Category Archives: EntoNotes

Meat eating moths

This post is dedicated with thanks to Entomology Uncensored which gave me the idea for this post.

Unless you believe that the Very Hungry Caterpillar’s diet is truly representative of what a lepidopteran larva eats, you will, if asked, almost certainly answer that caterpillars eat plants and that the adults, if they do feed, do so on nectar. Although this is true for the majority of Lepidoptera, there are a couple of exceptions that have opted for a very different life style. Some of you may already now be saying to yourselves, “Aha what about the clothes moth? That doesn’t eat plants, it eats clothes doesn’t it?”, and you would be right. The larvae of Tinea pellionella, the Case Bearing Clothes Moth, are not plant eaters, they make a living eating wool, fur and feathers among other keratinous* delicacies (Cheema, 1956).

Tinea pellionella – clearly demonstrating why it is called the case-bearing clothes moth

There are some moth species that have gone a step further in adopting an animal-based diet, feeding directly on living animals and not on their cast-off skins and horns. In 1879 the American entomologist John Comstock (1849-1931) while studying a colony of the cottony maple scale Pulvinaria innumerabilis, was one day surprised to find a caterpillar busily eating his study organisms.  Rather than losing his temper and killing the caterpillar, he reared it through to adulthood and realised that this was a species new to science, which he named Dakruma coccidivora (Constock, 1979), now renamed Laetilia coccidivora and recognised as a useful biological control agent (e.g. Goeden et al., 1967; Mifsud, 1997; Cruz-Rodriguez et al., 2016).  Perhaps it had evaded being spotted by less keen-eyed entomologists from its habit of living underneath the scale insects it eats (Howard, 1895).

The hidden life style of Laetilia coccidivora as described by Howard (1895)

Laetilia coccidivora busy eating prickly pear scale insects

Less deadly to its host, but no less of a carnivore, is the moth Epipomponia nawai.  This, and all the other members of its family, thirty-two in total, are all ectoparasites of Hemiptera, especially cicadas and planthoppers (Jeon et al., 2002).  The larvae attach themselves to the abdomen of their host and feed on the juicy flesh underneath the cuticle.  Once ready to pupate they spin a silk thread, drop off their host and spin a cocoon on the bark of the tree their host has fed on (Liu et al., 2018).  The adults do not fed and only live long enough to mate and lay eggs.  For those of you who love a mystery, no-one knows how the moth larvae find their cicada hosts. One possibility is that they might use the cicada song as a cue but this has, so far, not been proven (Liu et al., 2018).

Larva of Epipomponia nawai parasitizing an adult cicada (Liu et al., 2018).

An even more striking example of predatory behaviour in moth larvae is that shown by members of an otherwise herbivorous Genus of Geometrid (looper) moths, Eupithecia.  The Eupithecia have a worldwide distribution, but in Hawaii, all but two of the species are ambush predators Montgomery, 1983).  The caterpillars show typical looper behaviour, remaining motionless pretending to be a twig or leaf, depending on their colour.  When a potential prey item bumps into the back of the caterpillar it rears backwards and catches the victim between its elongated and spiny thoracic legs and then chomps happily on its juicy meal.  It is thought that the absence of praying mantises on the Hawaiian Islands allowed the ancestors of the original Eupithecia that colonised the islands to fill their empty niche (Montgomery, 1983; Mironov, 2014).  The caterpillars are not fussy about what they eat, as long as they can grab and keep hold of it and it doesn’t fight back.  They have been recorded as eating flies, braconid wasps, leafhoppers, other Lepidopteran larvae, crickets and even spiders and ants (Montgomery, 1983, Sugiura, 2010).

Eupithecia orichloris attacking and eating an ant (Sugiura 2010)

Last in my list of carnivorous Lepidoptera and perhaps the most surprising are the Vampire Moths.  The phenomenon of “puddling” by butterflies to obtain sodium is well-known (e.g. Boggs & Jackson, 1991) and can be a very attractive sight.

A sight to enjoy – mud puddling https://www.earthtouchnews.com/in-the-field/backyard-wildlife/mud-puddling-the-butterflys-dirty-little-secret/

Somewhat less attractive behaviour is seen in a number of moth species from the Noctuid, Geometrid and Pyralid families which satisfy their desire for Sodium by feeding as adults from the tears and pus of mammals, including humans (Bänziger & Büttiker, 1969).

The Noctuid moth Lobocraspis griseifusa sucking lachrymal fluid (tears) from a human’s eye.  The author, whose eye this is, rather gruesomely asks us to “note the deep penetration of the proboscis between eye and eye lid” Bänziger & Büttiker (1969).

Some Noctuid moths have taken this a step further, perhaps a step too far. Moths of the Genus Calyptra, have very strong proboscises which allow them to feed through the skin of fruit, even oranges, hence their common name, fruit-piecing moths.  A few species however, have adopted a somewhat more interesting diet and have developed a taste for fresh mammalian blood, again, including that of humans, which they suck directly from their victims (Bänziger, 1968).  They are, of course, known as the Vampire Moths!

Calyptra thalictri Vampire Moth in action – note the barbed proboscis

Happy Halloween!

References

Bänziger, H. (1968) Prelimnary observations on a skin-piercing blood-sucking moth (Calyptra eustrigata) (Hmps.) (Lep., Noctuidae)) in Malaya.  Bulletin of Entomological Research, 58, 159-165.

Bänziger, H. & Büttiker, W. (1969) Records of eye-frequenting Lepidoptera from man. Journal of Medical Entomology, 6, 53-58.

Boggs, C.L. & Jackson, L.A. (1991) Mud puddling by butterflies is not a simple matter. Ecological Entomology, 16, 123-127.

Cheema, P.S. (1956) Studies on the Bionomics of the Case-bearing Clothes Moth, Tinea pellionella(L.). Bulletin of Entomological Research, 47, 167-182.

Comstock, J.H. (1879) On a new predaceous Lepidopterous insects.  The North American Entomologist, 1, 25-30.

Cruz-Rodriguez, J.A., Gonzalez-Machoro, E., Gonzales, A.A.V., Ramirez, M.L.R. & Lara, F.M. 92016) Autonomous biological control of Dactylopius opuntia (Hemiptera: Dactlyliiopidae) in a prickly pear plantation with ecological management.  Environmental Entomology, 45, 642-648.

Goeden, R.D., Fleschner, C.A. & Ricker, D.W. (1967) Biological control of prickly pear cacti on Santa Cruz Island, California. Hilgardia, 38, 579-606.

Howard, L.O. (1895) An injurious parasite.  Insect Life, 7, 402-404.

Jeon, J.B., Kim, B.T., Tripotin, P. & Kim, J.I. (2002) Notes on a cicada parasitic moth in Korea (Lepidoptera: Epipyropidae). Korean Journal of Entomology, 32, 239-241.

Liu, Y., Yang, Z., Zhang, G., Yi, Q. & Wei, C. (2018) Cicada parasitic moths from China (Lepidoptera: Epipyropidae): morphology, identity, biology, and biogeography.  Systematics & Biodiversity, 16, 417-427.

Mifsud, D. (1997) Biological control in the Maltese Island – past initaitives and future programmes.  Bulletin OEPP/EPPO Bulletin, 27, 77-84.

Mironov, V.G. (2014) Geometrid moths of the Genus Eupithecia Curtis, 1825 (Lepidoptera, geometridae): prerequisites and characteristic features of high species diversity. Entomological Review, 94, 105-127.

Montgomery, S.L. (1983) Carnivorous caterpillars: the behaviour, biogeography and conservation of Eupithecia (Lepidoptera: Geometridae) in the Hawaiian Islands. GeoJournal, 7, 549-556.

Sugiura, S. (2010) Can Hawaiian carnivorous caterpillars attack invasive ants or vice versa? Nature Precedings

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Little and Large – ENTO18 at Edgehill University

This year ENTO18 was hosted by Edgehill University, which until I met Anne Oxbrough at INTECOL in 2013, I had thought was in London 🙂 It is actually in Ormskirk, for those of you not familiar with the geography of the North of England, about 19 km as the crow flies, or 26 km by road from Liverpool. I drove up with my colleague Heather Campbell and we were both immediately impressed by the campus; even the extremely large car park took on an eerie beauty at night.

Edgehill University Campus – water features and greenery and a very large car park

The greenery, much of it just planted, also meant that there were some interesting insects to find such as the Alder beetle Agelastica alni, which up until a few years ago was considered extinct in the UK.  There was also very obvious vine weevil damage around the campus.

The Alder Leaf Beetle – very much not extinct

As you might expect with the large amount of water present, there were also a lot of ducks and other water birds which meant that one had to be careful where one trod.  The campus also boasted some interesting sculptures including pig and a goat, the significance of which escaped me.

Zoological sculptures, sadly not insects 🙂

The theme of the conference was “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and sessions were based around the Royal Entomological Society’s journals.

A great set of journals, especially the one with the red cover

The talks were varied and almost without exception, excellent.  Anne Oxbrough and her team had obviously done a great job in attracting a stellar cast both in the choice of keynote speakers and the shorter, but no less important, talks.

As usual, events like this don’t need a lot of text, the pictures tell the story.

Just some of the great keynote talks – note the presence of honorary insects

Some of my favourite short talks, including a couple by former students and another honorary insect subject

An unsolved conference mystery – why was this vine weevil wearing a coat? Photo by one of my former MSc students, Katy Dainton

One of my favourite talks

 

Entomological fashion icons

The traditional ceilidh – there are always some who sit and watch

Our new President, Chris Thomas FRS, never short of words especially with a glass of wine in his hand

Great to see one of my former MSc students, Liam Crowley, win the prize for the best student talk. Archie Murchie handing over the cheque.

Congratulations to two of the student essay winners, James Fage and Maggie Gill, both on the Harper Adams University MSc course.

 

 

An excellent conference dinner, although the vegetable terrine starter  did not receive universal approbation 🙂

The very large deck chair!  Entomologists never really grow up 🙂

Some personal highlights – meeting my beard twin, Mike Kaspari, a garish contribution to the entomological tee-shirt competition (I’m not sure there actually was one) and succumbing to the lure of the chair 🙂

I missed this but it looks fantastic – one of the post-conference workshops

Many thanks to Anne Oxbrough and her team and of course the Royal Entomological Society team, Kirsty Whiteford, Luke Tilley and my former student Fran Sconce – it was a great conference.

And finally, please support this great initiative organised by another of my former MSc students, Ashleigh Whiffin with the help of Matthew Esh and Richard Wright.

 

 

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Global Insect Extinction – a never ending story

I have had an unexpectedly busy couple of weeks talking about declines in insect populations.  Back in November of last year I wrote a blog about the sudden media interest in “Insect Armageddon” and followed this up with a more formal Editorial in Annals of Applied Biology at the beginning of the year (Leather, 2018).  I mused at the time if this was yet another media ‘storm in a teacup’ but it seems that the subject is still attracting attention.  I appeared on television as part of TRT World’s Roundtable programme and was quoted quite extensively in The Observer newspaper on Sunday last talking about insect declines since my student days 🙂 At the same time, as befits something that has been billed as being global, a similar story, featuring another veteran entomologist appeared in the New Zealand press.

The TV discussion was quite interesting, the panel included Nick Rau from Friends of the Earth, Lutfi Radwan, an academic turned organic farmer, Manu Saunders from Ecology is Not a Dirty Word and me.  If they had hoped for a heated argument they were out of luck, we were all pretty much in agreement; yes insects did not seem to be as abundant as they had once been, and this was almost certainly a result of anthropogenic factors, intensive agriculture, urbanisation and to a lesser extent climate change.  Unlike some commentators who firmly point the finger at the use of pesticides as the major cause of the declines reported, we were more inclined to towards the idea of habitat degradation, fragmentation and loss.  We also agreed that a big problem is a lack of connection with Nature by large sections of the population, and not just those under twenty.  We also felt very strongly that governments should be investing much more into research in this area and that we desperately need more properly replicated and designed long-term studies to monitor the undeniable changes that are occurring.  I had, in my Editorial and an earlier blog post, mentioned this point and lamented the paucity of such information, so was pleasantly surprised, to receive a couple of papers from Sebastian Schuh documenting long-term declines in Hemiptera and Orthoptera in Germany (Schuh et al., 2012ab), although of course sad, to see yet more evidence for decreasing insect populations.

The idea that insects are in terminal decline has been rumbling on for some time; more than a decade ago Kelvin Conrad and colleagues highlighted a rapid decline in moth numbers (Conrad et al., 2006) and a few years later, Dave Brooks and colleagues using data from the UK  Environmental Change Network revealed a disturbing decline in the numbers of carabid beetles across the UK (Brooks et al., 2012).   In the same year (2012) I was asked to give a talk at a conference organised by the Society of Chemical Industry. Then, as now, I felt that pesticides were not the only factor causing the biodiversity crisis, but that agricultural intensification, habitat loss and habitat degradation were and are probably more to blame.  In response to this quote in the media at the time:

“British Insects in Decline

Scientists are warning of a potential ecological disaster following the discovery that Britain has lost around 7% of its indigenous insect species in just under 100 years.

A comparison with figures collected in 1904 have revealed that around 400 species are now extinct, including the black-veined white butterfly, not seen since 1912, the Essex emerald moth and the short-haired bumblebee. Many others are endangered, including the large garden bumblebee, the Fen Raft spider, which is only to be found in a reserve on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, and the once common scarlet malachite beetle, now restricted to just three sites.

Changes to the insects’ natural habitats have been responsible for this disastrous decline in numbers. From housing and industrial developments to single-crop farming methods, Britain’s countryside has become increasingly inhospitable to its native insects.”

I chose to talk about “Forest and woodland insects: Down and out or on the up?” I used data from that most valuable of data sets, the Rothamsted Insect Survey to illustrate my hypothesis that those insects associated with trees were either doing better or not declining, because of increased tree planting over the last fifty years.  As you can see from the slides from my talk, this does indeed seem to be the case with moths and aphids that feed on trees or live in their shade.  I also showed that the populations of the same species in northern Britain, where agriculture is less intensive and forests and woodlands more prevalent were definitely on the up, and this phenomenon was not just confined to moths and aphids.

Two tree aphids, one Drepanosiphum platanoidis lives on sycamore, the other Elatobium abietinum, lives on spruce trees; both are doing rather well.

Two more tree-dwelling aphids, one on European lime, the other on sycamore and maples, both doing very well.  For those of you unfamiliar with UK geography, East Craigs is in Scotland and Newcastle in the North East of England, Hereford in the middle and to the west, and Starcross in the South West, Sites 2, 1, 6 and 9 in the map in the preceding figure.

Two conifer feeding moth species showing no signs of decline.

On the up, two species, a beetle, Agrilus biguttatus perhaps due to climate change, and a butterfly, the Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria, due to habitat expansion and climate change?

It is important however, to remember that insect populations are not static, they vary from year to year, and the natural fluctuations in their populations can be large and, as in the case of the Orange ladybird, Halyzia sedecimguttata, take place over a several years, which is yet another reason that we need long-term data sets.

The Orange ladybird Halyzia sedecimguttata, a mildew feeder, especially on sycamore.

It is obvious, whether we believe that an ecological catastrophe is heading our way or not, that humans are having a marked effect on the biodiversity that keeps our planet in good working order and not just through our need to feed an ever-increasing population.  A number of recent studies have shown that our fixation with car ownership is killing billions of insects every year (Skórka et al., 2013; Baxter-Gilbert et al.,2015; Keilsohn et al., 2018) and that our fear of the dark is putting insects and the animals that feed on them at risk (Eccard et al.,  2018; Grubisic et al., 2018).  We have a lot to answer for and this is exacerbated by our growing disconnect from Nature and the insidious effect of “shifting baselines” which mean that succeeding generations tend to accept what they see as normal (Leather & Quicke, 2010, Soga & Gaston, 2018) and highlights the very real need for robust long-term data to counteract this dangerous and potentially lethal, World view (Schuh, 2012; Soga & Gaston, 2018).  Perhaps if research funding over the last thirty years or so had been targeted at the many million little things that run the World and not the handful of vertebrates that rely on them (Leather, 2009), we would not be in such a dangerous place?

I am, however, determined to remain hopeful.  As a result of the article in The Observer, I received an email from a gentleman called Glyn Brown, who uses art to hopefully, do something about shifting baselines.  This is his philosophy in his own words and pictures.

 

References

Baxter-Gilbert, J.H., Riley, J.L., Neufeld, C.J.H., Litzgus, J.D. & Lesbarrères, D.  (2015) Road mortality potentially responsible for billions of pollinating insect deaths annually. Journal of Insect Conservation, 19, 1029-1035.

Brooks, D.R., Bater J.E., Clark, S.J., Monteith, D.T., Andrews, C., Corbett, S.J., Beaumont, D.A. & Chapman, J.W. (2012)  Large carabid beetle declines in a United Kingdom monitoring network increases evidence for a widespread loss in insect biodiversity. Journal of Applied Ecology, 49, 1009-1019.

Conrad, K.F., Warren. M.S., Fox, R., Parsons, M.S. & Woiwod, I.P. (2006) Rapid declines of common, widespread British moths provide evidence of an insect biodiversity crisis. Biological Conservation, 132, 279-291.

Eccard, J.A., Scheffler, I., Franke, S. & Hoffmann, J. (2018) Off‐grid: solar powered LED illumination impacts epigeal arthropods. Insect Conservation & Diversity, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/icad.12303

Estay, S.A., Lima, M., Labra, F.A. & Harrington, R. (2012) Increased outbreak frequency associated with changes in the dynamic behaviour of populations of two aphid species. Oikos, 121, 614-622.

Grubisic, M., van Grunsven, R.H.A.,  Kyba, C.C.M.,  Manfrin, A. & Hölker, F. (2018) Insect declines and agroecosystems: does light pollution matter? Annals of Applied Biology,   https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/aab.12440

Keilsohn, W., Narango, D.L. & Tallamy, D.W. (2018) Roadside habitat impacts insect traffic mortality.  Journal of Insect Conservation, 22, 183-188.

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

Leather, S.R. (2018) “Ecological Armageddon” –  more evidence for the drastic decline in insect numbers. Annals of Applied Biology, 172, 1-3.

Leather, S.R. & Quicke, D.J.L. (2010) Do shifting baselines in natural history knowledge therten the environment? The Environmentalist, 30, 1-2.

Schuh, S. (2012) Archives and conservation biology. Pacific Conservation Biology, 18, 223-224.

Schuh, S., Wesche, K. & Schaefer, M. (2012a) Long-term decline in the abundance of leafhoppers and planthoppers (Auchenorrhyncha) in Central Europe protected dry grasslands. Biological Conservation, 149, 75-83.

Schuh, S., Bock, J., Krause, B., Wesche, K. & Scgaefer, M. (2012b) Long-term population trends in three grassland insect groups: a comparative analysis of 1951 and 2009. Journal of Applied Entomology, 136, 321-331.

Skórka, P., Lenda, M., Moroń, D., Kalarus, K., & Tryjanowskia, P. (2013) Factors affecting road mortality and the suitability of road verges for butterflies. Biological Conservation, 159, 148-157.

Soga, M. & Gaston, K.J. (2018) Shifting baseline syndrome: causes, consequences and implications. Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment, 16, 222-230.

 

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Inspiring the next generation of entomologists?

In the last couple of weeks, I have had the privilege to be involved in two different types of outreach involving the younger generation.  The first was Skypeascientist, which I came across via a blog post by Amy Parachnowitsch on Small Pond Science. Amy was so enthusiastic about it that I couldn’t resist signing up, to what is a great idea; in their own words “Skype a Scientist matches scientists with classrooms around the world! Scientists will skype into the classroom for 30-60 minute Q and A sessions that can cover the scientist’s expertise or what it’s like to be a scientist. We want to give students the opportunity to get to know a “real scientist”, and this program allows us to reach students from all over the world without having to leave the lab!” My first, and so far only, but hopefully not my last match was with a small primary school in the Cumbrian fells.  We had a bit of trouble with getting Skype working to begin with, but once contact was established I was subjected to some great, and in a couple of instances, tough questioning; what are the mots abundant insects in the world for one.  We covered what I did, why I did it and how I got started, as well as questions like the what is the most dangerous insects in the world, had I found any new insects, where had I been to study insects,  and from one little joker “have you ever had ants in your pants?”.  All in all, a very positive and enjoyable session and one, that I hope will result in at least one future entomologist, although sadly, by the time he or she arrives on our soon to start new entomology undergraduate degree, I will be long retired

The second outreach event was the Big Bang Fair held in Birmingham.  I participated in this last year and having enjoyed it so much, volunteered to help on two of the days; the fact that one of the days coincided with a deadly boring committee meeting that I would have had to attend otherwise, was purely coincidental 😉 If you’ve never heard of it, the Big Bang UK Young Scientists and Engineers Fair is the UK’s largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths, for young people, and is the largest youth event in the UK. The fair takes place annually in March, and was first run in 2009.  We, the Royal Entomological Society and Harper Adams University, first attended it last year, when a former student of mine, Fran Sconce, now Deputy Director of Outreach at the Royal Entomological Society, convinced us that it was a great event with which to become involved and to showcase our favourite science, entomology.  Fran was in charge this year too and did a sterling job as did the many volunteer demonstrators, drawn from among our current MSc entomologists and former students now doing PhDs.  They all did a fantastic job and I was hugely impressed by them all.

This was one of those events where the pictures tell the story but there were a few things that struck me.  First, I was surprised at how many of the teenage boys were afraid and disgusted by the thought of touching insects, the girls on the other hand, in the main were easier to win over to the concept.  When I was a teenager, now many years ago, it was the other way around.  Too much time spent indoors playing ‘shoot them up’ games perhaps might explain this, but perhaps that is too simple a view? Conversely pre-teens of both sexes seemed to respond in the same way, and overall were much easier to convince that it was safe and enjoyable to hold an insect.  Sadly, this seems to point to some anti-insect (maybe even Nature) ‘conditioning’ happening in young people once they leave primary education. Second, I was very surprised by how many times I was asked if the insect would bite them and/or was dangerous.  As I pointed out many times, “Would I be holding them and offering to let you hold them if they did and were?”  That said, I was very pleased that out exhibit attracted so much positive attention.  Some children made a lot of return visits 😊

 Now over to the pictures, which show the diversity of the young and older folk who were entertained and enthralled by our hard-working insects and volunteers.

 

One of the current MSc Entomology students and also a Royal Entomological Society Scholar, Brinna Barlow, demonstrating that you don’t have to be old, bearded and male to be an entomologist.

The First Day Team – the old and the new

A hive of activity at the entomology exhibit

 

Swarms of future entomologists?

Visitors and volunteers buzzing with enthusiasm

Some of our volunteers, Entomology MSc students past and present

 

Our new Entomology lecturer, Heather Campbell, showing that although she is an ant specialist, leaf insects are also cool.

Yours truly demonstrating that quite a few entomologists are oldish, greyish, bearded and male, but remember, we were young once 🙂

Bearded and male, but definitely younger

And finally, without the enthusiasm, dedication, and hard work of Fran Sconce, and the willingness of our current MSc Entomologists to give up some of their exam revision time, our exhibit would have been much diminished.  It was a privilege to stand alongside them all.

The Director and star of the show, Fran Sconce, with one of her co-stars, both fantastic ambassadors for entomology.

 

Post script

This post has the dubious distinction of being the first one I have ever posted while at sea; the Dublin to Holyhead ferry, m.v. Ulysses to be precise 😊

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A Swarm of Happy Verrallers – The Verrall Super 2018

Twice a year I swap my battered, but very comfortable Desert Boots, for my slightly less battered and much more uncomfortable

My Desert Boots looking even more battered than normal as they suffered somewhat during the recent visitation from the “Beast from the East”.

shiny black shoes; once for our annual graduation ceremony and secondly for the annual Verrall Supper.  I have written about the Verrall Supper more than once and for those of you foolish enough to want to my previous accounts please click this link.  This year the Verrall Supper was held on March 7th at our now customary venue, The Rembrandt Hotel in South Kensington. There were 176 Verrallers this year, of which 32% were female, a very slight increase on last year; I still hope one day to achieve a 50:50 split. And I think that as there are a significant and growing number of younger female entomologists, that this is not a vain ambition.  Clive Farrell of the Entomological Club was the Master of Ceremonies, although he did have an alarming tendency to call me to the microphone when I was least expecting it.  Chris Lyal, in the absence of the Reverend Dr David Agassiz, and being the most Christian member of the Club, said the Grace and launched us into what was, for both meat eaters and vegetarians, an extremely well cooked and presented meal.

We welcomed several overseas members, Tom and Soo-Ok Miller from the USA, Stephen Clement (USA), Rufus Isaacs also from the USA (Michigan State), but an old friend from my Silwood Park days, Wan Jusoh from the National University of Singapore and a group of Italian forensic entomologists, Giorgio Giordani, Jennifer Pradelli,  Fabiola Tuccia and Stefano Vanin,  currently based at the University of Huddersfield.

I had two cameras with me, a new one which I have not quite got the hang of, and, as a spare, my old one, in case the new one got the better of me.  My camera work is never particularly good and at events where alcohol flows in profuse quantities, it does tend to get worse as the evening progresses 😊  That seems an appropriate juncture at which to drag out the old adage “A picture paints a thousand words” and let the cameras do the talking.

The Calm before the storm. Clive Farrrell and me getting ready for the swarm.

We were trying to be more organised this year and set up two registration desks in an attempt to cut down queuing time, but it turned out that excited, and possibly already slightly tipsy entomologists, are not very good at reading signs.

Clive Huggins, an unidentified back, Mike Hassell, Mike Singer and Camille Parmesan

Jim Hardie’s back, Richard Lane’s profile, Patricia Ash(?), Mary Cameron, Luke Tilley and Kirsty Whiteford’s back.

Wan Jusoh, Stephen Clement, Richard Harrington, Stuart Reynolds

Rufus Isaacs and Jim Hardie

 

A selection of entomological bling and accessories

Entomological posturing – names withheld to save embarrassment 😊

Former and present students of mine, Jasper Hubert, Fran Sconce and James Fage

The Verrall Secretary before the wine took effect with Tilly Collins and Jasper Hubert

Anna Platoni, Maya Leonard (M G Leonard, author of the Beetle Boy trilogy), Matthews Esh and Craig Perl

Two former students doing their annual pose – Ashleigh Whiffin and Craig Perl

The Happy Throng, Max Barclay in the foreground.

Linda Birkin, Soo-Ok and Tom Miller centre back and Stuart Reynolds.

The RHS Entomologists, Stephanie Bird, Anna Platoni, Andy Salisbury and Hayley Jones – photo ‘borrowed’ from a tweet by Andy Salisbury

Ashleigh Whiffin, Maya Leonard, Sally-Ann Spence and Zoe Simmons – photo ‘borrowed’ from Sally-Ann Spence’s Twitter account

Former Harper Adams University MSc Entomology students – Scott Dwyer, Christina Faulder, Liam Crowley, Ben Clunie and Ruth Carter – photo ‘borrowed’ from Scott Dwyer’s Twitter feed.

The new camera adding a special effect?

Not for the faint-hearted – there are some insects there!

Someone asked me what one called a group of entomologists, I answered swarm, hence the title of this post.  Someone else, Tilly Collins I think, suggested melee and another suggested that by the end of the evening the swarm was better termed an inebriation 😊

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My group is bigger, better and more beautiful than yours – The annual MSc Entomology trip to the Natural History Museum, London, 2018

This week we went on one of my favourite trips with the MSc Entomology students.  We visited the Natural History Museum in London.  We got off to fantastic start – all the students, and staff, arrived at the arranged time of 0645, something that had never happened before :-). The weather was fine, although at that time in the morning it was too dark to really appreciate it, and off we set.  I should have known that something would go wrong and sure enough the traffic was awful, and we had to make an unscheduled stop at a motorway service station to make sure our driver didn’t exceed his quota of working hours.

The now much delayed coach basking in the sunshine at a motorway service station.

Some of the MSc students; remaining cheerful despite the delay.

Forty-five minutes later we set off again and despite encountering a few further delays arrived safely, albeit almost an hour and a half late.  Luckily our host for the day Erica McAlister (@flygirlNHM) was ready and waiting and very efficiently got our visit back on track.  This year we were shown Colossal Coleoptera by Michael Geiser, Huge Hymenoptera by Nathalie Dale-Skey, Lustrous Lepidoptera by Alessandro Giusi and Deadly Diptera by Erica McAlister.   All our specialist hosts were, as you would expect, very keen to extol the virtues of their groups, and who can blame them.  I do the same with Awesome aphids 🙂 We are always very appreciative of the time and care that the NHM entomologists give us, especially as they have, sadly, recently had their numbers reduced.  Hopefully, as the realities of the problems associated with insect conservation and identification become even more apparent than they already are, we will see the appointment of more entomologists to this very much-needed global resource.  Here are some pictures to give you a flavour of the day.

Mouse mat for forensic entomologists 🙂

Alessandro Giusti waxing lyrical about the biggest, the smallest and the most beautiful Lepidoptera (moths as far as he is concerned).

 

The large and the small (a really bad photo by yours truly, I am still getting to grips with my new camera)

Natalie Dale-Skey extolling the virtues of Hymenoptera

They don’t have to be big and tropical to be beautiful – these are tiny but gorgeous

I do like a good wasp nest 🙂

Erica McAlister on the sex life of flies

The biggest flies in the world pretending to be wasps

A selection of flies

I was very impressed that the Crane fly still has all its legs attached.  I collected Crane flies for my undergraduate collection and had to resort to sticking their legs on to a piece of card.

Not quite the rarest fly in the World but as its larvae live inside rhinoceroses it could be in trouble 😦

Big beautiful beetles

Cockchafers aren’t really this big, but wouldn’t it be awesome if they were?

MSc Entomology (@Entomasters) at the end of the visit.  Photo courtesy of Heather Campbell (@ScienceHeather), our newest member of staff

Once again, a huge vote of thanks to Erica and colleagues for making this a memorable visit.  We had a fantastic day.

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Cockroach – an unlikely pairing

Cockroaches, like aphids, tend to get a bad press, the former as objects of disgust, the latter as pests. This is of course because our perception of cockroaches is heavily influenced by the scuttling, slithering and susurrus images that haunt our memories from watching too many reality TV shows and horror films*.

Cockroaches are members of the superorder, Dictyoptera and are placed in the order Blattodea, (derived from the Latin, blatta, an insect that shuns light) which, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, along with the termites (inward et al., 2007).  When I was a student termites had their own Order, Isoptera; molecular biology and DNA studies have a lot to answer for 🙂  There are currently, about 4,600 described species, of which thirty are associated with humans and a mere four which are considered to be pests (Bell et al., 2007); see what I mean about a bad press.  They have a global distribution but are mainly associated with the tropics and sub-tropics.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (and whom am I to doubt them?), the name “cockroach” comes from the Spanish word cucaracha, transformed by 1620s English folk etymology (where an unfamiliar word is changed into something more familiar) into “cock” (male bird) and “roach” (a freshwater fish).  I find this a little odd.  Given that the Romans were trading globally before they colonised England, it seems unbelievable that the Oriental and German cockroaches would not have made it to the British Isles and become a familiar pest, before the early seventeenth century.  That said, Robinson (1870) suggests that according to Gilbert White the Oriental cockroach Periplaneta orientalis, sometimes called the black beetle (e.g. Blatchley, 1892), was not introduced into England until 1790.  A reference in Packham (2015) however puts its introduction as 1644, which fits better with the OED’s date of derivation of the word.  I would, despite this, still suggest that the Romans would have been the more likely ones to have brought it to our shores.  I think it quite likely that anything that scuttled along the ground and was dark in colour would have been referred to as a black beetle, so my view is that our pestiferous cockroaches have been around much longer.  Any sources to prove/disprove this will be welcome.

Our native cockroaches, as opposed to those that have become naturalised, are shy, retiring, quite rare and located mainly in the south of England, where they dwell peacefully among the trees and heather, a situation that has remained largely unchanged for almost 200 years (Stephens, 1835).  Their names, except for Ectobius pallidus, seem to indicate an origin from farther afield, or perhaps just reflect the origin of the entomologist who first described them  🙂

Ectobius panzeri, The Lesser cockroach (distribution from the NBN Atlas)

Ectobius lapponicus, The Dusky cockroach (Distribution from the NBN Atlas). It is also known as the Forest cockroach in Hungarian   http://regithink.transindex.ro/?p=8782.  According the NBN Atlas it has been recorded as eating aphids.

Ectobius lapponicus showing the wings unfolded.

Ectobius pallidus, the Tawny cockroach (also known as Mediterranean Spotted Cockroach) (Distribution from the NBN Atlas)

 

Cockroaches, unlike ladybirds and aphids, don’t seem to have amassed a huge number of weird and wonderful names in other languages.  If anyone has some good examples to add, please let me know.

Albanian kakabu

Basque labezomorro (labe = oven, zomorro = bug)

Bulgarian хлебарка khlebarka

Finnish torakka

French  cafard (in English melancholia)

German kakerlake

Hungarian csótány

Italian scarafaggio (sounds like a character from an Opera)

Latin blatta

Latvian prusaku

Polish karaluch

Spanish cucaracha

Swedish kackerlacka

Yiddish tarakan

In terms of aesthetically pleasing versions I found Armenian ծխամորճ and Thai แมลงสาบ the most satisfying, and Japanese definitely the most abrupt  ゴキブリ

And to end,  a fun fact that might make some of you disposed to look more kindly upon the cockroach “The Cockroach is the natural enemy of the bed-bug, and destroys large numbers” (Packard, 1876).

 

References

Bell, W.J., Roth, L.M. &  Nalepa,  A.A. (2007) Cockroaches: Ecology, Behavior and Natural History.  The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Blatchley, W.S. (1892) The Blattidae of Indiana.  Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science, 1892, 153-165.

Brown, V.K. (1980)  Notes and a key to the Oothecae of the British Ectobius (Dictyoptera: Blattidae).  Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, 116, 151-154.

Inward, D., Beccaloni, G. & Eggleton, P. (2007) Death of an order: a comprehensive molecular phylogenetic study confirms that termites are eusocial cockroaches. Biology Letters, 3, 331-335.

Packham, C. (2015) Chris Packham’s Wild Side of Town. Bloomsbury Press, London.

Packard, A.P. (1876) Guide to the Study of Insects and a Treatise on those Beneficial and Injurious to Crops. Henry Holt & Company, New York.

Robinson, C.J. (1870) The cockroach.  Nature, 2, 435.

Stephens, J.S. (1835) Illustrations of British Entomology; or a Synopsis of Indigenous Insects. Volume VI. Mandibulata.  Baldwin & Cradock, London.

 

 

 

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Creeping and crawling through children’s literature – A meeting of “two cultures”

Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend an unusual conference in Cambridge, “A Bug’s Life; Creeping and Crawling through Children’s Literature”.  It was unusual for me, as first it was at a weekend, second it was about insects in children’s books and third, all the other presenters and most of the delegates, were academics and PhD students from English departments.  I owed my presence at the conference as a result of my social media activities, in this case my Blog, as Zoe Jaques the organiser, had come across one of my diatribes about the lack of entomological accuracy in some insect themed books for children.  Zoe contacted me earlier this year and explained about her plans and wondered if I would be willing to contribute in my role as a professional entomologist with all expenses paid.  I didn’t take much persuading as I found the whole concept intriguing to say the least, and as an added bonus the guest author was the hugely successful Maya Leonard, author of Beetle Boy, Beetle Queen and the soon to be released, Battle of the Beetles.

I arrived at Cambridge Railway Station on the Friday night direct from France, having left Vinca at 8.45 am, to catch the train to Perpignan, then on to Paris on the TGV, then to London on the EuroStar, arriving in Cambridge courtesy of the local train, just after 9 pm.  A short taxi ride took me to Homerton College where Zoe had kindly arranged for me to stay in one of their excellent guest rooms.   After an excellent breakfast I made my way to the conference venue, following the very appropriate guide beetles 🙂

Our beetle guides

Once there I met the equally appropriately garbed Zoe and started to mingle with the delegates and other speakers, who among others, included Imogen Burt from BugLife

Zoe Jaques – the brains behind the conference, resplendent in beetle regalia.

 who opened the conference with a talk about the importance of insect conservation and the horrific and very inaccurate headlines perpetrated by the media to sell copy.  The conference programme was fantastic with a range of speakers from the Emeritus Professor, Peter Hunt, who invented the discipline of children’s literature in the UK to current PhD students such as Catherine Olver and Maggie Meimaridi with their delightfully punning talk titles, “Beeing oneself: individualism in twenty-first century fiction for teens” and “A ThousAnt plateaus”, respectively. There were a lot of puns buzzing and flying around at this conference, including a laugh-out loud presentation from Melanie Keene, “Bees and Parodies”.  We also had talks on insect scaling and cognition, fear of insects, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, racism and prejudice, and not strictly literature, a very entertaining talk by Zoe and her colleague David Whitley on the insects of Pixar animation.  My talk, not very imaginatively, was titled “The good, the bad and the plain just wrong”.  I focused mainly on the anatomy and taxonomic accuracy or not, displayed in children’s book, from the 1850s through to the modern-day.  This was a very personal selection, based on books that I had read as a child or read to my children, with a few examples from books I have come across in the last few years.  I mainly blamed the illustrators, although to be fair, some have done excellent jobs of portraying insects accurately and sympathetically.  I will be writing about this in a future post.

Maya Leonard completed the line-up with a totally Powerpoint-free extempore talk about her journey from entophobe to bestselling entophile; a ten-year journey.  A fantastic experience, if you ever get the chance to hear Maya speak, make sure you take the opportunity.

An experience not to be missed – Maya in full flow.

The “Two Cultures” in the title of this post refers to the idea of the novelist C P Snow, who at the time (1959) felt that science and humanities were two different antagonistic cultures, with science and scientists being looked down upon and scorned by those who inhabited the world of the humanities.  Put simply, Snow’s criticism was aimed at the fact that while those in the humanities felt that scientists were ignorant if they had not read Shakespeare, they did not perceive it as a failing if they were unable to state the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  This attitude may still persist in certain parts of the educated elite, in that it is seen as something to be proud of to say for example, that one is rubbish at maths, but that someone saying they have never read Jane Austen is seen as reprehensible.  This may no longer be the problem it was in 1959, although looking at the politicians wielding power in Westminster at the moment, the number of those with science degrees or an understanding of science, is lamentably low. There are indeed, as Maya pointed out in her talk, a lot of well-educated people, who know little or nothing about the natural world, entomology in particular.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not about how much better educated scientists are than those with degrees in the humanities, or those in the humanities giving short shrift to the ideas of scientists.  After all this conference was all about exploring the portrayal of an important part of the natural world; Insects and their allies, and seeking the viewpoint of a professional entomologist. Hardly the actions of Luddites unwilling to engage with new viewpoints.  I too was there to learn, as well as to inform.  In fact I was very apprehensive about my presentation.  As I pointed out in the introduction to my talk, although I have given talks to a diverse set of audiences, ranging from The Brownies to the Inner Wheel I had, until then, never given a talk to a room full of professional critics 🙂 I needn’t have worried, my talk was very well-received and generated lots of very perceptive and interesting questions.

I learnt a lot in the course of the day, not least the difference in how much can be read into the attitudes of the author and the subliminal messages that go unnoticed by the child reader, or as in my case, the adult reader, but are picked up and debated by those trained to absorb more from what they are reading than is actually on the printed page.  Although a great fan of Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series I had never taken on board the symbolism inherent in, for example,  A Hat Full of Sky’ until I heard Catherine Olver’s excellent talk on the symbolism of bees and hive minds in what I now know as YA (Young adult) fiction.  Similarly, until pointed out to me by Sarah Annes Brown during her talk on “Insects – a liberal litmus test?” the possibly racist and stereotypical portrayals of the characters in George Selden’s A Cricket in Times Square had completely escaped me.  I obviously spend too much time stressing out over the biological and anatomical aspects of the insect characters 🙂

The other thing that struck me very strongly was the difference in way in which language and PowerPoint was used by the speakers.  Biologists (and I think most scientists) are taught that the ideal slide should have no more than six bullet points and that under no circumstances should a slide be filled with a single block of text.  It this came as a surprise that we were asked on a number of occasions to spend a couple of minutes reading and digesting the contents of a slide filled from top to bottom with a quote from a book or paper.  I was also struck by the difference in the language used, “contextualise” and “narrative” being the two most common examples of words that are rarely uttered at an entomology conference.  That said, I confess that I used the word narrative several times in my own talk, but only one of my slides contained a quotation 🙂

The conference was an entertaining, educational, enjoyable and exhilarating experience and I am very grateful to Zoe for allowing me to take part in it.  I think the “Two Cultures” have a lot to learn from each other and Zoe is to be congratulated on having the idea and the perseverance to bring the project to fruition.  I very much look forward to future collaborations with her and others from the world of humanities.

And there were appropriate cakes 🙂

If you want to see the Tweets associated with the conference check out #bugznkidzlit

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“Ecological Armageddon”, we’ve known for years that insects are in decline so why so much fuss now?

Unless you have lived in a news vacuum for the last two weeks or so, you will be aware of the impending “Ecological Armageddon” that is about to be unleashed upon us.  A paper in the journal PLoS ONE  in which it was reported that there had been a 75% decline in the biomass of flying insects in protected areas in Germany since 1989 was the starting pistol that began the media frenzy.  The newspapers, both broadsheet and tabloids were quick to react as were the radio and TV stations and the coverage was global as this selection of links shows.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/29/opinion/insect-armageddon-ecosystem-.html

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/18/warning-of-ecological-armageddon-after-dramatic-plunge-in-insect-numbers

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/flying-insects-numbers-drop-ecological-armageddon-75-per-cent-plummet-a8008406.html

http://www.express.co.uk/news/science/868283/Armageddon-end-of-the-world-Germany-insects-Sussex-University-UK-Government

https://www.hs.fi/ulkomaat/art-2000005414880.html

https://risingsunoverport.co.za/53144/enviro-monday-flying-insect-populations-declining-drastically-germany/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/buzz-off-german-study-finds-dramatic-insect-decline/2017/10/19/6a087d40-b4c8-11e7-9b93-b97043e57a22_story.html?utm_term=.00836ee55dca

Entomologists were in great demand for a few days, all being asked to comment gravely on the paper and its implications.   I was also persuaded to air my thoughts on air, Talk Radio having caught me at an unguarded moment.  I should never have answered the ‘phone 😊

As the media frenzy subsided, the more considered responses began to appear.  Manu Saunders very sensibly attempted to put the study in perspective and point out its limitations. Two entomologists from the Game & Wildlife Conservancy Trust which hold an even longer data set, put forward their interpretation and an ecological consultancy also took the opportunity to comment.  The authors of the paper and the blog commentators were careful not to point the finger directly at pesticides as the main cause of this decline, although they did rule out climate change.  Agricultural intensification and the practices associated with it, were however, suggested as likely to be involved in some way, something that has been known for more than a century as the naturalist and novelist Gene Stratton-Porter  pointed out in 1909  in her novel A Girl of the Limberlost,

 Men all around were clearing available land.  The trees fell wherever corn would grow. The swamp was broken by several gravel roads…Wherever the trees fell the moisture dried, the creeks ceased to flow, the river ran low, and at times the bed was dry.  From coming in with two or three dozen rare moths a day, in three years time Elnora had grown to be delighted with finding two or three. Big pursy caterpillars could not be picked from their favourite bushes, where there were no bushes. Dragonflies could not hover over dry places and butterflies became scare in proportion to the flowers”.

What puzzles me about the media response is why now and why this particular study?  We have known for a long time that some insect groups have been in decline for many years.  The parlous state of UK butterflies and moths has been highlighted on more than one occasion over the last couple of decades (e.g. Conrad et al., 2004; Thomas et al., 2004; Fox et al., 2013), and declines in the abundance of bibionid flies (D’Arcy-Burt & Blackshaw, 1987), dragonflies (Clausnitzer et al., 2009) and carabid beetles (Brooks et al., 2012) have also been noticed and written about.  In addition, the results of a 42-year study on insects associated with cereal fields in SE England was published recently (Ewald et al., 2015), with little or no fanfare associated with it.  I commented on the decline of some insect species (and entomologists) in a blog post in 2013 and in December of last year, wrote about the general decline of insect numbers and lack of long term studies, incidentally citing the German study when it was originally published in a little known German publication back in 2013 and with far fewer authors 😊

The media response to this not new news puts me in mind of the Ash Die Back scare of 2012 when the press and politicians having

Pests and diseases recorded as entering the UK 1960-2015.  The two arrows indicate the replacement of local forest offices with central district offices and reduction in entomology and pathology staff.

been warned and made aware of the increasing incidence of non-native pests and pathogens entering the country for many years beforehand, suddenly, and in response to an intractable problem, went overboard in reporting doom and destruction

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/nov/09/ash-dieback-disease-impossible-eradicate

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/oct/24/ash-dieback-disease-east-anglia

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/earthnews/9566224/Deadly-fungus-in-Ash-trees-could-be-next-Dutch-elm-disease-warns-Woodland-Trust.html

http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2012/s3620359.htm

My hypothesis, for what it is worth, is that it is like when a tap washer starts to wear out, and your tap starts to drip. At first you just ignore it or turn the tap ever more tightly every time you use it.  Eventually something gives, either the tap breaks off (this happened to me very recently) or the drip becomes a flood.  Either way, something needs to be done, i.e. call the plumber.  In the case of the Ash Die Back episode, the UK government responded positively, albeit too late to prevent it, but by setting up the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce of which I was privileged to be a member, recommendations were made that resulted in increased forest research funding and additional legislation being put in force to hopefully reduce the chances of further invasions.  I suspect that the current “Ecological Armageddon” scenario will not result in a similar response, although it may encourage research councils worldwide to think more seriously about funding more research into sustainable agriculture and for governments to encourage farmers to adopt farming strategies that encourage more wildlife and use fewer inputs.  At the same time, given the increasing number of studies that implicate urbanisation as a major factor in the decline of insect numbers (e.g. Jones & Leather, 2012; Dennis et al., 2017) it would behove local planning authorities to increase their efforts to provide much-needed green spaces in our towns and cities and to ban the use of decking in gardens and the replacement of front gardens with concrete and tarmac car parking areas.

What it does highlight as Manu Saunders said in her blog, is that we need funding for more long-term studies.  We also need to find instances where the data already exist but have not yet been analysed, amateur records and citizen science projects may be of use here.  Alternatively, as was very recently done in France (Alignier, 2018), it is possible, using the identical protocol, to resample a site after a gap of decades, to see what changes have occurred.

I hope for the sake of our descendants that the reports of an “Ecological Armageddon” have been exaggerated.  This should however, be a wake-up call to all those with the power to do something to mitigate the decline in biodiversity worldwide.  Governments need to respond quickly and to think long-term and responsibly.  The current attitude of politicians to adopt a short-term ‘how safe is my job’ political viewpoint is no longer a viable one for the planet. It is precisely that attitude that got us into the situation that we find ourselves in now.

References

Alignier, A. (2018) Two decades of change in a field margin vegetation metacommunity as a result of field margin structure and management practice changes. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 251, 1-10.

Brooks, D.R., Bater, J.E., Clark, S.J., Montoth, D.J., Andrews, C., Corbett, S.J., Beaumont, D.A., & Chapman, J.W. (2012) Large carabid beetle declines in a United Kingdom monitoring network increases evidence for a widespread loss of insect biodiversity. Journal of Applied Ecology, 49, 1009-1019.

Clausnitzer, V., Kalkman, V.J., Ram, M., Collen, B., Baillie, J.E.M., Bedjanic, M., Darwall, W.R.T., Dijkstra, K.D.B., Dow, R., Hawking, J., Karube, H., Malikova, E., Paulson, D., Schutte, K., Suhling, F., Villaneuva, R.J., von Ellenrieder, N. & Wilson, K. (2009)  Odonata enter the biodiversity crisis debate: the first global assessment of an insect group.  Biological Conservation, 142, 1864-1869.

Conrad, K.F., Woiwod, I.P., Parsons, M., Fox, R. & Warren, M.S. (2004) Long-term population trends in widespread British moths.  Journal of Insect Conservation, 8, 119-136.

Darcy-Burt, S. & Blackshaw, R.P. (1987) Effects of trap design on catches of grassland Bibionidae (Diptera: Nematocera).  Bulletin of Entomological Research, 77, 309-315.

Dennis, E.B., Morgan, B.J.T., Roy, D.B. & Brereton, T.M. (2017) Urban indicators for UK butterflies. Ecological Indicators, 76, 184-193.

Ewald, J., Wheatley, C.J., Aebsicher, N.J., Moreby, S.J., Duffield, S.J., Crick, H.Q.P., & Morecroft, M.B. (2015) Influences of extreme weather, climate and pesticide use on invertebrates in cereal fields over 42 years. Global Change Biology, 21, 3931-3950.

Fox, R. (2013) The decline of moths in Great Britain: a review of possible causes. Insect Conservation & Diversity, 6, 5-19.

Hallmann, C.A., Sorg, M., Jongejans, E., Siepel, H., Hofland, N., Schwan, H., Stenmans, W., Müller, A., Sumser, H., Hörren, T., Goulson, D. & de Kroon, H. (2017) More than 75% decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS ONE. 12 (10):eo185809.

Jones, E.L. & Leather, S.R. (2012) Invertebrates in urban areas: a reviewEuropean Journal of Entomology, 109, 463-478.

Knowler, J.T., Flint, P.W.H., & Flint, S. (2016) Trichoptera (Caddisflies) caught by the Rothamsted Light Trap at Rowardennan, Loch Lomondside throughout 2009. The Glasgow Naturalist26, 35-42.

Thomas, J.A., Telfer, M.G., Roy, D.B., Preston, C.D., Greenwood, J.J.D., Asher, J., Fox, R., Clarke, R.T. & Lawton, J.H. (2004) Comparative losses of British butterflies, birds, and plants and the global extinction crisis.  Science, 303, 1879-1883.

 

 

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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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