Monthly Archives: January 2018

Battle of the Beetles – Kunoichi Beetle Girl – Maya Leonard Does it Again!

Battle of the Beetles, M.G. Leonard, 2018, Paperback, ISBN 9781910002780, Chicken House Publishing Ltd., Frome, UK.

I’m sad, I’m satisfied, I’m very impressed, I’m in a dilemma.  I’ve just finished reading Battle of the Beetles, the final instalment of M.G. Leonard’s Beetle Boy trilogy, which means, very sadly, that the adventure is over ☹

I’m satisfied, nay, very satisfied, because this final volume has lived up to the expectations raised by the previous two in the series, Beetle Boy and Beetle Queen.  I’m very impressed because Battle of the Beetles is so much more than an adventure story.  As well as being thrilling, heart-stopping, and full of action, it is also educational and raises some very important and thought-provoking issues.  I’m in a dilemma, because how can I review this excellent book without giving away spoilers?

First, just to reiterate this is a great book. It is a literary roller-coaster, featuring jungle escapades, martial arts, near-death experiences, family reunions, coleopteran gymnastics, terrifying events, pathos, bathos, scatological humour and a happy ending. In summary, a fantastic couple of hours entertainment.  If you have read the first two books in the series, you won’t be disappointed; buy or get someone to buy Battle of the Beetles for you as soon as possible.  If you haven’t read the earlier books you have some catching up to do 😊

The underlying theme of this instalment is metamorphosis and physiology and be warned there is some very memorable and slightly disturbing imagery connected with these themes.  You will never see Silphids (carrion beetles) in the same way again. Speaking of imagery, the illustrations by Karl James Mountford are stunning.  While amusing and entertaining there are some very serious underlying concepts that hopefully will not be overlooked by readers.  We learn about environmentally friendly means of pest control, e.g. pheromone disruption and the very successful and relevant real-life Sterile Insect Techniques (SIT). SIT was pioneered as a control technique against the screw worm, a serious pest of cattle in the USA (Baumhover et al., 1955; Knipling, 1955) and is now seen as a practical way forward for mosquito control or eradication (Benelli, 2015).  This may however, be the first time it has been mentioned in a work of fiction for children. Another first for Maya Leonard 🙂 The lack of undergraduate entomological training in the UK also gets a mention; the good news is that the MSc in Entomology at Harper Adams University is shortly to be joined by a new undergraduate degree, Zoology with Entomology 😊

The most thought-provoking theme is, however, that of rewilding, much in the news these days.  How far would you be willing to go to conserve species and protect the environment?  At one stage I almost felt sympathetic towards Lucretia Cutter; a truly brilliant twist to the story.  I don’t think I can say much more without giving too much away.

Embrace your inner beetle, throw away your prejudices and enjoy this fantastic adventure.  An enthralling read for everyone aged nine and above, including entomologists and ecologists.

References

Baumhover, A.H., Graham, A.J., Bitter, B.A., Hopkins, D.E., New, W.D., Dudley, F.H. & Bushland, R.C. (1955) Screw-worm control through release of sterilized flies.  Journal of Economic Entomology, 48, 462-466.

Benelli, G. (2015) Research in mosquito control: current challenges for a brighter future. Parasitology Research, 114, 2801-2805.

Knipling, E.F. (1955) Possibilities of insect control or eradication through the use of sexually sterile males. Journal of Economic Entomology, 48, 459-462.

 

Post script

I must also compliment Maya and her copy editor.  This is one of the most typo-free books I have read for some time.  I only found one error/typo, bearing used instead of baring.  Excellent proof reading.

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Pick and mix 15 – some results from sampling the World Wide Web

Prospects for UK agriculture post-Brexit look grim

It wasn’t just green plants that helped oxygenate the Earth

Will meat no longer be on the menu by 2100? A speech from the Oxford Farming Conference

A fairer food supply system?

An interesting account of agroecology in two different continents

Climate and weather are not the same thing – Donald Trump and his ilk need to realise this

What Chernobyl did to insects – an artistic exploration

Some amazing natural history art from almost 300 years ago

Ray Cannon on a big black beautiful bumblebee

Ecological guilt trips, me I gave up flying almost twenty years ago

 

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The Academic Work-Life Balance – Doing what you enjoy for as long as you can

I am very lucky.  Unlike many people, I have essentially been paid to do what I love for my whole life.  My job is my hobby, my life even. I get paid to study and talk about the natural world, insects in particular, and have done so for the past forty years.   How lucky can a person be?   That said, it hasn’t been 100% fun all the way.

As I enter semi-retirement (3 days a week) I thought I would be self-indulgent and reflective (navel gazing in other words) and share a few thoughts about my academic work-life balance past, present and future.

http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-unbalanced-scales-stevn-dutton.html

 

As a PhD student the scales were very heavy on the research side.  Apart from some demonstrating in the labs and a few Maths tutorials (BIO101) it was reading, writing and research.  Albeit this involved weekend working, but as there was plenty of time doing the week to fit in games of squash (our lab had a very competitive squash ladder) between field and lab work, it was pretty much fun all the way.

The PhD and first job– research heavy, a fun time

My first ‘permanent’ job was with the Forestry Commission, where I was based at their Northern Research Station, just outside Edinburgh.  My first few years were almost idyllic, lots of field work in remote parts of Scotland, the ability to have PhD students, giving guest lectures at Edinburgh and Aberdeen Universities, and an official ‘side-project’ time allowance which allowed me to write papers on a diverse range of subjects not included in my job description, e.g. my foray into species-area relationships (Leather, 1985,1986,1990,1991).  By the end of my time there however, government policy had changed, and we, even as a research organisation, were very much ‘customer facing’ and freedom to do less applied research was very much restricted to our own time.

Early academic life – when grant writing had some rewards and didn’t seem to take up as much time

It was thus a huge relief when I joined Imperial College at their world famous, and at the time, very collegiate, Silwood Park campus.  I was able to have coffee with luminaries such as Mike Way, Mike Hassell, John Lawton, Stuart McNeill, Val Brown and Nigel Bell as well as to rub shoulders with up and coming stars such as Sharon Lawler, Lindsay Turnbull, Jeremy Fox,  Chris Thomas, Shahid Naeem, Mike Hochberg, Charles Godfray and many others.  I could research any topic I wanted to as long as I got funding (and I did) and my teaching load, if not as light as some within the department, was manageable and very enjoyable.

It starts to tip

 

Administration has never been my thing, but as I got more senior, more administrative stuff came my way, and in my last few years at Imperial College where I was the Postgraduate Tutor, a role combining pastoral care and regulatory matters, such a chairing all the MSc exam boards and monitoring PhD student progress.  Luckily, I was very ably helped by two fantastic people, Diana Anderson and Janet Phipps.  Without them my life would have been a misery and the paperwork in an awful mess, to put it mildly.   I also ended up on a lot of college committees as well as taking on a number of external roles; editing, refereeing, external examining etc.  At the same time, Imperial College, as a joint consequence of appointing Sir Richard Sykes as Rector and the Life Sciences Faculty adopting a largely publication metric-based approach to new appointments, started to replace retiring whole organism biologists and entomologists with molecular biologists and mathematical ecologists.  Not necessarily a bad thing if managed sympathetically, but they still expected the same course content to be delivered by the few remaining whole organism biologists.  To give you an idea, when I joined the Department in 1992 there were 18 entomologists, when I left there were three of us.

My teaching load soared, while the departmental average was 25 hours per year, my personal load was 384 hours and I was also having to run a research group! The collegiate atmosphere was also very much eroded as was the attitude toward students.  When I first started at Imperial as a Lecturer, only Senior Lecturers and above could “Process” at the graduation ceremony in the Albert Hall. By the time I left, Teaching Fellows were being asked if they would like to attend. The majority of Faculty saw no benefit to them in attending.  A sorry state of affairs as far as I was, and am concerned.  Seeing our graduates happy and smiling with their families is such a buzz; why would anyone want to miss that?  We also had a change in our Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUGS), our former DUGS ‘s philosophy was to give the students the best possible experience with the resources available.  Our new DUGS’s was completely different.  His opening address to the Faculty went along the lines of “I know you don’t like teaching…” (this upset quite a few of us who did and do enjoy teaching) and his underlying philosophy was, as far as I could make out, how can we make the students think they are getting a great experience without expending too much time on them.  I was very pleased to make my move to Harper Adams University in 2012* where collegiality and student provision were, and still are, very much more valued; all Faculty are expected to attend the student graduation event unless they have a very good excuse😊

The things I have disliked the most over my career are grant applications, over long committee meetings, unnecessarily complex paperwork, office politics and marking assignments and exams.  On the plus side have been my good colleagues, lecturing, field courses, research project supervision at all levels, the opportunities to do outreach, and the students who have made it all worthwhile.

With retirement comes the opportunity to dump most, if not all, the things I dislike, and to concentrate my efforts on those aspects of the job I love the most, teaching, outreach and writing.  In the main, I have had a great time as an academic, but in the present climate, I would think very hard about advising my PhD students to take up an appointment in a Research Intensive university in the UK, especially if the value their family life and their mental well-being.

Hoping to spend more time in France 😊  The biggest challenge will be developing the ability to say no.

 

 

References

Leather, S.R. (1985)  Does the bird cherry have its ‘fair share’ of insect pests ? An appraisal of the species-area relationships of the phytophagous insects associated with British Prunus species. Ecological Entomology 10, 43-56.

Leather, S.R. (1986)  Insect species richness of the British Rosaceae: the importance of host range, plant architecture, age of establishment, taxonomic isolation and species-area relationships. Journal of Animal Ecology 55, 841-860.

Leather, S.R. (1990)  The analysis of species-area relationships, with particular reference to macrolepidoptera on Rosaceae: how important is data-set quality ?. The Entomologist 109, 8-16.

Leather, S.R. (1991)  Feeding specialisation and host distribution of British and Finnish Prunus feeding macrolepidoptera. Oikos 60, 40-48.

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The Roundabout Review 2017

Welcome to my, now definitely traditional, review of the past year.

Enjoying the summer sunshine at our house in Vinca, France

 

Impact and reach

I have continued to post at about ten-day intervals; this is my 187th post.  The more I write the easier it seems to become, and I seem to have no huge problems in coming up with ideas to write about.   As happened last year, some of my blogs have made it, in slightly modified forms, into print. My most satisfying outcome was a joint effort, arising from my desire for comparative blog statistics as reported in last year’s review.  Some of my favourite bloggers and I got together and we produced a paper all about blogging!

I was also invited to give two talks about my blogging and tweeting, one at ENTO17 in Newcastle, the other, much more scary, was  a keynote address at the National Biodiversity Network Conference in Cardiff, where I was filmed live on Facebook.  For those of you who remain lukewarm about the idea that social media has a place in science, I feel that this is pretty convincing evidence that science communication via social media is a very worthwhile use of our time.

My blog had visitors from 165 countries (164 last year and 150 in 2015), so it looks like my international reach has probably peaked but as there are only 195 countries in total, I guess reaching 85% of them is a bit of an achievement.  My blog received 40 853 views (34 036 last year; 29 385 in 2015).  This year, for the first time, the majority of my readers came from the USA, with views from India moving from 8th to 5th place.

Top ten countries for views

Top reads

My top post (excluding my home page) in 2017 was one of my aphid posts,  A Winter’s Tale – Aphid Overwintering,  which came second last year.  although my all-time winner is still Not All Aphids are Vegans with over 6 000 views.  My top ten posts tend to be either about aphids or entomological techniques/equipment which I guess means that I am filling an entomological niche.

Top Ten Reads 2017


Trends

There still seems to be no signs of the number of people viewing my site reaching an asymptote, or, for that matter, taking off exponentially; just a straightforward linear relationship.

New Year 4

Interactions

My top commenters, were the same as last year, Emma Maund, Emily Scott, Emma Bridges, Jeff Ollerton, Amelia from A French Garden and Philip Strange.   Many thanks to all my readers and especially to those who take the time to comment as well as pressing the like button. I look forward to interacting with you all in 2018.

 

Twitter

I continue to tweet prolifically and  find my interactions on Twitter very rewarding.  I have this year become somewhat more political; Brexit and Trump, need I say more?  The majority of my tweets are, however, still entomological and ecological and the increase in political comment has not stopped my followers from growing.  I finished 2016 with 4960 followers and begin 2018 with almost a thousand more, 5860.   It would have been to hit the 6 000-follower milestone before the end of the year.

The Future

This coming year is also marks a change in circumstances for me as I have partially retired,  the idea being that I will spend more time doing the things I enjoy and perhaps finally get some of my book projects off the ground.  I have a number of projects planned   ranging from a field course handbook to a popular science aphid book, if you can imagine such a thing 😊 The idea is that I will spend a significant proportion of my time in France where I hope that the wine and superb scenery will inspire me to great things.

And if anyone is worried that this means that the entomological provision at Harper Adams University will be diminished, rest assured.  My reduced contract means that we have been able to appoint a very talented junior member of faculty, Heather Campbell (@ScienceHeather) whom I am sure will be a great success.  Additionally, as I will be doing pretty much the same teaching as I have always done, our entomology provision will actually increase.  A win-win as far as I am concerned.

Contemplating new horizons?

 

A Happy and Prosperous New Year to you all.

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