Category Archives: Roundabouts and more

Satiable curiosity – side projects are they worthwhile?

I’ve been meaning to write this one for quite a while.  It was stimulated by two posts, one from the incredibly prolific Steve Heard, the other by the not quite so prolific, but equally interesting,  Manu Saunders.  First off, what is a side project?  To me, a side project is one that is not directly funded by a research council or other funding agency or, in some cases, one that you do in your spare time, or to the horror of some line-managers, is not strictly in your job description 🙂 The tyranny of modern research funding dictates that projects must have specific research questions and be accompanied by hypotheses and very specific predictions; most proposals I referee, even contain graphs with predicted results and almost all have ‘preliminary data’ to support their applications.   This is not necessarily a bad thing but to directly quote Manu Saunders from her blog post

“Whittaker’s (1952) study of ‘summer foliage insect communities in the Great Smoky Mountains’ is considered one of the pioneer studies of modern community ecology methods. The very short Introduction starts with the sentence “The study was designed to sample foliage insects in a series of natural communities and to obtain results of ecological significance from the samples.” No “specific research questions” and the hypotheses and predictions don’t appear until the Discussion” Sounds like bliss.

The central ethos of my research career which began in 1977, can be summed up by this quotation uttered by the character ‘Doc’ in John Steinbeck’s novel Sweet Thursday “I want take everything I’ve seen and thought and learned and reduce them and relate them and refine them until I have something of meaning, something of use” (Steinbeck, 1954).* The other thing that has driven me for as long as I can remember, and why I ended up where I am,  is something I share with Rudyard Kipling’s Elephant Child, and that is a “satiable curiosity”:-) Something that has always frustrated me, is that, in the UK at least, most funded research tends to be of a very short duration, usually three years, often less than that**, and if you are very lucky, maybe five years.  If you work on real life field populations, even if you work on aphids, these short term projects are not really very useful; laboratory work is of course a different matter.

I got my first ‘permanent’ job in 1982 working for UK Forestry Commission Research based at their Northern Research Station (NRS) just outside Edinburgh.  My remit initially was to work on the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea and finally, on the large pine weevil, Hylobius abietis.  As a committed aphidophile, I was determined, job description or not, to carry on working with aphids. I decided that the easiest and most useful thing to do was to set up a long-term field study and follow aphid populations throughout the year.  My PhD was on the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi, a host alternating aphid, the primary host of which is the bird cherry, Prunus padus, with which  Scotland is very well supplied, and fortuitously, just down the road from NRS was Roslin Glen Nature Reserve with a nice healthy population of bird  cherry trees.  I chose ten suitable trees and started what was to become a ten-year once a week, lunch time counting and recording marathon.  I also decided to repeat a study that my PhD supervisor, Tony Dixon had done, record the populations of the sycamore aphid, Drepanosiphum platanoidis.  In the grounds of NRS were five adjacent sycamore tree, Acer pseudoplatanus, and these became my early morning study subjects, also once a week. I had no articulated hypotheses, my only aim was to count and record numbers and life stages and anything else I might see. Anathema to research councils but exactly what Darwin did 🙂

Although it was a ‘permanent’ job, after ten years I moved to Imperial College at Silwood Park and immediately set up a new, improved version of my sycamore study, this time a once weekly early morning*** walk of 52 trees in three transects and with much more data collection involved, not just the aphids, their natural enemies and anything else I found and on top of all that, the trees themselves came in for scrutiny, phenology, growth, flowering and fruiting, all went into my data sheets.  I also set up a bird cherry plot, this time with some hypotheses articulated 🙂

As a result of my weekly walk along my sycamore transects, a few years later I set up yet another side project, this time an experimental cum observational study looking at tree seedling survival and colonisation underneath different tree canopies. At about the same time, initially designed as a pedagogical exercise, I started my study of the biodiversity of Bracknell roundabouts.

One might argue that most undergraduate and MSc research projects could also come under the heading of side projects, but I think that unless they were part of a long term study they aren’t quite the same thing, even though some of them were published.  So, the burning question, apart from the benefits of regular exercise, was the investment of my time and that of my student helpers and co-researchers worth it scientifically?

Side project 1.  Sycamore aphids at the Northern Research Station, 1982-1992

I collected a lot of aphid data, most of which remains, along with the data from Side project 2, in these two notebooks, waiting to be entered into a spreadsheet.  I also collected some limited natural enemy data, presence of aphid mummies and numbers killed by entomopathogenic fungi.  Tree phenological data is limited to bud burst and leaf fall and as I only sampled five trees I’m not sure that this will ever amount to much, apart from perhaps appearing in my blog or as part of a book.  Nothing has as yet made it into print, so a nil return on investment.

Raw data – anyone wanting to help input into a spreadsheet, let me know 🙂 Also includes the data for Side project 2

 

Side project 2.  Rhopalosiphum padi on Prunus padus at Roslin Glen Nature Reserve 1982-1992

I was a lot more ambitious with this project, collecting lots of aphid and natural enemy data and also a lot more tree phenology data, plus noting the presence and counting the numbers of other herbivores.  I have got some of this, peak populations and egg counts in a spreadsheet and some of it has made it to the outside world (Leather, 1986, 1993: Ward et al., 1998).  According to Google Scholar, Ward et al., is my 6th most cited output with, at the time of writing, 127 citations, Leather (1993) is also doing quite well with 56 citations, while Leather (1986) is much further down the list with a mere 38 citations.  I have still not given up hope of publishing some of the other aphid data.  I mentioned that I also recorded the other herbivores I found, one was a new record for bird cherry (Leather, 1989), the other, the result of a nice student project on the bird cherry ermine moth (Leather & MacKenzie, 1994).  I would, I think, be justified in counting this side project as being worthwhile, despite the fact that I started it with no clear hypotheses and the only aim to count what was there.

 

Side project 3.  Everything you wanted to know about sycamores but were afraid to ask 1992-2012

As side projects go this was pretty massive.  Once a week for twenty years, me and on some occasions, an undergraduate research intern, walked along three transects of 52 sycamore trees, recording everything that we could see and count and record, aphids, other herbivores, natural enemies and tree data, including leaf size, phenology, height, fruiting success and sex expression.  My aim was pretty similar to that of Whittaker’s i.e.   “…to sample foliage insects in a series of natural communities and to obtain results of ecological significance from the samples”  truly a mega-project.  I once calculated that there are counts from over 2 000 000 leaves which scales up to something like 10 000 000 pieces of data, if you conservatively estimate five data observations per leaf. Quite a lot of the data are now computerized thanks to a series of student helpers and Vicki Senior, currently finishing her PhD at Sheffield University, but certainly not all of it. In terms of output, only two papers so far (Wade & Leather, 2002; Leather et al., 2005), but papers on the winter moth, sycamore and maple aphids and orange ladybird are soon to be submitted.  On balance, I think that this was also worthwhile and gave me plenty of early morning thinking time in pleasant surroundings and a chance to enjoy Nature.

The sycamore project – most of the raw data, some of which still needs to be computerised 🙂

 

Side project 5. Sixty bird cherry trees 1993-2012

This project has already featured in my blog in my Data I am never going to publish series and also in a post about autumn colours and aphid overwintering site selection.  Suffice to say that so far, thanks to my collaborator Marco Archetti, two excellent papers have appeared (Archetti & Leather, 2005; Archetti et al., 2009), the latter of which is my third most cited paper with 101 cites to date and the former is placed at a very respectable 21st place.  I don’t really see any more papers coming out from this project, but I might get round to writing something about the study as a whole in a natural history journal. On balance, even though only two papers have appeared from this project, I count this as having been a very worthwhile investment of my time.

All now in a spreadsheet and possibly still worthwhile delving into the data

 

Side project 5.  Urban ecology – Bracknell roundabouts 2002-2012

This started as a pedagogical exercise, which will be the subject of a blog post in the not too distant future. The majority of the field work was done by undergraduate and MSc students and in the latter years spawned a PhD student, so a side project that became a funded project 🙂 To date, we have published seven papers from the project (Helden & Leather, 2004, 2005; Leather & Helden, 2005ab; Helden et al., 2012; Jones & Leather, 2012; Goodwin et al., 2017) and there are probably two more to come.  Definitely a success and a very worthwhile investment of my time.  The story of the project is my most requested outreach talk so also gives me the opportunity to spread the importance of urban ecology to a wider audience.

The famous roundabouts – probably the most talked and read about roundabouts in the world 🙂 Sadly Roundabout 1 i n o longer with us; it was converted into a four-way traffic light junction last year 😦

 

Side project 6.  Testing the Janzen-Connell Hypothesis – Silwood Park, 2005-2012

I mentioned this project fairly recently so will just link you to it here.  So far only one paper has come out of this project (Pigot & Leather, 2008) and I don’t really see me getting round to doing much more than producing another Data I am never going to publish article, although it does get a passing mention in the book that I am writing with former colleagues Tilly Collins and Patricia Reader.  It also gave undergraduate and MSc project students something to do.  Overall, this just about counts as a worthwhile use of my time.

Most of this is safely in a spreadsheet but the data in the notebooks still needs inputting

According to my data base I have published 282 papers since 1980 which given that I have supervised 52 PhD students, had 5 post-docs, and, at a rough estimate, supervised 150 MSc student projects and probably 200 undergraduate student projects doesn’t seem to be very productive 😦 Of the 282 papers, 125 are from my own projects, which leaves 139 papers for the post-docs and PhD students and 17 from the side projects.  Three of the papers published from the side projects were by PhD students, so if I remove them from the side projects that gives an average of 2.3 papers per side project and 2.4 papers per post-doc and PhD student.   So, in my opinion, yes, side projects are definitely worth the investment.

 

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.

Archetti, M., Döring, T.F., Hagen, S.B., Hughes, N.M., Leather, S.R., Lee, D.W., Lev-Yadun, S., Manetas, Y., Ougham, H.J., Schaberg, P.G., & Thomas, H. (2009) Unravelling the evolution of autumn colours: an interdisciplinary approach. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 24, 166-173.

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

Helden, A.J. & Leather, S.R. (2004) Biodiversity on urban roundabouts – Hemiptera, management and the species-area relationship. Basic and Applied Ecology, 5, 367-377.

Helden, A.J. & Leather, S.R. (2005) The Hemiptera of Bracknell as an example of biodiversity within an urban environment. British Journal of Entomology & Natural History, 18, 233-252.

Helden, A.J., Stamp, G.C., & Leather, S.R. (2012) Urban biodiversity: comparison of insect assemblages on native and non-native trees.  Urban Ecosystems, 15, 611-624.

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

Leather, S.R. (1986) Host monitoring by aphid migrants: do gynoparae maximise offspring fitness? Oecologia, 68, 367-369.

Leather, S.R. (1989) Phytodecta pallida (L.) (Col., Chrysomelidae) – a new insect record for bird cherry (Prunus padus). Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, 125, 17-18.

Leather, S.R. (1993) Overwintering in six arable aphid pests: a review with particular relevance to pest management. Journal of Applied Entomology, 116, 217-233.

Leather, S.R. & Helden, A.J. (2005) Magic roundabouts?  Teaching conservation in schools and universities. Journal of Biological Education, 39, 102-107.

Leather, S.R. & Helden, A.J. (2005) Roundabouts: our neglected nature reserves? Biologist, 52, 102-106.

Leather, S.R. & Mackenzie, G.A. (1994) Factors affecting the population development of the bird cherry ermine moth, Yponomeuta evonymella L. The Entomologist, 113, 86-105.

Leather, S.R., Wade, F.A., & Godfray, H.C.J. (2005) Plant quality, progeny sequence, and the sex ratio of the sycamore aphid, Drepanoisphum platanoidis. Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 115, 311-321.

Pigot, A.L. & Leather, S.R. (2008) Invertebrate predators drive distance-dependent patterns of seedling mortality in a temperate tree Acer pseudoplatanus. Oikos, 117, 521-530.

Steinbeck, J. (1954) Sweet Thursday, Viking Press, New York, USA.

Wade, F.A. & Leather, S.R. (2002) Overwintering of the sycamore aphid, Drepanosiphum platanoidis. Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 104, 241-253.

Ward, S.A., Leather, S.R., Pickup, J., & Harrington, R. (1998) Mortality during dispersal and the cost of host-specificity in parasites: how many aphids find hosts? Journal of Animal Ecology, 67, 763-773.

Whittaker, R.H. (1952) A Study of summer foliage insect communities in the Great Smoky Mountains. Ecological Monographs, 22, 1-44.

 

*

I was so impressed by this piece of philosophy that it is quoted in the front of my PhD thesis 🙂

**

My second post-doc was only for two years.

***

You may wonder why I keep emphasising early morning in relation to surveying sycamore aphids.  Sycamore aphids are very easy to disturb so it is best to try and count them in the early morning before they have a chance to warm up and become flight active.

 

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Skype a Scientist – a great way to invest in the future

I do a lot of outreach or “reach out” as my contract endearingly terms it 🙂 In terms of talks, my outreach spans a great range of ages and experiences; from the University of the 3rd Age (U3A), Women’s Institutes, the Rotary Club and similar organisations, local Natural History Societies, Garden Clubs, and less often, schools and youth groups.  As you can see from the preceding list, most of my ‘formal’ standing in front of an audience and lecturing outreach, although not primarily aimed at the older generation, does most often find them.  Face to face interactions with the younger generation is mainly via University Open Days and events like the Big Bang Fair which are great fun but are annual one-offs. I was thus very pleased when I discovered Skype A Scientist last year and had the chance to extend my ‘face to face’ interactions with the younger generation, not just in the UK but around the world.  My two favourite classroom session were with 9-10 year olds, one class in a primary school in Northern Ireland and the other in an elementary school in Cincinnati.

The questions they asked are wonderful, heartening and stimulating. Some, especially the ‘why’ ones, are pretty hard to answer, remember the ‘language’ we speak as scientists has a vocabulary that is not necessarily the same as that of a 9-year old.  Although I have listed all the questions they asked, I’m not going to post all my attempts at answering them, just some of the ones that weren’t as easy as you might think.  Thankfully, the teachers were kind enough to send me a list of the questions a few days before the session, otherwise I would have been in trouble 🙂  Try answering them yourself and as a side exercise, which questions came from which school?  If you haven’t done Skye A Scientist, I can thoroughly recommend it and hopefully, as a community we can sow enough idea seeds in this age group for a large number to germinate and grow into a high yielding crop of future scientists.

School 1

Do all animals drink water?

Do you mostly work indoors or outdoors?

How did you get interested in your job?

How did you get into your job? Hard work and luck

How long have you been in the insect profession? A long time 🙂

How can you tell poisonous bugs apart from not poisonous bugs? An excellent question as gave me the opportunity to talk about warning colouration and the difference between poisonous and venomous

How does a caterpillar turn into a butterfly? Harder than it seems

How do you get rid of the pests without killing the crops? Gave me the chance to talk about phytotoxicity

How do you remove pesticides without hurting and ruining the food and water? This was actually about organic farming

If you could save any insect from extinction which insect would it be? Really difficult to answer this

Is pesticide the only chemical hurting the plants/insects or is there more? Chance to talk about pollution issues

What is your favourite part in an ecosystem and why?    The insects – because they are cool

What is your favourite consumer?

What is your favourite insect? Had to be an aphid, but then I had to explain what an aphid was 🙂

What is your favourite animal that you have worked with? Large willow aphid of course

What is your favourite animal(s) in the ecosystems you observe? Obviously aphids 🙂

What is the most dangerous insect? Hard to answer, but did give me an opportunity to talk about allergic reactions

What are the most common pests that harm crops? An easy one

What is the coolest animal/insect you have ever seen?   Again, really hard, because there is so much variety, I went for Snow flea, Boreus hiemalis 🙂

What did you want to be when you were a kid? Gerald Durrell 🙂

When did you become a scientist? A long time ago 🙂

Why do insects that have stingers have stingers? One of those why questions!

What’s your favourite animal/insect that you had ever helped? I went for spider just to be controversial

Why did you choose the career of being a college professor in science?

What is your favourite part of your job?  Talking to people about insects

What chemicals have you worked with, and which ones are the most harmful?

What is your favourite insect to learn and inspect? Always aphids 🙂

What kind of animals do you mostly research? Guess what?

What are some tools you use? Told them about pooters

What insect has been infected the most from the chemicals?

Where do you work?

What do you wear for work? What I’m wearing now – jeans and shirt with sleeves rolled up 🙂

What do you think of pesticides?  Gave me a chance to talk about pros and cons and specificity

Why did you chose to be an ecologist? Gerald Durrell

Why do butterflies drink tears from turtle’s eyes? Great chance to talk about puddling and peeing in tropical forests to attract butterflies

You know how there are certain bugs that look the same as other bugs that are poisonous, how does that species that looks the same as the poisonous ones stay not over-populated? Very interesting question and lots to talk about concerning mimicry and aposematism

 

School 2

Are spiders insects?

Can you heal an ant if it gets sick? Interesting question and gave me a chance to talk about ants helping each other

Do insects sleep at night? Depends on how you define sleep

Do insects hibernate? Some do

Do insects see in black and white or colour? Colour, but generally not red and chance to talk about UV vision

Do slugs have sharp teeth? Depends on what you mean by teeth and sharp

Can leaf cutter ants eat through human skin? Ouch, yes

Can ants swim? Chance to talk about surface tension

How are ants so strong even though they are so small?

How do crickets make the clicking sound?

How many types of insects are there in the world? Lots and a great opportunity to have a rant about vertebrates 🙂

How do butterflies get coloured? Difficult as had to talk about scales, refraction, wavelengths etc

What is a beehive made of?

What is a beetle’s body made of? Easy on the surface but then you have to work out how to describe chitin

What do woodlice eat?

Why are bees so important?  Gave me a chance to talk about how important other pollinators are and how chocolate lovers should love flies 🙂

Why do spiders have so many eyes? Yep!

Why do bees make honey?

Why do dung beetles roll dung? Nice question

Why are bugs so small?  Good opportunity to debunk giant insects in horror films and talk about insect respiratory systems

Why do insects have 6 legs? I went for the descended from organisms with lots of legs and because of size and balance problems, six was the most stable reduction (tripod theory).  Mercifully nobody picked me up about mantids or Nymphalids 🙂

What is the biggest insect? Luckily had a photo to hand

 

As you can see a bit of a challenge even with advance warning, but definitely worth doing.  School 1 was in the USA and School 2 the UK.  Did you guess correctly?

This year I am looking forward to talking to schools in Moscow and Switzerland; truly global reach.  How cool is that?

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A Roundabout Review of the Year – highlights from 2016

Welcome to my traditional, well it is the fourth after all, annual review of my social media and science communication activities.  I have had another enjoyable year blogging and tweeting, and as I wrote last year, I have absolutely no plans to stop either.   You may also be pleased to know that pictures of roundabouts will continue to appear at irregular intervals 🙂

2016-review-1

Roundabout on the edge of Prades, 2016, complete with the author 🙂

 

Impact and reach

I have continued to post at about ten-day intervals; this is my 142nd post.  The more I write the easier it seems to become. I also did my first jointly authored post, teaming up with Anne Hilborn (@AnneWHilborn) to ask if naming study animals introduced observational bias which generated a fair bit of interest and was published in a slightly modified form in the on-line magazine Biosphere.  Another of my blog articles was converted into a discussion piece for the journal Agricultural & Forest Entomology  (see February 2017 issue) and my blogging activities resulted in me being asked to do an article about roundabouts and their biodiversity for the summer newsletter of the International Association for Landscape Ecology.  For those of you who think that social media has no place in science, I feel that this is pretty convincing evidence that science communication via social media is a  very worthwhile use of our time.

I had visitors from 164 countries (150 last year) and received 34 036 views (29 385 last year).  As last year, the majority of my readers

2016-review-2

The top ten countries for views in 2016

came form the UK and USA, although Sweden and The Netherlands made it into the top ten, pushing Spain into the wilderness.

 

Top reads

My top post (excluding my home page) in 2016 was one of my entomological classics, the Moericke Trap, closely followed by  A Winter’s Tale – Aphid Overwintering,  although my all-time winner is still Not All Aphids are Vegans with over 5 000 views.  My top ten posts tend to be either about aphids or entomological techniques/equipment which I guess means that I am filling an entomological niche.  I was however, disappointed to see that one of my favourite posts about (to me at any rate) the inspirational paper by Mike Way and Mike Cammell on using aphid egg counts to predict crop damage is languishing in the bottom ten, despite being published in September 2015 😦

 

Comparative statistics

One of the things that I find somewhat frustrating with blogging is the difficulty of gathering comparative data.  It may be the scientist in me or perhaps I am just too competitive, but as WordPress kindly supply their users with personal statistics, I feel the need to know how others are doing.  It is surprisingly hard to get these sort of data although this site is useful if you are hoping to use your blog for generating an income.  I was very excited a few weeks ago when my blog reached over 100 000 views at beginning of December.  Just a few days later Dynamic Ecology announced their 1 00 000 unique visitor which certainly put me in my place!   They have, however, been around a while and post much more frequently than I do, so are perhaps not the best yardstick, although of course something to aspire to.  Luckily, Jeff Ollerton who has been blogging about a year longer than me and in a similar subject area, is as obsessed with blogging statistics as I am and very kindly gave me access to his data.  Looking at the data it seems that we arrived at the same point

2016-review-3

Comparative statistics between my blog and that of Jeff Ollerton’s Biodiversity Blog.

after the same amount of time but in different ways.  Jeff had a much slower start than me and his stats are best described using a curvilinear relationship whereas my line is still a straightforward linear relationship.  I guess that as I was on Twitter when I launched my blog that I immediately picked up more views than Jeff who only joined the Twitter fraternity a month or so ago.  It will be interesting to see if his readership curve steepens in the coming months and if mine continues to rise linearly, plateau or (hopefully) take-off as Jeff’s did.

Tweeting for entomology

In terms of Tweeting I had a really great experience curating the Real Scientists Twitter account @realscientists.  It kept me very busy but I interacted with a whole new set of people and had some really interesting conversations.  I can heartily recommend it to anyone who is considering volunteering.  I had hoped to hit the 5 000 follower milestone before the end of the year but didn’t quite make it, ending the year with 4 960 instead which is according to my children, pretty good for a normal person 🙂

Many thanks to all my readers and especially to those who take the time to comment as well as pressing the like button.  My top commenters, as indeed they were last year, were Emma Maund, Emily Scott, Emma Bridges, Jeff Ollerton, Amelia from A French Garden and Philip Strange.  I look forward to interacting with you all in 2017.  A Happy and Prosperous New Year to you all.

 

 

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Roundabouts – so much more than traffic-calming devices

Roundabout1

I have often been asked why I work on roundabouts, or urban green spaces, if you want to sound more scientific and ecological. Roundabouts to me are not just traffic-calming devices.

Roundabout2

They are a teaching tool,

 

 

Roundabout3

a research programme

 

Roundabout4

and a source of amusement and wonder.

 

Roundabout5

They are islands of calm among a sea of traffic, a haven for wildlife amidst a tarmac and concrete jungle.

Hook of Holland

or just plain fun!

So, next time you are waiting to enter a roundabout, don’t just think of it as an impediment (or aid) to your journey, but as a haven of wild-life, an urban nature reserve

Roundabout6

or even as a work of art, especially if you are in France 🙂

 

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Planned and accidental landings – Search terms that found my site

Unbelievably yet another year has gone by which means that I have managed to complete three years of blogging at Don’t Forget the Roundabouts writing articles at about ten-day intervals. This post will be my 105th since I started blogging on January 1st 2013.  I have written over 15 000 words about aphids and another 31 000 words on other entomologically related subjects ; so at least one book if I can get around to linking the various posts into a coherent form 🙂  My views on the usefulness of blogging at a personal level and in terms of science communication remain as positive as ever and I fully intend to continue blogging for the foreseeable future.  At this time last year last year I summarised my facts and figures in terms of views and international reach.  This year I have decided to ‘borrow’ an idea from three of the blogs I follow, Scientist Sees Squirrel, Small Pond Science and The Lab and Field and speculate about some of the search terms that direct people to my site.

So first the bare facts, I reached 150 countries (145 last year) and received 29 385   views

Countries 2015

Top nine countries for views during 2015

(24 616 last year) and as yet the figures seem to suggest that I will continue to gain more views during 2016, but it is only a simple regression and a pessimist might see a plateau appearing 🙂

Blog stats

My top post, as last year, was Not All Aphids are Vegans closely followed by  A Winter’s Tale – Aphid Overwintering both with over a thousand views.  So how do people find me, which search terms do they use?  As you might expect the most frequently used search terms are those that ask do aphids bite people (humans)? In fact most of the search terms that plonk people down on my blog are aphid related.  Jiminy Cricket also turns up a lot; this is because of one of my very early posts in which I pointed out that Jiminy Cricket should really be Gregory Grasshopper.  On the other hand, some people do actually search for me and my site specifically.  There are, however, some weird and wonderful search terms that send people my way, a few of which are worth commenting on.

 

Do police dogs follow the scent of fear?  An easy one to start with, this directed the searcher to my post on aphid alarm pheromone, which will of course, not have answered her/his question.

Police dog cartoon

 

These two are obviously linked to the name of my blog.

Who are the roundabouts in Pinocchio? I didn’t know that roundabouts featured in Pinocchio but Jiminy Cricket certainly does 🙂  On reflection this may have been a misspelling of roustabouts, in reference to the two villains who kidnapped Pinocchio.

Why were roundabouts so big back in the day?  An intriguing question to which I have no answer.

 

This one takes the prize for the most specific set of terms entered.

What is the name of the male group of entomologists that is the oldest group in the world and has recently invited Dr Helen Roy to become a member? – the answer is of course The Entomological Club.

 

I was extremely flattered that Google directed this inquirer to my blog  🙂

Where is the latest global discourse in entomology?

 

Obviously all my trips to Paris and France have upped my international profile,

article sur aphis nerii et ses parasitoides

 

but these are pretty obscure to say the least!

her wellies got sloppy pictures, but probably (s)he meant soppy? so here you are

soppy wellies

it’s raining get coat and umbrella study module to get a first in exam results

what is a milligram?  I have no idea how that ended up on my site and as for this one?

joni printed 50 pages, then he took a pair of scissors and carefully cut 300 tag and signed all of them

 

And finally a couple of X-rated ones:

 why girls bum sap changes having sex? I’m guessing that (s)he meant shape –  being directed to an article about aphids ingesting phloem sap must have been a bit deflating!

video sex girls avenae  this one must have really been disappointed but if (s)he comes this way again (s)he might like to watch this video produced by the Silwood Revue which is well worth a view https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3sBzNsaSzdM

 

I could go on, but enough is enough, and the rest are mainly aphid related.

I continue to find blogging immensely satisfying but would really like to have more comments and interactions via the blog. Twitter is where most exchanges occur at the moment.  As far as I can make out other bloggers, even those with much larger readerships than me, also say that comments on their blogs have fallen over the last couple of years.  It would be nice if everyone who followed me on Twitter read my blog!  That said I must acknowledge my most frequent commenters and bestowers of likes.  These are Emily Scott http://adventuresinbeeland.com/, Jeff Ollerton http://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/, Amelia from A French Garden, Emma Tennant http://missapismellifera.com/, Manu Sanders http://ecologyisnotadirtyword.com/ and Philip Strange https://philipstrange.wordpress.com/.   I am also very grateful to the 175 people (40 more than last year) who subscribe to my blog.

Many thanks to you all for your interest and kind words and A Prosperous and Happy New Year to you all.

 

Post script

As a late Christmas present to you all, my favourite roundabout of the year!

Surgeres

On the edge of Surgeres (Charente Maritime) – not very ecological but certainly literary!

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Journal Editing – Why do it? Masochism, machisimo or just plain nosiness?

I have been involved in scientific journal editing since the mid-1980s when I took on the role of Editor of an in-house newsletter run by the UK Forestry Commission’s Forest Research arm, EntoPath News. This basically involved writing short articles about what was going on in Forest Research and persuading colleagues to write about their research, mainly for a lay audience. This was pretty much a home-made effort, typed up and then photocopied by members of the Typing Pool (now those were the days!). Then in 1991 I was asked if I would like to edit Antenna, the in-house journal of the Royal Entomological Society. This was a step-up – we actually had a printer, although this was in the days of cut and paste when cut and paste meant exactly that. I was sent the proofs in what were termed galleys, long sheets of printed pages, together with template pages, marked out with blue lines to indicate margins etc. I then grabbed a pair of scissors and a pot of glue and literally cut the proofs to fit the pages and then glued them on to the templates. These were then returned to the printer who in due course produced a set of page proofs which I had to check and approve and these were then returned to the printer and then finally the finished version would appear.

Antenna 1993

Nowadays of course all this has long departed and Antenna is a much glossier and electronically produced affair.

Antenna 2012

I was next asked if I would like to edit Ecological Entomology a much grander job all together and one that I did from 1996-2003.

Ecological Entomology 2001

 

When I first started editing Ecological Entomology, all manuscripts were submitted as hard copy paper versions (usually three copies) but with an accompanying floppy disc. The review process involved posting out the hard copy to possible reviewers, usually without any preliminary enquiry as to the willingness of the referee to undertake the task, although as time passed we did start to ask referees beforehand by email. The use of paper copies enabled referees to write directly on to manuscripts and also allowed me as an Editor to mark required changes. My Editorial Assistant also imposed stylistic and language change to manuscripts. Accepted manuscripts were always returned with a huge amount of mark-up for authors to attend to and incorporate into their finished version which was returned on disc together with a paper copy. It was quite interesting to see how many authors were so enamoured of their original version that they tried to pull the wool over my editorial eye by returning an appropriately edited paper version but their original manuscript on the disc! These were most severely edited by my Editorial Assistant 😉

I then had a couple of years off as a full editor but remained on the boards of Ecological Entomology, Journal of Animal Ecology and Agricultural & Forest Entomology, all of which I still do despite becoming one of the Senior Editors of the Annals of Applied Biology in 2005 and in a moment of weakness not only agreeing to become the Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation & Diversity in 2006, but to launch it from scratch!

One of my conditions for agreeing to edit Insect Conservation & Diversity was that we would be on-line submission from Day One. Interestingly enough we were the only journal of the Royal Entomological Society’s large stable that were. This year the last of the journals finally gave in and became on-line submissions only.

One of the things that I have noticed with most of the journals that were originally paper-based submissions is that the instructions for authors still refer back to the paper submission days – why for example do we need to upload tables and figures separately – why don’t we just incorporate them in the text in the way they would appear in print and submit one file? Old habits die hard I guess.

So why do I edit journals? The simplest answer is because I enjoy it, I find it interesting, albeit sometimes frustrating, especially when authors send you papers that are completely out of the scope of the journal, or formatted in the style of the journal they have just been rejected by! You also find out that some papers come with a referee repellent attached to them. Some papers you get the right number of referees agreeing immediately, others that look perfectly acceptable often take ten or eleven referee requests before you get your two referees.   I have written about the search for referees before so will not dwell on this part of the editing process. On the plus side you get the chance to read things that you might not do normally and, by judicious choice of your editorial board can influence the papers that are submitted to your journal.

How hard is it to be a journal editor? Not as hard as you might think. We certainly don’t do the same job that we used to; the red pen is a thing of the past. To a certain extent we act as filters, deciding which papers we are going to send on to our Associate Editor, so we do have to read everything that is submitted, although some are very easy to ‘instant reject’ and need little more than a cursory skim. The harder ones are those that are perfectly sound but don’t have the right feel for the journal, the ones that you know are going to be rejected but which are perfectly publishable, just not in your journal. In some of these cases you might have to pass it on to an Associate Editor, as with the best will in the world you can’t be an expert in everything.   The Associate Editors choose the referees and make a recommendation to you as the Editor; you then have to read the paper again and see if you agree with his/her recommendation. As an Editor you have to be tougher than your Associate Editors because of space requirements and the fear of a fall in your Impact Factor or submission rate. When I first started editing, Impact Factor was not a consideration; now we are, despite our belief that it is an imperfect metric, all aiming to be the best. We also have pressures from the publishers to increase the speed of our decision-making processes which is why the decision ‘reject and resubmit’ is now becoming increasingly common and ‘major revision’ less common.

Rejections can sometimes result in not only angry emails from rejected authors but also, but not that often, disgruntled Associate Editors. When I first started editing I was more prone to backing down when contacted by an author demanding a recount, especially if it was someone who I knew quite well. I soon learnt though that if you stood your ground firmly it was better for you and the authors, as they were all too often rejected after another round of reviewing. Your friends generally understand this quite soon and as professionals realise that you have to be impartial. That said, I did find it very hard when I found myself rejecting a paper submitted by my old PhD supervisor. He appears to have forgiven me 😉

Do we get paid as editors? It depends on the journal; some pay a fairly generous stipend, but remember most of your editing takes place at home and at weekends, so some compensation is appropriate. The Royal Entomological Society journals don’t pay their editors but do treat them very well and pay for travel to some conferences and meet their registration and accommodation costs at most of their own conferences.

So what qualities are needed to be a journal editor? A thick skin, the ability to make a decision and not to keep asking for yet another opinion; you’re the final arbiter, make that decision and stick with it; the detachment to be impartial and go with the science not with your own personal prejudices or friendships. You also need to be aware of what other journals are doing and be constantly thinking of ways to improve your journal; it is very tempting to think that everything is fine so why change things. Personally I feel that an Editor should step down after about seven years or so as there is a tendency to get very parochial and stuck in a rut. You can definitely get very possessive about ‘your’ journal if you are not careful. [Note to self, I have edited Insect Conservation & Diversity for almost eight years now and I have had an approach from another journal, but I would really miss those Royal Entomological Society Publication Committee meetings ;-)]

Do I regret being an Editor?  Not one little bit. It is actually a great job and one that I can thoroughly recommend to anyone who is offered the chance.

Post script

Apropos of my mention of submitting paper copies to journals, I do feel that authors do not get the same amount of feedback from referees as they used to. Referees who take the time to download a pdf version and annotate and comment directly are definitely in the minority. This means that most referees only comment on the scientific details and all those helpful hints about punctuation and style are omitted. As a referee I do sometimes make suggestions for rewording and overall grammatical suggestions, but line by line editing which I used to do is now a thing of the past.

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Nature Enslaved, Nature Embraced

My wife Gill, and I, have just returned from a long weekend in Paris, where we spent what used to be called the Whitsun Bank Holiday.  The weather, despite it being pretty much the last week in May, was far from ideal; in fact on the Friday, if it had been warmer, swim-wear would have been the appropriate attire for the day.  We had arrived, courtesy of Eurostar at about lunchtime, checked into our hotel and then started out for a walk.  The rain, rather than easing off, got heavier, and we looked for a convenient shop to shelter in; as luck would have it we found ourselves in the rue des Filles du Calvaire outside a shop-cum- gallery, called Chardon.  The owner, Gregori Ferret, very kindly ignored the copious amounts of water that we were dripping on his floor, and invited us to come in and view the works of art.  They ranged from stuffed and mounted mammals through fairly standard pinned insects to beautifully arranged and displayed Lepidoptera (all as far as I could tell correctly named, although of course not equipped with collection and determination labels as entomological purists would demand.  That aside, the displays were magnificent in a very Victorian way, reminding me of the very popular song-bird cabinet in the Natural History Museum, London.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

SONY DSC  SONY DSC

There were also insect paintings, some of which included butterfly wings and most amazing of all, a Goliath Beetle, which had been taken apart and then partly reconstructed using fine wire.  A truly bizarre sight, but fascinating at the same time.  The art work in the gallery, including the Goliath beetle was the work of Christine Arzel K which unfortunately, I am unable to reproduce here.  If you are ever in Paris, a visit to Chardon is well worth the effort.  An interesting example of the way insects fascinate artists and, when presented in a non-threatening way, can be appreciated by the public, although of course as an entomologist, I would much rather they were appreciated in situ and alive.

On the Saturday we made our way to the flea market at Porte de Vannes where we were faced by the usual collections of what I call junk.  Oddly enough there were on this occasion, a plethora of insect collections, mainly single boxes of mixed insects, badly pinned, and very inadequately labelled.  There were the odd sets of themed boxes, such as a collection of carabid beetles, but without proper labels, so again entomologically worthless.  What was perhaps more distressing for me, was the large number of magnificent and detailed entomological prints on sale that had been removed from nineteenth century books and were being sold individually for anthing between €10-€20.  Vandalism on a grand scale; but yet again, an indication of the fascination that insects seem to have for people once safely dead.

On the Sunday we made our way to a great oddity, The Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, just opposite the National Archives in rue des Archives.  [Click on the hunting horn for a musical introduction or if you want to avoid it go directly here].  This had been recommended by my colleague Tilly Collins who described it as a truly extraordinary experience.  It has been described, according to Wikipedia as quirky, astonishing, strange and eclectic .  It was all of these things.  It is a museum dedicated to hunting and its associated trappings including hunt and nature associated art, ranging from classical through to modern installation pieces.  It also houses an incredible collection of firearms and associated paraphernalia, beautifully decorated powder horns, shooting sticks, restorative flasks etc.  And of course, many,many stuffed animals, including in the Room of Trophies, Le Souillot, which is a wall-mounted animatronic albino boar head by contemporary French artist Nicolas Darrot, that speaks [snarls] to museum visitors in French.  The weirdest thing for me was the Owl Room, which appeared to be a composed of owl skins [I sneaked a photo].

Owl Room

The lighting was very odd too; in some places almost pitch black, which made the exhibits hard to see [perhaps mercifully] and the light fittings were also artistically sylvan

Museum lights

All in all a rather odd experience.  Interestingly enough, no insects!  Before you all condemn the practice of hunting (and I include fishing in this, although the museum did not) it is worth remembering that if it were not for the Norman Conquest and the fact that William the Conqueror loved hunting so much that he instigated the Law of the Forest, we would not have large tracts of what became Royal Forests such as Epping and the New Forest.  Given that and the fact that his ancestors and other members of the nobility from then and to the modern day, also loved hunting, shooting and fishing meant that rather than our forest cover being reduced to zero by the time of the industrial revolution, the UK still had 5% forest cover by 1899 including our much valued ancient and semi-natural woodlands.  Some of us may not approve of the ethics of hunting animals for pleasure but it did have positive effects for our wildlife and countryside [perhaps a subject for a future post?].  To this day, large landowners provide funding for the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust which carries out incredibly useful and important ecological research and helps make our countryside a better place for wildlife of all sorts, including insects.  In fact, in their former guise as the Game Conservancy Trust they were doing very valuable entomological work investigating the value of beetle banks and conservation headlands in the 1970s and 1980s.

Do I have a take-home message? What was the reasoning behind my choice of title for this post? I guess that what I have tried to say, hopefully successfully, is that despite our increasingly urbanised existence, a significant proportion of the human race still has a fascination for nature.  As ecologists it is our duty to see that this fascination is properly channelled; towards conservation, not just preservation and exploitation.  So rather than enslave nature we should embrace it and nurture it.

mother earth cartoon

Post script

Coincidentally just as I was getting ready to publish this post I came across a letter in The Daily Telegraph of 29th May, where the British Association for Shooting and Conservation was praised for its role in the conservation of British wildlife.

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Magic roundabouts – postscript

I have just had the opportunity to take some photographs of what used to be the most biodiverse roundabout in Bracknell, the Sports Centre Roundabout.  Just before Christmas I reported that there had been a large number of trees and shrubs felled, many of them native, reducing what was a very heterogeneous habitat to a much more uniform one.  You can see the before and after pictures below.

Sports Centre Roundabout

Sports Centre Roundabout

Sports Centre Roundabout felled 2012 - Copy      Sports Centre Roundabout felled 2012a - Copy

It is a shame that it is winter and that the leaves have fallen, but I think that you can get the picture.  it is particularly sad as we have recently published a paper showing that native trees are particularly useful on roundabouts for both insects and birds (Helden et al., 2012).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Helden, A. J., Stamp, G. C. &Leather, S. R. (2012). Urban biodiversity: comparison of insect assemblages on native and non-native trees.  . Urban Ecosystems 15: 611-624. http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/staff/profile/files/uploaded/Helden&Leather2004.pdf

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Magic roundabouts – not just traffic calming devices

Roundabouts or traffic circles as they are known in some parts of the world, are a common feature of modern life.  They can range greatly in size; some are big enough to house small communities such as the Shepherd & Flock roundabout on the outskirts of Farnham, Surrey, which has it’s own pub,

Shepherd & Flock Farnham

whilst others are simple grass covered circles, such as the one shown below on the outskirts of Bracknell, Berkshire.  Others, even if lacking pubs, may have a mixture of different plants present, some even with mature trees on them, such as the Sports Centre roundabout also in Bracknell.

Simple roundabout   Diverse roundabout

Traditionally, roundabouts have been thought of as simple devices to regulate the flow of traffic and were usually circular raised areas of tarmac, stone, concrete or brick.  More recently however, town and city councils began to add plants and/or artwork.   Some of my favourites in this latter category are found in southern France as shown below or in the title picture of my blog site.

DSCF1038DSCF1036

Ecologically speaking however, roundabouts are even more interesting.  For almost fifteen years, I and a number of my students, from undergraduate to post-graduate, have been investigating the ecology of roundabouts and other green spaces in the town of Bracknell, Berkshire.  What started as a purely pedagogic exercise (Leather & Helden, 2005a), turned into a voyage of discovery and a realisation that roundabouts are, and can be, great sources of biodiversity (Helden & Leather, 2004), and in addition, could perhaps act as nature reserves (Leather & Helden, 2005b).  With close attention to mowing regimes (Helden & Leather, 2004) and increasing the proportion of native trees and other plants on them, it is not only insect diversity that is enhanced, but birds also (Helden et al., 2012).

We have found that roundabouts behave very similarly to biogeographical islands, i.e. the bigger they are and the more diverse the habitats present, the more diverse and interesting the fauna that can be found on them.  For example, we found the rare and endangered bug (Hemiptera) Gonocerus acuteangulatus, alive and well on one of the roundabouts and amusingly, another species, Athysanus argentarius, usually found in coastal locations.  Perhaps the salt from winter gritting operations fooled it.

Gonocerus acuteangulatus

Athysanus

Roundabouts may not be the equivalent of tropical forests but, they and other urban features such as suburban gardens, as demonstrated by Kevin Gaston and colleagues in a series of ground-breaking papers arising from the BUGS project http://www.bugs.group.shef.ac.uk/ in Sheffield and Jennifer Owen in her 30-year study of her Leicester garden (Owen, 2010), are immensely valuable tools for enhancing and conserving biodiversity in our increasingly impoverished world. We have much more to report, from bees, to butterflies and even woodlice.   Watch this space for future instalments.

Helden, A. J. & Leather, S. R. (2004). Biodiversity on urban roundabouts – Hemiptera, management and the species-area relationship. Basic and Applied Ecology 5: 367-377. https://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/staff/profile/files/uploaded/Helden & Leather2004.pdf

Helden, A. J., Stamp, G. C. & Leather, S. R. (2012). Urban biodiversity: comparison of insect assemblages on native and non-native trees.  Urban Ecosystems 15: 611-624. https://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/staff/profile/files/uploaded/Helden_et_al_2012.pdf

Leather, S. R. & Helden, A. J. (2005a). Magic roundabouts?  Teaching conservation in schools and universities. Journal of Biological Education 39: 102-107. http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/staff/profile/files/uploaded/Leather_&_Helden_JBE_2005.pdf

Leather, S. R. & Helden, A. J. (2005). Roundabouts: our neglected nature reserves? Biologist 52: 102-106. http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/staff/profile/files/uploaded/Leather_&_Helden_Biologist_2005.pdf

Owen, J. (2010 ) Wildlife of a Garden: A Thirty Year Study,  Royal Horticultural Society, London

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