Monthly Archives: November 2017

Creeping and crawling through children’s literature – A meeting of “two cultures”

Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend an unusual conference in Cambridge, “A Bug’s Life; Creeping and Crawling through Children’s Literature”.  It was unusual for me, as first it was at a weekend, second it was about insects in children’s books and third, all the other presenters and most of the delegates, were academics and PhD students from English departments.  I owed my presence at the conference as a result of my social media activities, in this case my Blog, as Zoe Jaques the organiser, had come across one of my diatribes about the lack of entomological accuracy in some insect themed books for children.  Zoe contacted me earlier this year and explained about her plans and wondered if I would be willing to contribute in my role as a professional entomologist with all expenses paid.  I didn’t take much persuading as I found the whole concept intriguing to say the least, and as an added bonus the guest author was the hugely successful Maya Leonard, author of Beetle Boy, Beetle Queen and the soon to be released, Battle of the Beetles.

I arrived at Cambridge Railway Station on the Friday night direct from France, having left Vinca at 8.45 am, to catch the train to Perpignan, then on to Paris on the TGV, then to London on the EuroStar, arriving in Cambridge courtesy of the local train, just after 9 pm.  A short taxi ride took me to Homerton College where Zoe had kindly arranged for me to stay in one of their excellent guest rooms.   After an excellent breakfast I made my way to the conference venue, following the very appropriate guide beetles 🙂

Our beetle guides

Once there I met the equally appropriately garbed Zoe and started to mingle with the delegates and other speakers, who among others, included Imogen Burt from BugLife

Zoe Jaques – the brains behind the conference, resplendent in beetle regalia.

 who opened the conference with a talk about the importance of insect conservation and the horrific and very inaccurate headlines perpetrated by the media to sell copy.  The conference programme was fantastic with a range of speakers from the Emeritus Professor, Peter Hunt, who invented the discipline of children’s literature in the UK to current PhD students such as Catherine Olver and Maggie Meimaridi with their delightfully punning talk titles, “Beeing oneself: individualism in twenty-first century fiction for teens” and “A ThousAnt plateaus”, respectively. There were a lot of puns buzzing and flying around at this conference, including a laugh-out loud presentation from Melanie Keene, “Bees and Parodies”.  We also had talks on insect scaling and cognition, fear of insects, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, racism and prejudice, and not strictly literature, a very entertaining talk by Zoe and her colleague David Whitley on the insects of Pixar animation.  My talk, not very imaginatively, was titled “The good, the bad and the plain just wrong”.  I focused mainly on the anatomy and taxonomic accuracy or not, displayed in children’s book, from the 1850s through to the modern-day.  This was a very personal selection, based on books that I had read as a child or read to my children, with a few examples from books I have come across in the last few years.  I mainly blamed the illustrators, although to be fair, some have done excellent jobs of portraying insects accurately and sympathetically.  I will be writing about this in a future post.

Maya Leonard completed the line-up with a totally Powerpoint-free extempore talk about her journey from entophobe to bestselling entophile; a ten-year journey.  A fantastic experience, if you ever get the chance to hear Maya speak, make sure you take the opportunity.

An experience not to be missed – Maya in full flow.

The “Two Cultures” in the title of this post refers to the idea of the novelist C P Snow, who at the time (1959) felt that science and humanities were two different antagonistic cultures, with science and scientists being looked down upon and scorned by those who inhabited the world of the humanities.  Put simply, Snow’s criticism was aimed at the fact that while those in the humanities felt that scientists were ignorant if they had not read Shakespeare, they did not perceive it as a failing if they were unable to state the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  This attitude may still persist in certain parts of the educated elite, in that it is seen as something to be proud of to say for example, that one is rubbish at maths, but that someone saying they have never read Jane Austen is seen as reprehensible.  This may no longer be the problem it was in 1959, although looking at the politicians wielding power in Westminster at the moment, the number of those with science degrees or an understanding of science, is lamentably low. There are indeed, as Maya pointed out in her talk, a lot of well-educated people, who know little or nothing about the natural world, entomology in particular.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not about how much better educated scientists are than those with degrees in the humanities, or those in the humanities giving short shrift to the ideas of scientists.  After all this conference was all about exploring the portrayal of an important part of the natural world; Insects and their allies, and seeking the viewpoint of a professional entomologist. Hardly the actions of Luddites unwilling to engage with new viewpoints.  I too was there to learn, as well as to inform.  In fact I was very apprehensive about my presentation.  As I pointed out in the introduction to my talk, although I have given talks to a diverse set of audiences, ranging from The Brownies to the Inner Wheel I had, until then, never given a talk to a room full of professional critics 🙂 I needn’t have worried, my talk was very well-received and generated lots of very perceptive and interesting questions.

I learnt a lot in the course of the day, not least the difference in how much can be read into the attitudes of the author and the subliminal messages that go unnoticed by the child reader, or as in my case, the adult reader, but are picked up and debated by those trained to absorb more from what they are reading than is actually on the printed page.  Although a great fan of Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series I had never taken on board the symbolism inherent in, for example,  A Hat Full of Sky’ until I heard Catherine Olver’s excellent talk on the symbolism of bees and hive minds in what I now know as YA (Young adult) fiction.  Similarly, until pointed out to me by Sarah Annes Brown during her talk on “Insects – a liberal litmus test?” the possibly racist and stereotypical portrayals of the characters in George Selden’s A Cricket in Times Square had completely escaped me.  I obviously spend too much time stressing out over the biological and anatomical aspects of the insect characters 🙂

The other thing that struck me very strongly was the difference in way in which language and PowerPoint was used by the speakers.  Biologists (and I think most scientists) are taught that the ideal slide should have no more than six bullet points and that under no circumstances should a slide be filled with a single block of text.  It this came as a surprise that we were asked on a number of occasions to spend a couple of minutes reading and digesting the contents of a slide filled from top to bottom with a quote from a book or paper.  I was also struck by the difference in the language used, “contextualise” and “narrative” being the two most common examples of words that are rarely uttered at an entomology conference.  That said, I confess that I used the word narrative several times in my own talk, but only one of my slides contained a quotation 🙂

The conference was an entertaining, educational, enjoyable and exhilarating experience and I am very grateful to Zoe for allowing me to take part in it.  I think the “Two Cultures” have a lot to learn from each other and Zoe is to be congratulated on having the idea and the perseverance to bring the project to fruition.  I very much look forward to future collaborations with her and others from the world of humanities.

And there were appropriate cakes 🙂

If you want to see the Tweets associated with the conference check out #bugznkidzlit

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“Ecological Armageddon”, we’ve known for years that insects are in decline so why so much fuss now?

Unless you have lived in a news vacuum for the last two weeks or so, you will be aware of the impending “Ecological Armageddon” that is about to be unleashed upon us.  A paper in the journal PLoS ONE  in which it was reported that there had been a 75% decline in the biomass of flying insects in protected areas in Germany since 1989 was the starting pistol that began the media frenzy.  The newspapers, both broadsheet and tabloids were quick to react as were the radio and TV stations and the coverage was global as this selection of links shows.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/29/opinion/insect-armageddon-ecosystem-.html

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/18/warning-of-ecological-armageddon-after-dramatic-plunge-in-insect-numbers

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/flying-insects-numbers-drop-ecological-armageddon-75-per-cent-plummet-a8008406.html

http://www.express.co.uk/news/science/868283/Armageddon-end-of-the-world-Germany-insects-Sussex-University-UK-Government

https://www.hs.fi/ulkomaat/art-2000005414880.html

https://risingsunoverport.co.za/53144/enviro-monday-flying-insect-populations-declining-drastically-germany/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/buzz-off-german-study-finds-dramatic-insect-decline/2017/10/19/6a087d40-b4c8-11e7-9b93-b97043e57a22_story.html?utm_term=.00836ee55dca

Entomologists were in great demand for a few days, all being asked to comment gravely on the paper and its implications.   I was also persuaded to air my thoughts on air, Talk Radio having caught me at an unguarded moment.  I should never have answered the ‘phone 😊

As the media frenzy subsided, the more considered responses began to appear.  Manu Saunders very sensibly attempted to put the study in perspective and point out its limitations. Two entomologists from the Game & Wildlife Conservancy Trust which hold an even longer data set, put forward their interpretation and an ecological consultancy also took the opportunity to comment.  The authors of the paper and the blog commentators were careful not to point the finger directly at pesticides as the main cause of this decline, although they did rule out climate change.  Agricultural intensification and the practices associated with it, were however, suggested as likely to be involved in some way, something that has been known for more than a century as the naturalist and novelist Gene Stratton-Porter  pointed out in 1909  in her novel A Girl of the Limberlost,

 Men all around were clearing available land.  The trees fell wherever corn would grow. The swamp was broken by several gravel roads…Wherever the trees fell the moisture dried, the creeks ceased to flow, the river ran low, and at times the bed was dry.  From coming in with two or three dozen rare moths a day, in three years time Elnora had grown to be delighted with finding two or three. Big pursy caterpillars could not be picked from their favourite bushes, where there were no bushes. Dragonflies could not hover over dry places and butterflies became scare in proportion to the flowers”.

What puzzles me about the media response is why now and why this particular study?  We have known for a long time that some insect groups have been in decline for many years.  The parlous state of UK butterflies and moths has been highlighted on more than one occasion over the last couple of decades (e.g. Conrad et al., 2004; Thomas et al., 2004; Fox et al., 2013), and declines in the abundance of bibionid flies (D’Arcy-Burt & Blackshaw, 1987), dragonflies (Clausnitzer et al., 2009) and carabid beetles (Brooks et al., 2012) have also been noticed and written about.  In addition, the results of a 42-year study on insects associated with cereal fields in SE England was published recently (Ewald et al., 2015), with little or no fanfare associated with it.  I commented on the decline of some insect species (and entomologists) in a blog post in 2013 and in December of last year, wrote about the general decline of insect numbers and lack of long term studies, incidentally citing the German study when it was originally published in a little known German publication back in 2013 and with far fewer authors 😊

The media response to this not new news puts me in mind of the Ash Die Back scare of 2012 when the press and politicians having

Pests and diseases recorded as entering the UK 1960-2015.  The two arrows indicate the replacement of local forest offices with central district offices and reduction in entomology and pathology staff.

been warned and made aware of the increasing incidence of non-native pests and pathogens entering the country for many years beforehand, suddenly, and in response to an intractable problem, went overboard in reporting doom and destruction

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/nov/09/ash-dieback-disease-impossible-eradicate

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/oct/24/ash-dieback-disease-east-anglia

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/earthnews/9566224/Deadly-fungus-in-Ash-trees-could-be-next-Dutch-elm-disease-warns-Woodland-Trust.html

http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2012/s3620359.htm

My hypothesis, for what it is worth, is that it is like when a tap washer starts to wear out, and your tap starts to drip. At first you just ignore it or turn the tap ever more tightly every time you use it.  Eventually something gives, either the tap breaks off (this happened to me very recently) or the drip becomes a flood.  Either way, something needs to be done, i.e. call the plumber.  In the case of the Ash Die Back episode, the UK government responded positively, albeit too late to prevent it, but by setting up the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce of which I was privileged to be a member, recommendations were made that resulted in increased forest research funding and additional legislation being put in force to hopefully reduce the chances of further invasions.  I suspect that the current “Ecological Armageddon” scenario will not result in a similar response, although it may encourage research councils worldwide to think more seriously about funding more research into sustainable agriculture and for governments to encourage farmers to adopt farming strategies that encourage more wildlife and use fewer inputs.  At the same time, given the increasing number of studies that implicate urbanisation as a major factor in the decline of insect numbers (e.g. Jones & Leather, 2012; Dennis et al., 2017) it would behove local planning authorities to increase their efforts to provide much-needed green spaces in our towns and cities and to ban the use of decking in gardens and the replacement of front gardens with concrete and tarmac car parking areas.

What it does highlight as Manu Saunders said in her blog, is that we need funding for more long-term studies.  We also need to find instances where the data already exist but have not yet been analysed, amateur records and citizen science projects may be of use here.  Alternatively, as was very recently done in France (Alignier, 2018), it is possible, using the identical protocol, to resample a site after a gap of decades, to see what changes have occurred.

I hope for the sake of our descendants that the reports of an “Ecological Armageddon” have been exaggerated.  This should however, be a wake-up call to all those with the power to do something to mitigate the decline in biodiversity worldwide.  Governments need to respond quickly and to think long-term and responsibly.  The current attitude of politicians to adopt a short-term ‘how safe is my job’ political viewpoint is no longer a viable one for the planet. It is precisely that attitude that got us into the situation that we find ourselves in now.

References

Alignier, A. (2018) Two decades of change in a field margin vegetation metacommunity as a result of field margin structure and management practice changes. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 251, 1-10.

Brooks, D.R., Bater, J.E., Clark, S.J., Montoth, D.J., Andrews, C., Corbett, S.J., Beaumont, D.A., & Chapman, J.W. (2012) Large carabid beetle declines in a United Kingdom monitoring network increases evidence for a widespread loss of insect biodiversity. Journal of Applied Ecology, 49, 1009-1019.

Clausnitzer, V., Kalkman, V.J., Ram, M., Collen, B., Baillie, J.E.M., Bedjanic, M., Darwall, W.R.T., Dijkstra, K.D.B., Dow, R., Hawking, J., Karube, H., Malikova, E., Paulson, D., Schutte, K., Suhling, F., Villaneuva, R.J., von Ellenrieder, N. & Wilson, K. (2009)  Odonata enter the biodiversity crisis debate: the first global assessment of an insect group.  Biological Conservation, 142, 1864-1869.

Conrad, K.F., Woiwod, I.P., Parsons, M., Fox, R. & Warren, M.S. (2004) Long-term population trends in widespread British moths.  Journal of Insect Conservation, 8, 119-136.

Darcy-Burt, S. & Blackshaw, R.P. (1987) Effects of trap design on catches of grassland Bibionidae (Diptera: Nematocera).  Bulletin of Entomological Research, 77, 309-315.

Dennis, E.B., Morgan, B.J.T., Roy, D.B. & Brereton, T.M. (2017) Urban indicators for UK butterflies. Ecological Indicators, 76, 184-193.

Ewald, J., Wheatley, C.J., Aebsicher, N.J., Moreby, S.J., Duffield, S.J., Crick, H.Q.P., & Morecroft, M.B. (2015) Influences of extreme weather, climate and pesticide use on invertebrates in cereal fields over 42 years. Global Change Biology, 21, 3931-3950.

Fox, R. (2013) The decline of moths in Great Britain: a review of possible causes. Insect Conservation & Diversity, 6, 5-19.

Hallmann, C.A., Sorg, M., Jongejans, E., Siepel, H., Hofland, N., Schwan, H., Stenmans, W., Müller, A., Sumser, H., Hörren, T., Goulson, D. & de Kroon, H. (2017) More than 75% decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS ONE. 12 (10):eo185809.

Jones, E.L. & Leather, S.R. (2012) Invertebrates in urban areas: a reviewEuropean Journal of Entomology, 109, 463-478.

Knowler, J.T., Flint, P.W.H., & Flint, S. (2016) Trichoptera (Caddisflies) caught by the Rothamsted Light Trap at Rowardennan, Loch Lomondside throughout 2009. The Glasgow Naturalist26, 35-42.

Thomas, J.A., Telfer, M.G., Roy, D.B., Preston, C.D., Greenwood, J.J.D., Asher, J., Fox, R., Clarke, R.T. & Lawton, J.H. (2004) Comparative losses of British butterflies, birds, and plants and the global extinction crisis.  Science, 303, 1879-1883.

 

 

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