full house

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Gordon Port and former MSc student, Anna Platoni

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James Broom (former MSc student) and Roy Bateman who taught on the course for many years

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One view of the top table.

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Charles Godfray being lectured to by Tilly Collins 🙂

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Not all grey beards and bald pates

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Royal Entomological Society worthies, Archie Murchie, Jim Hardie and Debbie Wright

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Ruth Carter (MSc student at Harper Adams, who first contacted me when she was 13 to ask how to become an entomologist, Gia Aradottir (former PhD student, now at Rothamsted) and Amoret Whitaker, forensic entomologist on the right (I was her PhD examiner).

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Richard Comont and Sally-Ann Spence

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Former MSc students from Harper Adams University, Molly McTaggart, Josh Jenkins Shaw and Dave Stanford-Beale, all on the PhD route, UK, Denmark and USA respectively.

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More former Harper Adams University MSc students, Aidan Thomas and Kelleigh Greene.

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Sally-Ann Spence, Katy Dainton (former MSc student, now at Forest Research), Jo Nunez (former MSc student, now at the Bat Conservation Trust) and Mike Wilson.

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Current MSc students at Harper Adams University, Harry Simpson, Ben Clunie and Iain Place

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Mike Shaw, a Hymenopterist deep in thought?

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Tom and Soo-ok Miller all the way from the USA and if you are wondering about the bead necklaces that some of us are wearing, they came via Soo-ok.

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Mike Copland, Sue Stickels (both Wye Bugs) and Ashleigh Whiffin (former MSc student, now at Edinburgh Museum).

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Richard Lane (Entomological Club) and Luke Tilley, Royal Entomological Society Outreach Officer)

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Van (now with beads)  helping Kristi Thomas (former MSc student with her statistics)

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Ceri Watkins (former MSc student) and Hagrid (alias Richard Comont)

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Alan Dewar and Beulah Garner

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Tilly Collins (one of my former PhD students) writing my mid-dinner speech!

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John Whittaker and Claire Ozanne

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Claudia Watts, me (now with beads) and Roy Bateman

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Keith Walters (Harper Adams University) and Mike Singer (Plymouth)

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Ana Platoni and Adriana De Palma (both former students)

 

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Two curious gold weights – I can’t remember who showed them to me

 

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Harper Adams students, past and present

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Ruth Carter, Harry Simpson, Molly McTaggart, Scott Dwyer and Christina Faulder, all from Harper Adams.

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Two of my current PhD students at opposite ends of their degree, Fran Sconce and Aidan Thomas.

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Richard Harrington with his suction trap tie, retirement does funny things to people 🙂

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Hayley Jones and her butterfly necklace.

All in all, a very pleasant occasion which I thoroughly enjoyed, despite the pre-function nerves.   I look forward to hosting the Verrall Supper 2017, and am determined to get a 50:50 sex ratio!

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