Tag Archives: MSc Entomology

An inordinate fondness for biodiversity – a visit behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum

Last week  (13th February) I traveled with the MSc Entomology students to the Natural History Museum, London.  As part of their course they are taken behind the scenes and meet some of the curators and their favourite beasts.  This one of my favourite course trips and although I have made the pilgrimage for many years I always find something new to marvel at as well as reacquainting myself with some of my old favourites.  After an early start (0645) we arrived exactly on time (for a change), 10.30, at the Museum site in South Kensington.  I always have mixed feelings about South Kensington, having spent twenty years of my life commuting to Imperial College, just up the road from the museum.  I loved teaching on the Applied Ecology course I ran, but over the years the working atmosphere in the Department became really toxic* and I was extremely glad to move to my present location, Harper Adams University.  After signing in, which with twenty students took some time, Erica McAlister (@flygirl) led us through the thronged galleries (it was half term) to the staff

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Nostalgia time, my first biological memory, aged 3.

areas, where the research, identification and curating takes place.  Our first port of call was the Diptera where Erica regaled us with lurid tales of flies, big and small, beneficial and pestiferous.

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Erica McAlister extolling the virtues of bot flies

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Any one fancy cake for tea?  Kungu cake, made from African gnats

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Early advisory poster

As we left to move on to the Hymenopteran, hosted by David Notton, I noticed this classic poster warning against mosquitoes.  David chose bees as the main focus of his part of the tour, which as four of the students will be doing bee-based research projects was very apt.

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Admiring the bees

Whilst the students were engrossed with the bees I did a bit of fossicking and was amused to find that tobacco boxes were obviously a preferred choice by Scandinavian Hymenopterists in which to send their specimens to the museum.

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Finnish and Swedish tobacco boxes being put to good use

Next was that most eminent of Coleopterists, Max @Coleopterist Barclay who as usual enthralled the students and me, with stories of

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Max Barclay demonstrating a Lindgren funnel and talking about ‘fossilised’ dung balls

beetles large and small, anecdotes of Darwin and Wallace and the amusing story of how ancient clay-encased dung balls were for many years thought by anthropologists and archaeologists to be remnants of early humankind’s bolas hunting equipment.  It was only when someone accidentally broke one and found a long-dead dung beetle inside that the truth was revealed 🙂

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Often overlooked, the Natural History Museum is an exhibit in itself

 As we were leaving to move on to the Lepidoptera section, I felt obliged to point out to the students that not only is the outside of the museum stunningly beautiful but that the interior is also a work of art in itself, something that a lot of visitors tend to overlook. Once in the Lepidoptera section  Geoff Martin proudly displayed his magnificent collection of Lepidoptera, gaudy and otherwise, including the type specimen of the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing which was captured with the aid of a shotgun!

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Lepidopterist, Geoff Martin, vying with his subjects in colourful appearance 🙂

Lunch and a chance to enjoy the galleries was next on the agenda.  Unfortunately, as it was half term this was easier said than done, although I did find a sunny spot to eat my packed lunch, as a Yorkshireman I always find the prices charged for refreshments by museums somewhat a painful.  In an almost deserted gallery I came across this rather nice picture.

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A lovely piece of historical entomological art.

Then it was on to the Spirit Collection.  Erica had laid on a special treat, Oliver Crimmen, fish man extraordinaire.  I may be an entomologist but I can sympathise with this branch of vertebrate zoology.  Fish, like insects are undeservedly ranked below the furries, despite being the most speciose vertebrate group.  I have been in the Spirit Room many times but have never seen inside the giant metal tanks.  Some of these, as Ollie demonstrated with a refreshing disregard for health and safety, are filled with giant fish floating in 70% alcohol.

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Fish man, Oliver Crimmen, literally getting to grips with his subjects.

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A fantastic end to the day culminated with a group photo with a spectacular set of choppers 🙂

Many thanks to Erica McAlister for hosting and organising our visit and to the NHM staff who passionately attempted to convert the students to their respective ‘pets’.

*one day I will write about it.

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Bridging the gap – ENTO’16 at Harper Adams University

A couple of years ago, while attending a Royal Entomological Society Council meeting, I rashly volunteered to host ENTO’16, the annual meeting of the Society, at Harper Adams University*.  I confess, I did have a bit of an ulterior motive.  We entomologists had only been based at Harper Adams University since 2012 and I thought it would help with publicizing our new research centre and postgraduate courses in entomology and integrated pest management.  Once this was approved by Council I let my colleagues know that I had ‘volunteered’ them and also approached entomologists at our two nearest universities, Keele and Staffordshire and invited them to join our organising committee.  As this is about the event and not the administrivia, I will not bore you with the description of how it all came about, apart from mentioning that we chose as our theme, the Society journals to celebrate the 180th anniversary of RES publishing.

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As a result of a poll of society members, we decided that the last day of the conference would be all about Outreach.  The morning session was devoted to talks for the delegates and the afternoon was open to the public and members of the university.  The Open session began with a talk by M.G. (Maya) Leonard, best-selling author of Beetle Boy, followed by exhibits and activities in the exhibition hall**.  In the spirit of outreach, we also persuaded our three plenary speakers to agree to be videoed and livestreamed to YouTube.  Their excellent talks can be seen by following the links below.

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“How virulence proteins modulate plant processes to promote insect colonisation”

Saskia Hogenhout – John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqPH_h3xHoQ

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“The scent of the fly”

Peter Witzgall – Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1PUxQGoAzE

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“Citizen Science and invasive species”

Helen Roy – Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Wallingford, UK

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_Kyw2WeVC4

To make decision-making simple, we only ran two concurrent sessions, and hopefully this meant that most people did not have to miss any talks that they particularly wanted to hear. The conference proper began on the Tuesday, but about half the delegates arrived the evening before and enjoyed an entomologically-based Pub Quiz. The winning team perhaps had a slight

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Preparing for the influx – student helpers in action

advantage in that most of their members were slightly older than average.

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The winning Pub Quiz team sitting in the centre of the picture.

We felt that the conference went very well, with all the journals well represented, although getting systematic entomologists to speak proved slightly more difficult than we had anticipated.  The student speakers were terrific and the talks covered the gamut of entomology.  The venue, although I may be slightly biased, was agreed by all to be excellent and provided some superb photo opportunities.

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Main venue glinting in the morning sun

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Andy Salisbury enjoying the early morning view at Harper Adams University

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The RES President, a very relaxed Mike Hassell, opens the proceedings.

Other highlights were the two wine receptions, the poster session and the conference dinner at which Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse, who apparently has an inordinate fondness for beetles, received an Honorary Fellowship.

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Sir Paul Nurse on hearing that he is to receive an Honorary Fellowship.

The old cliché goes that a “picture paints a thousand words” and who I am to argue, so I will let them tell the rest of the story with the odd bit of help from me.

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A fine example of synchronised beard pulling

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Happy Helpers

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All the way from Canada

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Only at an entomological conference

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Entomologically themed fashion

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Bang-up to date topics

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Ambitious themes

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one of our former-MSc students making an impact

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Impeccable dress sense from Session Chairs!

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Prize winning talks

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and posters

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Punny titles

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Enthusiastic speakers

I was reminded by Jess that I scolded her for not knowing enough entomology when I conducted her exit viva in my role as external examiner for the zoology degree at UCL 🙂

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Engaging authors

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Proud to be Collembolaologists

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Smiling faces (free drinks)

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Good food and drink (and company)

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Cavorting ceilidh dancers

 

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Phone cases to be jealous of

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Joining Darwin (and Sir Paul Nurse) in the book!

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and for me a fantastic personal end to the conference!

And finally

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Post script

As it turned out, 2016 was a fantastically entomologically-filled year for Harper Adams.

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we hoste the RES Postgraduate Forum in February which I reported on earlier this year, and of course we also

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hosted the fantastically successful EntoSci16.

 

Credits

The Organizing Committee

Andy Cherrill, John Dover (Staffordshire University), Rob Graham, Paul Eggleston (Keele University), Simon Leather, Tom Pope, Nicola Randall, Fran Sconce and Dave Skingsley (Staffordshire University).

The Happy Helpers

Ben Clunie, Liam Crowley, Scott Dwyer, Ana Natalio, Alice Mockford and Aidan Thomas

Music 

The Odd Socks Ceilidh Band

Wine Receptions

Harper Adams University and the Royal Entomological Society

Financial and Administrative Support

The Royal Entomological Society, Luke Tilley, Lisa Plant, Caroline Thacker and Megan Tucker.

Publicity

Adreen Hart-Rule and the Marketing and Communications Department at HAU

AV Support

Duncan Gunn-Russell and the HAU AV Team

 

*I am sure that this had nothing to do with the excellent wine that the RES always provides at lunch time 🙂

**We were somewhat disappointed by the low turn-out for the afternoon session.  We had publicised it widely but obviously not widely enough 😦

 

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The Verrall Supper 2016 – even better than last year

The first Wednesday of March has for many years meant only one thing to many UK entomologists – the Verrall Supper. I have written about the Verrall Supper previously on more than one occasion, so this will be largely a photographic record.

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Van (Professor Helmut Van Emden) ready and set for the arriving Verrallers

This year’s Verrall Supper took place on Wednesday March 3rd at The Rembrandt Hotel, South Kensington. This year we had a further increase in numbers attending the meal at the Rembrandt Hotel, 190 compared with the 181 the previous year.  We are now facing a bit of a dilemma, we have reached the maximum number that the Rembrandt can accommodate and as the general consensus is that it is a great venue, I am reluctant to try and find an alternative venue, but equally I don’t want to restrict membership.  According to Van, the number of Verrallers making merry, once topped the 300 mark.

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Marion Gratwick possibly the longest-serving Verraller, certainly the longest serving female member, although her claim to have attended 58 Verrall Suppers has been called into question as the first female was not admitted to the Supper until 1962; the arithmetic does not add up 🙂

Unfortunately, despite my ambition to get a 50:50 sex ratio, we still only managed to attract 55 female guests, the same as last year, which as we had a slight increase in total numbers meant that female members only accounted for  29% of the Verrallers.  I must try even harder next year.  For those interested in such statistics, we had twenty vegetarians, four diners unable to cope with gluten and only two vegans.  The average age, has, I am sure gone down, as I felt that the of number of those sporting grey or white beards, bald pates and grey hair were definitely outnumbered by the younger generation.

It was, as usual, great to see so many of my ex-MSc Entomology students, from both incarnations of the course, Silwood Park and Harper Adams University, many now doing PhDs, and many post-PhD and in their turn teaching future generations.

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A new generation of bearded entomologists. Alex Greenslade and Andy Salisbury, both former  MSc students,  one now doing a PhD, the other Senior Entomologist at RHS Wisley and both modelling entomological ties.

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Charlie Rose, the youngest Verraller (possibly ever).

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Professor Helmut Van Emden and Chris Lyal both of the Entomological Club.

 

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The Verrall Supper organiser at the start of the evening, with Alex Austin, Sarah Arnold, Jennifer Wickens (I think, I have an excuse, she is one of identical twins, both entomologists) and Denise Gibbons.

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Linda Birkin (fomer MSc student, now PhD at Sussex) and Ailsa McLean, Oxford University.

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Max Barclay, the Verrall Lecturer.

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High Loxdale savouring his pint.

 

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Mark Ramsden (ADAS) former PhD student and Chris Jeffs (Oxford), former MRes student.

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Tracie Evans (former MSc student) and Van Emden Bursary winner and Victoria Burton

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Charlie Rose, with current and former Harper Adams University MSc students, Alice Mockford, Jenna Shaw, Scott Dwyer and Jordan Ryder.

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The venue – ready and waiting and full house

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Gordon Port and former MSc student, Anna Platoni

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James Broom (former MSc student) and Roy Bateman who taught on the course for many years

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One view of the top table.

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Charles Godfray being lectured to by Tilly Collins 🙂

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Not all grey beards and bald pates

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Royal Entomological Society worthies, Archie Murchie, Jim Hardie and Debbie Wright

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Ruth Carter (MSc student at Harper Adams, who first contacted me when she was 13 to ask how to become an entomologist, Gia Aradottir (former PhD student, now at Rothamsted) and Amoret Whitaker, forensic entomologist on the right (I was her PhD examiner).

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Richard Comont and Sally-Ann Spence

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Former MSc students from Harper Adams University, Molly McTaggart, Josh Jenkins Shaw and Dave Stanford-Beale, all on the PhD route, UK, Denmark and USA respectively.

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More former Harper Adams University MSc students, Aidan Thomas and Kelleigh Greene.

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Sally-Ann Spence, Katy Dainton (former MSc student, now at Forest Research), Jo Nunez (former MSc student, now at the Bat Conservation Trust) and Mike Wilson.

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Current MSc students at Harper Adams University, Harry Simpson, Ben Clunie and Iain Place

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Mike Shaw, a Hymenopterist deep in thought?

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Tom and Soo-ok Miller all the way from the USA and if you are wondering about the bead necklaces that some of us are wearing, they came via Soo-ok.

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Mike Copland, Sue Stickels (both Wye Bugs) and Ashleigh Whiffin (former MSc student, now at Edinburgh Museum).

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Richard Lane (Entomological Club) and Luke Tilley, Royal Entomological Society Outreach Officer)

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Van (now with beads)  helping Kristi Thomas (former MSc student with her statistics)

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Ceri Watkins (former MSc student) and Hagrid (alias Richard Comont)

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Alan Dewar and Beulah Garner

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Tilly Collins (one of my former PhD students) writing my mid-dinner speech!

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John Whittaker and Claire Ozanne

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Claudia Watts, me (now with beads) and Roy Bateman

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Keith Walters (Harper Adams University) and Mike Singer (Plymouth)

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Ana Platoni and Adriana De Palma (both former students)

 

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Two curious gold weights – I can’t remember who showed them to me

 

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Harper Adams students, past and present

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Ruth Carter, Harry Simpson, Molly McTaggart, Scott Dwyer and Christina Faulder, all from Harper Adams.

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Two of my current PhD students at opposite ends of their degree, Fran Sconce and Aidan Thomas.

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Richard Harrington with his suction trap tie, retirement does funny things to people 🙂

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Hayley Jones and her butterfly necklace.

All in all, a very pleasant occasion which I thoroughly enjoyed, despite the pre-function nerves.   I look forward to hosting the Verrall Supper 2017, and am determined to get a 50:50 sex ratio!

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Amateur, professional and academic interactions: A day with the British Entomological and Natural History Society

Towards the end of last year I was asked by Claudia Watts, the President of the British Entomological and Natural History Society http://www.benhs.org.uk/site/?q=node/1 if I would like to be nominated to become a member of their Council. I thought about it for a while and then said yes – my resolution to learn to say NO has sadly not been very successful 😉

There was one snag though, I was not a member of the BENHS; that was, however, easily remedied by completing an application form and being duly approved by the membership secretary and then paying my annual subscription of £19. This process made me think, why wasn’t I already a member of the BENHS? The aims of the Society “are the promotion and advancement of research in entomology with an increasing emphasis now being placed on the conservation of the fauna and flora of the United Kingdom and the protection of wildlife throughout the world”, which is something I have been interested and involved with for almost forty years.

Until I graduated from Leeds the only societies I had belonged to were university ones. On starting my PhD I joined the Association of Applied Biologists, the British Ecological Society, the then Institute of Biology (my father was a founder member) and the Royal Entomological Society. All these had one thing in common, they were, for want of a better description, professional graduate societies, although the Royal Entomological Society did, and does have non-academic and non-professional Members and Fellows. So I guess there was a bit of snobbery involved – the British Entomological and Natural History Society despite its distinguished past, founded 1872, and publishing a quarterly journal and a variety of important identification guides, was in my world view at the time, akin to the Amateur Entomological Society, founded in 1935. A reading of the aims of the AES would however, have told me otherwise, “Our objective is to promote the study of entomology, especially amongst amateurs and the younger generation.”

The objectives of the BENHS, originally the South London Entomological and Natural History Society are remarkably similar to those of the Royal Entomological Society (originally of London), the main differences now, being their financial resources and scale of activities. So having entered an academic career and eventually ending up in one of the UK’s top research intensive universities I had no incentive or inclination to join a society or organisation that did not instantly suggest a professional affiliation, and in the case of the Institute of Biology (now Society of Biology) and the Royal Entomological Society giving me additional letters after my name!

That said, a significant proportion of the UK academic entomological community have published and continue to  publish in the less ‘high impact’ end of the journal spectrum (e.g. Southwood & Johnson, 1957; Dixon, 1958) and indeed me too (Leather & Brotherton, 1987; Leather, 1989). This has been more fully documented elsewhere (Hopkins & Freckleton, 2002). The need for such journals is perhaps not fully appreciated. One of my former students, a Hemipterist of some note, who has published extensively in this journal stratum used to leave these off his job applications until he was asked at a post-doc interview if he had published in these journals as they considered it an important requisite of the job in question as it involved a lot of field work and insect identification. Without journals such as these published here and elsewhere, much of the basic knowledge needed for academic entomologists, ecologists, zoologists etc. to conduct their research would be greatly hampered.

So how does it work in practice? I duly turned up for my first BENHS AGM on Saturday 21st March at the very apposite venue, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, in time

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for the pre-meeting mingle with coffee and biscuits and met some of my former MSc students, now doing PhDs, old friends, current MSc students,  undergraduates, one of whom I had interviewed the day before for a place on the MSc in Entomology that I run, and even a scattering of much younger entomologists.  So a real mixture of amateurs, professionals (those making a living from entomology but not employed by a research institute or university) and current and retired academics.

The programme included a mixture of entomologists, ranging from Matt Shardlow, CEO and founder of Buglife, entomological consultant and saproxylic beetle guru, Keith Alexander, PhD student Tom Wood from Sussex University talking about his pollinator research which has just made the news, author and professional entomologist Richard Jones plugging his latest book and school boy Louis Guillot talking about his research into ant colony development; many of which he stores beneath his bed. We also had an entertaining Presidential Address by Claudia Watts about insects and art through the ages.

Having the AGM in the museum was also of course a very positive plus as in the breaks I was able to have a quick look at some of the exhibits – this one particularly caught my eye, although my camera and photographic skills do not do it justice.

Flea dressed

 

My take home message is that a) I was very foolish not to have got involved with the BENH many years ago and b) given the problems we have in getting the media and general public to understand the importance of entomology and insects to the well-being of the world, that many more of us pre-retirement academic entomologists should be willing to get involved with this and other similar societies.

Insects are important

References

Dixon, A.F.G. (1958) The protective function of the siphunculi of the nettle aphid, Microlophium evansi (Theob.). Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, 94, 8.

Hopkins, G.W. & Freckleton, R.P. (2002) Declines in the numbers of amateur and professional taxonomists: implications for conservation. Animal Conservation, 5, 245-249.

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. & Brotherton, C.M. (1987) Defensive responses of the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea (D&S) (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae). Entomologist’s Gazette, 38, 19-24.

Southwood, T.R.E. & Johnson, C.G. (1957) Some records of insect flight activity in May, 1954, with particular reference to the massed flights of Coleoptera and Heteroptera from concealed habitats. Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, 93, 121–126

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Effervescent entomologists – MSc Entomology London Natural History Museum Visit 2015

Last Tuesday (February 4th 2015) I was roused from sleep by the strident tones of my mobile phone telling me that “It’s 5 ‘o’ clock, it’s time to get up”.   Just over an hour later I was standing outside a coach ticking names off my list as yawning MSc student entomologists, PhD students and entomological staff  sleepily settled  down for the four-hour journey to London* Happy Days Coach

Artistic licence – it was still dark when we left!  The name of the coach company is particularly apt.

 Just over four hours later we arrived outside the front of the Natural History Museum on Cromwell Road.NHM front

The front of the Natural History Museum London; when I was a child the beauty of the facade was obscured by soot and grime.

Making our way round to the Exhibition Road entrance, we were met by the legendary Max Barclay @coleopterist,  the Collections Manager for Coleoptera and Hymenoptera.  Pausing only to introduce the students to Charles Darwin and to allow them to take Max & Darwin

Max Barclay introduces Darwin to the students

photographs of the now Twittering Dippy the Diplodocus  @NHM_Dippy, Dippy

Dippy the Diploducus, shortly to be replaced by the Blue Whale skeleton. The blue whale skeleton in my opinion has two advantages over Dippy, first it is real, not a model and second it is actually my first ever biological memory, aged 3.

  we entered the first of our scheduled stops, the Coleoptera section. Beetles

Approximately 220 000 drawers of beetles

Here Max enthralled the students with  the magic of beetles large and small. Max enthralling

Max in full flow

We saw a very small  selection of Alfred Russel Wallace’s 8000+ collection, some of Darwin’s beetles and ARW beetles

A very small selection of Wallace’s collection.

some of the beetles collected by botanist Joseph Banks (as Max pointed out he appeared to be only able to collect large and showy specimens, whereas Darwin’s were much smaller and harder to identify.Bank's beetles

Bank’s beetles – large and showy

  We were also privileged to see a beetle collected by palaeaoanthropologist Louis Leakey whilst excavating hominid remains in the Olduvai Gorge. Max & Leakey's beetle

Max relating the story of how Louis Leakey thought he had found a fossil beetle.

 We then moved on to the Hymenoptera; unfortunately Gavin Broad was not available so we did not have the benefit of a specialist to enthrall us although we did see some interesting specimens such as this Tarantula Hawk Wasp.Pepsis

Pepsis heros – Tarantula Hawk

We then broke for lunch before meeting up with, in my opinion, the most entertaining Dipterist in the World, Erica McAlister, also known as @flygirlNHM. Erica and big flies

Erica with some rather large flies.

She showed us bot fly larvae from unexpected hosts, camels, elephants and rhinoceroses whilst regaling us with amusing and risqué anecdotes of fly mating behaviour.Camle bot flies

Camel bot fly larvae

Erica also showed us some large wax models of insects, my favourite being the model of the aphid, Myzus persicae, which was very good indeed and something I would dearly love to have in my possession.  Erica on the other hand was very keen on the model of a Drosophila mutant 😉Erica & wax aphid

A very large aphid!

Then Erica led us into the depths of the museum to the Tank Room to look at some larger animals, or as Erica described them “The Big Pickles”. Tank room

Part of the Tank Room – lots of pickled fish

Some of the pickles were very big indeed.

Giant squid

A very big pickle – giant squid

After looking at some of the specimens that Darwin had collected whilst on the Beagle, we then went upstairs again, on the way looking at the famous cocoon from above, before we Long way down

Sideways view of the cocoon.

entered the world of the little pickles – spiders and their allies, some poisonous, some venomous.  There is a difference, check it out.Solifugid

A Camel spider; a Solifiguid, despite the common name, they are only very distantly related to spiders.

Scorpions

MSc Students and scorpions; big and relatively harmless, small and deadly (not the students). The gloves protect against the preservative, not the possibility of being bitten!

And then sadly, it was time to get back on the coach and make our way back to Shropshire and Harper Adams University.  A great day out, made particularly enjoyable by the obvious passion that Erica and Max have for their insects.  If you ever get the chance to see Max and Erica extolling the virtues of their pet beasties, make sure you do so.  Effervescent, ebullient, enthusiastic and energetic entomologists both.  I am  sure that I speak for all of us who made the trip when I say “Thank you Max” and “Thank you Erica”.

 

Post script

It was only when I was writing this blog post that I realised that this visit was exactly a year after our previous visit.  The other huge benefit of these visits is that it very important to let the students see that you can work as an entomologist in a museum without being male and grey-bearded 😉  In which context it was very nice to bump into one of our ex-students, in fact one from the very first cohort of the MSc in Entomology after our move from Imperial College to Harper Adams (a story for a future post).

Minty

 

Footnote

*My wife (born in London) insists that it is up to London, but as a Yorkshireman this goes against the grain.  As far as I’m concerned London is down south, so for the sake of marital harmony I have gone for to London  😉

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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

http://www.forestry.gov.uk/chalara

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.

Anapolophora

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_001

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

hylobius2

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.

References

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.

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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

Erica

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,

Squid

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.

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Why I Joined the Twitterati: Blogs, Tweets & Talks – Making Entomology Visible

It is now thirteen months since I tweeted my first tweet and almost a year since my blog went public.  It is thus an opportune moment I feel to assess how this first year has gone and to see if I can convert other oldies and not so oldies to make that leap into the world of public social media.  For many years I had held the whole concept of social media in contempt – Facebook and Twitter for me, represented the very epitome of mindless gossip and tabloid extremism.  I saw them as entirely the domain of the chattering classes and the idle young.  Perhaps an extreme view, since some of my children, a number of my colleagues, my wife and even my mother-in-law were on Facebook. Still, as someone who did not get a mobile phone until March this year (and only because of the fact that during the week, I live alone, and my wife feels that it is a sensible thing to have in case of emergency), I guess I was just living up the image of the techno-refusenik.

That said, I have always felt that the job of a scientist is to communicate and having always had a desire to teach and pass on my enthusiasm for entomology to others, I have not been remiss in coming forward.  I did actually have a fling with public engagement way back in 1981 when I worked in Finland and developed their early warning system for cereal aphids.  My research actually appeared in the Finnish national farmer’s magazine almost simultaneously with my official scientific publication.

Kaytannon Maamies   Front page Leather & Lehti

My subsequent career as first a forest entomologist with the Forestry Commission and then as a university teacher at Imperial College, was pretty much that of the typical academic, with the occasional appearance on the radio and the rare television interview, plus the odd reference to my work in the national or local newspapers.

Powe of Bugs

Mainly however, I was, until about the turn of the century just communicating with my peers i.e. publishing scientific papers and facilitating communication between other entomologists; I seem to have spent the last twenty years or so editing journals, first cutting my teeth on the Royal Entomological Society’s house journal Antenna, and then moving on to Ecological Entomology and for the last seven years as Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation & Diversity.  So there I was facilitating the dissemination of entomological knowledge around the world and busy doing my own entomological research and training future entomologists by running the only entomology degree in the UK and also of course supervising lots of PhD students. All very commendable indeed, but perhaps a bit limited in scope…

Limited scope

Round about the turn of the century I started to get really fed up with the ignorance shown about entomology and the bias towards vertebrates by funding bodies and journals.   I started going into schools and giving talks to the public whenever possible trying to draw people’s attention to the importance of insects..

Small and local

And getting more and more provocative..

Death to polar bears

And getting more and more irritated and desperate in print..

Publishing

It was obvious that there was a problem; the misconception that the public tend to have in that all insects are either pests or things that sting or bite them and need to be stamped on (Leather & Quicke, 2009:  http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/staff/profile/files/uploaded/Leather_&_Quicke_2009_JBE.pdf ).  Some of the entomological misconceptions were amusing but being entomologically pedantic still wrong..

Funny but wrong

others which were annoying but perhaps excusable..

Top trumps   Top trumps2

and some which were just plain inexcusable..

No Excuse

The problem has been neatly summed up by others too..

Ignorance

One of my PhD students, Fran Sconce, whom I have known since she was an undergraduate…

Fran graduation

had for some time been extolling the virtues of social media as a means of scientific communication,

Fran Twitter

finally convinced me that it was time to make a leap and to move into a different environment.

Leap

and thus was born @Entoprof

Entoprof

and Don’t Forget the Roundabouts

Blog header

So like a fellow ex-Silwoodian, Natalie Cooper who recently reported on her first year as a blogger/tweeter http://www.ecoevoblog.com/2013/10/29/to-tweet-or-not-to-tweet-that-is-the-question/ I too feel the need to assess how this first year has gone.

Well, first I found that there were lots of old friends out there, and even my old school started following me….

Old friends

A ton of ex-students, not all of whom are entomologists…

ex-students

Increased opportunities for outreach and meeting people I didn’t even know existed..

Outreach

And making new professional links….

Professional links

And incidentally as an Editor I have found new people to ask to act as reviewers and I’ve had great fun continuing my fight against institutional vertebratism …

Vertebrate bias

and got a great result which I am certain I wouldn’t have got without Twitter..

result

With my new friends I entered into public debate..

public debate

and got another result which again would not have happened without Twitter..

BBC Wildlife

and found a new way to interact at conferences..

conference interactions

and been really inspired.  I have thoroughly embraced the concept of social media and have now set up a Twitter account for the Entomology MSc http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/postgraduate/201004/entomology  I run..

MSc Entomology

and also a Blog for them to run http://aphidsrus.wordpress.com/

Ento blog

My latest venture with the aid of

Janine

is the A-Z of Entomology, the first letter of which you can view here if you want to learn about aphids  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=liBt59teaGQ

So yes it has been a great year and a heartfelt thank you to all my Tweeps and to all of you that follow my blog.  I really have found this both useful and educational.  It has been a great eye-opener.  And of course a really big vote of thanks to Fran for finally convincing me that I should join the Twitterati.

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Woolly bear postscript – where have all the young entomologists gone?

On Saturday (16th February) I attended the Shropshire Entomology Day at Preston Montford http://www.field-studies-council.org/centres/prestonmontford.aspx organised by Peter Boardman of the Field Studies Council http://www.field-studies-council.org/. The day was very well attended, about 75 people in total, and the talks ranged from detailed discourses on how to tell aquatic bugs apart to more general talks such as that by Peter Boardman  (my personal favourite) about the genealogy of a box of insects once owned by the remarkable Dipterist and blackfly expert, Lewis Davies http://www.blackfly.org.uk/downloadable/bsgbull28.pdf and that by Richard Becker showing us how he has made his organic Welsh hill farm into a haven for a wide variety of insects from dung-flies to butterflies.  I was there with my Professorial hat on, and incidentally my entomological t-shirt, to spread the word about the MSc in Entomology that we run at Harper Adams University http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/postgraduate/201004/entomology and to foster links between us and other like-minded individuals and organisations.  We also heard about plans for a new Dragonfly Atlas for Shropshire and the forthcoming Cranefly Distribution Atlas for Shropshire, as well as the herculean efforts of the Wrekin Forest Volunteers http://wrekinforestvolunteers.blogspot.co.uk/ to ensure that every tetrad in the count at least one invertebrate record associated with it.

All in all it was a very enjoyable and informative day.  The thing that struck me most however, and I have made this observation before http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/staff/profile/files/uploaded/Leather_&_Quicke_2010.pdf, was that the age range of the speakers and audience was heavily skewed towards the grey end of the spectrum, me included.  There were some relative youngsters present, but the overwhelming majority of the participants present, and those pictured in the talk by Paul Watts about the Wrekin Forest Volunteers, were heading towards retirement age or definitely past it.  I have noticed this phenomenon many times when giving talks to local Natural History Societies, most markedly at the Crowthorne Natural History Society, http://cnhg.org.uk/meetings.html where I was the youngest person present by at least 15 years!

So where were all the youngsters, and in this case I mean the 20-30 age group.  Volunteering to work abroad at great expense on projects involving charismatic mega-fauna or sat in front of their computer screens playing games or engaging with their peers on Face Book?  That said, one young man I spoke with, was planning to go to university to study ecology, an ambition that had been stimulated by volunteering in India, but the impression I got was that once qualified, he intended to return to India to continue on similar projects rather than get involved with small local projects as I advocated in a previous article https://simonleather.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/think-small-and-local-focus-on-large-charismatic-mega-fauna-threatens-conservation-efforts/ .

Yes I had an enjoyable day, yes I made some great contacts and yes, I even stimulated interest in the courses we offer, but Houston, we have a problem. There is enthusiasm at primary school level and the Bug Club http://www.amentsoc.org/bug-club/ do a great job at fostering this enthusiasm, but secondary school teaching (with some rare exceptions) and sadly, biology, zoology and ecology degrees at undergraduate level in the UK, largely relegate entomological teaching to a handful of lectures, concentrating instead on molecular biology or, when whole organisms are mentioned, my pet bugbear, charismatic mega-fauna.  My greatest fear is, that unless we can get secondary schools and universities to provide teaching that encompasses the invertebrate world, we will not only see the continued lack of engagement with invertebrates by the young, but we will also lose the older end of the spectrum as the endangered entomologically enthusiastic youngsters become extinct and no longer provide us with the next generation of grey entophiles who maintain sites such as this http://www.insects.org/entophiles. I find it hard to imagine that there are people who can fail to love or be thrilled by organisms such as this giant water bug, once they have them drawn to their attention.

giantwaterbug_on-hand

http://beneficialbugs.org/bugs/Giant_Water_Bug/giant_water_bug.htm

At the risk of sounding alarmist I really feel that it is imperative that we get the message of how important entomology is out  to all levels of society and government before it is too late.  How we do this is another matter, but do it we must.

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