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 🙂
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.
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.
A couple of weeks ago my wife and Daughter #2 and I, took advantage of the late Bank Holiday Weekend to visit The Sculpture Park near Farnham. For a Bank Holiday weekend the weather was pretty good, the sun decided to shine 😊
As the name suggests the park is set in a wooded valley with ponds, streams and small lakes, all of which are used to good purpose, the sculptures, most of which are for sale*, placed in appropriate locations.
At £10 each it was pretty good value; on the day we visited there were 850 sculptures on site. You could, if you were so minded, walk around for free, but the £10 gives you access to a guide to the sculptures, including their prices* and directions to navigate the site. Without the guide, you could have an enjoyable walk, but you would certainly miss a lot. There is also an on-site shop if you want to spend more money and help the enterprise prosper 😊
I took a lot of photos, concentrating mainly on the natural history based themes, not of all of which I am going to share, but hopefully those I do will give you an idea of the site.
The site starts some distance before you reach the ticket office. The sculptures are in a variety of materials and styles, stone, metal, fibre-glass and wood, abstract, odd and realistic.
Is this what the toads were heading towards?
The site makes great use of the natural features and there are many surprises lurking in bushes, around corners and above your head.
Continuing with the watery theme
Amazing what you find lurking in the trees 🙂
and don’t forget to look above head height.
Perhaps the birds closer to the ground should be wary of the polar bear?
Waste not, want not, especially if you can sell it as art 🙂
Some very odd stuff – Listening for the boneshaker?
More phantasmagorical beings
These woodland denizens however, you might be forgiven for thinking are real
Even as an entomologist I thought this was great – Rutting stags in wood
And there were some insects, a couple of mantids ready to pounce on the unsuspecting visitor
Invertebrates were, however, in very short supply, so even snails made it into my selection 🙂
Some days I feel like this 🙂
The Aurelian – way out of my price range 🙂
And to finish – a three dimensional play on words
It was a great place to visit, despite the dearth of invertebrate exhibits. Most of the sculptures were based on humans, which I seem not to have photographed 🙂 That said we did only see 420 of the sculptures, perhaps there were more invertebrates in the remaining 440! I somehow doubt it. Going by this it would seem that sculptors, like the majority of the public, are institutionally vertebratist ☹ That said, French sculptor Edouard Martinet makes larger than life insect sculptures using old car parts and his work would certainly fit in well here.
A word of warning, parking is at a premium. We had to park a good ten minutes walk away from the entrance. There there is a picnic area, but alas, no café, and as you will need to spend a minimum of four hours to get around all the sculptures, it is well worth making a day of it and taking ample supplies of food and drink.
*prices ranging from a few hundred pounds to tens of thousands :-0
I think that all field entomologists of a certain age, certainly those of us over 60, are very familiar with the roar of a hot and smoky two-stroke engine in our ears, coupled with oily hands, aching shoulders and sometimes the smell of burning. Some younger entomologists may also have had this joyful experience but I suspect they are in a minority among their peers. The dreaded D-Vac, or to give it its more formal name, The Dietrick Vacuum Sampler was, for a long time, the entomological gold standard in the world of motorised insect sampling.
Part of the UEA cereal aphid research group demonstrating unsafe use of the D-Vac 😊
The D-Vac was the brain wave of an American entomologist Everett Dietrick, who at the time was working on the biological control of the alfalfa aphid, Therioaphis maculata (Dietrick et al., 1959). Their research was hampered by the time they were having to spend estimating the numbers of all the arthropods found in alfalfa fields; they needed a standard sampling method that would allow them to get good estimates of everything rather than using different, and thus time-consuming, methods for each arthropod group. Essentially, think of a D-Vac as motorised sweep net. The idea of replacing sweep netting with, in theory at any rate, a non-human biased method* was not new. Hills (1933) in describing a motorised vacuum pipette for sampling leaf hoppers in beet points out that it is an adaptation of a device put together by a lab assistant in 1926.
The first motorised suction sampler? From Hills (1933) – The modified pipette collector
The first and even clumsier model of the D-Vac (Dietrick et al., 1959), but I suspect more pleasant to use than the back-pack version 🙂
The new improved back-pack version (Dietrick, 1961). In my experience not very comfortable and on one occasion burst into flames while I was wearing it!
This could, with the aid of a handy pole be used to sample from the top of tall bushes. Not something I have tried so I can’t comment.
While searching for the earliest reference to a motorised suction device that was not a Pooter, I came across one invented a few years earlier than the D-Vac and used by the late, great Southwood of Ecological Methods fame among others, during his PhD (Southwood, 1955; Johnson et al., 1955), which I guess means that it was in operation well before 1955, although the actual full description was not published in a journal until a couple of years later (Johnson et al., 1957).
An earlier suction device used by the late great Southwood during his PhD (1955) (From Johnson et al., 1957).
Ensuring constancy of sample area (From Johnson et al., 1957)
It really does look like the vacuum cleaner we had when I was a kid 🙂
Amusingly, one of the early attempts to replace the D-Vac was actually based on this very vacuum cleaner (Arnold et al., 1973)
I was interested to see that the Johnson apparatus used a barrel to delineate the sample area, something advocated by my colleague Andy Cherrill (Zentane et al., 2016) when using his patent G-Vac, or “Chortis” as we jokingly call it 🙂
A couple of years after I started at Silwood Park and became involved in running the final year field course, a new and revolutionary insect suction sampler appeared on the market – The Vortis™ (Arnold, 1994). This was lighter than the D-Vac, did not need a bag or net, easier to start, had an ‘idle’ function and mercifully did not have to be carried on your back 🙂
The Vortis™, overall a much pleasanter way to sample insects and generally much easier to start. Invented in 1993 (Arnold, 1994).
Although not cheap, it was less expensive than the D-Vac. This became my suction sampler of choice although we kept our D-vac in good running order so that the students could compare the two samplers. Surprisingly, few, if any, of the many users of The Vortis™ have done similarly, most just referring to the original description by Arnold (1994), e.g. Mortimer et al., (2002). This is in marked contrast to the many studies that have compared the D-Vac with sweep-netting, pitfall trapping and swish net sampling (e.g. Johnson et al., 1957; Henderson & Whittaker, 1977; Hand, 1986; Schotzko & O’Keeffe, 1989; Standen, 2000; Brook et al., 2008). There is also a hand-held version of the D-Vac if anyone wants to compare that with the back-pack version.
This one looks easier to use than the backpack version but I have never seen it in operation. I am guessing that this was produced in response to the invention of the Vortis™.
Entomologists tend to have limited budgets when it comes to equipment, or anything for that matter, so it is not surprising that they soon came up with the idea of adapting garden leaf blowers into lightweight, inexpensive insect suction samplers (e.g. De Barro, 1991; Stewart & Wright, 1995). These are collectively known as G-Vacs (Zentane et al., 2016) presumably as a reference to their garden origin.
Andy Cherrill test driving his “Chortis” 🙂
My colleague Andy Cherrill has compared the catch composition of his own particular G-Vac with that of the Vortis™ and satisfied himself that it is as good as, if not better than the Vortis™ (Cherrill et al., 2017). Importantly the cost of a G-Vac means that you can get, at least in the UK, six for the same price as a single Vortis™.
I leave you with two fun facts; the two largest motorised insect suction samplers that I have come across are both from the USA (where else?). The first, mounted on the front of a truck, was used to collect parasites for the biological control of alfalfa aphids.
The second, mounted on the front of a tractor was used to control Lygus bugs in strawberry fields in California (Pickel et al., 1994). The driver/operator in the second example seems to be taking Health & Safety issues a bit more seriously than the team in the first 🙂
Arnold, A.J., Needham, P.H. & Stevenson, J.H. (1973) A self-powered portable insect suction sampler and its use to assess the effects of azinphos methyl and endosulfan on blossom beetle populations on oil seed rape. Annals of Applied Biology, 75, 229-233.
Brook, A.J., Woodcock, B.A., Sinka, M. & Vanbergen, A.J. (2008) Experimental verification of suction sampler capture efficiency in grasslands of differing vegetation height and structure. Journal of Applied Ecology, 45, 1357-1363.
Cherrill, A.J., Burkhmar, R., Quenu, H. & Zentane, E. (2017) Suction samplers for grassland invertebrates: the species diversity and composition of spider and Auchenorrhyncha assemblages collected with Vortis (TM) and G-vac devices. Bulletin of Insectology, 70, 283-290.
Dietrick. E. J., Schlinger. E. I. & Garber, M. J. (1960). Vacuum cleaner principle applied in sampling insect populations in alfalfa fields by new machine method. California Agriculture January 1960, pp. 9-1 1
Schotzko, D.J. & O’Keeffe, L.E. (1989) Comparison of sweep net., D-Vac., and absolute sampling., and diel variation of sweep net sampling estimates in lentils for pea aphid (Homoptera: Aphididae)., Nabids (Hemiptera: Nabidae)., lady beetles (Coleoptera: Coccinellidae)., and lacewings (Neuroptera: Chrysopidae). Journal of Economic Entomology, 82, 491-506.
Southwood, T.R.E. (1955). Some Studies on the Systematics and Ecology of Heteroptera.—Ph.D. thesis, University of London.
We have been telling our students for years that one of the advantages of biological control compared with conventional use of pesticides is that prey are unlikely to evolve resistance to natural enemies. Well, we were wrong – here is a story about a pest weevil that has done just that – unfortunately behind a pay wall
Insects and ethics – Some very interesting points, but as much as I love insects which I do passionately, I am very happy, that ethically speaking, they are not classified as animals. Research would be impossible. That said, all insects in my garden live a free and happy life and are never knowingly killed, not even if they are on my bean plants 🙂
An interesting and well produced short video that could be useful if you want to explain how sustainable management of tropical forests helps the planet and why you should only buy FSC certified products
Without them, we would find the world a very different place, that is if we were still alive. Yet very few people give them a thought, and then usually only to dismiss them or castigate them for impinging on our comfortable lives. Animals without backbones, the micro-flora and fauna, are what keep the world a place in which we can make a living. Politicians however, and many others of our fellow travellers on this fragile planet, seem unaware of their importance. Donald Trump rescinds environmental protection laws as if they are a hindrance to humankind rather than a boon, BREXIT politicians and their supporters in the UK extol the virtues of escaping from those silly EU environmental laws that prevent them from polluting our beaches and rivers and making our air unbreathable. We all need to take a step back and adjust our vision so that we can appreciate the little things that run the world and understand that despite our size, our abundance and our apparent dominance, that we too are a part of nature.
I and many others have written about this topic on many occasions but it is a message that bears repetition again and again. I leave you with the passage that stimulated my latest rant and a few links to similar pieces.
“In terms of size, mammals are an anomaly, as the vast majority of the world’s existing animal species are snail-sized or smaller. It’s almost as if, regardless of your kingdom, the smaller your size and the earlier your place on the tree of life, the more critical is your niche on Earth; snails and worms create soil, and blue-green algae create oxygen; mammals seem comparatively dispensable; the result of the random path of evolution over a luxurious amount of time.”
Elizabeth Tova Bailey (2010) – The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating
Here are a few links to give you food for thought and to inspire you to find more of the same.
I have been musing about extinctions and shifting baselines for a while now; BREXIT and an article by Simon Barnes in the Sunday Times magazine (3rd September 2016) finally prompted me to actually put fingers to keyboard. I fear that BREXIT will result in even more environmental damage than our successive governments have caused already. They have done a pretty good job of ignoring environmental issues and scientific advice (badgers) even when ‘hindered’ by what they have considered restrictive European legislation and now that we head into BREXIT with a government not renowned for its care for the environment I become increasing fearful for the environment. Remember who it was who restructured English Nature into the now fairly toothless Natural England, because they didn’t like the advice they were being given and whose government was it who, rather than keep beaches up to Blue Flag standard decided to reclassify long-established resort beaches as not officially designated swimming beaches? And, just to add this list of atrocities against the environment, we now see our precious ‘green belt’ being attacked.
My generation is liable to wax lyrical about the clouds of butterflies that surrounded us as we played very non PC cowboys and Indians outside with our friends in the glorious sunshine. We can also fondly reminisce about the hordes of moths that used to commit suicide in the lamp fittings or beat fruitlessly against the sitting room windows at night. The emptying of the lamp bowl was a weekly ceremony in our house. We also remember, less fondly, having to earn our pocket-money by cleaning our father’s cars, laboriously scraping the smeared bodies of small flies from windscreens, headlamps and radiator grilles on a Saturday morning. A few years later as students, those of us lucky enough to own a car, remember the hard to wash away red smears left by the eyes of countless Bibionid (St Mark’s) flies, as they crashed into our windscreens.
Are these memories real or are we looking back at the past through those rose-tinted glasses that only show the sunny days when we lounged on grassy banks listening to In the Summertime and blank out the days we were confined to the sitting room table playing board games?
We have reliable and robust long-term data sets showing the declines of butterflies and moths over the last half-century or so (Thomas, 2005; Fox, 2013) and stories about this worrying trend attract a lot of media attention. On a less scientific note, I certainly do not find myself sweeping up piles of dead moths from around bedside lamps or extricating them from the many spider webs that decorate our house. Other charismatic groups, such as the dragonflies and damselflies are also in decline (Clausnitzer et al., 2009) as are the ubiquitous, and equally charismatic ground beetles (carabids) (Brooks et al., 2012). But what about other insects, are they too on the way out? A remarkable 42-year data set looking at the invertebrates found in cereal fields in southern England (Ewald et al., 2015) found that of the 26 invertebrate taxa studied less than half showed a decrease in abundance; e.g. spiders, Braconid parasitic wasps, carabid beetles, Tachyporus beetles, Enicmus (scavenger beetles), Cryptophagid fungus beetles, leaf mining flies (Agromyzids), Drosophila, Lonchopteridae (pointed wing flies), and surprisingly, or perhaps not, aphids. The others showed no consistent patterns although bugs, excluding aphids, increased over the study period. Cereal fields are of course not a natural habitat and are intensely managed, with various pesticides being applied, so are perhaps not likely to be the most biodiverse or representative habitats to be found in the UK.
But what about the car-smearing insects, the flies, aphids and other flying insects? Have they declined as dramatically? My first thought was that I certainly don’t ‘collect’ as many insects on my car as I used to, but is there any concrete evidence to support the idea of a decline in their abundance. After all, there has been a big change in the shape of cars since the 1970s.
Top row – cars from 1970, including the classic Morris 1000 Traveller that my Dad owned and I had to wash on Saturdays.
Bottom row the cars of today, sleek rounded and all looking the same.
Cars were much more angular then, than they are now, so perhaps the aerodynamics of today’s cars filter the insects away from the windscreen to safety? But how do you test that? Then I remembered that the RSPB had once run a survey to address this very point. Sure enough I found it on the internet, the Big Bug Count 2004, organised by the RSPB. I was very surprised to find that it happened more than a decade ago, I hadn’t thought it was that long ago, but that is what age does to you 🙂
The “Splatometer” as designed by the RSPB
The idea, which was quite cool, was to get standardised counts of insect impacts on car number plates. The results were thought to be very low as the quote below shows, but on what evidence was this based?
“Using a cardboard counting-grid dubbed the “splatometer”, they recorded 324,814 “splats”, an average of only one squashed insect every five miles. In the summers of 30-odd years ago, car bonnets and windscreens would quickly become encrusted with tiny bodies.” “Many people were astonished by how few insects they splatted,” the survey’s co-ordinator Richard Bashford, said.
Unfortunately despite the wide reporting in the press at the time, the RSPB did not repeat the exercise. A great shame, as their Big Garden Birdwatch is very successful and gathers useful data. So what scientific evidence do we have for a decline in these less charismatic insects? Almost a hundred years ago, Bibionid flies were regarded as a major pest (Morris, 1921) and forty years ago it was possible to catch almost 70 000 adults in a four week period from one field in southern England (Darcy-Burt & Blackshaw, 1987). Both these observations suggest that in the past Bibionids were very common. It is still possible to pluck adult Bibionids out of the air (they are very slow, clumsy fliers) in Spring, but if asked I would definitely say that they are not as common as they were when I was a student. But as Deming once said, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” In the UK we are fortunate that a long-term source of insect data exists, courtesy of Rothamsted Research, the longest running agricultural research station in the world. Data have been collected from a nationwide network of suction and light traps for more than 50 years (Storkey et al., 2016). Most of the publications arising from the survey have tended to focus on aphids (Bell et al., 2015) and moths (Conrad et al., 2004), although the traps, do of course, catch many other types of insect (Knowler et al., 2016). Fortuitously, since I was interested in the Bibionids I came across a paper that dealt with them, and other insects likely to make an impact on cars and splatometers (Shortall et al., 2009). The only downside of their paper was that they only looked at data from four of the Rothamsted Suction Traps, all from the southern part of the UK, which was a little disappointing.
Location and results of the suction traps analysed by Shortall et al. (2009).
Only three of the trap showed downward trends in insect biomass over the 30 years (1973-2002) analysed of which only the Hereford trap showed a significant decline. So we are really none the wiser; the two studies that focus on a wider range of insect groups (Shortall et al., 2009; Ewald et al., 2015) do not give us a clear indication of insect decline. On the other hand, both studies are limited in their geographic coverage; we do not know how representative the results are of the whole country.
What a shame the RSPB stopped collecting ‘splatometer’ data, we would now have a half-decent time series on which to back-up or contradict our memories of those buzzing summers of the past.
After posting this I came across this paper based on Canadian research which shows that many pollinators, possibly billions are killed by vehicles every year. This reduction in insect numbers and biomass has also been reported in Germany.
Bell, J.R., Alderson, L., Izera, D., Kruger, T., Parker, S., Pickup, J., Shortall, C.R., Taylor, M.S., Verrier, P. & Harrington, R. (2015) Long-term phenological trends, species accumulation rates, aphid traits and climate: five decades of change in migrating aphids. Journal of Animal Ecology, 84, 21-34.
Brooks, D.R., Bater, J.E., Clark, S.J., Montoth, D.J., 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 of insect biodiversity. Journal of Applied Ecology, 49, 1009-1019.
Clausnitzer, V., Kalkman, V.J., Ram, M., Collen, B., Baillie, J.E.M., Bedjanic, M., Darwall, W.R.T., Dijkstra, K.D.B., Dow, R., Hawking, J., Karube, H., Malikova, E., Paulson, D., Schutte, K., Suhling, F., Villaneuva, R.J., von Ellenrieder, N. & Wilson, K. (2009) Odonata enter the biodiversity crisis debate: the first global assessment of an insect group. Biological Conservation, 142, 1864-1869.
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.
Storkey, J., MacDonald, A.J., Bell, J.R., Clark, I.M., Gregory, A.S., Hawkins, N. J., Hirsch, P.R., Todman, L.C. & Whitmore, A.P. (2016) Chapter One – the unique contribution of Rothamsted to ecological research at large temporal scales Advances in Ecological Research, 55, 3-42.
It is night, we are outside a typical mid-western suburban house; lights shine through the drawn drapes as the camera pans across the lawn and miraculously slides through the window glass into the living room. There are four people, a middle-aged man, slightly greying, watching the TV, his wife, a blond attractive woman in her late thirties, is holding a glossy magazine, glancing from it to the glowing TV set and back again. Two children, a teen-age girl with braces, blond hair tied back in a pony-tail, her thumbs busy on the touch screen of an expensive looking cell ‘phone, sits opposite her brother oblivious to the world around him, head phones clamped to his ears, hands moving almost too fast to see as he destroys the enemy forces ranged against him. The camera changes angle and moves closer to the ceiling; we hear a faint scritching, scratching sound, and as we zoom in to the dangling light fitting we see a chitin clad leg push through the gap between the flex and the fitting, followed by another leg. Next two ferociously barbed mandibles attached to an alien-looking head with dead black eyes and twitching antennae appear and the rest of the body pushes through the gap, to stand quivering on six long legs. It peers cautiously around, turns as if beckoning and is joined by first one, then two, then a whole swarm of identical creatures. They spread out across the ceiling and gather in four swollen, evilly pulsating mounds, one above each unsuspecting human. Then, in response to an invisible signal, they drop silently from the ceiling. We hear frenzied screaming and the sound of tearing flesh as the giant mandibles of the evil mutant ants get to work. The screaming stops and the camera zooms in to reveal four perfectly stripped skeletons, only identifiable by the phone and braces, the magazine, the skull wearing the headphones and the TV remote clutched in a bony hand. Arghh, Hollywood strikes again!
Equally possibly we could have seen a blond toddler clutching a toy spade prodding a mound of soil in his garden, followed by a swarm of ants rushing up the handle of the spade, which engulfs him so quickly that he doesn’t even have time to scream. Then the more and more anxious calls from his Mum and the screams that follow as she finds his skeleton in the garden clutching his little spade. Sometimes these scenes of soon to be disrupted idyllic family life are preceded by a scene in a jungle/municipal dump/deserted field/derelict building somewhere as the evil/careless scientist/factory owner/farmer drops/dumps illegal chemical/genetic mutation/radiation source next to an ant/wasp/bee nest.
Insect horror films have been around for almost as long as the medium in which they appear [for a much more scholarly dissertation of the phenomenon I recommend Leskovsky (2006)], but it was in the 1950s that the cinema going audience became subjected to a plethora of movies* featuring scantily clad screaming females and evil arthropods swarming across their cinema screens. Although the phenomenon of death by bug took off in the 1950s, films glorying in the ‘evilness ‘of the arthropod world can easily be found in every decade since.
Just some examples of how insects have been depicted by Hollywood since the 1950s
Spiders also get as much, if not more, bad press as insects
There have been many theories put forward as to why deadly giant bugs should have captured the minds of the movie makers and their audiences, ranging from the fear engendered by the Cold War and the image of the swarming communist hordes, the fears of radiation-induced mutations** (Biskind, 1983), the well-meaning scientist whose experiments go wrong (Sontag, 1965), UFO sightings and bizarrely, to worries about crops being eaten by pests and the growing awareness of the dangers of over-use of pesticides (Tsutsui, 2007).
This fear of agricultural pests running amok resulted in an insect species not often featured in Big Bug Movies, the locust. In the Beginning of the End, (1951),
Rampaging locusts and Peter Graves
an agricultural scientist, played by Peter Graves (more famous to my generation as the star of Mission Impossible), who, in trying to feed the world, uses radiation induced mutation to successfully grow gigantic vegetables. Unfortunately, the vegetables are then eaten by locusts (the swarming phase of short-horned grasshoppers), which, contaminated by their unnatural food source, also grow to a gigantic size (a theme addressed much earlier by H.G. Wells in his novel The Food of the Gods). The giant locusts then attack the nearby city of Chicago, apparently, or so the poster for the film implies, focusing their attention on scantily clad women. According to Wikipedia, the film is generally recognized for its “atrocious” special effects and considered to be one of the most poorly written and acted science fiction motion pictures of the 1950s. Mission Impossible indeed!
Another possibility to explain the attraction of insects for the makers of horror films is the ability that insects have to reproduce rapidly and quickly achieve huge populations. Leaving aside horror films, this characteristic causes concern to humans anyway. Couple this with the often perceived super-mind of social insects and their demarcation into different castes and it is easy to understand why the concept of swarm intelligence and hive minds has captured the imaginations of film makers and horror and science-fiction writers. A quick Google search for headlines about swarming bees and ants is enough to show the fear that the non-entomological public seem to have for these natural, and essentially harmless, phenomena e.g this story from last month about a grandmother being chased by bees, or this scare story from last year about flying ants. The use of negative imagery associated with social insects has not just been the prerogative of film-makers. When Billy Graham opened the 1952 US Senate with a prayer he warned against the ‘barbarians beating at our gates from without and the moral termites from within” and Sir Winston Churchill also referred to the hive mind of the communist threat (Biskind,1983).
Whilst on the subject of horrific misrepresentations I can’t let the opportunity pass to mention two of what I consider to be the most unbelievable entomologists ever portrayed in film. Michael Caine in The Swarm (1978) and Julian Sands*** in Arachnophobia (1990). Neither of them does our profession any favours.
Michael Caine attempting to mimic a serious entomologist
Julian Sands as the stereotypical ‘mad’ obsessed entomologist
In marked contrast to the horror films aimed at adults, when it comes to the younger end of the market, insects are much more friendly and non-threatening,
Insects for kids, even from more than a century ago, were portrayed as cute, lovable and anatomically and biologically incorrect and this has continued to the present day.
The unbelievably cute and anatomically incorrect
On the other hand, I guess that as long as they make children less afraid of insects then I can’t really complain. I have, however, no evidence, that children who enjoyed Antz and the Bee Movie, have grown up into adults less likely to run screaming when confronted at close quarters with bees and ants 🙂
Do let me know if you have evidence to the contrary.
Biskind, P. (1983) Seeing is Believing. Henry Holt & Company, New York.
Leskovsky, R.J. (2006) Size matters – Big bugs on the big screen. Pp 319-341 [In] Insect Poetics (ed. E.C. Brown), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
Sontag, S. (1965) The imagination of disaster [In] Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Penguin Modern Classics (2009).
This may have been the first film to feature insects; not a horror film per se, but the fly was apparently fixed very securely (and ultimately fatally) to the match head, so it was a pretty horrific experience for the poor fly.
*I of course, was brought up calling these films but I know that the majority of my audience, even those from the UK, use the word movie 🙂
** I particularity like the title of his hypothetical example of the genre, The Attack of the Giant Aphids 🙂
***Totally irrelevant, but I used to go drinking with his big brother Nick in my student days 🙂
I think, that most, if not all entomologists, will confess to a bit of funding envy when talking with those of their colleagues who work with the “undeserving 3%”, the large charismatic mega-fauna and the modern dinosaurs. The terminology gives us away, although the evidence is overwhelmingly on our side (Leather, 2009). As entomologists, particularly those of us working in the field, we are used to reporting numbers collected in the tens of thousands (Ramsden et al., 2014 ), if not the hundreds of thousands (Missa et al., 2009) and even a short six-week study can result in the capture of thousands of ground beetles (Fuller, et al., 2008). Naming our subjects, much as we love them, is not an option, even if we wanted to. Even behavioural entomologists counting individual flower visits by pollinators are used to dealing with hundreds of individuals. In the laboratory, although numbers may be smaller, say tens, we still assign them alphanumeric codes rather than names, even though one might look forward to counting the number of eggs laid by the unusually fecund moth #17 or hope that aphid #23 will be dead this morning as she is becoming a pesky outlier for your mortality data 🙂
Our colleagues who work with mammals in the field, seem however to adopt a different strategy. It appears quite common for them to name their animals as the following examples from Twitter make clear.
Published data in McGraw et al., (2016) are from another study where the animals are not named.
Anthropomorphic judgement values
Anne being very involved with her cheetahs, although the paper (Hillborn et al., 2012) does not mention them by name.
Another example of subjects with names Hubel et al., 2016), but this time named in the paper.
Although in the description of methodology and results animals are referred to as subjects, the Table gives it away! (Allritz et al., 2016).
Another example of named subjects (Stoinski et al., 2003).
More named subjects (Dettmer & Fragaszy, 2000), but as these were captive the names almost certainly not chosen by the observers.
In this case (Blake et al., 2016), use no human-based names either in the methods or tables, so exemplary, although of course I have not seen their field note books 🙂
My concern, highlighted by these examples, is that by naming their study animals, the observers are anthropomorphising them and that this may lead them to inadvertently bias their observations. After all, the names have not been chosen at random, and thus could influence the behaviours noted (or ignored). I say ignored, because of two very specific examples, there are more, but I have these two to hand.
Victorians used birds as examples of good moral behaviour, erroneously believing them to be monogamous, probably because of seeing the way they fed their chicks cooperatively. Tim Birkhead (2000)* quotes the Reverend Frederick Morris who in 1853 preached “Be thou like the dunnock – the male and female impeccably faithful to each other,” and goes on to point out that despite a hundred years of ornithological science it was not until the late 1960s that the promiscuous behaviour of female birds was revealed, interestingly enough coinciding with the new moral code of the 1960s.
Descriptions of penguin homosexual behaviour and their penchant for acts of necrophilia so shocked George Levick’s publishers that they removed them from his 1915 report but printed them and privately distributed them to selected parties marked as “Not for Publication” (Russell et al., 2012). He also transcribed his descriptions of this ‘aberrant’ behaviour in Greek in his notebooks, presumably to make it less accessible.
AND NOW SOMETHING NEW for my blog, an embedded comment/riposte. I thought that it would be useful to get a response from someone who works on large charismatic mega-fauna and who names their subjects. Anne Hilborn, whom many of you will know from Twitter as @AnneWHilborn, has kindly agreed to reply to my comments. In the spirit of revealing any possible conflicts of interest I should say that I taught Anne when she was an Ecology MSc student at Silwood Park 🙂
Over to you Anne…..
“Hello, my name is Anne and I name my study animals.”
Decades ago this might have gotten me jeered out of science, the assumption being that by naming my study animals I was anthropomorphizing them and that any conclusions I drew about their behavior would be suspect. Thankfully we (at least those of us who have the privilege of working on megafauna) have moved on a bit in our thinking and our ways of doing science.
There are two parts to Simon’s concern about naming study animals. One is that naming leads to anthropomorphization, the second is that the anthropomorphizing leads to biased science. I would argue that the naming of study animals doesn’t necessarily increase anthropomorphism. On the Serengeti Cheetah Project we don’t name cheetahs until they are independent from their mother (due to a high mortality rate). During my PhD fieldwork I spent a lot of time following a young male known as HON752MC (son of Strudel). Several months after I started my work he was named Boke. My interest in his behavior, my chagrin at his failures and happiness when he had a full belly didn’t change when he was named. Many of us get emotionally attached on some level to our study animals, whether they have names or numbers.
An interesting thing to ponder is that if naming does lead to anthropomorphizing, does it only happen when human names are used? What human characteristics am I likely to attach to cheetahs named Peanut, Muscat, Strudel, Fusili, or Chickpea?
As to whether anthropomorphism leads to biased science… it definitely can if, as Simon points out, certain behaviors are not recorded because they do not fit the image of the animal the researcher had in their head. I don’t have any data on this, but I suspect this is extremely rare now days. Almost all researchers have had extensive formal training and know the importance of standardized data collection. I study cheetah hunting behavior, and I record how long a cheetahs spends spend stalking, chasing, killing, and eating their prey. I record the number of animals in the herd they targeted, how many second the cheetah spends eating vs being vigilant, and at what time they leave the carcass. No matter my personal feelings or attachments to an individual cheetah, the same data gets recorded.
Research methods have advanced a lot in the past decades and we use standardized methodologies and statistics expressly to prevent bias in our results. Anthropomorphism is just one possible source of bias, others include wanting to prove a treasured hypothesis, the tendency to place plots in areas where you suspect you will get the best results, etc..
As Adriana Lowe (@adriana_lowe ) puts it “Basically, if you’ve got a good study design and do appropriate stats, you can romanticise the furry little buggers until the cows come home and it won’t have a massive effect on your work. Any over interpretation of results would get called out by reviewers when you try to publish anyway.”
Simon points out examples of people being shocked when birds didn’t follow the dictates of contemporary human morality. I would like to think that biologists no longer place human values on animals. I can admire hyenas because the females are bigger bodied and socially dominant to males, but that doesn’t mean I draw parallels or lessons from them to human society (not in the least because the females give birth through their elongated clitoris and the cubs practice siblicide). As scientists we are capable of compartmentalizing, of caring deeply for our subjects, of shedding a tear when Asti turns up with one cub when previously she had five, without that changing the way we record data. In our training as biologists, we are taught not impose our own feelings or values on our study animals. We may find infanticide in lions (Packer and Pusey 1983), extra pair copulations in birds and primates (Sheldon 1994, Reichard 1995), or siblicide in boobies (Anderson 1990) to be repugnant, but we record, analyze, and try to publish on the phenomenon all the same.
To go on the offensive, there are ways naming study animals actually improves data collection.
Again, Adriana Lowe “If you’re doing scan sampling for instance, so writing down all individuals in a certain area every 10 minutes or so, names help. At least for me, it’s harder to remember if someone is M1 or M2 than Janet or Bob, particularly if you have a big study troop/community. So it can improve the quality of the data collected if you’re less likely to make identification errors.”
Because of our own training and peer review, assigning emotions or speculating about the intent on animals rarely makes it into scientific papers. However the situation is very different for those of us who wish to present our results outside of the ivory tower. While fellow scientists might be willing to wade through dry descriptions about how M43 contact called 3 times in 4 minutes when he was no longer in visual contact with M44, the public is not. Effective science communication needs a story and an emotional hook to draw people in. It is much easier to do that when you tell a story about Bradley and Cooper and not M43 and M44. I will admit this does get into grey areas with the type of language we use outside of scientific papers. I tell stories about the cheetahs in my blog posts and even assign emotions to individuals. But if I am answering questions from the media or the public, I am still very careful not to make any definitive claims about behavior that haven’t been backed up by statistical analysis.
Here I use language and make assumption in tweets that I never would in a scientific paper.
There are a lot of issues that negatively affect the objectivity of science ie. the majority of funding going to well established entrenched researchers, papers being reviewed primarily by people from the same school of thought, the increasing pressure to have flashy results that generate headlines, but naming of study animals is not high on the list.
So now, over to you the readers, what do you think? Please comment and share your views or at the very least, please cast your vote.
Allritz, M., Call, J. & Borkenau, P. (2016) How chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) perform in a modified emotional Stroop task. Animal Cognition, 19, 435-449.
Birkhead, T. (2000) Promiscuity: An Evolutionary History of Sperm Competition and Sexual Conflict. Faber, London.
Blake, J.G., Mosquera, D., Loiselle, B.A., Swing, K., Guerra, J. & Romo, D. (2016) Spatial and temporal activity patterns of ocelots Leopardus pardalis in lowland forest of eastern Ecuador. Journal of Mammalogy, 97, 455-463.
Fuller, R. J., Oliver, T. H. & Leather, S. R. (2008). Forest management effects on carabid beetle communities in coniferous and broadleaved forests: implications for conservation. Insect Conservation & Diversity1, 242-252.
Hillborn, A., Pettorelli, N., Orme, C.D.L. & Durant, S.M. (2012) Stalk and chase: how hunt stages affect hunting success in Serengeti cheetah. Animal Behaviour, 84, 701-706
Kühl, H.S., Kalan, A.K., Arandjelovic, M., Aubert, F., Dâ€™Auvergne, L., Goedmakers, A., Jones, S., Kehoe, L., Regnaut, S., Tickle, A., Ton, E., van Schijndel, J., Abwe, E.E., Angedakin, S., Agbor, A., Ayimisin, E.A., Bailey, E., Bessone, M., Bonnet, M., Brazolla, G., Buh, V.E., Chancellor, R., Cipoletta, C., Cohen, H., Corogenes, K., Coupland, C., Curran, B., Deschner, T., Dierks, K., Dieguez, P., Dilambaka, E., Diotoh, O., Dowd, D., Dunn, A., Eshuis, H., Fernandez, R., Ginath, Y., Hart, J., Hedwig, D., Ter Heegde, M., Hicks, T.C., Imong, I., Jeffery, K.J., Junker, J., Kadam, P., Kambi, M., Kienast, I., Kujirakwinja, D., Langergraber, K., Lapeyre, V., Lapuente, J., Lee, K., Leinert, V., Meier, A., Maretti, G., Marrocoli, S., Mbi, T.J., Mihindou, V., Moebius, Y., Morgan, D., Morgan, B., Mulindahabi, F., Murai, M., Niyigabae, P., Normand, E., Ntare, N., Ormsby, L.J., Piel, A., Pruetz, J., Rundus, A., Sanz, C., Sommer, V., Stewart, F., Tagg, N., Vanleeuwe, H., Vergnes, V., Willie, J., Wittig, R.M., Zuberbuehler, K., & Boesch, C. Chimpanzee accumulative stone throwing. Scientific Reports, 6, 22219.
Leather, S. R. (2009). Taxonomic chauvinism threatens the future of entomology. Biologist,56, 10-13.
McGraw, W.S., van Casteren, A., Kane, E., Geissler, E., Burrows, B. & Dsaegling, D.J. (2016) Feeding and oral processing behaviors of two colobine monkeys in Tai Forest, Ivory Coast. Journal of Human Evolution, in press.
Missa, O., Basset, Y., Alonso, A., Miller, S.E., Curletti, G., M., D.M., Eardley, C., Mansell, M.W., & Wagner, T. (2009) Monitoring arthropods in a tropical landscape: relative effects of sampling methods and habitat types on trap catches. Journal of Insect Conservation, 13, 103-118.
Ramsden, M.W., Menéndez, R., Leather, S.R., & Wakkers, F. (2014) Optimizing field margins for biocontrol services: the relative roles of aphid abundance, annual floral resource, and overwinter habitat in enhancing aphid natural enemies. Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment, 199, 94-104.
Stoinski, T.S., Hoff, M.P. & Maple, T.L. (2003) Proximity patterns of female western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) during the six months after parturition. American Journal of Primatology, 61, 61-72.
I said that entomologists don’t name their study animals but they do name their pets. Some of our PhD students had an African flower
Soulcleaver; despite his name he seems quite cute when viewed side-on, perhaps even with a cheeky grin, although as an entomologist I couldn’t possibly say that 🙂
*note that Tim Birkhead also falls into the very trap that he describes by using the word promiscuous in the title of his book, a human judgemental term relating to moral behaviour, multiple mating would have been more appropriate.
Making insects more appealing to children, (and adults), by making them look cute, cuddly and more like humans, is not a bad thing in itself, there is however, a line that should not be crossed.
These two books for children written almost a century apart, are exact opposites. In Sibylle von Olfers’ Etwas von den Wurzelkindern published in 1906, we see the most incredibly detailed and accurate biological drawings. The insects are pretty much recognizable to
The Wurzelkindern getting the beetles spruced up for spring
species as are the flowering plants; the grasses are so accurately portrayed that the following conversation occurred on Twitter.
Two plant scientists are able to discuss the grasses, so accurately are they drawn.
Contrast this with Birgitta Nicolas’ 2009 Der kleine Marienkäfer und seine Freunde.
Here the insects have four legs*, humanised faces and hands and feet, although to be fair, the bumblebee does have pollen collectors (or is perhaps wearing leg warmers). The plants are heavily stylised and although one can guess at their families, I could not for example decide if the member of the Rosaceae pictured was Prunus, Malus or Pyrus, although being pink. it is most likely meant to be a Prunus. The language used, despite the Gothic characters in von Olfer’s book, is at the same level, so meant to be read aloud by a parent or puzzled through by a beginner, yet the treatment of the wildlife is so different. Von Olfers’ charming and accurate illustrations provide a visual treat of exploration and learning, while Nicolas’ heavily stylised daubs rely on the texturing present, i.e. fake fur for the squirrel, fuzzy felt for the bumble bee etc. What harm would it have done to have at least given the insects the right number of legs and in the right place, all on the thorax. The bee might also have liked to have had the right number of wings**, I might then have been able to forgive her the humanised faces, it is a story after all 🙂
As Aristotle said “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.” Early habits die hard and if you learn that insects have four legs as a young child, confusion must ensue and make it harder to learn and retain the truth later on. First perceptions and impressions have a habit of sticking with us in later life, best to get the facts right at the beginning.
Whilst clearing the attic in our new house*** in the Languedoc area of France, I came across this edition of Pinocchio published in 1959,
which as well as bringing back nostalgic memories, I had the same edition as a child, but in English, is a great example of getting the insects right. The keen-eyed of you will notice it has a cricket on the front cover, but unlike the Walt Disney version in which Jiminy is definitely not a cricket, Libico Maraja, the illustrator, had obviously looked at crickets closely and carefully before putting pen to paper.
Pinocchio meets the talking cricket – he does not have a name in the original version of the story.
Even when anthropomorphised he still retains essential features such as legs joined to the thorax and complete with tarsi.
*although if you look closely, this insect, which I think is meant to be an aphid, does seem to have six legs 🙂
**at least the ladybird has elytra and wings
***our retirement dream house and where I hope to write all the books that I have planned to write over the last twenty-odd years and never got round to doing
I write about politics, nature + the environment. Some posts are serious, some not. These are my views, I don't do any promotional stuff and these views are not being expressed for anyone who employs me.
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