Tag Archives: Integrated pest management

EntoMasters on Tour – Visit to the Royal Entomological Society 2017

Yesterday I accompanied the Harper Adams University MSc Entomology and Integrated Pest Management students on their annual visit to the Headquarters of the Royal Entomological Society (RES), The Mansion House, located on the outskirts of the historic city of St Albans.


Harper Adams University entomologists, young and not so young 🙂  Photo by Jhman Kundun

Last year we had  a truly epic journey; accidents on the overcrowded UK motorway system on the way there and back, meant that we spent eight hours on the coach 😦  This year, in trying to avoid a similar fate, I cruelly forced the students and staff to be on the coach by 0645.


Early morning entomologists; despite the hour, happy and smiling  – photo Alex Dye

Unfortunately, despite the early start, a diesel spill closed the M6 at a crucial moment causing huge queues and long detours.  As a result we arrived at our destination a frustratingly  hour and a half late.  Entomologists are however, made of stern stuff and the coffee and delicious biscuits awaiting our arrival soon restored our spirits.



After coffee the RES Director of Science, Professor Jim Hardie, welcomed the students and talked about the history of the society and the benefits of joining as student members.  This was followed by a brief talk by one of the Outreach Team, Francisca Sconce, herself a former entomology Master’s student, about the many ways in which the RES brings the study and appreciation of insects to a wider audience.  The students were then treated to lunch and given the opportunity to explore the building and its facilities and to look at some of the treasures that the RES safeguards for posterity.


Someone found the aphid section 🙂


A future President? – trying out the presidential chair for size


Dr Andy Cherrill enjoying the famous entomological lift (elevator)

I am no stranger to The Mansion House; I have taken several cohorts of the entomology MSc students to the Royal Entomological Society since the society moved its headquarters to St Albans in 2007, and also visit the building a couple of times a year when attending committee meetings.  Despite my long association with the RES (40 years) I still however, find things I have never seen before, such as the print below, that gently pokes fun at the single-mindedness of the entomological specialist.


It is only a vertebrate  🙂

I also never cease to be amazed and humbled by the history that surrounds one as you meander your way around the various library rooms.




Printed history – as beautiful today as it was 400 years ago

We had a wonderful and educational day and you will be pleased to hear that our return journey was trouble-free.  Finally, many thanks to the Royal Entomological Society and staff for their extremely kind hospitality; the lunch was, as always, filling and delicious  🙂

Leave a comment

Filed under EntoNotes, Teaching matters

Mind the gap – time to make sure that scientists and practitioners are on the same page

I have deliberately used the same title for this post as my 2017 Editorial in Annals of Applied Biology and if you were to run it through Turnitin™ you would find a very high percentage similarity indeed 🙂 I had originally planned for this post and my Editorial to appear simultaneously, but thanks to modern publishing practices, the January issue of the Annals of Applied Biology, hit the virtual newsstands in mid-December and put the kibosh on my cunning plan.


Once a year I am wheeled out to do a guest lecture to the final year agriculture undergraduates on the Global Food Production module here at Harper Adams.  I start off the lecture by reminiscing about when I was an agricultural zoology undergraduate student at the University of Leeds in 1975 and was introduced to the concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), or as it was termed then, Integrated Pest Control.  I was very much taken by this idea and on my next visit home, approached my Uncle James, a farmer, and explained the concept to him and suggested that he might like to implement it on his farm.  To my surprise, he was not convinced by my arguments, and replied with words to the effect, “It all sounds rather tedious, and after all, I can do all my pest control much more easily using a tank mix, so why should I bother?”.  This attitude was, at the time widespread among the UK farming community and elsewhere despite the concept having been formally discussed in the scientific literature since the late 1950s and early 1960s (Stern et al., 1959; de Fluiter, 1962).  Despite the benefits of IPM being recognised and extolled IPM by researchers and agronomists for many years, take-up by growers has been much slower than expected (Kogan, 1998; Hammond et al., 2006). Resistance to the adoption of integrated pest management is not new, Benjamin Walsh writing in 1866 wrote

Let a man profess to have discovered some new patent powder pimperlimplimp, a single pinch of which being thrown into each corner of a field will kill every bug throughout its whole extent, and people will listen to him with attention and respect.  But tell them of any simple common-sense plan, based upon correct scientific principles, to check and keep within reasonable bounds the insect foes of the farmer, and they will laugh you to scorn”  Benjamin Walsh The Practical Entomologist

Why, if IPM is regarded as being of such paramount importance to sustainable crop production, the European Union for example passed a directive recently (2009/128/EC) requiring all member states to pass legislation to make sure that all professional growers at the very least adopt the principles of IPM, is its adoption so slow.  Hokkanen (2015) cites three main impediments to the adoption of IPM, science funding, political interference and economics.  As an applied entomologist I know from bitter experience, that there is a lack of willingness by the UK Research Councils to fund basic applied science i.e. grants to aid researchers to establish much-needed new economic thresholds are very unlikely to be funded.  Hokkanen (2015) also points out that whilst the political landscape now includes IPM, different governments have views, not necessarily based on science, about what are acceptable items for the IPM toolbox, genetically modified crops (GM) and neonicotinoid insecticides being just two such examples. Thirdly, as Hokkanen (2015) points out the ability of farmers to fully adopt IPM practices, is often out of their control, but is decided by market forces and social and political pressures, GM crops and neonicotinoids again serving to illustrate this point.

As Felicity Lawrence writing in the Guardian says “British farmers growing wheat typically treat each crop over its growing cycle with four fungicides, three herbicides, one insecticide and one chemical to control molluscs. They buy seed that has been precoated with chemicals against insects. They spray the land with weedkiller before planting, and again after.

They apply chemical growth regulators that change the balance of plant hormones to control the height and strength of the grain’s stem. They spray against aphids and mildew. And then they often spray again just before harvesting with the herbicide glyphosate to desiccate the crop, which saves them the energy costs of mechanical drying.

Most farmers around the world, whatever the crop, will turn to one of just six companies that dominate the market to buy all these agrochemicals and their seeds. The concentration of power over primary agriculture in such a small number of corporations, and their ability both to set prices and determine the varieties available, has already been a cause of concern among farmers. Yet by next year the competition is likely to shrink even further”.

Independent advice in the UK is not as easy to get as it once was.  The expected career outcome for my undergraduate course was either academia or to work as an advisor for the then, government funded, Agricultural Development and Advisory Service (ADAS).  ADAS was the research and advisory arm of the then Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food and employed specialist advisers throughout the country to advise farmers and growers how to maximise their output.   ADAS became an agency in 1992, was privatised in 1997 and in December 2016 was taken over by RSK, a large environmental consultancy.  The first incarnation of ADAS was relatively well-staffed with truly independent advisors. The second incarnation, although still billed as independent, had far fewer offices and far fewer staff, so their traditional advisory role was largely taken over by private agronomists whose agendas and training are very varied.  This state of affairs is not unique to the UK.

As an example, this is from another of my correspondents who is also on the Editorial Board of Annals of Applied BiologyThanks for your message and interesting question.  You are correct that in the US the extension service is closely aligned with the land grant Universities.  It was the complete opposite in Australia and NZ (similar to the UK) where the government funded extension service had been cut years ago and the gap had been ‘filled’ by private consultants which were also often chemical sales representatives.

Even in the USA, traditionally very strong when it comes to entomology in universities, the situation is less than rosy as this email from another correspondent (of necessity anonymised) highlights:

“I am currently the only trained entomologist in any XX university with a position focused on commercial ornamental entomology despite nurseries in XX being our largest plant-based agricultural commodity. Between shipping out 75-80% of the nursery plants across a state or international border, thousands of cultivated varieties, several planting systems (protected and field grown), and the aesthetic thresholds with ornamental plants, I’m a bit too popular (couldn’t haven’t happened in high school when I could have used it). I don’t even have a PhD and my position is actually a regional Extension educator position versus specialist. Since we have no specialists for non-food crops, I often am asked to work off position description on other ornamental plant needs in landscapes as well. Not just entomology as this is an IPM position.  This level of demand has curtailed my ability to be involved with activities that would have been useful professionally (like publishing more and reviewing work of peers). No regrets about the new discoveries, adoption and impact of my work in many diverse areas but I will have less legacy in the published world.  

I’m retiring in less than three years. A little early but necessary as I’ve been fighting burn-out for years. And the university has taught me many times that they value my work less as a female (the stories I could tell). Women in STEM gets lots of verbiage but those of us working in these systems will tell you how far we have to go yet to be treated equitably. Perhaps they will value my work once I’m gone and people have nowhere to go. I have been fortunate to have had the privilege of excellent training and only hope that this country can maintain some of these bastions of entomology into the future”

Science is crucial to the development of IPM, be it understanding pest phenology, developing and evaluating biocontrol agents or obtaining a basic understanding of the biology and ecology of a particular pest (e.g. Webb et al., 2015; Dandurand & Knudsen, 2016; Karley et al., 2016; Rowley et al. 2016).  Basic science is important, but funding needs to be mainly allocated to more immediately applicable research than to the more academic end of the spectrum which is where it tends to go more often than not (Hokkanen, 2015).   I recently attended a conference organised by AgriNet, http://www.agri-net.net/ whose mission statement is “AGRI-net is an Agri-science Chemical Biology network which aims to stimulate the development and facilitate the translation of novel tools and technologies to key end-users in the Agri-sciences”, the title of which was  Bridging the gap between Physical sciences & Agri-sciences research.  Although the science presented was excellent it was hard to see how it could be translated to the relevant end-users in their lifetimes.

Don’t get me wrong, basic science is needed as there will be a time when the technology is available for it to be relevant.  As an example, Winer et al. (2001) convincingly demonstrated that planting spring wheat at extremely high densities (up to 600 seeds m2) in a grid pattern, significantly reduced weed density and significantly increased yield when compared with planting at conventional seed rates and in the traditional row pattern.  Fifteen years ago this may not have been very attractive to farmers as it would have meant modifying their already expensive machinery.  With the advent of precision farming this is perhaps now a viable strategy, but so far is little taken up by growers.  Is this a lack of communication from the scientists to the end-user or a reluctance to adapt new ways by the farmer?  I would suggest the former.

The recent State of Nature report (Hayhow et al., 2016) caused dismay amongst UK ecologists and raised the hackles of the UK farming community.  The data were very convincing and much of the decline in wildlife in agricultural systems was attributed to the intensification of agriculture post World War 2. The UK farming community reacted quickly and angrily (Midgely, 2016), pointing out that farming practices have changed greatly over the last half century and that the report was overlooking the many farmers who have willing engaged with the various environmental stewardship initiatives.  The debate was somewhat exacerbated by the fact that some trenchant exchanges on both sides of the fence are of a long-standing nature.  Although I have a great deal of sympathy for the conservation side of the argument I sometimes feel that the language used by what the farming press equally dismissively calls ‘green lobby’ does not help. Michael McCarthy for example, an author whom I greatly admire, is in his recent book, The Moth Snowstorm, is extremely scathing about the practices of farmers, whom he mockingly calls “Farmer Giles” (McCarthy, 2016)

Similarly, there has been for some time, a debate within the scientific community as to whether it is better to farm intensively to maximize yields while conserving and protecting natural habitats (land sparing), or to use wildlife-friendly farming methods (land sharing) that integrate biodiversity conservation with food production (e.g. Tscharntke et al., 2012; Bommarco et al., 2013; Fischer et al., 2014; Kremen, 2015).  Due, however, to the pressures imposed by academic institutions and state funding bodies, the scientists concerned publish in ‘high impact’ conservation journals unlikely to be read by agronomists let alone farmers.

Sue Hartley (2016) “…working in Malawi on a Christian Aid funded project on improving crop resilience to drought.  I thought I had the answer: farmers should stop growing maize and grow the much more drought tolerant millet instead.  Consternation amongst the farmers greeted that suggestion! “But, they exclaimed in horror, Dr Sue, we can’t we are married to maize!  Hopelessly naïve, I had neglected the wider cultural and socioeconomic context; I’d focussed on the physiology of the plants, my discipline, and not on the sociology of farmer behaviour, someone else’s discipline

There are ways to bridge the gap, although it may mean some scientists having to step outside their laboratories and comfort zones. A recent experiment in China where academic staff and their postgraduate students lived in farming communities and worked alongside local farmers resulted in significant increases in crop yields (Zhang et al., 2016).  Whilst not suggesting that all scientists involved in basic science with potential agricultural applications, adopt a similar approach, I would encourage them to spend some time speaking to farmers on their farms and not in workshops away from the agricultural environment.   Similarly, I would exhort ecologists with an interest in agriculture to either publish in journals more likely to be read by agronomists and farmers and not in journals that only their peers will read. Arguments in journals such as Biological Conservation, no matter how well presented or reasoned, reach a very limited audience of peers and undergraduates writing assignments. The people who make the decisions and grow our food do not read those journals. Failing that, in these days of ‘research impact’ it would make sense to take steps to summarise their findings in a more popular format such as the farming press. The workshops often mentioned in grant applications under the “pathways to impact” section will only have a limited reach and the proposed web sites, another favourite of the grant writer, unless extensively advertised and scrupulously kept up to date, again will remain largely unread.

Most importantly, use language that everyone can understand.  The farmer representing Innovate UK at the Agri-futures meeting was particularly scathing about the presentations, slickly and smoothly delivered by the obviously keen and excited scientists, remarking that most farmers would not know the word heterogeneity; keep it simple, avoid jargon, but don’t speak down to practitioners just because they don’t have the same vocabulary you do.   Emma Hamer the Senior Plant Health advisor for the National Farmers Union was just one of the many speakers from industry at the Advances in Integrated Pest Management Conference that I attended in November, who pointed out that many farmers were still unaware of exactly IPM was, even though they were practicing it to some extent.

There are agricultural scientists who do their best to step down from their ivory towers and try to make their work easily accessible.  Rothamsted Research for example, where the scientists are under immense pressure to publish in high impact journals, are doing their best to provide an effective extension service despite the swingeing cuts that have been made to their staff who work with whole organisms.  Their advocacy of the IPM concept via their app Croprotect is innovative and useful.  The UK of course is not alone in these types of ventures.  My Editorial sparked this response via email:  “I read with interest your editorial in the Annals of Applied Biology.  Our research group works strongly with State Government to convert our research into practical tools for fire management, but we struggle at the interface because each agency things that it is the responsibility of the other to do the extension work!  A better example comes from my colleagues in the crop sciences who have a very workable model in the southern hemisphere (see http://www.apen.org.au/extensionnet ).” On the other hand, we have scientists who extol the virtues of extension but publish in journals that are non-accessible to many academics and certainly beyond the ken of agronomists and farmers (Kremen, 2015).  Important commentaries on pollinators aimed at farmers and politicians (Dicks et al., 2016) are too often hidden behind ‘high impact’ paywalls and if not revealed by helpful bloggers such as Jeff Ollerton, would remain hidden away from the very people who need to know.  Other bloggers such as Manu Saunders are also on the case, debunking and/or publicising the debates surrounding sustainable agriculture, but this is not enough.  Scientists who put themselves forward as working in the agricultural sciences need to pay more heed to the ways in which farmers work, understand the farming year* and actually talk to farmers whilst in their own environment.  Perhaps not so much as being on the same page but standing in the same field.


Pleased to see that a Wordle analysis of this post puts farmers centre stage.



Bommarco, R., Kleijn, D. & Potts, S.G. (2013) Ecological intensification: harnessing ecosystem services for food security. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 28, 230–238

Dandurand, L.M. & Knudsen, G.R. (2016) Effect of the trap crop Solanum sisymbriifolium and two biocontrol fungi on reproduction of the potato cyst nematode, Globodera pallida. Annals of Applied Biology, 169, 180-189

De Fluiter, H.J. (1962) Integrated control of pests in orchards. Entomophaga, 7, 199-206.

Dicks, L.V., Viana, B., Bommarco, R., Brosi, B., del Coro Arizmendi, M., Cunningham, S.A., Galetto, L., Hill, R.,  Lopes, A.V., Pires, C., Taki, H., & Potts, S.G. (2016) Ten policies for pollinators.  Science, 354, 975-976.

Fischer, J., Abson, D.J., Butsic, V., Chappell, M.J., Ekroos, J., Hanspach, J., Kuemmerle, T., Smith, H.G. & von Wehrden, H. (2014) Land sparing versus land sharing: moving forward. Conservation Letters, 7, 149–157

Hammond, C.M., Luschei, E.C., Boerboom, C.M. & Nowak, P.J. (2006) Adoption of integrated pest management tactics by Wisconsin farmers.  Weed Technology, 20, 756-767

Hartley, S. (2016) In praise of interdisciplinarity.  The Bulletin, 47, 5-6.

Hayhow, D.B., Burns, F., Eaton, M.A., Al Fulaij, N., August, T.A., Babey, L., Bacon, L., Bingham, C., Boswell, J., Boughey, K.L., Brereton, T., Brookman, E., Brooks, D.R., Bullock, D.J., Burke, O., Collis, M., Corbet, L., Cornish, N., De Massimi, S., Densham, J., Dunn, E., Elliott, S., Gent, T., Godber, J., Hamilton, S., Havery, S., Hawkins, S., Henney, J., Holmes, K., Hutchinson, N., Isaac, N.J.B., Johns, D., Macadam, C.R., Mathews, F., Nicolet, P., Noble, D.G., Outhwaite, C.L., Powney, G.D., Richardson, P., Roy, D.B., Sims, D., Smart, S., Stevenson, K., Stroud, R.A., Walker, K.J., Webb, J.R., Webb, T.J., Wynde, R. and Gregory, R.D. (2016) State of Nature 2016. The State of Nature partnership.

Hokkanen, H.M.T. (2015) Integrated pest management at the crossroads: science, politics or business (as usual)?  Arthropod-Plant Interactions, 9, 543-545

Karley, A.J., Mitchell, C., Brookes, C., McNicol, J., O’Neill, T., Roberts, H., Graham, J. & Johnson, S.N. (2016) Exploiting physical defence traits for crop protection: leaf trichomes of Rubus idaeus have deterrent effects on spider mites but not aphids.  Annals of Applied Biology, 168, 159-172

Kogan, M. (1998) Integrated pest management: historical perspectives and contemporary developments.  Annual Review of Entomology, 43, 243-270

Kremen C. (2015) Reframing the land-sparing/land-sharing debate for biodiversity conservation. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1355, 52–76.

McCarthy, M. (2016) The Moth Snowstorm, Hodder & Stoughton, London.

Midgely, O. (2016) Industry’s work overlooked by UK green lobby. Farmer’s Guardian, September 16, 2

Rowley, C., Cherrill, A., Leather, S., Nicholls, C., Ellis, S. & Pope, T. (2016) A review of the biology, ecology and control of saddle gall midge, Haplodiplosis marginata (Diptera: Cecidomyiidae) with a focus on phenological forecasting.  Annals of Applied Biology, 169, 167-179

Stern, V.M., Smith, R.F., Van Den Bosch, R., & Hagen, K.S. (1959) The integrated control concept. Hilgardia, 29, 81-101.

Tscharntke, T., Clough, Y., Wanger, T.C., Jackson, L., Motzke, I., Perfecto, I., Vandermeer, J. & Whitbread, A. (2012) Global food security, biodiversity conservation and the future of agricultural intensification. Biological Conservation, 151, 51–59

Webb, K.M., R.M. , Harveson, R.M. & West, M.S. (2015)  Evaluation of Rhizoctonia zeae as a potential biological control option for fungal root diseases of sugar beet.  Annals of Applied Biology, 167, 75-89

Winer, J., Griepentrog, H.W. & Kristensen, L. (2001) Suppression of weeds by spring wheat Triticum aestivum increases with crop density and spatial uniformity.  Journal of Applied Ecology, 38, 784-790.

Zhang, W., Cao, G., Li, X., Zhang, H., Wang, C., Liu, Q., Chen, X., Cui, Z., Shen, J., Jiang, R., Mi, G., Miao, Y., Zhang, F. & Dou, Z. (2016) Closing yield gaps in China by empowering smallholder farmers. Nature, 537, 671-674


Filed under Bugbears, Science writing, Uncategorized

It isn’t easy being an applied ecologist – working on crops limits publication venues

“This is Simon Leather, he’s an ecologist, albeit an applied one” Thus was I introduced to a group of visiting ecologists by my then head of department at the Silwood Park campus of Imperial College. As you can imagine I was somewhat taken aback at this public display of the bias that ‘pure’ scientists have against those that they regard as ‘applied’.  I was (and still am), used to this attitude, as even as an undergraduate doing Agricultural Zoology when we shared modules with the ‘pure’ zoologists, we were regarded as a slightly lower life form J  Working in Finland as a post-doc in the early 1980s it was also obvious that there was a certain degree of friction between the pure and applied entomologists, so it was not a phenomenon confined entirely to the UK.  To this day, convincing ecology undergraduates that integrated pest management is a suitable career for them is almost impossible.

I was an ecologically minded entomologist from early childhood, pinning and collecting did not interest me anywhere near as much as insect behaviour and ecology, but I knew that I wanted to do something “useful” when I grew up. Having seen my father in action as a plant pathologist and crop protection officer, it seemed to me that combining entomology with agriculture would be an ideal way to achieve this ambition.  A degree in Agricultural Zoology at Leeds and a PhD in cereal aphid ecology at the University of East Anglia (Norwich) was the ideal foundation for my chosen career as an applied ecologist/entomologist.

I started my professional life as agricultural entomologist working both in the laboratory and in the field (cereal fields to be exact), which were easily accessible, generally flat, weed free and easy to manipulate and sample.  In the UK even the largest fields tend to be visible from end to end and side to side when you stand in the middle or edge (even more so now than when I started as wheat varieties are now so much shorter, less than half the height they were in 1977).



Having fun as a PhD student – aphid ‘sampling’ in Norfolk 1978


I haven’t grown since I did my PhD so wheat must have shrunk 🙂

See the post script to see what wheat used to look like.

Laboratory experiments, even when working on mature plants were totally do-able in walk-in growth rooms, and at a push you could even fit whole earing wheat plants into a growth cabinet.

I then spent ten years working as a forest entomologist, where field sites were the exact opposite, and extreme measures were sometimes required to reach my study animals, including going on an official Forestry Commission tree climbing course.


Pole pruners – (of only limited use) and tree climbing (great fun but laborious)


Scaffold towers for really high work, but expensive (and scary on sloping hillsides).

And as for lab work, not a chance of using mature plants or even plants more than two to three years old.  Excised branches and/or foliage (rightly or wrongly) were the norm*.

Doing field work was, despite the sometimes very physically challenging aspects, a lot of fun, and in my case, some very scenic locations.  My two main field sites were The Spey Valley and


Sutherland and Caithness, both of which provided magnificent views and of course, a plethora of whisky distilleries


where I discovered what is now my favourite single malt 🙂

The real fun came when it was time to submit papers.  Journal choice was (and is) very important.  As Stephen Heard points out, journals have a ‘culture’ and it is very important to pick a journal that has the right editorial board and ethos. The laboratory work never seemed to be a huge problem, referees (perhaps wrongly) very rarely criticised the use of young plants or excised foliage. I was able to publish the output from what was a very applied project, in a range of journals from the very specialised to the more ecological. This selection for example, from 1985-1987 (Leather, 1985, 1986; Leather & Burnand, 1987; Leather et al., 1985), appeared in Ecological Entomology, Oecologia, Functional Ecology and Bulletin of Entomological Research respectively.

Papers reporting field-based work were a little bit harder to place in journals outside the mainstream forestry ones, particularly when it came to experimental work.  One of the problems was that ecological referees unused to working in forests tended not to have a grasp of what was involved in setting up and servicing an experiment in a forest plantation or stand.  A farmer has no great objection to an entomologist removing 100 wheat tillers a week from his 2 ha field (at 90 stems per metre2, even a 16 week field season would only remove a tiny fraction of his crop).  A forest manager on the other hand with a stocking density of 3000 stems per hectare would look askance at a proposal to remove even 100 trees a month from a hectare plot, especially if this was repeated for seven years.  Sample size was thus a problem, even when using partial sampling of trees, e.g. by removing say only one branch.  When it came to field scale replication, to compare for example, three treatments and a control on two different soil types, where each treatment plot is a hectare, things get a bit difficult. The most that we could service, even with help (since we did not have huge financial resources), was three replicates of each treatment.  In agricultural terms this seems incredibly low, where 10m2 plots or even smaller, are very often used (e.g. Staley et al., 2009; Garratt et al., 2011).

We thus ended up with our experimental papers in the really specialised forestry journals (e.g.  Leather, 1993; Hicks et al., 2007).  On the other hand, those papers based on observational, long-term data were easier to place in more general ecological journals (e.g. Watt et al., 1989), although that was not always enough to guarantee success (e.g. Walsh et al., 1993; Watt et al., 1991).  Another bias that I came across (perhaps unconscious) was that referees appeared, and still do, think that work from production forests is not as valid as that coming from ‘natural’ forests, especially if they are tropical. We came across this when submitting a paper about the effects of prescribed burning on carabid populations in two sites in Portugal (Nunes et al., 2006).  We originally sent this to a well-known ecological journal who rejected it on the grounds of low replication, although we had also replicated it temporarily as well as geographically.  I was not impressed to see a paper published in this journal shortly after they had rejected our manuscript in which the authors had reported changes in insect communities after a one-off fire event in a tropical forest, without even the benefits of pre-fire baseline data.  We had in the meantime, given up on general ecology journals and submitted our paper to a local forestry journal.  Such is life.

I originally started this essay with the idea of bemoaning the fact that publishing studies based in production forests in more general journals was more difficult than publishing agriculturally based papers, but got diverted into writing about the way applied ecologists feel discriminated against by journals and pure ecologists.  I may or may not have convinced you about that.  To return to my original idea of it being more difficult for forestry–based ecologists to break out of the forestry journal ghetto than it is for agro-ecologists to reach a broader audience, I present the following data based on my own publication record, which very convincingly demonstrates that my original feeling is based on fact, albeit based on an n of one 🙂


Numbers of agricultural and forestry based papers published by me in different journal categories.

I might also add that being an entomologist also limits where you can publish, so being an applied entomologist is something of a double whammy, and when it comes to getting research council funding, don’t get me started!


 Garratt, M.P.D., Wright, D.J., & Leather, S.R. (2010) The effects of organic and conventional fertilizers on cereal aphids and their natural enemies. Agricultural and Forest Entomology, 12, 307-318.

Hicks, B.J., Aegerter, J.N., Leather, S.R., & Watt, A.D. (2007) Differential rates of parasitism of the pine beauty moth (Panolis flammea) depends on host tree species. Scottish Forestry, 61, 5-10.

Leather, S.R. (1985) Oviposition preferences in relation to larval growth rates and survival in the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea. Ecological Entomology, 10, 213-217.

Leather, S.R. (1986) The effect of neonatal starvation on the growth, development and survival of larvae of the pine beauty moth Panolis flammea. Oecologia, 71, 90-93.

Leather, S.R. (1993) Influence of site factor modification on the population development of the pine beauty moth (Panolis flammea) in a Scottish lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) plantation. Forest Ecology & Management, 59, 207-223.

Leather, S.R. & Burnand, A.C. (1987) Factors affecting life-history parameters of the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea (D&S): the hidden costs of reproduction. Functional Ecology, 1, 331-338.

Leather, S.R., Watt , A.D., & Barbour, D.A. (1985) The effect of host plant and delayed mating on the fecundity and lifespanof the pine beauty moth,  Panolis flammea (Denis & Schiffermuller) (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae): their influence on population dynamics and relevance to pest management. Bulletin of entomological Research, 75, 641-651.

Nunes, L.F., Silva, I., Pité, M., Rego, F.C., Leather, S.R., & Serrano, A. (2006) Carabid (Coleoptera) community change following prescribed burning and the potential use of carabids as indicator species to evaluate the effects of fire management in Mediterranean regions. Silva Lusitania, 14, 85-100.

Staley, J.T., Stewart-Jones, A., Pope, T.W., Wright, D.J., Leather, S.R., Hadley, P., Rossiter, J.T., Van Emden, H.F., & Poppy, G.M. (2010) Varying responses of insect herbivores to altered plant chemistry under organic and conventional treatments. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, 277, 779-786.

Walsh, P.J., Day, K.R., Leather, S.R., & Smith, A.J. (1993) The influence of soil type and pine species on the carabid community of a plantation forest with a history of pine beauty moth infestation. Forestry, 66, 135-146.

Watt, A.D., Leather, S.R., & Stoakley, J.T. (1989) Site susceptibility, population development and dispersal of the pine beauty moth in a lodgepole pine forest in northern Scotland. Journal of Applied Ecology, 26, 147-157.

Watt, A.D., Leather, S.R., & Evans, H.F. (1991) Outbreaks of the pine beauty moth on pine in Scotland: the influence of host plant species and site factors. Forest Ecology and Management, 39, 211-221.


Post script

The height of mature wheat and other cereals has decreased hugely over the last two hundred years.  Cereals were originally a multi-purpose crop, not just providing grain for humans, but bedding straw for stock and humans, winter fodder for animals, straw for thatching and if really desperate, you could make winter fuel out of discarded straw**.


John Linnell  – Wheat 1860  You wouldn’t have been able to see Poldark’s (Aidan Turner) manly chest whilst he was scything in this field!


Pieter Breugel the Elder – Die Kornernter – The Harvesters  (1565) – Head-high wheat crops and not just because the average height was lower in those days.


*As I was writing this article I came across this paper (Friberg & Wiklund, 2016) which suggests that using excised plants may be justifiable.  Friberg, M. & Wiklund, C. (2016)  Butterflies and plants: preference/performance studies in relation to plant size and the use of intact plants vs. cuttings.  Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 160, 201-208

**My source for this is Laura Ingalls Wilder – Little House on the Prairie, to be exact 🙂


Filed under Bugbears, Uncategorized

Ten Papers that shook my World – Root (1973) – When more means less – crop diversity reduces pest incidence

I can’t remember when I first read this paper but judging by the record card and the state of the actual hard copy of the paper, it was probably when I was doing my PhD in the late 1970s. This paper and its companion, which was published a year earlier* (Tahvanainen & Root, 1972), have had a significant effect on the scientific understanding and development of inter-cropping as a method of crop protection worldwide. Although inter-cropping in some form or another has been around a long time, the idea that it could be used as part of an integrated pest management programme was not proven.  In this landmark study, Root compared pure stands (plots) of collards (spring greens in the UK) (Brassica olercaea) with adjacent rows of collards grown intermingled with other herbaceous plants.  His premise being that it was well documented that pest outbreaks tend to be associated with pure monocultures of crops (Pimentel, 1961; Janzen, 1970) and he wished to test the hypothesis that natural enemies were more abundant and effective in vegetationally diverse areas  than in pure monocultures, the so-called ‘enemies hypothesis’.  This idea had been around a surprisingly long time e.g. Ullyett (1947) who remarked  “where weeds occur around headlands and in hedges, they should be left for the purpose of supporting parasites and predators important in the natural control of the diamond-back moth (Plutclla maculipennis Curt)”.  A decade later, Elton (1958,) refers to this statement, explaining that “these hedge rows form a reservoir for enemies and parasites of insects and mite pests of crops”.  I am not sure what it indicates but note that many groups around the world, including mine, are still working on this both at the local (field-scale) level (e.g. Ramsden et al., 2014) and landscape level (e.g. Rusch et al., 2013; Raymond et al., 2015).

Root explained the premise of the ‘enemies hypothesis’ as follows.  Predators and parasites are more effective at controlling herbivore populations in diverse habitats or plant communities because, diverse plant communities support a diversity of herbivores with a variety of phenologies, providing a steady supply of prey for the predators.  In addition, complex environments provide prey refugia, thus allowing the prey not to be completely eradicated.  Diverse plant communities also provide a broad range of additional resources for adult natural enemies e.g. pollen and nectar.

Root ran his experiment for three years and did indeed find a significant difference in herbivore load between the pure plots and the weedy rows, the former having a greater abundance of pests (mainly aphids and flea beetles) than the latter.

Fig 1

From Root (1973)

To his disappointment (I assume), he did not find any difference in the numbers of natural enemies between the two treatments. He thus had to come up with another idea to explain his results. His ingenious explanation is encapsulated in what he termed the Resource concentration hypothesis which states that herbivores are more likely to find and stay on hosts growing in dense or nearly pure stands and that the most specialised species often reach higher relative densities in simple environments.

Fig 2

Typical modern monocultures, beans, cabbages and wheat

He hypothesised that specialist herbivores were ‘trapped’ on the crop and accumulated whilst more generalist herbivores were able to and likely to move away from the crops to other host plants.  Root added that the ‘trapping effect’ of host patches depends on several factors such as stand size and purity.

In 1968, presumably as a result of what Root was discovering, Jorma Tahvanainen (one of the many great Finnish entomologists who appeared on the scene in the 1970s -, he retired in 2004) came to Cornell to do his PhD with Richard Root. Working on the same system and in the same meadow, Tahbanainen developed two new hypotheses to explain why more diverse cropping systems have fewer pest problems than monocultures. His experiments as he too found little evidence of natural enemies having an effect. He developed two new hypotheses, one he termed Associational resistance which I reproduce below exactly as published:

A natural community, such as a meadow, can be treated as a compound system composed of smaller, component communities (Root, 1973). The arthropods associated with different plant species represent important components in terrestrial systems. The available information indicates that the biotic, structural and microclimatic complexity of natural vegetation greatly ameliorates the herbivore pressure on these individual components, and consequently, on the system as a whole. Thus, it can be said that in a compound community there exists an “associational resistance” to herbivores in addition to the resistance of individual plant species. If the complex pattern of natural vegetation is broken down by growing plants in monocultures, most of this associational resistance is lost. As a result, specialized herbivores which are adapted to overcome the resistance of a particular plant species, and against which the associational resistance is most effective, can easily exploit the simplified system. Population outbreaks of such herbivores are thus more likely to occur in monocultures where their essential resources are highly concentrated

The other, is the Chemical Interference Hypothesis, in which he postulated that reduced herbivory in diverse communities due to chemical stimuli produced by non-host plants interfering with host finding or feeding behaviour of specialist herbivores.  His experimental set-up was very simple, but very effective.

Fig 3

How to send mixed signals to specialist herbivores – reproduced from Tahvanainen & Root (1972)

In simple terms, a monoculture sends out a very strong signal, it could be olfactory, e.g. a strong bouquet of crucifer volatiles, or for other herbivores it could be visual, or a combination of the two.

Fig 4

Conventional intensive agricultural landscape sending out strong ‘signals’ to specialist herbivores

Inter-cropping increases crop diversity and changes the crop ‘signal’ to one that now ‘confuses’ specialists. Note that I am not necessarily advocating a combined crop of wheat, beans and cabbages, as harvesting would be a nightmare 😉

Fig 5


The intercrop melange effect

These two papers have had a huge influence on the theory and practice of inter-cropping and agricultural diversification, although Root (1973) has had many more citations (1393 according to Web of Science on 11th December 2015) than Tahvanainen & Root (1972) which has only had a meagre 429 citation to date.  The message coming out from the many studies that have now investigated the effect of intercropping crop diversification on pest abundance, is, that in general, polyculture is beneficial in terms of promoting biological control and that incorporating legumes into the system gives the best yield outcomes (Iverson et al,  2014).

Another take on intercropping that overcomes the potential problems of harvesting different crops from the same field, is the concept of planting different genotypes of the same species. Resistant plants tend to have fewer generalists present, although their individual yield may be reduced.  By planting a mixture of susceptible and resistant genotypes it is however, possible to have your cake and eat it, especially if it is not essential to have a single genotype crop.  This approach has been used to good effect in the production of short rotation willow coppice, where planting diverse genotypes of the same species reduces both pest and disease levels (Peacock et al., 2000, 2001).

Who would have that two simple field experiments conducted in an abandoned hay meadow outside Ithaca, New York almost fifty years ago would have such a far-reaching influence?



Elton, C. S. (1958) The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants. London: Methuen & Co., Ltd. 159 pp.

Iverson, A. L., Makin, L. E., Ennis, K. K., Gonthier, D. J., Connor-Barrie, B. T., Remfret, J. L., Cardinale, B. J. &Perfecto, I. (2014). Do polycultures promote win-win or trade-offs in agricultural ecosystem services? A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Ecology. 51, 1593-1602.

Peacock, L. & Herrick, S. (2000) Responses of the willow beetle Phratora vulgatissima to genetically and spatially diverse Salix spp. plantations. Journal of Applied Ecology, 37, 821-831.

Peacock, L., Hunter, T., Turner, H., & Brain, P. (2001) Does host genotype diversity affect the distribution of insect and disease in willow cropping systems? Journal of Applied Ecology, 38, 1070-1081

Janzen, D.H. (1970) The unexploited tropics.  Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 51, 4-7

Pimentel, D. (1961). Species diversity and insect population outbreaks. Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 54, 76-86.

Ramsden, M. W., Menéndez, R., Leather, S. R. & Wackers, 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.

Raymond, L., Ortiz-Martinez, S. A. &Lavandero, B. (2015). Temporal variability of aphid biological control in contrasting landscape contexts. Biological Control , 90, 148-156.

Root, R. B. (1973). Organization of a plant-arthropod association in simple and diverse habitats: the fauna of collards. Ecological Monographs, 43, 95-124.  1393 citations

Rusch, A., Bommarco, R., Jonsson, M., Smith, H. G. &Ekbom, B. (2013). Flow and stability of natural pest control services depend on complexity and crop rotation at the landscape scale. Journal of Applied Ecology, 50, 345-354.

Tahvanainen, J. & Root, R. B. (1972). The influence of vegetational diversity on the population ecology of a specialized herbivore Phyllotreta cruciferae (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae). Oecologia, 10, 321-346. 429 citations

Ullyett, G. C. (1947) Mortality factors in populations of Plutella maculipennis Curtis (Tineidae: Lep.) and their relation to the problem of control. Union of South Africa, Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Entomology Memoirs, 2, 77-202.

Post script

*I suspect, judging by how the two papers cite each other, that the Root (1973) paper was actually submitted first but that the vagaries of the publication system ,  meant that follow-up paper, Tahvanainen & Root (1972) appeared first.

Leave a comment

Filed under Entomological classics, Ten Papers That Shook My World

Serious Fun with Google Trends

No doubt I am behind the curve, but I have only recently discovered Google Trends; a result of attending a Departmental seminar given by a colleague talking about Biochar!

To quote WikipediaGoogle Trends is a public web facility of Google Inc., based on Google Search, that shows how often a particular search-term is entered relative to the total search-volume across various regions of the world, and in various languages. The horizontal axis of the main graph represents time (starting from 2004), and the vertical is how often a term is searched for relative to the total number of searches, globally.”  I was greatly taken by my colleague’s slide showing the birth and development of a new concept


and wondered if this would be a useful tool to look at some entomological topics.  Immediately after the seminar I rushed back to my office, and as you may have guessed, entered the word “aphid” into the search bar and was, after a bit of computer chuntering, rewarded with my first Google Trend output  🙂



I was immediately struck by how closely this resembled real aphid population


data, albeit a more regular and smoother than these examples of real  data.  I found that if you ran the cursor along the data lines the month was displayed, and as I expected, the peak in aphid interest was generally June and May, reflecting their peak abundance in the field.   I next entered


“Ladybird” to see if it coincided with aphid peaks and interestingly found that it had two peaks within each year, May, when they start to become active and October when they start to look for hibernation sites, so as with aphids, the frequency of the search term usage reflects biological activity.  “Butterfly” and “Ant” as search terms revealed that interest in ants and butterflies has remained


fairly constant over the last decade or so, although somewhat to my surprise, ants have had proportionately more searches than butterflies.  Given my worries about the declining interest in plant sciences and the funding problems facing


entomology, I thought it might be educational to compare botany and entomology.

Not an encouraging picture, although at least the decline has plateaued out.  Then, just in case, as in many universities, Botany departments have been replaced with Plant Science departments, and is now taught under that title,


I substituted “Plant Science” for “Botany” and was surprised to see that “Entomology” was searched for about twice as many times as “Plant Science”.

Comparing “Botany” with “Plant Science” reveals that “Botany” was searched for considerably far more than “Plant Science”, despite most universities no longer having Botany Departments. Perhaps they should reconsider their decision to do away with the title?


Keeping with the subject theme and having written in the past about how molecular biology has gained funding and kudos at the expense of whole organism biology (Leather & Quicke, 2010) I compared “Entomology” with


“Botany” and “Molecular Biology” to find, that although overall “Molecular Biology” beats both subjects, interest in the subject has also declined over the last decade. One of my bugbears is the amount of interest and funding that the so called “charismatic mega-fauna” gain at the expense of, in my opinion, the much more deserving invertebrates.


I therefore compared “Giant Panda”, with “Insect” and “Entomology” and was pleasantly surprised to see that “Insect” wasn’t quite overshadowed by “Giant Panda” although somewhat saddened to see that the whole discipline of “Entomology” was not overly popular.

I confess that felt a little frisson of delight when I found that in recent years “Asian giant hornet” has been giving the “Giant panda” a bit of competition 🙂



Recently there has been huge debate over the use of neonicotinoids and their possible/probably part they may have in the decline of bees of all sorts (Jeff Ollerton’s blog is a good place to follow the latest news about the debate), so I used “Bee” “Bumblebee” and “Neonicitinoid” as search terms and was


surprised to find that “Neonicitinoid” in this context has not really had an impact, although if you search for “Neonicitinoid” by itself you



can see that there is an increasing interest in the topic.  A corollary to the banning of pesticides or a call for a reduction in their usage as outlined by the EU Sustainable Use Directive, should be an increased interest in the use of alternative pest control methods, such as


This does not, however, appear to be the case, with interest in biological control and IPM being at their highest in 2004-2006 and despite the ‘neonictinoid debate’ no signs of interest increasing, which is something to puzzle about.

It appears that there is definitely something to be learnt from using Google Trends, although it would be more useful if some indication of the actual number of searches could be made available.  A word of caution, make sure that your search term is well defined, for


example a general search using “butterfly” will give you results for the swimming stroke as well as for the insects.

Although you can compare different geographical regions, and also see the figures for related searches,  what does seem to be lacking,


or perhaps I have been unable to find it, is a way to compare different locations at the same time on the same graph.

I would be very interested to hear from any of you who have used this already and also from any of you who are inspired to use this by my post.  Please do feel free to comment.  Have fun!


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

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


Filed under EntoNotes, Uncategorized

Ten papers that shook my world – Way & Banks (1964) – counting aphid eggs to protect crops

The previous papers in this series (Southwood, 1961; Haukioja & Niemelä 1976; Owen & Weigert, 1976), were all ones that had an influence on my post-PhD career. This one in contrast, had a direct effect on my PhD as well as on my subsequent career, and was, I guess, greatly influential in the publication of the first book to deal with the ecology of insect overwintering (Leather, Walters & Bale, 1993). In 1964 Mike Way, one of the early proponents of Integrated Pest Management (in fact considered to be the father of UK IPM), was working on control methods for the black bean aphid, Aphis fabae.

Bean aphids

Mike had recently joined Imperial College from Rothamsted Research Station where he had been leading research on ways to reduce pesticide use by farmers and growers.   During his time at Rothamsted he had worked closely with a colleague, C.J. Banks on the black bean aphid including studies on the overwintering eggs. As they said in the introduction to their paper, published four years after their experiments; “During the British winter A. fabae survives almost exclusively in the egg stage. Egg mortality might therefore be important in affecting size of populations of this species and in predicting outbreaks”. They investigated the effects of temperature and predators on the mortality of the eggs on the primary host, spindle, Euonymus europaeus, and concluded that the levels of mortality seen would not affect the success of the aphids the following spring. By 1968 (Way & Banks, 1968) they had followed up on the idea and began to feel confident that aphid populations on field beans could be predicted from the number of eggs on the winter host; spindle bushes. The publication of this paper stimulated the setting up of a long-term collaborative project monitoring Aphis fabae eggs on spindle bushes at over 300 locations throughout England south of the River Humber, and monitoring aphid numbers in about 100 bean fields per year.   In 1977 the results were finally published (Way et al., 1977) and the highly successful black bean aphid forecasting system was born. This was further refined by using the Rothamsted aphid suction trap data (Way et al., 1981).

This was also the year that I began my PhD at the University of East Anglia, working on the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi. In the course of my preparatory reading I came across Way & Banks (1964) just in time to set up a plot of bird cherry saplings which I monitored for the next three winters, the first winter’s work resulting in my first publication (Leather, 1980). I subsequently went on to develop the bird cherry aphid forecasting system still used in Finland today (Leather & Lehti, 1981; Leather, 1983; Kurppa, 1989).

Finnish aphid forecasts

Sadly, despite the great success of these two systems there has not been a huge take-up of the idea, although the concept has been looked at for predicting pea aphid numbers in Sweden (Bommarco & Ekbom, 1995) and rosy apple aphids in Switzerland (Graf et al., 2006). Nevertheless, for me this paper was hugely influential and resulted in me counting aphid eggs for over 30 years!


Bommarco, R. & Ekbom, B. (1995) Phenology and prediction of pea aphid infestations on pas. International Journal of Pest Management, 41, 101-113

Graf, B., Höpli, H.U., Höhn, H. and Samietz, J. (2006) Temperature effects on egg development of the rosy apple aphid and forecasting of egg hatch. Entomologia Experimentalis et applicata, 119, 207-211

Haukioja, E. & Niemela, P. (1976) Does birch defend itself actively against herbivores? Report of the Kevo Subarctic Research Station, 13, 44-47.

Kurppa, S. (1989) Predicting outbreaks of Rhopalosiphum padi in Finland. Annales Agriculturae Fenniae 28: 333-348.

Leather, S. R. (1983) Forecasting aphid outbreaks using winter egg counts: an assessment of its feasibility and an example of its application. Zeitschrift fur Angewandte Entomolgie 96: 282-287.

Leather, S. R. & Lehti, J. P. (1981) Abundance and survival of eggs of the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi in southern Finland. Annales entomologici Fennici 47;: 125-130.

Leather, S.R., Bale, J.S., & Walters, K.F.A. (1993) The Ecology of Insect Overwintering, First edn. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Owen, D.F. & Wiegert, R.G. (1976) Do consumers maximise plant fitness? Oikos, 27, 488-492.

Southwood, T.R.E. (1961) The number of species of insect associated with various trees. Journal of Animal Ecology, 30, 1-8.

Way, M.J. & Banks, C.J. (1964) Natural mortality of eggs of the black bean aphid Aphis fabae on the spindle tree, Euonymus europaeus L. Annals of Applied Biology, 54, 255-267.

Way, M. J. & Banks, C. J. (1968). Population studies on the active stages of the black bean aphid, Aphis fabae Scop., on its winter Euonymus europaeus L. Annals of Applied Biology 62, 177-197.

Way, M. J., Cammel, M. E., Taylor, L. R. &Woiwod, I., P. (1981). The use of egg counts and suction trap samples to forecast the infestation of spring sown field beansVicia faba by the black bean aphid, Aphis fabae. Annals of Applied Biology 98: 21-34.

Way, M.J., Cammell, M.E., Alford, D.V., Gould, H.J., Graham, C.W., & Lane, A. (1977) Use of forecasting in chemical control of black bean aphid, Aphis fabae Scop., on spring-sown field beans, Vicia faba L. Plant Pathology, 26, 1-7.


Post script

Michael Way died in 2011 and is greatly missed by all those who knew him well. He examined my PhD thesis, and to my delight and relief, was very complimentary about it and passed it without the need for corrections. I was greatly honoured that a decade or so later I became one of his colleagues and worked alongside him at Silwood Park. He was a very modest and self-deprecating man and never had a bad word to say about anyone. He had a remarkable career, his first paper published in 1948 dealing the effect of DDT on bees (Way & Synge, 1948) and his last paper published in 2011 dealing with ants and biological control (Seguni et al., 2011), a remarkable 63 year span. His obituary can be found here http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/science-obituaries/8427667/Michael-Way.html


Filed under Aphidology, Aphids, Ten Papers That Shook My World

When did research diversity stop being a good thing? Another threat to UK applied agricultural sciences

If, as is well documented, lack of diversity in cropping systems is bad for agricultural production (Johnson et al, 2006: Iverson et al., 2014), then those running the BBSRC should ask themselves why it is a good idea to reduce the number of UK universities they fund that are capable of first class work in the agricultural sciences, particularly crop protection.




Normally at this time of year I am desperately putting the finishing touches to a couple of applications for BBSRC Industrial CASE studentships (iCASE).   In past years, at the beginning of May, those of us in the majority of UK universities without access to Doctoral Training Partnership funding, make our way to the BBSRC Industrial CASE studentship page to check when the closing date for applications are.  Imagine my shock to find that “this inclusive, very successful and effective programme  appears to have been hi-jacked by the fat cats of the UK university sector.  Yet another example of the “haves” getting more at the expense of the “have-nots”.

BBSRC will no longer operate an annual competition for industrial CASE (iCASE) studentships, instead allocating the majority of these studentships to the BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTP) for awarding alongside their standard studentships.  

“The decision to cease the annual iCASE competition for individual studentship projects was taken for a number of strategic and operational reasons, primarily in recognition that the cohort-based approach, as exemplified by the DTPs, provides the gold standard in modern bioscience training, and one which BBSRC was keen to ensure all our funded students had the opportunity to take advantage of”

A more cynical reading of this is ‘it saves the BBSRC administrative time and the costs associated with having to have the applications reviewed by the Training Awards Committee’.   I also take exception to the implication that the only universities in the UK that have a cohort-based training approach are those in receipt of a DTP.  At Harper Adams University we have a well-established cohort-based doctoral training system.  I would be very surprised indeed if we are unique in this aspect of our PhD training amongst the other 100 UK universities outwith the BBSRC DTP programme.

The BBSRC web site goes on to stare “In addition, it was agreed that devolving responsibility for the recruitment and selection of students and collaborators to the DTP partner organisations (of which there are in excess of 45 within 12 partnerships across the UK higher education and public sector research sectors) would improve links between them and local companies, and increase the ability of institutions to act quickly and agilely in allocating projects to these companies, without the delays associated with a large national competition.”

Having moved from a university with a BBSRC Doctoral Training programme and seeing the difficulty and lack of willingness that staff in the other Departments within the School had in finding industrial partners I lack confidence in the ability of such departments to improve links.  As applied, whole organism ecologists/biologists, my former colleagues and I, benefitted immensely from our more molecular-based colleagues’ lack of real industrial contacts and were able to make good use of their unused CASE allocations.  The named grant holder of the DTP grant at the time, told me during a coffee break at a BBSRC Training Awards Committee meeting that he felt the whole CASE scheme was a waste of money.

The iCASE scheme was an opportunity for first class researchers from DTP excluded universities and from ‘Cinderella’ disciplines, e.g. entomology, integrated pest management, non-molecular plant sciences, such as plant pathology, plant nematology, weed science and forestry, which are incidentally recognised by the BBSRC and other learned bodies as being nationally vulnerable ‘skill sets’ to obtain funding that they would otherwise not have access to.  It is a sad fact of life that the universities that hold BBSRC DTP grants long ago decided that possessors of the above vulnerable skill sets did not publish in high enough impact journals and either made them redundant or did not replace them when they retired.

The decision by the BBSRC to further disenfranchise those many excellent applied agricultural scientists is perverse and much to the detriment of UK agriculture.  Given the growing need for sustainable farming systems worldwide it is hard to understand or justify the thought processes that led to this very ill-judged decision.

Ironically it is not just those of us in universities without BBSRC DTP provision that found the removal of the iCASE scheme bothersome.  A day or so after my discovery of the death of iCASE I received an email from a friend of mine at another UK university which is part of a DTP.

 “On a separate issue – no doubt you’ll have registered BBSRC removing the iCASE fund.  Allegedly we will now absorb more projects into our regional  “Doctoral Training Partnership”, but as these are only 2.5 years  for the main project (after all the associated training) it doesn’t always lend itself to the same sorts of projects as iCASE”

And finally, just to highlight the vulnerable skills-sets issue that the BBSRC seems determined to worsen.  I am, as some of you may know, Editor-in-Chief of the Annals of Applied Biology.  I recently received this email from one of my Editorial Board, a whole organism plant pathologist with field experience.

“Dear Simon

 I think that the time has come for me to step down from the editorial board of the Annals of Applied Biology.  I have been doing this for fourteen or fifteen years and I am due to retire from my current post in the Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute in the next few months.

 It has been a privilege, and at most times, highly enjoyable to be part of the editorial board of Annals which is a really good journal.  In a highly competitive world AAB has maintained and indeed increased its reputation.  The standard of papers published is very high and the range of papers received from across the globe is sometimes astonishing.  It has certainly been frustrating at times identifying suitable referees for papers, and as research scientists seem to be under more and more pressure of time it is easy to understand why they are often reluctant to take on extra duties.  However peer review is at the very centre of how science works so it is important that everyone takes their responsibility seriously.

 I would love to be able to recommend a replacement but just now plant pathologists, certainly in the UK, are very thin on the ground.”

I contacted the President of the British Society of Plant Pathologists to see if he could offer me any suitable suggestions for a mid-career plant pathologist with field experience.  Sadly, the majority of  UK Plant Pathologists in the right age range with suitable publishing experience, are molecular biologists.  I eventually filled the gap, but had to appoint a Plant Pathologist from a US university, where happily, universities still recognise the need for field and whole organism plant pathologists and their importance in ensuring global food security; something that most research intensive UK universities and the BBSRC seem to have forgotten.


Iverson, A. L., Makin, L. E., Ennis, K. K., Gonthier, D. J., Connor-Barrie, B. T., Remfret, J. L., Cardinale, B. J. &Perfecto, I. (2014). Do polycultures promote win-win or trade-offs in agricultural ecosystem services?  A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Ecology 51: 1593-1602.

Johnson, M. T. J., Lajeunesse, M. J. &Agrawal, A. A. (2006). Additive and interactive effects of plant genotypic diversity on arthropod communities and plant fitness. Ecology Letters 9: 24-34.


Post script

As I knew we were expecting a visit from Jackie Hunter the Chief Executive of the BBSRC, I deliberately held back posting this until I had had a chance to ask her directly about the demise of the iCASE scheme. Jackie was very willing to speak to me about this issue.  The main reason for the removal of the scheme appeared to be the costs of administration and of reviewing the proposals. She assured me that the interests of people like me had been taken into account by giving more money to the ten companies  which hold grants in their own right and also by expecting greater flexibility from the existing University DTP grant holders, by which I took to mean that they would be encouraged to collaborate with the ‘have-nots’. This may seem laudable were it not for two facts; of the ten industrial DTP holders, five are pharmaceutical companies holding just under half of the grants and the academic DTP grant holders are greatly lacking in agricultural expertise. I also suspect, given the shortage of available PhD studentships in comparison with staff numbers within most university departments, that a big stick will be needed to encourage any cross-fertilization with non-DTP holders. I will, however, wait and see if Jackie’s optimism is well-founded, although I will not be holding my breath 😉

Post post script

 The importance of diversification in research funding is not just a hobby-horse of mine.  See for example, this excellent post by Stephen Heard writing on why it is a bad strategy to centralise research funding.




Filed under Bugbears

How do we save UK plant sciences?

At the beginning of this year (2014) the UK Plant Sciences Federation published an important report about the crisis facing plant sciences in the UK. This was not the first report of this type, for example in 2009 the BBSRC which ironically, is together with HEFCE perhaps one of the main culprits that caused the crisis in the first place, produced a report on vulnerable bioscience research skills, in which among others, they highlighted the vulnerability of plant sciences. The British Society for Plant Pathology produced a similarly gloomy report in 2012. All three reports basically said that UK plant sciences are in danger of extinction unless something is done sooner, rather than later.

Lawn dead 2014

To explain why I, an entomologist, am writing about this, I should explain that plant sciences encompasses plant pathology, plant nematology, plant entomology and pest management as well as agriculture, botany, horticulture, plant breeding etc.

In response to these findings the UKPSF set up four working groups, one of which, the Training and Skills Working Group, I was asked to chair. As if I hadn’t enough work to do already, I agreed.

Our Terms of Reference are:

To develop an implementation plan for the UKPSF and plant science community, outlining clearly defined actions and associated time scales. The plan should contain:

  • One or two short-term actions (achievable within six months to one year).
  • One to three medium to long-term actions (achievable within one to five years).

For each action the working group should specify realistic:

  • Mechanism(s).
  • Responsibility/responsibilities.
  • Timescale(s).
  • Rationale

The working group consists of

Simon Leather Professor of Entomology, Harper Adams University (Chair)

Mary Berry Curriculum Leader for Science, Woodlands Academy

Sarah Blackford Head of Education & Public Affairs, Society for Experimental Biology

Gary Foster Professor of Molecular Plant Pathology, University of Bristol; President-Elect, British Society of Plant Pathology

Alistair Griffiths Director of Science, Royal Horticultural Society

Jo Hepworth Postdoctoral Researcher, John Innes Centre

Jon Heuch Owner and Director, Duramen Consulting Ltd (Chartered Foresters and Arboricultural Consultants); Trustee/Director, Arboricultural Association

Emma Kelson Training Officer, Society of Biology (Minute Secretary)

Celia Knight Independent educational consultant (UKPSF Executive Committee)

Charles Lane Consultant Plant Pathologist, Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera)

Jonathan Mitchley Lecturer in Plant Community Ecology, University of Reading; Senior Botanist, RSK Group Ltd

Ginny Page Director, Science and Plants for Schools (SAPS) (UKPSF Executive Committee)

Dawn Sanders Docent/Associate Professor, Gothenburg University; Gardens for Learning

Phil Smith Coordinator, Teacher Scientist Network (TSN)

Mimi Tanimoto Executive Officer, UKPSF (Coordinator)

Eleanor Walton PhD Student, University of York

So a fairly wide range of interests and hopefully representative of the plant science community.

I began by asking each member of the group to highlight their greatest concern about plant science training and skills: In no particular order these were our thoughts and concerns

  • we seem to have lost people who can identify things.
  • what do we understand plant science to be, what plant scientists do and what are the skills and opportunities for the future? These need to be understood to communicate professions to young people.
  • the perception that plants are boring. There is a lack of general respect for plant scientists and this needs to be tackled to attract young people into the sector.
  • Even within the academic world, there is a lack of respect for plant scientists, and this stems from a wider society perspective. Plant scientists are underappreciated at all levels.
  • lack of curriculum knowledge at lower level e.g. NVQs.
  • Government does not see plant science as connected with culture. There is big strength in relation to food production but we are failing to explain the wealth of ecosystems services that plants give us. Fusing technology with functionality and health and wellbeing will allow people to understand that plant science is worthwhile and valuable.
  • lack of funding: securing more funding for plant science will entail getting greater public support and more people interested in plants. Increasing awareness of plant science in schools will therefore allow more of a cultural change.
  • lack of trained people within schools to deliver effective plant science education. Making teachers confident and well equipped to teach plant science is a challenge. Few biology teachers in schools have a plant science background. Biology content of the secondary school curriculum is fractured and does not tell a sensible story, so it does not entice or engage students sufficiently. At ‘A’ level, the main focus is on human physiology and not enough on the physiology of plants. Students do not understand the life cycle of plants because they are taught in random chunks.
  • the university sector is just as bad; many biology departments are moving towards animal, human and biomedical sciences because they tend to bring in more funding. Plant pathologists are a dying breed in UK universities and if plant science is not made a core part of biology degrees, it could lead to a major skills gap.
  • a behavioural change is needed to get people involved with plant science and plant health. Funding initiatives, although welcome, tend to be short-lived so how do we sustain a significant long term improvement?
  • it is important to inspire young people to study plant science and demonstrate the types of careers available. We also need to make sure that employers have people with the right kinds of skills but universities often struggle to put on plant sciences courses because of a lack of student interest.

For a similar overview and some possible solutions, see http://cairotango.wordpress.com/2014/04/03/the-trouble-with-plant-science-education/

The main concerns are a lack of understanding of what plant science is, a lack of respect for whole organism plant science and plant scientists in universities, and a huge problem at pre-university level with children and young people not understanding how important plants are and why they are exciting. There is a huge skills shortage in areas such as plant nematology and in basic whole organism biology including the ability to identify organisms, be they plants, fungi, insects and the damage they cause. Students do not understand that there are careers in plant science and related areas such as integrated pest management. In summary the UK has a big educational and resourcing problem in plant sciences.

Why this post?

Think of this as a crowd-sourcing exercise. As a group we want your opinions and most importantly, your suggestions about what the best way forward is. Please engage.


If we do nothing

Without a well-trained cadre of plant scientists that are able to recognise whole organisms and are able to interact with industry we will see more problems arising with invasive species, our crop production industry will be severely compromised and biodiversity loss will accelerate. The current crisis in the Forest Health sector for example, is a direct result of lack of investment in plant and allied sciences.


What can we do?

Degree accreditation

The Society of Biology and their degree accreditation scheme is one way to restore whole organism plant science teaching to universities. Rachel Lambert-Forsyth of the Society of Biology told us that the key learning outcomes for the three-year programme are general skills such as teamwork, project management, maths and statistics, demonstrating technical skills and familiarity with a practical environment. The final component is specific skills and knowledge appropriate to the degree title. The Society expects to be able to accredit across the breadth of the biosciences but they will need to make sure that they have the relevant expertise to assess this.

We noted that in chemistry and experimental psychology, external bodies specify what should be taught in universities for a course to be accredited. Perhaps to be accredited a biology course should contain a minimum specified number of hours of plant science teaching. Apparently however, the academics involved in the development of the criteria are very against being too specific in case they stifled innovation. The criteria do, however, specify that biology courses should contain the breadth of biosciences so accreditation assessors would look for this. On the plus side, a number of large companies have stated that during their recruitment processes they will actively be looking for students with accredited degrees. This will hopefully encourage universities, including Russell Group ones, to accredit their degrees.

Named plant science degrees at the moment are in decline, Imperial College infamously reduced their plant science provision in 2010 despite having opened new facilities two years earlier. Bristol University used to run a botany degree but this was stopped recently with full support from the plant biologists in the department. The reason given was that instead of studying plants in isolation, plant science should be studied in relation to ecology, animals/insects etc. This may sound a reasonable argument but the problem is that once these subjects are taken out of courses, biochemistry and biomedicine begin to take over and basic whole organism plant science is invariably the loser. This had already happened to the Imperial plant sciences degree before its closure.

We therefore felt that the only way to prevent this happening was to ask the Society of Biology specify that core parts of whole organism plant science must be included in biology degrees, as this would force departments to make plant science appointments and to teach it in a unified way.
Inspiring the next generation of plant scientists

The high level priorities from the UKPSF report include inspiring the next generation of plant scientists and ensuring that employers’ skills needs are met through appropriate training and education.

A recent report from the Aspires project at King’s College, London, highlights that children make important decisions about what is not for them at around the age of 10 to 12 (start of KS3 in the UK). http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/education/research/aspires/ASPIRES-final-report-December-2013.pdf

It is therefore important to get the message across to children that plant sciences are exciting before this. There are a number of initiatives run by national learned and public societies already in existence e.g. the Bug Club for, Nature Detectives, Science and Plants for Schools, RSPB and Plantasia at Kew. See the links below for some examples


http://jointhepod.org/campaigns/campaign/31 Big Bumblebee Discovery





http://www.naturedetectives.org.uk/club/ run by the Woodland Trust

http://www.opalexplorenature.org/ has a Kid Zone

The problem is that whilst it is “relatively” easy, given the right resources and parental and teacher support, to get pre-secondary school interested in the wonders of nature, once they get to secondary school the demands of the school curriculum and expertise available, tend to deter all but the most ‘nature-struck’ children. Those that still retain an interest in whole organism plant biology then find that at university level, options are still very much restricted. This is due to the composition of university teaching staff in biology departments which for the last twenty years or so, has been determined by fashions in research funding and not by the needs of teaching. Courses and modules available have, due to lack of suitable staff, been steadily drifting away from the much-maligned area of natural history and whole organism biology to the much-lauded, and very well-funded, bio-molecular sciences, despite the plethora of articles highlighting the dangers of this attitude, and not all by me 😉

At university level the Gatsby Foundation runs summer schools to encourage undergraduates to consider plant sciences as a career option. This is much-needed, as Ginny Page from SAPS reports that of all the resources SAPS produces, they struggle the most to get teachers using the careers resources. She said this is probably because traditionally, subject specialist teachers are not responsible for delivering careers advice so it is not a standard part of lessons.

There are still a few postgraduate programmes currently available in the UK that are plant science based, such as that run by Reading University in Plant Identification or the MSc in Plant Pathology at Harper Adams University to mention just one of our applied plant science degrees. The problem is, that although jobs await graduates form these courses, particularly those in the pest management area, it is increasingly difficult to get undergraduates to take up the places. Again pointing to the fact that there is a dearth of plant science teaching in current undergraduate courses.

There is of course the Field Studies Council who do a fantastic job, and are, with funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Trust also seeking ways to train trainers and to enthuse future generations of field biologists, so it is worth looking at their priority areas and considering linking up with them.

The UKPSF is developing an online outreach toolkit to collate information on the types of activities that plant scientists can get involved with and how they can get involved, as well as some downloadable resources. They are hoping to launch the toolkit later in 2014. There are also a number of passionate advocates for the plant sciences such as Jonathan Mitchley and his Dr M Goes Wild site.

We agreed that there needs to be greater clarity of signposting to schools or anyone thinking about future careers in plant science, about how and where they can study plant science. This could perhaps be achieved by setting up a young plant science ambassador scheme for students and postdocs to go into schools to teach children about plants and talk about careers. It is likely that the Gatsby Summer School would be a good source of ambassadors.

In conclusion, we agreed that there is a need to highlight the educational opportunities and the career paths to the very many varied, and well-paid jobs in the plant science sector.

The problem is that although there are a number of organisations and individuals promoting plant science that they are not yet all centrally coordinated. We see this as a job for the UKPSF. Funding for these initiatives might then become easier and perhaps more available and generous.


Inspiring the teachers

We noted that there is a shortage of plant scientists teaching in schools.

At the moment trainee teachers in physic, maths, chemistry and computing are awarded £25,000 but nothing is provided to trainee biology teachers[1] as a lot of biology graduates already go on to do PGCEs (Postgraduate Certificate of Education); however a large proportion of them are molecular biologists, microbiologists, biochemists and some zoologists. Many have little or no field experience and prefer to remain in the laboratory so this reinforces the idea that plants are boring

We need to get more time for plant science into school curricula and make children interested in it because this would help to fill the spaces on plant science degrees. To do this we need to get more plant science students to take up teaching so once again we are back to the supply problem.

As there is so much to fit into a PGCE, it might be worth looking at what training could be provided for Newly Qualified Teachers during their first year of teaching. SAPS already run two day events for those who train teachers, where they have practicals and talks from plant scientists.

A few universities already have schemes such as INSPIRE, which encourage PhD students and postdocs to go into schools but this is for physics, chemistry and engineering students. The STEM Ambassador scheme provides similar opportunities but very few of the students involved are plant scientists.

Getting more plant scientists into schools is, I think, a government responsibility and will involve yet more adjustment of the school science curriculum nationally. Over to you whichever Minister is in charge this week.


“Our vision

At the end of our first meeting as a working group, we came up with a vision of where we would like to see plant science in the future, hopefully near rather than distant.

  • Raised awareness and appreciation of the importance of plant science to UK plc and globally.
  • Better industry and government support for plant science, including appropriate legislation.
  • Plant science seen as a well-paid and respected profession, with clarity over the variety of attractive career paths.
  • Universities valuing the impact of plant science and adjusting their recruitment priorities accordingly.
  • Biology degrees at UK universities with a clear thread of plant science throughout.
  • Accreditation and QAA benchmarks that require the inclusion of plant sciences in biology degrees.
  • Education and training covering a wide range of plant sciences that equips students with a variety of skills.
  • Stronger training links between academia and industry ensuring that HE courses are fit for purpose in industry.
  • Greater awareness and interest in plant science at all levels of education.
  • More plant scientists going into professional teaching, and more researchers engaging with schools.

The next hurdle to overcome is to implement the actions that will help us to achieve our vision. Easier said than done, but we did come up with some concrete suggestions.


What we decided

Short term

  • Establishment of a young plant scientist group/ambassador scheme.
  • Collation of resources providing information on plant science careers, training opportunities, courses and provisions, and depositing them on suitable websites.
  • Engagement with employers to find out what skills/training provisions they need.
  • Communication to funders/BBSRC that more support is needed for field based work, not just molecular biology.

Medium term

  • Degree accreditation and QAA benchmark engagement.

Long term

  • Getting more plant scientists into universities.


All very laudable but will it bear fruit? At present it is all very much dependent, certainly for the short-term and medium term objectives on the UKPSF finding the wherewithal to fund and manage our proposed initiatives. I think the bottom line is that unless universities are forced to teach a well-rounded plant science degree we are unlikely to see much positive change in the future. The onus may be on the government to change the way it funds universities.


Please feel free to comment and disseminate.

Lawn 2014 with fungi


Post script

Too much talking not enough action?

Note that in 2009, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the then Biosciences Federation held a public consultation to identify strategically important and vulnerable areas of UK bioscience expertise. “Plant and agricultural sciences were highlighted by more respondents (76%) than any other discipline as strategically important capabilities that were already vulnerable or liable to become so. According to the 47 organisations surveyed, the UK still has major skills shortages. We need improved training in-house, as well as through degree, postgraduate and specialised courses”. The following areas were identified as priorities: general plant science, taxonomy and identification, crop science, horticultural science, plant pathology, plant physiology, field studies, plant entomology, nematology, genetics, weed science and pest management.

Interestingly enough when given the chance to fund the only MSc in Entomology in the UK, the Training & Awards Committee failed to take it, and one reviewer (a molecular biologist at a leading Russell Group university) even cited the course area as being outwith the remit of the BBSRC despite  the call specifically mentioning entomology as an area that should be funded at MSc level. The mind boggles at such a narrow-minded view. I suggested at the time that funds should be ring-fenced to ensure funding in these vulnerable areas but was told that this was impossible.

Disturbingly, the BBSRC and MRC are once again conducting a survey to identify vulnerable skills areas and again, due to the composition of the various committees within the BBSRC and MRC (heavily biomedical and molecular biased), I suspect that the only way in which plant sciences and whole organism biology will be saved is by enforcing ring-fencing. We can only hope that someone has the courage and vision to implement it.


Post postscript

For those of you who remain unconvinced that plants are exciting I refer you to this remarkable footage from the Private Life of Plants

Private Life of Plants – Bramble Scramble



Campen, R. (2012) The great outdoors. Biologist, 59, 30-34.

Cheeseman, O.D. & Key, R.S. (2007). The extinction of experience: a threat to insect conservation? In Insect Conservation Biology (ed. by A.J.A. Stewart, T.R. New & O.T. Lewis), pp. 322-348. CABI, Wallingford.

Dayton, P.K. (2003) The importance of the natural sciences to conservation. American Naturalist, 162, 1-13.

Greene, H.W. (2005) Organisms in nature as a central focus for biology. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 20, 23-27.

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.

Noss, R.F. (1996) The naturalists are dying off. Conservation Biology, 10, 1-3.

Tewksbury, J.J., Anderson, J.G.T., Bakker, J.D., Billo, T.J., Dunwiddie, P.W., Groom, M., Hampton, S.E., Herman, S.G., Levey, D.J., Machinicki, N.J., Del Rio, C.M., Power, M.E., Rowell, K., Dsalomon, A.K., Stacey, L., Trombulak, S.C., & Wheeler, T.A. (2014) Natural History’s place in science and society. Bioscience, 64, 300-310.


[1] Source: http://www.education.gov.uk/get-into-teaching/funding/postgraduate-funding


Filed under Teaching matters

How ready is the UK to combat current and future threats to our forests and woodlands?

Almost exactly two years ago (February 2012) a consignment of ash trees sent from a nursery in the Netherlands to one in Buckinghamshire, were confirmed to be infected by the fungus causing ash dieback, Chalara fraxinea.  By October of that year, it had been confirmed by Food & Environment Research Agency (FERA) scientists to be present in a number of woodland sites within the natural environment.  The story was quickly picked up by the national press http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthnews/9660538/Ash-dieback-now-beyond-containment.html and other media http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20079657 and articles about the severity of the disease and our inability to control it spread proliferated at  a fantastic rate.  Partly as a result of this, the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce was convened by the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor in November 2012.  I was invited to be a member of the Taskforce which was an independent, multi-disciplinary group of members of the academic community, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/200428/tree-taskforce-tor.pdf and very willingly, agreed to serve on it.   Our remit was to “provide advice on the current threats to tree health and plant biosecurity in the UK and make recommendations about how those threats could be mitigated”.   What surprised me and other members of the Task Force was the interest and emotional responses that ash dieback generated among the general public.  After all, a few years earlier another one of our iconic tree species, oak, was under threat by another fungal disease, Phytopthora ramorum, somewhat misleadingly known as Sudden Oak Death, which despite its potential threat to cause landscape level changes comparable with those caused by Dutch Elm Disease (Potter et al., 2011) failed to cause the same  level of media hysteria.  Our best guess for why there was such an outburst of press and media coverage and subsequent public concern about ash dieback, was that the Chalara outbreak was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  People, had perhaps become sensitised to forestry due to what seemed to be a constant stream of stories of threats, both man-made, such as the proposed sell-off of parts of the Forestry Commission’s estate by the UK government in 2010 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/countryside/8082756/Ministers-plan-huge-sell-off-of-Britains-forests.html and natural, such as Sudden Oak Death and other pests and diseases.

For the record, although Chalara  fraxinea is now being treated as a quarantine pest under national emergency measures and is widespread across the  United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, it no longer makes the front pages of our national newspapers.

Ash dieback distribution


We in the Tree Health Taskforce did not just consider ash dieback; we reviewed the whole range of biotic threats, both current and future, and highlighted a number of reasons that we felt had contributed to the problems and made recommendations about how these could be rectified.  In essence, how could we stop yet another ash dieback scenario occurring. Our joint report was published in May 2013 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/tree-health-and-plant-biosecurity-expert-taskforce-final-report.  One of our major findings was that the UK as a whole lacked, or would shortly lack, enough trained personnel able to recognise and respond to threats to our forests and woodlands from native and alien pests and diseases.  One of the more immediate outcomes of our report was the rapid commissioning of some research to determine just how serious the situation actually was.

The results of this report were published by Defra on February 5 of this year,  TH0115 Strategic Analysis of Capability and Capacity to undertake Tree Health Research and Evidence Activity in the UK.  The report highlighted research and evidence themes identified by key policy stakeholders and forest researchers from the university sector, research institutes and forest industry.

Ten themes were identified – Horizon scanning, Pathways and trade, Pest and pathogen biology and epidemiology, Detection and surveillance, Ecological patterns, Control and Management, Adaptation and resilience in forests and forestry, Governance and contingency planning, Economic evaluation and analysis and finally Public engagement, communication and citizen science.

Three of the themes – Pest and pathogen biology and epidemiology, Control and management and Adaptation and resilience in forests and forestry, were identified as areas where existing research providers lack current capability and/or capacity in one or more types of expertise.

The report also highlighted that there are serious skills shortages in the UK in mycology, plant pathology and entomology, especially in relation to forest health. Even in those disciplines where universities still run undergraduate degree courses, tree specific expertise such as silviculture, the care and cultivation of forest trees, was also noted as being in short supply.

So how did we get into this mess?  Why are we seeing what appears to be an unprecedented assault on the UK by invasive forest pests and diseases (Defra 2013).  Exotic and invasive insects are not a new phenomenon in the UK; the European spruce sawfly, Gilpinia hercyniae was first recorded in 1906, the Douglas fir woolly aphid Gilleteela (Adelges) cooleyi) in 1913, the web spinning larch sawfly Cephalcia lariciphila in 1953, Megastigmus spermotrophus, the Douglas fir seed wasp since at least the late 1940s,  Ips cembrae, the large larch bark beetle, since at least 1955

Ips cembrae

Ips cembrae  http://www.padil.gov.au/pests-and-diseases/Pest/Main/135614

and the great spruce bark beetle, Dendroctonus micans since at least 1973 (Crooke & Bevan, 1957; Bevan 1987).  Apart from Dendroctonus, none of these insects has however, had landscape level effects or for that matter, made the headlines to the same extent that ash dieback did.   Since the beginning of the current century the situation has changed dramatically, the influx of tree pathogens has continued to rise at an almost exponential rate and the number of potentially landscape changing insect pests has also seen an increase e.g. the horse chestnut leaf miner, Cameraria ohridella, first seen in London in 2002  (Straw & Williams,  2013) is now found as far north as Liverpool in the West and North Yorkshire in the East (personal observation); the pine tree lappet moth Dendrolimus pini, established in Scotland since 2004.  The oak processionary moth, Thaumetopoea processionea, has been firmly established in London since at least 2006 and looks set to spread further north and west (Townsend, 2013); it is probably only the bizarre weather we have had the last couple of years that has slowed it down slightly.  The Asian longhorn beetle, Anoplophora glabripennis, caused some concern when an outbreak was found in 2012 in Kent; the eradication of which resulted in the felling of several hundred healthy trees.


Anopolophora glabripennis  (source USDA)

A related species, the Citrus longhorn beetle A. chinensis, is often intercepted but so far is not known to have established in the UK (Nigel Straw personal communication.)

Given the time that it takes for an exotic insect to reach noticeable population levels, all these insects may have actually established four or five years earlier and it could already be too late to eradicate these pests.  Attempts to eradicate the Oak processionary moth from London have, for example, now ended and been replaced by a policy of containment and eradication is only attempted in the case of new outbreaks outside London (Forestry Commission 2013).  Another species which has often been intercepted since the 1970s, is Ips typographus, a severe pest of spruce.  Other possible invaders include the pine processionary moth Thaumetopoea pityocampa, other Ips species attacking pine and spruce, and of great, and increasing concern, the emerald ash borer, Agrilus planipennis, a native of Asia which is now spreading rapidly outwards from Moscow (Straw et al., 2013).


Agrilus planipennis  (source Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources – Forestry Archive)

So what may have caused this flood of new forestry pests in the UK?  The most obvious change to forestry practice in the UK which undoubtedly influenced the rise of the exotic conifer pests of the first half of the 20th Century was the large-scale afforestation programmes of many non-native tree species, brought about by the formation of the Forestry Commission in 1919.  This rapid afforestation of sites, many of which had not had trees on them for centuries,  provided new hosts for native pests and pathogens and inadvertently allowed the introduction of non-native insects.  The other major change over the last 50 years or so is in global trade patterns; the world is a much smaller place, goods travel extremely quickly, come from much further afield and in greater volumes.  The ability to transport living plant material has also much improved.  In pre-container and pre-bulk air transport days, goods that were packed with unprocessed or poorly processed timber (pathways exploited by many bark beetles) took many weeks to make the long sea voyages and the insect pests often did not survive to make it to land and a new host plant.  Long sea-voyages also meant that the transport of living plant material and their accidental insect passengers also had less chance of surviving to reach the UK.  Another major change to our trade habits is the “instant tree/garden syndrome” where developers and the general public are no longer willing to wait several years for their trees to grow; rather they plant semi-mature trees, many of which come from outside the UK and which come with very large root-balls.  It is impossible for the Plant Health and Seed Inspectorate (PHSI) service to check the huge volume of soil associated with these roots and many organisms must be entering the UK unbeknownst to the very over-stretched PHSI.

An often overlooked change that I am certain has contributed to the large-scale invasion of tree pests and diseases, is a result of re-organisation of the Forestry Commission.  Prior to 1990, the Forestry Commission had a localised approach to forest management.  Most forest blocks or amalgamations of them had a Chief Forester or Head Forester in charge of them.  He (very rarely she), lived in the near vicinity and much like the old village Bobby, walked his beat regularly.  Changes in forest health were thus much more likely to be spotted early and a forest pathologist or entomologist from either The Northern Research Station (NRS) or Alice Holt called in to make an assessment as to the cause of the problem.  I worked at NRS during the 1980s and early 1990s so have had personal experience of the effectiveness of this system.  By 1990, the Forestry Commission had amalgamated many forests and the number of District Offices was much reduced with a consequent reduction in the number of foresters living in near to individual forest blocks.  Forest health problems were thus much less likely to be noticed at an early stage.

The other major change was the decision to shift research to amenity forestry and away from commercial production forestry leading to a reduction in the number of entomologists and pathologists employed by the Forestry Commission as budgets were redirected.  There are now no longer enough key personnel in these disciplines to cope adequately with current problems, let alone those likely to arise.  At the same time within the university sector, the way in which government-funded universities was changed  to a system based on the outcome of the notorious publication metric based Research Assessment Exercise.  This disadvantaged academics specialising in niche applied disciplines such as entomology and plant pathology whose research output rarely, if ever, made it into the hallowed pages of Nature and Science.  Recruitment of staff in these areas in the research intensive universities was severely curtailed and retirees replaced by molecular biologists or vertebrate ecologists publishing in so-called ‘high-impact’ journals (Leather, 2009).  Universities have also replaced many specialist niche degrees with more broadly based subjects perceived to be more attractive to students.  As a result, teaching in these areas has also suffered and very few biology undergraduates in the UK today have any experience with whole organismal biology or the field and taxonomic skills needed be able to recognise forest health problems outside in the real world (Leather & Quicke, 2010).  The situation is now very critical, with, as far as I know only two forest entomologists (if you count me) and one forest pathologist teaching in UK universities today.  This is not a healthy situation for the country and we in the Tree health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce highlighted the need to address key skills shortages in this area as an urgent priority (Defra, 2013).

Worryingly, the problems do not just lie with exotic and invasive pests.  There are a number of long-established native pest species that still need research into their control and management.  The large pine weevil Hylobius abietis, which in the words of the


Hylobius abietis adults

first Forestry Commission entomologist J W Munro writing just ten years after the formation of the Forestry Commission stated “The pine weevil (Hylobius abietis) problem still occupies the attention of the Forestry Commissioners” (Munro, 1929).  The same statement is still as pertinent today although control measures for this insect have evolved greatly from the early use of DDT and organophosphates to more sophisticated, but possibly no more effective, biological control options (Torr et al., 2007).  The pine beauty moth, once a harmless indigenous moth species, rose to become a notorious pest of the introduced Lodgepole pine during the 1970s and still continues to pose a threat to Scottish plantations today (Hicks et al., 2008).   The often over-looked pine looper moth, Bupalus piniarius, may yet cause problems to our native Scots pine (Straw et al., 2002a). The green spruce aphid, Elatobium abietinum  has never gone away (Straw et al., 2002b) and may, if climate change predictions  are correct, make Sitka spruce a non-viable crop in the UK (Straw et al., 2009).

This is a problem we ignore at our peril.  Action needs to be taken, sooner, rather than later. As conventional chemicals are withdrawn and fewer chemicals approved for use in forestry, the emphasis must inevitably shift to biological control methods using classical natural enemies or biopesticide approaches with entomopathogenic fungi or nematodes or microbially derived pesticides such as Bt which was used against the Oak processionary moth in Berkshire in 2013.  We may even be able to develop even more specific methods such as pheromone disruption combined with improved tree resistance (Leather & Knight, 1997).   We need to improve quarantine measures, develop better detection methods and urgently provide more funding to enable the employment and maintenance of an expanded Plant Health Inspectorate as recommended by the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce (Defra, 2013) and by TH0115.  The latter report highlighted the widespread concerns about the lack of undergraduate and even more critically, the lack of MSc and PhD opportunities in forestry and tree health in particular.

A key recommendation of the report is that funding needs to be put in place to support postgraduate level teaching and training support. This is to make sure a new generation of people capable of working in the tree health area, assisting a smoother and more efficient transition from broad-based undergraduate biology degrees to PhD level research.

To staff the proposed new inspectorate and to make sure we have a new cohort of well-trained forest health experts, we need to encourage newly qualified undergraduates to take up the existing training opportunities at post-graduate level, such as the MSc courses run in Entomology, Integrated Pest Management and Conservation & Forest Protection at Harper Adams University by offering government bursaries.  We are planning to launch new MSc courses in Plant Pathology, Plant Nematology and Forestry Management from September 2014.  We also offer undergraduate degrees in Countryside and Environmental Management and Wildlife Conservation and Natural Resource Management, both of which have significant woodland and forest-related elements

In addition, we need to persuade UK universities to employ forest entomologists and pathologists in academic posts by increasing the amount of appropriate whole organism research funding in these areas.  The Forestry Commission’s Forest Research arm also needs to be able to expand its staff in entomology and pathology to enable it to cope with existing and future threats to our forest estate.  Without such capacity building the future of forestry in the UK is uncertain to say the least.

Post Script

At the risk of seeming to blow our own trumpet still louder, another recommendation from the recent Defra report is that a virtual Centre for Tree Health Science should be created. This would be created by linking together those organisations currently active in the field and with appropriate training provision available.  A number of recent key appointments and the newly launched multidisciplinary Centre for Integrated Pest Management (CIPM) mean that we at Harper Adams University are also in an excellent position to undertake research in this area.  We are, as I write, involved in projects on Oak Processionary Moth and Acute Oak Decline.


Bevan, D (1987) Forest Insects.  Forestry Commission Handbook 1, HMSO, London.

Crooke, M & Bevan, D (1957) Notes on the first occurrence of Ips cembrae (Heer) (Col., Scolytidae). Forestry 30, 21-28

Defra (2013) Tree Health and plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce Final Report.  https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/tree-health-and-plant-biosecurity-expert-taskforce-final-report

Forestry Commission (2013) The Oak Processionary Moth http://www.forestry.gov.uk/opm#description accessed 23 October 2013

Hicks, BJ, Leather, SR & Watt, AD (2008) Changing dynamics of the pine beauty moth (Panolis flammea) in Britain: the loss of enemy free space? Agricultural and Forest Entomology, 10, 263-271.

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

Leather, SR & Knight, JD (1997) Pines, pheromones and parasites:a modelling approach to the integrated control of the pine beauty moth. Scottish Forestry 51, 76-83.

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

Munro, JW (1929) The biology and control of Hylobius abietis L. Part 2. Forestry 3, 61-65.

Potter, C., Harwood, T., Knight, J.D. & Tomlinson, I. (2011) Learning from history, predicting the future: the UK Dutch elm disease outbreak in relation to contemporary tree disease threats. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 366, 1966-1974. http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/366/1573/1966.short

Straw, NA. & Williams, DT (2013) Impact of the leaf miner Cameraria ohridella (Lepidoptera: Gracillariidae) and bleeding canker disease on horse-chestnut direct effects and interaction. Agricultural and Forest Entomology 15, 321-333.

Straw, NA, Armour, H & Day, KR (2002a) The financial costs of defoliation of Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) by pine looper moth (Bupalus piniaria). Forestry, 75, 525-536.

Straw, N.A., Timms, J.E.L., & Leather, S.R. (2009) Variation in the abundance of invertebrate predators of the green spruce aphid Elatobium abietinum (Walker) (Homoptera: Aphididae) along an altitudinal transect. Forest Ecology & Management, 258, 1-10.

Straw, NA., Fielding, NJ, Green, G & Price, J (2002b) The impact of green spruce aphid, Elatobium abietinum (Walker), on the growth of young Sitka spruce in Hafren Forest, Wales: delayed effects on needle size limit wood production. Forest Ecology and Management  157, 267-283.

Straw NA, Williams, DT, Kulinich O & Gninenko, YI (2013) Distibution, impact and rate of spread of emerald ash borer Agrilus planipennis (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) in the Moscow region of Russia.  Forestry 86, 515-522

Torr, P, Heritage, S, & Wilson, MJ (2007) Steinernema kraussei, an indigenous nematode found in coniferous forests: efficacy and field persistence against Hylobius abietis. Agricultural and Forest Entomology 9, 181-188.

Townsend, M (2013) Oak processionary moth in the United Kingdom. Outlooks on Pest Management 24, 32-38.


Filed under EntoNotes, Uncategorized

It’s a Wonderful Life – an Inordinate Fondness for Insects

On Tuesday (4th February) I had the very pleasant task of escorting the MSc Entomology and Integrated Pest management Students from Harper Adams University on a trip to visit the Entomology Department at the Natural History Museum, London.  Despite having to leave at six in the morning all the students were on time (I hesitate to add bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as that would be a patent untruth), but they were there on time.  I almost didn’t make it on time, as being a Yorkshire man, I decided that rather than leave my outside light on all day, I would try to make it to my garden gate in the dark.  Consequently, I had a very close encounter with my garden pond and turned up at the coach with a wet sleeve, a bruised knee, skinned knuckles and one leg of my jeans tastefully decorated with pond-weed.  Still the four-hour journey from Edgmond to London gave me plenty of time to dry out 😉

We arrived as planned at 10 am and were met by Max Barclay , the Collections Manager of Coleoptera  and Hymenoptera, otherwise known as @Coleopterist who first told us that there were 22 000 drawers of beetles surrounding us, much more than either the Dipterists or Hymenopterists would be able to show us!

Beetle Collection

He did confess however, that he was no longer able to claim that beetles were the most speciose group in the world and that the famous quotation might now have to be “ an inordinate fondness for wasps (or possibly flies)”.  Nothing daunted he wowed us with the largest beetles in the world, the aptly named Titans, quickly followed by a few of Charles Darwin’s collection from his famous HMS Beagle trip.

Max Titans   Darwin's

Next came some glorious metallic coloured specimens which looked as if they had been painted; interestingly if they had been painted, they would actually be too heavy to fly.

Gold beetles

Max kept the students, and me, enthralled for some time and then led us upstairs to the Coleopterist’s Offices.  These were fantastic; thanks to an added mezzanine floor, they get to work surrounded by carvings and magnificent windows.  What a fantastic place to work.

Beetle offices  Max talking in offices Office space  Owl

Some of the researchers such as my friend Chris Lyal @Chrislyal are so dedicated that they rarely leave their chairs resulting in dramatic wear patterns 😉

Chris' chair

Next on the agenda was the Hymenopteran collection where we were greeted by Gavin Broad also known as @BroadGavin, the Senior Curator of Hymenoptera.  I don’t want you to think that entomologists are competitive and try to out-do each other, but

Gavin Broad

 we were shown the longest wasp in the world; quite impressive, but not a patch on the Titans 😉

Longest wasp

This was followed by a fantastic selection of wasp nests (of which I only show a few),

Wasp nest 1   Wasp nest 2

including one wearing a tweed jacket and woolly jumper!

Wasp nest jumper

We left the Hymenopteran collection with a reminder of how few taxonomists there are and how much material needs to be sorted and identified; the picture shows just a tiny fraction of the material that comes in each day.

to be sorted

After lunch we joined Erica McAlister @FlygirlNHM, the Collection Manager for Diptera, Fleas and Spiders.  She regaled us with stories


of bot flies, maggot-ridden corpses, showed us the maggots from the Ruxton murders (a forensic entomology first)

Ruxton maggots

and demonstrated how some flies twerk!  I really should have had a video camera.  I must also not forget to mention how many boxes of Dipteran specimens there are still left to identify and catalogue.  Again this is only a small selection.

Flies to sort

Erica then led us into the bowels of the museum to see some of the largest invertebrates on the planet, giant squids,


albeit not insects but quite impressive.  These are not on display to the public because they are preserved in formaldehyde, now deemed to be too dangerous to expose to all and sundry, despite the fact that as a school boy and undergraduate I spent a lot of time dissecting specimens preserved in the stuff, and as I recollect, not wearing gloves or face masks!  If you do want to see it, it is possible to take a free tour of the Spirit Collection http://t.co/U49HRoFbhV.  It was then time to get back on the coach and head back to Shropshire and Harper Adams University.   Here I am, captured on film by one of the students @Ceri_Watkins  as I try to make sure that everyone gets back on to the coach!

Loading the bus

All in all, a most enjoyable day and many thanks to our hosts for making it so memorable.

Post Script

I think that the thing that impressed us most was the enthusiasm everyone we met had for their particular group.  Even we general entomologists tend to have a favourite group of insects, in my case aphids, but the passion that Max, Gavin and Erica have and displayed for their specialities, is something very special indeed.  People tend to think of insect taxonomists as weird, introverted, bearded old gentleman.  Anyone who has the privilege to meet any of our three hosts will realise how wrong this stereotype is and will wonder why the Government and Research Councils are so reluctant to adequately fund proper taxonomy.

Without a thorough knowledge of the taxonomy and diversity of insects and allied organisms we will continue to be at risk from invasive pests and diseases.  If we don’t know what is out there, then how can we be ready to protect our crops and environment from outbreaks, or indeed, know how and what to protect to preserve the wonderful biodiversity which our planet supports.  It is time to admit that the funding for the study of vertebrates needs to be scaled back by at least 90% and those resources diverted to the identification and study of the biology and ecology of the dominant animal species of the world, the invertebrates.  In case anyone thinks that I am total partisan, I would also call for 20% of the funding devoted to vertebrate research should be dedicated to training plant scientist and funding whole organism botanical research.  Please spread the message.


Filed under EntoNotes, Teaching matters, The Bloggy Blog