Category Archives: Bugbears

Typos, typos everywhere – a call for the return of human copy editors and better proof reading

When I first started writing and publishing papers, publishers employed copy editors who checked pre-publication proofs for accuracy, style and grammar.  Authors had limited access to computer spell checkers, using print dictionaries instead and were supposed to check their proofs rigorously.   Nowadays, copy and style editors are mythical beasts, and we all suffer from the tyranny of the dreaded auto-correct.  The advent of automated copy editing and computerised spell checking has had a serious effect on the levels of exasperation in the Leather household. My wife, a former Editorial Assistant and copy editor*, and I find that we are increasingly drawing each other’s attention to glaring grammatical and typographical errors in the novels we read; baited breath when the author (I hope) meant bated, need instead of knead, dependent instead of dependant, principle instead of principal, effect when affect is meant and vice versa, etymology instead of entomology (oh heinous sin) and once to my total disbelief, dough instead of dhow!  And don’t even get me started on the greengrocer’s apostrophe!

It wouldn’t be so bad if this were confined to fiction but every now and increasingly then, I find something in a scientific paper or a grant proposal that makes me cringe and sigh despairingly (and not always quietly).

A high proportion of grant proposals and cvs that I see, use Principle Investigator instead of Principal Investigator.  I am happy that PIs are principled but just wish that they were a little bit more grammatically knowledgeable 🙂 That said, it is not just scientists who have a problem with the difference between principle and principal.

But, back to the reason I was stimulated to write this post.  I recently read a paper in Nature Communications, and was stunned by the appalling state of the references.  How these got past the copy editor (if there was one) and authors I have no idea.  Nature Communications is regarded as a high impact journal, in its own words publishing “high quality research” so one might expect and hope their production values to be equally high.

Author fatigue and Copy Editor failure!

 As a renowned senior scientist of my acquaintance (Professor Helmut van Emden if you wondered) once remarked during a PhD viva, “if you can’t be bothered to check your references for accuracy, how am I supposed to believe you collected your data and analysed it any more carefully?”  What particularly upset/disappointed me about the paper above was that two of the authors are former students of mine and have had the Van Emden adage related to them more than once!

To be fair, I too am not immune to letting the odd typo slip past my eagle eye.  Shortly after an editorial of mine was published (Leather, 2017) I received an email which I reproduce in full below.

Dear Prof. Leather

 I have just come across your recent editorial in Annals of Applied Biology.  Despite a few typographical errors (spelling of my name and a hanging reference to the “former” when the former is not clear), I could not agree more with your message, and I am honored that you chose my work on weed suppression as an example of the gap that needs to be closed.  Your description of the situation with respect to our research was right on target. I was also very impressed by the quotation from Benjamin Walsh, which is just as relevant today as it was back in 1866.

 The problem exists in both directions.  Basic researchers can be snobs who look down on applied research. But applied researchers often react to this by responding negatively to relevant basic research.  J.L. Harper often said that the distinction between basic and applied research is artificial, but there is clearly a cultural “gap”.

 With best wishes from Copenhagen

Jacob Weiner

On being reminded, very politely, that no matter how senior we are we are neither perfect nor infallible 🙂

The misspelled reference duly corrected, albeit after the fact.


Leather S.R. (2017) Mind the gap: time to make sure that scientists and practitioners are on the same page.  Annals of Applied Biology 170: 1-3

*Those of you whom had papers published in Ecological Entomology between 1996 and 2003 will have experienced her ferocious red pen 🙂



Filed under Bugbears

Small and frequently overlooked, but without them we could not exist

Without them, we would find the world a very different place, that is if we were still alive.  Yet very few people give them a thought, and then usually only to dismiss them or castigate them for impinging on our comfortable lives. Animals without backbones, the micro-flora and fauna, are what keep the world a place in which we can make a living.  Politicians however, and many others of our fellow travellers on this fragile planet, seem unaware of their importance.  Donald Trump rescinds environmental protection laws as if they are a hindrance to humankind rather than a boon, BREXIT politicians and their supporters in the UK extol the virtues of escaping from those silly EU environmental laws that prevent them from polluting our beaches and rivers and making our air unbreathable. We all need to take a step back and adjust our vision so that we can appreciate the little things that run the world and understand that despite our size, our abundance and our apparent dominance, that we too are a part of nature.

I and many others have written about this topic on many occasions but it is a message that bears repetition again and again.  I leave you with the passage that stimulated my latest rant and a few links to similar pieces.

“In terms of size, mammals are an anomaly, as the vast majority of the world’s existing animal species are snail-sized or smaller.  It’s almost as if, regardless of your kingdom, the smaller your size and the earlier your place on the tree of life, the more critical is your niche on Earth; snails and worms create soil, and blue-green algae create oxygen; mammals seem comparatively dispensable; the result of the random path of evolution over a luxurious amount of time.”

Elizabeth Tova Bailey  (2010)  – The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

Here are a few links to give you food for thought and to inspire you to find more of the same.

Michael Samways  Small animals rule the world. We need to stop destroying them

E O Wilson (1987) The little things that rule the world

Gregory Mueller & John Schmidt (2007) on why we should know more about fungi

Robert May (2009) Ecological science and tomorrow’s world

Mark Gessner and colleagues (2010) on the importance of decomposers

Anders Dahlberg and colleagues (2010) on why we should conserve fungi

Anne Maczulak (2010) on the importance of bacteria

Me complaining about plastic and other environmental dangers

Me again, this time about conserving small things

Sorry, but me again, this time about appreciating nature

and from Gerald Durrell, who was a great inspiration to me through his various writings…

And finally, If you haven’t read this, then I can certainly recommend it:

Ehrlich, P.  & Ehrlich, A. (1981) Extinction, Random House, New York.



Filed under Bugbears

Mind the gap – time to make sure that scientists and practitioners are on the same page

I have deliberately used the same title for this post as my 2017 Editorial in Annals of Applied Biology and if you were to run it through Turnitin™ you would find a very high percentage similarity indeed 🙂 I had originally planned for this post and my Editorial to appear simultaneously, but thanks to modern publishing practices, the January issue of the Annals of Applied Biology, hit the virtual newsstands in mid-December and put the kibosh on my cunning plan.


Once a year I am wheeled out to do a guest lecture to the final year agriculture undergraduates on the Global Food Production module here at Harper Adams.  I start off the lecture by reminiscing about when I was an agricultural zoology undergraduate student at the University of Leeds in 1975 and was introduced to the concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), or as it was termed then, Integrated Pest Control.  I was very much taken by this idea and on my next visit home, approached my Uncle James, a farmer, and explained the concept to him and suggested that he might like to implement it on his farm.  To my surprise, he was not convinced by my arguments, and replied with words to the effect, “It all sounds rather tedious, and after all, I can do all my pest control much more easily using a tank mix, so why should I bother?”.  This attitude was, at the time widespread among the UK farming community and elsewhere despite the concept having been formally discussed in the scientific literature since the late 1950s and early 1960s (Stern et al., 1959; de Fluiter, 1962).  Despite the benefits of IPM being recognised and extolled IPM by researchers and agronomists for many years, take-up by growers has been much slower than expected (Kogan, 1998; Hammond et al., 2006). Resistance to the adoption of integrated pest management is not new, Benjamin Walsh writing in 1866 wrote

Let a man profess to have discovered some new patent powder pimperlimplimp, a single pinch of which being thrown into each corner of a field will kill every bug throughout its whole extent, and people will listen to him with attention and respect.  But tell them of any simple common-sense plan, based upon correct scientific principles, to check and keep within reasonable bounds the insect foes of the farmer, and they will laugh you to scorn”  Benjamin Walsh The Practical Entomologist

Why, if IPM is regarded as being of such paramount importance to sustainable crop production, the European Union for example passed a directive recently (2009/128/EC) requiring all member states to pass legislation to make sure that all professional growers at the very least adopt the principles of IPM, is its adoption so slow.  Hokkanen (2015) cites three main impediments to the adoption of IPM, science funding, political interference and economics.  As an applied entomologist I know from bitter experience, that there is a lack of willingness by the UK Research Councils to fund basic applied science i.e. grants to aid researchers to establish much-needed new economic thresholds are very unlikely to be funded.  Hokkanen (2015) also points out that whilst the political landscape now includes IPM, different governments have views, not necessarily based on science, about what are acceptable items for the IPM toolbox, genetically modified crops (GM) and neonicotinoid insecticides being just two such examples. Thirdly, as Hokkanen (2015) points out the ability of farmers to fully adopt IPM practices, is often out of their control, but is decided by market forces and social and political pressures, GM crops and neonicotinoids again serving to illustrate this point.

As Felicity Lawrence writing in the Guardian says “British farmers growing wheat typically treat each crop over its growing cycle with four fungicides, three herbicides, one insecticide and one chemical to control molluscs. They buy seed that has been precoated with chemicals against insects. They spray the land with weedkiller before planting, and again after.

They apply chemical growth regulators that change the balance of plant hormones to control the height and strength of the grain’s stem. They spray against aphids and mildew. And then they often spray again just before harvesting with the herbicide glyphosate to desiccate the crop, which saves them the energy costs of mechanical drying.

Most farmers around the world, whatever the crop, will turn to one of just six companies that dominate the market to buy all these agrochemicals and their seeds. The concentration of power over primary agriculture in such a small number of corporations, and their ability both to set prices and determine the varieties available, has already been a cause of concern among farmers. Yet by next year the competition is likely to shrink even further”.

Independent advice in the UK is not as easy to get as it once was.  The expected career outcome for my undergraduate course was either academia or to work as an advisor for the then, government funded, Agricultural Development and Advisory Service (ADAS).  ADAS was the research and advisory arm of the then Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food and employed specialist advisers throughout the country to advise farmers and growers how to maximise their output.   ADAS became an agency in 1992, was privatised in 1997 and in December 2016 was taken over by RSK, a large environmental consultancy.  The first incarnation of ADAS was relatively well-staffed with truly independent advisors. The second incarnation, although still billed as independent, had far fewer offices and far fewer staff, so their traditional advisory role was largely taken over by private agronomists whose agendas and training are very varied.  This state of affairs is not unique to the UK.

As an example, this is from another of my correspondents who is also on the Editorial Board of Annals of Applied BiologyThanks for your message and interesting question.  You are correct that in the US the extension service is closely aligned with the land grant Universities.  It was the complete opposite in Australia and NZ (similar to the UK) where the government funded extension service had been cut years ago and the gap had been ‘filled’ by private consultants which were also often chemical sales representatives.

Even in the USA, traditionally very strong when it comes to entomology in universities, the situation is less than rosy as this email from another correspondent (of necessity anonymised) highlights:

“I am currently the only trained entomologist in any XX university with a position focused on commercial ornamental entomology despite nurseries in XX being our largest plant-based agricultural commodity. Between shipping out 75-80% of the nursery plants across a state or international border, thousands of cultivated varieties, several planting systems (protected and field grown), and the aesthetic thresholds with ornamental plants, I’m a bit too popular (couldn’t haven’t happened in high school when I could have used it). I don’t even have a PhD and my position is actually a regional Extension educator position versus specialist. Since we have no specialists for non-food crops, I often am asked to work off position description on other ornamental plant needs in landscapes as well. Not just entomology as this is an IPM position.  This level of demand has curtailed my ability to be involved with activities that would have been useful professionally (like publishing more and reviewing work of peers). No regrets about the new discoveries, adoption and impact of my work in many diverse areas but I will have less legacy in the published world.  

I’m retiring in less than three years. A little early but necessary as I’ve been fighting burn-out for years. And the university has taught me many times that they value my work less as a female (the stories I could tell). Women in STEM gets lots of verbiage but those of us working in these systems will tell you how far we have to go yet to be treated equitably. Perhaps they will value my work once I’m gone and people have nowhere to go. I have been fortunate to have had the privilege of excellent training and only hope that this country can maintain some of these bastions of entomology into the future”

Science is crucial to the development of IPM, be it understanding pest phenology, developing and evaluating biocontrol agents or obtaining a basic understanding of the biology and ecology of a particular pest (e.g. Webb et al., 2015; Dandurand & Knudsen, 2016; Karley et al., 2016; Rowley et al. 2016).  Basic science is important, but funding needs to be mainly allocated to more immediately applicable research than to the more academic end of the spectrum which is where it tends to go more often than not (Hokkanen, 2015).   I recently attended a conference organised by AgriNet, whose mission statement is “AGRI-net is an Agri-science Chemical Biology network which aims to stimulate the development and facilitate the translation of novel tools and technologies to key end-users in the Agri-sciences”, the title of which was  Bridging the gap between Physical sciences & Agri-sciences research.  Although the science presented was excellent it was hard to see how it could be translated to the relevant end-users in their lifetimes.

Don’t get me wrong, basic science is needed as there will be a time when the technology is available for it to be relevant.  As an example, Winer et al. (2001) convincingly demonstrated that planting spring wheat at extremely high densities (up to 600 seeds m2) in a grid pattern, significantly reduced weed density and significantly increased yield when compared with planting at conventional seed rates and in the traditional row pattern.  Fifteen years ago this may not have been very attractive to farmers as it would have meant modifying their already expensive machinery.  With the advent of precision farming this is perhaps now a viable strategy, but so far is little taken up by growers.  Is this a lack of communication from the scientists to the end-user or a reluctance to adapt new ways by the farmer?  I would suggest the former.

The recent State of Nature report (Hayhow et al., 2016) caused dismay amongst UK ecologists and raised the hackles of the UK farming community.  The data were very convincing and much of the decline in wildlife in agricultural systems was attributed to the intensification of agriculture post World War 2. The UK farming community reacted quickly and angrily (Midgely, 2016), pointing out that farming practices have changed greatly over the last half century and that the report was overlooking the many farmers who have willing engaged with the various environmental stewardship initiatives.  The debate was somewhat exacerbated by the fact that some trenchant exchanges on both sides of the fence are of a long-standing nature.  Although I have a great deal of sympathy for the conservation side of the argument I sometimes feel that the language used by what the farming press equally dismissively calls ‘green lobby’ does not help. Michael McCarthy for example, an author whom I greatly admire, is in his recent book, The Moth Snowstorm, is extremely scathing about the practices of farmers, whom he mockingly calls “Farmer Giles” (McCarthy, 2016)

Similarly, there has been for some time, a debate within the scientific community as to whether it is better to farm intensively to maximize yields while conserving and protecting natural habitats (land sparing), or to use wildlife-friendly farming methods (land sharing) that integrate biodiversity conservation with food production (e.g. Tscharntke et al., 2012; Bommarco et al., 2013; Fischer et al., 2014; Kremen, 2015).  Due, however, to the pressures imposed by academic institutions and state funding bodies, the scientists concerned publish in ‘high impact’ conservation journals unlikely to be read by agronomists let alone farmers.

Sue Hartley (2016) “…working in Malawi on a Christian Aid funded project on improving crop resilience to drought.  I thought I had the answer: farmers should stop growing maize and grow the much more drought tolerant millet instead.  Consternation amongst the farmers greeted that suggestion! “But, they exclaimed in horror, Dr Sue, we can’t we are married to maize!  Hopelessly naïve, I had neglected the wider cultural and socioeconomic context; I’d focussed on the physiology of the plants, my discipline, and not on the sociology of farmer behaviour, someone else’s discipline

There are ways to bridge the gap, although it may mean some scientists having to step outside their laboratories and comfort zones. A recent experiment in China where academic staff and their postgraduate students lived in farming communities and worked alongside local farmers resulted in significant increases in crop yields (Zhang et al., 2016).  Whilst not suggesting that all scientists involved in basic science with potential agricultural applications, adopt a similar approach, I would encourage them to spend some time speaking to farmers on their farms and not in workshops away from the agricultural environment.   Similarly, I would exhort ecologists with an interest in agriculture to either publish in journals more likely to be read by agronomists and farmers and not in journals that only their peers will read. Arguments in journals such as Biological Conservation, no matter how well presented or reasoned, reach a very limited audience of peers and undergraduates writing assignments. The people who make the decisions and grow our food do not read those journals. Failing that, in these days of ‘research impact’ it would make sense to take steps to summarise their findings in a more popular format such as the farming press. The workshops often mentioned in grant applications under the “pathways to impact” section will only have a limited reach and the proposed web sites, another favourite of the grant writer, unless extensively advertised and scrupulously kept up to date, again will remain largely unread.

Most importantly, use language that everyone can understand.  The farmer representing Innovate UK at the Agri-futures meeting was particularly scathing about the presentations, slickly and smoothly delivered by the obviously keen and excited scientists, remarking that most farmers would not know the word heterogeneity; keep it simple, avoid jargon, but don’t speak down to practitioners just because they don’t have the same vocabulary you do.   Emma Hamer the Senior Plant Health advisor for the National Farmers Union was just one of the many speakers from industry at the Advances in Integrated Pest Management Conference that I attended in November, who pointed out that many farmers were still unaware of exactly IPM was, even though they were practicing it to some extent.

There are agricultural scientists who do their best to step down from their ivory towers and try to make their work easily accessible.  Rothamsted Research for example, where the scientists are under immense pressure to publish in high impact journals, are doing their best to provide an effective extension service despite the swingeing cuts that have been made to their staff who work with whole organisms.  Their advocacy of the IPM concept via their app Croprotect is innovative and useful.  The UK of course is not alone in these types of ventures.  My Editorial sparked this response via email:  “I read with interest your editorial in the Annals of Applied Biology.  Our research group works strongly with State Government to convert our research into practical tools for fire management, but we struggle at the interface because each agency things that it is the responsibility of the other to do the extension work!  A better example comes from my colleagues in the crop sciences who have a very workable model in the southern hemisphere (see ).” On the other hand, we have scientists who extol the virtues of extension but publish in journals that are non-accessible to many academics and certainly beyond the ken of agronomists and farmers (Kremen, 2015).  Important commentaries on pollinators aimed at farmers and politicians (Dicks et al., 2016) are too often hidden behind ‘high impact’ paywalls and if not revealed by helpful bloggers such as Jeff Ollerton, would remain hidden away from the very people who need to know.  Other bloggers such as Manu Saunders are also on the case, debunking and/or publicising the debates surrounding sustainable agriculture, but this is not enough.  Scientists who put themselves forward as working in the agricultural sciences need to pay more heed to the ways in which farmers work, understand the farming year* and actually talk to farmers whilst in their own environment.  Perhaps not so much as being on the same page but standing in the same field.


Pleased to see that a Wordle analysis of this post puts farmers centre stage.



Bommarco, R., Kleijn, D. & Potts, S.G. (2013) Ecological intensification: harnessing ecosystem services for food security. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 28, 230–238

Dandurand, L.M. & Knudsen, G.R. (2016) Effect of the trap crop Solanum sisymbriifolium and two biocontrol fungi on reproduction of the potato cyst nematode, Globodera pallida. Annals of Applied Biology, 169, 180-189

De Fluiter, H.J. (1962) Integrated control of pests in orchards. Entomophaga, 7, 199-206.

Dicks, L.V., Viana, B., Bommarco, R., Brosi, B., del Coro Arizmendi, M., Cunningham, S.A., Galetto, L., Hill, R.,  Lopes, A.V., Pires, C., Taki, H., & Potts, S.G. (2016) Ten policies for pollinators.  Science, 354, 975-976.

Fischer, J., Abson, D.J., Butsic, V., Chappell, M.J., Ekroos, J., Hanspach, J., Kuemmerle, T., Smith, H.G. & von Wehrden, H. (2014) Land sparing versus land sharing: moving forward. Conservation Letters, 7, 149–157

Hammond, C.M., Luschei, E.C., Boerboom, C.M. & Nowak, P.J. (2006) Adoption of integrated pest management tactics by Wisconsin farmers.  Weed Technology, 20, 756-767

Hartley, S. (2016) In praise of interdisciplinarity.  The Bulletin, 47, 5-6.

Hayhow, D.B., Burns, F., Eaton, M.A., Al Fulaij, N., August, T.A., Babey, L., Bacon, L., Bingham, C., Boswell, J., Boughey, K.L., Brereton, T., Brookman, E., Brooks, D.R., Bullock, D.J., Burke, O., Collis, M., Corbet, L., Cornish, N., De Massimi, S., Densham, J., Dunn, E., Elliott, S., Gent, T., Godber, J., Hamilton, S., Havery, S., Hawkins, S., Henney, J., Holmes, K., Hutchinson, N., Isaac, N.J.B., Johns, D., Macadam, C.R., Mathews, F., Nicolet, P., Noble, D.G., Outhwaite, C.L., Powney, G.D., Richardson, P., Roy, D.B., Sims, D., Smart, S., Stevenson, K., Stroud, R.A., Walker, K.J., Webb, J.R., Webb, T.J., Wynde, R. and Gregory, R.D. (2016) State of Nature 2016. The State of Nature partnership.

Hokkanen, H.M.T. (2015) Integrated pest management at the crossroads: science, politics or business (as usual)?  Arthropod-Plant Interactions, 9, 543-545

Karley, A.J., Mitchell, C., Brookes, C., McNicol, J., O’Neill, T., Roberts, H., Graham, J. & Johnson, S.N. (2016) Exploiting physical defence traits for crop protection: leaf trichomes of Rubus idaeus have deterrent effects on spider mites but not aphids.  Annals of Applied Biology, 168, 159-172

Kogan, M. (1998) Integrated pest management: historical perspectives and contemporary developments.  Annual Review of Entomology, 43, 243-270

Kremen C. (2015) Reframing the land-sparing/land-sharing debate for biodiversity conservation. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1355, 52–76.

McCarthy, M. (2016) The Moth Snowstorm, Hodder & Stoughton, London.

Midgely, O. (2016) Industry’s work overlooked by UK green lobby. Farmer’s Guardian, September 16, 2

Rowley, C., Cherrill, A., Leather, S., Nicholls, C., Ellis, S. & Pope, T. (2016) A review of the biology, ecology and control of saddle gall midge, Haplodiplosis marginata (Diptera: Cecidomyiidae) with a focus on phenological forecasting.  Annals of Applied Biology, 169, 167-179

Stern, V.M., Smith, R.F., Van Den Bosch, R., & Hagen, K.S. (1959) The integrated control concept. Hilgardia, 29, 81-101.

Tscharntke, T., Clough, Y., Wanger, T.C., Jackson, L., Motzke, I., Perfecto, I., Vandermeer, J. & Whitbread, A. (2012) Global food security, biodiversity conservation and the future of agricultural intensification. Biological Conservation, 151, 51–59

Webb, K.M., R.M. , Harveson, R.M. & West, M.S. (2015)  Evaluation of Rhizoctonia zeae as a potential biological control option for fungal root diseases of sugar beet.  Annals of Applied Biology, 167, 75-89

Winer, J., Griepentrog, H.W. & Kristensen, L. (2001) Suppression of weeds by spring wheat Triticum aestivum increases with crop density and spatial uniformity.  Journal of Applied Ecology, 38, 784-790.

Zhang, W., Cao, G., Li, X., Zhang, H., Wang, C., Liu, Q., Chen, X., Cui, Z., Shen, J., Jiang, R., Mi, G., Miao, Y., Zhang, F. & Dou, Z. (2016) Closing yield gaps in China by empowering smallholder farmers. Nature, 537, 671-674


Filed under Bugbears, Science writing, Uncategorized

You don’t need charismatic mega-fauna to go on an exciting safari

I got very annoyed the other day; the Zoological Society of London (Institute of Zoology) released what they termed a ”landmark report”.  I guess you can all immediately see why I was annoyed.  The headline of the press release very clearly states that global wildlife populations are on course to decline by 67% by 2020.  What their report actually says is that global vertebrate populations are on course to decline.


Plants and invertebrates are a much bigger and more important part of global wildlife than the tiny fraction of the world’s species contributed by those animals with backbones. I instantly posted a Tweet pointing out that for a scientific institution this was a highly inaccurate statement to be promulgating.


My comment (still ignored by them) at the ZSL press release

The ZSL despite being copied into the Tweet, have so far (three weeks later), not deigned to reply.  I have taken the ZSL to task before with equally little success.  To give them credit where it is due however, just over four years ago they did release Spineless, a report about the global status of invertebrates, although the press release associated with this was a much more low-key affair then the recent one that I took exception to 🙂

Dr. Ben Collen*, head of the Indicators and Assessments unit at ZSL says: “Invertebrates constitute almost 80 per cent of the world’s species, and a staggering one in five species could be at risk of extinction. While the cost of saving them will be expensive, the cost of ignorance to their plight appears to be even greater”.

ZSL’s Director of Conservation, Professor Jonathan Baillie added: “We knew that roughly one fifth of vertebrates and plants were threatened with extinction, but it was not clear if this was representative of the small spineless creatures that make up the majority of life on the planet. The initial findings in this report indicate that 20% of all species may be threatened. This is particularly concerning as we are dependent on these spineless creatures for our very survival.

Unlike Ryan Clark who was also stimulated to write a protest blog in response to the same article, I do have something against vertebrates; they suck away valuable research funding and resources away from the rest of the animal kingdom (Leather, 2009; Loxdale, 2016) and distract attention and people away from invertebrate conservation efforts (Leather, 2008; Cardoso et al., 2011).  I have highlighted two sentences in the above quotes from the Spineless press release for very obvious reasons and wish that ZSL had taken these words to heart.  If, however, you go to their research page it would seem that these were only empty promises as less than 10% of their projects deal with invertebrates.  It is at times like this that I take comfort in the knowledge that I am not alone in despairing of the unfair treatment that invertebrates and the people that work with them suffer.


Sums it up nicely, despite the focus on marine invertebrates 🙂

I had a few minutes of relief after posting my Tweet about the ZSL and their lack of scientific integrity, but I still felt frustrated and annoyed.  The need to do something further preyed on my mind, and then I had an idea. What about highlighting the charismatic mega-fauna that the ZSL and other similar bodies persist in ignoring.  I went on a quick photographic safari and in a few minutes was able to produce a little visual dig at the fans of the so-called charismatic mega-fauna.


Going on safari as an entomologist

I thought this might raise a few appreciative likes from fellow entomologists and got back to work. I logged into Twitter a couple of hours later and was gratified, if somewhat surprised, to find that my Tweet seemed to have generated a bit of interest and not just from my followers.


Appreciative tweets and comments from fellow invertebrate lovers – click on the image to enlarge it

I had also been translated into Spanish!


Reaching the non-English speaking world 🙂

Then the Twitter account for the journal Insect Conservation & Diversity asked if anyone had other examples and generated a bit of a mini-Twitter storm with some great additions to the list.



I particularly liked the Buffalo tree hopper.

And then something I didn’t know existed happened –


I got a Gold Star!

This number of likes far exceeded my previous best-ever tweet, by a very long way.  Seriously though, it made me think about what makes some


My previous best Tweet.

Tweets so much more retweetable than others.  My invertebrate safari tweet didn’t go viral, my understanding is that viral tweets are those that are retweeted thousands of times, but it certainly had an impact on people’s lives, however fleetingly.


Having an impact, albeit not viral.

For those of you not up on Twitter analytics, what this means is that as of November 9th  2016, more than 33,000 people had seen my Tweet, of which almost 2000 had taken the trouble to click on it to make it bigger.  Of those 33,000 who saw it almost 400 went to the trouble to click the Like button and 260 re-tweeted it.  On the other hand, my serious taking the


Not so great an impact, but at least it was read by a few people 🙂

ZSL to task tweet,  attracted much less attention, although one could argue that it was dealing with a much more serious issue.  That aside, responses like this and the other many positive outcomes I have had since I joined Twitter make me even more convinced that Tweeting and blogging are incredibly useful ways of interacting with both the scientific community and general public and getting more people to truly appreciate the little things that run the world.  Hopefully the ZSL, government funding agencies and conservation bodies will take notice of the plea by Axel Hochkirch (2016) to invest in entomologists and hence protect global biodiversity.


A timely reminder (Hochkirch, 2016)


And finally, to end on a lighter note, please nominate and highlight your own favourite ‘charismatic mega-fauna invertebrates’.  There are many more out there.


Another view of the Buffalo tree hopper  photograph by Mike McDowell



Cardoso, P., Erwin, T.L., Borges, P.A.V., & New, T.R. (2011) The seven impediments in invertebrate conservation and how to overcome them. Biological Conservation, 144, 2647-2655.

Hochkirch, A. (2016) The insect crisis we can’t ignore.  Nature, 539, 141.

Leather, S.R. (2008) Conservation entomology in crisis? Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 23, 184-185.

Leather, S.R. (2009) Taxonomic chauvinism threatens the future of entomology. Biologist, 56, 10-13.

Loxdale, H.D. (2016) Insect science – a vulnerable discipline? Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 159, 121-134.



*The lead author of the report, Ben Collen was a former undergraduate student of mine, but hard as I tried, I was unable to convert him to the joys of entomology 🙂



Filed under Bugbears, EntoNotes

It isn’t easy being an applied ecologist – working on crops limits publication venues

“This is Simon Leather, he’s an ecologist, albeit an applied one” Thus was I introduced to a group of visiting ecologists by my then head of department at the Silwood Park campus of Imperial College. As you can imagine I was somewhat taken aback at this public display of the bias that ‘pure’ scientists have against those that they regard as ‘applied’.  I was (and still am), used to this attitude, as even as an undergraduate doing Agricultural Zoology when we shared modules with the ‘pure’ zoologists, we were regarded as a slightly lower life form J  Working in Finland as a post-doc in the early 1980s it was also obvious that there was a certain degree of friction between the pure and applied entomologists, so it was not a phenomenon confined entirely to the UK.  To this day, convincing ecology undergraduates that integrated pest management is a suitable career for them is almost impossible.

I was an ecologically minded entomologist from early childhood, pinning and collecting did not interest me anywhere near as much as insect behaviour and ecology, but I knew that I wanted to do something “useful” when I grew up. Having seen my father in action as a plant pathologist and crop protection officer, it seemed to me that combining entomology with agriculture would be an ideal way to achieve this ambition.  A degree in Agricultural Zoology at Leeds and a PhD in cereal aphid ecology at the University of East Anglia (Norwich) was the ideal foundation for my chosen career as an applied ecologist/entomologist.

I started my professional life as agricultural entomologist working both in the laboratory and in the field (cereal fields to be exact), which were easily accessible, generally flat, weed free and easy to manipulate and sample.  In the UK even the largest fields tend to be visible from end to end and side to side when you stand in the middle or edge (even more so now than when I started as wheat varieties are now so much shorter, less than half the height they were in 1977).



Having fun as a PhD student – aphid ‘sampling’ in Norfolk 1978


I haven’t grown since I did my PhD so wheat must have shrunk 🙂

See the post script to see what wheat used to look like.

Laboratory experiments, even when working on mature plants were totally do-able in walk-in growth rooms, and at a push you could even fit whole earing wheat plants into a growth cabinet.

I then spent ten years working as a forest entomologist, where field sites were the exact opposite, and extreme measures were sometimes required to reach my study animals, including going on an official Forestry Commission tree climbing course.


Pole pruners – (of only limited use) and tree climbing (great fun but laborious)


Scaffold towers for really high work, but expensive (and scary on sloping hillsides).

And as for lab work, not a chance of using mature plants or even plants more than two to three years old.  Excised branches and/or foliage (rightly or wrongly) were the norm*.

Doing field work was, despite the sometimes very physically challenging aspects, a lot of fun, and in my case, some very scenic locations.  My two main field sites were The Spey Valley and


Sutherland and Caithness, both of which provided magnificent views and of course, a plethora of whisky distilleries


where I discovered what is now my favourite single malt 🙂

The real fun came when it was time to submit papers.  Journal choice was (and is) very important.  As Stephen Heard points out, journals have a ‘culture’ and it is very important to pick a journal that has the right editorial board and ethos. The laboratory work never seemed to be a huge problem, referees (perhaps wrongly) very rarely criticised the use of young plants or excised foliage. I was able to publish the output from what was a very applied project, in a range of journals from the very specialised to the more ecological. This selection for example, from 1985-1987 (Leather, 1985, 1986; Leather & Burnand, 1987; Leather et al., 1985), appeared in Ecological Entomology, Oecologia, Functional Ecology and Bulletin of Entomological Research respectively.

Papers reporting field-based work were a little bit harder to place in journals outside the mainstream forestry ones, particularly when it came to experimental work.  One of the problems was that ecological referees unused to working in forests tended not to have a grasp of what was involved in setting up and servicing an experiment in a forest plantation or stand.  A farmer has no great objection to an entomologist removing 100 wheat tillers a week from his 2 ha field (at 90 stems per metre2, even a 16 week field season would only remove a tiny fraction of his crop).  A forest manager on the other hand with a stocking density of 3000 stems per hectare would look askance at a proposal to remove even 100 trees a month from a hectare plot, especially if this was repeated for seven years.  Sample size was thus a problem, even when using partial sampling of trees, e.g. by removing say only one branch.  When it came to field scale replication, to compare for example, three treatments and a control on two different soil types, where each treatment plot is a hectare, things get a bit difficult. The most that we could service, even with help (since we did not have huge financial resources), was three replicates of each treatment.  In agricultural terms this seems incredibly low, where 10m2 plots or even smaller, are very often used (e.g. Staley et al., 2009; Garratt et al., 2011).

We thus ended up with our experimental papers in the really specialised forestry journals (e.g.  Leather, 1993; Hicks et al., 2007).  On the other hand, those papers based on observational, long-term data were easier to place in more general ecological journals (e.g. Watt et al., 1989), although that was not always enough to guarantee success (e.g. Walsh et al., 1993; Watt et al., 1991).  Another bias that I came across (perhaps unconscious) was that referees appeared, and still do, think that work from production forests is not as valid as that coming from ‘natural’ forests, especially if they are tropical. We came across this when submitting a paper about the effects of prescribed burning on carabid populations in two sites in Portugal (Nunes et al., 2006).  We originally sent this to a well-known ecological journal who rejected it on the grounds of low replication, although we had also replicated it temporarily as well as geographically.  I was not impressed to see a paper published in this journal shortly after they had rejected our manuscript in which the authors had reported changes in insect communities after a one-off fire event in a tropical forest, without even the benefits of pre-fire baseline data.  We had in the meantime, given up on general ecology journals and submitted our paper to a local forestry journal.  Such is life.

I originally started this essay with the idea of bemoaning the fact that publishing studies based in production forests in more general journals was more difficult than publishing agriculturally based papers, but got diverted into writing about the way applied ecologists feel discriminated against by journals and pure ecologists.  I may or may not have convinced you about that.  To return to my original idea of it being more difficult for forestry–based ecologists to break out of the forestry journal ghetto than it is for agro-ecologists to reach a broader audience, I present the following data based on my own publication record, which very convincingly demonstrates that my original feeling is based on fact, albeit based on an n of one 🙂


Numbers of agricultural and forestry based papers published by me in different journal categories.

I might also add that being an entomologist also limits where you can publish, so being an applied entomologist is something of a double whammy, and when it comes to getting research council funding, don’t get me started!


 Garratt, M.P.D., Wright, D.J., & Leather, S.R. (2010) The effects of organic and conventional fertilizers on cereal aphids and their natural enemies. Agricultural and Forest Entomology, 12, 307-318.

Hicks, B.J., Aegerter, J.N., Leather, S.R., & Watt, A.D. (2007) Differential rates of parasitism of the pine beauty moth (Panolis flammea) depends on host tree species. Scottish Forestry, 61, 5-10.

Leather, S.R. (1985) Oviposition preferences in relation to larval growth rates and survival in the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea. Ecological Entomology, 10, 213-217.

Leather, S.R. (1986) The effect of neonatal starvation on the growth, development and survival of larvae of the pine beauty moth Panolis flammea. Oecologia, 71, 90-93.

Leather, S.R. (1993) Influence of site factor modification on the population development of the pine beauty moth (Panolis flammea) in a Scottish lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) plantation. Forest Ecology & Management, 59, 207-223.

Leather, S.R. & Burnand, A.C. (1987) Factors affecting life-history parameters of the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea (D&S): the hidden costs of reproduction. Functional Ecology, 1, 331-338.

Leather, S.R., Watt , A.D., & Barbour, D.A. (1985) The effect of host plant and delayed mating on the fecundity and lifespanof the pine beauty moth,  Panolis flammea (Denis & Schiffermuller) (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae): their influence on population dynamics and relevance to pest management. Bulletin of entomological Research, 75, 641-651.

Nunes, L.F., Silva, I., Pité, M., Rego, F.C., Leather, S.R., & Serrano, A. (2006) Carabid (Coleoptera) community change following prescribed burning and the potential use of carabids as indicator species to evaluate the effects of fire management in Mediterranean regions. Silva Lusitania, 14, 85-100.

Staley, J.T., Stewart-Jones, A., Pope, T.W., Wright, D.J., Leather, S.R., Hadley, P., Rossiter, J.T., Van Emden, H.F., & Poppy, G.M. (2010) Varying responses of insect herbivores to altered plant chemistry under organic and conventional treatments. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, 277, 779-786.

Walsh, P.J., Day, K.R., Leather, S.R., & Smith, A.J. (1993) The influence of soil type and pine species on the carabid community of a plantation forest with a history of pine beauty moth infestation. Forestry, 66, 135-146.

Watt, A.D., Leather, S.R., & Stoakley, J.T. (1989) Site susceptibility, population development and dispersal of the pine beauty moth in a lodgepole pine forest in northern Scotland. Journal of Applied Ecology, 26, 147-157.

Watt, A.D., Leather, S.R., & Evans, H.F. (1991) Outbreaks of the pine beauty moth on pine in Scotland: the influence of host plant species and site factors. Forest Ecology and Management, 39, 211-221.


Post script

The height of mature wheat and other cereals has decreased hugely over the last two hundred years.  Cereals were originally a multi-purpose crop, not just providing grain for humans, but bedding straw for stock and humans, winter fodder for animals, straw for thatching and if really desperate, you could make winter fuel out of discarded straw**.


John Linnell  – Wheat 1860  You wouldn’t have been able to see Poldark’s (Aidan Turner) manly chest whilst he was scything in this field!


Pieter Breugel the Elder – Die Kornernter – The Harvesters  (1565) – Head-high wheat crops and not just because the average height was lower in those days.


*As I was writing this article I came across this paper (Friberg & Wiklund, 2016) which suggests that using excised plants may be justifiable.  Friberg, M. & Wiklund, C. (2016)  Butterflies and plants: preference/performance studies in relation to plant size and the use of intact plants vs. cuttings.  Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 160, 201-208

**My source for this is Laura Ingalls Wilder – Little House on the Prairie, to be exact 🙂


Filed under Bugbears, Uncategorized

How to ruin the planet in three easy steps

In the space of a week I came across three items that made me despair even more than I normally do for the healthy future of our planet.  Coincidentally I was reading Neal Stephenson’s novel Seveneves, which is also about the environmental destruction of the Earth as we know it, albeit by an external disaster and not by our own efforts.  In his novel, the World’s leaders come together to save some of humanity and the planet’s genetic resources, and not destroy it as we seem hellbent on doing.

Item 1

Browsing in a local supermarket I came across what was to me, a new phenomenon, so-called Smartwater!


This is an example of how the fetish/obsession for bottled water has gone way over the top

Step 1 – find a natural spring
Step 2 – extract the water
Step 3 – distil the water to remove the natural ‘impurities’ (sodium, calcium carbonates etc. which are electrolytes) by steam distillation (requires energy, probably from non-renewable sources)
Step 4 – put back the minerals (electrolytes) that were removed by the distillation process
Step 5 – bottle in plastic (not glass) bottles
Step 6 – sell at inflated prices to mugs

What is wrong with tap water folks? 😦  If as some feel, that the tap water has a strong taste of chlorine, leave it overnight before using it.

Item 2

The belief by some commentators and members of the UK  electorate, that the European Union has environmental policies designed to thwart  business rather than protecting the environment.



Item 3

The long-running debate about where to site another runway in the UK to expand runway capacity by 2030.


Not a beautiful morning, rather a sign writ large upon the sky, of how much environmental harm we are doing to the planet.

Rather than expanding runways and airports to encourage growth in air-traffic and the use of fossil fuels, we should be thinking of ways to cut it and reduce our carbon footprint.  Cat Stevens was thinking about this very issue in 1971 in his fantastic song “Where do the Children Play?”

Well you roll on roads over fresh green grass.
For your lorry loads pumping petrol gas.
And you make them long, and you make them tough.
But they just go on and on, and it seems that you can’t get off.

Oh, I know we’ve come a long way,
We’re changing day to day,
But tell me, where do the children play?”


On the plus side some nations seem to be taking a more responsible approach to the exploitation of finite resources.  I am happy to say France, the location of our future retirement home, is leading the way in reducing the use of plastics.  They are also way ahead of us in encouraging the use of solar energy by homeowners.


It was also cheering to see that others share my views about the evils of air travel, as shown by the following two letters from the Guardian newspaper.  Perhaps all is not lost.




Filed under Bugbears, The Bloggy Blog, Uncategorized

Reflections on the dawning of the Anthropocene

We are now officially in the Anthropocene Age which is probably not a good thing.  It seems an appropriate moment to reflect on what we can do to halt, or at the very least, slow down, what seems to be an unstoppable race to extinction of most of the natural world.  We all know what the principal causes are despite the obfuscation and prevarication that surrounds the debate. Equally, we are also aware of the mainly political and economic pressures that are preventing us from doing something to ease the pain and suffering we are inflicting on the world. I am not going to rehearse the arguments, but instead I will let the following speak to us all about why we need to keep and enhance what nature we have remaining.


“Though large herds of deer do much harm to the neighbourhood, yet the injury to the morals of the people is of more moment than the loss of their crops.  The temptation is irresistible; for most men are sportsmen by constitution: and there is such an inherent spirit for hunting in human nature, as scarce any inhibitions can restrain” Gilbert White (1788)


They didn’t know any better – Passenger pigeon flock being hunted in Louisiana (Credit: Smith Bennett, 1875/Public domain.)

Anthropocene 2.GIF

They should know better – mind boggling and shocking

“Really I did deserve a chastisement for my intrusion into the meadow, the disastrous consequences of which I now had power to perceive to the full extent. I had bruised the tender stalks of springing grass, broken quantities of buds, and destroyed myriads of living creatures. In my stupid simplicity I had never had any suspicion of the pain I caused while perpetrating these evil deeds, and had been in a state of delight at the profound peace pervading the country, and the charms of solitude” E van Bruyssel (1870)

Anthropocene 3.

“We can never afford to lose sight of past and present human activities in their effects on the vegetation of countries which have been long inhabited and densely populated, like those of Western and Central Europe” A G Tansley (1923)

“On the favourable side of the balance, I think that I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which escape attention, and in observing them carefully.  My industry has been great as it could have been in the observation and collection of facts.  What is far more important, my love of natural science has been steady and ardent” Charles Darwin (1929*)

“We have tried to conquer nature by force and by intellect.  It now remains for us to try the way of love It is impossible to use the full resources of the soil except with a mixture of plants (either grown together as in pasture or mixed crops grown in succession as a in a proper rotation of crops).  In monoculture it is impossible to keep disease at bay for long, and in addition it is impossible to feed animals properly except on a varied mixture” Lord Northbourne (1940)

Anthropocene 4.png

“The soil is among Nature’s greatest marvels. A clod of earth, seeming simple and lifeless, is now known to be highly complex in structure, its particles most elaborate in their composition, with numerous invisible crevices inhabited by prodigious numbers of living organisms inconceivably small, leading lives of which we can from only the haziest conception, yet somehow linked up with our lives in that they produce the food of plants which constitute our food, and remove from the soil, substances that would be harmful to us” Sir John Russell (1957)

“Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song” Rachel Carson (1962)

“I believe the strongest argument for keeping as much of the natural world as possible in the anthrosphere lies in the human need for variety, individuality, and the challenge of endeavouring to understand the nonhuman world.  I believe, too, that emersion in the world of trees, flower, and wild creatures is needed to nourish human attributes now in short supply: awe, compassion, reflectiveness, the brotherhood we often talk about but rarely practice except on the most superficial of levels”  Howard Ensign Evans (1966)


“I have heard it said more than once that the reason why there are more wire-worms afflicting the crops than in the past is that there are more tractors. The idea being that since the tractor-driven plough turns over three or four furrows at a time as against the horse-plough’s one furrow, the results is that birds get far fewer troughs in which to find worms,  Thus more worms are left in the soil.  It is an attractive theory, there is something cheering in the knowledge that Nature always hits back.  Everything in nature has a meaning and a purpose.  Everything is necessary to the universal scheme, every germ, every microbe, every pest.  When anything ceases to serve the harmony it dies out” John Stewart Collis (1973)

“Humanity now co-opts something in the order of one-twentieth of all the photosynthesis – the primal driving process of life on the planet – for its own uses.  And through its activities, Homo sapiens now threatens to alter the basic climatic patterns of the globe” Paul & Anne Ehrlich (1981)

“The rescue of biological diversity can only be achieved by a skillful blend of science, capital investment, and government: science to blaze the path by research and development; capital investment to create sustainable markets: and government to promote the marriage of economic growth and conservation” Edward Wilson (1992)

“Despite what developers will tell you about restoration, she said, once a piece of land is graded, the biologic organisms and understructure of the soil are destroyed.  No one knows how to really re-create that, short of years of hand-weeding.  Leaving land doesn’t work; the natives are overwhelmed by the invaders” Richard Louw (2005)

“Eventually some truth dawned: nature conservation is essentially concerned with mending the relationship between people and Nature, and is an expression of love for, and an interaction with, the beauty and wonder of the natural world, and with belonging in Nature” Matthew Oates (2015)

Enjoying Malham

“Evidence shows that loss of interactions with nature changes people’ s attitudes toward nature, including the values they place on it, their beliefs concerning the environment, their perceived norms of environmental ethics, and their willingness to protect nature” Soga & Gaston (2016)

I could go on, and on, but I think you get the picture.  We could have done so much so earlier.

Please share your favourite passages, be they gloomy or optimistic, by adding them to the comments.



Carson, R. (1962) Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin, USA.

Collis, J.S. (1973)  The Worm Forgives the Plough. Penguin Books

Darwin, C.  (1929) Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Watts & Co., London (

*published posthumously)

Ehrlich, P.  & Ehrlich, A. (1981) Extinction, Random House, New York.

Evans, H.E. (1966)  Life on a Little-Known Planet, University of Chicago Press, USA.

Louw, R. (2005)  Last Child in the Woods, Atlantic Books, London.

Northbourne, W.J. (1940) Look to the Land, J.M. Dent & Sons.

Oates, M. (2015) In Pursuit of Butterflies: A Fifty-Year Affair, Bloomsbury, London.

Russell, Sir, E.J. (1957) The World of the Soil, Collins, London.

Soga, M. & Gaston, K.J. (2016) Extinction of experience: the loss of human–nature interactions.  Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 14, 94-101

Tanlsey, A.G. (1923) Introduction to Plant Ecology, George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Van Bruyssel, E. (1870) The Population of an Old Pear Tree, MacMillan & Co. London

White, G. (1788) The Natural History of Selborne, Penguin Edition 1977.

Wilson, E.O. (1992) The Diversity of Life, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, USA.


Filed under Bugbears, Uncategorized

Does naming your study animals introduce observer bias?

I think, that most, if not all entomologists, will confess to a bit of funding envy when talking with those of their colleagues who work with the “undeserving 3%”, the large charismatic mega-fauna and the modern dinosaurs. The terminology gives us away, although the evidence is overwhelmingly on our side (Leather, 2009).  As entomologists, particularly those of us working in the field, we are used to reporting numbers collected in the tens of thousands (Ramsden et al., 2014 ), if not the hundreds of thousands (Missa et al., 2009) and  even a short six-week study can result in the capture of thousands of ground beetles (Fuller, et al., 2008).  Naming our subjects, much as we love them, is not an option, even if we wanted to. Even behavioural entomologists counting individual flower visits by pollinators are used to dealing with hundreds of individuals.   In the laboratory, although numbers may be smaller, say tens, we still assign them alphanumeric codes rather than names, even though one might look forward to counting the number of eggs laid by the unusually fecund moth #17 or hope that aphid #23 will be dead this morning as she is becoming a pesky outlier for your mortality data 🙂

Our colleagues who work with mammals in the field, seem however to adopt a different strategy. It appears quite common for them to name their animals as the following examples from Twitter make clear.


From her dissertation field note book, Erin Kane @Diana_monkey but not yet published.

Published data in McGraw et al., (2016) are from another study where the animals are not named.


Anthropomorphic judgement values


Anne being very involved with her cheetahs, although the paper (Hillborn et al., 2012) does not mention them by name.



Another example of subjects with names Hubel et al., 2016), but this time named in the paper.


Although in the description of methodology and results animals are referred to as subjects, the Table gives it away! (Allritz et al., 2016).


Another example of named subjects (Stoinski et al., 2003).


More named subjects (Dettmer & Fragaszy, 2000), but as these were captive the names almost certainly not chosen by the observers.


In this case (Blake et al., 2016), use no human-based names either in the methods or tables, so exemplary, although of course I have not seen their field note books 🙂

My concern, highlighted by these examples, is that by naming their study animals, the observers are anthropomorphising them and that this may lead them to inadvertently bias their observations. After all, the names have not been chosen at random, and thus could influence the behaviours noted (or ignored). I say ignored, because of two very specific examples, there are more, but I have these two to hand.

Victorians used birds as examples of good moral behaviour, erroneously believing them to be monogamous, probably because of seeing the way they fed their chicks cooperatively. Tim Birkhead (2000)* quotes the Reverend Frederick Morris who in 1853 preached  “Be thou like the dunnock – the male and female impeccably faithful to each other,”  and goes on to point out that despite a hundred years of ornithological science it was not until the late 1960s that  the promiscuous behaviour of female birds was revealed, interestingly enough coinciding with the new moral code of the 1960s.

Descriptions of penguin homosexual behaviour and their penchant for acts of necrophilia so shocked George Levick’s publishers that they removed them from his 1915 report but printed them and privately distributed them to selected parties marked as “Not for Publication” (Russell et al., 2012).  He also transcribed his descriptions of this ‘aberrant’ behaviour in Greek in his notebooks, presumably to make it less accessible.

And finally from me, this recent report about ‘sacred and ritualistic’ behaviour in chimpanzees Kuhl et al (2016),   where, I feel the authors have really allowed themselves to over-anthropomorphise with their subjects, very much to the detriment of scientific  detachment.  I have yet to find an entomologist who agrees with their interpretation.

AND NOW SOMETHING NEW for my blog, an embedded comment/riposte. I thought that it would be useful to get a response from someone who works on large charismatic mega-fauna and who names their subjects.  Anne Hilborn, whom many of you will know from Twitter as @AnneWHilborn, has kindly agreed to reply to my comments.  In the spirit of revealing any possible conflicts of interest I should say that I taught Anne when she was an Ecology MSc student at Silwood Park 🙂

Over to you Anne…..

“Hello, my name is Anne and I name my study animals.”

Decades ago this might have gotten me jeered out of science, the assumption being that by naming my study animals I was anthropomorphizing them and that any conclusions I drew about their behavior would be suspect. Thankfully we (at least those of us who have the privilege of working on megafauna) have moved on a bit in our thinking and our ways of doing science.

There are two parts to Simon’s concern about naming study animals. One is that naming leads to anthropomorphization, the second is that the anthropomorphizing leads to biased science. I would argue that the naming of study animals doesn’t necessarily increase anthropomorphism. On the Serengeti Cheetah Project we don’t name cheetahs until they are independent from their mother (due to a high mortality rate).  During my PhD fieldwork I spent a lot of time following a young male known as HON752MC (son of Strudel).  Several months after I started my work he was named Boke. My interest in his behavior, my chagrin at his failures and happiness when he had a full belly didn’t change when he was named. Many of us get emotionally attached on some level to our study animals, whether they have names or numbers.

An interesting thing to ponder is that if naming does lead to anthropomorphizing, does it only happen when human names are used? What human characteristics am I likely to attach to cheetahs named Peanut, Muscat, Strudel, Fusili, or Chickpea?


As to whether anthropomorphism leads to biased science… it definitely can if, as Simon points out, certain behaviors are not recorded because they do not fit the image of the animal the researcher had in their head. I don’t have any data on this, but I suspect this is extremely rare now days. Almost all researchers have had extensive formal training and know the importance of standardized data collection. I study cheetah hunting behavior, and I record how long a cheetahs spends spend stalking, chasing, killing, and eating their prey. I record the number of animals in the herd they targeted, how many second the cheetah spends eating vs being vigilant, and at what time they leave the carcass. No matter my personal feelings or attachments to an individual cheetah, the same data gets recorded.

Research methods have advanced a lot in the past decades and we use standardized methodologies and statistics expressly to prevent bias in our results. Anthropomorphism is just one possible source of bias, others include wanting to prove a treasured hypothesis, the tendency to place plots in areas where you suspect you will get the best results, etc..

As Adriana Lowe (@adriana_lowe ) puts it “Basically, if you’ve got a good study design and do appropriate stats, you can romanticise the furry little buggers until the cows come home and it won’t have a massive effect on your work. Any over interpretation of results would get called out by reviewers when you try to publish anyway.”

Simon points out examples of people being shocked when birds didn’t follow the dictates of contemporary human morality. I would like to think that biologists no longer place human values on animals. I can admire hyenas because the females are bigger bodied and socially dominant to males, but that doesn’t mean I draw parallels or lessons from them to human society (not in the least because the females give birth through their elongated clitoris and the cubs practice siblicide). As scientists we are capable of compartmentalizing, of caring deeply for our subjects, of shedding a tear when Asti turns up with one cub when previously she had five, without that changing the way we record data. In our training as biologists, we are taught not impose our own feelings or values on our study animals. We may find infanticide in lions (Packer and Pusey 1983), extra pair copulations in birds and primates (Sheldon 1994, Reichard 1995), or siblicide in boobies (Anderson 1990) to be repugnant, but we record, analyze, and try to publish on the phenomenon all the same.

To go on the offensive, there are ways naming study animals actually improves data collection.

Again, Adriana Lowe “If you’re doing scan sampling for instance, so writing down all individuals in a certain area every 10 minutes or so, names help. At least for me, it’s harder to remember if someone is M1 or M2 than Janet or Bob, particularly if you have a big study troop/community. So it can improve the quality of the data collected if you’re less likely to make identification errors.”

Because of our own training and peer review, assigning emotions or speculating about the intent on animals rarely makes it into scientific papers. However the situation is very different for those of us who wish to present our results outside of the ivory tower. While fellow scientists might be willing to wade through dry descriptions about how M43 contact called 3 times in 4 minutes when he was no longer in visual contact with M44, the public is not. Effective science communication needs a story and an emotional hook to draw people in. It is much easier to do that when you tell a story about Bradley and Cooper and not M43 and M44.  I will admit this does get into grey areas with the type of language we use outside of scientific papers. I tell stories about the cheetahs in my blog posts and even assign emotions to individuals. But if I am answering questions from the media or the public, I am still very careful not to make any definitive claims about behavior that haven’t been backed up by statistical analysis.


Here I use language and make assumption in tweets that I never would in a scientific paper.


There are a lot of issues that negatively affect the objectivity of science ie. the majority of funding going to well established entrenched researchers, papers being reviewed primarily by people from the same school of thought, the increasing pressure to have flashy results that generate headlines, but naming of study animals is not high on the list.


So now, over to you the readers, what do you think? Please comment and share your views or at the very least, please cast your vote.





Allritz, M., Call, J. & Borkenau, P. (2016) How chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) perform in a modified emotional Stroop task. Animal Cognition, 19, 435-449.

Anderson, D. J. (1990) Evolution of obligate siblicide in Boobies. 1. A test of the insurance-egg hypothesis. American Naturalist, 135, 334–350.

Birkhead, T. (2000) Promiscuity: An Evolutionary History of Sperm Competition and Sexual Conflict. Faber, London.

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Post script

I said that entomologists don’t name their study animals but they do name their pets. Some of our PhD students had an African flower


Soulcleaver; despite his name he seems quite cute when viewed side-on, perhaps even with a cheeky grin, although as an entomologist I couldn’t possibly say that 🙂

beetle, Mecynorhina ugandiensis, which they named Soulcleaver, and I know that some beekeepers name their Queens


*note that Tim Birkhead also falls into the very trap that he describes by using the word promiscuous in the title of his book, a human judgemental term relating to moral behaviour, multiple mating would have been more appropriate.





Filed under Bugbears, Science writing, Uncategorized

It’s never too early to get it right – children’s books can be accurate as well as fun

Making insects more appealing to children, (and adults), by making them look cute, cuddly and more like humans, is not a bad thing in itself, there is however, a line that should not be crossed.


These two books for children written almost a century apart, are exact opposites. In Sibylle von Olfers’ Etwas von den Wurzelkindern published in 1906, we see the most incredibly detailed and accurate biological drawings.  The insects are pretty much recognizable to


The Wurzelkindern getting the beetles spruced up for spring

species as are the flowering plants; the grasses are so accurately portrayed that the following conversation occurred on Twitter.


Two plant scientists are able to discuss the grasses, so accurately are they drawn.

Contrast this with Birgitta Nicolas’ 2009 Der kleine Marienkäfer und seine Freunde.


Here the insects have four legs*, humanised faces and hands and feet, although to be fair, the bumblebee does have pollen collectors (or is perhaps wearing leg warmers). The plants are heavily stylised and although one can guess at their families, I could not for example decide if the member of the Rosaceae pictured was Prunus, Malus or Pyrus, although being pink. it is most likely meant to be a Prunus.  The language used, despite the Gothic characters in von Olfer’s book, is at the same level, so meant to be read aloud by a parent or puzzled through by a beginner, yet the treatment of the wildlife is so different.  Von Olfers’ charming and accurate illustrations provide a visual treat of exploration and learning, while Nicolas’ heavily stylised daubs rely on the texturing present, i.e. fake fur for the squirrel, fuzzy felt for the bumble bee etc.  What harm would it have done to have at least given the insects the right number of legs and in the right place, all on the thorax.  The bee might also have liked to have had the right number of wings**, I might then have been able to forgive her the humanised faces, it is a story after all 🙂

As Aristotle said “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.” Early habits die hard and if you learn that insects have four legs as a young child, confusion must ensue and make it harder to learn and retain the truth later on. First perceptions and impressions have a habit of sticking with us in later life, best to get the facts right at the beginning.

So if looking for an insect or natural history themed book for a young relative, I would recommend that you buy Sibylle von Olfer’s book and if your German or Google Translate is not up the job, you can get it in English

Post script

Whilst clearing the attic in our new house*** in the Languedoc area of France, I came across this edition of Pinocchio published in 1959,


which as well as bringing back nostalgic memories, I had the same edition as a child, but in English, is a great example of getting the insects right. The keen-eyed of you will notice it has a cricket on the front cover, but unlike the Walt Disney version in which Jiminy is definitely not a cricket, Libico Maraja, the illustrator, had obviously looked at crickets closely and carefully before putting pen to paper.


Pinocchio meets the talking cricket – he does not have a name in the original version of the story.


Even when anthropomorphised he still retains essential features such as legs joined to the thorax and complete with tarsi.

*although if you look closely, this insect, which I think is meant to be an aphid, does seem to have six legs 🙂



**at least the ladybird has elytra and wings 

***our retirement dream house and where I hope to write all the books that I have planned to write over the last twenty-odd years and never got round to doing 

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What use are bedbugs?

As an entomologist, I have, over the years, become used to being asked by non-entomologists “What use are wasps?” My wife and mother-in-law being frequent interrogators. What they actually mean is “What use are Vespids?”, in particular what the Americans call yellow jackets, and their ilk.


Not a bed bug – The European wasp Vespula germanica

I now have a well-polished response where I explain that wasps are beneficial insects keeping the caterpillars that eat their garden plants under control and that the occasional hole they make in my interlocutor’s soft fruit is just payment for the job they are doing. I am not saying that this answer always satisfies them, especially if their plums have been devastated, but at least they agree that there is some justification for their existence.

Unfortunately I now have a new question to answer. Last summer (2015) my wife and I took our usual holiday to France. We put our car on the Brittany Ferry, m/V Mont St Michel, and after a drink in the bar retired to our cabin, 9108 in case you want to avoid it, me in Bunk A my wife in Bunk B.


Sailing in comfort?

The next morning my wife was not a happy lady and the question I now have to answer is “What use are bedbugs?”!


The bed bug culprit, Cimex lectularius and victim

I have in the past made a convincing case (well I think so) for the usefulness of mosquitoes compared with pandas, but I suspected that making a case for the usefulness of bed bugs that would satisfy my wife, might be more difficult.

Even the Encyclopaedia of Life has nothing good to say about bed bugs. For evolutionary biologists, ecologists and entomologists, bed bugs are very useful in allowing us to relate horror stories about non-conventional sex. Male bed bugs favour a very robust approach to reproduction, as they indulge in what is somewhat coyly termed ‘traumatic insemination (Reinhardt & Siva-Jothy, 2007). Basically they don’t bother with the female genital opening, they mount the female and search for a pouch (Organ of Ribaga or ectospermalage) on the underside of the female (they have been known to mount other males) which they pierce with their intromittent organ (penis) and into which they release their sperm. The spermatozoa then migrate through the body of the female to the oviduct, taking from 2-10 hours to do so (Cragg, 1920). Apparently males never use the genital tract for insemination (Reinhardt & Siva-Jothy, (2007). This somewhat unconventional approach to mating has, as you might expect, harmful effects on the female, with life spans being reduced by about 30% or even causing death (Morrow & Anrnqvist, 2003), multiple matings can be particularly damaging (Mellanby, 1939).

For their human hosts, bed bugs can have a number of unpleasant effects (Reinhardt & Siva-Jothy, 2007), ranging from psychological distress, allergic reactions as in the case of my wife, secondary infections and economic costs, especially if you are an hotelier. All in all, not a very promising candidate for being useful to us humans 🙂 I was beginning to feel that bed bugs had no redeeming features and that if there was a coordinated campaign calling for the destruction of the entire species, I would be unable to defend them. Then a former student came to their rescue. In desperation, I had emailed Mike Siva-Jothy at Sheffield University who has worked on bed bugs since the late 1990s. He passed my email on to Sophie Evison (a former MSc student of mine) and she came to their rescue as follows

I’ve had a think about this, and I think there are two approaches: 1. dazzle them with the traumatic insemination story or 2. Forensics. I’ve not looked into it, but I’m pretty sure a situation could arise where the contents of a bedbug could drop someone in it, or even perhaps prove an alibi! Do you think your wife would accept that as reasonable?”

I was pretty certain that my wife would not be happy with option 1, but felt that option 2 was definitely worth following up. I very quickly found a paper (Szalanski et al, 2006) in which the possibility of testing the DNA of the blood found in bed bugs was suggested as having a possible forensic application. According to Wikipedia (well if it is good enough for my students) there has already been some success in real life using this very approach. I was now pretty confident that I had found an answer to the question posed by my wife. To be fair, I tested both of them out on her. As predicted, she did not buy the evolutionary biology aspect of the traumatic insemination story as being of any use, but as a great fan of the CSI and NCIS TV shows, she has grudgingly accepted that there is indeed a use for bed bugs! I just hope that all the bed bugs out there appreciate all the effort I have gone to on their behalf 🙂 If anyone else has further suggestions please let me know.


Cragg, F.W. (1920) Further observations on the reproductive system of Cimex, with special reference to the behaviour of the spermatozoa. Indian Journal of Medical Research, 8, 32-79

Mellanby, K. (1939) Fertilization and egg production in the bed-bug Cimex lectularius L. Parasitology, 31, 193-199

Morrow, E.H. & Arnqvist, G. (2003) Costly traumatic insemination and female counter-adaptation in bed bugs. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B, 270, 2377-2381

Reinhardt, K. & Siva-Jothy, M. (2007) Biology of the bed bugs (Cimicidae). Annual Review of Entomology, 52, 351-374

Szalanski, A.L., J.W. Austin, J.A. McKern, C.D. Steelman, D.M. Miller, and R.E. Gold. 2006. Isolation and characterization of human DNA from bed bug, Cimex lectularius L., (Hemiptera: Cimicidae) blood meals. Journal of Agricultural and Urban Entomology, 23, 189-194.




Filed under Bugbears, EntoNotes, Uncategorized