Tag Archives: entomology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afrikaans             Waterloper – water walker

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

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

Canadian             Water skeeters, Jesus Bugs

Czech                    Vodoměrka (voda = water, měř = measure)

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

Dutch                    Schaatsenrijders – skaters.

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

Flemish                Schrijvertje, little writer.

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

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

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

Hungarian           Molnárpoloskák, where molnár = miller and poloskák = Heteroptera

Italian                    Ragni d’acqua, directly translates as water spiders

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

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

Portuguese        Alfaiate, tailor

Russian                 Vodomerki (водомерки),  = water measurers

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Collect by all means, but….

Some of Wallace’s beetles

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Greene – another early ethical entomologist

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

Our basic outreach display box of common British insects

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

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

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

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

The worm in question

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

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

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

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

Because we love them

We need to think carefully

When we collect them

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

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

 

**

an example followed by some of our former students 😊

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The Roundabout Review 2019 – navel gazing again

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

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

 

Impact and reach

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

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

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

Top ten countries for views

Top reads

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

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

 

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

Trends

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

Linear still the best fit but is it levelling off?

Tweeting for entomology

I still find my interactions on Twitter very rewarding, although this past year I have become somewhat more political; Brexit and Trump, need I say more?  Most of my tweets are, however, still entomological and ecological and the increase in political comment has not stopped my followers from growing.  I finished 2018 with 6884 followers and begin 2020 with just over 8000, 8088 to be precise.   Many thanks to all my readers and especially to those who take the time to comment as well as pressing the like button.  My top commenters, as indeed they were last year, were fellow bloggers, Emma Maund, Emily Scott, Jeff Ollerton, Amelia from A French Garden and Philip Strange.  I look forward to interacting with you all in 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

A Happy and Prosperous New Year to you all.

References

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

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

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

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Pick & Mix 36 – something for everyone?

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

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

Ray Cannon writes about the wonders of dragonfly wings

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

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

Failing exams doesn’t stop you becoming a professor

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

View of Bute in the distance.

This must be fantastic when the sun shines.

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

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

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

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

The view from my window – Dawn Entomology Day!

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

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

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

Sweeping, beating and sucking and perhaps contemplating a swim?

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

Learning how to identify insects in the lab.

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

Using UV torches and fluorescent dust to track carabid beetles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweep nets and pooters

Suction sampling with Andy Cherrill

Looking for weeds with John Reade

Labs and classrooms

Glorious weather and fantastic plants

Science communication and chasing fluorescent beetles in the dark

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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Sowing the seeds of virology–entomology research collaborations to tackle African food insecurity

Success!

At the end of last month (June) I had the privilege of taking part in CONNECTEDV4. In case you’re wondering, this was a two-week training event at which a group of early career researchers from 11 African countries got together in Bristol, UK. Nothing so unusual about that, you may think.

Yet, this course, run by the Community Network for African Vector-Borne Plant Viruses (CONNECTED), broke important new ground. The training brought together an unusual blend of researchers: plant virologists and entomologists studying insects which act as vectors for plant disease, as an important part of the CONNECTED project’s work to find new solutions to diseases that devastate food crops in Sub-Saharan African countries.

The CONNECTED niche focus on vector-borne plant disease is the reason for bringing together insect and plant pathology experts alongside plant breeders. The event helped forge exciting new collaborations in the fight against African poverty, malnutrition and food insecurity.  ‘V4’ – Virus Vector Vice Versa – was a fully-funded residential course which attracted great demand when it was advertised. Places were awarded by competitive application, with funding awarded to cover travel, accommodation, subsistence and all training costs. For every delegate who attended, five applicants were unsuccessful.

The comprehensive programme combined scientific talks, general lab training skills, specific virology and entomology lectures and practical work and also included workshops, field visits, career development, mentoring, and desk-based projects. Across the fortnight delegates received plenty of peer mentoring and team-building input, as well as an afternoon focused on ‘communicating your science.’

New collaborations will influence African agriculture for years to come

There’s little doubt that the June event, hosted by The University of Bristol, base of CONNECTED Network Director Professor Gary Foster, has sown seeds of new alliances and partnerships that can have global impact on vector-borne plant disease in Sub-Saharan Africa for many years to come.

In writing this, I am more than happy to declare an interest. As a member of the CONNECTED Management Board, I have been proud to see network membership grow in its 18 months to a point where it’s approaching 1,000 researchers, from over 70 countries. The project, which derived its funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund, is actively looking at still more training events.

I was there in my usual capacity of extolling the virtues of entomology and why it is important to be able to identify insects in general, not just pests and vectors.  After all, you don’t want to kill the goodies who are eating and killing the baddies.  My task was to introduce the delegates to basic insect taxonomy and biology and to get them used to looking for insects on plants and learning how to start recognising what they were looking at. Our venue was the University of Bristol Botanic Gardens as the main campus was hosting an Open Day. This did impose some constraints on our activities, because as you can see from the pictures below, we didn’t have a proper laboratory.  The CONNECTED support team did, however, do a great job of improvising and coming up with innovative solutions, so thanks to them, and despite the rain, my mission was successfully accomplished.

Me in full flow, and yes, as is expected from an entomologist, I did mention genitalia 🙂

It’s genitalia time 🙂

A hive of activity in the ‘lab’

Collecting insects in the rain

The V4 training course follows two successful calls for pump-prime research funding, leading to nine projects now operating in seven different countries, and still many more to come. Earlier in the year CONNECTED ran a successful virus diagnostics training event in Kenya, in close partnership with BecA-ILRI Hub. One result of that training was that its 19 delegates were set to share their new knowledge and expertise with a staggering 350 colleagues right across the continent.

I thoroughly enjoyed the day, despite the rain, and was just sorry that I wasn’t able to spend more time with the delegates and members of the CONNECTED team. Many thanks to the latter for the fantastic job they did. The catering and venue were also rather good.

Project background

Plant diseases significantly limit the ability of many of Sub-Saharan African countries to produce enough staple and cash crops such as cassava, sweet potato, maize and yam. Farmers face failing harvests and are often unable to feed their local communities as a result. The diseases ultimately hinder the countries’ economic and social development, sometimes leading to migration as communities look for better lives elsewhere.

The CONNECTED network project is funded by a £2 million grant from the UK government’s Global Challenges Research Fund, which supports research on global issues that affect developing countries. It is co-ordinated by Prof. Foster from the University of Bristol School of Biological Sciences, long recognised as world-leading in plant virology and vector-transmitted diseases, with Professor Neil Boonham, from Newcastle University its Co-Director. The funding is being used to build a sustainable network of scientists and researchers to address the challenges. The University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute, of which Prof. Foster is a member, also provides input and expertise.

Did I mention that it rained? 🙂

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Graphical abstracts are so passé, let’s hear it for the haiku highlight

Graphical abstracts,

They’re past their sell by date;

Use Haikus instead

 

It may surprise you, or perhaps not, that insects, as well as inspiring poets to wax lyrical, inspire many entomologists to wax poetical 🙂  Indeed, I have, on occasion, penned the odd verse myself.

Available at a very reasonable price from Pemberley Books  and no, I have no vested interests 🙂

Back in 2016 I stepped down as Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation & Diversity to become a Senior Editor, handing over the reins to Raphael Didham who had been a Senior Editor since 2010.  Now, I have known Raph a long time, back in the 1990s we were colleagues at Silwood Park, but it wasn’t until I convinced him to join Twitter as @EntoRaph, at the Royal Entomological Society Publications Meeting in March this year, that I discovered his dark secret.  He is a poet as well as an entomologist!  Raph is, despite his late conversion to Twitter, a pretty innovative guy; just look at the excellent changes he has made to our journal, and once he discovered, via Twitter, that I too, indulge in the odd spot of verse, haikus to be precise, it was inevitable that the idea of the Haiku Highlight was born 🙂

The birth of a notion

And that dear Reader, is how it all began………


I was quite proud of this one 🙂

The eagle-eyed reader may have noticed that the hashtag for our Haiku Highlights is #sciku. The Sciku project  is the brainwave of zoologist Andrew Holmes @AndrewMHolmes, who argues that writing haiku has made him a better scientist.  Being asked to keep your writing short and sweet, yet still understandable, may sometimes be difficult, but as Judy Fort Brenneman points out, it can be great fun.

If you would like to contribute to our Haiku Highlight project do get in touch. I wonder if it will catch on with other journals, it would certainly be fun.  While I am on the subject of entomologist poets, if you like butterflies and poetry, I can thoroughly recommend The Butterfly Collection, by Richard Harrington; beautiful photographs and a range of verse from haiku to sonnet.

 

Published by Brambleby Books http://www.bramblebybooks.co.uk/butterfly_collection.asp

 

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“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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