Tag Archives: entomyopia

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

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

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

Learning the basics

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

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

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

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

 

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

Typical reporting of the biodiversity crisis in the UK

Vertebrate bias not just confined to the UK

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

Yet another harmless insect vilified

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who will teach Natural History?

 

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

**Non UK residents see here for an explanation

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“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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Entomyopia and Entoalexia – two potentially life-threatening conditions

This post was stimulated by two recent events.  First, a conversation I had at a curry evening organised by the amateur band that my wife plays in.  My neighbour was a well-educated modern languages teacher in her early forties.  We discussed our various jobs and she evinced surprise that anyone would want to work with insects and even when I explained the myriad benefits of understanding insect biology and ecology to her in terms of food security, vector control, detritivores, integrated pest management, pollination etc., she was still unconcerned about the lack of training provision for entomology and the dwindling number of young entomologists in the population.  I also highlighted the growing disconnect between people and nature.  Her response was that it was just the way it was and that people had other interests now!  I was, despite the fact that I have bemoaned the lack of funding for invertebrate research and training for some time now, totally amazed and down-hearted.  The second event was when one of my entomological colleagues reported to me how shocked he had been, when describing the recent opening of our new entomology building at Harper Adams University to his next door neighbour, a retired engineer, that the neighbour expressed great surprise that anyone would want such a facility and why anyone would want to spend that amount of money to enable entomological research.

I have written before about my worries about the decline of interest in natural history and entomology (Leather & Quicke, 2009, 2010) but I feel that it is now well past time to do something urgently about this lack of understanding among the public, the educational establishment, funding councils and the government.  Not only is institutional invertebratism  (Leather, 2009, 2013) still alive and well but we now have two potentially life-threatening conditions that desperately need curing.

Entomyopia

noun

entomological short-sightedness

        • a condition in which insects are viewed either as pollinators or as nuisances
        • a lack of foresight or discernment as to the importance of entomology:  a narrow view of entomology

Entoalexia

noun

entomological blindness

        • a condition in which a person or organisation, is totally oblivious to the importance of entomology and insects

Insects - what insects

Symptoms

The closing of entomology departments and research groups

A reduction in the numbers of entomologists employed by universities and research institutions

An ageing population of practicing entomologists, many characterised by grey beards and spectacles

Lack of understanding by the general public about why the study of entomology is important to their well-being

A lack of teaching of invertebrate biology at secondary schools and at undergraduate level

A lack of government funding

A tendency for members of the general public to scream and/or flinch when insects enter their personal space

A tendency for members of the general public to kill insects when found in their personal space

A failure by the majority of the population to appreciate the beauty and wonder of insects

Investing hundreds of millions into medical research to keep people alive for longer (a good thing) without thinking about how the extra mouths are going to be fed without similar levels of investment in crop protection research (a very bad thing)

Funding in conservation and whole organism biology and ecology heavily biased towards “large charismatic mega-fauna”

Schoolchildren able to name the ten most endangered mammal species in the world but unable to recognize and name the ten most common insect species in their own country

 

Treatment

A concerted effort by all entomologists to explain to the general public, the educational establishment, funding bodies, the media and  government why we need urgently more entomologists and why the study of entomology is crucially important to our well-being.  I would go further than that and suggest that we need to redouble our outreach activities and to actively lobby those who hold the purse strings and those that represent us in government.  Yes, national entomological societies such as the Royal Entomological Society in the UK are doing much more to promote entomology than they used to but much more remains to be done.  The Amateur Entomologist’s Society  has, I have been reminded, also been active in this area for more than eighty years.  My message to all entomologists is act now before it is too late.

 

Prognosis

At the current level of investment  into treatment and cures, very gloomy.

 

Post script

As I was preparing this article Brigit Strawbridge published an impassioned plea to all of us to take more notice of the little things that run the world

http://www.beestrawbridge.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/mass-insect-extinction-elephant-in-room.html
Post post script

I would be remiss if I did not point out that mycology, plant pathology and plant nematology are also extremely vulnerable and just as important to our well-being as entomology.

 

Post post post script

Entomyopia  is apparently not a new disease, shortly after posting this I came across this gem from 1882.

“No science is so generally slighted, ignored, and misunderstood as is Entomology.  Hysterical humanitarians, novelists, poets, political agitators, classical students, speak in terms of contempt or horror of the “fly-hunters””

Anonymous (1882) The Journal of Science, and Annals of Astronomy, Biology, geology, Industrial Architecture, Manufactures and Technology, 4, 208

 

References

Leather, S. R. (2009). Institutional vertebratism threatens UK food security. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24: 413-414.

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. (2009). Where would Darwin have been without taxonomy? Journal of Biological Education 43: 51-52.

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

 

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