Monthly Archives: February 2019

“Insectageddon” – bigger headlines, more hype, but where’s the funding?

Unless you have been hibernating in a deep, dark cave or on another planet, you can hardly have missed the ‘insectageddon’ media frenzy that hit the UK (and elsewhere) on Monday (11th February).

This time the stimulus was a review paper outlining the dramatic decline in insect numbers, from two Australian authors (Sánchez-Bayo & Wyckhus, 2019).  Their paper, based on 73 published studies on insect decline showed that globally, 41% of insect species are in decline, which is more than twice that reported for vertebrates.  They also highlighted that a third of all insect species in the countries studied are threatened with extinction.  Almost identical figures were reported some five years ago (Dirzo et al., 2014), but somehow escaped the attention of the media.

I’m guessing that a clever press release by either the authors’ university or from the publisher of Biological Conservation set the ball rolling and the appearance of the story in The Guardian newspaper on Monday morning got the rest of the media in on the act.

The headline that lit the fuse – The Guardian February 11th  2019

The inside pages

A flurry of urgent phone calls and emails from newspapers, radio stations and TV companies resulted as the various news outlets tried to track down and convince entomologists to put their heads above the parapet and comment on the story and its implications for mankind.  I was hunted down mid-morning by the BBC, and despite not being in London and recovering from a bad cold, was persuaded to appear live via a Skype call.  A most disconcerting experience as although I was visible to the audience and interviewer, I was facing a blank screen, so no visual cues to respond to.  According to those who saw it, it was not a disaster 🙂  Entomologists from all over the country, including at least three of my former students, were lured into TV and radio studios and put through their entomological paces.

Me, former student Tom Oliver (University of Reading), Blanca Huertas (NHM) and former student Andy Salisbury (RHS Wisley), getting our less than fifteen minutes of fame 🙂

As far as I know, we all survived relatively unscathed and the importance of insects (and entomologists) for world survival was firmly established; well for a few minutes anyway 🙂

It is the ephemeral nature of the media buzz that I want to discuss first.  Looking at the day’s events you would be forgiven that the idea of an ecological Armageddon brought about by the demise of the world’s insects was something totally new.   If only that were so.

Three years of insect decline in the media

The three years before the current outbreak of media hype have all seen similar stories provoking similar reactions, a brief flurry of media attention and expressions of concern from some members of the public and conservation bodies and then a deafening silence. Most worrying of all, there has been no apparent reaction from the funding bodies or the government, in marked contrast to the furore caused, by what was, on a global scale, a relatively minor event, Ash Die Back.  Like now, I responded to each outcry by writing a blog post, so one in 2016, one in 2017 and another last year.

So, will things be different this time, will we see governments around the world, after all this is a global problem, setting up urgent expert task forces and siphoning research funding into entomology? Will we see universities advertising lots of entomologically focused PhD positions?  I am not hopeful. Despite three years of insectageddon stories, the majority of ecology and conservation-based PhDs advertised by British universities this autumn, were concerned with vertebrates, many based in exotic locations, continuing the pattern noted many years ago. In terms of conservation and ecology it seems that funding is not needs driven but heavily influenced by glamorous fur and feathers coupled with exotic field sites (Clarke & May, 2002).

The paper that caused the current media outbreak (Sánchez-Bayo & Wyckhus, 2019) although hailed by the media as new research, was actually a review of 73 papers published over the last several years.  It is not perfect, for one thing the search terms used to find the papers used in the review included the term decline, which means that any papers that did not show evidence of a decline over the last forty years were not included e.g. Shortall et al. (2009; Ewald et al. (2015), both of  which showed that in some insects and locations, populations were not declining, especially if the habitats that they favoured were increasing, e.g. forests, a point I raised in my 2018 post.  Another point of criticism is that the geographic range of the studies was rather limited, almost entirely confined to the northern hemisphere (Figure 1). Some commentators have also criticised the analysis, pointing out that it was

Figure 1. Countries from which data were sourced (Sánchez-Bayo & Wyckhus, 2019).

not, as stated by the authors, a true meta-analysis but an Analysis of Variance.  Limitations there may be, but the take home message that should not be ignored, is that there are many insect species, especially those associated with fresh water, that are in steep decline.  The 2017 paper showing a 75% reduction in the biomass of flying insects in Germany (Hallmann et al., 2017), also attracted some criticism, mainly because although the data covered forty years, not all the same sites were sampled every year.  I reiterate, despite the shortcomings of both these papers, there are lots of studies that show large declines in insect abundance and they should not be taken lightly, or as some are doing on Twitter, dismissing them as hysterical outpourings with little basis in fact.

https://www.itv.com/news/2019-02-11/insect-mass-extinction-headlines-do-not-tell-whole-story-and-risk-undermining-threat-of-declining-numbers/

It is extremely difficult, especially with the lack of funding available to entomologists to get more robust data.  The Twitter thread below from Alex Wild, explains the problems facing entomologists much more clearly and lucidly than I could.  Please read it carefully.

Masterly thread by Alex Wild – millions of insects, millions of ways to make a living and far too few entomologists

I am confident that I speak for most entomologists, when I say how frustrated we feel about the way ecological funding is directed.  Entomologists do get funding, but a lot of it is directed at crop protection. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good thing, and something I have benefited from throughout my career.  Modern crop protection aims to reduce pesticide use by ecological means, but we desperately need to train more entomologist of all hues and to persuade governments and grant bodies to fund entomological research across the board, not just bees, butterflies and dragonflies, but also the small, the overlooked and the non-charismatic ones  (Leather & Quicke, 2010).  A positive response by governments across the world is urgently needed.  Unfortunately what causes a government to take action is hard to understand as shown by how swiftly the UK government responded to the globally trivial impact of Ash Die Back but continues to ignore the call for a greater understanding of the significance of and importance of insects, insectageddon notwithstanding.

I put the blame for lack of entomological funding in the UK on the way that universities have been assessed in the UK over the last twenty years or so (Leather, 2013). The Research Excellence Framework and the way university senior management responded to it has had a significant negative effect on the recruitment of entomologists to academic posts and this has of course meant that entomological teaching and awareness of the importance of  insects to global health has decreased correspondingly.

I very much hope that this current outbreak of media hype will go some way to curing the acute case of entomyopia that most non-entomologists suffer from. I  fear however, that unless the way we teach biology in primary and secondary schools changes, people will continue to focus on the largely irrelevant charismatic mega-fauna and not the “little things that run the world”

Perhaps if publicly supported conservation organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature concentrated on invertebrates a bit more that would help.  A good start would be to remove the panda, an animal that many of us consider ecologically irrelevant from their logo, and replace it with an insect. Unlikely I know, but if they must have a mammal as their flagship species, how about sloths, at least they have some ‘endemic’ insect species associated with them 🙂

References

Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P.R. & Dirzo, R. (2017) Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signalled by vertebrate population losses and declines. Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, 114, E6089-E6096.

Clark, J.A. & May, R.M. (2002) Taxonomic bias in conservation research. Science, 297, 191-192.

Dirzo, R., Young, H.S., Galetti, M., Ceballos, G., Isaac, N.J.B., & Collen, B. (2014) Defaunation in the anthropocene. Science, 345, 401-406.

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.

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.

Leather, S.R. (2013) Institutional vertebratism hampers insect conservation generally; not just saproxylic beetle conservation. Animal Conservation, 16, 379-380.

Leather, S.R. & Quicke, D.L.J. (2010) Do shifting baselines in natural history knowledge threaten the environment? Environmentalist, 30, 1-2.

Sánchez-Bayo, F. & Wyckhus, K.A.G. (2019) Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers. Biological Conservation, 232, 8-27.

Shortall, C.R., Moore, A., Smith, E., Hall, M.J., Woiwod, I.P., & Harrington, R. (2009) Long-term changes in the abundance of flying insects. Insect Conservation & Diversity, 2, 251-260.

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Pick and Mix 27 – some things I found of interest; perhaps you will too?

Not a painting, but a photograph I took through the train window – in between Sete and Montpellier

 

Even hares eat meat sometimes

Continuing the carnivorous theme, an Interesting article about pitcher plants

The iconic palm trees of the south of France are under threat

Hope for the future?  Blog post by Joern Fischer about sustainability

And here Jeff Ollerton reflects on the above

Another name for biodiversity offsetting, but it still doesn’t add up

A call for more common names for moths

How insect art can become entomological outreach

Ted MacRae on his latest insect collecting trip – some fantastic photographs

How to thread a needle easily – fantastic but does it actually work?

 

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Skype a Scientist – a great way to invest in the future

I do a lot of outreach or “reach out” as my contract endearingly terms it 🙂 In terms of talks, my outreach spans a great range of ages and experiences; from the University of the 3rd Age (U3A), Women’s Institutes, the Rotary Club and similar organisations, local Natural History Societies, Garden Clubs, and less often, schools and youth groups.  As you can see from the preceding list, most of my ‘formal’ standing in front of an audience and lecturing outreach, although not primarily aimed at the older generation, does most often find them.  Face to face interactions with the younger generation is mainly via University Open Days and events like the Big Bang Fair which are great fun but are annual one-offs. I was thus very pleased when I discovered Skype A Scientist last year and had the chance to extend my ‘face to face’ interactions with the younger generation, not just in the UK but around the world.  My two favourite classroom session were with 9-10 year olds, one class in a primary school in Northern Ireland and the other in an elementary school in Cincinnati.

The questions they asked are wonderful, heartening and stimulating. Some, especially the ‘why’ ones, are pretty hard to answer, remember the ‘language’ we speak as scientists has a vocabulary that is not necessarily the same as that of a 9-year old.  Although I have listed all the questions they asked, I’m not going to post all my attempts at answering them, just some of the ones that weren’t as easy as you might think.  Thankfully, the teachers were kind enough to send me a list of the questions a few days before the session, otherwise I would have been in trouble 🙂  Try answering them yourself and as a side exercise, which questions came from which school?  If you haven’t done Skye A Scientist, I can thoroughly recommend it and hopefully, as a community we can sow enough idea seeds in this age group for a large number to germinate and grow into a high yielding crop of future scientists.

School 1

Do all animals drink water?

Do you mostly work indoors or outdoors?

How did you get interested in your job?

How did you get into your job? Hard work and luck

How long have you been in the insect profession? A long time 🙂

How can you tell poisonous bugs apart from not poisonous bugs? An excellent question as gave me the opportunity to talk about warning colouration and the difference between poisonous and venomous

How does a caterpillar turn into a butterfly? Harder than it seems

How do you get rid of the pests without killing the crops? Gave me the chance to talk about phytotoxicity

How do you remove pesticides without hurting and ruining the food and water? This was actually about organic farming

If you could save any insect from extinction which insect would it be? Really difficult to answer this

Is pesticide the only chemical hurting the plants/insects or is there more? Chance to talk about pollution issues

What is your favourite part in an ecosystem and why?    The insects – because they are cool

What is your favourite consumer?

What is your favourite insect? Had to be an aphid, but then I had to explain what an aphid was 🙂

What is your favourite animal that you have worked with? Large willow aphid of course

What is your favourite animal(s) in the ecosystems you observe? Obviously aphids 🙂

What is the most dangerous insect? Hard to answer, but did give me an opportunity to talk about allergic reactions

What are the most common pests that harm crops? An easy one

What is the coolest animal/insect you have ever seen?   Again, really hard, because there is so much variety, I went for Snow flea, Boreus hiemalis 🙂

What did you want to be when you were a kid? Gerald Durrell 🙂

When did you become a scientist? A long time ago 🙂

Why do insects that have stingers have stingers? One of those why questions!

What’s your favourite animal/insect that you had ever helped? I went for spider just to be controversial

Why did you choose the career of being a college professor in science?

What is your favourite part of your job?  Talking to people about insects

What chemicals have you worked with, and which ones are the most harmful?

What is your favourite insect to learn and inspect? Always aphids 🙂

What kind of animals do you mostly research? Guess what?

What are some tools you use? Told them about pooters

What insect has been infected the most from the chemicals?

Where do you work?

What do you wear for work? What I’m wearing now – jeans and shirt with sleeves rolled up 🙂

What do you think of pesticides?  Gave me a chance to talk about pros and cons and specificity

Why did you chose to be an ecologist? Gerald Durrell

Why do butterflies drink tears from turtle’s eyes? Great chance to talk about puddling and peeing in tropical forests to attract butterflies

You know how there are certain bugs that look the same as other bugs that are poisonous, how does that species that looks the same as the poisonous ones stay not over-populated? Very interesting question and lots to talk about concerning mimicry and aposematism

 

School 2

Are spiders insects?

Can you heal an ant if it gets sick? Interesting question and gave me a chance to talk about ants helping each other

Do insects sleep at night? Depends on how you define sleep

Do insects hibernate? Some do

Do insects see in black and white or colour? Colour, but generally not red and chance to talk about UV vision

Do slugs have sharp teeth? Depends on what you mean by teeth and sharp

Can leaf cutter ants eat through human skin? Ouch, yes

Can ants swim? Chance to talk about surface tension

How are ants so strong even though they are so small?

How do crickets make the clicking sound?

How many types of insects are there in the world? Lots and a great opportunity to have a rant about vertebrates 🙂

How do butterflies get coloured? Difficult as had to talk about scales, refraction, wavelengths etc

What is a beehive made of?

What is a beetle’s body made of? Easy on the surface but then you have to work out how to describe chitin

What do woodlice eat?

Why are bees so important?  Gave me a chance to talk about how important other pollinators are and how chocolate lovers should love flies 🙂

Why do spiders have so many eyes? Yep!

Why do bees make honey?

Why do dung beetles roll dung? Nice question

Why are bugs so small?  Good opportunity to debunk giant insects in horror films and talk about insect respiratory systems

Why do insects have 6 legs? I went for the descended from organisms with lots of legs and because of size and balance problems, six was the most stable reduction (tripod theory).  Mercifully nobody picked me up about mantids or Nymphalids 🙂

What is the biggest insect? Luckily had a photo to hand

 

As you can see a bit of a challenge even with advance warning, but definitely worth doing.  School 1 was in the USA and School 2 the UK.  Did you guess correctly?

This year I am looking forward to talking to schools in Moscow and Switzerland; truly global reach.  How cool is that?

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