Monthly Archives: February 2020

Pick & Mix 42 – Scan, click, enjoy

Can you pass the British fungi challenge?

Interesting article about how the Victorians tried to get closer to Nature by using insects as jewellery

The best science communication is done by telling a story – thanks to Terry McGlynn for the link

More evidence that beetle diversification was linked to the rise of flowering plants after all.

Markus Eichhorn on the need to decolonise biogeography – link to original paper here

Unlike politicians, good scientists are willing to admit they make mistakes and take steps to rectify them.  Here Kate Laskowski, tells the story of how she discovered errors in her data and what she did about it.

Is it racist to say that Prince Albert was German?  Miles King ponders on the furore a Horrible History skit caused

Interesting article from a former student of mine, Tom Oliver, also a book plug 🙂

Here my favourite Dipterist and fellow wine aficionado, Erica McAlister @FlygirlNHM talks about where she works

And to finish of this week’s selections – here from GrrlScientist, is a summary of two important papers about the now undisputed fact that insect populations are in decline, and importantly what we as individuals and governments, could and should be doing about it.  Insects may be small but they are the little things that run the world.

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Striders, Skaters, Tailors, Water Spiders and Measurers too – Gerrid Names Around the World

Dedicated followers of my blog will know that I have a bit of a thing about the names people call commonly seen insects around the World. Who can forget the Wheat Dolphin, the Alder Warbler, the Hairy Winged Water Butterflies and the great Thrips debate?  You may also recall that I am writing a book, the deadline for which is fast approaching.  I am also a first-class procrastinator and being just about to start the chapter on aquatic insects which is proving to be a bit more challenging than I thought it would be, found myself heading straight into procrastinator mode 🙂

I have always found Gerrids* fascinating, their ability to skim across the surface of ponds and streams, and to dodge my childhood attempts to catch them bare handed along with the painful discovery, that, like any insect with a piercing mouthpart, they can ‘sting’ 🙂 Although not as exciting as aphids 🙂 Gerrids have some interesting facets to their biology and ecology. They have short- and long-winged forms (Fairbairn, 1988), use ‘ripple communication’ to attract mates (Hayashi, 1985) and some species show territorial behaviour and mate guarding (Arnqvist, 1988).  Even more fascinating, and something I didn’t’ discover until I was in my early forties and swimming off the coast of Mauritius (work, not holiday), that although 90% of Gerrids are freshwater dwellers, there are forty species within the genus Halobates, the Sea and Ocean Skaters, five of which are truly marine.  The naturalist Johann von Eschscholtz first discovered them during his voyage on the Russian expeditionary ship Rurik between 1815 and 1818.  I hope that when I get round to finishing my book you will be able to read more about them.  In the meantime, more details can be found in the key references listed at the end of this article.

My previous excursions into global insect names have involved my own limited language skills, Google Translate and direct emails to friends from around the World.  This time I thought I would give the Twitter community a chance to display their collective wisdom.  I was not disappointed. Within 48 hours of posting my request for help, had an excellent collection of names, including dialectal variations, which I would never have come across otherwise.  The majority of the names, as you might expect, refer to the ability that Gerrids have of walking or skating on water, so much so that in parts of North America they are known as Jesus Bugs. More surprising, are the references to tailors and shoemakers and measuring.  This could have its roots in the way in which before the invention of tape measures, cloth merchants and tailors measured lengths of fabric using yardsticks or by extending their arms and holding the cloth from hand to shoulder, which could be seen to resemble the way in which Pond Skaters moved their legs. That said, in the UK, the name, water measurer is reserved for members of the Hydrometridae. Some confusion or overlap also occurred with Water Boatmen, in the USA, the Corixids, in the UK, the backswimmers, Notonecta. Corixids have paddle shaped legs and swim, while backswimmers, also with paddles, swim upside down.  True Pond Skaters, the Gerrids, move across the water surface, they really do walk on water.

Finally, here, mainly from Europe, are the results.  If anyone has more languages to add please do so in the comments.

Afrikaans             Waterloper – water walker

Arabic                   بركة متزلج   barakat mutazalij – no idea but looks pretty 🙂

Bulgarian            водомерка Vodomеrka (voda = water, mеrka = measure)

Canadian             Water skeeters, Jesus Bugs

Czech                    Vodoměrka (voda = water, měř = measure)

Danish                  Skøjteløbere – which word by word translates to skater-runners but simply means skaters

Dutch                    Schaatsenrijders – skaters.

Finnish                  Vesimittari =water measurer; mittari is also the Finnish name for Geometridae moths, such as winter moth = hallamittari = frost measurer

Flemish                Schrijvertje, little writer.

French                  Araignée d’eau, also Patineur,  which is also the name used for an ice skater! Derived from « Patin » which is an ice skate. In the local language of South-Eastern France, le provençal. It is called Lou courdounié, that means “the shoe maker” (cordonnier in French). Apparently, the movement of their legs is reminiscent of the way in which shoemakers work

Galician                Zapateiro, shoe maker, but also costureira, dress maker, pita cega, blind hen, and cabra cega, blind goat

German               Wasserläufer, water runners. In some parts of Germany, the colloquial term is Schneider or Wasserschneider, water tailor

Hungarian           Molnárpoloskák, where molnár = miller and poloskák = Heteroptera

Italian                    Ragni d’acqua, directly translates as water spiders

Latin                      Tippula – water walker, very light – see this extract from Ian Beavis’ book

Polish                    Nartnik wodny. Nartnik is a derivation of narciarz meaning skier; wodny means associated with water.

Portuguese        Alfaiate, tailor

Russian                 Vodomerki (водомерки),  = water measurers

Spanish                The “official” name in Spanish seems to be “guérridos” (from its Latin name, Gerris lacustrae), but more commonly called zapateros,      shoe makers. Patinador de estanque skater of ponds, also chinche de agua, watert bug, cucaracha de agua, water flea, saltacharcos (?),  limpia aguas Tapaculos, clean water Tapaculos in southern Spain’s Spanish. Any clues on the etymology of the last two gratefully received.

Swedish               Skräddare , tailor, because their leg-motions look like scissors cutting.  Also known as vattenlöpare, water-runners.

Tamil                  நீர்தாண்டி (neerthaandi); neer means water and thandi is akin to crossing/crosser, so water crosser would be the closest direct translation.  It may be an overactive imagination, but to me the first character looks like someone skating 🙂

Welsh                   Rhiain y dwr, Lords of the water but also hirheglyn y dŵr, water long-legs

 

Many thanks to all those who responded to my Twitter request, it was very much appreciated.

 

References

Arnqvist, G. (1988)  Mate guarding and sperm displacement in the water strider Gerris lateralis Schumm. (Heteroptera: Gerridae).  Freshwater Biology, 19,269-274.

Cheng, L. (1985) Biology of Halobates (Heteroptera: Gerridae). Annual Review of Entomology, 30, 111-135.

Fairbairn, D.J. (1988) Adaptive significance of wing dimorphism in the absence of dispersal: a comparative study of wing morphs in the waterstrider Gerris remigis. Ecological Entomology, 13, 273-281.

Hayashi, K. (1985) Alternative mating strategies in the water strider Gerris elongntus (Heteroptera, Gerridae). Behavioral Ecology & Sociobiology, 16, 301-306.

Spence, J.R. & Anderson, N.M. (1994) Biology of water striders: interactions between systematics and ecology.  Annual Review of Entomology, 39, 101-128.

*Gerrids are true bugs, Hemiptera, which are characterised by the possession of piercing and sucking mouthparts.

Many thanks to all those who responded to my Twitter request, it was very much appreciated.

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Collect by all means, but….

Some of Wallace’s beetles

 

Leaving aside grant writing and committee meetings, which are, in theory, voluntary, the part of academic life I hate the most is marking assignments and exams.  At this time of year, however, I find myself actually enjoying marking student assignments. You may well ask why, what is it that makes these assignments different?  The reason is simple enough; many years ago, when thinking about ways in which to satisfy learning outcomes and to give our MSc students worthwhile skills in a different and enjoyable way, I had a flash of inspiration. I came up with two assignments that I felt our aspiring entomologists would appreciate and that I, and my colleagues would enjoy marking.  One is a written piece of work based on the Royal Entomological Society student essay competition. This not only gives the students the chance to write about something they like in a totally different format than their usual essays and lab reports, but as they are encouraged to submit their essays to the prize committee, they get the chance to gain a monetary reward, and many do so*.

The second assignment which I ‘borrowed’ from my own days as an entomology student, is to collect and curate a small insect collection, with the added twist of preparing a factsheet/booklet, suitable for use at outreach events, describing the collection with notes on the biology and ecology of the specimens, capped off with a fun fact for each insect. The students do a fantastic job with both the collections and the accompanying leaflets, booklets and posters (they are allowed a very free rein as to how they present the fact sheets).  They are so good in fact, that I borrow some of them to use at outreach activities**.

Some examples of the student collections.  Apologies for the lousy photographs 😊

Now on to the meat of my post. Although initially aimed at the use of live animals (by which they meant vertebrates, the three Rs of biomedical research, reduction, refinement replacement (Russell & Burch, 1959) now widely permeate society and have meant that many of the zoology practical classes that I did as an undergraduate, e.g. examining the effect of adrenaline on exposed frog hearts, or infecting scores of day-old chicks with Eimeria tenella, ready for killing (by the students) and subsequent dissection of the gut, are, and rightly so, no longer part of the student curriculum.  Although as entomologists we deplore the common perception that insects are not, for the most part, recognised as animals by funding bodies, or the general public, we are glad that this allows us to escape the dreaded ethics forms and licences to allow us to work on living material. As entomologists however, whether we work on pests or on insects of conservation interest, we are deeply in love with our study animals and although some of us (not me, I have always been an observer rather than a pinner) may own or manage large collections of insects, we do this from necessity not from a love of killing.  This is, and always has been, something of a conflict for us entomologists since the first one emerged from the undergrowth clutching a treasured specimen (Newman, 1841).

Newman (1841) on why entomologists are more humane than non-entomologists

 

Joseph Greene – another early ethical entomologist

Living insects are not always amenable to transport and display; the standard fare at outreach events are stick insects, leaf insects, flower beetles and Madagascan hissing cockroaches, fulfilling the hardiness, cuteness and “yuk” factors respectively and in all cases, being large enough to see easily.  I have taken living specimens of the “World’s biggest aphid” along on many occasions, only to be greeted with responses that can only be described as of complete underwhelming disdain 😊We want and need to show the fantastic diversity of insects and the easiest way to do this is with the standard display boxes.

Our basic outreach display box of common British insects

Boxes such as the above do not usually cause much controversy although some visitors do ask why we need to kill and pin the insects.  It is the boxes of what look like identical specimens lined out in serried rows that cause the most questioning.

Serried rows – the infinite variety withing species – thanks to Erica McAlister from the NHM for the photograph.

My response is to ask my interlocutor to imagine that they are a 10 metre tall explorer from a distant Galaxy that has landed on Earth and collected a couple of humans, which you carefully preserve and take back to your home planet and donate them to a museum as typical Earth specimens. Now, imagine another intrepid collector arrives on Earth with the description of your specimens which unbeknownst to either of you happen to be two males from an Amazonian tribe. Alien Explorer 2 has landed in Iceland at a ladies day at a hot spring.  What is han to make of the specimens han trapped? This is usually enough to make my point and of course I also explain about the huge importance of type specimens and the advantage of being able to look and compare whole specimens from every angle, which despite the huge advances in photography and 3-D imagery is not always possible with virtual images.

Unfortunately, not everyone has had the need for collecting and the importance of reference collections explained to them by an entomologist,  and some individuals can get very worked up about what they perceive as needless cruelty or desecration of Nature, sometimes with very unfortunate outcomes. The late Philip Corbet, one of the most eminent Odonatologist of modern times, then in his early 70s, was once badly beaten up by a member of the public at a Nature Reserve to which he (Philip) had been invited to collect a rare type specimen.  Adam Hart and Sierian Sumner received a deluge of personal abuse for asking people to kill and collect wasps as part of a citizen science project and at the risk of reopening a can of worms, annelid expert Emma Sherlock from the Natural History Museum London, was hounded on-line and in the main stream media for investigating the largest ever Lumbricus terrestris, to see if it was a species new to science or a genetic aberration.

The worm in question

In Emmas’s own words, “To identify earthworms generally there are less than half I can identify accurately alive, the rest you always have to preserve to identify. For the people saying you shouldn’t preserve animals how are you ever to conserve them? You need to add a name to the animal to be able to learn more about it and to conserve it if it needs help. Like the little polychaete worm that halted the big road development a few years back. If a specimen hadn’t been taken and given a name then it is just a worm, and there are lots of worms and therefore worms are not in need of protection”.

This is also the case for many insect species, which can for example, only be identified by close examination of their genitalia, in many cases, by dissection, so certainly not possible to do with living specimens.  Another point of concern that could be raised is the phenomenon of moth trapping.  Until I went on Twitter, I hadn’t thought deeply about moth trapping.  I was involved with running one of the Rothamsted Insect Survey moth traps when I was doing my PhD at the University of East Anglia, but hadn’t realised that it was a bit of a phenomenon with even hard-core ornithologists running traps in their gardens. Given the reports of insect declines over the last couple of decades (Leather, 2018) is this something we should deplore and restrict? Very sensibly, moth trappers (moth’ers) have not ignored the problem and the consensus seems to be that moth trapping per se, pales into insignificance when compared with the other pressures on insect populations.

I suspect that like most entomologists, I have what might seem to non-entomologists a contradictory relationship with insects.  My research spans the world of conservation and crop protection.  As an ecologist, my group and I are trying to come up with ways in which to enhance and protect insect diversity and abundance.  The other members of the group are looking at better ways to protect our crops so that we can feed the world, and this inevitably involves killing pest insects to reduce their populations.  In my own garden, insects are allowed to flourish and I cringe when I see or hear people telling me how they run their fingers and thumbs along rose buds to squash the aphids.  I feel guilty if I accidentally wash a spider down the drain when I am having a shower, but have no compunction at all in squashing a mosquito or swatting a stable fly when she attempts to suck my blood!

It is precisely this conflict of interests that has made entomologists think harder about the ethics of their profession than many ‘civilians’ do when swatting mosquitoes or spraying their vegetable gardens (e.g. Fischer & Larson, 2019; Didham et al., 2019).  In the end I turned to verse 🙂

Because we love them

We need to think carefully

When we collect them

 

References

Didham, R.K., Leather, S.R. & Basset, Y. (2019) Ethics in entomology. Antenna, 43, 124-125.

Fischer, B. & Larson, B.M.H. (2019) Collecting insects to conserve them: a call for ethical caution.  Insect Conservation & Diversity, 12, 173-182.

Greene, J. (1880) The Insect Hunter’s Companion 3rd Edition, W. Swan Sonnenhein & Allen, London.

Leather, S.R. (2018) “Ecological Armageddon” – more evidence for the drastic decline in insect numbers. Annals of Applied Biology, 172, 1-3.

Newman, E. (1841) A Familiar Introduction to the History of Insects. John van Voorst, London.

Russell, W.M.S & Burch, R.L. (1959) The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique. Methuen & Co, London.

 

*

If you scroll down the RES page link you will see that our students have done remarkably well over the years.

 

**

an example followed by some of our former students 😊

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