Tag Archives: British Ecological Society

British Ecological Society Annual Meeting 2018 – representing ecologists but not ecology?

I managed to get to the BES annual meeting this year.  I hadn’t been since 2014 as I boycotted the 2015 meeting*  and the timing of the 2016 and 2017 meetings meant I couldn’t attend those due to teaching commitments.  This time the meeting was in Birmingham and term had ended so there was nothing to get in the way of reconnecting with the annual meetings, the first of which I attended in 1977.  I arrived, soaked to the skin, at the International Conference Centre on a very rainy Sunday afternoon.  Despite the inauspicious start, I was heartened to have a reminder of the BES Undergraduate Summer School; one of my fluorescent beetles from the evening “track a beetle” exercise was on display 😊

Fluorescent carabid beetle, the star of the evening at the Malham BES Summer School 2018

In general, despite the sad memories the pre-Christmas period carries with it, It was good to catch up with old friends and former students.  As a bonus there were some fantastic plenaries; I particularly enjoyed Sam M Gon III’s talk on The Hawaiian Islands as a Model for Biocultural Conservation, which opened with a traditional Hawaiian chant.

A most unusual and very enjoyable plenary

Great to see lots of very special insects

Another great plenary was Danielle Lee’s on science communication and the importance of getting local non-scientists involved in one’s research programmes.

Danielle Lee – On the importance of science communication, a subject close to my heart

There were a lot of great talks, but as is often the case with large meetings, a lot of clashes and hard decisions to make about which talks to miss.  As a member of the Twitterati I was made very aware of this by seeing the Tweets about talks I was missing 😊

Alistair Seddon – a Doctor Who fan

One thing that struck me very forcibly, was that entomology seemed to be very under-represented compared with when I first started attending BES meetings.  There were no specific sessions dedicated to invertebrates; in earlier years it was relatively easy to find insect-themed sessions and talks.  This year, and perhaps this is a modern trend in ecology, even the titles of many of the talks didn’t mention the study organism, the abstract being the only clue about what was being discussed.  I have noticed this trend in paper titles recently too, and will, I am sure, address this in a future blog post 😊 It worries me somewhat that conservation biologists and ecologists have, despite the warnings that a number of eminent ecologists have made in the past, former BES President, Bob May, for example (Clarke & May, 2002) that funding and practical conservation is heavily biased in favour of vertebrate (Seddon et al., 2005), which are hardly representative of global macro-biodiversity. As far as the British Ecological Society goes, one would expect that a Society that has, over the last decade or so, become increasingly politicised, and on the face of it, publicly engaged with climate change and other ecological issues, to actively implement a change in direction of the research supported and showcased.

I have previously taken the Journal of Animal Ecology to task for ignoring most of the world’s animal life, yes you guessed it, invertebrates 😊 Their cover images are similarly biased.  Sadly, I am now going to have to take the British Ecological Society to task. I mentioned earlier that I felt the general content of the talks and posters was not representative of the world we live in and on leaving the conference decided to see if my gut feeling was a true reflection of the event.  Amy Everard of the British Ecological Society, kindly supplied me with the abstracts of the talks and posters which I then categorised according to the study organism(s) covered.  Some were a bit difficult, as even with the abstract it was difficult to decide where the focus was, so fungi and microbes may be a little more under-represented than they were in reality, particularly where the talk was on the interactions between fungi, microbes, insects and plants and in some cases, vertebrates.  I lumped all invertebrates together, although as you might expect, most invertebrates were arthropods and those were mainly insects. Plants included trees and forests where the focus was on the role the plant component played and general includes models and multi-organismal studies.  Vertebrates, which were largely birds and mammals, also includes fish, and the very few studies on amphibians and reptiles. Crude, but I feel it gives the overall picture.

First, just to remind you how life on the planet is divided up between the various taxa based on species described to date (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Relative proportions of plant, animal, fungi and microbial species described to date.

So how does this compare with what attendees at BES2018 saw and heard about? As you can see, my gut was right, the little things that run the world were under-represented in both the talks (Figure 2) and posters (Figure 3).

Figure 2. Taxa represented in talks at BES2018 (plants 32%, vertebrates 25%, invertebrates 20%, general 19%, fungi and microbes 4%)

 

Figure 3. Taxa represented in posters at BES2018 (plants 34%, vertebrates 31%, invertebrates 15%, general 13%, fungi and microbes 7%).

Of some comfort to plant scientists is that despite the often cited unpopularity of plants among students, about a third of all the talks and posters were plant-based.   If one goes purely by biomass, then this is an under-representation of the importance of plants.  A recent paper (Bar-On et al., 2018), estimates that plants make up almost 90% of the planet’s biomass, with the animal kingdom making up perhaps as little as 5% (Figure 4). Given that insects and other invertebrates account for perhaps 97% of all animal life, this further emphasises that the time and funding given to vertebrate ecology is totally unjustified.

Figure 4. Biomass of organisms on Earth from Bar-On et al (2018)

Unfortunately, the British Ecological Society is not alone in overemphasising the importance of the tiny number of vertebrates.  Perhaps more disturbingly is the fact that references to insects in introductory biology textbooks have declined hugely over the last century (Figure 5) while those to vertebrates have increased (Gangwani & Landin, 2018).

 Disappearing insect references (Gangwani & Landin, 2018).

This is a serious problem and one that the British Ecological Society for one, should be doing something about.  Yes, the BES might represent ecologists in general, but they certainly don’t represent ecology.  The Trustees of the BES should take note of the following statement from a group of ecological entomologists “the neglect of insects as study organisms has led to serious bias in our understanding of the functional ecology of ecosystems” (Basset et al., 2019) and the concerns echoed by conservation practitioners (Figure 6) and if that isn’t enough, then perhaps this will “a broader taxonomic base for threatened species assessments, adequately representing invertebrates, will facilitate more profound conservation and policy decisions” (Eisenhauer et al., 2019).

Figure 6. What people on the ground say; a haphazard selection from Twitter

I’ll just leave you with this thought, there are as many aphid species in the world as there are mammal species, just over 5000, but you wouldn’t know it from the number of PhD and post-doctoral positions that are advertised annually, and as for Tipulids (craneflies), a similar sized family….

 

References

Bar-On, Y.M., Philips, R. & Milo, R.  (2018) The biomass distribution on Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115, 6506-6511.

Basset, Y., Miller, S.E., Gripenberg, S., Ctvrtecka, R., Dahl, C., Leather, S.R. & Didham, R.K. (2019) An entomocentric view of the Janzen-Connell Hypothesis.  Insect Conservation & Diversity, 12, 1-8.

Clarke, J.A. & May, R.M. (2002) Taxonomic bias in conservation research. Science, 297, 191-192.

Eisenehauer, N, Bonn, A. & Guerra, C.A. (2019) Recognizing the quiet extinction of invertebrates. Nature Communications, 10, 50

Gangwani, K. & Landin, J. (2018) The decline of insect representation in biology textbooks over time. American Entomologist, 64, 252-257.

Seddon, P.J., Soorae, P.S. & Launay, F. (2005) Taxonomic bias in reintroduction projects. Animal Conservation, 8, 51-58.

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

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

 

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

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

The importance of entomology.

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

How many different techniques can you spot?

Keen beans – the students enjoying collecting and identifying insects.

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

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

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

Rising from the rain

Summer mist, slowly rolling,

Hides Malham Tarn

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

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

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

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

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Malham in the Sun – introducing entomology to budding ecologists

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

Malham 1
The weather on arrival was in marked contrast to last year.

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

Malham 2

The long walk

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

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

DSCF7290

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

Malham 3

I seem to have done a lot of arm waving

Malham

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

Malham 5

Being cruel to trees

 

Malham 6  Malham 4

Some of the stars of the day

 

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

Malham 7

Fluorescing carabids

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

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

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

Malham 8

Much better than anything I could draw

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

Malham 9

Glorious Yorkshire

 

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

 

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Mee(a)ting Issues with the British Ecological Society – Why I boycotted the 2015 Annual Meeting

Normally at this time of year I would be recovering from the enjoyable after-effects of the British Ecological Society (BES) annual meeting, too much talking, too much eating, too much coffee, too much beer and wine and not enough sleep.

This year however, I denied myself the traditional end to the academic year as I decided to boycott the meeting. As someone who has, since 1977, missed only a handful of meetings, this was a big personal sacrifice, but I felt very strongly that I needed to make a protest , hence the one person boycott! So what prompted this action?

I was fully intending on attending the meeting in Edinburgh, having spent ten years living in Peebles and working at the Forest Research Station at Roslin, Edinburgh is full of pleasant memories for me. I logged on to the site to register for the meeting and was stunned and annoyed to come across this statement:

Food Policy In an effort to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the BES has decided to remove all farmed ruminant meat from its catering. Ruminants and their farming are key producers of methane. We run several large events a year, serving thousands of meals to participants and are keenly aware of the impact of human activity on natural systems. We will continue to cater for non-vegetarians, but will remove farmed ruminant meat from menus and will also only serve MSC certified fish. We take seriously our commitment to greening our events and hope you understand and support our decision. For more information on the background to this decision, read the paper by Ripple, W.J. et al: Ruminants, climate change and climate policy. – See more at: http://www.britishecologicalsociety.org/events/current_future_meetings/2016-annual-symposium/registration/#sthash.WioDx4lA.dpuf

Two things about this statement really got my goat (ruminant pun intended) – first, the non-democratic nature of this decision, the membership were never polled about this and second, the patronising and insulting statement, “We will continue to cater for non-vegetarians” This is tantamount to the comments by the vegan Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Kerry McArthy who suggested that meat eaters should be treated like smokers. As ecologists, and presumably all scientists with some biological background, the people running the BES know that we are omnivores by nature, look at our dentition and gut structure folks!

Meat Fig 1

 

I would also point out that the UK dairy herd is bigger (1.9 million) than the beef herd (1.5 million) and that you can’t have one without the other. The UK is the world’s tenth largest producer of milk (2.2%). So why not ban all dairy products and make delegates drink their tea and coffee black or with a vegetable based milk substitute? What about ruminant derived products? Whilst we are about it, how about penalizing delegates wearing wooly jumpers, leather shoes, leather belts and carrying their cash in leather wallets, purses and handbags?

I raised my concerns via Twitter and Facebook and did have a minor discussion with Andrew Beckerman, the chair of the Meetings Committee, but to no real satisfaction. I pointed out that why should people who enjoy beef and lamb be singled out, when those BES members who fly and drive everywhere were not targeted? I made the decision many years ago that I would not fly if at all possible, basically unless work dictated it, and as a result have flown (including return flights) only six times in the last twenty years. I recycle obsessively and my foreign travel is by train, ferry or Skype! So yes, tropical field work and international conferences on the other side of the world are a thing of the past, but I see no need for flying visits by western ecologists to indulge in brief exotic field work. Either go for the duration of the study or stay at home and discover the wonders of your own back yard, or rather than be an ecological imperialist, trust the local scientists to collect the data for you to number crunch. Or if you feel that your presence is indispensable, then go by ship and take the opportunity to write and read papers on the way 🙂

Although Ripple et al (2014) make a convincing case for slowing down greenhouse gas emissions by reducing ruminant production they do so from the highly biased minority viewpoint of those with “ecological privilege” (Nevins, 2014). They thus singularly fail to address the equally effective and more attainable actions that can be made by targeting travel, especially by air and private motoring Girod et al., 2012). There are over 100,000 flights a day and air travel is set to double by the year 2050 despite the fact that fossil fuels (oil at any rate) will run out in about 40-50 years (the former estimate according to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, the latter by BP). One might ask then why do we have politicians wanting to build more airports and runways? As an ecologist this does not compute, but then looking at how many of my colleagues boast about their cheap flights compared with my more expensive rail trips, perhaps it does. As Nevins (2014) points out, a privileged few enjoy the ability to travel quickly and comfortably (although I would dispute the comfortably) around the world to conferences and field sites and this has a very significant effect on carbon emissions. Nevins calculated the carbon emissions generated by the Association of American Geographers to attend their 2011 meeting in Seattle as 5,352 metric tons, pointing out that the annual total per capita carbon emissions from energy consumption in Haiti is 210 kg and for Bangladesh 290 Kg, i.e. the air travel alone to and from the Seattle conference per delegate was more about three times the total annual emissions of an average Haitian or Bangladeshi which by any standard is unbalanced and profligate. Whilst other travel forms are amenable to very large future reductions in carbon emissions by improvements in technology, the evidence is that air travel will prove intractable and that the only feasible way forward is to drastically reduce flights made (Girod et al., 2012, 2013). Given that only 2-3% of the world’s population flies internationally (Peeters et al., 2006), this would seem a realistic aim and cause less harm to livelihoods and ways of life of people in less developed nations (note that 31 % of the global cattle herd are found in India, compared with 0.35% in the UK – Table 1). Unfortunately, although many of this wealthy airborne 2-3% are keen to embrace ‘light green habits’ such as home recycling and composting, they are the most likely to indulge in long distance flights and not want to be denied the ‘privilege’ of flying (Barr et al., 2010).

I don’t think that it is in the BES’s remit to impose life style choices on its membership by banning particular food groups. If the BES directorate want to make an environmental point using food as an example, then perhaps they should concentrate on food miles instead and serve locally sourced meat and seasonal vegetables. Delegates at the Edinburgh meeting could then have enjoyed the excellent Scottish beef that is available served with ‘tatties and neeps’ and perhaps also have experienced that particularly Scottish delicacy, the Scotch pie 🙂

Meat Fig 2

I do hope that the BES will reconsider their food policy as I would hate to have to miss any of the many excellent meetings scheduled for 2016.

References

Barr, S., Shaw, G., Coles, T. & Prillwitz, J. (2010) “A holiday is a holiday”: Practicing sustainability, home and away. Journal of Transport Geography, 18, 474-481.

Girod, B., van Vuuren, D.P. & Detman, S. (2012) Global travel within the 2oC climate target. Energy Policy, 45, 152-166.

Girod, B., van Vuuren, D.P. & Hertwich, E.G. (2013) Global climate targets and future consumption level: an evaluation of the required GHG intensity. Environmental Research Letters, 8, 014016.

Nevins, J. (2014) Academic jet-setting in a time of climate destabilization: ecological privilege and professional geographic travel.   The Professional Geographer, 66, 298-310.

Peeters, P., Gössling, S. & Becken, S. (2006) Innovation towards tourism sustainability: Climate change and aviation. International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development, 1, 184-200

Ripple, W.J., Smith, P., Haberl, H., Montzka, S.A., McAlpine, C. & Boucher, D.H. (2014) Ruminants, climate change and climate policy. Nature Climate Change, 4, 2-5.

 

Post script

Some meaty facts for the British Ecological Society to ruminate upon.

Meat Fig 3

The global cattle herd peaked in 1990 and has been declining, albeit gradually, ever since.

Meat Fig 4

There are approximately 1 billion sheep in the world, of which 187,000,000 (18%) are in China; in the UK there are 22,900,000. There are 674,000,000 goats in the world, most of which are in the tropics.

Post post script

Annual UK total GHG  emissions from meat eating are 17,052,000 metric tonnes per year, CO2 emissions alone from cars is 164,500,000, almost ten times more and aviation not far behind agriculture.

UK emissions

Post post post script

Here is a link to a paper that suggests increasing beef production could lower greenhouse gas emissions, at least in Brazil – http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nclimate2916.html

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Vive La France! The BES crosses La Manche

This year the AGM of the British Ecological Society  (BES) was a joint affair with the Société Française d’Écologie (SFE) and was held in Lille in northern France just over an hour away from London by Eurostar.  Given our love of France and in my wife’s case, Christmas markets, there was no way I was not going to attend this landmark meeting especially as the BES were willing to pay my registration fee in recognition of my role as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Animal Ecology.   My mother-in-law is also a keen fan of Christmas markets so she decided to come along and keep Gill company.

We left London on a later train than originally planned (strike action in Brussels) and arrived in Lille mid –afternoon Monday to find that our hotel was a good 4 km away from the railway station and almost as far away from the Grand Palais where the conference was being held.  Luckily my mother-in-law, although almost 86, is very spry and took the longish walk in her stride.  We eventually found the hotel, on the way being amused by an Irish pub with a very non-Irish name 😉

DSCF4821

An unusual name for an Irish Pub

Being a Monday in France, not much was open but we eventually found somewhere to eat for a reasonable price, and amusingly were served by an English waiter!

As the conference registration didn’t start until Tuesday evening we spent most of the day sight-seeing and bumping into fellow delegates.

 

DSCF4831  DSCF4835  DSCF4842  DSCF4837

The Christmas market was, however, somewhat disappointing, especially for those of us who were at the BES Birmingham meeting a couple of years ago.

DSCF4829

The very small Christmas Market

The damp weather was also a bit off-putting.  This was when I started to regret my decision to opt for a comfortable well-worn pair of Desert Boots with holes in the soles instead of a new pair.

DSCF4849

Wet, cold feet

The state of my feet inspired me to tweet an appropriate Haiku 😉

 

Wet Pavements in Lille

Desert boots are great,

except when soles are holey;

then rain means wet feet

 

The BES and SFE did a great job – a very full programme kept us occupied from Wednesday 10th until late afternoon of Friday 12th December.  (Gill and my mother-in-law managed to get to Brussels and Arras for their Christmas markets).  My only gripe was that because it was such a popular meeting (over 1100 delegates) that there were a huge number of sessions (62) so I missed a lot of talks that I wanted to hear.  This is why in some ways I much prefer smaller conferences such as the Royal Entomological Society annual meetings where there are generally only two parallel sessions.  I have long ago given up trying to session- hop, so confined myself to the plenaries and complete sessions such as the Agricultural Ecology, Pest & Pesticides session, where one of my favourite talks was given by Victoria Wickens from the University of Reading on local and landscape effects on aphids and their natural enemies; she was supported in the audience by her identical twin, Jennifer (also a PhD student at Reading and who spoke later in the Plant-Pollinator Interactions session).  I first meet Jennifer and Victoria at the BES AGM in Leeds when they were MSc students and student helpers.  It was only towards the end of that conference that I realised that there were actually two of them 😉

With careful planning I managed to fit in the Urban Ecology session, the Ecology & Society session, the symposium session on plant-insect-microbe interactions, and a session on herbivory.  There were a lot of really good talks and I learnt a lot. I made sure that I attended the Friday morning talk by Grrl Scientist who spoke about the use of social media and crowd funding in ecology.  I was somewhat embarrassed (and flattered) to have my blog publicly cited as an example of what other ecologists should be doing.  It was lucky that it was dark in the auditorium as I was blushing rather a lot.

The influence of the SFE was definitely felt; the catering was much, much better than we normally get at the normal BES meetings and it was great to see so many French ecologists.

Cakes DSCF4848 DSCF4850

and the free beer at lunch time was a welcome innovation that went down very well with the English delegates 😉

Free beer

The organisers of the meeting next year in Edinburgh must be feeling somewhat nervous 😉

 

Very many thanks to the BES and SFE and their local organisers for putting on such a splendid meeting; a veritable scientific and gastronomic delight.

DSCF4853

The infamous Desert boots – back home and ready to be  put to rest!

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Where have all the insects gone? Perhaps they were deterred by Editorial Board composition!

In a recent Animal Ecology in Focus blog post, the Executive Editor of Journal of Animal Ecology, Ken Wilson, made a spirited response to my well documented Twitter comments about the lack of insect papers in the journal and also highlighted by me in the recent JAE Virtual issue which I compiled to celebrate National Insect Week 2014. Ken had been somewhat sceptical about my claims but when he analysed the data he found, much to my gratification 😉 that I was correct; the number of insect papers published by Journal of Animal Ecology, has indeed fallen steeply since the 1970s, and this was true for two of the other journals from the British Ecological Society’s (BES) portfolio, Journal of Applied Ecology and Functional Ecology.

Fig 1 JAE

Figure 1. Trends in the number of citations per taxon in Journal of Animal Ecology (reproduced from Ken’s post).

Ken also looked at Ecology, published by the Ecological Society of America and Oikos, published by The Nordic Society Oikos. In both cases he found that insects and other invertebrates had held their own over the last forty years.

Fig 2 JAE

Figure 2. Trends in the number of citations per taxon in Ecology (data for the period 1978-1990 are excluded due to poor data quality). (again reproduced from Ken’s post)

Ken refutes any claim of editorial bias, acceptance rates for insect papers are similar to those for vertebrate papers, and hypothesizes that the reason insect and invertebrate papers have declined in the BES journals is due to the subject areas favoured by the journal i.e. demography, evolutionary ecology, spatial ecology and disease ecology; fields that in the UK are dominated by vertebrate ecologists and/or the rapidly decreasing number of entomologists employed by UK universities. This may be a contributing factor, but entomologists in the UK and worldwide also work in these fields, so it cannot be the whole story. He urges the entomological community to submit more papers to the journal in order to redress the balance.

Interestingly enough, the response among the Twitter community seemed to show that most entomologists did not perceive Journal of Animal Ecology as being insect friendly and in some cases it was seen not just as a vertebrate journal, but as an ornithological one, echoing a comment made by Jeremy Fox over at the Dynamic Ecology blogThese data are consistent with the rumor I heard back when I was a postdoc, that JAE got so many bird-related submissions that they had to work hard to avoid turning into an ornithology journal.”

So what has changed since the 1970s? Back when I was a PhD student, ecological entomologists had no hesitation in submitting their papers to Journal of Animal Ecology, Oecologia and Oikos, or if their work was applied, then Journal of Applied Ecology was a first choice venue, with Annals of Applied Biology also considered a logical place to submit entomological papers. Looking back at the papers published from my PhD work, I find that I published one in Journal of Animal Ecology (Wellings et al, 1980), one in Journal of Applied Ecology (Leather et al, 1984 (back in the early 1980s Journal of Applied Ecology could take over a year to make a decision), and three in Oecologia (Leather et al, 1983a,b; Ward et al., 1984). Of my other more applied work, three were published in the Annals of Applied Biology and the rest in specialised entomological journals, (five in Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, and three in the Journal of Applied Entomology).

So why did entomologists have no hesitation in sending their papers to Journal of Animal Ecology and Journal of Applied Ecology in the 1970s. A quick look at the Editorial Boards of the two journals, admittedly much smaller than those of today, shows us that in 1977 (when I started my PhD), Roy Taylor (entomologist) and Malcolm Elliott (fresh water ecologist) were editors of the former, with and editorial board consisting of T B Bagenal (fish), R A Kempton (statistics), Mike Hassell (entomologist), John Krebs (birds), John Lawton (entomologist), A D McIntyre (marine invertebrates) and John Whittaker (entomologist); Journal of Applied Ecology jointly edited by entomologist, Tom Coaker and botanist R W Snaydon, had a slightly larger board, eleven in total, five botanists, two more entomologists, an invertebrate ecologist, an environmental physicist and two vertebrate ecologists. So for both these journals, vertebrate ecologists were in the minority.

Moving on to 2014, what is the current composition of the two boards? Journal of Animal Ecology, is dominated by vertebrate ecologists, 62%, with only 25% being invertebrate specialists. Journal of Applied Ecology is also dominated by vertebrate ecologists, 48%, with 28% being plant scientists of various hues and only 21% being invertebrate ecologists. Now let’s have a look at the two journals where there has been no change in the proportion of invertebrate papers published; Ecology is remarkably balanced, although invertebrates are under-represented; 27% plants, 27% vertebrates, 26% invertebrates, 9% microbial. Oikos has an even better board composition, 41% being invertebrate ecologists, 29% plant ecologist and a mere, although still over-represented, 17% being vertebrate ecologists.

In summary, although I am sure that there is no explicit bias against invertebrates by the Editors of either Journal of Animal Ecology or Journal of Applied Ecology, the very fact that their Editorial Boards are dominated by vertebrate ecologists acts as an attractant to vertebrate ecologists and as a deterrent to entomologists who thus choose to submit their papers elsewhere, resulting in the vertebrate dominated situation we see today.

Towards the end of Ken’s excellent post he says “Well, if the number of papers we published on each taxon reflected the number of species on the planet, then for every 1000 insect papers we publish, we should publish just 31 papers on fish, 13 on reptiles & amphibians, 10 on birds, and a miserly 5 papers on mammals! Clearly, this would be ridiculous”

Why would this be so ridiculous I ask? This is another good example of institutional vertebratism. After all, as Ken points out to us entomologists (and of course this includes Ken himself) “for taxon-specific papers, there are plenty of excellent specialist journals” This applies equally to the vertebrate world, so why shouldn’t a journal of animal ecology be dominated by invertebrates?

 

References

Leather, S.R., Ward, S.A. Wellings, P.W. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1983) Habitat quality and the reproductive strategies of the migratory morphs of the bird cherry-oat aphid Rhopalosiphum padi. Oecologia, 59, 302-306.

Leather, S.R., Ward, S.A., & Dixon, A.F.G. (1983) The effect of nutrient stress on life history parameters of the black bean aphid, Aphis fabae Scop. Oecologia, 57, 156-157.

Leather, S.R., Carter, N., Walters , K.F.A., Chroston, J.R., Thornback, N., Gardner, S.M., & Watson, S.J. (1984) Epidemiology of cereal aphids on winter wheat in Norfolk, 1979-1981. Journal of Applied Ecology, 21, 103-114.

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

Wellings, P.W., Leather, S.R. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1980) Seasonal variation in reproductive   potential: a programmed feature of aphid life cycles. Journal of Animal Ecology 49, 975-985.

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Sometimes big can be good – Reflections on INTECOL 2013

Warning:  I am not going to discuss the science presented, just my impressions of the conference as a whole.

In April I wrote about my dislike of big international conferences  citing reasons such as  the difficulty in finding people, session clashes, people giving talks on already published papers and the tendency of just talking to people you already know.  I finished the article somewhat cynically, with the phrase “perhaps INTECOL will prove me wrong”; for those of you who may not know, INTECOL is the acronym of the International Association for Ecology (I had to look it up myself to get it exactly right).  INTECOL 2013 (#INT13 for Twitter users) coincided with the 100th birthday of the British Ecological Society and was held at the ExCel Centre in London.  It thus promised to be a very large event.  So two strikes against it already as far as I was concerned, huge conference and in London, probably my least favourite city of all time; twenty years of commuting into the South Kensington campus of Imperial College from Bracknell has not left me pleasant memories and although having had a cosmopolitan childhood I am a small village boy at heart.  I probably wouldn’t have gone to INTECOL at all, if the British Ecological Society hadn’t subsidised my attendance (I am an Associate Editor for the Journal of Animal Ecology) and we hadn’t taken our summer holiday earlier than usual this year.  I decided that I would commute in daily, rather than pay for accommodation; we still have a house in Bracknell, despite me working in Shropshire, and it would also give me the opportunity to have some family time.

For me the conference started on Sunday morning when my wife and I travelled into the ExCel Centre to set up the Harper Adams University display stand.  This was done very quickly and we then went for a walk in the sunshine to look at the surrounding area with the impressive London Dockers statue just outside the ExCel , and the street food outlets down near the

Dockers-Statue_preview

Emirates Air Lines (cable cars across the  Thames) and an abortive trip to look at the London Olympic site (no access available); luckily next to the Westfield Shopping Centre, so some entertainment there;  people watching from the M&S Café on the Bridge and a free taster glass of the new Pimms flavour, blackberry and elderflower.  Then back to the ExCel for the very pleasant welcome mixer, where as I had predicted I spoke to people I already knew and then back home to Bracknell.  I was up very early on Monday to catch the dreaded Reading to Waterloo slow service (65 minutes from Bracknell to Waterloo) and then the 40 minute tube and DLR journey from Waterloo to Prince Regent and the ExCel.  Things were very busy but as I had volunteered to do student talk judging, my schedule was fixed for me for the first two days; no need to wade through the huge programme and sigh over clashes.   At the first plenary it was announced that questions would only be taken via Twitter; there were a few disgruntled groans from the audience but as a Twitter convert of less than a year, I was intrigued and  it also gave me an idea.  There and then I decided that I would try to say hello in person to as many people I could find who followed me on Twitter, my fellow Tweeps.  I had a mission and I have to admit it made the meeting quite fun, instead of waiting for people to say hello and mainly just talking to old friends I was on the hunt; as an entomologist it reminded me very much of my childhood days of insect collecting.  This was also made easier by the very user-friendly delegate badges, actually readable at a distance and here I at least, was very pleased with the draconian attitude of the ExCel

Simon Badge

security staff who insisted that badges were worn at all times by delegates.  It always annoys me when delegates don’t wear their badges and when the lettering is so small that you have to get embarrassingly close to people’s vital areas to identify them 😉  Note that in the picture above the lanyard is positioned to prevent the badge turning round and being unreadable; many people used the central hole which meant that their badges were often totally useless as a means of identification.

Wrong badge

At first I took a few of my ex-students to task (of which there were many) and showed them how to wear their badges.  I may then have become somewhat evangelical, indeed officious, about the subject and started teaching strangers how to wear their badges correctly;

Badge wearing

no matter I had a mission and was enjoying the conference and meeting lots of new people. The second conference-changing moment was the plenary lectures and asking questions via Twitter, or Tweeqs as I called them.  One problem I did have, was that I found it difficult to type and listen at the same time; how do students manage in lectures?  I also found that although you could ask a question there was then no chance to riposte when the speaker answered verbally to the whole audience, so no real debate, but I think it has potential.  For example, my question to Georgina Mace, who gave a very good lecture on biodiversity conservation in the 21st Century but largely ignored invertebrates when making assumptions and predictions about the future, was not entirely answered to my

G Mace question

satisfaction, being along the lines of yes I know that data are not balanced but we are waiting for you guys to produce similar data sets, did generate some Twitter debate but I was not able to respond directly to Georgina.  Still, I think that this is definitely an

Mace riposte

creative way forward and allows people not at a conferences to ‘attend’.  I especially highlight this for the benefit of Chris Buddle of McGill University and Blogger extra-ordinaire at Arthropod Ecology, who although not at INTECOL, was able to participate, albeit only at a distance (from Canada to be precise).

Buddle question

Perhaps at future meetings there may be some way to employ an official conference tweeter (or more), akin to the way translators are used at the United Nations?

I also very much enjoyed meeting many of the next generation of ecologists as well as chatting to many ex-students and colleagues.  I would especially like to highlight the fact that Kathryn Luckett, a PhD student at Silwood Park, publicised, first via Twitter and secondly by her recent blog post, about the inequality in ecology of career progression for female scientists as very well illustrated by the presenters at the conference.

 Speakers for Simon

I think that this is something for us all to think very hard about. and I urge you to read her post.

Commuting as I was, meant that I was not as able to take part in the social events to the same extent as those staying in the very nearby hotels, healthier for both my wallet and my liver, although that said I did pick up a cold – not sure who to blame for that, the daily tube journey or the influx of delegates from all around the world!

The programme overall was excellent, the speakers in the main, fantastic, and the organisation by the BES and local committee very good indeed.  I would have liked it better if the coffee and tea had been on tap all day and not at set times.  The BES Centenary party was a superb idea, even though I had to leave before the band started!  So on the whole; I actually enjoyed this conference very much but I am not sure how much I gained scientifically.  I do think, however, that everyone had a great time and I certainly made many useful contacts, although as predicted there were a number of people who I wanted to see who I never did manage to find.  Well done BES and INTECOL for putting on such a great event. It is always good to be proved wrong once in a while, especially if it is a pleasant surprise.

The week after next, I am presenting a talk at ENTO13 at St Andrews University, on the usefulness of social media for scientists.  This will be a much smaller conference, albeit international.  I wonder if I will enjoy it as much or more?

Post script – for those of you curious about the stand, here is a picture of it with me and Fran Sconce (a PhD student of mine working on Collembola) in attendance.  Note that we are both wearing butterfly themed clothing – how entomological can you get 😉 and our badges are the right way round.

Harper Stand INTECOL

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Big is not always better: How big should a conference be?

I recently spent three very enjoyable days at a conference (Environmental Management on Farmland 23-25th April 2013, Brigg) jointly organised by the Association of Applied Biologists and the British Ecological Society.  The conference was held in response to the forthcoming Common Agricultural Policy reforms about the greening of the CAP.  Talks and posters were presented by a range of participants including economists, farmers, entomologists, ornithologists, representatives from the agrichemicals companies and agro-ecologists.   Participants ranged from PhD students to long-established scientists from universities and government organisations.  I give this preamble to show that this was a multi-disciplinary conference covering a wide range of subjects.  There were however, only 70 registered delegates.   The organisers considered this a very successful conference.  Contrast this with the British Ecological Society annual general meeting that I attended just before Christmas last year (18-20 December 2012) in Birmingham.  This was a very well-attended meeting, over 700 delegates, with a huge number of concurrent sessions covering a wide range of subjects in ecology. The organisers considered this meeting a huge success with more delegates attending than had done so for a number of years.

I have attended the BES annual meetings since I was a PhD student 35 years ago and thus have a long and affectionate association with the meeting and the society.  Ask me which meeting I found the most useful and I will however, have to say the small AAB meeting.  I must confess here that I am not actually a fan of big meetings; I have made it a point over the years not to attend the major international jamborees and only occasionally attend European meetings, generally restricting myself to meetings where the delegate list does not exceed 300 or so.  Why do I take this stance you may ask?

Why do we go to conferences I ask?  If asked most people would, I guess, say to hear about new developments, meet up with old friends and make new connections and networks.  Huge international conferences in my mind, only address the second point and then only if you make prior arrangements.  Too many people make it almost impossible to find people who you know are there and people rarely give talks about unpublished results.  The bigger the conference, the more dispersed the delegates are; at the BES in Birmingham we were staying in hotels scattered around the city centre, so the chance of eating communal breakfasts was much reduced.  There is also a tendency at big conferences for people to stick together with people they know.  So at the BES everywhere I went I saw Silwoodians (people from the Silwood Park campus of Imperial College, London) talking with other Silwoodians, ex-Silwoodians talking to other ex-Silwoodians, Silwoodians talking to ex-Silwoodians and so on.  I met only one two people at the BES conference meeting.  Bob ‘O’ Hara and Darren Evans if you were wondering, and I had sort of met them on Twitter earlier in the year.  Those non ex-Silwoodians that I knew and spoke to, were people I had met many years ago as a young ecologist at previous BES meetings when numbers were in the 200-300 range or so.  In contrast, at the smaller meeting that I have just returned from, I spoke to 38 people, 26 of whom I had never met before.  I discussed four possible project applications and agreed to examine a PhD thesis!  So in my opinion, a huge success on all fronts, except possibly for agreeing to examine the thesis.

On the possible downside, at small conferences/workshops, sessions are consecutive, so nowhere to hide, and there are fewer stalls/book sellers to wander around in between sessions or if you feel you need a rest from the talks.  I am not saying that young ecologists and entomologists should not go to large international conferences, but just suggesting that they are much more likely to get to meet and interact with the VIPs at smaller meetings/workshops than they are at a very large meeting.  At the big meetings the VIPs are usually booked into different hotels, have pre-arranged meetings and will be in committee meetings and if in the bar, surrounded by their old friends.  Only the bravest and brashest PhD student is willing to break into such a circle.

Surrounded by acolytes

At the smaller meeting you will be staying in the same hotel with them, possibly having breakfast with them and they will not be surrounded by the great and the good.  They might even buy you a drink. So yes, the thrill of a big meeting is undeniable, but in terms of future contacts, small is beautiful.

That said, the BES do arrange some really useful postgraduate workshops at their Annual meeting, which gives PhD students the opportunity to interact with each other, make those contacts that will enable them to have old friends to talk to at future meetings, and meet some of the VIPs that would normally not be reachable.  Plus of course, it is a great opportunity to gain some superb practical life lessons.

In summary, I think you just have to think, what is it that you actually want out of a conference, how much is it going to cost in time and money, and then make the appropriate decision.

Perhaps INTECOL will prove me wrong?

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