Category Archives: EntoNotes

On Being Dead and a fictional ecology

Two very different books about fictional entomologists

I am ashamed to say, that until last summer, I had never heard of Jim Crace, let alone read anything by him.  Then my oldest friend (50 years since we first met at Ripon Grammar School) persuaded me that he was worth reading.   He was right, and I became hooked on Crace’s very distinctive style and diverse range of topics, ranging from the prehistoric to a dystopian future.  Then I came across Being Dead, which I at first thought was a murder mystery, but no, it turned out to be something completely different.  It is, in fact, a novel of many parts.  It is a retrospective view of the life of two entomologists who became matrimonially enjoined after they meet on a student expedition.  It is a love story with a difference. It is a commentary on bereavement and loneliness.  It is a story of life and death. I am however, not going to dwell on the plot, a fair bit of which describes the decomposition of the two bodies 🙂 Don’t be put off though, it is definitely a book worth reading.

Early on we are introduced to the study organisms of the two Doctors of Zoology, which is how Crace describes his two main characters*.  Celice works on the Oceanic Bladder Fly and Joseph on the Spray Hopper, Pseudogryllidus pelagicus. Crace’s description of the latter beast, a small (1 cm long) grey predatory beetle resembling a cricket, feeding on sea nits and sand lice at the ocean’s edge, was so cool, that, having never heard of this insect before, I was prompted to turn to the Great God Wikipedia, where, to my surprise, I found no mention of this fabulous beast!  Nor could I find it in Web of Science or Google Scholar.  I was forced to admit that I had been totally fooled and that the spray hopper was a figment, albeit very realistic, of Crace’s fertile imagination.   I am used to coming across ‘realistic’ fictional ecology in well-crafted science but have not often come across it in literary mainstream fiction so this was a bit of a surprise.

The Spray Hopper, Pseudogryllidus pelagicus, as imagined and very badly drawn by me

Being the nerd that I am, I went back to the start of the book and started reading it again, this time noting down every biological reference, checking these with Google, Google Scholar and Web of Science.  Luckily the spray hoper is mentioned fairly early on.

In addition to the already mentioned salt nits and sand lice, some other fictional insects appear, some with tantalising snippets of life cycle and habits.  These include the Polar cricket and Blind cave hoppers, which I assume are Orthopterans, three more beetle species, the Dune beetle, the Furnace beetle and Claudatus maximi a specialist herbivore, feeding on lissom grass. Three flies get a mention, Celice’s study organism, the Oceanic bladder fly which feeds on inshore wrack, the interestingly named Swag Fly, which seem to have a penchant for blood, and finally, the Sugar Flies, which as they are associated with fruit rind, I assume may be Drosophilids. There is a fleeting mention to the Squadron ant and an intriguing hemipteran, a flightless cicada, the Grease monkey, that feeds and breeds in diesel and is dispersed in the fuel tanks and engine blocks of trucks and lorries.

A number of birds are mentioned, but without much in the way of their biology, the only clues being in their names, Wood crow, Rock owls, Skin-eyed hawks  Sea jacks, Skimmers, Pickerling, and the  Hispid buzzard.   Crace almost slipped up with the latter, there is a Hispid hare, Caprolagus hipidus, also known as the Assam rabbit, which is native to south Asia.

Crace doesn’t just invent animals, he does plants as well.  Central to the decay theme and with several mentions is Festuca mollis or lissom grass.  Crace also gives us several alternative common names for this grass, angel bed, pintongue, sand hair, repose.  The adjectives he uses when talking about lissom grass are all indicative of its role in both the choice of location for the  act of sexual congress that unwittingly makes the entomological couple murder victims;  bed, mattress, irresistible, velvety, sensuous.  Again this is a totally made up species, although there is a Bromus mollis that depending on your source is either a synonym or a sub-species.

Then there are the wonderfully evocatively named plants, Flute bush, Sea thorn, the Tinder trees (described as being very dry), the Sea pine, also known as Slumber tree or Death’s Ladder, Vomitoria that grows in thickets, an imaginary relative of walnut,  Juglans suca that yields sapnuts, Stove weed with green bells, Pyrosia described as having high bracts, firesel, cordony and finally, the staple crop of the area, manac beans.

Three real plants get a mention, Spartina, red stem, Ammannia spp., which grows in water, and wet soil, and are used in aquariums and finally broom sedge Andropogon virginicus, native of the USA but a weed in Australia where it is known as whiskey grass as it was used as packaging for bottles of USA whiskey, which is a bit of trivia I didn’t know.

And finally, the one made up mammal, the Sea bat which given how few mammals there are, is entirely proper 🙂

All in all, reading Being Dead was a rewarding, if not entirely enjoyable experience, although I guess it depends on how you define enjoyable.  I do however, recommend it to you as good read, if only for the thrill of meeting the Spray hopper!

Coincidentally the next book I read was The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams, which is also a murder story with an entomological connection, but unlike Being Dead, the entomology is hard core and totally real – I know, I checked J  Like Being Dead, it is also worth reading, although again, there are definitely metaphysical under- and overtones so ones enjoyment is tempered by having to think hard about what you are reading.

Read them back to back for the full experience and relax in the knowledge that you don’t need to keep fact checking as I have done it for you already 🙂

 

p* Strangely I was slightly irritated by this despite it reflecting that zoology, as I have always said, is mainly entomology 🙂

 

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Data I am never going to publish – A tale of sixty trees

In 1981 I spent a lot of time trudging through snow, cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing my way across the snowy wastes of Finland to snip twigs off bird cherry trees.  This was part of my post-doc which was to develop a forecasting system for the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi.  On returning to the lab I then spent many a happy hour counting how many aphid eggs were nestled in between the buds and the stem on each twig.  It was while doing this that I noticed that some of the twigs were infested with the overwintering larval shields of the bird cherry ermine moth, Yponomeuta evonymellus.  Of course I then started counting them as well 🙂  I noticed that trees with lots of aphid eggs didn’t have very many larval shields and I wondered why. Some later observations from marked trees in Scotland appeared to provide evidence that the aphids and the moths tended to either prefer different trees or perhaps excluded each other.

Negative correlation between moths and aphids – more moths equals fewer aphids and vice versa

Based on these data I hypothesised that the two insects were indirectly competing for resources by altering plant chemistry and/or architecture thus making the trees less or more suitable for egg laying in the autumn (Leather, 1988).  I tested this experimentally when I was working for the Forestry Commission in Scotland using potted bird cherry trees that I defoliated to a lesser or greater extent to see if I could induce changes in foliar quality and tree growth rates that might influence subsequent colonisation by the aphids and moths. As predicted, those trees that had been defoliated, albeit by me and not by moth larvae, were less attractive to aphids in the autumn (Leather, 1993).  These effects were still apparent five years after the beginning of the experiment (Leather, 1995) when I had to desert my trees as I moved to a new position at Imperial College’s Silwood Park campus.

Given that apart from the location, the SE of England, this was my idea of a dream job for life (colleagues at the time included John Lawton, Mike Hassell, Bob May, Stuart McNeill, Mike Way, Brad Hawkins, Shahid Naeem, Mike Hochberg, Chris Thomas to name but a few), I decided to start up two long-term projects to see me through the next 30 years, one observational (my 52 sycamore tree project), the other experimental, a follow up to my bird cherry defoliation experiment.

I went for a simplified design of my earlier experiments, just two defoliation regimes, one to mimic aphid infestation (50%), the other to mimic bird cherry ermine moth defoliation (100%) and of course a non-defoliated control.  I also planted the trees in the ground to better simulate reality.  Using potted plants is always a little suspect and I figured that I would need to do rather a lot of re-potting over the next 30 years 🙂

The grand plan!

I sourced my trees from a Forestry Commission nursery thinking that as the national organisation responsible for tree planting in the UK I could trust the provenance of the trees.  Things didn’t go well from the start.  Having planted my trees in autumn 1992 and established the treatments in the spring of 1993 I discovered that my bird cherry, rather than being from a native provenance (seed origin) were originally from Serbia! Hmm 🙂  It was too late to start again, so I decided to carry on.  After all, bird cherry although widely planted in the SE, has a native distribution somewhat further north and west, which meant I was already operating close to the edge of ‘real life’, so what did an extra 1600 kilometres matter?

The mainly ‘natural’ distribution of bird cherry (left, Leather, 1996) and the current distribution including ‘introduced’ trees https://www.brc.ac.uk/plantatlas/index.php?q=plant/prunus-padus

Next, I discovered that my fence was neither rabbit nor deer proof.  I almost gave up at this point, but having invested a lot of time and energy in setting up the plot I once again decided to carry on. On the plus side, the trees most heavily defoliated and bitten back were mainly from the 100% defoliation treatment, but did give me some negative growth rates in that year.

My original plan was to record height (annually), bird cherry egg numbers (every December), bird cherry ermine moth larval shields (annually), bud burst and leaf expansion once a week, leaf-fall (annually), and once a month, defoliation rates in two ways, number of damaged leaves and an overall estimation of percentage defoliation.  This was a personal project, so no grant funding and no funding for field assistants.  It soon became clear, especially when my teaching load grew, as Imperial started replacing whole organism biologists with theoretical and molecular biologists, and I was drafted in to take on more and more of the whole organism lecturing, that I would not be able to keep both of my long term projects going with the same intensity.  Given the ‘problems’, associated with the bird cherry project, I decided  that I would ditch some of my sampling, bud burst was scored on 21st March every year and defoliation only measured once, in late summer and egg sampling and height recording came to a halt once the trees grew above me (2005)!  This allowed me to carry on the sycamore project as originally intended*.

I kept an eye on the trees until I left Silwood Park in 2012, but by 2006 I was only monitoring bud burst and leaf fall feeling that this might be useful for showing changes in phenology in our ever-warming world.  One regret as I wandered between the then sizeable trees in the autumn of 2012 was that I had not taken a before and after photograph of the plots.  All I have are two poor quality photos, one from 2006, the other from 2012.

The Sixty Tree site April 2006.

The Sixty Tree site April 2010 with a very obvious browse line

 

So, after all the investment in time, and I guess to a certain extent money (the trees and the failed fencing, which both came out of my meagre start-up funding**), did anything worthwhile come out of the study?

The mean number of Rhopalosiphum padi eggs per 100 buds in relation to defoliation treatment

As a long-time fan of aphid overwintering it was pleasing to see that there was a significant difference not only between years (F= 8.9, d.f. = 9/29, P <0.001), but also between treatments with the trees in the control treatment having significantly more eggs laid on them than the 100% defoliation treatment (F= 9.9, d.f. = 2/ 29, P <0.001 with overall means of 1.62, 1.22 and 0.65 eggs/100 buds).  This also fitted in with the hypothesis that trees that are defoliated by chewing herbivores become less suitable for aphids (Leather, 1988).  I must admit that this was a huge surprise to me as I had thought that as all the trees were attacked by deer the year after the experimental treatments they would all respond similarly, which is why I almost gave up the experiment back in 1994.

Bud burst stage of Prunus padus at Silwood Park on March 21st 1996-2012; by treatment and combined

When it came to budburst there was no treatment effect, but there was a significant trend to earlier budburst as the trees became older which was strongly correlated with warmer springs, although as far as spring temperatures were concerned there was no significant increase with year.

Mean spring temperature (Silwood Park) 1993-2012 and relationship between mean spring temperature and bud bust stage on 21st March.

Mean date of final leaf fall of Prunus padus at Silwood Park 1995-2012; by treatment and combined

At the other end of the year, there was a significant difference between date of final leaf fall between years but no significant difference between treatments.  In retrospect I should have adopted another criterion.  My date for final leaf fall was when the last leaf fell from the tree.  Those of you who have watched leaves falling from trees will know that there are always a few who are reluctant to make that drop to the ground to become part of the recycling process.  Even though they are very obviously dead, they hang there until finally dislodged by the wind.   I should really have used a measure such as last leaf with any pigment remaining.  I am sure that if I could be bothered to hunt down the wind speed data I would find that some sort of correlation.

Mean height (cm) of Prunus padus trees at Silwood Park 1993-2005 and Diameter at Breast Height (DBH) (cm) at the end of 2012

Except for the year after the deer attack, the trees, as expected, grew taller year by year.  There was however, no significant difference between heights reached by 2005 or in DBH at the end of 2012 despite what looked like a widening gap between treatments.

Defoliation scores of Prunus padus at Silwood Park 1993-2004; % leaves damaged and overall defoliation estimates

My original hypothesis that trees that were heavily defoliated at the start of their life would be more susceptible to chewing insects in later life, was not supported.  There was no significant difference between treatments, although, not surprisingly, there was a significant difference between years.  Average defoliation as has been reported for other locations was about 10% (Kozlov et al., 2015; Lim et al., 2015).

Number of Prunus padus trees with severe deer damage

That said, when I looked at the severity of deer attack, there was no effect of year but there was a significant effect of treatment, those trees that had been 100% defoliated in 1993 being most attractive to deer.   In addition, 20% of those trees were dead by 2012 whereas no tree deaths occurred for the control and less severely defoliated treatments.

I confess to being somewhat surprised to find as many significant results as I did from this simple analysis and was momentarily tempted to do a more formal analysis and submit it to a journal.  Given, however, the number of confounding factors, I am pretty certain that I would be looking at an amateur natural history journal with very limited visibility.  Publishing it on my blog will almost certainly get it seen by many more people, and who knows may inspire someone to do something similar but better.

The other reason that I can’t be bothered to do a more formal analysis is that my earlier work on which this experiment was based has not really hit the big time, the four papers in question only accruing 30 cites between them.  Hardly earth shattering despite me thinking that it was a pretty cool idea;  insects from different feeding guilds competing by changing the architecture and or chemsitry of their host plant.  Oh well.  Did anything come out of my confounded experiment or was it a total waste of time?  The only thing published from the Sixty Trees was a result of a totally fortuitous encounter with Marco Archetti and his fascination with autumn colours (Archetti & Leather, 2005), the story of which I have related in a previous post, and which has, in marked contrast to the other papers, had much greater success in the citation stakes 🙂

And finally, if anyone does want to play with the data, I am very happy to give you access to the files.

References

Archetti, M. & Leather, S.R. (2005) A test of the coevolution theory of autumn colours: colour preference of Rhopalosiphum padi on Prunus padus. Oikos, 110, 339-343. 50 cites

Kozlov, M.V., Lanta, V., Zverev, V., & Zvereva, E.L. (2015) Global patterns in background losses of woody plant foliage to insects. Global Ecology & Biogeography, 24, 1126-1135.

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.  14 cites

Leather, S.R. (1988) Consumers and plant fitness: coevolution or competition ? Oikos, 53, 285-288. 10 cites

Leather, S.R. (1993) Early season defoliation of bird cherry influences autumn colonization by the bird cherry aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi. Oikos, 66, 43-47. 11 cites

Leather, S.R. (1995) Medium term effects of early season defoliation on the colonisation of bird cherry (Prunus padus L.). European Journal of Entomology, 92, 623-631. 4 cites

Leather, S.R. (1996) Biological flora of the British Isles Prunus padus L. Journal of Ecology, 84, 125-132.  14 cites

Lim, J.Y., Fine, P.V.A., & Mittelbach, G.G. (2015) Assessing the latitudinal gradient in herbivory. Global Ecology & Biogeography, 24, 1106-1112.

 

 

*which you will be pleased to know, is being analysed as part of Vicki Senior’s PhD project, based at the University of Sheffield.

**£10 000 which even in 1992 was not overly-generous.

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Arthropod orchids – who’s fooling who?

A few weeks ago I read the first volume of Jocelyn Brooke’s Orchid trilogy, The Military Orchid. I have never been a great fan of orchids, my main experience of them being as ornamental house plants in which context I have always found them ugly, ungainly and obtrusive.

My colleague Lucy’s orchid ‘brightening up’ our communal office kitchen area

‘Artistically displayed’ for sale by an on-line florist – still just as ugly

Jocelyn Brooke’s account of his search for the Military Orchid was however a bit of a revelation.  His obsession with the eponymous orchid reminded me of how I quite liked seeing the first emerging spikes of the common spotted orchid, Dactylorhiza fuchsii appearing in Heronsbrook Meadow at Silwood Park as I returned from my lunchtime run.  A little bit later Jeff Ollerton posted an interesting article about orchid pollination myths and this got me thinking about the common names of our native UK orchids, especially those named after arthropods.

It turns out that there are fewer than I thought; Bee, some varieties of which seem to be called the wasp orchid, the Fly, Lesser butterfly, Greater butterfly, Early spider and Late spider orchid being the lot.  My self-imposed mission was to first find a suitable photograph of each species to see if it did look like its namesake and secondly to identify the main pollinators.  Or to put it another way, exactly what are they mimicking and what or who are they really fooling?  Orchids generally speaking are honest brokers, providing nectar as a resource for pollination services (Nilsson, 1992).  About a quarter of orchid species are however frauds or cheats (Nilsson, 1992), either pretending to be a food source or a receptive female insect, nutritive deceptive or sexually (reproductive) deceptive as the jargon has it (Dafni, 1984).  Ophrys orchids are sexually deceptive (Nilsson 1992).

The Bee Orchid, Ophrys apifera, is pollinated by a solitary mining bee, Eucera longicornis  (Kullenberg, 1950) belonging to a group commonly known as long horned bees, which in the UK is rather uncommon meaning that the Bee Orchid is generally self-pollinated.

The Bee Orchid, Ophrys apiferahttps://thmcf.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/bee-orchid-imc-3702.jpg with pollinator Eucera longicornis http://www.bwars.com/bee/apidae/eucera-longicornis

If you look at the female bee, which is what we suppose the flower is mimicking, you can just about convince yourself that there is a slight resemblance between the two.  Insects of course do not see things the same way humans do (Döring et al., 2012) so what we think is almost certainly irrelevant.  That said, it doesn’t actually have to be a particularly good visual mimic for the insects either, as it is the smell that really matters and as long as the flower is the right shape to enable the deceived male to copulate in such a way that the flower is fertilized that is all that matters.   To quote Dafni (1984) “The olfactory specificity allows a high degree of morphological variability because the selective pressures leading to uniformity-as a means for better recognition-are relaxed. When odors become the main means of attraction, they efficiently serve as isolating agents among closely related species

The fly orchid, Ophrys insectiflora, is also sexually deceptive, but despite its common name is pollinated by digger wasps and bees (Kullenberg, 1950; Wolff 1950).

Ophrys insectifera   Fly orchid  By Jörg Hempel, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32968796  with pollinator Argogorytes mystaceus (formerly Gorytes) http://www.bwars.com/category/taxonomic-hierarchy/wasp/crabronidae/nyssoninae/gorytes

Oddly, despite being sexually deceptive it does, at least in my opinion, resemble its pollinators fairly well.

Next up (alphabetically), we have the Lesser Butterfly Orchid, Planthera bifolia, which despite its name is pollinated by night-flying hawk moths,

 

The Lesser Butterfly Orchid, Planthera bifolia.  By © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4112191 and the two leading pollinators Hyloicus pinastri and Deilephila elpenor.

most commonly by the Pine Hawk Moth, Hyloicus pinastri and the Elephant Hawk Moth, Deilephila elpenor  (Nilsson (1983). These orchids provide a nectar reward, and attract their pollinators by producing a strong scent (Nilsson, 1978) easily detected by humans even at a distance (Tollsten & Bergström, 1989).  As an added extra, the flowers are very light-green and also highly light-reflecting, giving the moths a visual as well as an olfactory signal (Nilsson, 1978).  In terms of shape the flower more closely resembles H. pinastri.

The closely related Greater Butterfly Orchid, Planthera chlorantha is also pollinated by night-flying moths, the two Elephant hawk moths  Deiliphila porcellus and D.elpenor, 

Platanthera chlorantha,  The Greater Butterfly  Orchid https://c1.staticflickr.com/8/7795/17960863138_721033c527_b.jpg with hawk moth and Noctuid pollinators.

but mainly by Noctuid moths, most commonly, Apame furva (The Confused) and  A. monoglypha (the Dark Arches) Nilsson (1983).  Although recent video evidence has shown that the Pine Hawk moth also pollinates it (Steen, 2012).  Like the Lesser Butterfly Orchid, the flower only vaguely resembles its pollinators.  The chemicals responsible for the characteristic and intense fragrances of these two closely related orchids differ between the species and is probable that they are linked to the preferences of the different pollinator species (Nilsson, 1978).

Despite its name and suggested resemblance to its namesake, the Early Spider Orchid, Ophrys sphegodes is pollinated by a solitary bee,

Ophrys sphegodes, The Early Spider Orchid

https://species.wikimedia.org/wiki/Ophrys_sphegodes_subsp._sphegodes#/media/File:Ophrys_sphegodes_Taubergie%C3%9Fen_22.jpg

Andrena nigroaenea (Schiestl et al. 2000).  The scent of the nectarless flower, closely resembles the female sex pheromone of the bee and fools the male into ‘mating’ with it (Schiestl et al., 2000).  If you allow your imagination to run riot you could possibly just about see the flower as a giant female bee which might act as an extra stimulus for an excited male bee (Gaskett, 2011).

The final arthropod orchid is the Late Spider, Ophrys fuciflora; do be careful how you pronounce it, a soft c might be advisable 🙂

Ophrys fuciflora, the Late Spider orchid and two of its documented pollinators, Eucera longicornis (originally tuberculata) and Phyllopertha horticola.  Orchid Photo by © Pieter C. Brouwer and his Photo Website

As with all Ophrys orchids, they are sexually deceptive and attract male insects to their nectar-free, but highly scented flowers, with the promise of a good time Vereecken et al., 2011).  Most pollination is by solitary bees (Kullenberg, 1950) although the Garden Chafer, Phyllopertha horticola has been recorded as pollinating it in northern France (Tyteca et al., 2006).  Again both pollinators could be said to resemble the flowers to some extent

That concludes my tour of UK arthropod orchids.  Having learnt a lot about other orchids in the last couple of weeks while researching this article it seemed a shame to waste it.  So, as an added bonus, I’m going to finish with a few imaginatively named orchids, the names of which do not refer to their pollinators but rather to the imagination of their human namers.

Orchis anthropophora, The Man Orchid.  Photo by Erwin Meier

This not usually pollinated by sexually-deceived humans but by two beetles, Cantharis rustica (soldier beetle) and Cidnopus pilosus (click beetle) and also by two species of sawfly Tenthredopsis sp. and Arge thoracia (Schatz, 2006).

Orchis simia, The Monkey Orchid. Photo Dimìtar Nàydenov

Again, as with the Man Orchid, the Monkey Orchid, is not pollinated by cruelly deceived anthropoids.  There are, as far as I can discover, only a few confirmed pollinators of O. simia.  They include the beetle C. pillosus, the moth Hemaris fuciformis and some hymenopterans such as honeybees (Schatz, 2006).  According to PlantLife, hybrids of the Man Orchid and Monkey Orchid are called the Missing Link Orchid.

My fellow blogger Jeff Ollerton and his colleagues (Waser et al., 1996), point out that pollination systems are not as specialist as many might think, and even in sexually-deceptive orchids that use pheromone mimics, many of their pollinators can get ‘confused’ and pollinate closely related orchid species.  Hence the existence of what are termed ‘natural hybrids’ such as the Missing Link Orchid and the interesting hybrid between the Fly Orchid and the Woodcock Orchid pictured below.

The hybrid, Fly x Woodcock  Orchid.  Photo Karen Woolley‏ @Wildwingsand

It looks like a belligerent penguin to me, but is of course pollinated by insects.

Often regarded as one of the most bizarrely flowered orchids is the Flying Duck Orchid, Caleana major from Australia.

Flying duck orchid Caleana major (from Australia) sawfly pollinated (Adams & Lawson, 1993).

I was intrigued to notice what appears to be a Cantharid beetle, species of which are known to pollinate other orchids (Schatz, 2006), lurking in the background. There are a number of Cantharids noted as being pollinators in Australia, some of which have been recorded pollinating orchids, although not specifically on Calaena (Armstrong, 1979) so this may be an overlooked pollinator, just waiting to be confirmed by a dedicated pollinator biologist or orchidologist.  There is also, if you wondered, a Small Duck Orchid, Paracaleana minor.

Who would have thought that reading a biography would have started me off on such an interesting paper hunt?  Perhaps the most interesting new bit of information I discovered was that male orchid bees although they attract females with scents, do not produce their own pheromones but collect flower volatiles which they mix with volatiles from other sources like fungi, plant sap and resins (Arriaga-Osnaya et al., 2017).  They use these ‘perfumes’ as part of their competitive courtship behaviour to attract females; the best perfumier wins the lady J

And then you have Dracula vampira….

Dracula vampira (Vampire orchid) – only found in Ecuador (Photo: Eric Hunt, licensed under CC by 3.0).© Eric Hunt.  I hasten to add this is not pollinated by vampires, bats or otherwise.

 

But to finish, here is the one that started it all…

The one that started it all, The Military Orchid, Orchis militaris  https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d4/Orchis_militaris_110503a.jpg

 

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Manu Saunders over at Ecology is Not a Dirty Word for sending me a key reference and also to her and Jeff Ollerton for casting critical ‘pre-publication’ eyes over this post.

References

Armstrong, J.A. (1979) Biotic pollination mechanisms in the Australian flora — a review.  New Zealand Journal of Botany, 17, 467-508.

Adams, P.B. & Lawson, S.D. (1993) Pollination in Australian orchids: A critical assessment of the literature 1882-1992.  Australian Journal of Botany, 41, 553-575.

Arriaga-Osnaya, B.J., Contreras-Garduño, J., Espinosa-García, F.J. García-Rodríguez, Y.M.,  Moreno-García, M., Lanz-Mendoza, H., Godínez-Álvarez, H., & Cueva del Castillo, R. (2016) Are body size and volatile blends honest signals in orchid bees? Ecology & Evolution, 7, 3037–3045.

Dafni, A. (1984) Mimicry and deception in pollination.  Annual Review of Ecology & Systematics, 15, 259-278.

Döring, T.F., Skellern, M., Watts, N., & Cook, S.M. (2012) Colour choice behaviour in the pollen beetle Meligethes aeneus (Coleoptera: Nitulidae). Physiological Entomology, 37, 360-368.

Gaskett, A.C. (2011) Orchid pollination by sexual deception: pollinator perspectives. Biological Reviews, 86, 33-75.

Kullenberg, B. (1950) Investigations on the pollination of Ophrys species. Oikos, 2, 1-19.

Nilsson, L.A. (1978) Pollination ecology and adaptation in Platanthera chlorantha (Orchidaceae).  Botaniska Notiser, 131, 35-51.

Nilsson, L.A. (1983) Processes of isolation and introgressive interplay between Platanthera bifolia (L.) Rich and P. chlorantha (Custer) Reichb. (Orchidaceae). Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 87, 325-350.

Schatz, B. (2006)  Fine scale distribution of pollinator explains the occurrence of the natural orchid hybrid xOrchis bergoniiEcoscience, 13, 111-118.

Schiestl, F.P., Ayasse, M., Pauklus, H.F., Löfstedt, C., Hansson, B.S., Ibarra, F. & Francke, W. (2000) Sex pheromone mimicry in the eraly spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes): patterns of hydrocarbons as the key mechanism for pollination by sexual deception.  Journal of Comparative Physiology A, 186, 567-574.

Steen, R. (2012) Pollination of Platanthera chlorantha (Orchidaceae): new video registration of a hawkmoth (Sphingidae). Nordic Journal of Botany, 30, 623-626.

Tollsten, L. & Bergström, J. (1989) variation and post-pollination changes in floral odours released by Platanthera chlorantha (Orchidaceae). Nordic Journal of Botany, 9, 359-362.

Tyteca, D., Rois, A.S. & Vereecken, N.J. (2006) Observations on the pollination of Oprys fuciflora by pseudo-copulation males of Phyllopertha horticola in northern France. Journal Europäischer Orchideen, 38, 203-214.

Vereecken, N.J., Streinzer, M., Ayasse, M., Spaethe, J., Paulus, H.F., Stökl, J., Cortis, P. & Schiestl, F.P. (2011) Integrating past and present studies on Ophrys pollination – a comment on Bradshaw et al. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 165, 329-335.

Waser , N.M., Chittka, L., Price, M.V., Williams, N.M. & Ollerton, J. (1996) Generalization in pollination systems, and why it matters. Ecology, 77, 1043-1060.

Wolf, T. (1950) Pollination and fertilization of the Fly Ophrys, Ophrys Insectifera L. in Allindelille Fredskov, Denmark. Oikos, 2, 20-59.

 

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Sloth Moths – moving faster than their hosts

One of the minor downsides of our Biology and Taxonomy of Insects module on the MSc course is, that we do have to review a lot of families within some of the groups, Lepidoptera being a prime example.  Current estimates range from 250 000 to 500 000 species in 124 families (Kristensen et al., 2007). Going through the basic biology of each family can be pretty dry stuff, even if I have a personal anecdote or two to help lighten information overload.  I am, for example, able to wax lyrical for several minutes about small ermine moths and their incredible silk-production activities, but even after more than 40 years of playing around with insects I don’t have a personal story for every family of Lepidoptera 🙂 so I am always on the lookout for an extra interesting or mind-blowing fact to help leaven the student’s knowledge diet.

Imagine my delight then when I came across a clip* from a BBC One Wildlife programme, Ingenious Animals, describing an obligate association between sloths and moths and not just because of the rhyming opportunity** 🙂

Sloth with moths – BBC One Ingenious Animals

The earliest record of a moth associated with a sloth that I have been able to find is in 1877 (Westwood, 1877) which merely records that the unidentified moth was “parasitic on the three-toed sloth”. In 1908 a Mr August Busck on a visit to Panama saw a two-toed sloth, Choloepus hoffmanni fall from a tree and noticed several moths flying out of the sloth’s fur.  He caught these and on his return to the United States presented them to Dr Harrison Dyar (Dyar, 1908a).  If the name seems familiar to you that is because Harrison Dyar is better known in connection with Dyar’s Law, the observation that larval growth in arthropods is predictable and follows a geometric progression (Dyar, 1890). The moths were identified by Dyar as a new species which he named Cryptoses choloepi.  Dyar hypothesised that the moths and their larvae lived in the fur of the sloth and it was this that caused the sloth’s matted hair.

Cryptoses choloepi (Lepidoptera, Chrysauginae)

http://nmnh.typepad.com/department_of_entomology/2014/03/sloths-moths-and-algae-whos-eating-whom.html

Shortly after publishing the first note Dyar came across two more moth specimens, this time collected from a sloth in Costa Rica.  He felt that these were another species, possibly Bradipodicola hahneli (Dyar, 1908b).  The next mention of a sloth moth that I could fine is in a marvellously titled paper (Tate, 1931) who refers to a moth shot in western Ecuador whose fur was “literally alive with a small species of moth, whose larvae possibly fed on the greenish algae which grew in the hair”.  The idea that sloth moths fed on the fur of living sloths was further reinforced by Brues (1936) although this was not based on any personal observations.  It was only in 1976 that it was discovered that the larvae of the sloth moth Cryptoses choloepi were actually coprophagous (Waage & Montgomery, 1976), the female moths waiting for the three-toes sloth B. infuscatus to descend from the trees to relive their bowels, which they do about once a week.  As an aside, I have known Jeff Waage for many years in his role as a biological control expert but until I discovered this paper about a month ago, had no idea that he had ever spent time inspecting sloth faeces 🙂  Jeff and his co-author Gene Montgomery, described the association between the moths and the sloths as phoretic, rather than parasitic, as they saw no harm being caused to the sloths, but a number of benefits accruing to the moths, namely oviposition-site location being simplified, the fur of the sloth acting as refuge from avian predators and diet enhancement from sloth secretions (Waage, 1980).  It turns out however, that some species of sloth moth do spend their whole life cycle on the sloth, B. hahneli lose their wings once a sloth host is found and their eggs are laid in the fur of the sloth (Greenfield, 1981).  The algae that these moths presumably feed on is considered to be in a symbiotic association with the sloths, providing camouflage and possibly nutrition in the form of trace elements (Gilmore et al., 2001).  Hereby lies a tale.  The two-toed sloths have a much wider diet and home range than three-toed sloths and also defecate from the trees, unlike the three-toed sloths which have a very narrow diet (entirely leaves) and narrow home ranges, yet descend from the relative safety of the forest canopy to defecate, albeit only once a week, but still a risky undertaking (Pauli et al., 2017).  Rather than a phoretic relationship Pauli and colleagues see the relationship between sloths, algae and moths as a three-way mutualism, beautifully summarised in their Figure 3.

Postulated linked mutualisms (þ) among sloths, moths and algae: (a) sloths descend their tree to defecate, and deliver gravid female sloth moths (þ) to oviposition sites in their dung; (b) larval moths are copraphagous and as adults seek sloths in the canopy; (c) moths represent portals for nutrients, and via decomposition and mineralization by detritivores increase inorganic nitrogen levels in sloth fur, which fuels algal (þ) growth, and (d ) sloths (þ) then consume these algae-gardens, presumably to augment their limited diet. This figure brazenly ‘borrowed’ from Pauli et al. 2014).

The sloths take the risk of increased predation by descending to ground level, because by helping the moths they improve their own nutrition and hence their fitness.  Yet another great example of the wonders of the natural world.

 

Post script

Although not as exotic as the sloth moth, we in the UK can also lay claim to a coprophagous moth, Aglossa pinguinalis, the Large Tabby which feeds on, among other things, sheep dung.  In Spain it is recorded as a cave dweller feeding almost entirely on animal dung, apparently not being too fussy as to the source.

 

References

Bradley, J.D. (1982) Two new species of moths (Lepidoptera, Pyralidae, Chrysauginae) associated with the three-toed sloth (Bradypus spp.) in South America.  Acta Amazonica, 12, 649-656.

Brues, C.T. (1936) Aberrant feeding behaviour among insects and its bearing on the development of specialized food habits.  Quarterly Review of Biology, 11, 305-319.

Dyar, H.G. (1890) The number of molts of lepidopterous larvae. Psyche, 5, 420–422.

Dyar, H.G. (1908a) A pyralid inhabiting the fur of the living sloth.  Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington, 9, 169-170.

Dyar, H.H. (1908b) A further note on the sloth moth. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington, 10, 81-82.

Dyar, H.G. (1912) More about the sloth moth. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington, 14, 142-144.

Gilmore, D.PP., Da Costa, C.P. & Duarte, D.P.F. (2001) Sloth biology: an update on their physiological ecology, behaviour and role as vectors of arthropods and arboviruses.  Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, 34, 9-25.

Greenfield, M.D. (1981) Moth sex pheromones: an evolutionary perspective.  The Florida Entomologist, 64, 4-17.

Kristensen, N., Scoble, M.J. & Karsholt, O. (2007)  Lepidoptera phylogeny and systematics: the state of inventorying moth and butterfly diversity.  Zootaxa, 1668, 699-747.

Pauli, J.N., Mendoza, J.E., Steffan, S.A., Carey, C.C., Weimer, P.J. & Peery, M.Z. (2014) A syndrome of mutualism reinfocrs the lifestyle of a sloth.  Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 281, 20133006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2013.3006.

Pinero, F.S. & Lopez, F.J.P. (1998) Coprophagy in Lepidoptera: observational and experimental evidence in the pyralid moth Aglossa pinguinalisJournal of Zoology London, 244, 357-362.

Tate, G.H.H. (1931) Random observations on habits of South American mammals.  Journal of Mammalogy, 12, 248-256.

Waage, J.K. (1980) Sloth moths and other zoophilous Lepidoptera.  Proceedings of the British Entomological and Natural History Society, 13, 73-74.

Waage, J.K. & Montgomery, G.G. (1976) Crytopses choloepi: a coprophagous moth that lives on a sloth.  Science, 193, 157-158.

Westwood, J.O. (1877) XXVIII. Entomological Notes.  Transactions of the Entomological Society, 25, 431-439.

 

*For the clip about the sloth moth see here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04840xn

**Now, when I see a sloth,

My first thought is for the moth,

That has to make that desperate jump

When the sloth decides to take a dump!

 

 

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Ladybird, ladybug or Alder warbler

Insects with common names are usually those that are notable in some way, be that because they are causing us harm or are beautiful, brightly coloured and give us joy.  Vernacular names for agricultural pest insects usually refer to the crop they are harming, such as the grain aphid, the apple moth, the large pine weevil.  For non-pests however, names appear more arbitrary.  One of the most well-known and loved insect, is the ladybird, or if you are from North America, the ladybug.  These are not, however, the only names that these useful animals have acquired since they first attracted human attention.  They have, over the centuries, acquired a wonderful variety of names around the world.o start with, you may well ask why they have the prefix lady.  In England they were originally called “Our Lady’s bird”.  Leaving aside the mystery of why they were called birds, the first part of the name referred to the fact that the most commonly noticed ladybirds are red (albeit with white or black spots), and in the Middle ages images of the Virgin Mary usually showed her in a red dress.  Another linkage to the Virgin Mary is that the most commonly seen ladybird is the seven spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata), and this was associated with the Seven Joys and the Seven Sorrows of Mary.

 

The association with Mary is also seen in Spanish, mariquita, meaning little Mary and in German Marienkäfer, Mary’s beetle.  The reference to the colour red is reflected in the fact that ladybirds belong to the family Coccinellidae which comes from the Latin for scarlet, coccineus, see also cochineal.

Other languages also make reference to the Virgin Mary, in Bosnian, as in German, they are called Mary’s beetle, bubamara.  The Basuques, as far as I can make out with the help of Google Translate, refer to them as Mary’s yolk, marigorringoa. The religious association is also seen in Dutch, lieveheersbeestje which means  the Lord’s sweet little creature.  The Russians call ladybirds Божья коровка [bozhya korovka] which translates to God’s little cow. Lithuanians have two names for ladybirds, Dievo karvytė  God’s cow  but also call them boružė .  The Welsh have lost the religious reference and instead refer to ladybirds as red cows, buwch goch gota. The Greeks make a religious link with a reference to Easter, pashalitsa (Easter is Pasha), but also refer to it as “kind of beetle with fine plumage (feathers)”, είδος κάνθαρου με ωραία πτερά.  The Portuguese have opted for joaninha (ninha means baby), whereas the Slovenians and Slovaks have homed in on the spots, ladybird being pikapolonica (pika is dot) and slunéčko sedmitečné  (sedmit is seven) respectively. The Bulgarians call them калинка (kalinka) but the Finns take the prize for the most obscure name, with Leppäkerttu, which literally translated means alder warbler 🙂

It seems apposite, that as in Finnish they apparently sing,  I should include these two rhymes; one that most of us have come across in some form or other

 

and one from Sweden that will probably be less familiar to English speakers, but which similarly exhorts the ladybird to fly away and at the same time introduces yet another feathered name for the ladybird.

Guld-höna, guld-ko!
Flyg öster, flyg vester,
Dit du flyger der bor din älskade!

Gold-hen, gold-cow!
Fly east, fly west,
You’ll fly to where your sweetheart lives.

 

A gold cow with wings – Kamadhenu  a wish-fulfilling Hindu goddess

In Hindi, ladybirds are called sonapankhi, or golden wings and are associated with passing or failing exams, depending on whether it stays on your hand long enough for you to count the spots or not.

And finally, to prove that not all verse about ladybirds is doggerel, this poem by the poet Clive Sansom captures both the beauty and fragility of nature.

The Ladybird

Tiniest of turtles!
Your shining back
Is a shell of orange
With spots of black.

How trustingly you walk
Across this land
Of hairgrass and hollows
That is my hand.

Your small wire legs,
So frail, so thin,
Their touch is swansdown
Upon my skin.

There! break out
Your wings and fly:
No tenderer creature
Beneath the sky.

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The Verrall Supper 2017 – entomologists eating, drinking and getting very merry

The Rembrandt Hotel in South Kensington and the first Wednesday of March mean only one thing to many UK entomologists – the Verrall Supper. I have written about the Verrall Supper previously on more than one occasion, so this will, once again, be largely a photographic record.  This year the first Wednesday of March was March 1st and this seemed to have caught a few Verrallers by surprise.  Consequently, numbers were slightly down compared with last year’s record, but the number of non-attending Verrallers paying to retain their membership was at an all-time high.  One notable absence was the former Verrall Secretary, Helmut van Emden who due to mobility problems was unable to attend, only the second one that he has missed in 50 years!

On a very sad note, we reported the deaths of two long-time members of the Association, Gerry Tremewan (long time editor of The Entomologist and the Entomologist’s Gazette, and Bernard Skinner, author of that magnificent book,  Moths of the British Isles.

More positively, we were slightly up on female entomologist this year, 30% compared with last year’s 29%.  There is still much progress to be made, but we have seen a year on year increase now for the last four years so, perhaps one day we will hit that magic 50:50 mark.

Our entomologist in Holy Orders, the Reverend Dr David Agassiz, was unable to attend this year, so instead of the usual entomological grace, I performed a humanist blessing, which seemed to meet with satisfaction from all sides.  I reproduce it here if anyone feels like using it at a similar occasion.

As we come together at this special time, let us pause a moment to appreciate the opportunity for good company and to thank all those past and present whose efforts have made this event possible. As we go through life, the most important thing that we can collect is good memories.  Thank you for all being here today to share this meal as a treasured part of this collection.

And now to let the pictures tell the story.

Chris Lyal and Clive Farrell of the Entomological Club – “helping” at the registration desk

Three very illustrious (or should that be shiny) entomologists – Jeremy Thomas, Charles Godfray and Dick Vane-Wright

Richard Harrington and the winner of the Van Emden Bursary, PhD student Ellen Moss

Two of the more venerable Verrallers – Trevor Lewis and Marion Gratwick

Many Verrallers are young and quite a few are female 🙂

Adriana De Palma making a fuss about Erica McAlister’s new book 🙂

Some older entomologists enjoying the food and drink

The younger entomologists also had excellent appetites

The President of the Royal Entomological Society, Mike Hassell, wishes you all good health and happiness

Beards still feature among the younger end of the male Verrallers, although sadly it is no longer mandatory 🙂

And a bit of entomological bling to bring the show to an end 🙂

Many thanks to all who attended and I hope to see you all again next year, plus many new faces.

 

 

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Will Lucretia Cutter reign supreme? Beetle Queen – the latest sensation from M G Leonard

beetle-queen

https://www.chickenhousebooks.com/books/beetle-queen/

Laughter, tears, joy, horror and shock; what an emotional roller-coaster of a book.  From the gurgling stomach of a much-loved uncle to the charred rim of a once beetle-inhabited cup, Maya Leonard’s latest installment* of beetle-inspired fiction will grip and hold you spell-bound from the moment you start reading.  This is a book you won’t be able to put down, it will get in the way of everyday life, and will, depending on when you begin to read it, obscure your dinner plate or breakfast bowl.  Be warned, those of you who are moved to tears easily will definitely need a box of tissues or a large handkerchief close by.

It is very hard to write a review of this enthralling and fast-moving book without giving away too many spoilers, so I am going to limit myself to unstinting praise and a very brief synopsis of the plot to give you a flavour of what to expect 🙂

Metamorphosis is the name of the game. Lucretia Cutter has a devious plan, but Darkus, Bertolt and Virginia are on the case. Novak thinks that Darkus is dead, Bartholomew Cuttle is acting very strangely, Uncle Max is a tower of strength and Mrs Bloom reveals hidden depths. We learn more about the early days of Darkus’s parents and their interactions with the then Lucy Johnstone and meet some other entomologists.  Yellow ladybirds act as spies and assassins for Lucretia Cutter, and we travel to the film Awards in Los Angeles via Greenland with our resourceful trio, Uncle Max and Mrs Bloom.  Lurking in the background, the evil cousins Humphrey and Pickering provide comic, albeit distasteful relief.  All this leads us to the dramatic finale, where much is revealed including some parts which will especially amuse all the boys (old and young) 🙂

The shootout at the Film Awards ceremony where the evil Lucretia spectacularly reveals her hidden attributes, Novak performs gravity-defying feats, and giant motorised pooters come into their own to help our intrepid trio and their grown-up allies overcome the evil hordes, makes me think that one day we will be seeing Darkus and his friends on the silver screen.  There are of course great supporting roles by Baxter, Marvin, Newton and Hepburn, and do remember to brush up on your Morse code 🙂

This installment of the story ends at Christmas and the presents our heroes receive tell us that our next stop is the Amazon!

This book, like the first will definitely help bring the wonders of entomology to a wider audience.  Maya Leonard continues to be a worthy ambassador for our discipline, and I am extremely grateful that she has opted to use her undoubted talents to publicise insects and entomology so well.  Thank you Maya.

ento16-fantastic-finish

*If you haven’t read the first installment in this thrilling trilogy I can thoroughly recommend it.

 

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An inordinate fondness for biodiversity – a visit behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum

Last week  (13th February) I traveled with the MSc Entomology students to the Natural History Museum, London.  As part of their course they are taken behind the scenes and meet some of the curators and their favourite beasts.  This one of my favourite course trips and although I have made the pilgrimage for many years I always find something new to marvel at as well as reacquainting myself with some of my old favourites.  After an early start (0645) we arrived exactly on time (for a change), 10.30, at the Museum site in South Kensington.  I always have mixed feelings about South Kensington, having spent twenty years of my life commuting to Imperial College, just up the road from the museum.  I loved teaching on the Applied Ecology course I ran, but over the years the working atmosphere in the Department became really toxic* and I was extremely glad to move to my present location, Harper Adams University.  After signing in, which with twenty students took some time, Erica McAlister (@flygirl) led us through the thronged galleries (it was half term) to the staff

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Nostalgia time, my first biological memory, aged 3.

areas, where the research, identification and curating takes place.  Our first port of call was the Diptera where Erica regaled us with lurid tales of flies, big and small, beneficial and pestiferous.

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Erica McAlister extolling the virtues of bot flies

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Any one fancy cake for tea?  Kungu cake, made from African gnats

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Early advisory poster

As we left to move on to the Hymenopteran, hosted by David Notton, I noticed this classic poster warning against mosquitoes.  David chose bees as the main focus of his part of the tour, which as four of the students will be doing bee-based research projects was very apt.

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Admiring the bees

Whilst the students were engrossed with the bees I did a bit of fossicking and was amused to find that tobacco boxes were obviously a preferred choice by Scandinavian Hymenopterists in which to send their specimens to the museum.

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Finnish and Swedish tobacco boxes being put to good use

Next was that most eminent of Coleopterists, Max @Coleopterist Barclay who as usual enthralled the students and me, with stories of

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Max Barclay demonstrating a Lindgren funnel and talking about ‘fossilised’ dung balls

beetles large and small, anecdotes of Darwin and Wallace and the amusing story of how ancient clay-encased dung balls were for many years thought by anthropologists and archaeologists to be remnants of early humankind’s bolas hunting equipment.  It was only when someone accidentally broke one and found a long-dead dung beetle inside that the truth was revealed 🙂

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Often overlooked, the Natural History Museum is an exhibit in itself

 As we were leaving to move on to the Lepidoptera section, I felt obliged to point out to the students that not only is the outside of the museum stunningly beautiful but that the interior is also a work of art in itself, something that a lot of visitors tend to overlook. Once in the Lepidoptera section  Geoff Martin proudly displayed his magnificent collection of Lepidoptera, gaudy and otherwise, including the type specimen of the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing which was captured with the aid of a shotgun!

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Lepidopterist, Geoff Martin, vying with his subjects in colourful appearance 🙂

Lunch and a chance to enjoy the galleries was next on the agenda.  Unfortunately, as it was half term this was easier said than done, although I did find a sunny spot to eat my packed lunch, as a Yorkshireman I always find the prices charged for refreshments by museums somewhat a painful.  In an almost deserted gallery I came across this rather nice picture.

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A lovely piece of historical entomological art.

Then it was on to the Spirit Collection.  Erica had laid on a special treat, Oliver Crimmen, fish man extraordinaire.  I may be an entomologist but I can sympathise with this branch of vertebrate zoology.  Fish, like insects are undeservedly ranked below the furries, despite being the most speciose vertebrate group.  I have been in the Spirit Room many times but have never seen inside the giant metal tanks.  Some of these, as Ollie demonstrated with a refreshing disregard for health and safety, are filled with giant fish floating in 70% alcohol.

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Fish man, Oliver Crimmen, literally getting to grips with his subjects.

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A fantastic end to the day culminated with a group photo with a spectacular set of choppers 🙂

Many thanks to Erica McAlister for hosting and organising our visit and to the NHM staff who passionately attempted to convert the students to their respective ‘pets’.

*one day I will write about it.

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EntoMasters on Tour – Visit to the Royal Entomological Society 2017

Yesterday I accompanied the Harper Adams University MSc Entomology and Integrated Pest Management students on their annual visit to the Headquarters of the Royal Entomological Society (RES), The Mansion House, located on the outskirts of the historic city of St Albans.

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Harper Adams University entomologists, young and not so young 🙂  Photo by Jhman Kundun

Last year we had  a truly epic journey; accidents on the overcrowded UK motorway system on the way there and back, meant that we spent eight hours on the coach 😦  This year, in trying to avoid a similar fate, I cruelly forced the students and staff to be on the coach by 0645.

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Early morning entomologists; despite the hour, happy and smiling  – photo Alex Dye

Unfortunately, despite the early start, a diesel spill closed the M6 at a crucial moment causing huge queues and long detours.  As a result we arrived at our destination a frustratingly  hour and a half late.  Entomologists are however, made of stern stuff and the coffee and delicious biscuits awaiting our arrival soon restored our spirits.

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Coffee!

After coffee the RES Director of Science, Professor Jim Hardie, welcomed the students and talked about the history of the society and the benefits of joining as student members.  This was followed by a brief talk by one of the Outreach Team, Francisca Sconce, herself a former entomology Master’s student, about the many ways in which the RES brings the study and appreciation of insects to a wider audience.  The students were then treated to lunch and given the opportunity to explore the building and its facilities and to look at some of the treasures that the RES safeguards for posterity.

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Someone found the aphid section 🙂

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A future President? – trying out the presidential chair for size

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Dr Andy Cherrill enjoying the famous entomological lift (elevator)

I am no stranger to The Mansion House; I have taken several cohorts of the entomology MSc students to the Royal Entomological Society since the society moved its headquarters to St Albans in 2007, and also visit the building a couple of times a year when attending committee meetings.  Despite my long association with the RES (40 years) I still however, find things I have never seen before, such as the print below, that gently pokes fun at the single-mindedness of the entomological specialist.

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It is only a vertebrate  🙂

I also never cease to be amazed and humbled by the history that surrounds one as you meander your way around the various library rooms.

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Printed history – as beautiful today as it was 400 years ago

We had a wonderful and educational day and you will be pleased to hear that our return journey was trouble-free.  Finally, many thanks to the Royal Entomological Society and staff for their extremely kind hospitality; the lunch was, as always, filling and delicious  🙂

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Entomologists – hirsutely stereotyped?

There is a general perception that entomologists* are bearded, eccentric elderly men, with deplorable dress sense, something I must confess I probably do little to dispel.

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Beard and entomologically-themed clothing – living the stereotype 🙂

Whilst it is certainly true that many Victorian entomologists fitted this description, it was and is not, a universal requisite for entomologists, although the images below may suggest otherwise.

beard-2

beard-3

Two views of the same beard

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Two famous (and bearded coleopterists) Charles Darwin and David Sharp – two great examples of an elderly entomological beard.

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Alfred Russel Wallace – often overlooked so have not paired him with Darwin 🙂

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Two examples of the weird (to me at any rate) under the chin beard.

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Elegant (?) entomologists; note not all are bearded 🙂  From the Aurelian’s Fireside Companion

 

To return to the proposition that male entomologists are facially hirsute, we need to answer the question, were, and are male entomologists different from the general population?  Up until the 1850s beards were fairly uncommon and usually associated with radical political views (Oldstone-Moore, 2005).  Entomologists were no exception, those from the 18th and early 19th centuries, being in the main, clean-shaven, well-dressed gentlemen, or so their portraitists would have us believe.

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Entomologists also remained relatively clean-shaven up to the 185os, as these pictures of two entomologists who became famously bearded in later life show.

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Charles Darwin, fairly clean-shaven, but sporting fashionable side boards, 1854, pre-Crimean War, and a youthful, clean-shaven Alfred Russel Wallace.

After the 1850s, beards and bushy side boards began to be seen as a sign of masculinity (Oldstone-Moore, 2005).  This was further reinforced as a result of the conditions during the Crimean War where due to the freezing conditions and lack of shaving soap, beards became commonplace among the soldiers.  Beards were then seen as a sign of the hero, hence the adoption by many civilian males of the time (Oldstone-Moore, 2005).  This sporting of facial hair was not just confined to entomologists, as the pictures of my great-great-grandfather and his cousin show.

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Two Victorian civil engineers – my great-great grandfather John Wignall Leather and his cousin, John Towlerton Leather.

Entomologists were however, still very much bearded at the end of the century.

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A group of entomologists from the north-west of England in the 1890s.  Some impressive beards and moustaches; from the Aurelian’s Fireside Companion

So during the latter half of the 19th century, it would seem that male entomologists were no different from any other male of the time.

The full beard, except for those associated with the Royal Navy, started to disappear soon after the beginning of the 20th Century; the Boer Wars and the First World War hastening its departure.  Moustaches were still common however, and many entomologists remained resolutely bearded until the 1920s, although perhaps not as luxuriantly so as some of their 19th century predecessors.

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A group of entomologists from 1920 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percy_Ireland_Lathy#/media/File:BulletinHillMuseum1923.jpg

It is surprisingly difficult to find group photographs of entomologists on the internet, so I have been unable to do a robust analysis of the proportions of bearded entomologists through the ages.  Two of the most influential entomologists of the first half of the last century were however, most definitely clean-shaven.

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Sir Vincent Wigglesworth (1899-1994) and A D Imms (1880-1949), the authors of my generation’s two entomological ‘bibles’.  Definitely clean shaven.

The 1960s and 1970s were renowned for the hairiness of males in general (at least those in the West) and this especially spread into the world of students, many of whom were entomologists.  My memories of those times of attending meetings of the Royal Entomological Society and the British Ecological Society are of a dominance of beards among the male delegates and not just those in their twenties, but then memory is a funny thing.  I was, for example, lucky enough to attend the Third European Congress of Entomology held in Amsterdam in 1986.  My memory is of many bearded entomologists, but looking at the photograph of the delegates only 30% of the male delegates are bearded.

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The third European Congress of Entomology, Amsterdam 1986 – I am there, suitably bearded 🙂  The eagle-eyed among you may be able to spot a young John (now Sir John) Lawton, also bearded.

More shocking is the fact that the photograph shows that less than 20% of the delegates were female.  Times have changed since then, and as the two recent photos below show, we now have more female entomologists and fewer beards, the former a very positive trend, that I heartily endorse, the latter, something I am less happy about 🙂

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IOBC Meeting 2015 https://www.iobc-wprs.org/images/20151004_event_wg_field_vegetables_Hamburg_group_photo.jpg

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Entomological Society of America 2016

Generally speaking, it seems that beards are in decline and female entomologists are on the rise, something that I have, in my position as the Verrall Supper Secretary of the oldest extant entomological society in the world been at pains to encourage.

As to the matter of entomological eccentricity, that is another thing entirely.  As far as most non-entomologists are concerned anyone who loves insects and their allies is somewhat eccentric, and if that is indeed the case then I am happy to be considered eccentric.

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Me, happy with my head in a net

Eccentricity is not just confined to those of us in our dotage.

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A modern day eccentric?  Josh Jenkins-Shaw ex-MSc Entomology Harper Adams University, now pursuing a PhD at the Natural History Museum of Denmark at the University of Copenhagen resolving the biogeography of Lord Howe Island using beetle phylogenetics, mostly the rove beetle subtribe Amblyopinina.

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A selection of entomologist from our Department at Harper Adams University – not all bearded but we are all wearing antennae!

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Perhaps Santa Claus is an entomologist!

Merry Christmas to all my readers 🙂

 

References

Oldstone-Moore, C. (2005) The beard movement in Victorian Britain.  Victorian Studies, 48, 7-34.

Salmon, M.J. & Edwards, P.J. (2005) The Aurelian’s Fireside Companion.  Paphia Publishing Ltd. Lymington UK.

 

*That is of course if they know the meaning of the word.  I am constantly being surprised by the number of people who ask what an entomologist is and as for the ways in which entomology is spelt by the media, words fail me 🙂

 

 

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