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Pick and mix 7 – more eclectic links from the past week

Links to stuff I have read with interest; quite a lot about bees this week 😊

Interesting reflections on a life in science by Rich Lenski when he gave an address to newly graduated PhD students

A nice summary of what conservation biocontrol is all about, incidentally by a former PhD student of mine 🙂

An interesting opinion piece on how conservation efforts should move away from a species focus and use functional traits instead

Green walls – are they good for wildlife? – coincidentally written by another former student of mine 🙂

I totally agree – ecologists need to get outside more often

A blistering tale – what makes Blister beetles cause blisters

Saving the honeybee from the Varroa mite using a fungal biological control agent?

If you like bees and/or are a beekeeper, this interesting article by Norman Carreck, Science Director of the International Bee Research Association is a must read

Worrying evidence that it is not just insecticides that are killing bees – fungicides may also be a major culprit

On being a sustainable entomologist and helping to save the planet

 

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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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Sloth Moths – moving faster than their hosts

One of the minor downsides of our Biology and Taxonomy of Insects module on the MSc course is, that we do have to review a lot of families within some of the groups, Lepidoptera being a prime example.  Current estimates range from 250 000 to 500 000 species in 124 families (Kristensen et al., 2007). Going through the basic biology of each family can be pretty dry stuff, even if I have a personal anecdote or two to help lighten information overload.  I am, for example, able to wax lyrical for several minutes about small ermine moths and their incredible silk-production activities, but even after more than 40 years of playing around with insects I don’t have a personal story for every family of Lepidoptera 🙂 so I am always on the lookout for an extra interesting or mind-blowing fact to help leaven the student’s knowledge diet.

Imagine my delight then when I came across a clip* from a BBC One Wildlife programme, Ingenious Animals, describing an obligate association between sloths and moths and not just because of the rhyming opportunity** 🙂

Sloth with moths – BBC One Ingenious Animals

The earliest record of a moth associated with a sloth that I have been able to find is in 1877 (Westwood, 1877) which merely records that the unidentified moth was “parasitic on the three-toed sloth”. In 1908 a Mr August Busck on a visit to Panama saw a two-toed sloth, Choloepus hoffmanni fall from a tree and noticed several moths flying out of the sloth’s fur.  He caught these and on his return to the United States presented them to Dr Harrison Dyar (Dyar, 1908a).  If the name seems familiar to you that is because Harrison Dyar is better known in connection with Dyar’s Law, the observation that larval growth in arthropods is predictable and follows a geometric progression (Dyar, 1890). The moths were identified by Dyar as a new species which he named Cryptoses choloepi.  Dyar hypothesised that the moths and their larvae lived in the fur of the sloth and it was this that caused the sloth’s matted hair.

Cryptoses choloepi (Lepidoptera, Chrysauginae)

http://nmnh.typepad.com/department_of_entomology/2014/03/sloths-moths-and-algae-whos-eating-whom.html

Shortly after publishing the first note Dyar came across two more moth specimens, this time collected from a sloth in Costa Rica.  He felt that these were another species, possibly Bradipodicola hahneli (Dyar, 1908b).  The next mention of a sloth moth that I could fine is in a marvellously titled paper (Tate, 1931) who refers to a moth shot in western Ecuador whose fur was “literally alive with a small species of moth, whose larvae possibly fed on the greenish algae which grew in the hair”.  The idea that sloth moths fed on the fur of living sloths was further reinforced by Brues (1936) although this was not based on any personal observations.  It was only in 1976 that it was discovered that the larvae of the sloth moth Cryptoses choloepi were actually coprophagous (Waage & Montgomery, 1976), the female moths waiting for the three-toes sloth B. infuscatus to descend from the trees to relive their bowels, which they do about once a week.  As an aside, I have known Jeff Waage for many years in his role as a biological control expert but until I discovered this paper about a month ago, had no idea that he had ever spent time inspecting sloth faeces 🙂  Jeff and his co-author Gene Montgomery, described the association between the moths and the sloths as phoretic, rather than parasitic, as they saw no harm being caused to the sloths, but a number of benefits accruing to the moths, namely oviposition-site location being simplified, the fur of the sloth acting as refuge from avian predators and diet enhancement from sloth secretions (Waage, 1980).  It turns out however, that some species of sloth moth do spend their whole life cycle on the sloth, B. hahneli lose their wings once a sloth host is found and their eggs are laid in the fur of the sloth (Greenfield, 1981).  The algae that these moths presumably feed on is considered to be in a symbiotic association with the sloths, providing camouflage and possibly nutrition in the form of trace elements (Gilmore et al., 2001).  Hereby lies a tale.  The two-toed sloths have a much wider diet and home range than three-toed sloths and also defecate from the trees, unlike the three-toed sloths which have a very narrow diet (entirely leaves) and narrow home ranges, yet descend from the relative safety of the forest canopy to defecate, albeit only once a week, but still a risky undertaking (Pauli et al., 2017).  Rather than a phoretic relationship Pauli and colleagues see the relationship between sloths, algae and moths as a three-way mutualism, beautifully summarised in their Figure 3.

Postulated linked mutualisms (þ) among sloths, moths and algae: (a) sloths descend their tree to defecate, and deliver gravid female sloth moths (þ) to oviposition sites in their dung; (b) larval moths are copraphagous and as adults seek sloths in the canopy; (c) moths represent portals for nutrients, and via decomposition and mineralization by detritivores increase inorganic nitrogen levels in sloth fur, which fuels algal (þ) growth, and (d ) sloths (þ) then consume these algae-gardens, presumably to augment their limited diet. This figure brazenly ‘borrowed’ from Pauli et al. 2014).

The sloths take the risk of increased predation by descending to ground level, because by helping the moths they improve their own nutrition and hence their fitness.  Yet another great example of the wonders of the natural world.

 

Post script

Although not as exotic as the sloth moth, we in the UK can also lay claim to a coprophagous moth, Aglossa pinguinalis, the Large Tabby which feeds on, among other things, sheep dung.  In Spain it is recorded as a cave dweller feeding almost entirely on animal dung, apparently not being too fussy as to the source.

 

References

Bradley, J.D. (1982) Two new species of moths (Lepidoptera, Pyralidae, Chrysauginae) associated with the three-toed sloth (Bradypus spp.) in South America.  Acta Amazonica, 12, 649-656.

Brues, C.T. (1936) Aberrant feeding behaviour among insects and its bearing on the development of specialized food habits.  Quarterly Review of Biology, 11, 305-319.

Dyar, H.G. (1890) The number of molts of lepidopterous larvae. Psyche, 5, 420–422.

Dyar, H.G. (1908a) A pyralid inhabiting the fur of the living sloth.  Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington, 9, 169-170.

Dyar, H.H. (1908b) A further note on the sloth moth. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington, 10, 81-82.

Dyar, H.G. (1912) More about the sloth moth. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington, 14, 142-144.

Gilmore, D.PP., Da Costa, C.P. & Duarte, D.P.F. (2001) Sloth biology: an update on their physiological ecology, behaviour and role as vectors of arthropods and arboviruses.  Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, 34, 9-25.

Greenfield, M.D. (1981) Moth sex pheromones: an evolutionary perspective.  The Florida Entomologist, 64, 4-17.

Kristensen, N., Scoble, M.J. & Karsholt, O. (2007)  Lepidoptera phylogeny and systematics: the state of inventorying moth and butterfly diversity.  Zootaxa, 1668, 699-747.

Pauli, J.N., Mendoza, J.E., Steffan, S.A., Carey, C.C., Weimer, P.J. & Peery, M.Z. (2014) A syndrome of mutualism reinfocrs the lifestyle of a sloth.  Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 281, 20133006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2013.3006.

Pinero, F.S. & Lopez, F.J.P. (1998) Coprophagy in Lepidoptera: observational and experimental evidence in the pyralid moth Aglossa pinguinalisJournal of Zoology London, 244, 357-362.

Tate, G.H.H. (1931) Random observations on habits of South American mammals.  Journal of Mammalogy, 12, 248-256.

Waage, J.K. (1980) Sloth moths and other zoophilous Lepidoptera.  Proceedings of the British Entomological and Natural History Society, 13, 73-74.

Waage, J.K. & Montgomery, G.G. (1976) Crytopses choloepi: a coprophagous moth that lives on a sloth.  Science, 193, 157-158.

Westwood, J.O. (1877) XXVIII. Entomological Notes.  Transactions of the Entomological Society, 25, 431-439.

 

*For the clip about the sloth moth see here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04840xn

**Now, when I see a sloth,

My first thought is for the moth,

That has to make that desperate jump

When the sloth decides to take a dump!

 

 

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Ladybird, ladybug or Alder warbler

Insects with common names are usually those that are notable in some way, be that because they are causing us harm or are beautiful, brightly coloured and give us joy.  Vernacular names for agricultural pest insects usually refer to the crop they are harming, such as the grain aphid, the apple moth, the large pine weevil.  For non-pests however, names appear more arbitrary.  One of the most well-known and loved insect, is the ladybird, or if you are from North America, the ladybug.  These are not, however, the only names that these useful animals have acquired since they first attracted human attention.  They have, over the centuries, acquired a wonderful variety of names around the world.o start with, you may well ask why they have the prefix lady.  In England they were originally called “Our Lady’s bird”.  Leaving aside the mystery of why they were called birds, the first part of the name referred to the fact that the most commonly noticed ladybirds are red (albeit with white or black spots), and in the Middle ages images of the Virgin Mary usually showed her in a red dress.  Another linkage to the Virgin Mary is that the most commonly seen ladybird is the seven spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata), and this was associated with the Seven Joys and the Seven Sorrows of Mary.

 

The association with Mary is also seen in Spanish, mariquita, meaning little Mary and in German Marienkäfer, Mary’s beetle.  The reference to the colour red is reflected in the fact that ladybirds belong to the family Coccinellidae which comes from the Latin for scarlet, coccineus, see also cochineal.

Other languages also make reference to the Virgin Mary, in Bosnian, as in German, they are called Mary’s beetle, bubamara.  The Basuques, as far as I can make out with the help of Google Translate, refer to them as Mary’s yolk, marigorringoa. The religious association is also seen in Dutch, lieveheersbeestje which means  the Lord’s sweet little creature.  The Russians call ladybirds Божья коровка [bozhya korovka] which translates to God’s little cow. Lithuanians have two names for ladybirds, Dievo karvytė  God’s cow  but also call them boružė .  The Welsh have lost the religious reference and instead refer to ladybirds as red cows, buwch goch gota. The Greeks make a religious link with a reference to Easter, pashalitsa (Easter is Pasha), but also refer to it as “kind of beetle with fine plumage (feathers)”, είδος κάνθαρου με ωραία πτερά.  The Portuguese have opted for joaninha (ninha means baby), whereas the Slovenians and Slovaks have homed in on the spots, ladybird being pikapolonica (pika is dot) and slunéčko sedmitečné  (sedmit is seven) respectively. The Bulgarians call them калинка (kalinka) but the Finns take the prize for the most obscure name, with Leppäkerttu, which literally translated means alder warbler 🙂

It seems apposite, that as in Finnish they apparently sing,  I should include these two rhymes; one that most of us have come across in some form or other

 

and one from Sweden that will probably be less familiar to English speakers, but which similarly exhorts the ladybird to fly away and at the same time introduces yet another feathered name for the ladybird.

Guld-höna, guld-ko!
Flyg öster, flyg vester,
Dit du flyger der bor din älskade!

Gold-hen, gold-cow!
Fly east, fly west,
You’ll fly to where your sweetheart lives.

 

A gold cow with wings – Kamadhenu  a wish-fulfilling Hindu goddess

In Hindi, ladybirds are called sonapankhi, or golden wings and are associated with passing or failing exams, depending on whether it stays on your hand long enough for you to count the spots or not.

And finally, to prove that not all verse about ladybirds is doggerel, this poem by the poet Clive Sansom captures both the beauty and fragility of nature.

The Ladybird

Tiniest of turtles!
Your shining back
Is a shell of orange
With spots of black.

How trustingly you walk
Across this land
Of hairgrass and hollows
That is my hand.

Your small wire legs,
So frail, so thin,
Their touch is swansdown
Upon my skin.

There! break out
Your wings and fly:
No tenderer creature
Beneath the sky.

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Have you read The Origin of the Species?

As biologists we all acknowledge the influence that Charles Darwin has had on our professional lives but how many of us have actually read On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in its entirety?  The importance of The Origin has long been recognised by universities, even we agricultural zoology students at Leeds University back in 1973 had The Origin on our first year recommended reading list.  How many of my classmates bought it, let alone actually read it, is anyone’s guess.  I suspect not many.  I was somewhat odd, in that I had already read it, as far as I can remember when I was about 16 and just starting in the Lower 6th  (Year 12 in today’s parlance).  I was helped by the fact that both my parents were biologists and my Dad’s copy of The Origin was readily available. I was, and still am, a prodigious reader, although I must confess that I now find it much more difficult to read ‘hard’ books than I did then.

Finally, here is my question.  If as a professional biologist, of whatever ilk, does not having read The Origin make you any less of a biologist?  Should you be outed and castigated as an incomplete biologist?  Probably not.  What do you think?  I asked how many people had read  The Origin using a Twitter survey last week as a simple yes/no question.  The survey generated 53 responses, of  which 57% said yes.  The survey below is slightly more nuanced, taking into account the one respondent who tweeted “partially?”  🙂 Just realised that I managed to miss out the less than 18 category, my apologies.  If you are such a prodigy please feel free to tick the 18-25 box but add a note in the comments section so that I can adjust later.

 

Many thanks for your participation and rest assured, if you have not read The Origin I am not judging you in any way  🙂

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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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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.

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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.

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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

Rowley, C., Cherrill, A., Leather, S., Nicholls, C., Ellis, S. & Pope, T. (2016) A review of the biology, ecology and control of saddle gall midge, Haplodiplosis marginata (Diptera: Cecidomyiidae) with a focus on phenological forecasting.  Annals of Applied Biology, 169, 167-179

Stern, V.M., Smith, R.F., Van Den Bosch, R., & Hagen, K.S. (1959) The integrated control concept. Hilgardia, 29, 81-101.

Tscharntke, T., Clough, Y., Wanger, T.C., Jackson, L., Motzke, I., Perfecto, I., Vandermeer, J. & Whitbread, A. (2012) Global food security, biodiversity conservation and the future of agricultural intensification. Biological Conservation, 151, 51–59

Webb, K.M., R.M. , Harveson, R.M. & West, M.S. (2015)  Evaluation of Rhizoctonia zeae as a potential biological control option for fungal root diseases of sugar beet.  Annals of Applied Biology, 167, 75-89

Winer, J., Griepentrog, H.W. & Kristensen, L. (2001) Suppression of weeds by spring wheat Triticum aestivum increases with crop density and spatial uniformity.  Journal of Applied Ecology, 38, 784-790.

Zhang, W., Cao, G., Li, X., Zhang, H., Wang, C., Liu, Q., Chen, X., Cui, Z., Shen, J., Jiang, R., Mi, G., Miao, Y., Zhang, F. & Dou, Z. (2016) Closing yield gaps in China by empowering smallholder farmers. Nature, 537, 671-674

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A Roundabout Review of the Year – highlights from 2016

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

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

 

Impact and reach

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

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

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The top ten countries for views in 2016

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

 

Top reads

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

 

Comparative statistics

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

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

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

Tweeting for entomology

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

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

 

 

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Entomologists – hirsutely stereotyped? — Don’t Forget the Roundabouts

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 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 […]

via Entomologists – hirsutely stereotyped? — Don’t Forget the Roundabouts

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Insects in flight – whatever happened to the splatometer?

I have been musing about extinctions and shifting baselines for a while now; BREXIT and an article by Simon Barnes in the Sunday Times magazine (3rd September 2016) finally prompted me to actually put fingers to keyboard.  I fear that BREXIT will result in even more environmental damage than our successive governments have caused already.  They have done a pretty good job of ignoring environmental issues and scientific advice (badgers) even when ‘hindered’ by what they have considered restrictive European legislation and now that we head into BREXIT with a government not renowned for its care for the environment I become increasing fearful for the environment. Remember who it was who restructured English Nature into the now fairly toothless Natural England, because they didn’t like the advice they were being given and whose government was it who, rather than keep beaches up to Blue Flag standard decided to reclassify long-established resort beaches as not officially designated swimming beaches?  And, just to add this list of atrocities against the environment, we now see our precious ‘green belt’ being attacked.

My generation is liable to wax lyrical about the clouds of butterflies that surrounded us as we played very non PC cowboys and Indians outside with our friends in the glorious sunshine.  We can also fondly reminisce about the hordes of moths that used to commit suicide in the lamp fittings or beat fruitlessly against the sitting room windows at night.  The emptying of the lamp bowl was a weekly ceremony in our house.  We also remember, less fondly, having to earn our pocket-money by cleaning our father’s cars, laboriously scraping the smeared bodies of small flies from windscreens, headlamps and radiator grilles on a Saturday morning.  A few years later as students, those of us lucky enough to own a car, remember the hard to wash away red smears left by the eyes of countless Bibionid (St Mark’s) flies, as they crashed into our windscreens.

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Typical Bibionid – note the red eyes; designed specially to make a mess on your windscreen 🙂 https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/GBgoGHhRbj-eUUF9SxZ4s9MTjNZETYmyPJy0liipFm0?feat=embedwebsite

Are these memories real or are we looking back at the past through those rose-tinted glasses that only show the sunny days when we lounged on grassy banks listening to In the Summertime and blank out the days we were confined to the sitting room table playing board games?

We have reliable and robust long-term data sets showing the declines of butterflies and moths over the last half-century or so (Thomas, 2005; Fox, 2013) and stories about this worrying trend attract a lot of media attention. On a less scientific note, I certainly do not find myself sweeping up piles of dead moths from around bedside lamps or extricating them from the many spider webs that decorate our house.  Other charismatic groups, such as the dragonflies and damselflies are also in decline (Clausnitzer et al., 2009) as are the ubiquitous, and equally charismatic ground beetles (carabids) (Brooks et al., 2012).  But what about other insects, are they too on the way out?  A remarkable 42-year data set looking at the invertebrates found in cereal fields in southern England (Ewald et al., 2015) found that of the 26 invertebrate taxa studied less than half showed a decrease in abundance; e.g. spiders, Braconid parasitic wasps, carabid beetles, Tachyporus beetles, Enicmus (scavenger beetles), Cryptophagid fungus beetles, leaf mining flies (Agromyzids), Drosophila, Lonchopteridae (pointed wing flies), and surprisingly, or perhaps not, aphids.  The others showed no consistent patterns although bugs, excluding aphids, increased over the study period.  Cereal fields are of course not a natural habitat and are intensely managed, with various pesticides being applied, so are perhaps not likely to be the most biodiverse or representative habitats to be found in the UK.

But what about the car-smearing insects, the flies, aphids and other flying insects?  Have they declined as dramatically?  My first thought was that I certainly don’t ‘collect’ as many insects on my car as I used to, but is there any concrete evidence to support the idea of a decline in their abundance.  After all, there has been a big change in the shape of cars since the 1970s.

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Top row – cars from 1970, including the classic Morris 1000 Traveller that my Dad owned and I had to wash on Saturdays.

Bottom row the cars of today, sleek rounded and all looking the same.

 

Cars were  much more angular then, than they are now, so perhaps the aerodynamics of today’s cars filter the insects away from the windscreen to safety? But how do you test that?  Then I remembered that the RSPB had once run a survey to address this very point.  Sure enough I found it on the internet, the Big Bug Count 2004, organised by the RSPB.  I was very surprised to find that it happened more than a decade ago, I hadn’t thought it was that long ago, but that is what age does to you 🙂

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The “Splatometer” as designed by the RSPB

The idea, which was quite cool, was to get standardised counts of insect impacts on car number platesThe results were thought to be very low as the quote below shows, but on what evidence was this based?

“Using a cardboard counting-grid dubbed the “splatometer”, they recorded 324,814 “splats”, an average of only one squashed insect every five miles. In the summers of 30-odd years ago, car bonnets and windscreens would quickly become encrusted with tiny bodies.”  “Many people were astonished by how few insects they splatted,” the survey’s co-ordinator Richard Bashford, said.

Unfortunately despite the wide reporting in the press at the time, the RSPB did not repeat the exercise.  A great shame, as their Big Garden Birdwatch is very successful and gathers useful data.   So what scientific evidence do we have for a decline in these less charismatic insects?  Almost a hundred years ago, Bibionid flies were regarded as a major pest (Morris, 1921) and forty years ago it was possible to catch almost 70 000 adults in a four week period from one field in southern England (Darcy-Burt & Blackshaw, 1987).   Both these observations suggest that in the past Bibionids were very common.  It is still possible to pluck adult Bibionids out of the air (they are very slow, clumsy fliers) in Spring, but if asked I would definitely say that they are not as common as they were when I was a student.  But as Deming once said, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.”  In the UK we are fortunate that a long-term source of insect data exists, courtesy of Rothamsted Research, the longest running agricultural research station in the world.  Data have been collected from a nationwide network of suction and light traps for more than 50 years (Storkey et al., 2016).   Most of the publications arising from the survey have tended to focus on aphids (Bell et al., 2015) and moths (Conrad et al., 2004), although the traps, do of course, catch many other types of insect (Knowler et al., 2016).  Fortuitously, since I was interested in the Bibionids I came across a paper that dealt with them, and other insects likely to make an impact on cars and splatometers (Shortall et al., 2009).  The only downside of their paper was that they only looked at data from four of the Rothamsted Suction Traps, all from the southern part of the UK, which was a little disappointing.

splat-4

Location and results of the suction traps analysed by Shortall et al. (2009).

Only three of the trap showed downward trends in insect biomass over the 30 years (1973-2002) analysed of which only the Hereford trap showed a significant decline.  So we are really none the wiser; the two studies that focus on a wider range of insect groups (Shortall et al., 2009; Ewald et al., 2015) do not give us a clear indication of insect decline.   On the other hand, both studies are limited in their geographic coverage; we do not know how representative the results are of the whole country.

What a shame the RSPB stopped collecting ‘splatometer’ data, we would now have a half-decent time series on which to back-up or contradict our memories of those buzzing summers of the past.

Post script

After posting this I came across this paper based on Canadian research which shows that many pollinators, possibly billions are killed by vehicles every year.  This reduction in insect numbers and biomass has also been reported in Germany.

References

Bell, J.R., Alderson, L., Izera, D., Kruger, T., Parker, S., Pickup, J., Shortall, C.R., Taylor, M.S., Verrier, P. & Harrington, R. (2015) Long-term phenological trends, species accumulation rates, aphid traits and climate: five decades of change in migrating aphids.  Journal of Animal Ecology, 84, 21-34.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowler, J.T., Flint, P.W.H., & Flint, S. (2016) Trichoptera (Caddisflies) caught by the Rothamsted Light Trap at Rowardennan, Loch Lomondside throughout 2009. The Glasgow Naturalist, 26, 35-42.

Morris, H.M. (1921)  The larval and pupal stages of the Bibionidae.  Bulletin of Entomological Research, 12, 221-232.

Shortall, C.R., Moore, A., Smith, E., Hall, M.J. Woiwod, I.P. & Harrington, R. (2009)  Long-term changes in the abundance of flying insects.  Insect Conservation & Diversity, 2, 251-260.

Storkey, J., MacDonald, A.J., Bell, J.R., Clark, I.M., Gregory, A.S., Hawkins, N. J., Hirsch, P.R., Todman, L.C. & Whitmore, A.P. (2016)  Chapter One – the unique contribution of Rothamsted to ecological research at large temporal scales Advances in Ecological Research, 55, 3-42.

Thomas, J.A. (2005) Monitoring change in the abundance and distribution of insects using butterflies and other indicator groups.  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 360, 339-357

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