Monthly Archives: May 2021

Pick & Mix 61 – Terry Pratchett, chickens, trees, species conservation, wasps, bees, eating weeds and much more

Google’s new timelapse shows 37 years of climate change anywhere on earth, including your neighbourhood

Bay bees love carbs – By considering the nuances of bees’ dietary needs, we can design nutritionally balanced seed mixes that help pollinators shore up our ecosystems and food supplies.

Seirian Sumner writes about her love of wasps and why you and I should too

Why I only buy organic or truly free-range chicken and eggs – Revealed: true cost of Britain’s addiction to factory-farmed chicken – it comes at a price though. If you buy from a supermarket, a small mass reared chicken costs approximately £3, free-range’ same size, £9, and the same size organic, £18.

Jeremy Fox on which Terry Pratchett books to read and in which order – I don’t necessarily agree with him but always happy to spread the word about the late great Terry Pratchett. Fun fact, I once had his email address and used to correspond with him, Then one day, having just read the Carpet People and the Bromeliad trilogy and really enjoyed them I emailed him and said so, giving as my reason that it was like an updated and funny version of the Borrowers. Unfortunately he thought I was accusing him of plagiarism and that was the end of our relationship L

There aren’t enough trees in the world to offset society’s carbon emissions – and there never will be, but that doesn’t mean we should stop planting them

Mountain Avens – the Scottish sunflowers?

Sobering read from Charley Krebs – “There are times when we either act or give up, so if you think that the Covid epidemic, the conservation of endangered species, and the protection of old growth forests are irrelevant problems to your way of life, stop reading here. These three major problems are here and now and have come to a head as a crunch: do something or quit.”

Got a problem with Japanese Knotweed?  Try eating it 🙂

Terry McGlynn asks “Should reviewers of journal papers be paid?” 

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I Stand in Awe of Matthew Cobb – The Idea of the Brain

We should never dismiss past ideas – or people – as stupid. We will be the past one day, and our ideas will no doubt seem surprising and amusing to our descendants.”

All of the above and more

Having just finished writing a book for a general audience I know just how much work goes into it.  The number of papers, books and web sites that I had to read totally amazed me, and my book was only 35 000 words.  Matthew’s magnificent achievement, excluding notes and references is almost 150 000 words.

If I were asked how I pictured my brain, I guess I would say that I pretty much see it as a type of computer, with my memory, such as it is, being a card index system; analogous, if we continue with the computer metaphor, based on, in my case, my card index files and EndNote 🙂 I am, of course, not alone in picturing the brain as a computer, although I suspect that not as many picture themselves riffling through a card index drawer.

Those of you who read my blog, will know that I am a great fan of the history of science, in my case the history of entomology*, so Matthew’s magnum opus, really hits the spot as far as I am concerned, ranging as it does from 4000 BC to the present day. Being a product of my time and having cut my science-fiction teeth on Isaac Asimov and his positronic brain, I have always thought of my brain as assort of wet computer, but up until the 17th Century, feelings and thoughts were generally thought to emanate from the heart.  As Matthew points out – words and phrase like ‘learn by heart’, ‘heartbroken’, ‘heartfelt’ and similar highlight this, even though centuries prior to this, there was an acceptance that the brain was important to human function. Once the connection between the nervous system, the brain and the thoughts and actions of the human body and mind were made, then began the attempts to explain how it all worked.   What I hadn’t really thought about until I read this book, but should of, was that the way in which we perceive the working of the brain and nervous system, is very much shaped by the technology prevalent at the time. So brains went from being clockwork, pneumatic and hydraulic, the nerves being likened to pipes, electrical circuits and even akin to the telegraph. Apropos of the electrical circuit idea, I was amused to discover that one of the important proponents of this theory was an entomologist, Alfred Smee, who worked on aphids and virus transmission. We aphidologists get everywhere.

To me, one of the wonderful thing about this book, leaving aside the very accessible writing style, is how often I said to myself “Wow, I didn’t know that”.  My wife got very tired of me reading out excerpts 🙂

Do you remember generating static electricity when you were at school by rubbing a glass rod with a woollen cloth?  Well, how about the ‘hanging boy’ experiment commonly performed in the mid-1700s in which a boy was suspended from the ceiling and rubbed with a glass tube upon which feathers would miraculously rise up and stick to him?

How about Henry Molaison who in 1953 had his severe epilepsy ‘cured’ by having his hippocampus, amygdala and the entorhinal cortex (basically a lobotomy) removed.  From that day on until his death in 2008, Henry only lived in the now.  He had no yesterdays.

Did you know that if you cut the corpus callosum into two (another attempt at curing epilepsy), you end up with a person with two ‘brains’ not quite the same as the Steve Martin film, but the result is two minds in the same body. In the early months post-treatment, the patient experienced some conflict between the two sides of his brain; his hands would work in different ways when pulling up his trousers or doing up his belt. “These conflicts gradually died down, as each version of himself, hot used to sharing a body (although neither mind was aware of the other’s existence)”

I have always been quite happy with the idea of the brain being a computer, as I think, most people are. Matthew, however, feels that this latest metaphor is no longer valid and that we must think of the brain and how it functions very differently. You will need to read the book to find out exactly what he thinks this. He is, however, very sure that neuroscientists would make more progress in understanding how human brains worked if they studied the simpler brains of insects. SAs an entomologist, I am in total agreement 🙂

I could go on and on, but I won’t.  My feelings about this book have been very aptly summed up by Adam Rutherford who among other words of praise, says it is a masterpiece. 

I am in total agreement. Buy it and read it from cover to cover, you won’t regret it. At only £12.99 it is a real bargain.

Finally, thank you Matthew for taking the time out of your busy life to research and produce this book.  I, for one, very much appreciate it.

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Booze, sweat and blood – the birth of a paper

Of my top five most cited papers two are reviews, two are opinion pieces and one is a ‘real’ paper.  I have written about the serendipitous event that resulted in my second most cited paper (Leather, 1988), but now it is the turn for Number 5 to make the headlines 🙂 Number 5 (Ward et al., 1998), is a ‘real’ paper in that it tests an hypothesis and is based on data. It would, however, almost certainly never have come into existence if my friend and former lab mate, Seamus Ward, hadn’t come to visit me at Silwood Park in the spring of 1997.

Seamus was in the year below me in Tony Dixon’s lab, originally taken on to work on the maple aphid, but it transpired that his life history traits were not suited to maintaining host plants and aphid cultures.  Luckily it turned out that his true talents were in the area of theory and mathematical ecology; when you were talking to him about your aphids and what they were doing Seamus would sit there turning your description into equations. He thus ended up doing a PhD looking at life-history traits in aphids.  I make no claims to being mathematically oriented, but do take a quiet pride in being pretty good at running practical experiments and this made for a good partnership in the group, in that Seamus would come to me when he needed some experimental support (real data). This was mutually beneficial and resulted in papers we would not necessarily have written otherwise (Leather et al., 1983; Ward et al., 1984).

Having not seen Seamus for some time, since finishing his post-doc in the mid-1980s, he had been based in Australia at the University of La Trobe, we were reminiscing about old times. I happened to mention that I had fairly recently examined one of Tony Dixon’s PhD students who had been working on the carrot-willow aphid, Cavariella aegopdii and the evolution of aphid life-cycles (e.g. Kundu & Dixon, 1993, 1995). This of course got us on to talking about host alternation and why, if it is so risky, (there were estimates of less than 1% surviving the journeys between hosts (Taylor, 1977)), some aphid species. albeit only 10%, had adopted that strategy. In another paper, Tony and Raj had suggested that even if only 1 in 10 000 survived

The words that inspired us  – from Dixon & Kundu, 1994)

the migration from host to host, the high fecundities that host alternating aphids can achieve on their primary hosts (Leather & Dixon, 1981), would make it worthwhile (Dixon & Kundu, 1994). This got us thinking – how many aphids did actually make it and could we work it out?  We discussed this for a while over a beer, (we were in the Silwood Bar at the time), and Seamus decided that what we needed were some data of numbers of aphids on the ground and the number of aphids in the air at the same time. As it happened, I had a ten-year run of bird cherry aphid data on their primary host, Prunus padus trees in Roslin Glen (Scotland) (from my bird cherry aphid side project) and as a subscriber to the Rothamsted Aphid Bulletins, I had in my office, copies of the weekly aphid bulletins for the nearest suction trap to Roslin Glen, East Craigs.  This was enough for us to get started.

The bird cherry aphid side project data – still with me today and more analysis yet to be done 🙂

An example of the old paper version of the weekly aphid bulletin – I now subscribe electronically – a great resource “The Rothamsted Insect Survey, a National Capability, is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council under the Core Capability Grant BBS/E/C/000J0200.”

The next day I started collating the field data and Seamus started to model.  We were totally engrossed and kept at it all day, breaking only for meals and coffee. After dinner, armed with a bottle of whisky and bubbling with ideas we returned to the computer and Seamus started taking me through his model and fitting the data.  Following the intricacies of the model was not easy for me and made my brain work so hard that my forehead started to sweat 🙂 Sometime near midnight, the bottle of whisky was empty, we had a working model and could put a figure on how many migrating aphids made it from the secondary host to the primary host – 0.6%.  Now, all we needed to do was to get the official aphid and weather data from the East Craigs suction trap and write the paper, which with the collaboration of Richard Harrington and Jon Pickup of Rothamsted Research Station and East Craigs respectively, we successfully did, the paper being submitted in August 1997, and appearing in early 1998 (Ward et al., 1998). In case you were wondering how many bird cherry aphids make it from the secondary host back to the primary host, for every 1000 that take-off, 6 make it, so less than Roy Taylor’s estimate but more than the number that Raj and Tony suggested were needed to make host alternation viable.

So that is the booze and the sweat accounted for, but what about the blood? I had, as an undergraduate, become a regular blood donor and the day after our marathon data crunch, was my scheduled blood donation.  That sunny morning, and somewhat hung-over, I walked across to the blood wagon, conveniently parked outside my office, made my donation and after my biscuit and cup of tea, headed back to my office.  As I was passing the toilets, I felt the need for a pee, so nipped in to relieve myself, stood at the communal urinals, unzipped and started to pass water, as I did so, my blood pressure dipped and I started to faint, my last thought before I passed out was that I didn’t want to fall face down in the urinal gutter, so pushed away from the wall with one hand. 

Not the actual urinal (they have long since been replaced) but this gives you the idea of what I didn’t want to fall into. Image source

I woke up some time later on the floor bleeding copiously from a head wound caused by me falling across one of the wash basins.  To cut a long story short, I was rushed to the local hospital, my head repaired, and, as I had a post-donation faint, no longer allowed to donate blood.  On the plus side, the paper has been very successful and I have an amusing after-dinner story to tell and the scar to prove it 🙂


Dixon, A.F.G. & Kundu, R. (1994) Ecology of host alternation in aphids. European Journal of Entomology, 91, 63-70.

Kundu, R. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1993) Do host alternating aphids know which plant they are on? Ecological Entomology, 18, 61-66.

Kundu, R. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1995) Evolution of complex life cycles in aphids. Journal of Animal Ecology, 64, 245-255.

Leather, S.R. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1981) Growth, survival and reproduction of the bird-cherry aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi, on it’s primary host. Annals of Applied Biology, 99, 115-118.

Leather, S.R. (1988) Size, reproductive potential and fecundity in insects: Things aren’t as simple as they seem. Oikos, 51, 386-389.

Leather, S.R., Ward, S.A. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1983) The effect of nutrient stress on life history parameters of the black bean aphid, Aphis fabae Scop. Oecologia, 57, 156-157.

Taylor, L.R. (1977) Migration and the spatial dynamics of an aphid, Myzus persicae. Journal of Animal Ecology, 46, 411-423.

Ward, S.A., Leather, S.R. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1984) Temperature prediction and the timing of sex in aphids. Oecologia, 62, 230-233.

Ward, S.A., Leather, S.R., Pickup, J. & Harrington, R. (1998) Mortality during dispersal and the cost of host-specificity in parasites: how many aphids find hosts? Journal of Animal Ecology, 67, 763-773.


Filed under Aphids, Science writing