Category Archives: Science writing

Let us prey – journals that aren’t all they claim to be

In 1980 when I published my first paper (Leather, 1980), the publishing world was very much simpler place than it is now.  Journals were largely owned by learned societies, and in many cases, published by them as well; in the case of my paper, The Netherlands Entomological Society.  More importantly for me and many other scientists, it mostly cost you nothing to publish your paper. There were NO page charges or associated publication costs in the UK and mainland Europe, unless you wanted a colour plate, in which case the charges were astronomical.  On the other side of the Atlantic it was different, US journals did want you pay, both to publish and to read.

Since my first paper appeared almost forty years ago, there have been huge changes in scientific publishing, the number of journals published by the Learned Societies has more than trebled and the number of non-society publish for profit commercial journals has expanded at an even greater rate. Since the early 1990s there has been a demand by authors, readers and research councils for Open Access (Laakso et al., 2009).  Whilst this may be seen to be good for science and those authors that can afford to pay to publish, it has also had a markedly negative effect, something that those early well-intentioned advocates of Open Access somewhat naively overlooked.  The direct result of the pay to publish, free to access movement, has been the rise of the predatory journal, or as Chen & Björk (2015) in a somewhat mealy-mouthed way put it, ‘open access journals with questionable marketing and peer review practices’, the numbers of which have, sadly, reached epic heights. How much of a problem however, are these predatory journals?

On average I receive two or three emails a week addressing me in very complimentary terms saying how honoured they (the Editors) would be to have my contribution in their journal.  These range from invitations from journals whose titles bear absolutely no

Rather unspecific as to what my expertise in the field of ophthalmology is or what publications they base their assessment on.

no resemblance to the fields I work in to journals that have titles that are a little more relevant.

I never knew that working on aphids and ladybirds qualified me as a mental health specialist 😊

At least the subject area and topic match but the overblown invitation is something of a giveaway.

 To me, invitations like this are immediately recognisable as scams.  To more junior/inexperienced scientists this is not always the case, especially when the invitation comes from a ‘journal’ as illustrated in my third example.  When asked by my PhD students as to whether the flattering invitation they have received is for real, I gently explain to them that no reputable journal acts in such a way and there are a number of tell-tale signs that they can use to sort the wheat from the chaff.

  • Receiving an invitation to publish in a journal. Most legitimate journals have enough submissions as it is, they don’t need to solicit any more.
  • Have you heard of the journal and is it relevant to your research?
  • Overblown and poor use of English in the invitation
  • A promise of an unrealistic turn-around time from submission to publication
  • What does the journal website look like, although that said, some predatory journals now have quite impressive web sites listing real academics as Editorial Board Members. I hasten to add that their names are being used unbeknownst to them.
  • If in doubt, check Beall’s List which is a really useful guide to the world of predatory publishng and inlcudes some surprising entries

What surprises me is that people do respond to these invitations.  But then there are people who believe that they have been selected to help invest millions on behalf of the widow of the former President of Fantasyland and either send their bank details to the financial representative of the widow or in some cases turn up at airports with a suitcase full of cash.  It turns out that there are two types of academic who publish in predatory journals, the young and the naïve, mainly from Africa and Asia or more cynical individuals who are banking on the naivety of the people assessing their publication list for promotion or tenure reasons, not realising that although the journals have an international address they are, in real terms, worthless publications (Xia et al., 2015).

Even worse in my opinion, are the book publishers such as Lambert Academic Publishing, who contact the authors of newly submitted PhDs and invite them to publish their thesis as a book. If they accept, what seems to them, the flattering opportunity and they have not already published their chapters as papers, they are no longer able to do so because of copyright law. A truly cruel thing to do to someone on the threshold of an academic career.

My advice to anyone new to publishing and who has the funds and desire to go for Open Access, is preferably to stick with society journals, so that you are helping foster your discipline. If, however, you want to divert funds from your subject area, use those journals that are published by the major publishing houses, which although in it primarily for the money, do at least adhere to proper and robust editorial and peer review standards.

Another burgeoning problem is that of fake conferences, where an academic receives an invitation to present a keynote or invited talk at a greatly reduced rate at an international conference. On closer inspection these turn out, despite the long list of international academics listed as part of the organising committee, to be yet another scam. I have been surprised to find myself listed as an organiser for a few of these.  I am not sure what you can do about these, as emailing the scammers has, in my experience, no effect.

if you discount the increasing number of spam invitations clogging up your email in-box, predatory journals are mainly a minor nuisance for us academics, the biggest problem being when you are doing a literature search and have to sift out the crap.  In the long-term, work published in the predatory journals will mostly go unrecognised and uncited by the relevant academic communities.  The problem arises when a non-expert member of the public or worse still, a journalist comes across what looks like a legitimate paper when searching the internet and takes what they read as gospel.  After all, it has been published in a journal, it must be right.   That is when the trouble starts and that is when it becomes a problem for us all ☹

References

Laakso, M., Welling, P., Bukvova, H., Nyman, L., Björk, B.C. & Hedlund, T. (2009) The development of open access journal publishing from 1993 to 2009. PLoS ONE 6(6): e20961. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0020961

Leather, S.R. (1980) Egg survival in the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padiEntomologia experimentals et applicata, 27, 96-97.

Shen, C.  & Björk, B.C. (2015) ‘Predatory’ open access: a longitudinal study of article volumes and market characteristics. BMC Medicine, 13:230 

Xia, J., Harmon, L., Connolly, G., Donnelly, R.M., Anderson, R. & Howard H. (2015) Who publishes in “predatory” journals? Journal of the Association of Information Science and Technology, 66, 1406-1417.

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Keeping up with the literature – an unwinnable battle?

I was going to write about predatory journals* but got distracted by tidying my office 🙂

Pre- and post-annual holiday office tidy

Whilst triaging the many pieces of paper that littered my office floor, table and desks, I realised that my “papers to read pile” had,

One that failed the triage, too fly-blown even for a keen entomologist 🙂

like an aphid, not only multiplied but spread itself across several locations. Once collated and stacked neatly into a single entity I was shocked to see that I was now faced with over 30 cm of interesting and potentially useful literature, to peruse, digest, annotate and add to my filing system.

The paper mountain – an awesome spectacle or should that be awful?

I am, as regular readers will know, no longer in the first flush of youth**.  Forty-five years ago as undergraduates, my generation went to the library to read physical journals, making notes as we went along and, very, very occasionally, spending money for a photocopy.   As a PhD student this was also how we operated, although we had by then learnt the art of reading Current Contents and the appropriate CABI Abstracts and sending a reprint request card to the authors of papers whose titles and abstracts had particularly caught our attention. We also had access to inter-library loans and depending on your supervisor, access to and the budget to enable you to photocopy older papers found while browsing journals in the library.  Once read, the paper was reverentially placed in a filing cabinet, especially if it had been signed by an eminent luminary, and the more organised of

My filing cabinets – all drawers full

D-K; A few of the 33 record card storage boxes that help clutter my office

us, entered the details, including our own keywords, on a record card which were then stored in a record card storage box, or card index system as we called it 🙂

 

Record cards ready for the details to be entered to my EndNote data base and subsequent filing in the appropriate storage box.  I prefer my own keywords as they often differ from those supplied by the authors.

In those days there were far fewer journals, the learned societies that I was, and am still a member of, the Association of Applied Biologists, the Royal Entomological Society, and the British Ecological Society, published one, two, and three journals respectively.  Keeping up with the literature, although in those days without the aid of search engines and email alerts, was fairly easy.  The biggest hindrance being the lack of response from some authors to your laboriously penned postcard reprint request.  Now those three societies publish three, seven and seven journals, all available on-line and two of the British Ecological Society’s journals don’t even have print copies.  On top of that, there are a plethora of commercial publishers producing huge numbers of journals.  You think of a subject and there will be a journal, and then there are the predatory journals to add to the deluge L Things have certainly changed over the last forty years, and the library and Current Contents have been replaced by email alerts, on-line tables of contents with their snazzy graphical abstracts to tempt me to download the full version pdf with every intention of reading it later. Now, as a creature of habit and a great believer in the belts and braces approach to data storage, I keep both physical and electronic versions of all the papers that I download, hence the paper mountain in my office and my guilt complex about being behind with the literature.  I, like many of you, get irritated when I read a paper dealing with stuff I work on and find I have not been cited or as a referee notice that relevant literature has not got a mention.  Now, I’m a great believer in giving credit when it’s due (Leather, 2004, 2014), and have of course blown off steam about it previously on this blog, but even I am starting to have second thoughts about keeping au fait with the literature both past and present, or in the case of some journals, future J

I am sure that like me, when you sit down to write a paper you do a literature search.  In the old days I was pretty confident that I was right up to date and that my trusty card index system computer-based data base would give me all the references I need.   Now though, especially, given the unread paper mountain sitting on my office floor and the pile of record cards still to be input to EndNote™, I know, that I am, sadly, not likely to have all the relevant papers to hand, so like everyone else I hit Google Scholar and Web of Science.

Papers I read to write my last two papers – still to be added to my card index system

This of course generates another pile of papers, albeit ones I have read, but lacking a record card and no presence on my data base L  The latter problem I could solve by using the EndNote™ download function but that goes against my neurotic need to have my own keywords and writing record cards for every paper I read while researching material for the paper in progress would slow the writing process hugely which is already under pressure from my other duties, teaching, student supervision, administration and all the other demands that impinge on the typical academic’s life.

In conclusion, I think and it makes me sad to write this, but the days of putting aside what look like interesting papers to read later, is no longer viable and I have now reached the stage where I can only cope with accessing and reading the literature needed for a work in progress. The battle has been lost L

References

Leather, S.R. (2004) Reinventing the wheel – on the dangers of taxon parochialism and shallow reference trawling! Basic and Applied Ecology, 5, 309-311.

Leather, S.R. (2014) How Stephen Jay Gould wrote Macbeth – not giving credit where it’s due: lazy referencing and ignoring precedence. Ideas in Ecology & Evolution, 7, 30-40.

 

*

I am sure I will eventually get round to writing it 🙂

**

Externally at any rate, internally I am still a youthful 17-year old 🙂

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Waifs and strays – those papers nobody cites (or reads?)

I guess, like most, if not all of us, who publish papers, we hope that not only will our papers be read, but that they will be cited by others, not just ourselves.  From a purely practical point, it is after all, how academics impress promotion boards or prospective employers. From a more personal point of view, the papers we publish represent a lot of effort, not just in gathering the data or having the idea, but also the nightmare of turning it into deathless prose and then the battle with editors and reviewers.  We all have a few papers that we hope will make our name and perhaps become a citation classic, although as Stephen Heard has pointed out not just once, but twice, our favourites are not always everyone else’s, with some papers significantly failing to meet expectations.  A recent article in Times Higher Education, showed that in some disciplines, notably in the arts, 77% of papers were still uncited five years after publication and even in the sciences, about 40% of papers suffered a similar fate.  For ecologists, the hot area is ecological modelling, with only 6% of papers remaining uncited after five years. As someone with an advanced case of imposter syndrome, this is really quite reassuring; although I have twelve papers that are uncited (according to Web of Science), they only represent 6% of my output (and I am not a modeller 😊), of which only one dates back to 2012 (0.5%).  I do, however, have another 34 papers, that although they have been cited, have been cited fewer than five times, 17% of my output, or, if I add in my never been cited papers, 23% of my work has had relatively little impact on the ecological and entomological world.

Despite this, I was curious about what, if anything, these unwanted (=uncited) waifs and strays had in common, and how they differed from my most cited papers; absolutely nothing to with the fact that Stephen Heard only had four zero papers, all of which were recent papers 😊 In Steve’s analysis he looked at time since publication and found a positive correlation, his oldest papers had accrued the most citations.  I have a somewhat larger corpus of work than Steve, so concentrated my analysis on my top twenty papers.  There was absolutely no relationship (Figure 1), all pretty much of a muchness apart from the massive outlier, but even with that removed, still nada.

Figure 1. My top twenty papers.  The massive outlier is my single Annual Review of Entomology paper.

My least cited papers, do however, show a relationship between years since publication and the paltry number of citations that they have received (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The foot of the table papers.

If I combine the two data sets and leave out my star paper, there is a relationship between time since publication and the number of citations gained (Figure 3), so I expect, but I could be wrong, and I am not going to invest the time in finding out, that if I analysed all my papers that there would be a similar relationship as that shown by Steve’s analysis.

Figure 3. Relationship between time since publication and number of citations accrued for my most and least cited papers (excluding the massive outlier).

So, what makes a paper a waif, or reversing the question, a star?  Editors, of which I am one, are great fans of Reviews, believing, usually correctly, that they garner a lot of Impact Factor points, authors perhaps less so, as they tend to take away citations from your other papers. After all, who writes a review without citing themselves? 😊 The other thing that helps a paper get cited is their title, Andrew Hendry over on Eco-Evo Evo-Eco suggests that two main factors come into play. The first is that those papers that have a very good “fill in the box” titles are much more likely to be cited than those with more specific titles. He points out that a paper he and colleagues published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Biology paper is the only one in the literature with Eco-Evolutionary Dynamics being the sole words in the title so, any paper writing about eco-evolutionary dynamics can use that citation to “fill in the citation box” after their first sentence on the topic.  The second inflation factor he cites, is that citations beget citations. When “filling in the box”, authors tend to cite papers that other authors used to fill in the same box.  In other words, authors tend to be lazy and use what other people have cited in their introductions.  This is not something to be encouraged, as it can lead to people being wrongly attributed; I have raged against this practice in the past.  Stephen Heard over at Scientist See Squirrel reckons that his most original papers are cited less because they report research from “outside the box” and most people are working “inside the box”.  Dorothy Bishop over at Bishopblog suggests that the best way to bury your work is to put it in a book chapter in an edited book.

So, what about my stars and strays?  My most cited paper is indeed a review, and for an entomologist, being in that most prestigious of review journals, the Annual Review of Entomology, it is no surprise to me that it tops my top ten chart, with just over 1000 cites.  Incidentally, number 4 (Leather et al., 1999) and number 7 (Leather et al., 1989) in my top 10, are also reviews.  My second most cited paper (Leather, 1988), is also, I guess, a review of sorts, albeit very short, although I prefer to think of it as more of a synthesis cum speculation paper.

What about the duds, those that no-one cites, not even me.  If I ignore the most recent papers, those published this year (2018) and last 2017), as being unlikely to have had time to be read, let alone cited, then all my zero papers are either editorials or commentary papers (e.g. Leather, 2014).  Don’t let yourself be fooled by the hope that a commentary paper, even with a sexy title and published in a top-notch journal will get cited.  My effort in Journal of Animal Ecology in early 2015 being a prime example, even the magic words, “climate change” failing to elicit a single citation to date (Leather (2015).

It is hard to see a pattern in my other lesser cited papers, they don’t seem to be markedly different from my more frequently cited papers, being published in my usual journals and covering the same subject matter, aphids, agricultural and forest pests and biological control in the main.  I confess to being very disappointed in the low number of citations to my aphid cannibalism paper (Cooper et al., 2014) especially as it got a lot of media attention, but I guess it falls into the too original box, not many people work on aphid cannibalism 😊

Sadly, it seems that Steve Heard is right, despite the journal blurbs, we don’t value originality, and the message for both journal editors and authors, is clear, if you want citations, publishing reviews and sticking to well ploughed fields is the safest bet.

References

Cooper, L.C., Desjonqueres, C. & Leather, S.R. (2014) Cannibalism in the pea aphid, Acyrthosiphon pisum. Insect Science, 21, 750-758.

Leather, S.R. (1988) Size, reproductive potential and fecundity in insects – things aren’t as simple as they seem. Oikos, 51, 386-389.

Leather, S.R. (2014: Modifying glucosinolates in oilseed rape – Giamoustaris & Mithen (1995): a top-twenty paper in the Annals of Applied Biology. Annals of Applied Biology, 164, 318-319.

Leather, S.R. (2015) Title: Onwards and upwards – aphid flight trends follow climate change. Journal of Animal Ecology, 84, 1-3.

Leather, S.R., Walters, K.F.A. & Dixon, A, F.G. (1989) Factors determining the pest status of the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum-padi (L) (Hemiptera, Aphididae), in Europe – a study and review.  Bulletin of Entomological Research, 79, 345-360.

Leather, S.R., Day, K.R. & Salisbury, A.N. (1999) The biology and ecology of the large pine weevil, Hylobius abietis (Coleoptera: Curculionidae): a problem of dispersal? Bulletin of Entomological Research, 89, 3-16.

 

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Bringing ecology blogging into the scientific fold: measuring reach and impact of science community blogs

At the end of the year there is a tendency for some scientific bloggers to take advantage of the statistics provided by their host platform to produce a round-up of their year and to compare their figures with previous years.  I too am one of the number crunchers and revel in the data available 🙂  One of the frustrating things, for me at any rate, is the lack of a benchmark, how are you doing compared with other bloggers?  This year I decided to try and get some data and approached Jeff Ollerton to see if he would let me look at his 2016 data, which he kindly did and this allowed me to produce a comparative graph.  Much wants more.  As an entomologist an n of 2 is small beer.  I needed more data to satisfy my craving.  I also talk to our postgraduate students about the value of social media, including blogging, but rely mainly on personal anecdotes.  What was needed was something concrete to support my assertions.

I subscribe to, and follow a number of blogs, but there are a few that I feel are somewhat similar in their aims and scope to mine.  One is Jeff Ollerton’s Biodiversity Blog, the others are Dynamic Ecology, Ecology Bits, Ecology is Not a Dirty Word, Scientist Sees Squirrel and Small Pond Science.  Jeff is also a follower of these blogs and when I suggested that it would be a good idea to try to write something about the value of blogging to academics and why our employees should support us in our endeavours he promptly suggested that we get in touch with those bloggers.  I couldn’t see a downside to this so first approached Manu Saunders of Ecology is Not a Dirty Word and Steve Heard of Scientist Sees Squirrel as these were the two bloggers with whom I had interacted most.  Steve then helped bring the others on board and that is how it all began (at least that is how I remember it).

The Blogging Consortium

Manu very kindly took charge of the data collation and I made a first stab at drafting the paper in mid-January.  Steve did a very good job of rewriting it and Meg Duffy (Dynamic Ecology) Jeff Ollerton and Amy Parachnowitsch (Small Pond Science) got into the swing of things as well.  By the end of January we were really motoring and bouncing ideas of each other and the rapidly growing draft.  As with all non-mainstream activities, the day jobs got in the way and we had a couple of months where very little happened.  I felt that things were slipping a little and in the spring had another go at the draft and this stimulated another flurry of action from what we were now calling the blogging consortium, with major contributions from Meg, Jeff and Steve, which put us all on our mettle and something that was beginning to look like a completed paper appearing.  By May Manu had got us all working on a Google Doc document which greatly improved our efficiency.  As we were now heading toward June, some further analysis was needed and Manu bravely volunteered to become the lead author and general butt kicker 🙂 It worked, and by the beginning of July we were ready to submit and had started discussing potential journals.  As the paper was all about science communication we were very keen to get it in a high-profile Open Access journal, but one that didn’t charge an arm and a leg as our paper had no grant income associated with it.  After a couple of enquiries Manu found a journal that fitted our requirements and was willing to have a look at it and on July 20th 2017 Manu submitted our paper to Royal Society Open Science.  Six weeks later we were euphoric!

Oh frabjous day!

The comments of the reviewers were some of the best I have ever seen, and I submitted my first paper in 1979 🙂  I have never had the word limpid applied to my writing, it just shows what can be achieved by cooperation.   I can’t resist sharing some of the comments from the reviewers

Associate Editor Comments to Author:

 

Both reviewers are very positive about this manuscript and indeed I agree with them. It is an important piece and a very inspirational read.

Reviewer: 1

At one time, my favourite t-shirt slogan was “More people are reading this t–shirt than your blog” – those days are clearly gone as this paper shows, at least in ecology! ……..Their thoughts on citing blogs will, I suspect, launch many posts and comments on their respective blogs. I think this paper will be an important contribution to what is very much a developing field. I have no comments to add and, for the first time for me, I recommend acceptance without revision.

Reviewer: 2

 This is a fantastic and much needed piece that deserves to be published widely. ……….The authors clearly state this upfront: ‘academics wish to understand whether particular activities influence various audiences’. I command the authors for this rare instance of honesty and for aiming to publish this manuscript with the best academic journals in their discipline. The manuscript is limpid and very well written. The style is engaging and the results significant for the wider academic community. I fully support its publication.

 

These last nine months working on the paper were personally very rewarding and to me, a vindication that becoming a blogger was a good decision.  It was also a huge buzz to work with such a dynamic group of bloggers.  I think Steve sums it up for all of us in this Tweet

If you are not yet a science community blogger or don’t think that they have a place in mainstream science, please take the time to read our paper which you can find here.  It won’t cost you anything but time 🙂 and if any reporters are reading this – here courtesy of Manu, is our press release.

Blogs are no longer simply online personal journals. We define an overlooked category of blogs that holds immense value for the scientific community: science community blogs are written by practising scientists for scientists. As academics and active bloggers, we use data from our own blogs to show how science community blogs are a valuable outreach and professional development tool. Blogs are also a citable primary source with potential to contribute to scientific knowledge. It’s time for blogs to be accepted as a standalone medium with huge benefits for individual scientists and the science community as a whole.   

 

Post script

If you want to know what my fellow authors thought about our collaboration you can find Manu’s story here, Steve’s here, Amy and Terry’s here and Meghan’s here.

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The bane of PhD students– the General Discussion

This year has been a bit of a bumper PhD submission year for me, five of my PhD students have come to the end of their time, and have submitted, or will soon be submitting their theses.  In my experience, 48 successful students and counting, it is relatively easy to reassure PhD students that their worries about the structure of their thesis, the appropriateness of their analysis and how many tables and figures they should have, are not justified. Many of them already have papers in print or in press by the writing-up stage so they only need a little bit of reassurance about the quality of their work.  The bit that seems to worry them most is the General Discussion.  My advice to them was, and is, the same as that given to me by my supervisor 37 years ago, “spread your wings, sell your work, don’t be afraid to speculate a little, enjoy yourself and make sure you don’t just summarise your thesis”. 

This uncertainty about how to handle the General Discussion is not just a foible of my students.  My impression over the last few years, borne out by the increasing frequency on which I comment on the shortcomings of the General Discussion of the PhD theses that I examine (now more than sixty) is that General Discussions are not what they used to be.  I too often find myself reading a series of lightly edited chapter abstracts, which in my opinion is not a General Discussion. Am I, however, suffering from grumpy old git syndrome or were General Discussions more general in the days of my youth?  How for example, does my General Discussion stack up compared with that of the modern-day PhD student? Did I practice what I now preach?

I do of course still have a copy of my thesis (Leather, 1980), two to be precise. Both my parents were biologists, albeit botanists, so I felt obliged to give them a copy, which I retrieved when clearing my Mother’s house after her death.  The upshot being that I have no excuse for not being able to find a copy from which to do a critical appraisal of my General Discussion. My thesis was written before Word Processors existed, and when computers occupied their own buildings. It was typewritten (by me using a Silver Reed A3 typewriter) and so no electronic copies are available.  As a consequence, I have had to scan the parts relevant to my story; hence the poor quality of the illustrations 🙂

At this point, I should point out that although I was trained as an agricultural entomologist and my PhD was about an agricultural pest, the bird cherry-oat aphid, my supervisor, Tony Dixon, was and still is, an ecologist.  Our lab was thus a mixture of pure and applied ecologists, some of whom weren’t even entomologists 🙂 This meant that I was exposed to a wider range of ideas than if I had just been in a lab of only applied entomologists.  Despite not being overly mathematical or theoretically inclined, I’m pretty much an empirical ecologist (field and lab), I was very impressed by the late, great E.C. Pielou, to the extent that I bought her book Ecological Diversity and read it cover to cover*.  Working with a host alternating aphid, I immediately latched on to her definition of seasonality as being synonymous with environmental variability (Pielou, 1975) and decided to coin a new term, seasonability** .

An excellent start, the title page doesn’t even mention the words General Discussion 🙂

 

I defined seasonability as being “the pre-programmed response to predictable environmental change” in  my terms this meant that the organism, in this case my aphid, anticipates the trend in conditions, something I, and a more mathematically inclined colleague did actually show a couple of years later (Ward et al., 1984).  I then drew the analogy that an aphid clone could be equated with Harper’s visualisation of a plant being constructed of a series of genetically identical modular units (Harper, 1977), i.e. each individual within the clone, although being genetically identical has a specific (and seasonal) function I also managed to slip in a reference to my other ecological hero, Dan Janzen at this point (Janzen, 1977) 🙂

I see that I was keen to introduce new terms, as my second figure shows.  I was amused to see in figure legend that I describe the x-axis as food quality but label it as host quality in the

A pretty lousy figure, but remember we had to draw our figures by hand in those days. Here I attempt to coin another new usage, this time refluence, to indicate the flowing back of the clone to the primary host.

figure, doing something that in later years I have waxed wrathfully against (Leather & Awmack, 1998; Awmack & Leather, 2002).  In this case, food (nutritional) quality is the term I should have used although I could argue that the build-up of natural enemies on the secondary grassy hosts and the predictable absence of natural enemies on the primary host, could justify the use of the term host quality, but that would be post hoc sophistry and best avoided 🙂

I was obviously also very keen to introduce new meanings to words as my third figure shows.

Yet another attempt to coin a new meaning for an existing word

 

At no point however, did I summarise what was in each chapter.  I referred in passing to one…”It is now fairly certain from the evidence presented on the effects of growth stage (Chapter 4) that..” and the four figures are unique to my General Discussion, even the two that contained data points, so I can pat myself on the back in that respect.  Although I did not extend my discussion to other taxa, I did range far and wide across the aphid world so I think that fulfilled the brief of spreading my wings, and boy did I try and sell my work.

I also notice that the 25-year-old me tried very hard to use a different sort of language in his General Discussion such as, “lends further credence to the concept of seasonability” which is followed in the next sentence by “..when the bursting of the buds of the tree host or resurgence of sap in the perennial herbaceous host, herald the start of egg hatch”. Yes, I actually used the word herald, but then, this is the guy who prefaced his thesis with these two quotes.

The Steinbeck quote (Doc from Sweet Thursday, does still sums up pretty much what I want to do with my life.

 

So what does the 62-year-old Professor of Entomology think about the efforts of his younger self?  I may be slightly biased, but I think it is a reasonable effort and as an examiner I wouldn’t have any major problems with it although I suspect that I would be tempted to have a gentle dig at the attempts to coin new terms. Overall I would rate it as B+.

In case you wondered , although I never published, or even tried to publish my General Discussion, all the ideas, except for the terms which were petty awful, (or naff as we would say in the UK), have made it into print at some time.

To reiterate, my advice to PhD students struggling with your General Discussion is “spread your wings, be bold, sell your work, don’t be afraid to speculate a little, enjoy yourself and most importantly,  definitely make sure you don’t just summarise your thesis”

References

Awmack, C.S. & Leather, S.R. (2002) Host plant quality and fecundity in herbivorous insects. Annual Review of Entomology, 47, 817-844.

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

Leather, S.R. & Awmack, C.S. (1998). The effects of qualitative changes of individuals in the population dynamics of insects. In Insect Populations In Theory and in Practice (ed. by J.P. Dempster & I.F.G. McLean), pp. 187-206. Kluwer, Dordrecht.

Harper, J.L. (1977) Plant Population Biology, Academic Press, London.

Janzen, D. H. (1977) What are dandelions and aphids? American Naturalist, 111, 586-589.

Pielou, E.C. (1975) Ecological Diversity, John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York.

Ward, S.A., Leather, S.R., & Dixon, A.F.G. (1984) Temperature prediction and the timing of sex in aphids. Oecologia, 62, 230-233.

 

*I also bought her book Mathematical Ecology but didn’t manage to read it cover to cover 🙂

**I had great hopes of getting my General Discussion published and my new term being adopted by ecologists around the world 🙂

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Challenges and rewards – Why I started, and continue blogging

If you are reading this article this afternoon (13th September 2017) it is quite possible that I am at this very moment giving my talk about the challenges and rewards of blogging to a live audience at ENTO’17 in Newcastle 🙂  In my talk, I began by explaining how it was that I became a fan of social media, first Twitter and then as a blogger.  I have already written about my conversion in an earlier post and how much I feel that social media adds to academic life, so I will not bore you with the whole story again.

  Suffice it to say pre-Twitter and pre-blogging I was writing a lot, but mainly to the wrong audience.

The second part of my talk attempted to answer the following questions. As an academic why should you blog?  What are the benefits?  What are the risks?  What are the challenges? Is it part of your day job?  More importantly, how can you convince your university or research institute that you should spend office time blogging?  What follows is the ‘script’ of my talk.

I started blogging because I felt that the way I was trying to get the importance and wonder of entomology across to non-entomologists was too limited.  I was not interacting with enough people outside the field, I needed to widen the scope of my activities.  Yes I was going into schools and talking to natural history societies, gardening clubs and on occasions youth groups and organisations like the Women’s Institute or the U3A, but I was only talking to tens of people. I wanted (needed) to talk to hundreds, even thousands of people to feel that I had a chance of getting my message across that the future of the natural world lay in an understanding of the invertebrate world and not of the “large charismatic mega-fauna”.  Hence my leap into the world of Twitter, and certainly with a following of over 5000, I am now potentially talking to thousands of people, according to my analytics my Tweets earn nearly 5 000 impressions a day.   The trouble with Tweets is that by their very nature they are transient and flow down the Twitter timeline to obscurity at a tremendous rate.  They are also not easily reference-able.  A blog on the other hand, if hosted on a reputable site, is as permanent as anything is these days, and as each post has a unique address, also has the advantage of being able to be linked to and found by search engines.  It was thus a logical step to launch a blog which is what I did, and Don’t Forget the Roundabouts was born.

A blog is born

I did not take this step lightly.  As the point of starting a blog was to make an impact, it could not be anonymous.  The content of the blog needed the backing of my professional reputation to hopefully give it the stamp of reliability and authority.  I was, and still am, putting my reputation on the line every time I post a blog article. It was thus with some sense of trepidation that I went public.  Writing a blog is a whole different thing to submitting a paper to a journal where you are subjected to peer review and your readership is pretty much limited to people who are very similar to yourself and whom have access to scientific journals.  Anyone with access to the internet can find, read and comment on a blog. A scary thought.  I felt it was worth it and still do. There were two other reasons besides my wish to increase the range of my outreach and to increase the level of interactions, that made the idea of starting a blog seem logical.

Reasons to start a blog

As a teenager I loved English, both language and literature (I still do, I have a personal library of over 10 000 books) and even had aspirations of becoming a novelist.  As those of us who have been around for a longish time will know, as you become more successful at getting grants and increasing the size of your research group, you get further and further away from the bench and/or field and do more and more ‘editing’ and commenting on other people’s writing.  In my case this had resulted in me finding it more and more daunting when faced with a blank sheet of paper or an empty word processing document. I saw the prospect of producing blog articles as a way of getting back into the habit of starting from scratch and also of learning a more relaxed and accessible style ready for my retirement plans of writing “popular”* entomology books. Finally, I thought it might be fun, my late father often voiced the opinion (especially when I was a teenager) that I “loved the sound of my own voice”.  Writing a blog does indeed give me the opportunity to sound off now and then and I make all sorts of fantastic discoveries when I am doing the background research for an article.  I freely confess, I enjoy writing my blog immensely.  It really is great fun.

Is it all positive?  Of course there are challenges, it would be foolish to deny it.  Finding the time to manage a blog can be a problem.  I am not retired, I have a full-time academic position, running a research group, editing journals, reviewing papers and grant proposals, writing and co-writing scientific papers, sitting on committees, and of course teaching students, both undergraduates and postgraduates.   Writing a blog is yet another call on my time, but one I am happy to heed.   I do blog writing and research at work

Enough to put you off?

and at home.  My contract does actually have a paragraph that mentions outreach so I feel justified in doing this.  Another challenge that might seem daunting is that of coming up with topics to write about.  Before I went public, I wrote five articles and filled an A4 piece of paper with potential topics that I thought would be fun to write about and of interest to others.  In reality I found that just living life provides topics enough to allow me to produce an article every couple of weeks.  There is always something that sparks an idea for a potential blog article, be it a scientific paper I read, something in the news or even as has happened twice now, a piece of fiction.

A challenge to some bloggers is that of motivation.   Unless you happen to be paid to be a blogger or make a living from it, then it can be hard to make the time and take the effort to write something regularly.  Luckily for me, I am somewhat competitive, even when the only other entrant in the race is myself.  I set a target of two articles a month but regularly find myself doing three, just to make sure that I am ahead of schedule and also I get quite a buzz on ‘publication’ day when the daily view total shows a spike in response to your activity 🙂

The publication day spike

 I have to admit that the fact that WordPress generates a number of statistics that you can track and compare, gives me plenty of motivation 🙂

The other challenge which I alluded to is the slightly anxious feeling that you get every time you publish an article.  Firstly as I mentioned earlier, because I am blogging as me, I really, really want what I say to be correct.  I find that I do as much, if not more background reading for a blog article as I do for a scientific paper.  I definitely do a lot more historical reading for the blog articles because it is very interesting and I also find it fun to delve back to the origins of a topic.  If I had not written an article about aphid symbionts I would never have discovered that Thomas Henry Huxley had worked on aphids which made me even impressed with him than before. The other times that I feel anxious are when I publish something that Is not strictly within my field but moe of an opinion piece.  When I got upset about he British Ecological Society (BES) and their conference catering policy I wrote rather an angry, although, at least in my opinion, a well-argued article.  I was somewhat hesitant in pressing the publish button, but went ahead and did so, and then sat back waiting for the angry responses from vegetarians and vegans.  To my surprise the expected lambasting did not materialise and I received several complimentary comments and emails.

Having a go at the British Ecological Society https://simonleather.wordpress.com/2015/12/17/meeating-issues-with-the-british-ecological-society-why-i-boycotted-the-2015-annual-meeting/

The BES were even kind enough to publish a slightly edited version in their Bulletin.  In some ways I have been slightly disappointed that this, and other articles dealing with ‘controversial’ viewpoints have not generated more critical responses, although I guess I should count my blessings and not angle for brickbats.

Enough about the challenges, what about the benefits?  Have I made an impact?  As far as I am concerned the answer is a resounding YES.  I am read all around the world and I am pretty certain that my 175 blog posts have been read more than my 230 scientific papers.

A worldwide reach – I have been read by someone in almost every country in the world

I am particularly proud of having one of my blog posts referenced in a book about preparing for PhD vivas (Smith, 2013).

This post made an impact – https://simonleather.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/are-phd-examiners-really-ogres/

I have also been invited by magazines and societies to convert some of my blog posts into articles for publications aimed at reaching more general audiences in an accessible and informative way.

Making an impact and bringing entomology to a wider audience

More conventionally, some of my blog posts have gone mainstream and appeared in scientific journals, a bit of reverse outreach 😊

Some of my blog posts that have made it into the scientific literature

Something that may put people off blogging is the possibility that their employer may not see a benefit in their activity and only not encourage but perhaps even discourage, their staff from becoming bloggers.   It was to counter this perception that a group of like-minded bloggers and I got together to present an analysis of the value and impact of blogging in ecology.  It was an interesting and rewarding exercise** and last week we were rewarded by having our paper accepted for publication in a prestigious journal.

Squaring the circle – a mainstream paper about the benefits of blogging for scientists

Proof that this was a fun project to collaborate on and write about

I think that there is a very strong case for more scientists to become bloggers, but if you do decide to take up the challenge and become a blogger you should first ask yourself exactly what it is you hope to get from it.  Is it just for pleasure, is it for outreach, to practice writing or to draw attention to yourself to increase interactions with others in your disciplines?

Three simple rules to ease you into the blogosphere

Whatever your reasons there are things that you can do to make your blog a success and help you overcome the challenges I have outlined above.  First, be well prepared have some articles in reserve, especially when you launch your blog. It is also a good idea to post at regular intervals, not necessarily often.  Having a ‘deadline’ will help you with your writing and time management and people will start to expect to hear from and may even become subscribers to your blog.  It is also important not to get downhearted or impatient.  It takes time to build an audience.  Blogs grow at different rates depending on a number of factors including blogging frequency and audience interaction (Saunders et al., 2017).

A frequent poster

My blog, regular but not as frequent as Jeff Ollerton’s Biodiversity Blog

Finally, it is important to do as much as possible to publicise your blog, use the tag function to help search engines direct people to your blog and I would urge you to join Twitter and do remember to use all the publicise buttons that your blog host provides.

I look forward to seeing a plethora of new entomology and ecology blogs. Happy Blogging.

 

References

Saunders, M.E., Duffy, M.A., Heard, S.B., Kosmala, M., Leather, S.R., McGlynn, T.P., Ollerton, J. & Parachnowitsch, A.L. (2017) Bringing ecology blogging into the scientific fold: measuring the reach and impact of science community blogs. Royal Society Open Science,

Smith, P.H. (2013) The PhD Viva, MacMillan Education, UK.

*assuming anyone wants to read them of course 🙂

**there will of course be a blog about this in the near future.

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Prunella – mistress of plasticity

Now that I have your attention, this is not an article about soft porn or fetishes, but rather a paean for that humble ‘weed’ Prunella vulgaris – Self-heal, Heal all, Woundwort, Heart of the Earth and many other names, depending on where in the World you come from.   Prunella vulgaris is in the family Lamiaceae, so related to mints and dead-nettles.  It is an edible weed, the young leaves can be used in salads and it can also be used in soups, stews, or used whole and boiled as a pot herb.

The instantly (to me at any rate) recognisable flower of Prunella vulgaris

Prunella as I will now familiarly call her, has a very wide geographical native range and has also been introduced into South America where she does very well indeed (Godoy et al., 2011).

Distribution of Prunella vulgaris, blue native, brown introduced. http://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:455176-1

 The name Prunella is derived from ‘Brunella’, a word which is itself a derivative, coming from the German name for quinsy, (a type of throat inflammation), die Braüne, which it was historically used to cure.  That is the other aspect of this glorious plant, it has many medicinal properties, hence the many common names refer to its healing powers, almost as many as Athelas of Lord of the Rings fame 😊  It was traditionally used in European herbal medicine for sore throats, fever reduction and like Athelas, for accelerating the healing of wounds (Matthiolus, 1626).  More recently it has become of interest as a possible cure for conditions associated with the herpes simplex virus (Psotováa et al., 2003) and inhibiting anaphylactic shock and other immediate type allergic reactions (Shin et al., 2001).  So truly a wonder drug, and again proving that “Old Wives Tales” are in many cases based on more than just superstition.

My interest in Prunella vulgaris, is however, based on its wondrous plasticity, as the three photographs below show nicely.  Depending on grazing (or mowing) pressure, Prunella can grow to reproductive maturity at heights  ranging from just over 2 cm to just under 30 cm. Truly remarkable.

I am of course, not the first person to be fascinated by this plasticity and the taxonomic and evolutionary ins and outs of this lovely plant (Nelson, 1965; Warwick & Briggs, 1979) but I still find it fascinating, and who knows, perhaps one day I might do some work on it myself 😊

The other thing that I like about Prunella is that she is also provides a living for aphids.  She has her own rare and specific one, Aphis brunellae, but is also kind enough to let a few other species make a living on her, Aphis gossypii, Aphis nasturtiiAulacorthum solani,  Macrosiphum euphorbiae, the ubiquitous Myzus persicae, M. ornatus and Ovatomyzus chamaedrys (Blackman & Eastop, 2006).

Aphis brunellae, rare in the UK – with thanks to the two Bobs for permission to use the photograph. http://influentialpoints.com/Images/Aphis_brunellae_colony_on_Prunella_vulgaris_c2015-08-21_15-37-27ew.jpg

 

Finally, you will have noticed that the Prunella aphid is A. brunellae, which is derived from the original name of Prunella (I guess Prunella Scales is happy, she could have been Brunella Scales).  Interestingly, her alter-ego was not removed until fairly recently, her tombstone is shown below.

References

Blackman, R.L. & Eastop, V.F. (2006) Aphids on the World’s Herbaceous Plants and Shrubs Volume 1 Host Lists and Keys.  Wiley, Oxford.

Godoy, O., Saldaña, A., Fuentes, N., Valladares, F. & Gianoli, E. (2011)  Forests are not immune to plant invasions: phenotypic plasticity and local adaptation allow Prunella vulgaris to colonize a temperate evergreen rainforest. Biological Invasions, 13, 1615-1625.

Matthiolus, P.A. (1626) Kräuterbuch.  Noringberg.

Nelson, A.P. (1965) Taxonomic and evolutionary implications of lawn races in Prunella vulgaris (Labiatae). Brittonia, 17, 160-174.

Psotová, J., Kolá, M., Sousek, J., Ívagera, Z., Vicar, J. &Ulrichová, J. (2003) Biological activities of Prunella vulgaris extract. Phytotherapy Research, 17, 1082-1087.

Shin, T.Y., Kim, Y.K. & Kim, H.M. (2001) inhibition of immediate-type allergic reactions by Prunella vulgaris in a murine model.  Immunopharmacology & Immunotoxicology, 23, 423–435.

Warwick, S.I. & Briggs, D. (1979) The genecology of lawn weeds III. Cultivation experiments with Achillea millefolium L., Bellis perennis L., Plantago lanceolata L., Plantago major L. and Prunella vulgaris L. collected from lawns and contrasting grassland habitats.  New Phytologist, 83, 509-536.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The grand plan!

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

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

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

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

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

The Sixty Tree site April 2006.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Number of Prunus padus trees with severe deer damage

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

Leather, S.R. (1985) Does the bird cherry have its ‘fair share’ of insect pests ? An appraisal of the species-area relationships of the phytophagous insects associated with British Prunus species. Ecological Entomology, 10, 43-56.  14 cites

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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Arthropod orchids – who’s fooling who?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ophrys sphegodes, The Early Spider Orchid

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orchis anthropophora, The Man Orchid.  Photo by Erwin Meier

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

Orchis simia, The Monkey Orchid. Photo Dimìtar Nàydenov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then you have Dracula vampira….

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

 

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

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

 

Acknowledgements

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Filed under EntoNotes, Science writing

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

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

mind-the-gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mind-the-gap-2

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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