Ten more papers that shook my world – When it comes to plant-insect interactions its growth stage, not age that counts Watt (1979)

This is not just about a paper, but also about mentoring!  At the beginning of October 1977, I hesitantly knocked on the door of Professor Tony Dixon’s outer office in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of East Anglia, Norwich.  Tony was to become my PhD supervisor for the next three years and my friend and colleague for the next forty plus years, but until that day I had never met him, as my interview had been conducted entirely by telephone and in those pre-internet days, unless you had met someone at a conference you really only knew them by their papers and reputation.  I knew Tony because of his great little book, The Biology of Aphids which I had bought as an undergraduate in 1975, when I realised that aphids were really cool 😊 I told his secretary who I was and she directed me through to his office.  Tony looked up, said hello and asking me to follow him, took me down to the lab where I was to spend the next three years and introduced me to a tall, moustachioed Scotsman, Allan Watt, whom I was later to discover had a wicked sense of humour, and was to become not just a colleague and collaborator, but also a great friend, a friendship that continues to this day.  Tony’s introduction was roughly along the lines of “This is Allan, he’ll tell you what to do” and he did. Allan was just starting the final year of his PhD which was, like a number of us in Tony’s lab, on cereal aphids, in Allan’s case Sitobion avenae and Metopolphium dirhodum, the two major pests of cereals in the UK at the time.  My PhD was on a less abundant (in cereal crops), but equally problematic aphid, due to its ability to transmit Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus, the bird cherry-oat aphid Rhopalosiphum padi.  Having got my aphid cultures set up and done a couple of practice mini-experiments, I asked Allan what he was doing with his aphids.  He told me that he was looking at the effect of cereal growth stage on the survival and reproduction of his two aphid species and that the age of the plant had a significant effect on the aphids and that this varied between the two species, which he published a couple of years later (Watt, 1979).  Having been immersed in the cereal aphid literature for a couple of months, I knew that no one had done this for my aphid, and even then, being a great believer in “standing on the shoulders of giants” I figured that I could do the same for my aphid, but, in that never ending treadmill of adding novelty, also look at the effect of feeding position*. Allan’s advice and help stood me in good stead, and in due course I successfully published the results of my experiment (Leather & Dixon, 1981).

So, leaving aside me getting a publication as a result of Allan’s paper, how did this shake my World?  Well, first of all, it really drove home to me that plant phenological stage was incredibly important for insect-plant interactions and that unless you know the precise growth stage at which an interaction is happening it is difficult to compare other peoples’ results to yours and each other’s. As a result, it has led me as a reviewer and reader of papers, to be very scathing of phrases such as “ten-day old wheat plant”, “week old cabbage seedlings”, “young pea plant” (Leather, 2010).  It is deeply unhelpful for anyone wanting to repeat or compare similar work.  Just a few degrees difference in temperature over a week can move a plant from one phenological stage to another. There is no excuse for this type of sloppiness.

Two seven-day old wheat plants, same cultivar, same germination date, one reared at 20⁰C the other at 10⁰C. Growth stage 12 versus Growth stage 10 (Growth stages as described by Tottman & Makepeace, 1979).

The same two plants now fourteen day sold, GS 13 versus GS 12

It is not hard to find a solution.  The World has been blessed by the invention of the BBCH** system for coding plant phenological stages (Meier et al., 2009).  This system, which now exists for most major crop plants, including trees, means that there is no excuse for anyone to ever use the phrase “ten-day old plant” or similar wording. If by some chance, your plant does not yet have a BBCH description, either describe the growth stage that your plants are at in very precise terms or take the time to codify it yourself and submit it to a journal such as Annals of Applied Biology which has a long history of publishing such articles.

To be fair, before the BBCH system came into being, people had published descriptions of plant growth stages for some of the major crops, e.g. cereals (Feekes, 1941; Large, 1954), but they were not standardised, and in some cases, too broad-brush.  The stimulus for a standardised, decimal system of coding plant phenological stages was the publication of the Zadoks scale for cereals (Zadoks et al., 1974) and the illustrated follow-up a few years later (Tottman & Makepeace, 1979), the latter being the blueprint on which phenological growth stage papers are now based.

I look forward to the day when authors understand that a precise knowledge of plant growth stage is essential to understanding insect-plant interactions and I do NOT have to chide authors for not using the BBCH codification when I review their papers.



Feekes, W. (1941) De Tarwe en haar milieu. Vers. XVII Tech. Tarwe Comm. Groningen, 560-561.

Large, E.C. (1954) Growth stages in cereals. Plant Pathology, 3, 128-129.

Leather, S.R. (2010) Precise knowledge of plant growth stages enhances applied and pure research. Annals of Applied Biology, 157, 159-161.

Leather, S.R. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1981) The effect of cereal growth stage and feeding site on the reproductive activity of the bird cherry aphid Rhopalosiphum padi. Annals of Applied  Biology, 97, 135-141.

Meier, U., Bleiholder, H., Buhr, L., Feller, C., Hack, H., Hess, M., Lancashire, P.D., Schnock, U., Strauss, R., Vanden Boom, T., Weber, E. & Zwerger, P. (2009) The BBCH system to coding the phenological growth stages of plants – history and publications. Journal fur Kulturpflanzen, 61, S.41-52.

Tottman, D.R. & Makepeace, R.J. (1979) An explanation of the decimal code for the growth stage of cereals, with illustrations. Annals of Applied Biology, 93, 221-234.

Watt, A.D. (1979) The effect of cereal growth stages on the reproductive activity of Sitobion avenae and Metopolphium dirhodum. Annals of Applied Biology, 91, 147-157.

Watt, A.D. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1981) The effect of cereal growth stages and crowding of aphids on the induction of alatae in Sitobion avenae. Ecological Entomology, 6, 441-447.

Watt, A.D. & Wratten, S.D. (1984) The effects of growth stage in wheat on yield reductions caused by the rose grain aphid, Metopolophium dirhodum. Annals of Applied Biology, 104, 393-397.

Zadoks, J.C., Chang, T.T. & Konzak, C.F. (1974) A decimal code for the growth stages of cereals. Weed Research, 14, 415-421.





*Rhopaloisphum padi, in contrast to Sitobion avenae, is usually found on the lower stem and leaves of cereals.


The abbreviation BBCH derives from the names of the originally participating stakeholders: “Biologische Bundesanstalt, Bundessortenamt und CHemische Industrie”. Allegedly, the abbreviation is said to unofficially represent the four companies that initially sponsored its development; Bayer, BASF, Ciba-Geigy, and Hoechst.



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