Monthly Archives: September 2021

The most difficult thing I have ever had to write – Insects – A Very Short Introduction

The book!

I have written a lot of papers (more than 220 according to Web of Science) and quite a few books, two real ones (Leather et al., 1993; Leather & Bland, 1996) and eight edited volumes, over the last forty odd years. Up until now I thought the most exacting piece of writing I had ever done was my entry for the Biological Flora (Leather, 1996).  I mention this because it has a very similar feel to my most recent, most difficult piece of writing, Insects, A Very Short Introduction.

I did my PhD on the bird cherry aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi (Leather, 1980) during which I developed a real love for the bird cherry tree, Prunus padus. Just to illustrate this, my second son’s middle name is Tuomi – Finnish for bird cherry. Over the next decade or so I expanded my studies on to the different insects associated with it and also became quite adept at striking scions, grafting it and manipulating its phenology. I could (and still can), thanks to sampling bird cherry trees in Finland in the depths of winter, identify it in the dark by the smell of the bark 😊 In the mid-1980s, I jumped on to the species-area relationship bandwagon (Leather, 1985, 1986) and discovered the wonderful Biological Flora of the British Isles, hosted by the British Ecological Society. Armed with the arrogance of youth, and obviously at the time, not suffering from ‘imposter syndrome’, I contacted Arthur Willis (the then Editor of the series) and volunteered to write the entry for bird cherry. Pretty cheeky for an entomologist, but hey, both my parents were botanists and me and bird cherry were old pals! Arthur said yes and sent me the instructions for contributors which included all the headings and sub-sections required. It looked pretty straightforward to me; go down the headings, insert the information and write the narrative. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.  Or so I very naively thought ☹ I whipped through the headings, filled in the data that I had, wrote the accompanying narrative and posted it off to Arthur.  Job done! A few weeks later he returned my manuscript telling me that I was also expected to fill in the missing data gaps with data collected by me, not just leave them blank! 

Reality strikes!

So, over the next two years that is exactly what I did.  I checked out which mycorrhizae were associated with bird cherry, collected seed and calculated germination rates, sketched the different seedling stages, did NVC surveys at six different sites, characterised the growth structure of the tree and shrub forms and looked at responses to defoliation. I learnt a lot of botany! Arthur was an incredibly helpful editor and without his encouragement I would never have completed the entry.  I did, however, turn down Arthur’s suggestion that I do the entry for Prunus avium 😊

In 2018 I was contacted by Latha Menon, a Senior Commissioning Editor for OUP, who wanted to know if I would be interested in writing a book for their Very Short Introduction series, in this case, insects.  Having since 1990 grown older and picked up imposter syndrome on the way, I was initially a bit hesitant and asked if it would be possible to have a co-author.  Latha was somewhat lukewarm about this, saying that what the series was about was producing an extended essay (35 000 words) for a general audience reflecting the expertise and enthusiasm of the author.  I pondered about it and thought, well I’ve been a professional entomologist for more than forty years, and an amateur for my whole life, and taught entomology for more than thirty years, so how hard could it be to write 35 000 words about insects? I have also been blogging for what I have envisaged as a mixed audience since 2012, so surely within my capabilities?

I should have known better

It turns out that you can know too much about insects at the same time as you don’t know enough about them! First, I had to decide on a structure for the essay and also what particular aspects of entomology would leap off the page and grab my readers.  Much as I love aphids, other insects would have to feature.  The obvious place to start, I thought, would be to look at how our entomology course introduced the subject to new students, so Chapter 1, In the beginning was born. This was actually not that simple as I had to deal with the evolution of insects, their classification, their anatomy, a lot of their physiology, and also why they were and are so successful. Trying to make that not like a series of Wikipedia sections was not easy.

Now to me, one of the things that make insects so spectacular and evinces amazement in non-entomologists, is how good they are at reproducing themselves, hey presto, Chapter 2, Prolific procreators and the need to discuss sexual selection, mating behaviour, courtship, lekking and much more. I had originally planned to cover host selection and life history strategies in this chapter, but found that it didn’t sit very well in that context.

Instead, I moved on to Chapter 3, On the move, which began with the evolution of flight, much, of which, despite my decades of experience, was quite a revelation to me. From flight I moved onto host selection, and the physiology and ecology of specialist and generalist feeding. These first three chapters were the most difficult to write, bearing in mind that my readers need to understand the basics of how insects work to fully grasp the wonder of what insects are actually achieving. I had to rewrite these first chapters three times before my Commissioning Editor, my non-entomologist lay-reader (my wife, a humanities graduate), a botanist colleague and an entomological colleague, were happy with them.

Those chapters behind me, I now felt it was time to move on to those aspects of entomology that had super wow factor, those facts that would make my readers exclaim things like “I didn’t know that” and encourage them to pass them on to their friends and relatives. Heavily influenced by my childhood love of social insects, Chapter 4, Living together, appeared on the scene. As well as talking about the well-known bees, ants and termites, it also gave me the chance to discuss lesser known examples such as dung beetles, social bugs, insect symbionts, insect-plant interactions, and yes, of course, aphids get more than a passing mention😊

The next three chapters are a bit niche, but gave me the chance to launch Chapter 5, Aquatic Insects, into the mix and talk about the importance of freshwater insects and even more excitingly, wax lyrical about the little known truly marine Ocean Skaters, which I first came across on a work trip to Mauritius in the mid-1990s. Judging by what I see on social media platforms, non-entomologists are, in the English vernacular, totally gob-smacked by how insects can pretend to be something else, so this made Chapter 6, Crypsis, mimicry and blatant advertising, an obvious heading.  I had a lot of fun with this, but was slightly hampered by the restriction placed by OUP on how many illustrations I was allowed to include, and also sadly not being allowed colour.

To me, the ability of insects to live in very inhospitable conditions, from deserts, to ice caves, to mountain tops and to survive arctic winters and other extreme weather conditions without the benefit of fur coats and cold baths, made Chapter 7, Against the odds, a natural.

I have, over the years, been amazed by how limited many people’s appreciation of the positive economic, social, artistic and health benefits of insects to the human world are (Leather, 2015), hence Chapter 8, The good, the bad and the ugly.  Here I dealt with pests, disease vectors, biological control, maggot therapy, pollinators, the role of insects as ecosystem engineers, as waste-disposal specialists and as recyclers.

I began my book by describing the diversity and ubiquity of insects. I discussed their origins and marveled at the ways in which insects have adapted to a wide range of environments and the roles that they play in maintaining ecosystem health. Given that for at least the last twenty years or so, entomologists and ecologists have been warning about the dangers of losing species I felt it fitting to end it by discussing the harm that we are doing to insects and the planet that we, and they, inhabit, and ways in which we might act to halt or reverse our course, if it is not already too late.  I finished with a warning, and the hope that we are not too late to stem disaster, Chapter 9, Ecological Armageddon—insects in decline?

It was, primarily due to the fact that at times, for every word I took out, I seemed to add another ten, both one of the most frustrating but also satisfying pieces of writing that I have ever done. I just hope that when it hits the shops, my readers will find as much to enjoy as I have since I first came across insects just over sixty years ago.

References

Leather, S.R. (1980) Aspects of the Ecology of the Bird Cherry-Oat Aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi L., PhD Thesis University of East Anglia, Norwich.

Leather, S.R. (1985) Does the bird cherry have its ‘fair share’ of insect pests? An appraisal of the species-area relationships of the phytophagous insects associated with British Prunus species. Ecological Entomology, 10, 43-56.

Leather, S.R. (1986) Insect species richness of the British Rosaceae: the importance of hostrange, plant architecture, age of establishment, taxonomic isolation and species-area relationships. Journal of Animal Ecology, 55, 841-860.

Leather, S.R. (1996) Biological flora of the British Isles Prunus padus L. Journal of Ecology, 84, 125-132.

Leather, S.R. (2015) Influential entomology: a short review of the scientific, societal, economic and educational services provided by entomology. Ecological Entomology, 40 (Suppl. 1), 36-44.

Leather, S.R. & Bland, K.P. (1999) Insects on Cherry Trees, Richmond Publishing Co, Ltd, Slough.

Leather, S.R., Walters, K.F.A. & Bale, J.S. (1993) The Ecology of Insect Overwintering, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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Pick & Mix 65 – beetle based drones, biodiversity, climate change, resilient forests, beavers and rewilding, citizen science and a farewell to Dynamic Ecology blog

A drone with wings inspired by beetle elytra

Interesting take – The case against the concept of biodiversity

Why eye-catching graphics are vital for getting to grips with climate change

Graeme Lyons argues that English names of species should always be capitalised – I agree, do you?

Fantastic project – croplands up close – should be very useful for many fields (pun intended)

How ornithologists figured out how to preserve bird specimens

Is your forest fit for the future? Emily Fensom from the UK Forestry Commission introduces the Climate Matching Tool and suggests how this can be used to build resilient forests

Beavers are back: here’s what this might mean for the UK’s wild spaces

What is and what isn’t citizen science?  I don’t fully agree with some of this but it is an interesting read.

In which the team from Dynamic Ecology announce their semi-retirement.  They will still be keeping us inspired, entertained and stimulated but just not as often. I will miss them and judging by the huge number of comments, I am not the only one. Some fantastic and very well-deserved tributes.

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Assignments with benefits – materially rewarding student work

One of the banes (and there have been a few) of my life as an academic, has been the necessity (or is it?) of having to assess student achievement and attainment using exams, tests, essays, quizzes, talks, posters, whatever. I very early on in my academic career decided that students on my undergraduate and postgraduate modules, should not just be tested for memory, knowledge, analysis, evaluation and synthesis but in skills that at Imperial College, London, in the early 1990s were hardly, if ever, mentioned. Yes, you guessed it, posters, talks, debates and group working. These all being things that when I was an undergraduate we received absolutely no training in at all. My final year module in Applied Ecology ran for a solid five weeks in the run-up to the end of the Christmas term. I had a dedicated base room where we could store materials and was not used by anyone else during the module.  In other words, I could timetable independently of the central system – a great boon. As members of the British Ecological Society will know, the week before Christmas heralds the fantastic BES Annual General Meeting, so it was a no-brainer, I would build the coursework part of the assessment for my Applied Ecology module around a mini ‘BES Christmas Meeting’. Why not? It is all part of the scientific process anyway😊

The Mini Conference

I decided that for the actual conference, the students would produce a poster, based on a recently published real paper of their choice, and a talk, which could also be based on the same paper.  Their brief was to adopt the identity of the author and speak and present as that individual.  I also ran a poster making and how to give a talk workshop so that the students knew what was expected from them.  I was, as it turns out, the only module leader in the Department doing this!  I set aside specific slots in the timetable when a dedicated space was available for me and the students to be together for three hours a week where they could work on these and consult me if they came across any problems.

A couple of excerpts from the 1997 Applied Ecology mini-conference – some of you may recognise at least three names that aren’t mine 😊 You may also notice that their interests have changed since then.

The Research Syndicate

The other skill that final year students need to acquire, is how to write scientifically, both in terms of publishing and for their final year projects.

As I have mentioned before, I have huge amounts of unanalysed data which I am always trying to donate to people with more time and modern statistical expertise than me to knock into publication shape, e.g. aphid overwintering, effects of long term herbivory on bird cherry trees, and flowering patterns in sycamore.   For this I provided all the raw data files, the methods and materials so that the students could get a real feel for what it was all about and which data set they would like to analyse.  They had free choice of the data sets and could also choose how much of it to analyse to tell their stories. I then provided five training sessions about scientific paper writing; why we do it, what it is meant to achieve and how papers are structured and read, plus a little rant about the tyranny of impact factors! They were also given five afternoons of access to R training via my PhD students. These were group sessions and I encouraged the students to discuss their approaches between them – after all, as scientists we work in groups.  The output, which was independently done, was a ‘scientific paper’.  The best of which I would help knock into shape for publication to a real journal (see reference list for a few examples).

The Class Debate

Running alongside everything else was the class debate.  You might think that this was a busy module, but the whole point of this module was to get the students to interact – I was, and am not a great believer in the ‘jaw, jaw, jaw’ approach to teaching, especially to final year students.  This exercise involved me stetting a scenario, (my favourite is the one illustrated), and allocating named characters to each student. These ranged from local shop owners, RSPB Wardens, Wildlife Trust employees, Forestry Commission employees, Commercial foresters, Whisky distillery owners, Garden Centre Owners, university academics, ecologists, fishers, local residents (occupations chosen by the student) and, of course, the owner of the peat extraction company and their PR Officer.  I then let the students form alliances and come up with their strategies for the Public Inquiry, for which I allowed a whole day.  Each student produced a short essay as part of their coursework and I allocated extra marks for each contribution made during the debate which I added to their essay marks.

My last ever class debate at Imperial – a sad day, but all good things come to an end.

A few of the characters – anyone recognise the suave city gent in the centre?

The formal part of the course ended with the mini-conference where all the students spoke and some were involved as session chairs. Posters were judged by students and staff as were the talks.  At the end of the two-day conference it was prize giving time.  Top papers, talks, posters and essays were all given copies of books that I thought would be of interest, (Stephen Jay Gould featured a lot), runners up were given book tokens and third placers a bag of chocolate coins (Christmas you know).  Incidentally all winners were given a huge chocolate medal 😊 Plus the students had all their course work marks to take away with them for Christmas. Win-win all round.

Something a little bit different – Cash for assignments – The Antenna article

For our MSc students I thought that it would be nice, that as well as learning a new skill, writing for a general audience, they had the opportunity to be both published and earn a little bit of cash to help pay their way though the course.  Luckily, a solution was close to hand, the Royal Entomological Society, Student Essay Awards.  Even more fortuitously, the submission date for both the coursework and the essay award were very close together.  I provided students with past essay winners and a brief session on the different approaches one could take, from short pieces of fiction, to a ‘news item’, to a factual ‘did you know piece’.  The world was pretty much their oyster. So again, a nice way to make coursework fun.  You will, if you have clicked on the link, seen that we here at Harper Adams University have done quite well over the years.  I also recommend that you spend a few minutes reading some of the winning essays – they are truly wonderful.

Post script

The whole exercise was also very rewarding for me. I got to really know the students and felt that I had done some very useful mentoring. Decades later, I am still in touch with many of the students, including many who are no longer in academia. I was also privileged to win a couple of teaching awards (just certificates, no cash), on the back of this, so definitely worth the effort.

References

Butler, J., Garratt, M.P.D. & Leather, S.R. (2012) Fertilisers and insect herbivores: a meta-analysis. Annals of Applied Biology, 161, 223-233.

Goodwin, C., Keep, B. & Leather, S.R. (2017) Habitat selection and tree species richness of roundabouts: effects on site selection and the prevalence of arboreal caterpillars. Urban Ecosystems, 19, 889-895.

Leahy, M.J.A., Oliver, T.H. & Leather, S.R. (2007) Feeding behaviour of the black pine beetle, Hylastes ater (Coleoptera: Scolytidae). Agricultural and Forest Entomology, 9, 115-124.

Leather, S.R., Ahmed, S.I. & Hogan, L. (1994) Adult feeding preferences of the large pine weevil, Hylobius abietis (Coleoptera: Curculionidae). European Journal of Entomology, 91, 385-389.

Leather, S.R., Small, A.A. & Bogh, S. (1995) Seasonal variation in local abundance of adults of the large pine weevil, Hylobius abietis L. Journal of Applied Entomology, 119, 511-513.

Leather, S.R., Fellowes, M.D.E., Hayman, G.R.F. & Maxen, J.S. (1997) The influence of lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) provenance on the development and survival of larvae of the pine beauty moth Panolis flammea (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae). Bulletin of Entomological Research, 87, 75-80.

Leather, S.R., Beare, J.A., Cooke, R.C.A. & Fellowes, M.D.E. (1998) Are differences in life history parameters of the pine beauty moth Panolis flammea modified by host plant quality or gender? Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 87, 237-243.

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Scorpion flies – not as scary as they sound or look

I’m very fond of Scorpionflies, in fact, they are almost up there with aphids on my all-time favourite insects list. They, at least to me, are reminiscent of something that one would expect to find in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland. They belong to the Order Mecoptera, which until some pesky taxonomists decided that fleas are Mecoptera, was one of the smaller insect Orders with just 600 species, if fleas are indeed Mecoptera then we now have 2600!

Male (left) and female (right) Scorpion flies. Despite the resemblance to the back end of a scorpion it is not a sting, but part of the male genitalia.

Ignoring fleas for the moment, there are nine families of Mecoptera, but only three are common; Scorpion flies (Panorpidae), the Hanging flies (Bittacidae) and Snow fleas (Boreidae) (Byers & Thornhill, 1983). Of these only two occur in the UK, the Scorpion flies and the Snow fleas. Adult Scorpion flies are mostly scavengers, mainly eating dead insects, topping this up with a bit of pollen, nectar and fruit juice and for a special treat, bird faeces. Their larvae live in the soil and mop up whatever dead things they come across.

The Snow fleas feed on moss and are only getting a mention here because they are quite cute and for a few years I held the record for the furthest north record 😊

Cute Snow fleas 😊

The Hanging flies are carnivores capturing live prey as adults and larvae and deserve a special mention as they (and although it shouldn’t, but it appeals to the ten-year old in me, makes me giggle) have a penisfilum.

Male (left) and female of Bittacus planus. Photo provided by Dr. Baozhen Hua. Note the knob in the male!

Anyway, back to the scorpion flies. They are found in temperate regions, worldwide and as of 2018 there were 280 species. The males are highly competitive, as are many of the Mecoptera. Males will fight over their food, which as I mentioned earlier is quite high in dead flies, which they often steal from spider webs.  They have no fear of spiders as they can dissolve the web if they do get caught.

Another cool thing about scorpion flies is that they, like some spiders, use nuptial gifts to increase their chance of mating. They first use a pheromone which as pheromones go, is pretty short range, 10 -15 metres. Once a female has been enticed by the pheromone, the males than flash their wings, which are striped and do a bit of a dance. Depending on species, what happens next could be one of three tactics.

Nuptial gifts and mating of Dicerapanorpa magna Photo provided by Dr. Baozhen Hua.

male gives female food which she eats during copulation either a salivary deposit from enlarged salivary glands or a dead insect, and waits female arrival.  Another tactic is to find a suitable dead insect which he then stands by, waits for a female to arrive, and then copulates with her while she eats it. Some males are less generous and will force themselves on a female without any presents or even pheromones, holding their chosen mate in place with his abdominal clamp (Tong et al., 2018). The size of the gift is related to the duration of copulation and to how long it will be before the female mates with a different male (Byers & Thornhill, 1983); females that were subjected to forced copulation have a very short inhibition time – the more the males invest in their nuptial gifts, the more offspring they sire. Basically, they get what they pay for! The eggs, usually no more than ten per clutch, are laid into damp soil.

When I introduce Scorpionflies to a new audience, I am, as I find frequently with other insects, faced with the usual human exceptionalism question “

“Mecoptera are most often defined by the characters they do not possess” Penny (2016)

They are not pollinators generally regarded as pollinators (thanks Jeff Ollerton for reminding me that some do visit flowers for nectar), but they are not crop pests and nor are they vectors. We don’t eat them and most of them most are not biological control agents. Bittacids are, however, predators. Panorpids are recyclers, they feed on carrion. The Nannochoristids could be seen as s bio-indicators; their larvae need clean water and Boreids could act as climate change ‘canaries’ because of their limited dispersal ability and their need for cold.

Scorpionflies have appeared in video games (Shelomi, 2019) so I guess are helping the economy and keeping people entertained.

In the long distance past (170 MYA), before angiosperms made their appearance and allowed the explosion in insect diversity possible, three groups of scorpionfly, now extinct, fed on the nectar of gymnosperms and in return pollinated them (Ren et al., 2009).

References

Byers, G.W. & Thornhill, R. (1983) Biology of the Mecoptera. Annual Review of Entomology, 28, 203-228.

Palmer, C. (2010) Diversity of feeding strategies in adult Mecoptera. Terrestrial Arthropod Reviews, 3, 111-128.

Ren, D., Labandeira, C.C., et al., (2009) A probable pollination mode before angiosperms: Eurasian long-proboscid scorpionflies. Science, 326, 840-847.

Shelomi, M. (2019). Entomoludology: Arthropods in Video Games. American Entomologist, 65, 97–106

Tong, X., Zhong, W. & Hua, B.Z. (2018) Copulatory mechanism and functional morphology of genitalia and anal horn of the scorpionfly Cerapanorpa dubia (Mecoptera: Panorpidae). Journal of Morphology, 279, 1532-1539.

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