Tag Archives: entomology

Pick & Mix 48 – wildflowers, sinistral snails, slaves, Charles Dickens, medieval insect lore, conservation and teaching in a virtual world

Rob Yorke on insects

On the importance of ‘real’ wildflowers and the rise of plant blindness

Do you remember Jeremy the left-handed snail?  Sadly, he is now no longer with us but he has been immortalised in print 🙂 See the published paper here.

Sickening and sobering visualisation of the slave trade 😦

Interesting analysis of some of Charles Dickens’ characters

Insects and other arthropods in medieval manuscripts – some remarkable illustrations

The role of arthropods in medieval medicine

One, two, more or less? How many metres apart will keep us safe?

Teaching tips for a virtual world

If you are interested in UK nature and conservation, then this is an interesting on-line news round-up

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Natural History learning should be compulsory for all, not just an option for a niche few

One of the few benefits of the Covid-19 pandemic is that I have been able to spend a lot more time outdoors roaming the country lanes around my lockdown prison*.  Prior to my move to Harper Adams University, I had, from 1992-2012, spent two days a week doing fieldwork at Silwood Park. When I moved  from there to Harper Adams, I resisted the temptation to set up yet another long-term field study, and decided to concentrate (not very successfully) on analysing my data backlog and getting the MSc courses well and truly established at their new location. At the time I hadn’t realised how much I had benefited, physically and mentally, from my Silwood transects until I started my lunchtime lockdown treks. I have over the past eleven weeks, added four new aphid species to my personal list, plus a couple of beetles (including one notable species), counted butterflies, seen a hare, reacquainted myself with lots of grasses and herbaceous plants, talked to trees, fumbled a few fungal identifications, and even taken a passing interest in birds :-).  I mention all this because I am a great believer in fieldwork and the benefits that accrue in terms of ideas if you keep your eyes open to all the other things that are happening around your study organisms. Given the vast number of insect species and the close relationships most of them have with plants, it behoves a field entomologist to have more than a passing interest in natural history.

This past week has seen a flurry of interest in the study of natural history in the UK. One of the national exam boards (OCR), after a lot of lobbying from the author Mary Colwell and organisations such as the UK Plant Science Federation, has set out a consultation document about the launch of a new GCSE** qualification in Natural History. As someone who has been bemoaning the lack of natural history training at all levels for many years, this, on the face of it, seems a great idea.

Learning the basics

This is their proposed statement on the purpose of studying Natural History: (so lack of appropriate punctuation is not due to me)

“Natural history offers a unique opportunity to observe and engage with the natural world to develop a deeper understanding of the flora and fauna (life on Earth) within it. It is a study of how the natural world has been shaped and has evolved as well as how humans (as part of that natural world) influence, conserve and protect it. It is vital that we continue to develop our understanding of the natural world in order to safeguard the future.

To fully appreciate the complexities of the natural world it is important to study it closely and interact with it through field research and measurement. Natural history provides opportunities to develop skills out in the field as well as in a classroom and/or laboratory. Studying natural history makes an important contribution to understanding the relationship between the natural world and culture, policy decisions, scientific research and technology.

Study of science, geography, history and the arts at key stages 3 and 4 provides a variety of complementary skills and knowledge which support the study of Natural history. This subject supports the development of unique skills and knowledge which give a sharper focus and depth to the complexities of the natural world. The progression pathway for this subject at key stage 5 and beyond could be scientific, geographical, environmental, ecological or natural history itself.”

 

This is all very laudable and something I think that all of us interested in natural history would support wholeheartedly.  In the UK, the problem is particularly acute and is something that has been recognised for some time (Leather & Quicke, 2010).  Natural history training at all levels has been appalling over the last couple of decades, and has been aided and abetted by the way in which research councils have awarded funding over that period (Clark & May, 2002; Leather, 2009, 2013).  This, and the typical media coverage, see us living in a world where ecology and conservation, is largely perceived to be vertebrate biased, and insects, with the exception of honeybees, portrayed as the enemies of humankind.

Typical reporting of the biodiversity crisis in the UK

Vertebrate bias not just confined to the UK

A very natural (and to me fascinating) phenomenon provoking hysterical reactions on Twitter. Most of the replies were similar to these “Just RUN,  RUN, Ew, Look for a spaceship – it’s an alien, we’re doomed, we’re all doomed”

Yet another harmless insect vilified

This is a problem and something one would hope that a pre-university qualification in natural history would seek to address.  Now, although I very much like and support the idea of a secondary school qualification in Natural History, I can see a couple of problems looming ahead.  First,  I may be biased, but looking at how the macro-species are represented globally, one would justifiably expect the study of natural history to focus on plants, insects and other invertebrates.

Estimated number of species globally within the macro-world (invertebrates other than insects number approximately 300 000 species).

Where are the invertebrates? Surely rather than the rise of the mammals, it should be mammals gain a precarious claw hold?  The invertebrates were, and continue to be the dominant animal life from on Earth, but don’t get a mention.  Then in another part of the consultation document, under topics to be considered, we see yet another anti plant and insect bias creeping in and a pro-vertebrate slant.

  • Effects of introducing non-native species (e.g. harlequin ladybirds, Rhododendron)
  • Species reintroduction (e.g. wolves, beavers, red kites)

There are lots of vertebrate non-native species that could be named (Eatherley, 2019) and many notable insect reintroductions (e.g. Andersen, 2016)..but where are they?

Despite the fact that the much respected book series The New Naturalist,and the equally respected journal, The American Naturalist, proudly include the word naturalist in their titles, sometime in the last thirty years or so, natural history and naturalist became words that were regarded with some scorn and suspicion within the hallowed halls of academia. Whereas in the past, to be an ecologist necessitated an understanding and knowledge of the living world (Travis, 2020), the ability to produce mathematical models and run complex statistical analyses became the route to tenure and laboratories chock a block with postdocs and PhD students.  In universities, computers and molecular biology labs replaced plant and animal based practical classes. Ecology field courses based around insect, and plant identification disappeared, to reappear rebadged as conservation courses and moved to exotic climes with a focus on the large and easily seen furry, feathered and scaled vertebrates. (OK, I’m being a bit hyperbolic here but you know what I mean; and this is a true story, when I was at Imperial College and it was very obvious that we were running out of entomologists to teach the subject, my Head of Department on me drawing this to his attention, suggested that we could do more modelling).  At the same time, biology teaching in secondary schools was also changing in scope, moving away from the outdoors and whole organisms, to molecules, genetics and humans.  The age of plant blindness, entomyopia, entoalexia and nature deficit disorder (Louw, 2005) was well and truly established by the beginning of the 21st Century.

This brings me to my biggest concern.  Insects and plants dominate the natural world, but, as we know, entomologists and botanists are in very short supply. In the UK, Botany and Zoology departments have mostly been subsumed into BioScience and Life Sciences departments to the detriment of whole organism teaching. There are no Botany Departments per se, and in the few remaining Zoology Departments, entomologists, make up at the most, half of the tenured staff, so where are the teachers going to come from?

Who will teach Natural History?

 

Finally, even if we find the teachers and the curriculum is appropriately balanced to reflect the natural world, unless we make it compulsory to all, as is the case with English and Mathematics, it will only ever remain a niche subject taken by relatively few students.  Consequently, elephant hawk moth caterpillars will continue to be beaten to death by suburban parents afraid of snakes, the press will continue to vilify harmless wood wasps, bumbling beautiful cockchafers will be swatted to death and hoverflies squashed by rolled up newspapers for no good reason.

 

References

Andersen, A. , Simcox, D.J., Thomas, J.A. & Nash, D.R. (2016) Assessing reintroduction schemes by comparing genetic diversity of reintroduced and source populations: A case study of the globally threatened large blue butterfly (Maculinea arion). Biological Conservation, 175, 34-41.

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

Eatherley, D. (2019) Invasive Aliens, William Collins, London.

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

Leather, S.R. (2013) Institutional vertebratism hampers insect conservation generally; not just saproxylic beetle conservation. Animal Conservation, 16, 379-380.

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

Louw, R. (2005)  Last Child in the Woods, Atlantic Books, London.

Purvis, A. (2020) A single apex target for biodiversity would be bad news for both nature and people. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 4, 768-769.

Travis, J. (2020) Where is natural history in ecological, evolutionary and behavioral science?  The American Naturalist, 196,

 

*my wife and I managed to end up being lock-downed 250 km apart 😦

**Non UK residents see here for an explanation

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If I hadn’t become an entomologist, what would I have become? The scientific road not taken

A couple of days ago Jeremy Fox over at Dynamic Ecology posted a what if blog asking where, knowing what you now know, you might see yourself in an alternative world. To be clear, I have absolutely no regrets choosing entomology as a subject, and teaching and research as a career. I did, however, and still do, have some allied interests.

As I have mentioned before, I became interested in insects and their antics from a very early age, but I was also, from an equally early age a voracious reader, devouring books at a prodigious rate. I wasn’t fussy about genres, although I particularly enjoyed those with a historical flavour, Treasure Island, Ivanhoe,  Lorna Doone, Biggles, Hornblower, and the works  of  H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Conan Doyle, not just Sherlock Holmes, but also Sir Nigel and The White Company* to name but a few.  I was also interested in Roman history, in fact I still am, and love reading detective fiction set in those times especially Lindsey Davis’s Falco novels. I come from a long line of civil engineers and from them seem to have inherited an interest in digging holes and making dams, and this, coupled with my interest in history, did make me fleetingly consider archaeology as a possible career. But it wasn’t to be, and in later years this turned into human archaeology of a sort, genealogy :-).  This is probably one of the reasons why I find Edward Rutherford’s sweeping historical novels with their detailed family trees and thousand year time spans so fascinating.

As a teenager, before I was totally consumed by the flame of entomology, I fleetingly contemplated a possible career in medicine but at the same time really got into human origins and so palaeontology seemed a possible way to go. I was reminded of this a few years ago, when I was the external examiner for the Zoology degree at University College Dublin, but again it was not to be, and I ended up, without regrets, as an entomologist.

What I have discovered over the years is that I still love history, I love teaching and I love a good mystery.  I have always wanted to know how things came to be, and, as my students will testify, my lectures always have a bit of history in them, nuggets about the early entomologists and ecologists and how the sub-disciplines arose as well as personal stories of how papers and lecturers inspired me.  In some ways, this is a bit like archaeology as I quite often have to do a lot of digging and delving into the past, when, for example I am chasing down an elusive reference.

So, in answer to the question posed by Jeremy Fox, I would, if I hadn’t become an entomologist, love to have been an academic specialising in the history of science 🙂

*

 

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The Verrall Supper 2020 – even Covid-19 couldn’t stop these entomologists having a good time

For many entomologists The Rembrandt Hotel in South Kensington and the first Wednesday of March means only one thing – the Verrall Supper. I report on the activities of the Verrall Association annually and if you click on this link you will be able to work your way back through previous reports to my very first attempt.  This will, once again, be largely a photographic record.  This year the first Wednesday of March was the 4th but despite the date of the Supper always being the first Wednesday in March it still seemed to have caught a few Verrallers by surprise.  In addition the dreaded Covid-19 (Coronavirus), understandably, made some of our older members wasr of travelling to the capital. Consequently, numbers were slightly down compared with last year’s, although the number of non-attending Verrallers paying to retain their membership was at an all-time high.  One notable absence, due to the concerns of his wife, was our former Treasurer, Verrall Supper Secretary and oldest member of the Entomological Club, was Van (Professor Helmut van Emden).  His presence was sorely missed.  As far as I know he has only missed the Verrall Super twice.

We seem to have stalled a bit on my mission to increase the proportion of female entomologists; is year, we were 36 % the same as last year. There is still much progress to be made, but we have seen a year on year increase now for the last four years so, perhaps one day we will hit that magic 50:50 mark.

Like last year, I performed a humanist blessing, which seemed to meet with satisfaction from all sides, I reproduce it here if anyone feels like using it at a similar occasion.

As we come together at this special time, let us pause a moment to appreciate the opportunity for good company and to thank all those past and present whose efforts have made this event possible. As we go through life, the most important thing that we can collect is good memories.  Thank you for all being here today to share this meal as a treasured part of this collection.

This was then followed by a religious grace by Chris Lyal.  Never let it be said that the Verrall Association is not inclusive 🙂

And now as the old cliché goes, let the pictures tell the story.

Welcome to the Verrall Supper – Simon Leather and Clive Farrell ready and waiting for the first guests to sign in.  Note the precariously placed pint which a few minutes later tipped over and flooded the sign-in sheets 🙂

Three stalwarts of the Entomological Club, Paul Brakefield, Chris Lyal and Clive Farrell.

Two superheroes, Erica ‘Fly Girl’ McAlister and Richard ‘Bug Man’ Jones discussing books, Pete Smithers, Tom Miller (all the way from the USA) and Jim Hardie, enjoying a chat, and finally, Gordon Port discussing weighty matters with the oldest Verraller present, Marion Gratwick.

Some of the former Harper Adams entomologists, with former and current teaching staff, Ben Clunie, Scott Dwyer, Christina Conroy, Sue Stickells, Mike Copland, Ruth Carter and Simon Leather.

The younger end of the Verrall Supper, many of whom I have taught including one form the first Harper Adams cohort, Ashleigh Whiffin, now a Curator at the Scottish National Museum and Katy Dainton form cohort two, now a research entomologist at the Forestry Commission Northern Research Station at Roslin.

A diverse range of ages and career stages with plenty of wine to moisten teh vocal chords 🙂

Varying degrees of sartorial elegance were very much in evidence, including some ‘gentlemen’ without ties.  A good job Van wasn’t there 🙂

Can you spot the Knight of the Realm on the far left and on the far right on another table, the father of one of our more notorious politicians?

Did you know that Orlando Bloom’s mother is a Verraller? (in case you were wondering she is the foreground on the left with beret talking to Claudia Watts). One the right we have Mike Hassell, Austin Burt and Richard Lane, probably talking about malaria 🙂

 

 

Richard Hopkins in charge of the NRI table. NRI definitely helped with the sex ratio and good to see that there are so many female entomologists keen to enter the profession.

 

As so far, I have only received positive emails about the evening, I think I am justified in assuming that most, if not all, had a good time.  It was great to have seen you all and I hope to see even more of you next year, when we meet again on March 3rd 2021.

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Striders, Skaters, Tailors, Water Spiders and Measurers too – Gerrid Names Around the World

Dedicated followers of my blog will know that I have a bit of a thing about the names people call commonly seen insects around the World. Who can forget the Wheat Dolphin, the Alder Warbler, the Hairy Winged Water Butterflies and the great Thrips debate?  You may also recall that I am writing a book, the deadline for which is fast approaching.  I am also a first-class procrastinator and being just about to start the chapter on aquatic insects which is proving to be a bit more challenging than I thought it would be, found myself heading straight into procrastinator mode 🙂

I have always found Gerrids* fascinating, their ability to skim across the surface of ponds and streams, and to dodge my childhood attempts to catch them bare handed along with the painful discovery, that, like any insect with a piercing mouthpart, they can ‘sting’ 🙂 Although not as exciting as aphids 🙂 Gerrids have some interesting facets to their biology and ecology. They have short- and long-winged forms (Fairbairn, 1988), use ‘ripple communication’ to attract mates (Hayashi, 1985) and some species show territorial behaviour and mate guarding (Arnqvist, 1988).  Even more fascinating, and something I didn’t’ discover until I was in my early forties and swimming off the coast of Mauritius (work, not holiday), that although 90% of Gerrids are freshwater dwellers, there are forty species within the genus Halobates, the Sea and Ocean Skaters, five of which are truly marine.  The naturalist Johann von Eschscholtz first discovered them during his voyage on the Russian expeditionary ship Rurik between 1815 and 1818.  I hope that when I get round to finishing my book you will be able to read more about them.  In the meantime, more details can be found in the key references listed at the end of this article.

My previous excursions into global insect names have involved my own limited language skills, Google Translate and direct emails to friends from around the World.  This time I thought I would give the Twitter community a chance to display their collective wisdom.  I was not disappointed. Within 48 hours of posting my request for help, had an excellent collection of names, including dialectal variations, which I would never have come across otherwise.  The majority of the names, as you might expect, refer to the ability that Gerrids have of walking or skating on water, so much so that in parts of North America they are known as Jesus Bugs. More surprising, are the references to tailors and shoemakers and measuring.  This could have its roots in the way in which before the invention of tape measures, cloth merchants and tailors measured lengths of fabric using yardsticks or by extending their arms and holding the cloth from hand to shoulder, which could be seen to resemble the way in which Pond Skaters moved their legs. That said, in the UK, the name, water measurer is reserved for members of the Hydrometridae. Some confusion or overlap also occurred with Water Boatmen, in the USA, the Corixids, in the UK, the backswimmers, Notonecta. Corixids have paddle shaped legs and swim, while backswimmers, also with paddles, swim upside down.  True Pond Skaters, the Gerrids, move across the water surface, they really do walk on water.

Finally, here, mainly from Europe, are the results.  If anyone has more languages to add please do so in the comments.

Afrikaans             Waterloper – water walker

Arabic                   بركة متزلج   barakat mutazalij – no idea but looks pretty 🙂

Bulgarian            водомерка Vodomеrka (voda = water, mеrka = measure)

Canadian             Water skeeters, Jesus Bugs

Czech                    Vodoměrka (voda = water, měř = measure)

Danish                  Skøjteløbere – which word by word translates to skater-runners but simply means skaters

Dutch                    Schaatsenrijders – skaters.

Finnish                  Vesimittari =water measurer; mittari is also the Finnish name for Geometridae moths, such as winter moth = hallamittari = frost measurer

Flemish                Schrijvertje, little writer.

French                  Araignée d’eau, also Patineur,  which is also the name used for an ice skater! Derived from « Patin » which is an ice skate. In the local language of South-Eastern France, le provençal. It is called Lou courdounié, that means “the shoe maker” (cordonnier in French). Apparently, the movement of their legs is reminiscent of the way in which shoemakers work

Galician                Zapateiro, shoe maker, but also costureira, dress maker, pita cega, blind hen, and cabra cega, blind goat

German               Wasserläufer, water runners. In some parts of Germany, the colloquial term is Schneider or Wasserschneider, water tailor

Hungarian           Molnárpoloskák, where molnár = miller and poloskák = Heteroptera

Italian                    Ragni d’acqua, directly translates as water spiders

Latin                      Tippula – water walker, very light – see this extract from Ian Beavis’ book

Polish                    Nartnik wodny. Nartnik is a derivation of narciarz meaning skier; wodny means associated with water.

Portuguese        Alfaiate, tailor

Russian                 Vodomerki (водомерки),  = water measurers

Spanish                The “official” name in Spanish seems to be “guérridos” (from its Latin name, Gerris lacustrae), but more commonly called zapateros,      shoe makers. Patinador de estanque skater of ponds, also chinche de agua, watert bug, cucaracha de agua, water flea, saltacharcos (?),  limpia aguas Tapaculos, clean water Tapaculos in southern Spain’s Spanish. Any clues on the etymology of the last two gratefully received.

Swedish               Skräddare , tailor, because their leg-motions look like scissors cutting.  Also known as vattenlöpare, water-runners.

Tamil                  நீர்தாண்டி (neerthaandi); neer means water and thandi is akin to crossing/crosser, so water crosser would be the closest direct translation.  It may be an overactive imagination, but to me the first character looks like someone skating 🙂

Welsh                   Rhiain y dwr, Lords of the water but also hirheglyn y dŵr, water long-legs

 

Many thanks to all those who responded to my Twitter request, it was very much appreciated.

 

References

Arnqvist, G. (1988)  Mate guarding and sperm displacement in the water strider Gerris lateralis Schumm. (Heteroptera: Gerridae).  Freshwater Biology, 19,269-274.

Cheng, L. (1985) Biology of Halobates (Heteroptera: Gerridae). Annual Review of Entomology, 30, 111-135.

Fairbairn, D.J. (1988) Adaptive significance of wing dimorphism in the absence of dispersal: a comparative study of wing morphs in the waterstrider Gerris remigis. Ecological Entomology, 13, 273-281.

Hayashi, K. (1985) Alternative mating strategies in the water strider Gerris elongntus (Heteroptera, Gerridae). Behavioral Ecology & Sociobiology, 16, 301-306.

Spence, J.R. & Anderson, N.M. (1994) Biology of water striders: interactions between systematics and ecology.  Annual Review of Entomology, 39, 101-128.

*Gerrids are true bugs, Hemiptera, which are characterised by the possession of piercing and sucking mouthparts.

Many thanks to all those who responded to my Twitter request, it was very much appreciated.

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Collect by all means, but….

Some of Wallace’s beetles

 

Leaving aside grant writing and committee meetings, which are, in theory, voluntary, the part of academic life I hate the most is marking assignments and exams.  At this time of year, however, I find myself actually enjoying marking student assignments. You may well ask why, what is it that makes these assignments different?  The reason is simple enough; many years ago, when thinking about ways in which to satisfy learning outcomes and to give our MSc students worthwhile skills in a different and enjoyable way, I had a flash of inspiration. I came up with two assignments that I felt our aspiring entomologists would appreciate and that I, and my colleagues would enjoy marking.  One is a written piece of work based on the Royal Entomological Society student essay competition. This not only gives the students the chance to write about something they like in a totally different format than their usual essays and lab reports, but as they are encouraged to submit their essays to the prize committee, they get the chance to gain a monetary reward, and many do so*.

The second assignment which I ‘borrowed’ from my own days as an entomology student, is to collect and curate a small insect collection, with the added twist of preparing a factsheet/booklet, suitable for use at outreach events, describing the collection with notes on the biology and ecology of the specimens, capped off with a fun fact for each insect. The students do a fantastic job with both the collections and the accompanying leaflets, booklets and posters (they are allowed a very free rein as to how they present the fact sheets).  They are so good in fact, that I borrow some of them to use at outreach activities**.

Some examples of the student collections.  Apologies for the lousy photographs 😊

Now on to the meat of my post. Although initially aimed at the use of live animals (by which they meant vertebrates, the three Rs of biomedical research, reduction, refinement replacement (Russell & Burch, 1959) now widely permeate society and have meant that many of the zoology practical classes that I did as an undergraduate, e.g. examining the effect of adrenaline on exposed frog hearts, or infecting scores of day-old chicks with Eimeria tenella, ready for killing (by the students) and subsequent dissection of the gut, are, and rightly so, no longer part of the student curriculum.  Although as entomologists we deplore the common perception that insects are not, for the most part, recognised as animals by funding bodies, or the general public, we are glad that this allows us to escape the dreaded ethics forms and licences to allow us to work on living material. As entomologists however, whether we work on pests or on insects of conservation interest, we are deeply in love with our study animals and although some of us (not me, I have always been an observer rather than a pinner) may own or manage large collections of insects, we do this from necessity not from a love of killing.  This is, and always has been, something of a conflict for us entomologists since the first one emerged from the undergrowth clutching a treasured specimen (Newman, 1841).

Newman (1841) on why entomologists are more humane than non-entomologists

 

Joseph Greene – another early ethical entomologist

Living insects are not always amenable to transport and display; the standard fare at outreach events are stick insects, leaf insects, flower beetles and Madagascan hissing cockroaches, fulfilling the hardiness, cuteness and “yuk” factors respectively and in all cases, being large enough to see easily.  I have taken living specimens of the “World’s biggest aphid” along on many occasions, only to be greeted with responses that can only be described as of complete underwhelming disdain 😊We want and need to show the fantastic diversity of insects and the easiest way to do this is with the standard display boxes.

Our basic outreach display box of common British insects

Boxes such as the above do not usually cause much controversy although some visitors do ask why we need to kill and pin the insects.  It is the boxes of what look like identical specimens lined out in serried rows that cause the most questioning.

Serried rows – the infinite variety withing species – thanks to Erica McAlister from the NHM for the photograph.

My response is to ask my interlocutor to imagine that they are a 10 metre tall explorer from a distant Galaxy that has landed on Earth and collected a couple of humans, which you carefully preserve and take back to your home planet and donate them to a museum as typical Earth specimens. Now, imagine another intrepid collector arrives on Earth with the description of your specimens which unbeknownst to either of you happen to be two males from an Amazonian tribe. Alien Explorer 2 has landed in Iceland at a ladies day at a hot spring.  What is han to make of the specimens han trapped? This is usually enough to make my point and of course I also explain about the huge importance of type specimens and the advantage of being able to look and compare whole specimens from every angle, which despite the huge advances in photography and 3-D imagery is not always possible with virtual images.

Unfortunately, not everyone has had the need for collecting and the importance of reference collections explained to them by an entomologist,  and some individuals can get very worked up about what they perceive as needless cruelty or desecration of Nature, sometimes with very unfortunate outcomes. The late Philip Corbet, one of the most eminent Odonatologist of modern times, then in his early 70s, was once badly beaten up by a member of the public at a Nature Reserve to which he (Philip) had been invited to collect a rare type specimen.  Adam Hart and Sierian Sumner received a deluge of personal abuse for asking people to kill and collect wasps as part of a citizen science project and at the risk of reopening a can of worms, annelid expert Emma Sherlock from the Natural History Museum London, was hounded on-line and in the main stream media for investigating the largest ever Lumbricus terrestris, to see if it was a species new to science or a genetic aberration.

The worm in question

In Emmas’s own words, “To identify earthworms generally there are less than half I can identify accurately alive, the rest you always have to preserve to identify. For the people saying you shouldn’t preserve animals how are you ever to conserve them? You need to add a name to the animal to be able to learn more about it and to conserve it if it needs help. Like the little polychaete worm that halted the big road development a few years back. If a specimen hadn’t been taken and given a name then it is just a worm, and there are lots of worms and therefore worms are not in need of protection”.

This is also the case for many insect species, which can for example, only be identified by close examination of their genitalia, in many cases, by dissection, so certainly not possible to do with living specimens.  Another point of concern that could be raised is the phenomenon of moth trapping.  Until I went on Twitter, I hadn’t thought deeply about moth trapping.  I was involved with running one of the Rothamsted Insect Survey moth traps when I was doing my PhD at the University of East Anglia, but hadn’t realised that it was a bit of a phenomenon with even hard-core ornithologists running traps in their gardens. Given the reports of insect declines over the last couple of decades (Leather, 2018) is this something we should deplore and restrict? Very sensibly, moth trappers (moth’ers) have not ignored the problem and the consensus seems to be that moth trapping per se, pales into insignificance when compared with the other pressures on insect populations.

I suspect that like most entomologists, I have what might seem to non-entomologists a contradictory relationship with insects.  My research spans the world of conservation and crop protection.  As an ecologist, my group and I are trying to come up with ways in which to enhance and protect insect diversity and abundance.  The other members of the group are looking at better ways to protect our crops so that we can feed the world, and this inevitably involves killing pest insects to reduce their populations.  In my own garden, insects are allowed to flourish and I cringe when I see or hear people telling me how they run their fingers and thumbs along rose buds to squash the aphids.  I feel guilty if I accidentally wash a spider down the drain when I am having a shower, but have no compunction at all in squashing a mosquito or swatting a stable fly when she attempts to suck my blood!

It is precisely this conflict of interests that has made entomologists think harder about the ethics of their profession than many ‘civilians’ do when swatting mosquitoes or spraying their vegetable gardens (e.g. Fischer & Larson, 2019; Didham et al., 2019).  In the end I turned to verse 🙂

Because we love them

We need to think carefully

When we collect them

 

References

Didham, R.K., Leather, S.R. & Basset, Y. (2019) Ethics in entomology. Antenna, 43, 124-125.

Fischer, B. & Larson, B.M.H. (2019) Collecting insects to conserve them: a call for ethical caution.  Insect Conservation & Diversity, 12, 173-182.

Greene, J. (1880) The Insect Hunter’s Companion 3rd Edition, W. Swan Sonnenhein & Allen, London.

Leather, S.R. (2018) “Ecological Armageddon” – more evidence for the drastic decline in insect numbers. Annals of Applied Biology, 172, 1-3.

Newman, E. (1841) A Familiar Introduction to the History of Insects. John van Voorst, London.

Russell, W.M.S & Burch, R.L. (1959) The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique. Methuen & Co, London.

 

*

If you scroll down the RES page link you will see that our students have done remarkably well over the years.

 

**

an example followed by some of our former students 😊

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The Roundabout Review 2019 – navel gazing again

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

A new roundabout – Jennett’s Park, Bracknell – I have no idea what it is meant to signify

 

Impact and reach

I have continued to post at about ten-day intervals; this is my 273rd  post.  As I wrote last year, there never seems to any difficulty in coming up with ideas to write about; the problem is more in deciding which one to use and when.  As happened last year, some of my blogs have, albeit in slightly modified forms, made it into print (Cardoso & Leather, 2019).

Many of you remain lukewarm about the idea that social media has a place in science. I would, however, ask you to think again and if you need any more convincing, read this paper that very clearly demonstrates the benefits arising from such interactions (Côté & Darling, 2018); evidence that science communication via social media is a very worthwhile use of our time. Highlights of the year included a joint blog with Stephen Heard, about paper titles. Semi-related to my Blogging and Tweeting are my other forms of science communication, giving talks and helping at outreach events, such as the Big Bang Fair, which continue unabated.  I also had three Skype a Scientist dates this year, two with schools in the USA and one with a school in Switzerland.  I really enjoyed the experience and hope that the pupils were as pleased as I was. If you have not come across this scheme, check them out here.

My blog had visitors from 179 countries (181 last year, 165 in 2017, 174 in 2016 and 150 in 2015), so only another 16 to go to achieve total global domination 😊  My blog received 63 710 views (54 300 last year,  40 682 in 2017,  34 036 in 2016; 29 385 in 2015). As with last year, most views came from the USA, with views from India holding on to 4th place and Nigeria entering the top ten for the first time.

Top ten countries for views

Top reads

My top post (excluding my home page) in 2019 was the same as last year, one of my aphid posts,  A Winter’s Tale – Aphid Overwintering, (with almost 200 more reads this year than last, 4108 to be precise) although there may have been some disappointment felt by those who were hoping to find a reference to Shakespeare’s play or the song by Queen. It is now my all-time winner with just over 13 000 views, with Not All Aphids are Vegans with over 11 000 views still maintaining an honourable second place.  My top ten posts continue to be either about aphids or entomological techniques/equipment, which I guess means that I am filling an entomological niche. Aptly, my two posts about the loss of insects made it into the top ten this year.

A Winter’s Tale – aphid overwintering 4,108
Not all aphids are vegans 2,458
“Insectageddon” – bigger headlines, more hype, but where’s the funding? 1,829
Aphid life cycles – bizaare, complex or what? 1,762
Meat eating moths 1,226
Entomological Classics – The Pooter or Insect Aspirator 1,217
Not Jiminy Cricket but Gregory Grasshopper – someone ought to tell Walt 1,158
Ten papers that shook my world – watching empty islands fill up – Simberloff & Wilson (1969) 1,089
Entomological classics – the sweep net 1,052
Global Insect Extinction – a never ending story 1,045

 

My Pick & Mix link fests stalwartly foot the table, although disappointingly, my second collection of natural history haikus is also in the bottom ten 😦

Trends

Although in general, there still seems to be no signs of the number of people viewing my site reaching an asymptote or for that matter, the figures for December were the lowest of the year, by a considerable margin.  Is this the beginning of the end?

Linear still the best fit but is it levelling off?

Tweeting for entomology

I still find my interactions on Twitter very rewarding, although this past year I have become somewhat more political; Brexit and Trump, need I say more?  Most of my tweets are, however, still entomological and ecological and the increase in political comment has not stopped my followers from growing.  I finished 2018 with 6884 followers and begin 2020 with just over 8000, 8088 to be precise.   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 fellow bloggers, Emma Maund, Emily Scott, Jeff Ollerton, Amelia from A French Garden and Philip Strange.  I look forward to interacting with you all in 2020.

In theory I am semi-retired from my daytime job, academia but I hasten to add, not from entomology.  I do, however, seem to be spending considerably more than 60% of my time doing stuff that I thought I would no longer have to do 😦

This time last year, I reported that I had submitted a proposal to OUP for a semi-popular entomology book.  I am happy to report that it was accepted, and I am now behind schedule in writing Insects – A Very Short Introduction 🙂

On a less happy note; to me, this has been, in some ways, a horrendous year.  Due largely to the selfish, bigoted and xenophobic behaviour of a large proportion of my very privileged generation, we are set to leave the great European project that has kept Europe largely peaceful for more than forty years. I would remind you, that not all of us voted to deprive our children and grandchildren of the rights and privileges that we have enjoyed since 1975.  It is also appropriate to remember that my father and his generation fought to enable us to enjoy that peace.

My late father (a fervent pro-European) and I (equally pro-EU), both aged 21; he in 1945 after having served in the Royal Marines since he was 17, endured the D-Day landings and fought in the Pacific, me in 1976, in my penultimate year at Leeds University. My teeth would have been the same but I had braces as a child 🙂

On the other hand, a lot of good things have happened; new friends, old friends and family all make life worth living, so in the words of the song “pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again”.

A Happy and Prosperous New Year to you all.

References

Cardoso, P. & Leather, S.R. (2019) Predicting a global insect apocalypse. Insect Conservation & Diversity, 12, 263-267.

Côté, I.M. & Darling, E.S. (2018) Scientists on Twitter: preaching to the choir or singing from the rooftops?  Facets, 3, 682-694.

*The number of views for my annual reviews are as follows: 2014 (86), 2015 (110), 2016 (179), 2017 (115, of which 112 were in January).

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Pick & Mix 36 – something for everyone?

May Berenbaum has written an excellent editorial on the many failings of journal impact factors

Wow, a caterpillar that ‘shouts’ at would be predators

Ray Cannon writes about the wonders of dragonfly wings

More on insect declines, their causes and ways to minimise them

A pair of researchers found evidence that the insect population in a Puerto Rican rainforest was in free fall. But another team wasn’t so sure.

Failing exams doesn’t stop you becoming a professor

Why you should get out more – Visitors to urban greenspace have higher sentiment and lower negativity on Twitter

The Understory – excerpted from Robert MacFarlane’s recent book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey, “The Understory” is an examination of the life beneath the forest floor.

A fun visual time-line highlighting 100 years of UK forestry

Lovely obituary of a forest entomology legend – C.S. (Buzz) Holling

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It might have been wet, but we had a great time – British Ecological Society Undergraduate Summer School 2019 #BESUG19

 

The beginning of July was a busy time for me, first a week of my Crop Protection Summer School based at Harper Adams University and the following week saw me driving north to Scotland. This time I was heading for the Isle of Great Cumbrae and the Field Studies Council Centre at Millport.

My trusty, rusty car, safely on board the ferry to Millport, leaving grey Largs behind me. I had to drive as I didn’t think I could cope with the Vortis and other collecting equipment on the train 😊

This was the fifth time that I have had the privilege of being allowed to introduce the wonders of entomology to undergraduates aspiring to careers in ecology.  I first joined the BES undergraduate summer school team in 2015 at the inaugural event at Malham Tarn.  On that occasion I did it on my own but since 2016 the entomology team has been greatly strengthened by the very welcome addition of my former student Fran Sconce, now the Outreach Officer at the Royal Entomological Society.

When I arrived in the afternoon it wasn’t raining, although it was rather grey. Fran arrived shortly afterwards and we did the preliminary setting up, getting the lab ready, digging in pitfall traps and deploying the yellow pan traps.  I also gave Fran a quick tutorial in how to use the Vortis as next year, sadly, the Summer School clashes with the International Congress of Entomology which is where I will be instead.

Fran helping with preliminary setting up and learning (after all these years), how to use the Vortis suction sampler.

Yellow pan traps deployed in the hope that the rain forecasted for the night won’t make them overflow 😊

After we had got everything set up, we went for a drive round the island – it didn’t take very long but there was some spectacular scenery on offer, despite the grey skies.

 

View of Bute in the distance.

This must be fantastic when the sun shines.

We then joined the students for our evening meal; after a week of Harper Adams’s excellent catering, I can’t bring myself to call it dinner 😊  It was, however, a great chance to get to know some of the students ahead of our ‘Entomology Day’.  I also took the opportunity to go and listen to Natalia Pilakouta from the University of Glasgow who gave a very entertaining and informative talk about the effects of climate change on sociality.   A whole new concept to me; who would have thought that rising temperatures would affect how individuals interact.  What really made her talk memorable was that she interspersed human examples amounts the sticklebacks and dung beetles 😊 You can also find her on Twitter @NPilakouta

Chris Jeffs (another former student of mine) introducing Natalie Pilakouta for the first plenary of the course.

The bar finally opened at 9 pm where I hastily made my way to get a glass of red wine; after a lifetime of having wine with my evening meal, I was in sore need of this 😊.  It also gave me a chance to meet some more of the students and to get to know them a bit better.   Thence to bed hoping that the weather forecast for Tuesday was wrong.

Unfortunately the Meteorological Office got it right and the view from my bedroom window at 6 am was not quite what I had hoped to see.

The view from my window – Dawn Entomology Day!

Us entomologists are a hardy lot and despite the weather and the slight handicap it put on the use of sweep nets and other sampling devices we headed out to the field, but not before I had subjected the students to my introductory lecture extolling the virtues of insects and their extremely important roles in ecology.

A no-brainer really – if you are a zoologist/ecologist, insects are where it’s at 😊

Once out in the field, despite the rain we had a lovely time pooting, sweeping, beating and using the Vortis, all good fun and as my old games teacher used to say as he ushered us out into the rain to run a cross-country or play rugby, “Character building”.  More seriously though, it was a good introduction to ecological field work and the concept of environmental variability, the sun doesn’t shine all the time.

Sweeping, beating and sucking and perhaps contemplating a swim?

After forty minutes of running about in the rain we headed back to the lab for an hour of sorting and identification for everyone before we started the ‘expert’ session.  We were very pleased that 20% of the students stayed on for the extra hour of getting to grips with insect taxonomy.

Learning how to identify insects in the lab.

After the evening meal, it was time for the now, very traditional, glow in the dark insects and a lecture on moth trapping from Fran.

Using UV torches and fluorescent dust to track carabid beetles.

Fran lecturing on moth trapping and then with the early risers helping her and Chris Jeffs empty and identify the catch; one of which made a bid for freedom, necessitating a bit of ladder work 🙂

Despite the rain we did catch some moths, this Swallowtail for me at least, was the star of the show.

Moths identified it was time for breakfast and getting the car packed; luckily the nets had all dried out overnight and heading for the ferry and the long trip back to Shropshire. It was a great couple of days and I really enjoyed it and am incredibly sad that I will not be able to take part next year. The whole event is a great initiative by the BES, and I am glad that it and the allied summer school for ‘A’ Level students are now a firmly established part of the ecological calendar.   I have only described entomology part of the week, other things were happening; for an excellent account of the whole week I recommend this blog post by one of the students, and not just because she gave me a good report 😊  You can follow her on Twitter too @ecology_student and track down the other comments about the week by using #BESUG19

Although it rained quite hard at times we never had to use this 😊

In terms of hard-core entomology,  this was actually my second collecting insects in the rain experience of the year – you may remember it rained in Bristol!

I am very grateful to the British Ecological Society for inviting me to participate in the first ever Summer School and to keep on inviting me back.  Special thanks to Fran and Chris and also to Christina Ravinet (whom I also taught) from the BES for keeping things running so smoothly.

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Crop Protection Summer School – CROPSS 2019 – the grand finale?

The first week of July was a happy time but also a sad time.  I was privileged and very happy to spend a week with sixteen enthusiastic undergraduates keen to learn about crop protection, but at the same time, sad that the BBSRC funding to run my Crop Protection Summer School has now come to an end. Last year at this time I wrote about how pleased I was with the positive response of the students to working in, what to them, was a totally novel subject area.

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

Our Sunday evening venue for the last two years, The Lamb Inn, the pub closest to the university, is closed at the moment so we

had to take a couple of taxis (large ones) to an alternative watering hole, The Last Inn. I was relieved to find that it was an excellent choice and we had a magnificent meal which I interrupted periodically to remind the students that they were also supposed to be doing a Pub Quiz 😊

As with last year, the quiz was all picture rounds.  The first round was all about charismatic megafauna (almost all answered correctly), then common British wild flowers (about 60% correct), common British trees (50% correct), common British insects (30% correct), I think you can see where I am going with this😊  This year, however, one of the teams cored 100% on the insect round thanks to the presence of an extremely keen entomologist, which meant I couldn’t feign resigned disappointment as much as I have in the past.

Catering for the rest of the week was in our excellent campus refectory and as last year, the students were all very complimentary about the quality of the food and the choices available.

We continued with the successful format of previous years, with specific days allocated to the main crop protection areas, agronomy, entomology, nematology, plant pathology, weed science and spray technology. Each evening after dinner, we had a speaker from ‘industry’; Jen Banfield-Zanin, a former student of mine who works at from Stockbridge Technology Centre, Rob Farrow from Syngenta, Bryony Taylor from CABI, Nicola Spence the Chief Plant Health Officer and Neal Ward from BioBest.  They were all very well received and had to answer a lot of interesting questions, both in the classroom and in the Student Union Bar afterwards.

The students and staff involved found it a very rewarding week, and as I did last year, I will let the pictures tell the story.

Let’s go on a nematode hunt! Matt Back briefing his troops

Sweep nets and pooters

Suction sampling with Andy Cherrill

Looking for weeds with John Reade

Labs and classrooms

Glorious weather and fantastic plants

Science communication and chasing fluorescent beetles in the dark

I think they liked the course and we loved their enthusiasm and commitment.

This year we did take the picture when we are all there!

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

 

 

I do hope that we will be able to secure some further funding to enable us to continue with this excellent initiative.  Perhaps the AHDB, the British Society of Plant Pathology and the Royal Entomological Society might consider chipping in?

Many thanks to Matt Back, Andy Cherrill, Louisa Dines, Simon Edwards, Martin Hare, Valeria Orlando, John Reade and Fran Sconce who all gave of their time freely to help deliver the course and to those MSc students who came and joined us in the bar.  I am especially grateful to our external speakers and their inspirational stories of how they ended up in crop protection.

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