Tag Archives: entomology

Clasped like tiny gold jewels… Miss Benson’s Beetle, a gem of a book

Inside the envelope, a black-and-white photograph. It showed two women. An entomologist and her assistant. The entomologist stood right in the centre, a young woman with a big smile on her face, her hand stretched out to reach the camera…. Freya moved her magnifying glass to the assistant. She was much older. Too old, really, to be in the field.”

I always find writing reviews of fiction a bit fraught as I am very conscious, that for some, including me, spoilers are the work of the Devil 🙂

My mission then, is to do my best to convey the feel of the book without giving away too much of the plot. Let me begin by saying that this is a fantastic book and I was very honoured to be involved, albeit in a minor way, as one of the entomologists that Rachel consulted before she embarked on her literary adventure.  Chick lit is defined as works of heroine-centred narratives that focus on the trials and tribulations of their individual protagonists, and is, more often than not, used as a dismissive and derogatory term. Yes, this book is heroine-centred, and yes it focuses on the trials and tribulations of Miss Benson and her somewhat erratically (and that is putting it mildly), behaved travelling companion, Enid Pretty. Nevertheless, let me assure you, this is not chick lit, this is a novel of substance, but written in a very approachable and accessible style.

The backbone of this story, and given that beetles are invertebrates, this is possibly not the best term to use, but as chitinous exo-skeleton doesn’t really do the job, I will stick with the vertebrate reference, is the quest for a possibly mythical golden beetle. Fear not non-entomologists, this is not an entomological textbook, filled with abstruse terms and incomprehensible minutiae. It is the very opposite. It is many things; it is a thriller, a love-story, a tragedy, a mystery, a tale of frustrated ambition, a window into the past and present, and above all, a story of fulfilment.

Not everything is as it seems as you will find when you reach the passage I quoted at the beginning of this review. Set mainly in 1950, but moving from before the Great War until the early 1980s this book will transport you on an emotional roller-coaster of a ride from London to New Caledonia, accompanied by a sinister stalker, a couple of unexpected stops along the way and some immensely amusing pen-portraits which really capture the period.

In summary, an unexpected friendship, murder, mystery, burglaries, things that go bump in the night, poignant, funny, and to cap it all, not all is what it seems at first sight.  As an entomologist, I must also compliment Rachel on how she has managed to capture the entomological aspects of the story and in particular, the passion that we feel for our discipline and our favourite species.

A must read for all, and, in my opinion, Rachel’s best book to date.

Rachel Joyce (2020) Miss Benson’s Beetle, Doubleday, ISBN 978-0-8575-2198- 9 £16.9:9

4 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews

Pick & Mix 50 – conservation, misogyny, media misinformation, citizen science, healthy gardens and insect-inspired eye make-up

“Conservation should indeed be a global priority. But understanding of the complexity and colonial roots of this problem and the shocking double standards that exist, is vital” Very important article by conservation scientist Tarsh Thakaekara

Adam Hart and colleagues on the harm that celebrities and media misinformation are doing to conservation

Misogyny alive and well in the world of shark conservation – time for a change of attitude

Top tips on keeping your plants and gardens healthy

Interesting Open Access article on urban conservation

Fantastic essay about Rosalind Franklin by Matthew Cobb (author of The Brain and Very Short Introduction to Smell)

Sophie Yeo asks ‘Does citizen science make you happier?”

Insect inspired eye make-up

The benefit of an insect collection, said Floyd Shockley, the insect collection manager at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, is that “a dead specimen, if properly preserved, can be there forever.” A 153-year-old insect collection is being used to solve modern problems.

Another insightful blog post from Manu Saunders about the insect apocalypse stories and the data  behind them

 

6 Comments

Filed under Pick and mix

Should entomologists change their name to insectologists?

In case you are wondering, this is not a totally tongue in cheek post. Over the years it has become very clear to me, that many people, even those with degrees, have no idea what an entomologist is. On being told that I am an entomologist, most people look blankly at me, and pass on rapidly to another topic. Despite the importance of the subject, the term entomology is not very widely known.  Sadly, to those of us who study insects, this is no longer hugely surprising.  More surprising though, is how few of those people then ask me what an entomologist is. I haven’t asked any ornithologists, botanists, zoologists, my paediatrics daughter, or my consultant gynaecologist brother if they suffer similar responses on being asked their occupations, but I suspect that they suffer from far fewer blank looks than I do.

So, what can we do about this lamentable state of affairs?  I, and other entomologists have long lamented the lack of knowledge and interest in these, the most important, and to me, most fascinating members of the animal world, shown by the majority of humans. What is it about entomology that makes it such a niche subject?

All is not lost. When I do get the chance to enlighten those that ask, and tell them that entomologists study insects, I am relieved to find that they do know what they (insects) are, even if they do respond, with “oh bugs, that’s what I thought”, which is at least preferable to “creepy crawlies” which is another common response. So are we too elitist, too proud of our discipline to give it a more accessible name? Ornithologists don’t, as far as I know, call themselves birdologists, and herpetologists don’t need to go around describing themselves as frogologists, snakeologists or whateverologists?  They don’t have to, they live in a world surrounded by the constant stream of vertebrate propaganda coming from the biased charismatic mega-fauna, backbone dominated world we live in. (I’m not bitter, honest).

Going back to my question about elitism in our discipline.  Our societies worldwide are known as entomological societies, some such as the one I have been a proud Fellow since 1977, are even preceded by the word Royal, and the Royal Entomological Society of London is not alone, there is also the Royal Belgian Entomological Society :-). What about the journals that entomological societies produce and those in which entomologists publish?  As you might expect the majority of the titles contain the word entomology but not exclusively.  The two biggest entomological societies, The Royal Entomological Society (RES) and the Entomological Society of America (ESA), produce six and eight journals respectively in addition to their newsletters and handbooks.  Of the six RES journals, two use insect instead of entomology, Insect Conservation & Diversity and Insect Molecular Biology. Similarly the ESA have two insect named journals, Journal of Insect Science, Insect Systematics and Diversity, and also two that eschew mention of both entomology and insects, Journal of Integrated Pest Management, and Arthropod Management Tests. The International Union for the Study of Social Insects, not technically a society, produces the well-known and highly respected journal, Insectes Sociaux.

Outside the world of learned entomological societies there are a handful of entomological journals that use insect instead of entomology, namely, Journal of Insect Conservation, Journal of Insect Physiology, Insects and Insect Science, three of which I have published in (Cameron & Leather, 2012; Oliver et al., 2012, Cooper et al., 2014). There is also of course, The Bulletin of Insectology, in which I have also published (Benelli et al, 2015).

Entomology is obviously not a sacred term, and in the interests of getting more people interested in the wonderful world of insects and letting them know what it is we do, we should perhaps, be less precious about being entomologists, and become insectologists when appropriate.  That said, I don’t think I will ever be able to bring myself to say that I am a bugologist or creepycrawlyologist, but I I could certainly live with being an insectologist now and then.

 

References

Benelli, M., Leather, S.R., Francati, S., Marchetti, E. & Dindo, M.L. (2015) Effect of two temperatures on biological traits and susceptibility to a pyrethroid insecticide in an exotic and native coccinellid species. Bulletin of Insectology, 69, 23-29.

Cameron, K.H. & Leather, S.R. (2012) Heathland management effects on carabid beetle communities: the relationship between bare ground patch size and carabid  biodiversity. Journal of Insect Conservation, 16, 523-535.

Cooper, L.C., Desjonqueres, C. & Leather, S.R. (2014) Cannibalism in the pea aphid, Acyrthosiphon pisum. Insect Science, 21, 750-758.

Oliver, T.H., Leather, S.R. & Cook, J.M. (2012) Ant larval demand reduces aphid colony growth rates in an ant-aphid interaction. Insects, 3, 120-130.

18 Comments

Filed under Bugbears

Buzzing with invention and intrigue – The Bees by Laline Paull

Laline Paulll, The Bees, Harper Collins (2014) ISBN 978-0-00-755774-5

Having suffered the trauma of watching Antz and the Bee Movie, I’m always a tad reluctant to embark on books that feature insects as their main protagonists. Maya Leonard’s Beetle Boy trilogy, which I thoroughly enjoyed, is different, as the insects play a supporting role.  It is probably this prejudice that has allowed this wonderful book to have been unread by me for six long years 🙂

I can’t remember who recommended this book, but I’m glad I took them up on it.  Despite the glowing recommendation and the numerous blurbs inside and out (after all Stephen Heard has recently revealed the truth about book blurbs) I began reading Laline Paull’s debut novel with some trepidation. I was pleasantly surprised, despite the inevitable anthropomorphisation of the heroine*, (I don’t think the novel would have worked without it), I engaged wholeheartedly with the story.

I was a bit dubious at first about the kin group theme, the heroine is a Flora (717 to be exact), and there are Teasels, Clovers and the evil Sages, as I, erroneously as it turned out, had this idea that all the members of a hive were full sisters.  I had, however, misremembered, honey bee queens, unlike many other Hymenoptera, are no strangers to multiple mating**(polyandry), having, in fact, the highest levels of this trait of all the social insects (Strassman, 2001). Biologically, the Queen having access to multiple sperm-donors is highly advantageous, as when disease strikes, as it does in the novel, not all the inhabitants of the colony are equally vulnerable (Tarpy, 2003). British elms would not have been all but exterminated by Dutch Elm Disease, if they had not all been members of a single clone.

The other characteristic of bees that some might feel that Laline Paull plays a little fast and loose with is temporal polyethism (age based division of labour). I had slight misgivings about the rigidity of the division of labour within the hive. It has long been known that honeybee workers exhibit temporal polyethism (age-based division of labour) (Pérez, 1889). Young workers perform brood-nest associated tasks such as brood-cell cleaning and larval feeding, graduating on to food processing, nest construction, and guarding and finally as they enter old age, become foragers (Seeley and Kolmes 1991). Flora 717 does indeed go through these phases, but the rest of her kin group seem to be sanitation workers throughout their lives and the scheming Sage priestesses seem to have no other function than to spread their mantra of “Accept, Obey, Serve” and to direct the action of the sinister police bees. In case you think that police bees are a bit too detached from reality, worker bees do ‘police’ other workers when it comes to ‘unauthorised’ egg laying (Ratnieks & Visscher, 1989). Although it has been shown that different genotypes of bees within a hive do show some variation in the timing of their move from one task to another (Siegel et al., 2013), there is, as far, as I can find, no evidence of genotypes that remain fixed in one job their whole lives.

I guess the biggest issue, without giving the climax of the story away, is the production of a Queen from an egg laid by a worker bee. Worker bees can, and do lay unfertilised eggs, but, with one exception, they are invariably males.  Workers of the Cape honeybees (Apis mellifera capensis), however, can produce female eggs parthenogenetically (Hepburn, 1994), a phenomenon known as thelytoky. If fed the right food during the first 72 hours of their larval life, these eggs, could in theory, develop into Queens, (Pérez, 1889). Although the story is not set in South Africa, I am willing to give this a pass and assume that one of the drones that impregnated the Queen of Flora’s hive was a Cape honeybee.

The many issues facing honeybees are brought to life in this dramatic and believable story.  Experience the effects of pesticides, pollution and ‘phone masts on our heroine and her hive mates at first hand.  Cower as the wasps attack, and when a starving mouse gains entry to the hive in mid-winter, wince as the surplus drones are disposed of by the workers and cheer as our heroine saves the day.  This is a gripping story, and despite my reservations about the ‘hive mind’ Laline has taken the advice of her entomological advisors to heart and made a hugely successful foray into depicting the life style and ecology of the honeybee.

Definitely worth reading, a tour de force.

 

References

Hepburn, H.R. (1994) Reproductive cycling and hierarchical competition in Cape honeybees, Apis mellifera capensis Esch. Apidologie, 25, 38-48.

Pérez J. (1889) Les Abeilles. Paris, France: Hachette et Cie.

Ratnieks, F.L.W. & Visscher, P.K. (1989) Worker policing in the honeybee. Nature, 342, 796-797.

Seeley, T.D. & Kolmes, S.A. (1991) Age polyethism for hive duties in honey bees — illusion or reality? Ethology, 87, 284-297.

Siegel, A. J., Fondrk, M. K., Amdam, G. V., & Page, R. E., Jr (2013). In-hive patterns of temporal polyethism in strains of honey bees (Apis mellifera) with distinct genetic backgroundsBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology67, 1623–1632.

Strassmann, J. E. (2001) The rarity of multiple mating by females in the social Hymenoptera. Insectes Sociaux, 48, 1–13.

Tarpy, D.R. (2003) Genetic diversity within honeybee colonies prevents severe infections and promotes colony growth. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 270, 99-103.

*Unlike makers of The Bee Movie, Laline knows what sex worker bees are 🙂

** Note that I did not use the word promiscuous; promiscuity is a human trait, not an insect one.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

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

2 Comments

Filed under Pick and mix

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

11 Comments

Filed under Teaching matters

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 🙂

*

 

5 Comments

Filed under The Bloggy Blog

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.

1 Comment

Filed under EntoNotes

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under EntoNotes

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 😊

17 Comments

Filed under EntoNotes