Monthly Archives: April 2020

If I hadn’t become an entomologist, what would I have become? The scientific road not taken

A couple of days ago Jeremy Fox over at Dynamic Ecology posted a what if blog asking where, knowing what you now know, you might see yourself in an alternative world. To be clear, I have absolutely no regrets choosing entomology as a subject, and teaching and research as a career. I did, however, and still do, have some allied interests.

As I have mentioned before, I became interested in insects and their antics from a very early age, but I was also, from an equally early age a voracious reader, devouring books at a prodigious rate. I wasn’t fussy about genres, although I particularly enjoyed those with a historical flavour, Treasure Island, Ivanhoe,  Lorna Doone, Biggles, Hornblower, and the works  of  H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Conan Doyle, not just Sherlock Holmes, but also Sir Nigel and The White Company* to name but a few.  I was also interested in Roman history, in fact I still am, and love reading detective fiction set in those times especially Lindsey Davis’s Falco novels. I come from a long line of civil engineers and from them seem to have inherited an interest in digging holes and making dams, and this, coupled with my interest in history, did make me fleetingly consider archaeology as a possible career. But it wasn’t to be, and in later years this turned into human archaeology of a sort, genealogy :-).  This is probably one of the reasons why I find Edward Rutherford’s sweeping historical novels with their detailed family trees and thousand year time spans so fascinating.

As a teenager, before I was totally consumed by the flame of entomology, I fleetingly contemplated a possible career in medicine but at the same time really got into human origins and so palaeontology seemed a possible way to go. I was reminded of this a few years ago, when I was the external examiner for the Zoology degree at University College Dublin, but again it was not to be, and I ended up, without regrets, as an entomologist.

What I have discovered over the years is that I still love history, I love teaching and I love a good mystery.  I have always wanted to know how things came to be, and, as my students will testify, my lectures always have a bit of history in them, nuggets about the early entomologists and ecologists and how the sub-disciplines arose as well as personal stories of how papers and lecturers inspired me.  In some ways, this is a bit like archaeology as I quite often have to do a lot of digging and delving into the past, when, for example I am chasing down an elusive reference.

So, in answer to the question posed by Jeremy Fox, I would, if I hadn’t become an entomologist, love to have been an academic specialising in the history of science 🙂

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Ideas for doing ecology during the lockdown

If you are a follower of my blog then you will know that I have a thing about roundabouts; if not then follow this link and read about the wonderful world of the famous Bracknell roundabouts 🙂 Seriously though, I, or more correctly, a bunch of my students with the occasional visit from me, spent twelve years sampling roundabouts for a variety of plant and animal life, ranging from bugs through to birds with beetles in between.

I originally set the project up as a pedagogical exercise to make island biogeography and nature reserve design more relevant to UK-based undergraduates. I have a bit of a thing about students swanning off to warm tropical places to do conservation, when we have plenty of our own nature that needs attention much closer to home.

Having come up with the idea of getting students (initially undergraduates, but soon involving a horde of MSc students and even a PhD student) to test the species-area relationship using roundabouts as islands – green oases surrounded by a sea of tarmac,  I had to do something about it, especially as the Borough Council, to my total amazement, agreed that I could do it 🙂

So the project was born and lived on for twelve very productive and enjoyable years. We used pitfall trapping, sweep netting, tree beating, suction sampling, transect sampling for the butterflies and bumblebees and also bird counts.  We sampled the vegetation, measured NOx and recorded how often the grass was mown.  We also measured how far away the nearest green spaces were and the immediate and not so immediate land-use.

To my initial surprise (although perhaps I shouldn’t have been), it turned out that the roundabouts were full of wildlife and behaved like geographical islands, big ones having more species than smaller ones (species-area) and more individuals of those species (area-abundance theory).  We also showed that native plants supported more insects than non-native plants and that this was good for the birds.

Quite a bit of the work is now published although we still have a pile of plant and woodlouse data to write up.

So, how does this relate to our current lockdown status?  You can’t very well go out and sample roundabouts or roadside verges, the police will move you along pretty quickly.  Most of you however, probably have a garden and know people with gardens.  Why not get together (virtually of course) and decide what you want to sample; pitfall traps are probably the easiest thing to start with or you could do a bit of bush and tree beating.  Measure your respective islands (gardens) and start collecting and counting. Then collate your data and see what you turn up. Kevin Gaston and Ken Thompson both formerly at Sheffield University found all sorts of exciting things in Sheffield domestic gardens and if you want a good read about the wildlife of suburban gardens I can recommend Jennifer Owens’ little book https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ecology-Garden-First-Fifteen-Years/dp/0521018412

So, find a trowel and get those plastic/paper party cups, jam jars, or tin cans deployed, or get a broom handle and bed sheet and start being cruel to the trees and bushes and enjoy a bit of outdoor time 🙂

 

 

 

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Pick & Mix 45 – Sex, disease, food, insect art and much more

Do you want to stop the next pandemic?  Yes, then start protecting wildlife habitats

Why Latin names are important – nice informative post from Scottish Pollinators

Ray Cannon on insect tibial spurs –  much more than just decorative spines

Another great post from Ray Cannon, this time a lyrical account of the courtship behaviour of the Vinegar Fly

Interesting article on how biologists worked out the what and how of viruses

Runny honey, furry spinach and shiny apples – some fun food facts

Why are butterflies doing better this year? In Australia at any rate

Some fabulous insect art from Vietnamese artist Hoàng Hoàng

If beetles are on the front line of the global extinction crisis, then entomologists are on the front line of budget cuts. Halting plans to save invertebrates results in the least public outcry, especially if no one knows they’re there in the first place.

Crop domestication – perhaps plants evolved to exploit humans as seed dispersers?

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Should we boycott journals that use bullying tactics to speed up their review process? The Verdict

In which, Dear Reader, I reveal the results of my recent poll, discuss the dilemmas faced by journal Editors and call most earnestly upon the scientific community to help us in our endeavours.

Three weeks ago, incensed by a request (from a journal that shall remain nameless), to turn round a review within a week, I put fingers to keyboard and asked the world if we should boycott such journals.  I rarely run polls, but I did on this occasion; for two reasons, one I was genuinely interested in how others felt about this, and second, because as an Editor the topic regularly comes up when we meet with our publishers, who are always keen to reduce the time allowed to referees to return their reviews.

My first question was whether we should boycott those journals that ask referees to return their reviews within one week.  As you can see, the response was overwhelmingly in favour of such a boycott.

87% of respondents thought we should boycott journals that ask for a one-week turnaround

My other question was to do with what people felt was a reasonable time to complete a review. As you can see most respondents felt that at least

Respondent’s views on the reasonable time in which to complete a review

three weeks was a reasonable time in which to complete a review, with a hefty (note that, tempted as I was, I did not use the word significant) proportion suggesting a month as the ideal time span in which to complete their review.

I was reasonably happy with the results of the polls as the two journal that I edit both ask for a three-week turnaround, and we have so far, resisted pressure from the publishers to reduce this to two weeks.  As Editors, we rightly feel a responsibility to our authors to make a decision on their manuscript as quickly as possible, although as Steve Heard has pointed out, authors need to be realistic about how long they should expect to wait. Spoiler alert, it is a lot longer than a week.  We also have considerable pressure from our publishers to constantly “improve” our turnaround times as this is one of the metrics they push when ‘selling’ our journals.  They tell us, time after time, that as well as the dreaded Impact Factor, time to publication, which is a function of review turnaround time, is one of the metrics that influences author journal choices.

Journals need good submission rates to allow us, the Editors, to fill our page allocations with high quality manuscripts.  If paper submission rates fall we can panic and fill the pages with poorer quality papers, or stand firm, and either delay publishing an issue (not good from the point of view of the publishers and Web of Science), or produce a timely, but thin issue (not ideal for our subscribers). The pressure from the publishers, even if you are lucky enough to be editing a journal for a learned society, can, on occasion, be quite stressful. Given this, you may well wonder, why people choose to be Editors; this post from some time ago might help you understand our motives. 🙂

Good referees are like gold dust, and as most journals do not pay them, we very much rely on their good will. Now this is where we have a dilemma. Good referees are experts in their fields, which they have proven by having published in journals such as those I and others edit. As an Editor I know how difficult it is to get the minimum two referees needed to maintain, however imperfectly, the academic standards we all hold dear.  My record to date is thirteen refusals, for a paper that was perfectly fine, but for some reason, unclear to me, no one seemed to want to review. It is at times like those that I have some sympathy for the views of those who feel that we should do away with the current peer review system and let papers find their own level (Kovanis et al., 2017).  This is, of course untenable, as although specialists in the field would know to steer clear of the dross, there would be many, and not just the media, but those with either hidden agendas or lack of discernment, who, either knowingly or unwittingly, would report them as fact. In my opinion, which I think is an informed one, a robust and peer review system is still a necessity. Imperfect as the one we currently have, it is the best available.  We need to conserve what we have, whilst acknowledging that we can, and should improve upon it, not wreck it by imposing impossible demands on referees by assuming that authors are selfish self-seeking opportunists*.  So, authors step up to be referees, and journal editors, resist the demands of publishers to impose unrealistic turnaround times on your editorial teams and reviewers.  Editors and referees, are, in the main, also authors, so we should all be on the same page, or am I being incredibly naive? 🙂

 

References

 

Didham, R.K., Leather, S.R. & Basset, Y. (2017) Don’t be a zero-sum reviewer. Insect Conservation & Diversity, 10, 1-4.

Kovanis, M., Trinquart, L., Ravaud, P. & Pörcher, R. (2017) Evaluating alternative systems of peer review: a large-scale agent-based modelling approach to scientific publication. Scientometrics, 113, 651–671.

 

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The Devil’s Darning Needle – Dragonfly names at home and abroad

Guess what?  I’m procrastinating yet again. 🙂 I’m supposed to be finishing off the aquatic insects chapter of my book, but despite being confined to the house because of Covid-19, I’m finding it difficult to settle down to a protracted session of book writing; but a blog post, no problems 🙂

Crimson pepper pod / add two pairs of wings, and look / darting dragonfly  Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694)

As I have already written about the weird and wonderful names of caddisflies, it seemed appropriate to do a similar exercise for another group of insect associated with the aquatic environment, the Odonata, in particular, the dragonflies. Although individual species of dragonflies have accrued a host of descriptive names in the English language, hawkers, chasers, darters, clubtails, skimmers, to name but a few, globally, names for the group as a whole, show much less imagination.  On the other hand, some of them have very weird translations back into English 🙂   Countries where the language has Germanic roots tend to name them with variations on Dragonfly.  There are, of course, some exceptions; the Danes call them goldsmiths, or possibly jewellers. Countries with a language with Latin roots go for versions based on the Latin for balance or level, libella which in turn is descended from the word libra, which as well as being a scale was a unit of measure. This might seem a bit odd, but in some cultures, the Devil was thought to use dragonflies to weigh or measure people’s souls so this could be how this came about. Perhaps of interest, the Libellulidae (Common Skimmers) are the largest family of Odonata, and was named thus by the French entomologist Jules Rambur (1801-1870), a very obviously Latinised version of the French Libelluele.

Returning to the common names of species, the Danes seem to mainly call their Odonates water nymphs, and like the English, precede that with a colourful description.  For example, Lestes sponsa is the Plain Copper Water Nymph, the Hawkers, on the other hand, are mosaikgoldsmeds which literally translates to mosaic jewellers, but which Google Translate, very helpfully renders as hawker.  I was very disappointed with the French; I expected some wonderfully descriptive and lyrical names.  Agrion blanchâtre, whitish Agrion was a bit of an anti-climax 🙂

Despite their beauty, dragonflies somehow seem to have got a bit of a bad press along the way, and become associated with the Devil, as mentioned earlier about measuring and weighing souls.  They were also reputed to sew up the mouths of naughty children, hence the Devil’s darning needles, and make people blind and deaf; eye-pokers and ear cutters. The claspers being the needles and pokers. One of the common names in Romania is St George’s Horse, which so legend has it, the devil transformed into a giant dragonfly (Mitchell & Lasswell, 2005).  This may also explain the horse references in Croatian and Lithuanian.  For a long and very informative read about the folklore of dragonflies and their names, this is an excellent, if long read. Make sure you check out the Turkish for dragonfly, yusufçuk; it seems to be one of a kind.  I am sure that there must be an explanation somewhere 🙂

 

Bulgarian           vodno konche  vodno = water but konche means of course!

Burmese             နဂါးငွေ့တန် it looks very pretty but when you do retranslate, it gives you Milky Way!

Croatian             vilin konjic – fairy horse

Czech                  vážka

Danish                guldsmed goldsmith?

Dutch                 libel and drakenvlieg

Finnish                sudenkorento    suden can mean wolf

French                libellule

Gaelic                 tairbh nathrach taken separately = bulls snake

German              Libelle and Drachenfliege and der Wasserjungfer (water maid of honour)

Greek                  λιβελούλα  liveloúla

Icelandic            Drekafluga

Irish                    dragan

Italian                 libellula

Latvian               spāre

Lithuanian          laumžirgis depending on where you break the word up you can get laumž meaning fairies or žirgis meaning horse!

Maltese              mazzarell or ibellula

Norwegian         Drage flue but also Øyenstikker eye-poker

Polish                 ważka

Portuguese        libélula but also Cavalo judeu, Jewish horse

Romanian          libelulă

Russia                 strekoza

Slovak                 vážka

Spanish               libélula

Swedish              trollslända  note that  troll is troll or perhaps hobgoblin

Turkish               yusufçuk if you break this up into two words you get Joseph’s dick!

Welsh                 gwas y neidr Adder’s servant

 

Finally, to end with a bit of biology, Odonates use their wings in a unique manner. Other four-winged insects beat them synchronously, but dragonflies can beat the fore and hind pairs independently. This allows three different modes of flight in which the wing pairs beat (1) synchronously, as those of other insects, (2) alternately between the two sets, or (3) synchronously but out of phase with each other. This allows dragonflies and damselflies to display a variety of aerial aerobatics, including hovering, backward flight, and the ability to turn on a midair pivot. No wonder they are such good predators.

 

Reference

Mitchell, F.L. & Lasswell, J.L. (2005) A Dazzle of Dragonflies. Texas A & M University Press.

 

Postscript

I also discovered that Clematis virginiana is, in some parts of the World, called the Devil’s darning needle 🙂

 

 

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Pick & Mix 44 – some things to ponder while you practice social distancing

The Swiss do more than make cuckoo clocks – they (well some of them) subvert maps J

Great summary of the latest special issue in Insect Conservation & Diversity by Manu Saunders

We need to get out more – interesting paper on the health benefits of being outside and getting dirty

Interesting post from Miles King on education and his thoughts about why it should be student centred rather than league table centred and include getting outside more

Will the Covid-19 epidemic have a silver lining for the green economy?  Not necessarily writes James Murray of BusinessGreen

Something to visit when the pandemic is over – The Linnean Society celebrates the achievements of their first female fellows

Something to help you get through these days of social distancing – watch these springtails jump and then go outside and find some yourself, but do keep away from other peopel

The ecological mystery of a Stink Bug swarm far out to sea – what does it tell us about colonisation of the Galapagos Islands?

Somewhat related is this old post of mine about long distance migration in aphids

Finally, if you haven’t come across the word defining site Sesquiotica, I can definitely recommend it, sometimes poetry, sometimes prose, but always enlightening

 

 

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