Tag Archives: entomology

“Insectageddon” – bigger headlines, more hype, but where’s the funding?

Unless you have been hibernating in a deep, dark cave or on another planet, you can hardly have missed the ‘insectageddon’ media frenzy that hit the UK (and elsewhere) on Monday (11th February).

This time the stimulus was a review paper outlining the dramatic decline in insect numbers, from two Australian authors (Sánchez-Bayo & Wyckhus, 2019).  Their paper, based on 73 published studies on insect decline showed that globally, 41% of insect species are in decline, which is more than twice that reported for vertebrates.  They also highlighted that a third of all insect species in the countries studied are threatened with extinction.  Almost identical figures were reported some five years ago (Dirzo et al., 2014), but somehow escaped the attention of the media.

I’m guessing that a clever press release by either the authors’ university or from the publisher of Biological Conservation set the ball rolling and the appearance of the story in The Guardian newspaper on Monday morning got the rest of the media in on the act.

The headline that lit the fuse – The Guardian February 11th  2019

The inside pages

A flurry of urgent phone calls and emails from newspapers, radio stations and TV companies resulted as the various news outlets tried to track down and convince entomologists to put their heads above the parapet and comment on the story and its implications for mankind.  I was hunted down mid-morning by the BBC, and despite not being in London and recovering from a bad cold, was persuaded to appear live via a Skype call.  A most disconcerting experience as although I was visible to the audience and interviewer, I was facing a blank screen, so no visual cues to respond to.  According to those who saw it, it was not a disaster 🙂  Entomologists from all over the country, including at least three of my former students, were lured into TV and radio studios and put through their entomological paces.

Me, former student Tom Oliver (University of Reading), Blanca Huertas (NHM) and former student Andy Salisbury (RHS Wisley), getting our less than fifteen minutes of fame 🙂

As far as I know, we all survived relatively unscathed and the importance of insects (and entomologists) for world survival was firmly established; well for a few minutes anyway 🙂

It is the ephemeral nature of the media buzz that I want to discuss first.  Looking at the day’s events you would be forgiven that the idea of an ecological Armageddon brought about by the demise of the world’s insects was something totally new.   If only that were so.

Three years of insect decline in the media

The three years before the current outbreak of media hype have all seen similar stories provoking similar reactions, a brief flurry of media attention and expressions of concern from some members of the public and conservation bodies and then a deafening silence. Most worrying of all, there has been no apparent reaction from the funding bodies or the government, in marked contrast to the furore caused, by what was, on a global scale, a relatively minor event, Ash Die Back.  Like now, I responded to each outcry by writing a blog post, so one in 2016, one in 2017 and another last year.

So, will things be different this time, will we see governments around the world, after all this is a global problem, setting up urgent expert task forces and siphoning research funding into entomology? Will we see universities advertising lots of entomologically focused PhD positions?  I am not hopeful. Despite three years of insectageddon stories, the majority of ecology and conservation-based PhDs advertised by British universities this autumn, were concerned with vertebrates, many based in exotic locations, continuing the pattern noted many years ago. In terms of conservation and ecology it seems that funding is not needs driven but heavily influenced by glamorous fur and feathers coupled with exotic field sites (Clarke & May, 2002).

The paper that caused the current media outbreak (Sánchez-Bayo & Wyckhus, 2019) although hailed by the media as new research, was actually a review of 73 papers published over the last several years.  It is not perfect, for one thing the search terms used to find the papers used in the review included the term decline, which means that any papers that did not show evidence of a decline over the last forty years were not included e.g. Shortall et al. (2009; Ewald et al. (2015), both of  which showed that in some insects and locations, populations were not declining, especially if the habitats that they favoured were increasing, e.g. forests, a point I raised in my 2018 post.  Another point of criticism is that the geographic range of the studies was rather limited, almost entirely confined to the northern hemisphere (Figure 1). Some commentators have also criticised the analysis, pointing out that it was

Figure 1. Countries from which data were sourced (Sánchez-Bayo & Wyckhus, 2019).

not, as stated by the authors, a true meta-analysis but an Analysis of Variance.  Limitations there may be, but the take home message that should not be ignored, is that there are many insect species, especially those associated with fresh water, that are in steep decline.  The 2017 paper showing a 75% reduction in the biomass of flying insects in Germany (Hallmann et al., 2017), also attracted some criticism, mainly because although the data covered forty years, not all the same sites were sampled every year.  I reiterate, despite the shortcomings of both these papers, there are lots of studies that show large declines in insect abundance and they should not be taken lightly, or as some are doing on Twitter, dismissing them as hysterical outpourings with little basis in fact.

https://www.itv.com/news/2019-02-11/insect-mass-extinction-headlines-do-not-tell-whole-story-and-risk-undermining-threat-of-declining-numbers/

It is extremely difficult, especially with the lack of funding available to entomologists to get more robust data.  The Twitter thread below from Alex Wild, explains the problems facing entomologists much more clearly and lucidly than I could.  Please read it carefully.

Masterly thread by Alex Wild – millions of insects, millions of ways to make a living and far too few entomologists

I am confident that I speak for most entomologists, when I say how frustrated we feel about the way ecological funding is directed.  Entomologists do get funding, but a lot of it is directed at crop protection. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good thing, and something I have benefited from throughout my career.  Modern crop protection aims to reduce pesticide use by ecological means, but we desperately need to train more entomologist of all hues and to persuade governments and grant bodies to fund entomological research across the board, not just bees, butterflies and dragonflies, but also the small, the overlooked and the non-charismatic ones  (Leather & Quicke, 2010).  A positive response by governments across the world is urgently needed.  Unfortunately what causes a government to take action is hard to understand as shown by how swiftly the UK government responded to the globally trivial impact of Ash Die Back but continues to ignore the call for a greater understanding of the significance of and importance of insects, insectageddon notwithstanding.

I put the blame for lack of entomological funding in the UK on the way that universities have been assessed in the UK over the last twenty years or so (Leather, 2013). The Research Excellence Framework and the way university senior management responded to it has had a significant negative effect on the recruitment of entomologists to academic posts and this has of course meant that entomological teaching and awareness of the importance of  insects to global health has decreased correspondingly.

I very much hope that this current outbreak of media hype will go some way to curing the acute case of entomyopia that most non-entomologists suffer from. I  fear however, that unless the way we teach biology in primary and secondary schools changes, people will continue to focus on the largely irrelevant charismatic mega-fauna and not the “little things that run the world”

Perhaps if publicly supported conservation organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature concentrated on invertebrates a bit more that would help.  A good start would be to remove the panda, an animal that many of us consider ecologically irrelevant from their logo, and replace it with an insect. Unlikely I know, but if they must have a mammal as their flagship species, how about sloths, at least they have some ‘endemic’ insect species associated with them 🙂

References

Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P.R. & Dirzo, R. (2017) Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signalled by vertebrate population losses and declines. Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, 114, E6089-E6096.

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

Dirzo, R., Young, H.S., Galetti, M., Ceballos, G., Isaac, N.J.B., & Collen, B. (2014) Defaunation in the anthropocene. Science, 345, 401-406.

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

Hallmann, C.A., Sorg, M., Jongejans, E., Siepel, H., Hofland, N., Schwan, H., Stenmans, W., Müller, A., Sumser, H., Hörren, T., Goulson, D. & de Kroon, H. (2017) More than 75% decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS ONE. 12 (10):eo185809.

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.

Sánchez-Bayo, F. & Wyckhus, K.A.G. (2019) Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers. Biological Conservation, 232, 8-27.

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

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Skype a Scientist – a great way to invest in the future

I do a lot of outreach or “reach out” as my contract endearingly terms it 🙂 In terms of talks, my outreach spans a great range of ages and experiences; from the University of the 3rd Age (U3A), Women’s Institutes, the Rotary Club and similar organisations, local Natural History Societies, Garden Clubs, and less often, schools and youth groups.  As you can see from the preceding list, most of my ‘formal’ standing in front of an audience and lecturing outreach, although not primarily aimed at the older generation, does most often find them.  Face to face interactions with the younger generation is mainly via University Open Days and events like the Big Bang Fair which are great fun but are annual one-offs. I was thus very pleased when I discovered Skype A Scientist last year and had the chance to extend my ‘face to face’ interactions with the younger generation, not just in the UK but around the world.  My two favourite classroom session were with 9-10 year olds, one class in a primary school in Northern Ireland and the other in an elementary school in Cincinnati.

The questions they asked are wonderful, heartening and stimulating. Some, especially the ‘why’ ones, are pretty hard to answer, remember the ‘language’ we speak as scientists has a vocabulary that is not necessarily the same as that of a 9-year old.  Although I have listed all the questions they asked, I’m not going to post all my attempts at answering them, just some of the ones that weren’t as easy as you might think.  Thankfully, the teachers were kind enough to send me a list of the questions a few days before the session, otherwise I would have been in trouble 🙂  Try answering them yourself and as a side exercise, which questions came from which school?  If you haven’t done Skye A Scientist, I can thoroughly recommend it and hopefully, as a community we can sow enough idea seeds in this age group for a large number to germinate and grow into a high yielding crop of future scientists.

School 1

Do all animals drink water?

Do you mostly work indoors or outdoors?

How did you get interested in your job?

How did you get into your job? Hard work and luck

How long have you been in the insect profession? A long time 🙂

How can you tell poisonous bugs apart from not poisonous bugs? An excellent question as gave me the opportunity to talk about warning colouration and the difference between poisonous and venomous

How does a caterpillar turn into a butterfly? Harder than it seems

How do you get rid of the pests without killing the crops? Gave me the chance to talk about phytotoxicity

How do you remove pesticides without hurting and ruining the food and water? This was actually about organic farming

If you could save any insect from extinction which insect would it be? Really difficult to answer this

Is pesticide the only chemical hurting the plants/insects or is there more? Chance to talk about pollution issues

What is your favourite part in an ecosystem and why?    The insects – because they are cool

What is your favourite consumer?

What is your favourite insect? Had to be an aphid, but then I had to explain what an aphid was 🙂

What is your favourite animal that you have worked with? Large willow aphid of course

What is your favourite animal(s) in the ecosystems you observe? Obviously aphids 🙂

What is the most dangerous insect? Hard to answer, but did give me an opportunity to talk about allergic reactions

What are the most common pests that harm crops? An easy one

What is the coolest animal/insect you have ever seen?   Again, really hard, because there is so much variety, I went for Snow flea, Boreus hiemalis 🙂

What did you want to be when you were a kid? Gerald Durrell 🙂

When did you become a scientist? A long time ago 🙂

Why do insects that have stingers have stingers? One of those why questions!

What’s your favourite animal/insect that you had ever helped? I went for spider just to be controversial

Why did you choose the career of being a college professor in science?

What is your favourite part of your job?  Talking to people about insects

What chemicals have you worked with, and which ones are the most harmful?

What is your favourite insect to learn and inspect? Always aphids 🙂

What kind of animals do you mostly research? Guess what?

What are some tools you use? Told them about pooters

What insect has been infected the most from the chemicals?

Where do you work?

What do you wear for work? What I’m wearing now – jeans and shirt with sleeves rolled up 🙂

What do you think of pesticides?  Gave me a chance to talk about pros and cons and specificity

Why did you chose to be an ecologist? Gerald Durrell

Why do butterflies drink tears from turtle’s eyes? Great chance to talk about puddling and peeing in tropical forests to attract butterflies

You know how there are certain bugs that look the same as other bugs that are poisonous, how does that species that looks the same as the poisonous ones stay not over-populated? Very interesting question and lots to talk about concerning mimicry and aposematism

 

School 2

Are spiders insects?

Can you heal an ant if it gets sick? Interesting question and gave me a chance to talk about ants helping each other

Do insects sleep at night? Depends on how you define sleep

Do insects hibernate? Some do

Do insects see in black and white or colour? Colour, but generally not red and chance to talk about UV vision

Do slugs have sharp teeth? Depends on what you mean by teeth and sharp

Can leaf cutter ants eat through human skin? Ouch, yes

Can ants swim? Chance to talk about surface tension

How are ants so strong even though they are so small?

How do crickets make the clicking sound?

How many types of insects are there in the world? Lots and a great opportunity to have a rant about vertebrates 🙂

How do butterflies get coloured? Difficult as had to talk about scales, refraction, wavelengths etc

What is a beehive made of?

What is a beetle’s body made of? Easy on the surface but then you have to work out how to describe chitin

What do woodlice eat?

Why are bees so important?  Gave me a chance to talk about how important other pollinators are and how chocolate lovers should love flies 🙂

Why do spiders have so many eyes? Yep!

Why do bees make honey?

Why do dung beetles roll dung? Nice question

Why are bugs so small?  Good opportunity to debunk giant insects in horror films and talk about insect respiratory systems

Why do insects have 6 legs? I went for the descended from organisms with lots of legs and because of size and balance problems, six was the most stable reduction (tripod theory).  Mercifully nobody picked me up about mantids or Nymphalids 🙂

What is the biggest insect? Luckily had a photo to hand

 

As you can see a bit of a challenge even with advance warning, but definitely worth doing.  School 1 was in the USA and School 2 the UK.  Did you guess correctly?

This year I am looking forward to talking to schools in Moscow and Switzerland; truly global reach.  How cool is that?

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Pick and Mix 25 – Natural History, Entomology & Ecology

 

Jeremy Fox asks “Did Darwin have a blind spot?”

Time to get more young people interested in taxonomy

On the same lines, an interview with Maya Leonard, author of the Beetle Boy trilogy and newly released Beetle Collector’s Handbook

Great to see someone starting a Natural History course at university level

Did you know that insects have had a huge influence on science fiction films?

Neither plant nor animal – a new branch on the tree of life?

Why museum collections are valuable and need preserving

More on the global decline in insect numbers and why we should be worried

A nice piece of research where the media headline is so wrong:  “Ants in Florida collect the skulls of other ants to decorate their nests” – see the actual paper here and make up your mind 🙂

How locust ecology inspired an opera

 

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Brilliantly, Beautifully Beetle Filled – The Beetle Collector’s Handbook

A book to hold and cherish – it is a very tangible experience

According to the frontispiece, Bartholomew Cuttle got this book when he was 9 years old and it passed into his son Darcus’s keeping when he was 13, I’m guessing at the end of the Beetle Boy Trilogy.  At round about the same age as Bartholomew (I was 8), I pinned my first insects and discovered the Dr Dolittle books, both events that shaped my life significantly, engendering as they did, a life-long love of Nature.

 

If someone had given me Maya Leonard’s latest offering, The Beetle Collector’s Handbook then, and not now, I would have been over the moon and have immediately rushed off to read it cover to cover in one sitting, which is pretty much what I did, and, how I felt, when it arrived in the post at work a couple of weeks ago 😊 As you may have guessed from the above, I am a great fan of this, the latest outing by Maya Leonard.  Despite the frontispiece, the artificial but subtle signs of aging and loving usage, and the connection with the Beetle Boy novels indicated by the fictional, annotations*  by Darcus and his friends, this is not a work of fiction.

Fantastic Silphid with extra annotations

Neither is it a text-book or a manual.  So, what is it exactly?  It’s instructional, educational and, very importantly, fun.   So, what do I mean by instructional.  I have, for example,  written about the history of the Pooter which I consider educational, whereas, The Handbook shows you how to make your own, hence instructional.

 

Everyone needs to know how to make a Pooter

Keeping proper records is very important.

 

Also instructional is the advice on how to record your observations.  In terms of education, you are regaled with salient facts and figures about a number of beetles, albeit only a tiny fraction of those that have been described by entomologists, but that in the words of the author are  “..the species of beetles that I think are the most surprising, beautiful and impressive…”

Stag beetle, I particularly like the fact that many of the illustrations show you the actual size of the beetle.

Maya, or should that be the fictional author, Monty Leonard, has shunned traditional taxonomy-based listing and instead presented the beetles in a playful grouping of shared traits, skills or appearance, so fun and educational.  What really makes this book something very special is the quality of the illustrations by a very gifted young artist, Carim Nahaboo.  I can’t praise them enough.  Buy the book and enjoy them in their high-quality format and not via my poorly photographed versions.

The Great Diving Beetle – marvellously life-like

 

This is a book that all primary schools should buy, two copies at the very least, one to subtly place in the library area and the other for use by the staff member tasked with encouraging their pupils to appreciate the wonders of Nature. I also think that secondary schools should invest in a copy or two.

I suspect that not all the fans of Darcus & Co will read this cover to cover, but those that do, will, I am sure, end up studying entomology, perhaps on the new Zoology & Entomology BSc at Harper Adams or on our MSc course 😊

Thank you, Maya, for yet another very enjoyable read.  May you long continue to enthrall audiences, young and not so young, with your tales of beetles and their deeds.

M.G. Leonard (2018) The Beetle Collectors’ Handbook, Scholastic Children’s Books, ISBN 978 1407 18566 8

 

*

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

The importance of entomology.

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

How many different techniques can you spot?

Keen beans – the students enjoying collecting and identifying insects.

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

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

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

Rising from the rain

Summer mist, slowly rolling,

Hides Malham Tarn

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

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

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

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

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Inspiring and being inspired by the next generation – Crop Protection Summer School – CROPSS 2018

Last year I wrote about my BBSRC funded Crop Protection Summer School, CROPSS and 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 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 😊.

We then had an excellent dinner at our local pub, The Lamb Inn, and continued with an outdoor Pub Quiz.

Food, drink and a quiz – perfect for a sunny Sunday evening

To make things easier for the Quiz Master, me, 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😊 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 and quantity of the food and the choices available.

As with last year we had specific days allocated to the main crop protection areas; agronomy, entomology, nematology, plant pathology, weed science and spray technology.  In the evenings we had a speaker from ‘industry’; Dr Lucy Broom, a former student of mine who works at OxitecRob Farrow from Syngenta, David George from Stockbridge Technology Centre, 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 and very well formulated questions, both in the classroom and in the Student Union Bar afterwards.

I am certain that I speak for us all, when I say the students and staff involved found it a very rewarding week.  The weather was glorious as you can see from the photographs, which I will, in time honoured tradition, let tell the story.

Heigh ho, heigh ho it’s off to sample we go

Entomology in action – sweep nets and Pooters

Glorious weather,  just right for looking at light trap catches with Heather Campbell and suction sampling with Andy Cherrill

 

Looking for weeds in the cereal variety trials with John Reade

Labs and classroom

Darts in the bar and chasing fluorescent beetles in the dark

 

The students loved the course and we loved their enthusiasm and commitment.

I should have taken this picture when we are all there 🙂

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

 

 

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Pick and mix 20 – visual treats from the web

Imagine a galaxy populated by Star Wars insects!  Great illustrations by Richard Wilkinson

Do you like orchids?  Watch this

How to recognise Anthracnose plant diseases

Beautiful bees

Hawkmoths and their parasitoids in action – beautiful stuff from Gil Wizen

Magnificent butterfly videos

Very informative article about Giovanni Garzoni and some great insect details in her paintings

Artist creates amazing insect sculptures using nothing but old car parts and scrap metal

Really interesting article about insect Biodiversity in Meiji and Art Nouveau Design

You can’t help but feel sorry for the poor old Daddy Longlegs, but it is very interesting to see how they are able to adapt to losing their legs

 

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Global Insect Extinction – a never ending story

I have had an unexpectedly busy couple of weeks talking about declines in insect populations.  Back in November of last year I wrote a blog about the sudden media interest in “Insect Armageddon” and followed this up with a more formal Editorial in Annals of Applied Biology at the beginning of the year (Leather, 2018).  I mused at the time if this was yet another media ‘storm in a teacup’ but it seems that the subject is still attracting attention.  I appeared on television as part of TRT World’s Roundtable programme and was quoted quite extensively in The Observer newspaper on Sunday last talking about insect declines since my student days 🙂 At the same time, as befits something that has been billed as being global, a similar story, featuring another veteran entomologist appeared in the New Zealand press.

The TV discussion was quite interesting, the panel included Nick Rau from Friends of the Earth, Lutfi Radwan, an academic turned organic farmer, Manu Saunders from Ecology is Not a Dirty Word and me.  If they had hoped for a heated argument they were out of luck, we were all pretty much in agreement; yes insects did not seem to be as abundant as they had once been, and this was almost certainly a result of anthropogenic factors, intensive agriculture, urbanisation and to a lesser extent climate change.  Unlike some commentators who firmly point the finger at the use of pesticides as the major cause of the declines reported, we were more inclined to towards the idea of habitat degradation, fragmentation and loss.  We also agreed that a big problem is a lack of connection with Nature by large sections of the population, and not just those under twenty.  We also felt very strongly that governments should be investing much more into research in this area and that we desperately need more properly replicated and designed long-term studies to monitor the undeniable changes that are occurring.  I had, in my Editorial and an earlier blog post, mentioned this point and lamented the paucity of such information, so was pleasantly surprised, to receive a couple of papers from Sebastian Schuh documenting long-term declines in Hemiptera and Orthoptera in Germany (Schuh et al., 2012ab), although of course sad, to see yet more evidence for decreasing insect populations.

The idea that insects are in terminal decline has been rumbling on for some time; more than a decade ago Kelvin Conrad and colleagues highlighted a rapid decline in moth numbers (Conrad et al., 2006) and a few years later, Dave Brooks and colleagues using data from the UK  Environmental Change Network revealed a disturbing decline in the numbers of carabid beetles across the UK (Brooks et al., 2012).   In the same year (2012) I was asked to give a talk at a conference organised by the Society of Chemical Industry. Then, as now, I felt that pesticides were not the only factor causing the biodiversity crisis, but that agricultural intensification, habitat loss and habitat degradation were and are probably more to blame.  In response to this quote in the media at the time:

“British Insects in Decline

Scientists are warning of a potential ecological disaster following the discovery that Britain has lost around 7% of its indigenous insect species in just under 100 years.

A comparison with figures collected in 1904 have revealed that around 400 species are now extinct, including the black-veined white butterfly, not seen since 1912, the Essex emerald moth and the short-haired bumblebee. Many others are endangered, including the large garden bumblebee, the Fen Raft spider, which is only to be found in a reserve on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, and the once common scarlet malachite beetle, now restricted to just three sites.

Changes to the insects’ natural habitats have been responsible for this disastrous decline in numbers. From housing and industrial developments to single-crop farming methods, Britain’s countryside has become increasingly inhospitable to its native insects.”

I chose to talk about “Forest and woodland insects: Down and out or on the up?” I used data from that most valuable of data sets, the Rothamsted Insect Survey to illustrate my hypothesis that those insects associated with trees were either doing better or not declining, because of increased tree planting over the last fifty years.  As you can see from the slides from my talk, this does indeed seem to be the case with moths and aphids that feed on trees or live in their shade.  I also showed that the populations of the same species in northern Britain, where agriculture is less intensive and forests and woodlands more prevalent were definitely on the up, and this phenomenon was not just confined to moths and aphids.

Two tree aphids, one Drepanosiphum platanoidis lives on sycamore, the other Elatobium abietinum, lives on spruce trees; both are doing rather well.

Two more tree-dwelling aphids, one on European lime, the other on sycamore and maples, both doing very well.  For those of you unfamiliar with UK geography, East Craigs is in Scotland and Newcastle in the North East of England, Hereford in the middle and to the west, and Starcross in the South West, Sites 2, 1, 6 and 9 in the map in the preceding figure.

Two conifer feeding moth species showing no signs of decline.

On the up, two species, a beetle, Agrilus biguttatus perhaps due to climate change, and a butterfly, the Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria, due to habitat expansion and climate change?

It is important however, to remember that insect populations are not static, they vary from year to year, and the natural fluctuations in their populations can be large and, as in the case of the Orange ladybird, Halyzia sedecimguttata, take place over a several years, which is yet another reason that we need long-term data sets.

The Orange ladybird Halyzia sedecimguttata, a mildew feeder, especially on sycamore.

It is obvious, whether we believe that an ecological catastrophe is heading our way or not, that humans are having a marked effect on the biodiversity that keeps our planet in good working order and not just through our need to feed an ever-increasing population.  A number of recent studies have shown that our fixation with car ownership is killing billions of insects every year (Skórka et al., 2013; Baxter-Gilbert et al.,2015; Keilsohn et al., 2018) and that our fear of the dark is putting insects and the animals that feed on them at risk (Eccard et al.,  2018; Grubisic et al., 2018).  We have a lot to answer for and this is exacerbated by our growing disconnect from Nature and the insidious effect of “shifting baselines” which mean that succeeding generations tend to accept what they see as normal (Leather & Quicke, 2010, Soga & Gaston, 2018) and highlights the very real need for robust long-term data to counteract this dangerous and potentially lethal, World view (Schuh, 2012; Soga & Gaston, 2018).  Perhaps if research funding over the last thirty years or so had been targeted at the many million little things that run the World and not the handful of vertebrates that rely on them (Leather, 2009), we would not be in such a dangerous place?

I am, however, determined to remain hopeful.  As a result of the article in The Observer, I received an email from a gentleman called Glyn Brown, who uses art to hopefully, do something about shifting baselines.  This is his philosophy in his own words and pictures.

 

References

Baxter-Gilbert, J.H., Riley, J.L., Neufeld, C.J.H., Litzgus, J.D. & Lesbarrères, D.  (2015) Road mortality potentially responsible for billions of pollinating insect deaths annually. Journal of Insect Conservation, 19, 1029-1035.

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

Conrad, K.F., Warren. M.S., Fox, R., Parsons, M.S. & Woiwod, I.P. (2006) Rapid declines of common, widespread British moths provide evidence of an insect biodiversity crisis. Biological Conservation, 132, 279-291.

Eccard, J.A., Scheffler, I., Franke, S. & Hoffmann, J. (2018) Off‐grid: solar powered LED illumination impacts epigeal arthropods. Insect Conservation & Diversity, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/icad.12303

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

Grubisic, M., van Grunsven, R.H.A.,  Kyba, C.C.M.,  Manfrin, A. & Hölker, F. (2018) Insect declines and agroecosystems: does light pollution matter? Annals of Applied Biology,   https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/aab.12440

Keilsohn, W., Narango, D.L. & Tallamy, D.W. (2018) Roadside habitat impacts insect traffic mortality.  Journal of Insect Conservation, 22, 183-188.

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

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

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

Schuh, S. (2012) Archives and conservation biology. Pacific Conservation Biology, 18, 223-224.

Schuh, S., Wesche, K. & Schaefer, M. (2012a) Long-term decline in the abundance of leafhoppers and planthoppers (Auchenorrhyncha) in Central Europe protected dry grasslands. Biological Conservation, 149, 75-83.

Schuh, S., Bock, J., Krause, B., Wesche, K. & Scgaefer, M. (2012b) Long-term population trends in three grassland insect groups: a comparative analysis of 1951 and 2009. Journal of Applied Entomology, 136, 321-331.

Skórka, P., Lenda, M., Moroń, D., Kalarus, K., & Tryjanowskia, P. (2013) Factors affecting road mortality and the suitability of road verges for butterflies. Biological Conservation, 159, 148-157.

Soga, M. & Gaston, K.J. (2018) Shifting baseline syndrome: causes, consequences and implications. Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment, 16, 222-230.

 

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Pick and mix 19 – a mixed bag

George Monbiot on how big coroporations are using viral marketing techniques to rubbish their opponents and even get scientific papesr retracted – very disturbing if true

When should a non-aggressive exotic species be demoted to a harmless naturalized resident?

David Zaruk on the two sides of communicating the perceived and real risks of pesticides

It turns out that moths and butterflies are a lot older than we thought – 70 000 000 years older!

More evidence that plants talk to each other

Why imaginary treehouses help children engage with Nature

Embedding real insects in resin – a great outreach tool

Taxonomy is essential for global conservation, not a hindrance

Why you shouldn’t kill or remove your house spiders

And yet more evidence to show that insects are under threat, this time from climate change

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When did I become it? The fall and rise of passive and active voices in science writing

 

A few weeks ago, one of Stephen Heard’s excellent blog posts reminded me about the passive versus active voice debate.  I was once a passionate opponent of the active voice and the use of the first person singular and plural (Leather, 1986)*. In fact, during my tenure as Editor-in-Chief of Ecological Entomology (1996-2003) my Editorial Assistant/Copy Editor took great pleasure in converting, the mainly USA-authored actively written papers to passive conformity 😊 People often mention that they were ‘trained’ to write in the third person as this was regarded as being more scientific and less likely to lead to biased interpretations of data. In my 1986 paper I adopted a similar view and added that using the first-person singular could lead to a sense of ‘ownership’ and a subsequent reluctance to accept criticism.  But that was then, this is now, and those of you who read my scientific papers as opposed to my blog, will see that the first person singular and plural are to be found there.

Stephen says in his blog “Most of us were trained to write science in the passive voice, and most of us are accustomed to reading science in the passive voice.” In an idle procrastinating moment, I wondered when the impersonal passive way of writing became standard.  As an Editor of a couple of society journals (Annals of Applied Biology and Insect Conservation & Diversity) I have free access to the back numbers of the journals of the Association of Applied Biologists and the Royal Entomological Society to the year dot.  I decided to do a rather limited, and I hasten to add, not very replicated study, on the rise and fall and return of the active voice in two journals, Annals of Applied Biology and Ecological Entomology (formerly Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society).

As an aphidologist I felt compelled to start with a quote from one of our most distinguished alumni, the great Thomas Henry Huxley.  Just to complicate things, it is also in neither of the two journals I surveyed 😊. Huxley (1858) not only uses I profusely, but also cites and quotes chunks of papers written 50 years earlier which also use I.  It seems that Victorian entomologists and their predecessors had no problems with ‘owning’ their opinions and observations.

If we jump forward sixty years or so to the first issue of Annals of Applied Biology (1914) we see, even though the writing is not exactly thrilling, that it is active, and the authors, as demonstrated by the following example, had no problems with using the personal pronoun.

“This seemed to the present author to be a very important question about the two life-cycles described for Aphis rumicis. It intimated that the two parallel life-cycles might be merged into one by crossing from Euonymus to Broad Bean and from Rumex to Poppies. If the two life-cycles proved to be absolutely constant and separate, a very important feature would be established, namely the establishment of two biological species (A. euonymi and A. rumicis), both resembling each other in structure but differing physiologically in habitat. As the results obtained in these experiments will show, Aphis euonymi will heavily infest Broad Beans, and Aphis euonymi reared on Rumex will heavily infest both Broad Bean and Poppies.  Thus the two life- cycles may be merged into one.  The life-history, however, has not been completed, as owing to leaving England in September, I have been unable to trace the history of the sexuparae.”  (Davidson, 1914).

We also find a very similar style in articles published by the Royal Entomological Society in the same year (e.g. Lamborn et al., 1914).

I wondered if the traumatic experience of the First World War would have affected scientific writing styles, but found, at least in my two sample journals, that during the 1920s nothing much changed in the style in which papers were written.  In Annals of Applied Biology, the change from personal pronouns and active voices begins in the early 1930s, 1933 being the last year in which the majority of papers still used the more personal style, but the following examples show, the tide was turning.

“So far as we are aware, no systematic investigation of the carbohydrates of crinkle infected plants has been made heretofore, and the present work was initiated and carried out on the same lines as was employed by us for leaf-roll. It should also be mentioned that our colleague, Mr George Cockerham, has carried out a similar investigation on mild mosaic at the substation” (Barton-Wright & McBain (1933).

“In 1930 we grease-banded sixty plum trees before the sawflies had emerged and on these we caught seventeen adults.  Later on it was noticed that these trees were badly infested with sawfly larvae.  From this it would appear that most of the sawflies must have flown on to the trees, either directly from the ground or from neighbouring trees. In order to study their habits, adults were collected in the orchard and kept on plum shoots in cages” (Petherbridge et al., 1933).

The early to mid-1930s marks an emerging trend toward the third person appearing, for example; “This paper describes our work on this disease during 1932. We consider that we have collected sufficient evidence to show conclusively that the disease is caused by the feeding of the tea mosquito bug (Helopeltis bergrothi Reut.) on the more mature green stems of tea.  We consider that fungi play a purely secondary part in the etiology of the disease. We suggest the name ((gnarled stem canker” as being a more descriptive name for the disease than ((stem canker” or “branch canker,” which may include many different diseases” (Leach & Smeed, 1933). The rest of this paper is, however, strongly third person impersonal.

Jackson (1933) writing about the tstetse fly refers to himself as The Author and has a very dry and impersonal third person reporting style throughout. In a similar style, here is Maldwyn Davies**, “The writer has been concerned solely with entomological studies and the relation that the work has to the seed potato and virus problems” (Maldwyn Davies, 1934).

This, the last pre-war use of the first person in the Annals, is, coincidentally, in the form of a tribute to the aforementioned Maldwyn Davies; “Dr W Maldwyn Davies died in February 1937 after preparing the first draft of this report; and it has therefore fallen to me, as one very closely associated with him in his ecological work on aphides, to prepare the Report for publication. I have endeavoured simply to make the necessary verbal corrections which, I feel confident, Dr Davies himself would have desired” (Maldwyn Davies & Whitehead, 1939).

Post-war the third person and passive voice is firmly established (e.g. Prentice & Harris, 1946) and in this paper I was pleased to see the authors capitalizing Petri as in dish and comparing with not to, two errors commonly evident in modern papers 🙂

Over at the Royal Entomological Society and in their flagship journal, Transactions, things are very different.  Here in 1949, some 15 years after the last mention of the personal pronoun in the Annals, we find a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the Indian Medical Service writing very actively indeed:

“It was not until 1877 that Selys gave the first definition of the genus Agriocnemis, listing under it ten species, including in this number exilis, but excluding solitaria and rufipes ; the former was placed in a new genus, Argiocnemis, the latter relegated again to its former genus, Agrion! It is diacult to fathom the Selysian reasons for this volte face, for he had the type of rufipes before him in his own collection: nor can he be said to have forgotten his original reference, for he actually cites Pollen and Van Dam where rufipes is listed under Agriocnemis“ (Fraser, 1949).

I then jumped forward in time to 1955, an excellent year, the year a new entomologist was hatched; I was born 🙂  In the Annals I found only one paper with a first person mention and that was in the acknowledgements (Shaw, 1955).   In Transactions however, there is a mixture, for example Tottenham (1955), a Vicar, using the active first person singular and Downes (1955) a government taxonomist using the third person passive.  There are however, indications that the third person passive style is growing in popularity, and by 1962 you can read passages like this “It was desirable to obtain data on the dispersal of adults to supplement results obtained in the weekly samples” (Anderson, 1962).  This was done at my old stamping ground, Silwood Park and marks the increasing number of professional entomologists beginning to publish in the Transactions.  By 1965, the year we left Jamaica, there is only one instance of active, first person plural reporting, in the persons of Trevor Lewis and Roy Taylor, two legendary entomologists from Rothamsted, the former still alive and relatively well (Lewis & Taylor, 1965).  They were, however, not the last to follow this practice. In 1975, the final year of Transactions (metamorphosed to Ecological Entomology in 1976, both forms are still in use. In the Annals on the other hand, the papers in the issues of 1965 and 1975 are both firmly passive and impersonal.

So why the difference between the two journals?  It has nothing do with being an entomologist per se.  Rather I think, it is to do with the difference in fields of study.  Annals of Applied Biology is, and was, run by the Association of Applied Biologists, so from the very beginning, it was the mouthpiece of professional biologists working in agriculture and forestry, who were mainly employed at Government Research Institutes or Universities.  The Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, on the other hand, had a much longer history, and was, for almost the first century of its existence, dominated by the output of Fellows of the Royal Entomological Society, most of whom were, what we would now call amateur entomologists.

My hypothesis, admittedly based on very limited data, is that as “professional scientists” applied biologists were more likely to perceive writing in an impersonal passive manner as more appropriate to their standing as paid scientists, whereas the parsons, medical practitioners, military officers, gentlemen and other amateur naturalists writing on entomological matters, felt no such compulsion.  That does not however, explain why my Editorial Assistant for Ecological Entomology, had a constant battle against the use of the active and personal voice by authors from the USA; one of the first countries to have a professional entomological extension service J  Perhaps one of my North American readers can suggest an answer?

Although I am still sparing in my use of the personal pronoun and the active voice in my formal scientific writing, I am no longer averse to taking ownership of my work.  Regular readers of my blog will know that I have fully embraced the practice in my less formal offerings and revel in the freedom to express my personal viewpoints with vim and vigour, although of course all firmly backed up with documented evidence 🙂

References

Anderson, N.H. (1962) Bionomics of six species of Anthocoris (Heteroptera : Anthocoridae) in England. Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, 114, 67-95.

Barton-Wright, E. & McBain , A. (1933) Studies in the  physiology of the virus diseases of the potato. II. A comparison of the carbohydrate metabolism of normal with that of crinkle potatoes; together with some observations on carbohydrate metabolism in a “carrier” variety. Annals of Applied Biology, 20, 525-548.

Brierley, W.B. (1934) Some viewpoints of an applied biologist. Annals of Applied Biology, 21, 351-378.

Davidson, J. (1914) The host plants and habits of Aphis rumicis Linn., with some observations  on  the  migration of, and infestation of, plants  by  aphides.  Annals of Applied Biology, 1, 118-142.

Doncaster, J.P. & Kassanis, B.  (1946) The shallot aphis, Myzus ascalonicus Doncaster, and its behaviour as a vector of plant viruses   Annals of Applied Biology, 33, 66-68.

Downes, J.A. (1955) Observations on the swarming flight and mating of Culicoides (Diptera: Ceratopogonidae. Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, 106, 213-236.

Fraser , F.C. (1949) The Zygoptera of Mauritius (Order Odonata). Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, 100, 135-146.

Huxley, T.H. (1858) On the Agamic Reproduction and Morphology of Aphis.–Part I. Transactions of the Linnean Society London, 22, 193-219. 

Jackson, C.H.N. (1933) On an advance of tsetse fly in Central Tanganyika. Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society, 81, 205-222.

Lamborn, A., Bethune-Baker, G.T., Distant, W.L., Eltringham, H., Poulton, E.B., Durrant, J.H. & Newstead, R. (1914) XX. On the relationship between certain West African insects, especially ants, Lycaenidae and Homoptera. Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, 61, 436-498.

Leach, K. & Smeed, C. (1933) Gnarled stem canker of tea caused by the capsid bug (Helopeltis bergrothi Reut.). Annals of Applied Biology, 20, 691-706.

Leather, S.R. (1996) The case for the passive voice.  Nature 381, 467.

Lewis, T. & Taylor, L.R. (1965) Diurnal periodicity of flight by insects.  Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London, 116, 393-43.

Maldwyn Davies W. (1934) Studies on aphides infesting the potato crop: ii. aphis survey: its bearing upon the selection of districts for seed potato production. Annals of Applied Biology, 21, 283-299.

Maldwyn Davies, W & Whitehead, T. (1939) Studies on aphides infesting the potato crop: vii. Report on a survey of the aphis population of potatoes in selected districts of Scotland (25 july-6 august 1936). Annals of Applied Biology, 26, 116-134.

Petherbridge, F.R., Thomas, I. & Hey, G.L. (1933) On the biology of the plum sawfly, Hoplogampa flava L.†, with notes on control experiments. Annals of Applied Biology, 20, 429-438.

Prentice, I.W. & Harris, R.V. (1946) Resolution of strawberry virus complexes by means of the aphis vector Capitophorus fragariae Theob.  Annals of Applied Biology, 33, 50-53.

Shaw, M.W. (1955) Preliminary studies on potato aphids in north and north-east Scotland   Annals of Applied Biology, 43, 37-50.

Tottenham, C.E. (1955) Studies in the genus Philonthus Stephens (Coleoptera: Staphylinidae. Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society, 106, 153-195.

 

Post script

The following couple of sentences must surely be a contender for the prize of most impersonal writing “The first to apply the theory of of parallel evolution to entomophagous parasites was Mackauer (1961, 1962b).  He found that the host range of members of the…”  Why you are now asking is this such a great example of impersonal writing?  All becomes clear when I reveal that the author of these sentences is writing about himself (Mackauer, 1965).

Mackauer, M. (1965) Parasitological data as an aid in aphid classification.  Canadian Entomologist, 97, 1016-1024.

 

*This paper, my only appearance in Nature, received a lot of negative published responses, but a lot of personal emailed positive ones.  Even with my thick skin I felt a little bruised by the experience 😊

**The entomologist, not the tenor

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