I know we deal with invertebrates but the exoskeleton of entomology doesn’t quite hack it 😊 There is a tendency within academia, perhaps not as marked as it was when I entered it, to be somewhat dismissive, even scornful, when it comes to natural historians and amateurs. I once had a bit of an in-print argument with the late Denis Owen about the validity of data collected by ‘amateurs’ (Leather, 1990), which I found a bit surprising considering his wife Jennifer’s deep and life-long involvement with that type of data (Owen, 2010).
I have been a ‘professional’ entomologist for more than forty years and although I may, in the past, when I was imbued with the arrogance of youth, have made remarks about stamp collecting and lack of scientific method, I have always been in awe of the taxonomic expert, whom at a glance can accurately (most of the time) identify an insect to species. Me, I’m pleased when I get the family right. I remember when I was an undergraduate sitting round a light trap on our field course, being stunned by Judy Honecker (where are you now?) shouting out the names of the moths as they flew into it – all done by the mysterious jizz. She may of course, have been taking advantage of our ignorance, but I don’t think so.
I don’t think, even now, that many academic, research-active, professional entomologists, or ecologists really appreciate the service that the amateur entomologist or in a broader sense, natural historian, provides to the professional community. I am a long-time member of the British Entomological and Natural History Society (BENHS) which means that a copy of the British Journal of Entomology and Natural History pops through my letter box every three months. Every time I open a copy of this little journal I am humbled by
Latest issue of the British Journal of Entomology and Natural History
the erudition displayed by the contents. You won’t find professionally crafted accounts of large-scale field studies/experiment or complex laboratory experiments, analysed using the most complicated analysis that packages such as R or SPSS can spit out by any means. What you will find, and this is perhaps where the slightly scornful attitude to the ‘amateur’ has its roots, are reports of insects found while on holiday in Spain or closer to home* and accounts of the annual exhibition. You will also find note of the first records of species in the UK, new host records, be they plants or other animals, and yes, also reports of experimental work. The style may not be as ‘scientific’ as that found in mainstream scientific journals, but that does not detract from their value. The thing that really blows my mind about the BJENHS and others of its ilk such as the Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, (in both of which I have published), are the numbers of new records reported and the identification skills that these demonstrate of the authors. It struck me that whereas those entomologists with similar skills that work within academia, either in museums or universities, are described as systematists (naturalists engaged in classification) or taxonomists (biologists that groups organisms into categories) these expert amateurs didn’t seem to have a single word to describe them. I of course resorted to Twitter to see if anyone out there knew better.
I received a number of responses, the one below summing up the most common answers.
Pretty much the status quo.
One person suggested parataxonomist, which I feel means an entirely different thing, being someone who has been trained to have “expertise is in collecting specimens, mounting them, and performing preliminary sorting of the specimens to morphospecies” (Basset et al., 2000).
What I do think we can all agree on, is that the county recorders, the various group specialists and more general natural historians, are what I would term professional amateurs. They are not paid for what they do, most have jobs outside entomology, or are, in many cases, retired, but they approach their subject in a thoroughly professional way, keeping impeccable records and disseminating their findings through publications, talks at meetings and running (or helping run) training courses. They do a huge service for entomology, not just by providing data for the ‘professionals’ to mine and analyse, but also by encouraging others to enter the field. The professional and the professional amateur can, sometimes exist in the same person, I was for example, once President of the Amateur Entomologist’s Society and the current President, Erica McAlister (@flygirlNHM, for those of you on Twitter), is also a professional entomologist.
Richard Jones rather neatly summing it all up.
There is now, however, a whole new category of amateur. Citizen science has unleashed the ‘amateur amateur’ into the wild, albeit many stray no further than their gardens. Citizen science, once a bit marginalised, is now pretty much mainstream is fully recognised by the professional ecologists and entomologists as a hugely important contribution to their disciplines Bates et al., 2013; Pernat et al., 2021). The two most publicised UK examples are the Big Butterfly Count (incidentally this year’s launch coinciding with the publication of this post) and the Big Garden Birdwatch, both of which my wife and I do. Despite having my name on ten papers dealing with birds, I count myself when it comes to the latter, as being a true ‘amateur amateur’ 😊
Citizen science projects span disciplines and the globe. You can take part in a ‘bioblitz’, record the timing of budburst, the number of plants in flower on a particular date, join in the UK ladybird survey, see how many birds you can count over the Christmas period, and many, many others.
I think it is extremely important to take note of the quote below. It explains to some extent, why in the past, and sadly, to a certain extent, why some (not many thankfully) professional scientists still tend to treat citizen science with less respect than it deserves.
“Traditionally, we think in terms of a data-gathering component of science, a data analysis component of science, and an interpretive “discussion” component of science. As well, the scientific method is typically thought of as being hypothesis driven (with the hypothesis or “question”preceding data collection), and in mainstream science the process of generating and testing hypotheses is the domain of the researchers – those people who are unequivocally “scientists”. In citizen science, the participants are almost exclusively involved in data gathering alone, but most projects include the promise that anyone is welcome to follow through with their own analyses and interpretations. This is the key element that makes citizen science “democratic”, even if a few participants follow up with analyses of their own. “Citizen Scientist” is, therefore, best understood as an honorary title, given to anyone who participates in any level of the scientific enterprise, on a voluntary basis, with the proviso that that most participants are involved only in data collection.” Acorn (2017)
The data that we collect as citizen scientists is not wasted, and compares well with the data collected by the professionals (Pocock et al., 2015; Pernat et al., 2021) and as the picture below illustrates, is of immense value to entomologists and ecologists.
Roger Morris at Dipterist’s Forum June 27th 2021 ‘When I started it was as rare as rocking horse faeces’ – Roger Morris talking about recording Rhingia rostrata. Roger is highlighting why recording schemes are so useful. Picture from Twitter via @FlygirlNHM)
Just to reiterate the importance of these glorious amateurs. Just as those insect host records collected and published by the professional amateurs enabled the late Sir Richard Southwood to restart the species-area concept (Southwood, 1961) and give many of us an opportunity to lengthen our publication lists, so today’s army of professional and amateur amateurs are providing data for a new generation of entomologists and ecologists to help understand and explain the changes we are seeing in insect abundance and distribution (e.g. Werenkraut et al., 2020). It is very important that their contribution is neither overlooked nor unrecognised. Without them we would be lost.
Did you know that the oldest (unless you know of an older one?) Citizen Science project in the world is the Christmas Bird Count in the USA, which was started in 1900?
Basset, Y., Novotny, V., Miller, S.E. & Pyle, R. (2000) Quantifying biodiversity: experience with parataxonomists and digital photography in Papua New Guinea and Guyana. BioScience, 50, 899-908.
Bates, A.J., Sadler, J.P., Everett, G., Grundy, D., Lowe, N., Davis, G., Baker, D., Bridge, M., Clifton, J., Freestone, R., Gardner, D., Gibson, C.W.D., Hemming, R., Howarth, S., Orridge, S., Shaw, M., Tams, T., & Young, H. (2013) Assessing the value of the Garden Moth Scheme citizen science dataset: how does light trap type affect catch? Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 146, 386-397.
Leather, S.R. (1990) The analysis of species-area relationships, with particular reference to macrolepidoptera on Rosaceae: how important is insect data-set quality? The Entomologist, 109, 8-16.
Owen, J. (2010) Wildlife of a Garden; A Thirty-year Study, Royal Horticultural Society, London.
Pernat, N., Kampen, H., Jeschke, J.M. & Werner, D. (2021) Citizen science versus professional data collection: Comparison of approaches to mosquito monitoring in Germany. Journal of Applied Ecology, 58, 214-223.
Werenkraut, V., Baudino, F., & Roy, H.E. (2020) Citizen science reveals the distribution of the invasive harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis Pallas) in Argentina. Biological Invasions, 22, 2915-2921.
*I remember reading with great amusement a short article in the Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine from the early part of the 20th Century describing the ‘discovery’ of a species new to Britain that had flown into the bathroom of the author (a retired Lt. Colonel if I recall correctly) while he was having a bath.
I couldn’t not use this – it is (sadly) one of my favourite films 😊
Anyone who has driven (or walked) along a road will have come across roadkill, be it squirrels, pheasants, badgers, deer or even something more exotic, perhaps it us only us entomologists who notice the squashed invertebrates ☹
Dead carabids and mayflies Shay Lane, Staffordshire, 8th June 2021
But, lets leave the roadkill for a moment, and in the spirit of the title of the film, start in the air. The first thing I discovered when I started to search for the effects of aircraft on insects is the paucity of literature on the subject – it turns out that people are much more interested in stopping disease carrying insects being transported by air or, and coming as a bit of a surprise to me, stopping insects causing plane crashes (House et al., 2020; Grout & Russell, 2021). The aircraft industry is so concerned about the physical dangers posed to ‘planes by insects that NASA actually have a Bug Team dedicated to developing insect proof aircraft.
I am, however, more concerned about how dangerous aircraft are to insects. First, we need to know how many insects are up there and what the probability of them being struck and killed by aircraft is. I’m guessing that bug strike is pretty common, otherwise NASA wouldn’t have a Bug Team. The majority of insects in the air are found at 300-600 m, although this does vary in relation to time of day (Reynolds et al., 2005). Getting a figure for the actual number of insects in the air is as you might expect, actually quite difficult. The first attempt to trap and collect insects using an aircraft was in 1926 in Louisiana (USA) using a specially designed trap (Glick, 1939). These do not seem to have been particularly effective as 5 years of trapping, involving 1528 hours of flying, caught just under 30 000 insects (Glick, 1939). Those of us who have operated pitfall traps for any length of time would consider this a very modest haul 😊
Glick (1939) The aircraft insect trap
That said, the exercise was obviously more hazardous than even collecting insects from roundabouts as this very laconic extract highlights:
“The skill of the pilots who flew the collecting airplanes is evidenced by the fact that no fatalities occurred. Only one major accident occurred, when a forced landing resulted in the destruction of the craft and injury to both the pilot (McGinley) and the writer. Such mishaps must be expected in a more or less hazardous undertaking.”
The distribution of catch number was very similar to that reported from the more recent UK study using radar (Reynolds et al., 2005) and is reinforced by this statement from the NASA Bug Team; “The reason we do these tests at low altitudes or do a lot of takeoffs and landings is because bug accumulation occurs at anywhere from the ground to less than 1,000 feet,” said Mia Siochi, a materials researcher at NASA Langley”.
Given the number of flights made globally and the investment being made into protecting aircraft from bug strike, I would assume that the number of insects being killed by aircraft worldwide is probably very high. I am sure that someone with the skill, time and inclination, can probably come up with a fairly realistic figure. Over to you Dear Readers.
Next up, if we keep to the film title, are trains. There has been a bit more work looking at the damage that trains do to insects, not a lot, but something is better than nothing. Work collecting train kill from railway lines showed that snails were particularly vulnerable to being run over, similar to the effects on trail-following ermine moth caterpillars that I observed in Finland in 1981, with Ephemeroptera (Mayflies) in second place (Pop et al., 2020). This, as the authors suggest, was almost certainly due to the time of year and the presence of a lake nearby. Unfortunately no one has done the equivalent of a train splatometer which might be rewarding as these observations from correspondence in British Birds magazine suggest that locomotive engines are causing some mortality to flying insects. Over to you Bug Life. How about getting the train companies to fit splatometers?
Finally, cars and their effect on insect life. There is anecdotal evidence out there, after all as drivers we have all seen moths in our headlights at night and used our windscreen washers and wipers to try and remove dried on insect corpses and their haemolymph from our front windscreens.
My front bumper – sadly (or perhaps not) much less insect spattered than in the past
Yes, anecdotally we know that insects are being hit by cars (see above) and on my front number plate, a couple of weeks ago (beginning of June) I counted 73 insects, mainly aphids after a 245 km trip. The problem as I see it, is quantifying the numbers killed and calculating the effect that this has on insect abundance. I have mentioned the splatometer in an earlier post which attempts to standardise the number plate counts and I am pleased to see that this has now been revived by Bug Life, and will hopefully carry on for many years. The idea behind this is that over the years we will be able to see if insect numbers as reflected by the change in numbers of splats are increasing, decreasing of remaining the same. This will not, certainly as described, tell us how many insects are being killed by road using vehicles, although it would be possible if the data were collected over delineated stretches of road (Baxter-Gilbert et al., 2015). It is not just flying insects that are killed by cars; not all flying insects fly across roads, many seem happy to walk to the other side, reckless as that may seem.
A brave, or possibly fool-hardy carabid beetle crossing the road – Guild Lane, Sutton, Staffordshire, 9th June 2021.
There have been enough studies done looking at the interactions between roads and insects for a review article to have been published fairly recently, although not all the papers deal directly with mortality effects (Munõz et al., 2015). Many studies have recorded the species affected and the number of dead individuals found but few have attempted to calculate what this means in total. Most studies, as we might expect, have been on large, easily identifiable charismatic species (Munõz et al., 2015) and it from these that we do have some idea of the magnitude of the mayhem caused by road traffic. Some of the figures are incredibly high. A survey of Odonata road kill, albeit near a wetland, of two 500 m stretches of dual carriageway in the Great Lakes region of the USA revealed that at least 88/km/day were being hit and killed by vehicles (Riffell, 1969). Another study in the USA, this time on Lepidoptera, calculated that about 20 000 000 butterflies (mainly Pieridae) were killed in one week in September (McKenna et al., 2001). The most dramatic figures however, are those from a study in Canada which estimated that 187 billion pollinators (mainly Hymenoptera) are killed over the summer in North America (Baxter-Gilbert et al., 2015). An unpublished study by Roger Morris (thank you Richard Wilson @ecology_digest for bringing this to my attention) also highlights the dangerous effects of cars on Hymenoptera). Despite the mounting evidence of the harm that road traffic does to insects there is remarkably little information about how this can be reduced, although I did find a paper that noted that if insects are struck by cars driving at speeds of 30-40 km/h they survive the crash whereas speeds greater than this prove fatal (Rao & Girish, 2007). It might be possible to impose insect safe speed limits along stretches of road that go through sites of special insect interest (perhaps I should try and coin that acronym, SSII, as an additional/alternative term to SSSI (Sites of Special Scientific Interest), but I am not sure how amenable drivers would be to signs telling them to slow down because of insects😊, considering how few drivers slow down in response to the signs warning them about deer and other vertebrate hazards. Another option would be to design road vehicles so that the air flow across them pushes insects away rather than into them; this may already be fortuitously happening as Manu Saunders points in her interesting post about the ‘windscreen anecdote’. That said, even if cars are more aerodynamic and less likely to splatter insects, the levels of road kill reported in the papers I have cited earlier, still imply that insects are being killed by traffic in huge numbers.
This one didn’t get stuck on a car, but died just the same – A519 outside Forton, Staffordshire, 15th June 2021
Even if we do accept that deaths down to direct impact with vehicles is lower than in the past, the roads on which we drive our cars are also having a negative effect on insect numbers. Roads, particularly those surfaced with tarmacadam, present an inhospitable surface to some insects which may make them reluctant to fly or walk across. It has been shown that bee and was communities can be different on different sides of a road (Andersson et al., 2017) as the road act as barriers, particularly for smaller species of bees (Fitch & Vaidya, 2021).
Despite the mortality that vehicles impose on insects, roads are not necessarily a totally bad thing for invertebrates; road verges, when sympathetically managed, can provide overwintering sites for a range of arthropod species (Saarinen et al., 2005; Schaffers et al., 2012) and some insect species seem to enjoy feeding on roadside vegetation because of the increased nitrogen content of the plants living alongside traffic (Jones & Leather, 2012).
Overall however, given the very high mortality rates directly associated with cars and other road traffic and the very real indirect effects caused by habitat fragmentation, it would seem that we have much to do to make roads safer for insects and other animals.
Andersson, P., Koffman, A., Sjödin, N.E. & Johansson, V. (2017) Roads may act as barriers to flying insects: species composition if bees and wasps differs on two sides of a large highway. Nature Conservation, 18, 41-59.
Baxter-Gilbert, J.H., Riley, J.L., Neufeld, C.J.H., Litzgus, J.D., & Lesbarreres, D. (2015) Road mortality potentially responsible for billions of pollinating insect deaths annually. Journal of Insect Conservation, 19, 1029-1035.
Melis, C., Olsen, C.B., Hyllvang, M., Gobbi, M., Stokke, B.G., & Røskaft, E. (2010) The effect of traffic intensity on ground beetle (Coleoptera: Carabidae) assemblages in central Sweden. Journal of Insect Conservation, 14, 159-168.
Pop, D.R., Maier, A.R.M., Cadar, A.M., Cicort-Lucaciu, A.S., Ferenți, S. & Cupșa, D. (2020) Slower than the trains! Railway mortality impacts especially snails on a railway in the Apuseni Mountains, Romania. Annales Zoologici Fennici, 57, 225-235.
Reynolds, D.R., Chapman, J.W., Edwards, A.S., Smith, A.D., Wood, C. R., Barlow, J. F. and Woiwod, I.P. (2005) Radar studies of the vertical distribution of insects migrating over southern Britain: the influence of temperature inversions on nocturnal layer concentrations. Bulletin of Entomological Research, 95, 259-274.