Tag Archives: long-term studies

Satiable curiosity – side projects are they worthwhile?

I’ve been meaning to write this one for quite a while.  It was stimulated by two posts, one from the incredibly prolific Steve Heard, the other by the not quite so prolific, but equally interesting,  Manu Saunders.  First off, what is a side project?  To me, a side project is one that is not directly funded by a research council or other funding agency or, in some cases, one that you do in your spare time, or to the horror of some line-managers, is not strictly in your job description 🙂 The tyranny of modern research funding dictates that projects must have specific research questions and be accompanied by hypotheses and very specific predictions; most proposals I referee, even contain graphs with predicted results and almost all have ‘preliminary data’ to support their applications.   This is not necessarily a bad thing but to directly quote Manu Saunders from her blog post

“Whittaker’s (1952) study of ‘summer foliage insect communities in the Great Smoky Mountains’ is considered one of the pioneer studies of modern community ecology methods. The very short Introduction starts with the sentence “The study was designed to sample foliage insects in a series of natural communities and to obtain results of ecological significance from the samples.” No “specific research questions” and the hypotheses and predictions don’t appear until the Discussion” Sounds like bliss.

The central ethos of my research career which began in 1977, can be summed up by this quotation uttered by the character ‘Doc’ in John Steinbeck’s novel Sweet Thursday “I want take everything I’ve seen and thought and learned and reduce them and relate them and refine them until I have something of meaning, something of use” (Steinbeck, 1954).* The other thing that has driven me for as long as I can remember, and why I ended up where I am,  is something I share with Rudyard Kipling’s Elephant Child, and that is a “satiable curiosity”:-) Something that has always frustrated me, is that, in the UK at least, most funded research tends to be of a very short duration, usually three years, often less than that**, and if you are very lucky, maybe five years.  If you work on real life field populations, even if you work on aphids, these short term projects are not really very useful; laboratory work is of course a different matter.

I got my first ‘permanent’ job in 1982 working for UK Forestry Commission Research based at their Northern Research Station (NRS) just outside Edinburgh.  My remit initially was to work on the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea and finally, on the large pine weevil, Hylobius abietis.  As a committed aphidophile, I was determined, job description or not, to carry on working with aphids. I decided that the easiest and most useful thing to do was to set up a long-term field study and follow aphid populations throughout the year.  My PhD was on the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi, a host alternating aphid, the primary host of which is the bird cherry, Prunus padus, with which  Scotland is very well supplied, and fortuitously, just down the road from NRS was Roslin Glen Nature Reserve with a nice healthy population of bird  cherry trees.  I chose ten suitable trees and started what was to become a ten-year once a week, lunch time counting and recording marathon.  I also decided to repeat a study that my PhD supervisor, Tony Dixon had done, record the populations of the sycamore aphid, Drepanosiphum platanoidis.  In the grounds of NRS were five adjacent sycamore tree, Acer pseudoplatanus, and these became my early morning study subjects, also once a week. I had no articulated hypotheses, my only aim was to count and record numbers and life stages and anything else I might see. Anathema to research councils but exactly what Darwin did 🙂

Although it was a ‘permanent’ job, after ten years I moved to Imperial College at Silwood Park and immediately set up a new, improved version of my sycamore study, this time a once weekly early morning*** walk of 52 trees in three transects and with much more data collection involved, not just the aphids, their natural enemies and anything else I found and on top of all that, the trees themselves came in for scrutiny, phenology, growth, flowering and fruiting, all went into my data sheets.  I also set up a bird cherry plot, this time with some hypotheses articulated 🙂

As a result of my weekly walk along my sycamore transects, a few years later I set up yet another side project, this time an experimental cum observational study looking at tree seedling survival and colonisation underneath different tree canopies. At about the same time, initially designed as a pedagogical exercise, I started my study of the biodiversity of Bracknell roundabouts.

One might argue that most undergraduate and MSc research projects could also come under the heading of side projects, but I think that unless they were part of a long term study they aren’t quite the same thing, even though some of them were published.  So, the burning question, apart from the benefits of regular exercise, was the investment of my time and that of my student helpers and co-researchers worth it scientifically?

Side project 1.  Sycamore aphids at the Northern Research Station, 1982-1992

I collected a lot of aphid data, most of which remains, along with the data from Side project 2, in these two notebooks, waiting to be entered into a spreadsheet.  I also collected some limited natural enemy data, presence of aphid mummies and numbers killed by entomopathogenic fungi.  Tree phenological data is limited to bud burst and leaf fall and as I only sampled five trees I’m not sure that this will ever amount to much, apart from perhaps appearing in my blog or as part of a book.  Nothing has as yet made it into print, so a nil return on investment.

Raw data – anyone wanting to help input into a spreadsheet, let me know 🙂 Also includes the data for Side project 2


Side project 2.  Rhopalosiphum padi on Prunus padus at Roslin Glen Nature Reserve 1982-1992

I was a lot more ambitious with this project, collecting lots of aphid and natural enemy data and also a lot more tree phenology data, plus noting the presence and counting the numbers of other herbivores.  I have got some of this, peak populations and egg counts in a spreadsheet and some of it has made it to the outside world (Leather, 1986, 1993: Ward et al., 1998).  According to Google Scholar, Ward et al., is my 6th most cited output with, at the time of writing, 127 citations, Leather (1993) is also doing quite well with 56 citations, while Leather (1986) is much further down the list with a mere 38 citations.  I have still not given up hope of publishing some of the other aphid data.  I mentioned that I also recorded the other herbivores I found, one was a new record for bird cherry (Leather, 1989), the other, the result of a nice student project on the bird cherry ermine moth (Leather & MacKenzie, 1994).  I would, I think, be justified in counting this side project as being worthwhile, despite the fact that I started it with no clear hypotheses and the only aim to count what was there.


Side project 3.  Everything you wanted to know about sycamores but were afraid to ask 1992-2012

As side projects go this was pretty massive.  Once a week for twenty years, me and on some occasions, an undergraduate research intern, walked along three transects of 52 sycamore trees, recording everything that we could see and count and record, aphids, other herbivores, natural enemies and tree data, including leaf size, phenology, height, fruiting success and sex expression.  My aim was pretty similar to that of Whittaker’s i.e.   “…to sample foliage insects in a series of natural communities and to obtain results of ecological significance from the samples”  truly a mega-project.  I once calculated that there are counts from over 2 000 000 leaves which scales up to something like 10 000 000 pieces of data, if you conservatively estimate five data observations per leaf. Quite a lot of the data are now computerized thanks to a series of student helpers and Vicki Senior, currently finishing her PhD at Sheffield University, but certainly not all of it. In terms of output, only two papers so far (Wade & Leather, 2002; Leather et al., 2005), but papers on the winter moth, sycamore and maple aphids and orange ladybird are soon to be submitted.  On balance, I think that this was also worthwhile and gave me plenty of early morning thinking time in pleasant surroundings and a chance to enjoy Nature.

The sycamore project – most of the raw data, some of which still needs to be computerised 🙂


Side project 5. Sixty bird cherry trees 1993-2012

This project has already featured in my blog in my Data I am never going to publish series and also in a post about autumn colours and aphid overwintering site selection.  Suffice to say that so far, thanks to my collaborator Marco Archetti, two excellent papers have appeared (Archetti & Leather, 2005; Archetti et al., 2009), the latter of which is my third most cited paper with 101 cites to date and the former is placed at a very respectable 21st place.  I don’t really see any more papers coming out from this project, but I might get round to writing something about the study as a whole in a natural history journal. On balance, even though only two papers have appeared from this project, I count this as having been a very worthwhile investment of my time.

All now in a spreadsheet and possibly still worthwhile delving into the data


Side project 5.  Urban ecology – Bracknell roundabouts 2002-2012

This started as a pedagogical exercise, which will be the subject of a blog post in the not too distant future. The majority of the field work was done by undergraduate and MSc students and in the latter years spawned a PhD student, so a side project that became a funded project 🙂 To date, we have published seven papers from the project (Helden & Leather, 2004, 2005; Leather & Helden, 2005ab; Helden et al., 2012; Jones & Leather, 2012; Goodwin et al., 2017) and there are probably two more to come.  Definitely a success and a very worthwhile investment of my time.  The story of the project is my most requested outreach talk so also gives me the opportunity to spread the importance of urban ecology to a wider audience.

The famous roundabouts – probably the most talked and read about roundabouts in the world 🙂 Sadly Roundabout 1 i n o longer with us; it was converted into a four-way traffic light junction last year 😦


Side project 6.  Testing the Janzen-Connell Hypothesis – Silwood Park, 2005-2012

I mentioned this project fairly recently so will just link you to it here.  So far only one paper has come out of this project (Pigot & Leather, 2008) and I don’t really see me getting round to doing much more than producing another Data I am never going to publish article, although it does get a passing mention in the book that I am writing with former colleagues Tilly Collins and Patricia Reader.  It also gave undergraduate and MSc project students something to do.  Overall, this just about counts as a worthwhile use of my time.

Most of this is safely in a spreadsheet but the data in the notebooks still needs inputting

According to my data base I have published 282 papers since 1980 which given that I have supervised 52 PhD students, had 5 post-docs, and, at a rough estimate, supervised 150 MSc student projects and probably 200 undergraduate student projects doesn’t seem to be very productive 😦 Of the 282 papers, 125 are from my own projects, which leaves 139 papers for the post-docs and PhD students and 17 from the side projects.  Three of the papers published from the side projects were by PhD students, so if I remove them from the side projects that gives an average of 2.3 papers per side project and 2.4 papers per post-doc and PhD student.   So, in my opinion, yes, side projects are definitely worth the investment.



Archetti, M. & Leather, S.R. (2005) A test of the coevolution theory of autumn colours: colour preference of Rhopalosiphum padi on Prunus padus. Oikos, 110, 339-343.

Archetti, M., Döring, T.F., Hagen, S.B., Hughes, N.M., Leather, S.R., Lee, D.W., Lev-Yadun, S., Manetas, Y., Ougham, H.J., Schaberg, P.G., & Thomas, H. (2009) Unravelling the evolution of autumn colours: an interdisciplinary approach. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 24, 166-173.

Goodwin, C., Keep, B., & Leather, S.R. (2017) Habitat selection and tree species richness of roundabouts: effects on site selection and the prevalence of arboreal caterpillars. Urban Ecosystems, 19, 889-895.

Helden, A.J. & Leather, S.R. (2004) Biodiversity on urban roundabouts – Hemiptera, management and the species-area relationship. Basic and Applied Ecology, 5, 367-377.

Helden, A.J. & Leather, S.R. (2005) The Hemiptera of Bracknell as an example of biodiversity within an urban environment. British Journal of Entomology & Natural History, 18, 233-252.

Helden, A.J., Stamp, G.C., & Leather, S.R. (2012) Urban biodiversity: comparison of insect assemblages on native and non-native trees.  Urban Ecosystems, 15, 611-624.

Jones, E.L. & Leather, S.R. (2012) Invertebrates in urban areas: a review. European Journal of Entomology, 109, 463-478.

Leather, S.R. (1986) Host monitoring by aphid migrants: do gynoparae maximise offspring fitness? Oecologia, 68, 367-369.

Leather, S.R. (1989) Phytodecta pallida (L.) (Col., Chrysomelidae) – a new insect record for bird cherry (Prunus padus). Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, 125, 17-18.

Leather, S.R. (1993) Overwintering in six arable aphid pests: a review with particular relevance to pest management. Journal of Applied Entomology, 116, 217-233.

Leather, S.R. & Helden, A.J. (2005) Magic roundabouts?  Teaching conservation in schools and universities. Journal of Biological Education, 39, 102-107.

Leather, S.R. & Helden, A.J. (2005) Roundabouts: our neglected nature reserves? Biologist, 52, 102-106.

Leather, S.R. & Mackenzie, G.A. (1994) Factors affecting the population development of the bird cherry ermine moth, Yponomeuta evonymella L. The Entomologist, 113, 86-105.

Leather, S.R., Wade, F.A., & Godfray, H.C.J. (2005) Plant quality, progeny sequence, and the sex ratio of the sycamore aphid, Drepanoisphum platanoidis. Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 115, 311-321.

Pigot, A.L. & Leather, S.R. (2008) Invertebrate predators drive distance-dependent patterns of seedling mortality in a temperate tree Acer pseudoplatanus. Oikos, 117, 521-530.

Steinbeck, J. (1954) Sweet Thursday, Viking Press, New York, USA.

Wade, F.A. & Leather, S.R. (2002) Overwintering of the sycamore aphid, Drepanosiphum platanoidis. Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 104, 241-253.

Ward, S.A., Leather, S.R., Pickup, J., & Harrington, R. (1998) Mortality during dispersal and the cost of host-specificity in parasites: how many aphids find hosts? Journal of Animal Ecology, 67, 763-773.

Whittaker, R.H. (1952) A Study of summer foliage insect communities in the Great Smoky Mountains. Ecological Monographs, 22, 1-44.



I was so impressed by this piece of philosophy that it is quoted in the front of my PhD thesis 🙂


My second post-doc was only for two years.


You may wonder why I keep emphasising early morning in relation to surveying sycamore aphids.  Sycamore aphids are very easy to disturb so it is best to try and count them in the early morning before they have a chance to warm up and become flight active.



Filed under EntoNotes, Roundabouts and more

Insects in flight – whatever happened to the splatometer?

I have been musing about extinctions and shifting baselines for a while now; BREXIT and an article by Simon Barnes in the Sunday Times magazine (3rd September 2016) finally prompted me to actually put fingers to keyboard.  I fear that BREXIT will result in even more environmental damage than our successive governments have caused already.  They have done a pretty good job of ignoring environmental issues and scientific advice (badgers) even when ‘hindered’ by what they have considered restrictive European legislation and now that we head into BREXIT with a government not renowned for its care for the environment I become increasing fearful for the environment. Remember who it was who restructured English Nature into the now fairly toothless Natural England, because they didn’t like the advice they were being given and whose government was it who, rather than keep beaches up to Blue Flag standard decided to reclassify long-established resort beaches as not officially designated swimming beaches?  And, just to add this list of atrocities against the environment, we now see our precious ‘green belt’ being attacked.

My generation is liable to wax lyrical about the clouds of butterflies that surrounded us as we played very non PC cowboys and Indians outside with our friends in the glorious sunshine.  We can also fondly reminisce about the hordes of moths that used to commit suicide in the lamp fittings or beat fruitlessly against the sitting room windows at night.  The emptying of the lamp bowl was a weekly ceremony in our house.  We also remember, less fondly, having to earn our pocket-money by cleaning our father’s cars, laboriously scraping the smeared bodies of small flies from windscreens, headlamps and radiator grilles on a Saturday morning.  A few years later as students, those of us lucky enough to own a car, remember the hard to wash away red smears left by the eyes of countless Bibionid (St Mark’s) flies, as they crashed into our windscreens.


Typical Bibionid – note the red eyes; designed specially to make a mess on your windscreen 🙂 https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/GBgoGHhRbj-eUUF9SxZ4s9MTjNZETYmyPJy0liipFm0?feat=embedwebsite

Are these memories real or are we looking back at the past through those rose-tinted glasses that only show the sunny days when we lounged on grassy banks listening to In the Summertime and blank out the days we were confined to the sitting room table playing board games?

We have reliable and robust long-term data sets showing the declines of butterflies and moths over the last half-century or so (Thomas, 2005; Fox, 2013) and stories about this worrying trend attract a lot of media attention. On a less scientific note, I certainly do not find myself sweeping up piles of dead moths from around bedside lamps or extricating them from the many spider webs that decorate our house.  Other charismatic groups, such as the dragonflies and damselflies are also in decline (Clausnitzer et al., 2009) as are the ubiquitous, and equally charismatic ground beetles (carabids) (Brooks et al., 2012).  But what about other insects, are they too on the way out?  A remarkable 42-year data set looking at the invertebrates found in cereal fields in southern England (Ewald et al., 2015) found that of the 26 invertebrate taxa studied less than half showed a decrease in abundance; e.g. spiders, Braconid parasitic wasps, carabid beetles, Tachyporus beetles, Enicmus (scavenger beetles), Cryptophagid fungus beetles, leaf mining flies (Agromyzids), Drosophila, Lonchopteridae (pointed wing flies), and surprisingly, or perhaps not, aphids.  The others showed no consistent patterns although bugs, excluding aphids, increased over the study period.  Cereal fields are of course not a natural habitat and are intensely managed, with various pesticides being applied, so are perhaps not likely to be the most biodiverse or representative habitats to be found in the UK.

But what about the car-smearing insects, the flies, aphids and other flying insects?  Have they declined as dramatically?  My first thought was that I certainly don’t ‘collect’ as many insects on my car as I used to, but is there any concrete evidence to support the idea of a decline in their abundance.  After all, there has been a big change in the shape of cars since the 1970s.


Top row – cars from 1970, including the classic Morris 1000 Traveller that my Dad owned and I had to wash on Saturdays.

Bottom row the cars of today, sleek rounded and all looking the same.


Cars were  much more angular then, than they are now, so perhaps the aerodynamics of today’s cars filter the insects away from the windscreen to safety? But how do you test that?  Then I remembered that the RSPB had once run a survey to address this very point.  Sure enough I found it on the internet, the Big Bug Count 2004, organised by the RSPB.  I was very surprised to find that it happened more than a decade ago, I hadn’t thought it was that long ago, but that is what age does to you 🙂


The “Splatometer” as designed by the RSPB

The idea, which was quite cool, was to get standardised counts of insect impacts on car number platesThe results were thought to be very low as the quote below shows, but on what evidence was this based?

“Using a cardboard counting-grid dubbed the “splatometer”, they recorded 324,814 “splats”, an average of only one squashed insect every five miles. In the summers of 30-odd years ago, car bonnets and windscreens would quickly become encrusted with tiny bodies.”  “Many people were astonished by how few insects they splatted,” the survey’s co-ordinator Richard Bashford, said.

Unfortunately despite the wide reporting in the press at the time, the RSPB did not repeat the exercise.  A great shame, as their Big Garden Birdwatch is very successful and gathers useful data.   So what scientific evidence do we have for a decline in these less charismatic insects?  Almost a hundred years ago, Bibionid flies were regarded as a major pest (Morris, 1921) and forty years ago it was possible to catch almost 70 000 adults in a four week period from one field in southern England (Darcy-Burt & Blackshaw, 1987).   Both these observations suggest that in the past Bibionids were very common.  It is still possible to pluck adult Bibionids out of the air (they are very slow, clumsy fliers) in Spring, but if asked I would definitely say that they are not as common as they were when I was a student.  But as Deming once said, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.”  In the UK we are fortunate that a long-term source of insect data exists, courtesy of Rothamsted Research, the longest running agricultural research station in the world.  Data have been collected from a nationwide network of suction and light traps for more than 50 years (Storkey et al., 2016).   Most of the publications arising from the survey have tended to focus on aphids (Bell et al., 2015) and moths (Conrad et al., 2004), although the traps, do of course, catch many other types of insect (Knowler et al., 2016).  Fortuitously, since I was interested in the Bibionids I came across a paper that dealt with them, and other insects likely to make an impact on cars and splatometers (Shortall et al., 2009).  The only downside of their paper was that they only looked at data from four of the Rothamsted Suction Traps, all from the southern part of the UK, which was a little disappointing.


Location and results of the suction traps analysed by Shortall et al. (2009).

Only three of the trap showed downward trends in insect biomass over the 30 years (1973-2002) analysed of which only the Hereford trap showed a significant decline.  So we are really none the wiser; the two studies that focus on a wider range of insect groups (Shortall et al., 2009; Ewald et al., 2015) do not give us a clear indication of insect decline.   On the other hand, both studies are limited in their geographic coverage; we do not know how representative the results are of the whole country.

What a shame the RSPB stopped collecting ‘splatometer’ data, we would now have a half-decent time series on which to back-up or contradict our memories of those buzzing summers of the past.

Post script

After posting this I came across this paper based on Canadian research which shows that many pollinators, possibly billions are killed by vehicles every year.  This reduction in insect numbers and biomass has also been reported in Germany.


Bell, J.R., Alderson, L., Izera, D., Kruger, T., Parker, S., Pickup, J., Shortall, C.R., Taylor, M.S., Verrier, P. & Harrington, R. (2015) Long-term phenological trends, species accumulation rates, aphid traits and climate: five decades of change in migrating aphids.  Journal of Animal Ecology, 84, 21-34.

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

Clausnitzer, V., Kalkman, V.J., Ram, M., Collen, B., Baillie, J.E.M., Bedjanic, M., Darwall, W.R.T., Dijkstra, K.D.B., Dow, R., Hawking, J., Karube, H., Malikova, E., Paulson, D., Schutte, K., Suhling, F., Villaneuva, R.J., von Ellenrieder, N. & Wilson, K. (2009)  Odonata enter the biodiversity crisis debate: the first global assessment of an insect group.  Biological Conservation, 142, 1864-1869.

Conrad, K.F., Woiwod, I.P., Parsons, M., Fox, R. & Warren, M.S. (2004) Long-term population trends in widespread British moths.  Journal of Insect Conservation, 8, 119-136.

Darcy-Burt, S. & Blackshaw, R.P. (1987) Effects of trap design on catches of grassland Bibionidae (Diptera: Nematocera).  Bulletin of Entomological Research, 77, 309-315.

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

Fox, R. (2013) The decline of moths in Great Britain: a review of possible causes. Insect Conservation & Diversity, 6, 5-19.

Knowler, J.T., Flint, P.W.H., & Flint, S. (2016) Trichoptera (Caddisflies) caught by the Rothamsted Light Trap at Rowardennan, Loch Lomondside throughout 2009. The Glasgow Naturalist, 26, 35-42.

Morris, H.M. (1921)  The larval and pupal stages of the Bibionidae.  Bulletin of Entomological Research, 12, 221-232.

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

Storkey, J., MacDonald, A.J., Bell, J.R., Clark, I.M., Gregory, A.S., Hawkins, N. J., Hirsch, P.R., Todman, L.C. & Whitmore, A.P. (2016)  Chapter One – the unique contribution of Rothamsted to ecological research at large temporal scales Advances in Ecological Research, 55, 3-42.

Thomas, J.A. (2005) Monitoring change in the abundance and distribution of insects using butterflies and other indicator groups.  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 360, 339-357


Filed under EntoNotes, Uncategorized