Category Archives: The Bloggy Blog

Some fantastic sculptures but a sad lack of insects

A couple of weeks ago my wife and Daughter #2 and I, took advantage of the late Bank Holiday Weekend to visit The Sculpture Park near Farnham.  For a Bank Holiday weekend the weather was pretty good, the sun decided to shine 😊

As the name suggests the park is set in a wooded valley with ponds, streams and small lakes, all of which are used to good purpose, the sculptures, most of which are for sale*, placed in appropriate locations.

At £10 each it was pretty good value; on the day we visited there were 850 sculptures on site.  You could, if you were so minded, walk around for free, but the £10 gives you access to a guide to the sculptures, including their prices* and directions to navigate the site.  Without the guide, you could have an enjoyable walk, but you would certainly miss a lot.  There is also an on-site shop if you want to spend more money and help the enterprise prosper 😊

I took a lot of photos, concentrating mainly on the natural history based themes, not of all of which I am going to share, but hopefully those I do will give you an idea of the site.

The site starts some distance before you reach the ticket office.  The sculptures are in a variety of materials and styles, stone, metal, fibre-glass and wood, abstract, odd and realistic.

Is this what the toads were heading towards?

The site makes great use of the natural features and there are many surprises lurking in bushes, around corners and above your head.

 Continuing with the watery theme

Amazing what you find lurking in the trees 🙂

and don’t forget to look above head height.

Perhaps the birds closer to the ground should be wary of the polar bear?

Woodland scenes

Waste not, want not, especially if you can sell it as art 🙂

Some very odd stuff – Listening for the boneshaker?

More phantasmagorical beings

These woodland denizens however, you might be forgiven for thinking are real

Beautiful

Even as an entomologist I thought this was great – Rutting stags in wood

And there were some insects, a couple of mantids ready to pounce on the unsuspecting visitor

Metallic arthropods

Invertebrates were, however, in very short supply, so even snails made it into my selection 🙂

 

Some days I feel like this 🙂

 

The Aurelian – way out of my price range 🙂

And to finish – a three dimensional play on words

 

It was a great place to visit, despite the dearth of invertebrate exhibits. Most of the sculptures were based on humans, which I seem not to have photographed 🙂  That said we did only see 420 of the sculptures, perhaps there were more invertebrates in the remaining 440! I somehow doubt it.  Going by this it would seem that sculptors, like the majority of the public, are institutionally vertebratist ☹ That said, French sculptor Edouard Martinet makes larger than life insect sculptures using old car parts and his work would certainly fit in well here.

A word of warning, parking is at a premium. We had to park a good ten minutes walk away from the entrance.  There there is a picnic area, but alas, no café,  and as you will need to spend a minimum of four hours to get around all the sculptures, it is well worth making a day of it and taking ample supplies of food and drink.

*prices ranging from a few hundred pounds to tens of thousands  :-0

 

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Working from home in France

My wife and I are lucky enough to own a second home in France, in the Pays D’Oc. Hopefully, when we fully retire, it will be our main, if not only home.  At the moment, I get to spend much less time there than I would like, but since I semi-retired this academic year, the frequency of my visits has increased.

I have just finished a two-week spell there, not on holiday, but working from home, five days of which were spent working on a field skills handbook with two former colleagues of mine from Imperial College who used to help me run our two-week long final year Biodiversity & Conservation Field Course.  We have been working on this book for more than six years but to say that progress had been snail-like would be an exaggeration, glacial would be a better description.

Being away from our respective campuses, and the day-to-day academic trivia, meant that we were able to concentrate fully on the task at hand. We made incredible progress, and that was despite being connected to the internet and having access to Skype and email.  We now, in just five days and with very relaxed lunch-times, have a pretty good skeleton to show our prospective publisher.   A proper retreat works wonders; I can thoroughly recommend it.  It would be great if I could persuade my Head of Department to fund an official retreat for me and some of my colleagues to get together to write papers and grant proposals. It would definitely repay itself in increased grant income 🙂

The authors, looking relaxed but thinking hard.

The location certainly helps, with an office window view like this, who can help but be inspired 😊

The view from my office

 

In fact, I was so inspired I turned to verse.

 

Mountainous thunder

Sends ants scuttling to their nest.

Seeds await the wind

#haiku

 

Ants, sensing distant thunder,

Scuttle to their nest,

While seeds pods wait for the wind

#reversehaiku

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A Swarm of Happy Verrallers – The Verrall Super 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wan Jusoh, Stephen Clement, Richard Harrington, Stuart Reynolds

Rufus Isaacs and Jim Hardie

 

A selection of entomological bling and accessories

Entomological posturing – names withheld to save embarrassment 😊

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

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

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

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

The Happy Throng, Max Barclay in the foreground.

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

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

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

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

The new camera adding a special effect?

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

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

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The Academic Work-Life Balance – Doing what you enjoy for as long as you can

I am very lucky.  Unlike many people, I have essentially been paid to do what I love for my whole life.  My job is my hobby, my life even. I get paid to study and talk about the natural world, insects in particular, and have done so for the past forty years.   How lucky can a person be?   That said, it hasn’t been 100% fun all the way.

As I enter semi-retirement (3 days a week) I thought I would be self-indulgent and reflective (navel gazing in other words) and share a few thoughts about my academic work-life balance past, present and future.

http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-unbalanced-scales-stevn-dutton.html

 

As a PhD student the scales were very heavy on the research side.  Apart from some demonstrating in the labs and a few Maths tutorials (BIO101) it was reading, writing and research.  Albeit this involved weekend working, but as there was plenty of time doing the week to fit in games of squash (our lab had a very competitive squash ladder) between field and lab work, it was pretty much fun all the way.

The PhD and first job– research heavy, a fun time

My first ‘permanent’ job was with the Forestry Commission, where I was based at their Northern Research Station, just outside Edinburgh.  My first few years were almost idyllic, lots of field work in remote parts of Scotland, the ability to have PhD students, giving guest lectures at Edinburgh and Aberdeen Universities, and an official ‘side-project’ time allowance which allowed me to write papers on a diverse range of subjects not included in my job description, e.g. my foray into species-area relationships (Leather, 1985,1986,1990,1991).  By the end of my time there however, government policy had changed, and we, even as a research organisation, were very much ‘customer facing’ and freedom to do less applied research was very much restricted to our own time.

Early academic life – when grant writing had some rewards and didn’t seem to take up as much time

It was thus a huge relief when I joined Imperial College at their world famous, and at the time, very collegiate, Silwood Park campus.  I was able to have coffee with luminaries such as Mike Way, Mike Hassell, John Lawton, Stuart McNeill, Val Brown and Nigel Bell as well as to rub shoulders with up and coming stars such as Sharon Lawler, Lindsay Turnbull, Jeremy Fox,  Chris Thomas, Shahid Naeem, Mike Hochberg, Charles Godfray and many others.  I could research any topic I wanted to as long as I got funding (and I did) and my teaching load, if not as light as some within the department, was manageable and very enjoyable.

It starts to tip

 

Administration has never been my thing, but as I got more senior, more administrative stuff came my way, and in my last few years at Imperial College where I was the Postgraduate Tutor, a role combining pastoral care and regulatory matters, such a chairing all the MSc exam boards and monitoring PhD student progress.  Luckily, I was very ably helped by two fantastic people, Diana Anderson and Janet Phipps.  Without them my life would have been a misery and the paperwork in an awful mess, to put it mildly.   I also ended up on a lot of college committees as well as taking on a number of external roles; editing, refereeing, external examining etc.  At the same time, Imperial College, as a joint consequence of appointing Sir Richard Sykes as Rector and the Life Sciences Faculty adopting a largely publication metric-based approach to new appointments, started to replace retiring whole organism biologists and entomologists with molecular biologists and mathematical ecologists.  Not necessarily a bad thing if managed sympathetically, but they still expected the same course content to be delivered by the few remaining whole organism biologists.  To give you an idea, when I joined the Department in 1992 there were 18 entomologists, when I left there were three of us.

My teaching load soared, while the departmental average was 25 hours per year, my personal load was 384 hours and I was also having to run a research group! The collegiate atmosphere was also very much eroded as was the attitude toward students.  When I first started at Imperial as a Lecturer, only Senior Lecturers and above could “Process” at the graduation ceremony in the Albert Hall. By the time I left, Teaching Fellows were being asked if they would like to attend. The majority of Faculty saw no benefit to them in attending.  A sorry state of affairs as far as I was, and am concerned.  Seeing our graduates happy and smiling with their families is such a buzz; why would anyone want to miss that?  We also had a change in our Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUGS), our former DUGS ‘s philosophy was to give the students the best possible experience with the resources available.  Our new DUGS’s was completely different.  His opening address to the Faculty went along the lines of “I know you don’t like teaching…” (this upset quite a few of us who did and do enjoy teaching) and his underlying philosophy was, as far as I could make out, how can we make the students think they are getting a great experience without expending too much time on them.  I was very pleased to make my move to Harper Adams University in 2012* where collegiality and student provision were, and still are, very much more valued; all Faculty are expected to attend the student graduation event unless they have a very good excuse😊

The things I have disliked the most over my career are grant applications, over long committee meetings, unnecessarily complex paperwork, office politics and marking assignments and exams.  On the plus side have been my good colleagues, lecturing, field courses, research project supervision at all levels, the opportunities to do outreach, and the students who have made it all worthwhile.

With retirement comes the opportunity to dump most, if not all, the things I dislike, and to concentrate my efforts on those aspects of the job I love the most, teaching, outreach and writing.  In the main, I have had a great time as an academic, but in the present climate, I would think very hard about advising my PhD students to take up an appointment in a Research Intensive university in the UK, especially if the value their family life and their mental well-being.

Hoping to spend more time in France 😊  The biggest challenge will be developing the ability to say no.

 

 

References

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.

Leather, S.R. (1986)  Insect species richness of the British Rosaceae: the importance of host range, plant architecture, age of establishment, taxonomic isolation and species-area relationships. Journal of Animal Ecology 55, 841-860.

Leather, S.R. (1990)  The analysis of species-area relationships, with particular reference to macrolepidoptera on Rosaceae: how important is data-set quality ?. The Entomologist 109, 8-16.

Leather, S.R. (1991)  Feeding specialisation and host distribution of British and Finnish Prunus feeding macrolepidoptera. Oikos 60, 40-48.

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The Roundabout Review 2017

Welcome to my, now definitely traditional, review of the past year.

Enjoying the summer sunshine at our house in Vinca, France

 

Impact and reach

I have continued to post at about ten-day intervals; this is my 187th post.  The more I write the easier it seems to become, and I seem to have no huge problems in coming up with ideas to write about.   As happened last year, some of my blogs have made it, in slightly modified forms, into print. My most satisfying outcome was a joint effort, arising from my desire for comparative blog statistics as reported in last year’s review.  Some of my favourite bloggers and I got together and we produced a paper all about blogging!

I was also invited to give two talks about my blogging and tweeting, one at ENTO17 in Newcastle, the other, much more scary, was  a keynote address at the National Biodiversity Network Conference in Cardiff, where I was filmed live on Facebook.  For those of you who remain lukewarm about the idea that social media has a place in science, I feel that this is pretty convincing evidence that science communication via social media is a very worthwhile use of our time.

My blog had visitors from 165 countries (164 last year and 150 in 2015), so it looks like my international reach has probably peaked but as there are only 195 countries in total, I guess reaching 85% of them is a bit of an achievement.  My blog received 40 853 views (34 036 last year; 29 385 in 2015).  This year, for the first time, the majority of my readers came from the USA, with views from India moving from 8th to 5th place.

Top ten countries for views

Top reads

My top post (excluding my home page) in 2017 was one of my aphid posts,  A Winter’s Tale – Aphid Overwintering,  which came second last year.  although my all-time winner is still Not All Aphids are Vegans with over 6 000 views.  My top ten posts tend to be either about aphids or entomological techniques/equipment which I guess means that I am filling an entomological niche.

Top Ten Reads 2017


Trends

There still seems to be no signs of the number of people viewing my site reaching an asymptote, or, for that matter, taking off exponentially; just a straightforward linear relationship.

New Year 4

Interactions

My top commenters, were the same as last year, Emma Maund, Emily Scott, Emma Bridges, Jeff Ollerton, Amelia from A French Garden and Philip Strange.   Many thanks to all my readers and especially to those who take the time to comment as well as pressing the like button. I look forward to interacting with you all in 2018.

 

Twitter

I continue to tweet prolifically and  find my interactions on Twitter very rewarding.  I have this year become somewhat more political; Brexit and Trump, need I say more?  The majority of my tweets are, however, still entomological and ecological and the increase in political comment has not stopped my followers from growing.  I finished 2016 with 4960 followers and begin 2018 with almost a thousand more, 5860.   It would have been to hit the 6 000-follower milestone before the end of the year.

The Future

This coming year is also marks a change in circumstances for me as I have partially retired,  the idea being that I will spend more time doing the things I enjoy and perhaps finally get some of my book projects off the ground.  I have a number of projects planned   ranging from a field course handbook to a popular science aphid book, if you can imagine such a thing 😊 The idea is that I will spend a significant proportion of my time in France where I hope that the wine and superb scenery will inspire me to great things.

And if anyone is worried that this means that the entomological provision at Harper Adams University will be diminished, rest assured.  My reduced contract means that we have been able to appoint a very talented junior member of faculty, Heather Campbell (@ScienceHeather) whom I am sure will be a great success.  Additionally, as I will be doing pretty much the same teaching as I have always done, our entomology provision will actually increase.  A win-win as far as I am concerned.

Contemplating new horizons?

 

A Happy and Prosperous New Year to you all.

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The Natural World in Haiku form

Traditionally in the world of journalism, August is regarded as lacking any news of note, and is, in the UK at any rate, dubbed the “Silly Season”.  In homage to that view-point, and instead of doing one of of my usual blog posts, I searched for all the haikus I have tweeted over the last three years and present them here for light relief.

 

Thirsty snails

Short of water, snails

Circle and swirl on the rocks,

Waiting for a storm.

All the stones of any consequence were encrusted with snails.  Then the rain came and they were gone.

Italy 25 July 2014

 

Evening lift-off

Italian evening;

Bats swoop as stag beetles lift

Into lurching flight

Note the hole in the left elytrum, the resident kitten at our Italian holiday villa really enjoyed herslf snatching the poor lumbering beasties (in this case a Rhinoceros beetle) out of the air ☹

Italy 27 July 2014

 

Breakfast?

Italian morning;

Lizards scurry on the stairs

as cicadas sing

Admittedly not on the stairs, but close enough 😊

28 July 2014

 

Seasons

 

Spring has sprung

 White, pink fluttering,

the gentle breeze scattering;

cherry blossom falls

Outside my office – 24 May 2016

 

Summer?

Blue sky, sun shining

Ducklings following mother

Winged aphids – summer?

4 May 2016

 

Summer?

Dull, damp, cold drizzle.

Clouds glowering down on me.

Flaming June my foot 😦

29 June 2017

 

St Martin

September sunshine;

Eating lunch sitting outside.

What could be better?

10 September 2014

 

On the way

 September morning,

Sunlit, moist mist-laden trees;

Autumn is coming

8 September 2014

Autumn

Crickle, crackle; leaves,

underneath my slipping feet.

Autumn is with us.

20 October 2015

 

I used to camp here as a lad!

Sodden tent, wet feet.

Rolling hills and drystone walls.

English Lake District

8 October 2014

 

Damp

How I hate mizzle;

as wet as real rain, but no

comforting refrain

26 November 2015

 

Satisfaction

Shuffling through brown leaves

On a sunny autumn day;

So satisfying.

2 November 2016

 

Wet Pavements in Lille

Desert boots are great

except when soles are holey.

Then rain means wet feet

10 December 2014

 

Transience

Icing sugar snow,

Gently being washed away;

Grey drizzle falling

29 January 2015

Miscellanea

 

Job downside

Academics hate

marking student assignments

on a sunny day

7 December 2016

 

Sunday lunch

 Butterflied mint lamb

roast potatoes and carrots;

apple and pear tart.

11 December 2016

 

Dedicated to @IMcMillan who spends a lot of time at stations

Cardboard coffee cups

tentatively raised to lips;

Morning commuters

7 July 2016

 

Definition

Searching for the why

and how things are like they are;

Entomology

20 December 2015

 

Blood Moon

Lustrous, silver orb

Bloody, awe-inspiring moon

Night-time amazement

28 September 2015

 

Evening entertainment

Bats, swiftly looping

Snatching insects from the sky

Feeding on the wing

26 July 2017

 

Regular readers, rest assured, normal service will be returned in the next post 🙂

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Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Just to wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy and productive New Year.  I am especially grateful to all of you who took the time to comment on my posts and/or press the like button.  Many thanks to those who shared my posts; your thoughtfulness is much appreciated.  I hope that you will continue to support my blog and follow me on Twitter in 2017.

merry-christmas-from-entoprof

 

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Entomologists – hirsutely stereotyped?

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

beard-1

Beard and entomologically-themed clothing – living the stereotype 🙂

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

beard-2

beard-3

Two views of the same beard

beard-4

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

beard-5

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

beard-6

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

beard-7

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

 

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

beard-8

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

beard-9

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

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

beard-10

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

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

beard-11

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

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

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

beard-12

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

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

beard-13

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

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

beard-14

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

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

beard-15

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

beard-16

Entomological Society of America 2016

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

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

beard-17

Me, happy with my head in a net

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

beard-18

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

beard-19

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

beard-20

Perhaps Santa Claus is an entomologist!

Merry Christmas to all my readers 🙂

 

References

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

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

 

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

 

 

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How to ruin the planet in three easy steps

In the space of a week I came across three items that made me despair even more than I normally do for the healthy future of our planet.  Coincidentally I was reading Neal Stephenson’s novel Seveneves, which is also about the environmental destruction of the Earth as we know it, albeit by an external disaster and not by our own efforts.  In his novel, the World’s leaders come together to save some of humanity and the planet’s genetic resources, and not destroy it as we seem hellbent on doing.

Item 1

Browsing in a local supermarket I came across what was to me, a new phenomenon, so-called Smartwater!

planet-1

This is an example of how the fetish/obsession for bottled water has gone way over the top

Step 1 – find a natural spring
Step 2 – extract the water
Step 3 – distil the water to remove the natural ‘impurities’ (sodium, calcium carbonates etc. which are electrolytes) by steam distillation (requires energy, probably from non-renewable sources)
Step 4 – put back the minerals (electrolytes) that were removed by the distillation process
Step 5 – bottle in plastic (not glass) bottles
Step 6 – sell at inflated prices to mugs

What is wrong with tap water folks? 😦  If as some feel, that the tap water has a strong taste of chlorine, leave it overnight before using it.

Item 2

The belief by some commentators and members of the UK  electorate, that the European Union has environmental policies designed to thwart  business rather than protecting the environment.

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Item 3

The long-running debate about where to site another runway in the UK to expand runway capacity by 2030.  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/09/heathrow-airport-expansion-plan-may-be-put-to-free-cabinet-vote

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Not a beautiful morning, rather a sign writ large upon the sky, of how much environmental harm we are doing to the planet.

Rather than expanding runways and airports to encourage growth in air-traffic and the use of fossil fuels, we should be thinking of ways to cut it and reduce our carbon footprint.  Cat Stevens was thinking about this very issue in 1971 in his fantastic song “Where do the Children Play?”

Well you roll on roads over fresh green grass.
For your lorry loads pumping petrol gas.
And you make them long, and you make them tough.
But they just go on and on, and it seems that you can’t get off.

Oh, I know we’ve come a long way,
We’re changing day to day,
But tell me, where do the children play?”

 

On the plus side some nations seem to be taking a more responsible approach to the exploitation of finite resources.  I am happy to say France, the location of our future retirement home, is leading the way in reducing the use of plastics.  They are also way ahead of us in encouraging the use of solar energy by homeowners.

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http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/france-becomes-the-first-country-to-ban-plastic-plates-and-cutlery-a7316816.html

It was also cheering to see that others share my views about the evils of air travel, as shown by the following two letters from the Guardian newspaper.  Perhaps all is not lost.

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https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/12/the-world-needs-leaders-who-refuse-to-fly-not-another-airport-runway-for-the-uk

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Is it because I is a social insect? Horrific cinematic misrepresentation of insects

It is night, we are outside a typical mid-western suburban house; lights shine through the drawn drapes as the camera pans across the lawn and miraculously slides through the window glass into the living room.  There are four people, a middle-aged man, slightly greying, watching the TV, his wife, a blond attractive woman in her late thirties, is holding a glossy magazine, glancing from it to the glowing TV set and back again.  Two children, a teen-age girl with braces,  blond hair tied back in a pony-tail, her thumbs busy on the touch screen of an expensive looking cell ‘phone, sits opposite her brother  oblivious to the world around him, head phones clamped to his ears, hands moving almost too fast to see as he destroys the enemy forces ranged against him.  The camera changes angle and moves closer to the ceiling; we hear a faint scritching, scratching sound, and as we zoom in to the dangling light fitting we see a chitin clad leg push through the gap between the flex and the fitting, followed by another leg. Next two ferociously barbed mandibles attached to an alien-looking head with dead black eyes and twitching antennae appear and the rest of the body pushes through the gap, to stand quivering on six long legs.  It peers cautiously around, turns as if beckoning and is joined by first one, then two, then a whole swarm of identical creatures.  They spread out across the ceiling and gather in four swollen, evilly pulsating mounds, one above each unsuspecting human.  Then, in response to an invisible signal, they drop silently from the ceiling.  We hear frenzied screaming and the sound of tearing flesh as the giant mandibles of the evil mutant ants get to work.  The screaming stops and the camera zooms in to reveal four perfectly stripped skeletons, only identifiable by the phone and braces, the magazine, the skull wearing the headphones and the TV remote clutched in a bony hand.  Arghh, Hollywood strikes again!

Equally possibly we could have seen a blond toddler clutching a toy spade prodding a mound of soil in his garden, followed by a swarm of ants rushing up the handle of the spade, which engulfs him so quickly that he doesn’t even have time to scream.  Then the more and more anxious calls from his Mum and the screams that follow as she finds his skeleton in the garden clutching his little spade.  Sometimes these scenes of soon to be disrupted idyllic family life are preceded by a scene in a jungle/municipal dump/deserted field/derelict building somewhere as the evil/careless scientist/factory owner/farmer drops/dumps illegal chemical/genetic mutation/radiation source next to an ant/wasp/bee nest.

Insect horror films have been around for almost as long as the medium in which they appear [for a much more scholarly dissertation of the phenomenon I recommend Leskovsky (2006)], but it was in the 1950s that the cinema going audience became subjected to a plethora of movies* featuring scantily clad screaming females and evil arthropods swarming across their cinema screens.  Although the phenomenon of death by bug took off in the 1950s, films glorying in the ‘evilness ‘of the arthropod world can easily be found in every decade since.

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Just some examples of how insects have been depicted by Hollywood since the 1950s

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Spiders also get as much, if not more, bad press as insects

There have been many theories put forward as to why deadly giant bugs should have captured the minds of the movie makers and their audiences, ranging from the fear engendered by the Cold War and the image of the swarming communist hordes, the fears of radiation-induced mutations**  (Biskind, 1983),  the well-meaning scientist whose experiments go wrong (Sontag, 1965), UFO sightings and bizarrely, to worries about crops being eaten by pests and the growing awareness of the dangers of over-use of pesticides (Tsutsui, 2007).

This fear of agricultural pests running amok resulted in an insect species not often featured in Big Bug Movies, the locust.  In the Beginning of the End, (1951),

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Rampaging locusts and Peter Graves

an agricultural scientist, played by Peter Graves (more famous to my generation as the star of Mission Impossible), who, in trying to feed the world, uses radiation induced mutation to successfully grow gigantic vegetables. Unfortunately, the vegetables are then eaten by locusts (the swarming phase of short-horned grasshoppers), which, contaminated by their unnatural food source, also grow to a gigantic size (a theme addressed much earlier by H.G. Wells in his novel The Food of the Gods). The giant locusts then attack the nearby city of Chicago, apparently, or so the poster for the film implies, focusing their attention on scantily clad women.  According to Wikipedia, the film is generally recognized for its “atrocious” special effects and considered to be one of the most poorly written and acted science fiction motion pictures of the 1950s.  Mission Impossible indeed!

Another possibility to explain the attraction of insects for the makers of horror films is the ability that insects have to reproduce rapidly and quickly achieve huge populations.  Leaving aside horror films, this characteristic causes concern to humans anyway.  Couple this with the often perceived super-mind of social insects and their demarcation into different castes and it is easy to understand why the concept of swarm intelligence and hive minds has captured the imaginations of film makers and horror and science-fiction writers.   A quick Google search for headlines about swarming bees and ants is enough to show the fear that the non-entomological public seem to have for these natural, and essentially harmless, phenomena e.g this story from last month about a grandmother being chased by bees, or this scare story from last year about flying ants. The use of negative imagery associated with social insects has not just been the prerogative of film-makers.   When Billy Graham opened the 1952 US Senate with a prayer he warned against the ‘barbarians beating at our gates from without and the moral termites from within” and Sir Winston Churchill also referred to the hive mind of the communist threat (Biskind,1983).

Whilst on the subject of horrific misrepresentations I can’t let the opportunity pass to mention two of what I consider to be the most unbelievable entomologists ever portrayed in film.  Michael Caine in The Swarm (1978) and Julian Sands*** in Arachnophobia (1990).  Neither of them does our profession any favours.

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Michael Caine attempting to mimic a serious entomologist

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Julian Sands as the stereotypical ‘mad’ obsessed entomologist

In marked contrast to the horror films aimed at adults, when it comes to the younger end of the market, insects are much more friendly and non-threatening,

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even crickets masquerading as grasshoppers, or vice versa  :-).

Insects for kids, even from more than a century ago, were portrayed as cute, lovable and anatomically and biologically incorrect and this has continued to the present day.

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The unbelievably cute and anatomically incorrect

On the other hand, I guess that as long as they make children less afraid of insects then I can’t really complain.  I have, however, no evidence, that children who enjoyed Antz and the Bee Movie, have grown up into adults less likely to run screaming when confronted at close quarters with bees and ants 🙂

Do let me know if you have evidence to the contrary.

 

References

Biskind, P. (1983) Seeing is Believing.  Henry Holt & Company, New York.

Leskovsky, R.J. (2006)  Size matters – Big bugs on the big screen. Pp 319-341 [In] Insect Poetics (ed. E.C. Brown), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Sontag, S. (1965) The imagination of disaster [In] Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Penguin Modern Classics (2009).

Tsutsui, W.M. (2007) Looking straight at Them! Understanding the big bug movies of the 195os.  Environmental History, 12, 237-253.

 

Post script

 

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This may have been the first film to feature insects; not a horror film per se, but the fly was apparently fixed very securely (and ultimately fatally) to the match head, so it was a pretty horrific experience for the poor fly.

 

*I of course, was brought up calling these films but I know that the majority of my audience, even those from the UK, use the word movie 🙂

** I particularity like the title of his hypothetical example of the genre, The Attack of the Giant Aphids 🙂

***Totally irrelevant, but I used to go drinking with his big brother Nick in my student days 🙂

 

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