Category Archives: Teaching matters

Malham again – more fun with the British Ecological Society Summer School #BESUG18

Last week I made my fourth appearance at the British Ecological Society Undergraduate Summer School with a welcome return to the Field Studies Council Centre at Malham Tarn.  As a Yorkshireman I appreciate any excuse to get back to my roots, so I was very pleased indeed 🙂 I drove up from Harper Adams University in Shropshire with my car loaded to the gunnels with microscopes, sweep nets, plastic tubes, pitfall traps and covers, beating trays, a Malaise trap, a yellow pan trap, lots of insect keys and of course hand lenses and Pooters.  I arrived late afternoon to find that my trusty co-tutor, Fran Sconce had arrived a few minutes earlier.  Once settled in we set up the pitfall traps, the Malaise trap and a solitary pan trap, unfortunately missing what we learnt later was an excellent plenary by eminent ecologist Richard Bardgett of Manchester University and current President of the British Ecological Society.  We finished just in time to sit down for dinner, which as it was meat-free Monday was great for Fran but less so for me 🙂

 

Fran digging in the very hard ground, a solitary yellow pan trap, the Malaise trap ready for action and Richard Bardgett in full flow.

It then rained solidly for four hours. Luckily, some of the pitfall traps had been set with covers so it wasn’t a total disaster.  Our first entomology session wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon, which gave the grass a chance to dry and made sweep netting and suction sampling possible.  I started the afternoon with a general lecture about the importance of insects and entomology and a brief introduction

The importance of entomology.

to some basic taxonomy, before we headed out to do some sampling and collecting.

How many different techniques can you spot?

Keen beans – the students enjoying collecting and identifying insects.

Back in the lab and the now obligatory late night “chase the fluorescent beetles” extravaganza 🙂

Two Outreach and Communication Officers busy Tweeting; both former students of mine, Fran Sconce of the Royal Entomological Society and Chris Jeffs from the British Ecological Society.  Great to have had them there and many, many thanks to them both.

Monday through to Wednesday – the sun did shine in the end. Monday evening inspired a haiku.

Rising from the rain

Summer mist, slowly rolling,

Hides Malham Tarn

Entomology, although important, is of course only a part of the Summer School. The students get a chance to learn about other things too, including vertebrates and plants.  I was very impressed with all the students and how much interest they showed in entomology.  I look forward to seeing some of them on our MSc Entomology course at Harper Adams University in two or three years time.

The British Ecological Society Summer Schools are a fantastic idea and they are much appreciated by the students past and present, as the following Tweet from one of the students from the first ever Summer School shows.

Andrew Barrett extolling the virtues of Twitter and the BES Summer Schools.  Incidentally, Andrew was one of the graduate mentors on the BES ‘A’ Level Summer School this year.

Next year the Summer School will be in Scotland at FSC Millport, Scotland, which is a bit of trek for me, but never fear, I will be there!

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Inspiring and being inspired by the next generation – Crop Protection Summer School – CROPSS 2018

Last year I wrote about my BBSRC funded Crop Protection Summer School, CROPSS and how pleased I was with the positive response of the students to working in, what to them, was a totally novel subject area.

Like last year, the Summer School started on Sunday afternoon, with an introduction from me about why crop protection was important and how Integrated Pest Management is all about ecology, NOT spraying and eradication, something I have been banging on about for many years and which needs to be reiterated again and again, so here I am reiterating it yet again 😊.

We then had an excellent dinner at our local pub, The Lamb Inn, and continued with an outdoor Pub Quiz.

Food, drink and a quiz – perfect for a sunny Sunday evening

To make things easier for the Quiz Master, me, the quiz was all picture rounds.  The first round was all about charismatic megafauna (almost all answered correctly), then common British wild flowers (about 60% correct), common British trees (50% correct), common British insects (30% correct), I think you can see where I am going with this😊 Catering for the rest of the week was in our excellent campus refectory and as last year, the students were all very complimentary about the quality and quantity of the food and the choices available.

As with last year we had specific days allocated to the main crop protection areas; agronomy, entomology, nematology, plant pathology, weed science and spray technology.  In the evenings we had a speaker from ‘industry’; Dr Lucy Broom, a former student of mine who works at OxitecRob Farrow from Syngenta, David George from Stockbridge Technology Centre, Nicola Spence the Chief Plant Health Officer and Neal Ward from BioBest.  They were all very well received and had to answer a lot of interesting and very well formulated questions, both in the classroom and in the Student Union Bar afterwards.

I am certain that I speak for us all, when I say the students and staff involved found it a very rewarding week.  The weather was glorious as you can see from the photographs, which I will, in time honoured tradition, let tell the story.

Heigh ho, heigh ho it’s off to sample we go

Entomology in action – sweep nets and Pooters

Glorious weather,  just right for looking at light trap catches with Heather Campbell and suction sampling with Andy Cherrill

 

Looking for weeds in the cereal variety trials with John Reade

Labs and classroom

Darts in the bar and chasing fluorescent beetles in the dark

 

The students loved the course and we loved their enthusiasm and commitment.

I should have taken this picture when we are all there 🙂

And, finally, Just to remind you why we need a well-trained and youthful cadre of crop protection scientists.

 

 

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Is there a place for humour in a scientific presentation?

Over at Ecological Rants, Charley Krebs recently wrote about and listed some very sensible and simple rules for giving a good lecture which are exactly the same things I tell my students when I give my lecture about basic presentation skills.  I do, however, also give some other hints and tips to help them give good talks and lectures.

Academics, with a few rare exceptions, are not, as a rule, stand-up comics; although, we are all, to some degree, performers. That said, there is, as I tell my students, definitely a place for humour in lectures and presentations.  The secret is making sure that it is appropriate and amusing. My first bit of advice, which I also take, is to avoid the supposedly, subtle scripted joke or play on words.  You have all sat in that lecture where the speaker very obviously works in a joke, and then the dead give-away, the expectant pause for the laugh, that is invariably either met by massed groans or a stony silence.  If you do feel the need to tell a joke per se, be upfront about it and say, “that reminds me about the…”.  It won’t be any funnier and you probably won’t get a round of applause, but hey, at least one person might laugh.

Far better is to go for the self-deprecating anecdote.  Your audience will be more sympathetic, and even if they are laughing at you, you will know that it is genuine 😊  I usually tell stories from  my working life and sometimes from my childhood. Something personal and shared, as long as it is in good taste, is always a good way to lighten a lecture and help your listeners remember a salient fact.

The thing to avoid at all costs is the careless, off the cuff comment, something that seems a great idea at the time and when without thinking, you let your mouth take over from your brain.  I speak, well write, from bitter experience.  In 1997, the 19th Symposium of the Royal Entomological Society was held in Newcastle from the 10th-11th September.  The subject of the symposium was Insect Populations and I had been invited to give the plenary address on the less than exciting subject of how qualitative changes in individual insects affects their population dynamics (Leather & Awmack, 1998).  I had a 45-minute slot and I must confess that after thirty minutes I was struggling.  Even I was finding the subject matter a bit dry, and I was desperately thinking of something to add a bit of life and colour to the talk.  I had just reached the section about lifespan when in view of an event that had happened a few days earlier, August 31st to be precise, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea, and these fatal words issued from my mouth “Death comes to us all as Princess Diana has just found out” There was a massed gasp from the audience, and then, if I had, had a pin to let go, you would have been able to hear it drop!

I use this story as an example of what not to do when I give my lecture on how to give a talk.  It always raises a laugh, albeit a shocked one 😊

My faux pas was certainly memorable.  Ten years later I was invited to give the plenary at Ento’07 in Edinburgh; the chair of the session on introducing me, pointedly made a reference to my infamous plenary of 1997 😊

Reference

Leather, S.R. & Awmack, C.S. (1998) The effects of qualitative changes of individuals in the population dynamics of insects. Pp 187-204 [In] Insect Populations in Theory and in Practice (eds. J.P. Dempster & I.F.G. McLean), Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, Boston, London.

 

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Inspiring the next generation of entomologists?

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

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

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

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

 

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

The First Day Team – the old and the new

A hive of activity at the entomology exhibit

 

Swarms of future entomologists?

Visitors and volunteers buzzing with enthusiasm

Some of our volunteers, Entomology MSc students past and present

 

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

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

Bearded and male, but definitely younger

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

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

 

Post script

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse mat for forensic entomologists 🙂

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

 

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

Natalie Dale-Skey extolling the virtues of Hymenoptera

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

I do like a good wasp nest 🙂

Erica McAlister on the sex life of flies

The biggest flies in the world pretending to be wasps

A selection of flies

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

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

Big beautiful beetles

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

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

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

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

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

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Nostalgia time, my first biological memory, aged 3.

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

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Erica McAlister extolling the virtues of bot flies

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

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Early advisory poster

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

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Admiring the bees

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

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Finnish and Swedish tobacco boxes being put to good use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A lovely piece of historical entomological art.

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

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

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

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

*one day I will write about it.

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EntoMasters on Tour – Visit to the Royal Entomological Society 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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Coffee!

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

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Someone found the aphid section 🙂

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

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Dr Andy Cherrill enjoying the famous entomological lift (elevator)

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

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It is only a vertebrate  🙂

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

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

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

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Malham in the Sun – introducing entomology to budding ecologists

Last year I wrote about my experience of being a tutor at the British Ecological Society’s Undergraduate Summer School at the Malham Tarn Field Studies Council site. I really enjoyed myself and also found it very refreshing to have the opportunity to interact with 50 bright young proto-ecologists. It appears that the students also enjoyed themselves as I was invited back this year to repeat my performance. I was very happy to accept the offer, after all, any chance to visit the county of my birth (Yorkshire) is not to be sneezed at and with the added bonus of being able to talk about entomology to a new audience thrown in I would have been made to turn it down. Thus it was that I headed up the dreaded M6 motorway on a sunny Monday afternoon (July 18th) with joy in my heart and a car boot full of entomological equipment and identification keys. The M6 did not disappoint and I spent an hour sweltering in the summer sunshine very slowly (very, very slowly) making my way through the inevitable road works. Luckily, being one of those people who likes to arrive early for appointments, I was only fifteen minutes late collecting my trusty assistant, Fran Sconce, from the very picturesque Settle Station and then heading up on to the FSC Malham Tarn site.

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The weather on arrival was in marked contrast to last year.

We unloaded the car and just had time to set up 35 pitfall traps before heading in for the evening meal after which the students went on a long walk to Malham Cove.

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The long walk

 I walked part of the way back with them but turned back in time to get to the bar 🙂  for a very welcome drink, before retiring to bed.

The next day was even hotter, and we spent the morning setting up the labs and teaching areas.

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This year, as well as the fifty undergraduates we had ten sixth form students from several different schools in London.  Last year interacting with a class of fifty had posed certain difficulties, so this year we divided the students into two groups and ran the session twice, once on the Tuesday afternoon and then again on the Wednesday morning.  This worked extremely well and meant that Fran and I and the PhD mentors assigned to us, were able to spend much more time with each student and also meant that we were not as rushed off our feet as we would have been otherwise.  So a win/win outcome, although I did have to give the same lecture twice in 24 hours which was an interesting experience.  On the Tuesday afternoon, I started with my lecture on why entomology is important and an overview of the insects.

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I seem to have done a lot of arm waving

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We then went outside and I demonstrated sampling methods while the students baked under, a by now, extremely hot sun, before sending them off to empty and reset the pitfall traps and collect other insects using nets and beating trays.

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Being cruel to trees

 

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Some of the stars of the day

 

Then it was back to the labs to identify the catches before the evening meal and refreshing drink or two in the bar*.   After the bar closed we had the fluorescent beetle extravaganza.  Last year I demonstrated the use of fluorescent dust on one hapless carabid beetle.  This year I used ten, and two different coloured dusts.  The beetles were then released after dark in

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Fluorescing carabids

the courtyard outside the teaching labs where they were photographed fluorescing colourfully under my UV flashlight, as I ‘chased’ them around the arena, much to the delight of the watching students.

As the weather forecast was not very good for the Wednesday morning, we did the insect sampling first, in case the forecast rain was as heavy as predicted.  As it turned out, apart from a short sharp shower, whilst I was demonstrating sampling methods, the sun came out and there were plenty of insects to collect before I did my lecture and we headed in to the labs for another ID session.  All too soon the session was over, and Fran and I, after a hasty lunch, drove back down to Shropshire.

I think that the BES summer school is a superb idea and that the students get a great deal from it.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope that I get the chance to be involved in any future summer schools.  I was also greatly impressed by the 6th formers who certainly seemed to enjoy my entomology session, one of whom produced this excellent drawing.

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Much better than anything I could draw

For those of you on Twitter #bestug16 will give you a flavour of the whole week.

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Glorious Yorkshire

 

*staffed that evening by the son of my best friend from school!

 

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Getting a buzz with science communication – Reflections on curating Realscientists for a week

My week on Realscientists was a direct result of National Insect Week, a biennial event organised by the Royal Entomological Society (RES) to bring the wonders of entomology to a wider audience*. I had never thought about being a curator for Realscientists although I have followed them for some time.  Back in February however, one of my PhD students who has been involved with National Insect Week on more than one occasion, suggested that I might apply to curate RealScientists during National Insect Week as the RES Director of Outreach, Luke Tilley, was hoping to be on Biotweeps during National Insect Week as well.  To make sure that I had no excuse to forget to do it, she very helpfully sent me the link to the Realscientists web site and instructions on how to apply 🙂

Duly briefed, I contacted Realscientists and to my surprise and slight apprehension, was given the slot I had asked for, the week beginning 19th June.  As my curatorial stint drew closer I began to worry about what I was going to tweet about and how to fit it into my day-to-day activities.

I made a list of twenty pre-planned Tweets to give me an outline script to work from. I managed to include all but one into my week as curator, the one about why you should want to work in entomology.

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The twenty tweet list

I felt that my whole week was addressing this point so there was no need to belabour the point any more.  I also received an email from Realscientists with a Vade Mecum of how and what to tweet.  I was somewhat concerned by the section on how to deal with trolling, but I needn’t have worried, as far as I could tell I received no overt abuse**.

The big day approached, which as my actual launch was at Sunday lunchtime caused some slight logistical problems, but easily solved by making lunch a bit later than usual. As it was a Sunday I basically kept it light, introduced myself and tweeted a few insect factoids and pictures, including some great images from van Bruyssels The Population of an Old Pear Tree.  I have my own hard copy of the 1868 translated edition, but if you want to read it on-line it is available here.

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From van Bruyssel – The Population of an Old Pear Tree

It is definitely worth a read.

I also had to make a decision about how much time I was going to spend Tweeting. The previous curator had only done about 10-15 tweets a day, which is what I usually do.  The curator before her, however, had done considerably more.  As my stint as curator coincided with National Insect Week and as my contract with my university does actually specify that I do outreach***, I felt that I could justify several hours a day to it and that is what I did, and managing to fit quite a bit of the day job in between.

In between tweeting images and fantastic insect facts I tried to get some important messages across to my audience.  I started with what some might  term a “conservation rant”, basically bemoaning the fact that although insects make up the majority of the animal kingdom, conservation research and funding is very much biased toward the vertebrates, largely those with fur and feathers.  I also pointed out that most statements about how we should go about conservation in general is based on this unbalanced and not very representative research.  Taxonomic chauvinism has annoyed my for a long time 🙂

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That rant over I introduced my audience to the work our research group does, biological control, chemical ecology, integrated pest management, agro-ecology and urban ecology and conservation. Our use of fluorescent dust and radio tagging to understand insect behaviour aroused a lot of interest and comment.

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Using alternative technology to understand vine weevil behaviour.

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The glow in the dark sycamore aphid was also very popular

 

Midweek I translated one of my outreach talks to Twitter and in a frenzy of Tweets introduced the world to Bracknell and the biodiversity to be found on its roundabouts and how an idea of how to teach locally relevant island biogeography and conservation, turned into a 12 year research project.

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How teaching led research – the Bracknell roundabout story.

In between these two main endeavours, I tweeted about the influences that entomology has had on art, literature, popular culture, religion, medicine, engineering, advertising, economics, medicine , fashion and even advertising, using a variety of images.

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Our new insect-inspired smoke detector attracted a lot of love and envy.

I even composed a haiku for the occasion

Six-legged creatures;

Fascinating and diverse,

Beautiful insects

 

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I have been an entomologist for a long time.

and told the story of my life-long love of insects, incidentally revealing some of my past hair-styles and exposing my lack of interest in sartorial elegance 🙂

My overall message for the week was, and hopefully I got this across, is that we should be much

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more aware of what is under our feet and surrounding us and of course, that aphids are not just fantastic insects

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My final tweet

but also beautiful animals.

Giant Myzus

Model Myzus persicae that I recently met in the Natural History Museum

And finally, would I do it again? Yes most definitely. I ‘met’ a lot of new and very interesting people and had some really good ‘conversations’.

 

References

Harrington, R. (1994) Aphid layer.  Antenna, 18, 50-51.

Huxley, T.H. (1858) On the agamic reproduction and morphology of Aphis – Part I. Transactions of the Linnean Society of London, 22, 193-219.

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

 

 

*I was one of the original ‘founders’ of National Insect Week so have always tried to be involved in some way with the event.

**or I am so thick-skinned I didn’t notice it 🙂

***or as Harper Adams University quaintly terms it, “reach out”

 

 

 

 

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