Tag Archives: butterflies

Pick and mix 9 – a few links to click

Links to things I thought might grab your fancy

Interested in plants?  Find the latest State of the World’s Plants report here

Butterfly lovers?  Special issue of Journal of Insect Conservation devoted to butterfly conservation

Communicating entomology through video

Speaking of which, I did one on aphids once upon a time 🙂

How bees see may help us develop better cameras

How bumblebee flight may help us develop better drones

The Sixth Mass Extinction of vertebrates on the way but what about all the invertebrates that keep the world functioning?

Interesting article on insect symbolism in 19th Century British art

Weirdly interesting art based on the “natural world” by Katie McCann

This account of sexism in academia shocked and horrified m

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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.

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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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Butterflies Galore – visual treats from two very different books

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I have written a lot of book reviews over the last thirty years or so; initially for mainstream scientific journals; those were the days when journal editors had never heard of impact factors and space was specifically set aside for such articles. And latterly, for the in-house member’s bulletins of learned societies such as Antenna; the excellent and very glossy publication of the Royal Entomological Society.  Book reviews are generally a bit of a chore, especially if the book in question is an edited volume, but busy academics can sometimes be persuaded to take a review on if they think that the book (the only payment you receive is a free copy) will justify the effort.  Occasionally one gets the chance, or feels the urge, to use a book review as a means of getting a particular message across to a wider audience.  I once managed to have one of my ‘on the importance of entomology’ rants published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution (Leather, 2008) using this route.  Up until now however, unless you count my somewhat tongue-in-cheek review of Anna Aphid, I have not used my blog in this way.   This is, however, about to change.

At the end of November last year (2015), I received an email from Caroline Young of Firefly Books who wondered if I would like to review a new entry to their catalogue, Butterflies, by Ronald Orenstein and Thomas Marent.   It was such a flattering email that I succumbed to her blandishments, hence this first official book review on my site.  To retain some scientific integrity however, I decided that I would do a comparative review.  Fortuitously, it just so happened, that I had to hand another book about butterflies; one that I had semi-promised to review for the Royal Entomological Society (Howse, 2014), but until now, had never got around to doing.  In one fell swoop I was thus able to salve my conscience and do two favours 🙂

When reviewing a book I have a little mental list of questions that I answer as I read it.

  1. Would I buy it?
  2. Would I recommend a colleague to buy it?
  3. Would I recommend it to students as worth buying?
  4. Would I ask the library to buy it?
  5. Would I recommend it to anyone to buy it?

All these have the same subsidiary questions attached to them; If not why not, if yes, why?

First, Butterflies, billed by the publisher’s blurb as a “visual feast that showcases the beauty and mystery of butterfly and moth species from around the globe”.  A good place to start with a book review is with a summary of the contents and the aim(s) of the author(s).  There are eleven named chapters in total, with a thirty page introductory chapter, aptly titled Introducing butterflies.  This chapter, which like all the others, is beautifully illustrated with stunning photographs, briefly covers the main features of butterfly biology and ecology, from evolution, taxonomy, flight, mimicry, courtship, oviposition, development, feeding, predation, migration and concludes with climate change and conservation.  There is no overall ‘mission statement’ per se, but towards the end of the introduction the authors write “We need to know more and to do better. In many parts of the world, butterflies are disappearing at a rapid rate.  We need to understand what is happening to them, and why, if we are to stop or reverse their decline.  We need to create space for butterflies.”

From this I take it that the purpose of the book is to inspire adult non-entomologists to take an interest in butterflies in general and to create habitats for them in their gardens. I also think that there other aim is to inspire the younger generation to become involved with butterfly conservation either professionally or as an extra-mural interest.  The twelve chapters that follow the introductory piece are first, taxonomically based, e.g. Swallowtails, Skippers, Whites and then to do with their biology and ecology, covering topics such as wings, life history, diet, mimicry etc.  The last chapter is about those too-often overlooked Lepidoptera, the moths.  Each chapter is dominated by the beautiful photographs, each of which is accompanied by a succinct pen sketch giving a brief description of the species shown and some useful nuggets of information about the distribution, taxonomic position of the species and something about their biology.  Some of these nuggets were new to me, perhaps not surprisingly, as I am not primarily a lepidopterist 🙂

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I was, for example, interested and intrigued by the suggestion that eggs of The Map, Araschnia levana are mimics of the flowers  of its larval host plant, nettle (Urtica spp.).

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http://bioweb.uwlax.edu/bio203/2011/homolka_kail/reproduction.htm   ttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Urtica_dioica.JPG

In fact I was so intrigued that I felt the need to test it out by searching for photographs of nettle flowers. These shown are the closest I could find that come close to matching the eggs and so to a certain extent I remain unconvinced.  I will however, leave that up to you to decide for yourselves.

In summary, this book is as advertised, “a visual feast that showcases the beauty and mystery of butterfly and moth species from around the globe.”  It is not a text-book, nor is it an exhaustive pictorial catalogue, you could not use it as an identification guide. It does however, give a good and accessible overview of some basic butterfly biology and ecology and also great factoids to store away for use at an opportune moment.  So the bottom line:

  1. Would I buy it?   – No, in my opinion, it does not contain enough entomological detail for me as a professional to justify the $45 price tag.
  2. Would I recommend a colleague to buy it? Probably not for the same reason as above.
  3. Would I recommend it to students as worth buying? Again, probably not, but I might suggest that they put it on their Christmas or birthday lists.
  4. Would I ask the library to buy it? Yes, I think that it contains enough useful information to make it attractive to a non-specialist student reader interested in an easy to understand book with enough useful essay material in it.

and finally, would I recommend it to anyone else to buy it,? Yes it is a nice book, albeit of the coffee table variety, but in my opinion at the upper end of that market and anything that might spark an interest in entomology amongst the as yet unconverted, can only be a good thing.

And now, Philip Howse’s book, Seeing Butterflies, which is subtitled, New Perspectives on Colour, Patterns and Mimicry.  The publisher’s blurb in this instance states “See living butterflies and moths through new eyes through Philip Howse’s fascinating text and superb imagery….This new way of looking at these beautiful and iconic images will inform and inspire nature-lovers, photographers artists and scientists.”  Some major claims are being made here, implying that this is a serious book aimed at specialists, yet with the potential to appeal to a much wider readership.  Does it live up to these claims?

As with Butterflies, we are presented with twelve beautifully illustrated chapters.  Here though, with a chapter entitled, Seeing: Illusion, deceit and survival, we know from the start that this book is about vision, about visibility and invisibility and about optical illusions.  Chapter two continues this theme, being about defence and illusion while Chapter three examines the evolution of butterflies and mimicry.  The remaining chapters, as with Butterflies, are taxonomically based and examine the very varied visual defence mechanisms exhibited across the various butterfly families.  The photographs may not be as professional, as many or as stunning as those in Butterflies, but the science is much stronger, yet still very accessible to the lay reader.  There is also much more natural history, although again, this is not a book that would be useful for identification purposes.  On the other hand there are some marvellous nuggets and factoids, with which to regale friends, students and anyone else that you can catch.   One that sticks in my mind particularly, is that apparently the small tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae was once known as the ‘devil butterfly’ in Scotland. Philip speculates that this might be because it “comes out of the darkness of winter and hibernation, marked in red and black”.  As with Butterflies there were numerous factoids that intrigued and interested me.  In particular Philip’s claims for the eyed hawkmoth, Smerinthus ocellata, that he feels can impersonate a bracket fungus, a pile of dead leaves and a fox-like animal!

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The first two I am quite happy about, but the third suggestion seems to need quite a stretch of the imagination 🙂

There is more of the author apparent in Seeing Butterflies than in Butterflies; Philip recalls childhood memories, and other personal experiences to illustrate the points that he makes and this gives the book a very user-friendly feel that is, to a certain extent, lacking in Butterflies. I also think that on the whole, the book manages to live up the somewhat over-hyped blurb.

And so the bottom line:

  1. Would I buy it? – Yes I would, very nicely priced, well-written and enough science to keep me happy and interested.
  2. Would I recommend a colleague to buy it? Yes, even a non-entomological colleague would be likely to find it worth the money.
  3. Would I recommend it to students as worth buying? Yes, I would certainly suggest it to my PhD students and MSc Entomology students, but probably not to undergraduates although I would definitely suggest that they put it on their Christmas and/or birthday lists.
  4. Would I ask the library to buy it? Yes, both as a recommended book for the entomologists and it contains enough useful information to make it attractive to a non-specialist student reader interested in an easy to understand book with useful essay material in it.

 and finally, would I recommend it to anyone else to buy it,? Yes it is a nice book and should appeal to anyone who has a genuine interest in the natural world.

 So there you have it, my first official ‘blog’ book review. There may be more to come, not necessarily commissioned ones, but just books that take my fancy, but if there are any publishers, or authors out there who think that I might like to review one of their books, feel free to contact me to discuss it.

 

References

Howse, P. (2014) Seeing Butterflies, Papdakis Publisher, Winterbourne, UK.  Paperback, 176 pp, £16.99 ISBN-13: 978-1-906506-46-9

Leather, S.R. (2008). Conservation entomology in crisis. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 123, 184-185

Orenstein, R. & Marent, T. (2015) Butterflies, Firefly Books, Buffalo, USA. Hardback, 288 pp, $45 ISBN-13: 978-1-77085-580-0; ISBN-10: 1-77085-580-7

 

Postscript

For anyone seriously interested in writing academic book reviews I can recommend this site by Dr Perpetua Turner https://peptalkecology.wordpress.com/2016/01/13/writing-an-academic-book-review/

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Serious Fun with Google Trends

No doubt I am behind the curve, but I have only recently discovered Google Trends; a result of attending a Departmental seminar given by a colleague talking about Biochar!

To quote WikipediaGoogle Trends is a public web facility of Google Inc., based on Google Search, that shows how often a particular search-term is entered relative to the total search-volume across various regions of the world, and in various languages. The horizontal axis of the main graph represents time (starting from 2004), and the vertical is how often a term is searched for relative to the total number of searches, globally.”  I was greatly taken by my colleague’s slide showing the birth and development of a new concept

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and wondered if this would be a useful tool to look at some entomological topics.  Immediately after the seminar I rushed back to my office, and as you may have guessed, entered the word “aphid” into the search bar and was, after a bit of computer chuntering, rewarded with my first Google Trend output  🙂

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I was immediately struck by how closely this resembled real aphid population

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data, albeit a more regular and smoother than these examples of real  data.  I found that if you ran the cursor along the data lines the month was displayed, and as I expected, the peak in aphid interest was generally June and May, reflecting their peak abundance in the field.   I next entered

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“Ladybird” to see if it coincided with aphid peaks and interestingly found that it had two peaks within each year, May, when they start to become active and October when they start to look for hibernation sites, so as with aphids, the frequency of the search term usage reflects biological activity.  “Butterfly” and “Ant” as search terms revealed that interest in ants and butterflies has remained

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fairly constant over the last decade or so, although somewhat to my surprise, ants have had proportionately more searches than butterflies.  Given my worries about the declining interest in plant sciences and the funding problems facing

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entomology, I thought it might be educational to compare botany and entomology.

Not an encouraging picture, although at least the decline has plateaued out.  Then, just in case, as in many universities, Botany departments have been replaced with Plant Science departments, and is now taught under that title,

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I substituted “Plant Science” for “Botany” and was surprised to see that “Entomology” was searched for about twice as many times as “Plant Science”.

Comparing “Botany” with “Plant Science” reveals that “Botany” was searched for considerably far more than “Plant Science”, despite most universities no longer having Botany Departments. Perhaps they should reconsider their decision to do away with the title?

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Keeping with the subject theme and having written in the past about how molecular biology has gained funding and kudos at the expense of whole organism biology (Leather & Quicke, 2010) I compared “Entomology” with

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“Botany” and “Molecular Biology” to find, that although overall “Molecular Biology” beats both subjects, interest in the subject has also declined over the last decade. One of my bugbears is the amount of interest and funding that the so called “charismatic mega-fauna” gain at the expense of, in my opinion, the much more deserving invertebrates.

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I therefore compared “Giant Panda”, with “Insect” and “Entomology” and was pleasantly surprised to see that “Insect” wasn’t quite overshadowed by “Giant Panda” although somewhat saddened to see that the whole discipline of “Entomology” was not overly popular.

I confess that felt a little frisson of delight when I found that in recent years “Asian giant hornet” has been giving the “Giant panda” a bit of competition 🙂

 

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Recently there has been huge debate over the use of neonicotinoids and their possible/probably part they may have in the decline of bees of all sorts (Jeff Ollerton’s blog is a good place to follow the latest news about the debate), so I used “Bee” “Bumblebee” and “Neonicitinoid” as search terms and was

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surprised to find that “Neonicitinoid” in this context has not really had an impact, although if you search for “Neonicitinoid” by itself you

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can see that there is an increasing interest in the topic.  A corollary to the banning of pesticides or a call for a reduction in their usage as outlined by the EU Sustainable Use Directive, should be an increased interest in the use of alternative pest control methods, such as

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This does not, however, appear to be the case, with interest in biological control and IPM being at their highest in 2004-2006 and despite the ‘neonictinoid debate’ no signs of interest increasing, which is something to puzzle about.

It appears that there is definitely something to be learnt from using Google Trends, although it would be more useful if some indication of the actual number of searches could be made available.  A word of caution, make sure that your search term is well defined, for

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example a general search using “butterfly” will give you results for the swimming stroke as well as for the insects.

Although you can compare different geographical regions, and also see the figures for related searches,  what does seem to be lacking,

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or perhaps I have been unable to find it, is a way to compare different locations at the same time on the same graph.

I would be very interested to hear from any of you who have used this already and also from any of you who are inspired to use this by my post.  Please do feel free to comment.  Have fun!

References

Estay, S.A., Lima, M., Labra, F.A., & Harrington, R. (2012) Increased outbreak frequency associated with changes in the dynamic behavour of populations of two aphid species. Oikos, 121, 614-622.

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2010). Do shifting baselines in natural history knowledge threaten the environment? Environmentalist 30, 1-2.

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