Tag Archives: science communication

Skype a Scientist – a great way to invest in the future

I do a lot of outreach or “reach out” as my contract endearingly terms it 🙂 In terms of talks, my outreach spans a great range of ages and experiences; from the University of the 3rd Age (U3A), Women’s Institutes, the Rotary Club and similar organisations, local Natural History Societies, Garden Clubs, and less often, schools and youth groups.  As you can see from the preceding list, most of my ‘formal’ standing in front of an audience and lecturing outreach, although not primarily aimed at the older generation, does most often find them.  Face to face interactions with the younger generation is mainly via University Open Days and events like the Big Bang Fair which are great fun but are annual one-offs. I was thus very pleased when I discovered Skype A Scientist last year and had the chance to extend my ‘face to face’ interactions with the younger generation, not just in the UK but around the world.  My two favourite classroom session were with 9-10 year olds, one class in a primary school in Northern Ireland and the other in an elementary school in Cincinnati.

The questions they asked are wonderful, heartening and stimulating. Some, especially the ‘why’ ones, are pretty hard to answer, remember the ‘language’ we speak as scientists has a vocabulary that is not necessarily the same as that of a 9-year old.  Although I have listed all the questions they asked, I’m not going to post all my attempts at answering them, just some of the ones that weren’t as easy as you might think.  Thankfully, the teachers were kind enough to send me a list of the questions a few days before the session, otherwise I would have been in trouble 🙂  Try answering them yourself and as a side exercise, which questions came from which school?  If you haven’t done Skye A Scientist, I can thoroughly recommend it and hopefully, as a community we can sow enough idea seeds in this age group for a large number to germinate and grow into a high yielding crop of future scientists.

School 1

Do all animals drink water?

Do you mostly work indoors or outdoors?

How did you get interested in your job?

How did you get into your job? Hard work and luck

How long have you been in the insect profession? A long time 🙂

How can you tell poisonous bugs apart from not poisonous bugs? An excellent question as gave me the opportunity to talk about warning colouration and the difference between poisonous and venomous

How does a caterpillar turn into a butterfly? Harder than it seems

How do you get rid of the pests without killing the crops? Gave me the chance to talk about phytotoxicity

How do you remove pesticides without hurting and ruining the food and water? This was actually about organic farming

If you could save any insect from extinction which insect would it be? Really difficult to answer this

Is pesticide the only chemical hurting the plants/insects or is there more? Chance to talk about pollution issues

What is your favourite part in an ecosystem and why?    The insects – because they are cool

What is your favourite consumer?

What is your favourite insect? Had to be an aphid, but then I had to explain what an aphid was 🙂

What is your favourite animal that you have worked with? Large willow aphid of course

What is your favourite animal(s) in the ecosystems you observe? Obviously aphids 🙂

What is the most dangerous insect? Hard to answer, but did give me an opportunity to talk about allergic reactions

What are the most common pests that harm crops? An easy one

What is the coolest animal/insect you have ever seen?   Again, really hard, because there is so much variety, I went for Snow flea, Boreus hiemalis 🙂

What did you want to be when you were a kid? Gerald Durrell 🙂

When did you become a scientist? A long time ago 🙂

Why do insects that have stingers have stingers? One of those why questions!

What’s your favourite animal/insect that you had ever helped? I went for spider just to be controversial

Why did you choose the career of being a college professor in science?

What is your favourite part of your job?  Talking to people about insects

What chemicals have you worked with, and which ones are the most harmful?

What is your favourite insect to learn and inspect? Always aphids 🙂

What kind of animals do you mostly research? Guess what?

What are some tools you use? Told them about pooters

What insect has been infected the most from the chemicals?

Where do you work?

What do you wear for work? What I’m wearing now – jeans and shirt with sleeves rolled up 🙂

What do you think of pesticides?  Gave me a chance to talk about pros and cons and specificity

Why did you chose to be an ecologist? Gerald Durrell

Why do butterflies drink tears from turtle’s eyes? Great chance to talk about puddling and peeing in tropical forests to attract butterflies

You know how there are certain bugs that look the same as other bugs that are poisonous, how does that species that looks the same as the poisonous ones stay not over-populated? Very interesting question and lots to talk about concerning mimicry and aposematism


School 2

Are spiders insects?

Can you heal an ant if it gets sick? Interesting question and gave me a chance to talk about ants helping each other

Do insects sleep at night? Depends on how you define sleep

Do insects hibernate? Some do

Do insects see in black and white or colour? Colour, but generally not red and chance to talk about UV vision

Do slugs have sharp teeth? Depends on what you mean by teeth and sharp

Can leaf cutter ants eat through human skin? Ouch, yes

Can ants swim? Chance to talk about surface tension

How are ants so strong even though they are so small?

How do crickets make the clicking sound?

How many types of insects are there in the world? Lots and a great opportunity to have a rant about vertebrates 🙂

How do butterflies get coloured? Difficult as had to talk about scales, refraction, wavelengths etc

What is a beehive made of?

What is a beetle’s body made of? Easy on the surface but then you have to work out how to describe chitin

What do woodlice eat?

Why are bees so important?  Gave me a chance to talk about how important other pollinators are and how chocolate lovers should love flies 🙂

Why do spiders have so many eyes? Yep!

Why do bees make honey?

Why do dung beetles roll dung? Nice question

Why are bugs so small?  Good opportunity to debunk giant insects in horror films and talk about insect respiratory systems

Why do insects have 6 legs? I went for the descended from organisms with lots of legs and because of size and balance problems, six was the most stable reduction (tripod theory).  Mercifully nobody picked me up about mantids or Nymphalids 🙂

What is the biggest insect? Luckily had a photo to hand


As you can see a bit of a challenge even with advance warning, but definitely worth doing.  School 1 was in the USA and School 2 the UK.  Did you guess correctly?

This year I am looking forward to talking to schools in Moscow and Switzerland; truly global reach.  How cool is that?


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British Ecological Society Annual Meeting 2018 – representing ecologists but not ecology?

I managed to get to the BES annual meeting this year.  I hadn’t been since 2014 as I boycotted the 2015 meeting*  and the timing of the 2016 and 2017 meetings meant I couldn’t attend those due to teaching commitments.  This time the meeting was in Birmingham and term had ended so there was nothing to get in the way of reconnecting with the annual meetings, the first of which I attended in 1977.  I arrived, soaked to the skin, at the International Conference Centre on a very rainy Sunday afternoon.  Despite the inauspicious start, I was heartened to have a reminder of the BES Undergraduate Summer School; one of my fluorescent beetles from the evening “track a beetle” exercise was on display 😊

Fluorescent carabid beetle, the star of the evening at the Malham BES Summer School 2018

In general, despite the sad memories the pre-Christmas period carries with it, It was good to catch up with old friends and former students.  As a bonus there were some fantastic plenaries; I particularly enjoyed Sam M Gon III’s talk on The Hawaiian Islands as a Model for Biocultural Conservation, which opened with a traditional Hawaiian chant.

A most unusual and very enjoyable plenary

Great to see lots of very special insects

Another great plenary was Danielle Lee’s on science communication and the importance of getting local non-scientists involved in one’s research programmes.

Danielle Lee – On the importance of science communication, a subject close to my heart

There were a lot of great talks, but as is often the case with large meetings, a lot of clashes and hard decisions to make about which talks to miss.  As a member of the Twitterati I was made very aware of this by seeing the Tweets about talks I was missing 😊

Alistair Seddon – a Doctor Who fan

One thing that struck me very forcibly, was that entomology seemed to be very under-represented compared with when I first started attending BES meetings.  There were no specific sessions dedicated to invertebrates; in earlier years it was relatively easy to find insect-themed sessions and talks.  This year, and perhaps this is a modern trend in ecology, even the titles of many of the talks didn’t mention the study organism, the abstract being the only clue about what was being discussed.  I have noticed this trend in paper titles recently too, and will, I am sure, address this in a future blog post 😊 It worries me somewhat that conservation biologists and ecologists have, despite the warnings that a number of eminent ecologists have made in the past, former BES President, Bob May, for example (Clarke & May, 2002) that funding and practical conservation is heavily biased in favour of vertebrate (Seddon et al., 2005), which are hardly representative of global macro-biodiversity. As far as the British Ecological Society goes, one would expect that a Society that has, over the last decade or so, become increasingly politicised, and on the face of it, publicly engaged with climate change and other ecological issues, to actively implement a change in direction of the research supported and showcased.

I have previously taken the Journal of Animal Ecology to task for ignoring most of the world’s animal life, yes you guessed it, invertebrates 😊 Their cover images are similarly biased.  Sadly, I am now going to have to take the British Ecological Society to task. I mentioned earlier that I felt the general content of the talks and posters was not representative of the world we live in and on leaving the conference decided to see if my gut feeling was a true reflection of the event.  Amy Everard of the British Ecological Society, kindly supplied me with the abstracts of the talks and posters which I then categorised according to the study organism(s) covered.  Some were a bit difficult, as even with the abstract it was difficult to decide where the focus was, so fungi and microbes may be a little more under-represented than they were in reality, particularly where the talk was on the interactions between fungi, microbes, insects and plants and in some cases, vertebrates.  I lumped all invertebrates together, although as you might expect, most invertebrates were arthropods and those were mainly insects. Plants included trees and forests where the focus was on the role the plant component played and general includes models and multi-organismal studies.  Vertebrates, which were largely birds and mammals, also includes fish, and the very few studies on amphibians and reptiles. Crude, but I feel it gives the overall picture.

First, just to remind you how life on the planet is divided up between the various taxa based on species described to date (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Relative proportions of plant, animal, fungi and microbial species described to date.

So how does this compare with what attendees at BES2018 saw and heard about? As you can see, my gut was right, the little things that run the world were under-represented in both the talks (Figure 2) and posters (Figure 3).

Figure 2. Taxa represented in talks at BES2018 (plants 32%, vertebrates 25%, invertebrates 20%, general 19%, fungi and microbes 4%)


Figure 3. Taxa represented in posters at BES2018 (plants 34%, vertebrates 31%, invertebrates 15%, general 13%, fungi and microbes 7%).

Of some comfort to plant scientists is that despite the often cited unpopularity of plants among students, about a third of all the talks and posters were plant-based.   If one goes purely by biomass, then this is an under-representation of the importance of plants.  A recent paper (Bar-On et al., 2018), estimates that plants make up almost 90% of the planet’s biomass, with the animal kingdom making up perhaps as little as 5% (Figure 4). Given that insects and other invertebrates account for perhaps 97% of all animal life, this further emphasises that the time and funding given to vertebrate ecology is totally unjustified.

Figure 4. Biomass of organisms on Earth from Bar-On et al (2018)

Unfortunately, the British Ecological Society is not alone in overemphasising the importance of the tiny number of vertebrates.  Perhaps more disturbingly is the fact that references to insects in introductory biology textbooks have declined hugely over the last century (Figure 5) while those to vertebrates have increased (Gangwani & Landin, 2018).

 Disappearing insect references (Gangwani & Landin, 2018).

This is a serious problem and one that the British Ecological Society for one, should be doing something about.  Yes, the BES might represent ecologists in general, but they certainly don’t represent ecology.  The Trustees of the BES should take note of the following statement from a group of ecological entomologists “the neglect of insects as study organisms has led to serious bias in our understanding of the functional ecology of ecosystems” (Basset et al., 2019) and the concerns echoed by conservation practitioners (Figure 6) and if that isn’t enough, then perhaps this will “a broader taxonomic base for threatened species assessments, adequately representing invertebrates, will facilitate more profound conservation and policy decisions” (Eisenhauer et al., 2019).

Figure 6. What people on the ground say; a haphazard selection from Twitter

I’ll just leave you with this thought, there are as many aphid species in the world as there are mammal species, just over 5000, but you wouldn’t know it from the number of PhD and post-doctoral positions that are advertised annually, and as for Tipulids (craneflies), a similar sized family….



Bar-On, Y.M., Philips, R. & Milo, R.  (2018) The biomass distribution on Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115, 6506-6511.

Basset, Y., Miller, S.E., Gripenberg, S., Ctvrtecka, R., Dahl, C., Leather, S.R. & Didham, R.K. (2019) An entomocentric view of the Janzen-Connell Hypothesis.  Insect Conservation & Diversity, 12, 1-8.

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

Eisenehauer, N, Bonn, A. & Guerra, C.A. (2019) Recognizing the quiet extinction of invertebrates. Nature Communications, 10, 50

Gangwani, K. & Landin, J. (2018) The decline of insect representation in biology textbooks over time. American Entomologist, 64, 252-257.

Seddon, P.J., Soorae, P.S. & Launay, F. (2005) Taxonomic bias in reintroduction projects. Animal Conservation, 8, 51-58.


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Pick and mix 21 – a cornucopia of links

There may actually be more Hymenoptera than there are Coleoptera!

Some book aren’t just for reading – wonderful hidden art

Fighting bats with long tails – moth evolution

Are you working on the right problem?

Bang, crackle, flash – Interesting paper about insect and arthropod names for fireworks

Inspired by the recent World Cup the John Innes Centre held their own version to champion discoveries they have made over the last 70 years 🙂

Insects through the Looking Glass – using Lewis Carroll to foster a love of insects

Victorian entomologists had a lot of fun – great post from Manu Saunders

A great post about science communication via Twitter by Stephen Heard

Spots on butterfly wings – what are they for?  Ray Cannon has some thoughts

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Malham again – more fun with the British Ecological Society Summer School #BESUG18

Last week I made my fourth appearance at the British Ecological Society Undergraduate Summer School with a welcome return to the Field Studies Council Centre at Malham Tarn.  As a Yorkshireman I appreciate any excuse to get back to my roots, so I was very pleased indeed 🙂 I drove up from Harper Adams University in Shropshire with my car loaded to the gunnels with microscopes, sweep nets, plastic tubes, pitfall traps and covers, beating trays, a Malaise trap, a yellow pan trap, lots of insect keys and of course hand lenses and Pooters.  I arrived late afternoon to find that my trusty co-tutor, Fran Sconce had arrived a few minutes earlier.  Once settled in we set up the pitfall traps, the Malaise trap and a solitary pan trap, unfortunately missing what we learnt later was an excellent plenary by eminent ecologist Richard Bardgett of Manchester University and current President of the British Ecological Society.  We finished just in time to sit down for dinner, which as it was meat-free Monday was great for Fran but less so for me 🙂


Fran digging in the very hard ground, a solitary yellow pan trap, the Malaise trap ready for action and Richard Bardgett in full flow.

It then rained solidly for four hours. Luckily, some of the pitfall traps had been set with covers so it wasn’t a total disaster.  Our first entomology session wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon, which gave the grass a chance to dry and made sweep netting and suction sampling possible.  I started the afternoon with a general lecture about the importance of insects and entomology and a brief introduction

The importance of entomology.

to some basic taxonomy, before we headed out to do some sampling and collecting.

How many different techniques can you spot?

Keen beans – the students enjoying collecting and identifying insects.

Back in the lab and the now obligatory late night “chase the fluorescent beetles” extravaganza 🙂

Two Outreach and Communication Officers busy Tweeting; both former students of mine, Fran Sconce of the Royal Entomological Society and Chris Jeffs from the British Ecological Society.  Great to have had them there and many, many thanks to them both.

Monday through to Wednesday – the sun did shine in the end. Monday evening inspired a haiku.

Rising from the rain

Summer mist, slowly rolling,

Hides Malham Tarn

Entomology, although important, is of course only a part of the Summer School. The students get a chance to learn about other things too, including vertebrates and plants.  I was very impressed with all the students and how much interest they showed in entomology.  I look forward to seeing some of them on our MSc Entomology course at Harper Adams University in two or three years time.

The British Ecological Society Summer Schools are a fantastic idea and they are much appreciated by the students past and present, as the following Tweet from one of the students from the first ever Summer School shows.

Andrew Barrett extolling the virtues of Twitter and the BES Summer Schools.  Incidentally, Andrew was one of the graduate mentors on the BES ‘A’ Level Summer School this year.

Next year the Summer School will be in Scotland at FSC Millport, Scotland, which is a bit of trek for me, but never fear, I will be there!

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Is there a place for humour in a scientific presentation?

Over at Ecological Rants, Charley Krebs recently wrote about and listed some very sensible and simple rules for giving a good lecture which are exactly the same things I tell my students when I give my lecture about basic presentation skills.  I do, however, also give some other hints and tips to help them give good talks and lectures.

Academics, with a few rare exceptions, are not, as a rule, stand-up comics; although, we are all, to some degree, performers. That said, there is, as I tell my students, definitely a place for humour in lectures and presentations.  The secret is making sure that it is appropriate and amusing. My first bit of advice, which I also take, is to avoid the supposedly, subtle scripted joke or play on words.  You have all sat in that lecture where the speaker very obviously works in a joke, and then the dead give-away, the expectant pause for the laugh, that is invariably either met by massed groans or a stony silence.  If you do feel the need to tell a joke per se, be upfront about it and say, “that reminds me about the…”.  It won’t be any funnier and you probably won’t get a round of applause, but hey, at least one person might laugh.

Far better is to go for the self-deprecating anecdote.  Your audience will be more sympathetic, and even if they are laughing at you, you will know that it is genuine 😊  I usually tell stories from  my working life and sometimes from my childhood. Something personal and shared, as long as it is in good taste, is always a good way to lighten a lecture and help your listeners remember a salient fact.

The thing to avoid at all costs is the careless, off the cuff comment, something that seems a great idea at the time and when without thinking, you let your mouth take over from your brain.  I speak, well write, from bitter experience.  In 1997, the 19th Symposium of the Royal Entomological Society was held in Newcastle from the 10th-11th September.  The subject of the symposium was Insect Populations and I had been invited to give the plenary address on the less than exciting subject of how qualitative changes in individual insects affects their population dynamics (Leather & Awmack, 1998).  I had a 45-minute slot and I must confess that after thirty minutes I was struggling.  Even I was finding the subject matter a bit dry, and I was desperately thinking of something to add a bit of life and colour to the talk.  I had just reached the section about lifespan when in view of an event that had happened a few days earlier, August 31st to be precise, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea, and these fatal words issued from my mouth “Death comes to us all as Princess Diana has just found out” There was a massed gasp from the audience, and then, if I had, had a pin to let go, you would have been able to hear it drop!

I use this story as an example of what not to do when I give my lecture on how to give a talk.  It always raises a laugh, albeit a shocked one 😊

My faux pas was certainly memorable.  Ten years later I was invited to give the plenary at Ento’07 in Edinburgh; the chair of the session on introducing me, pointedly made a reference to my infamous plenary of 1997 😊


Leather, S.R. & Awmack, C.S. (1998) The effects of qualitative changes of individuals in the population dynamics of insects. Pp 187-204 [In] Insect Populations in Theory and in Practice (eds. J.P. Dempster & I.F.G. McLean), Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, Boston, London.


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Inspiring the next generation of entomologists?

In the last couple of weeks, I have had the privilege to be involved in two different types of outreach involving the younger generation.  The first was Skypeascientist, which I came across via a blog post by Amy Parachnowitsch on Small Pond Science. Amy was so enthusiastic about it that I couldn’t resist signing up, to what is a great idea; in their own words “Skype a Scientist matches scientists with classrooms around the world! Scientists will skype into the classroom for 30-60 minute Q and A sessions that can cover the scientist’s expertise or what it’s like to be a scientist. We want to give students the opportunity to get to know a “real scientist”, and this program allows us to reach students from all over the world without having to leave the lab!” My first, and so far only, but hopefully not my last match was with a small primary school in the Cumbrian fells.  We had a bit of trouble with getting Skype working to begin with, but once contact was established I was subjected to some great, and in a couple of instances, tough questioning; what are the mots abundant insects in the world for one.  We covered what I did, why I did it and how I got started, as well as questions like the what is the most dangerous insects in the world, had I found any new insects, where had I been to study insects,  and from one little joker “have you ever had ants in your pants?”.  All in all, a very positive and enjoyable session and one, that I hope will result in at least one future entomologist, although sadly, by the time he or she arrives on our soon to start new entomology undergraduate degree, I will be long retired

The second outreach event was the Big Bang Fair held in Birmingham.  I participated in this last year and having enjoyed it so much, volunteered to help on two of the days; the fact that one of the days coincided with a deadly boring committee meeting that I would have had to attend otherwise, was purely coincidental 😉 If you’ve never heard of it, the Big Bang UK Young Scientists and Engineers Fair is the UK’s largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths, for young people, and is the largest youth event in the UK. The fair takes place annually in March, and was first run in 2009.  We, the Royal Entomological Society and Harper Adams University, first attended it last year, when a former student of mine, Fran Sconce, now Deputy Director of Outreach at the Royal Entomological Society, convinced us that it was a great event with which to become involved and to showcase our favourite science, entomology.  Fran was in charge this year too and did a sterling job as did the many volunteer demonstrators, drawn from among our current MSc entomologists and former students now doing PhDs.  They all did a fantastic job and I was hugely impressed by them all.

This was one of those events where the pictures tell the story but there were a few things that struck me.  First, I was surprised at how many of the teenage boys were afraid and disgusted by the thought of touching insects, the girls on the other hand, in the main were easier to win over to the concept.  When I was a teenager, now many years ago, it was the other way around.  Too much time spent indoors playing ‘shoot them up’ games perhaps might explain this, but perhaps that is too simple a view? Conversely pre-teens of both sexes seemed to respond in the same way, and overall were much easier to convince that it was safe and enjoyable to hold an insect.  Sadly, this seems to point to some anti-insect (maybe even Nature) ‘conditioning’ happening in young people once they leave primary education. Second, I was very surprised by how many times I was asked if the insect would bite them and/or was dangerous.  As I pointed out many times, “Would I be holding them and offering to let you hold them if they did and were?”  That said, I was very pleased that out exhibit attracted so much positive attention.  Some children made a lot of return visits 😊

 Now over to the pictures, which show the diversity of the young and older folk who were entertained and enthralled by our hard-working insects and volunteers.


One of the current MSc Entomology students and also a Royal Entomological Society Scholar, Brinna Barlow, demonstrating that you don’t have to be old, bearded and male to be an entomologist.

The First Day Team – the old and the new

A hive of activity at the entomology exhibit


Swarms of future entomologists?

Visitors and volunteers buzzing with enthusiasm

Some of our volunteers, Entomology MSc students past and present


Our new Entomology lecturer, Heather Campbell, showing that although she is an ant specialist, leaf insects are also cool.

Yours truly demonstrating that quite a few entomologists are oldish, greyish, bearded and male, but remember, we were young once 🙂

Bearded and male, but definitely younger

And finally, without the enthusiasm, dedication, and hard work of Fran Sconce, and the willingness of our current MSc Entomologists to give up some of their exam revision time, our exhibit would have been much diminished.  It was a privilege to stand alongside them all.

The Director and star of the show, Fran Sconce, with one of her co-stars, both fantastic ambassadors for entomology.


Post script

This post has the dubious distinction of being the first one I have ever posted while at sea; the Dublin to Holyhead ferry, m.v. Ulysses to be precise 😊


Filed under EntoNotes, Teaching matters

Pick and mix 14 – Ten more links to things that you may have missed

Mixed bags


I always said that I could taste tea bags, now it turns out to have been the pesticides 🙂

If you are in Finland you might like to try this bread

Celery is much more interesting than I thought

We need to rethink how we produce and distribute food

I hate marking and perhaps with reason?

Why eradicating mosquitoes might not be such a good idea after all

You may find this disturbing – the only species we should worry about conserving is us

And here is an alternative viewpoint in response to the above

When to Pay for Scicomm, When to Get Paid for Scicomm, and When to Scicomm for the Love of It

Help the UK Met Office understand how people interpret different visual models of climate data

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Creeping and crawling through children’s literature – A meeting of “two cultures”

Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend an unusual conference in Cambridge, “A Bug’s Life; Creeping and Crawling through Children’s Literature”.  It was unusual for me, as first it was at a weekend, second it was about insects in children’s books and third, all the other presenters and most of the delegates, were academics and PhD students from English departments.  I owed my presence at the conference as a result of my social media activities, in this case my Blog, as Zoe Jaques the organiser, had come across one of my diatribes about the lack of entomological accuracy in some insect themed books for children.  Zoe contacted me earlier this year and explained about her plans and wondered if I would be willing to contribute in my role as a professional entomologist with all expenses paid.  I didn’t take much persuading as I found the whole concept intriguing to say the least, and as an added bonus the guest author was the hugely successful Maya Leonard, author of Beetle Boy, Beetle Queen and the soon to be released, Battle of the Beetles.

I arrived at Cambridge Railway Station on the Friday night direct from France, having left Vinca at 8.45 am, to catch the train to Perpignan, then on to Paris on the TGV, then to London on the EuroStar, arriving in Cambridge courtesy of the local train, just after 9 pm.  A short taxi ride took me to Homerton College where Zoe had kindly arranged for me to stay in one of their excellent guest rooms.   After an excellent breakfast I made my way to the conference venue, following the very appropriate guide beetles 🙂

Our beetle guides

Once there I met the equally appropriately garbed Zoe and started to mingle with the delegates and other speakers, who among others, included Imogen Burt from BugLife

Zoe Jaques – the brains behind the conference, resplendent in beetle regalia.

 who opened the conference with a talk about the importance of insect conservation and the horrific and very inaccurate headlines perpetrated by the media to sell copy.  The conference programme was fantastic with a range of speakers from the Emeritus Professor, Peter Hunt, who invented the discipline of children’s literature in the UK to current PhD students such as Catherine Olver and Maggie Meimaridi with their delightfully punning talk titles, “Beeing oneself: individualism in twenty-first century fiction for teens” and “A ThousAnt plateaus”, respectively. There were a lot of puns buzzing and flying around at this conference, including a laugh-out loud presentation from Melanie Keene, “Bees and Parodies”.  We also had talks on insect scaling and cognition, fear of insects, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, racism and prejudice, and not strictly literature, a very entertaining talk by Zoe and her colleague David Whitley on the insects of Pixar animation.  My talk, not very imaginatively, was titled “The good, the bad and the plain just wrong”.  I focused mainly on the anatomy and taxonomic accuracy or not, displayed in children’s book, from the 1850s through to the modern-day.  This was a very personal selection, based on books that I had read as a child or read to my children, with a few examples from books I have come across in the last few years.  I mainly blamed the illustrators, although to be fair, some have done excellent jobs of portraying insects accurately and sympathetically.  I will be writing about this in a future post.

Maya Leonard completed the line-up with a totally Powerpoint-free extempore talk about her journey from entophobe to bestselling entophile; a ten-year journey.  A fantastic experience, if you ever get the chance to hear Maya speak, make sure you take the opportunity.

An experience not to be missed – Maya in full flow.

The “Two Cultures” in the title of this post refers to the idea of the novelist C P Snow, who at the time (1959) felt that science and humanities were two different antagonistic cultures, with science and scientists being looked down upon and scorned by those who inhabited the world of the humanities.  Put simply, Snow’s criticism was aimed at the fact that while those in the humanities felt that scientists were ignorant if they had not read Shakespeare, they did not perceive it as a failing if they were unable to state the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  This attitude may still persist in certain parts of the educated elite, in that it is seen as something to be proud of to say for example, that one is rubbish at maths, but that someone saying they have never read Jane Austen is seen as reprehensible.  This may no longer be the problem it was in 1959, although looking at the politicians wielding power in Westminster at the moment, the number of those with science degrees or an understanding of science, is lamentably low. There are indeed, as Maya pointed out in her talk, a lot of well-educated people, who know little or nothing about the natural world, entomology in particular.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not about how much better educated scientists are than those with degrees in the humanities, or those in the humanities giving short shrift to the ideas of scientists.  After all this conference was all about exploring the portrayal of an important part of the natural world; Insects and their allies, and seeking the viewpoint of a professional entomologist. Hardly the actions of Luddites unwilling to engage with new viewpoints.  I too was there to learn, as well as to inform.  In fact I was very apprehensive about my presentation.  As I pointed out in the introduction to my talk, although I have given talks to a diverse set of audiences, ranging from The Brownies to the Inner Wheel I had, until then, never given a talk to a room full of professional critics 🙂 I needn’t have worried, my talk was very well-received and generated lots of very perceptive and interesting questions.

I learnt a lot in the course of the day, not least the difference in how much can be read into the attitudes of the author and the subliminal messages that go unnoticed by the child reader, or as in my case, the adult reader, but are picked up and debated by those trained to absorb more from what they are reading than is actually on the printed page.  Although a great fan of Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series I had never taken on board the symbolism inherent in, for example,  A Hat Full of Sky’ until I heard Catherine Olver’s excellent talk on the symbolism of bees and hive minds in what I now know as YA (Young adult) fiction.  Similarly, until pointed out to me by Sarah Annes Brown during her talk on “Insects – a liberal litmus test?” the possibly racist and stereotypical portrayals of the characters in George Selden’s A Cricket in Times Square had completely escaped me.  I obviously spend too much time stressing out over the biological and anatomical aspects of the insect characters 🙂

The other thing that struck me very strongly was the difference in way in which language and PowerPoint was used by the speakers.  Biologists (and I think most scientists) are taught that the ideal slide should have no more than six bullet points and that under no circumstances should a slide be filled with a single block of text.  It this came as a surprise that we were asked on a number of occasions to spend a couple of minutes reading and digesting the contents of a slide filled from top to bottom with a quote from a book or paper.  I was also struck by the difference in the language used, “contextualise” and “narrative” being the two most common examples of words that are rarely uttered at an entomology conference.  That said, I confess that I used the word narrative several times in my own talk, but only one of my slides contained a quotation 🙂

The conference was an entertaining, educational, enjoyable and exhilarating experience and I am very grateful to Zoe for allowing me to take part in it.  I think the “Two Cultures” have a lot to learn from each other and Zoe is to be congratulated on having the idea and the perseverance to bring the project to fruition.  I very much look forward to future collaborations with her and others from the world of humanities.

And there were appropriate cakes 🙂

If you want to see the Tweets associated with the conference check out #bugznkidzlit


Filed under EntoNotes

Bringing ecology blogging into the scientific fold: measuring reach and impact of science community blogs

At the end of the year there is a tendency for some scientific bloggers to take advantage of the statistics provided by their host platform to produce a round-up of their year and to compare their figures with previous years.  I too am one of the number crunchers and revel in the data available 🙂  One of the frustrating things, for me at any rate, is the lack of a benchmark, how are you doing compared with other bloggers?  This year I decided to try and get some data and approached Jeff Ollerton to see if he would let me look at his 2016 data, which he kindly did and this allowed me to produce a comparative graph.  Much wants more.  As an entomologist an n of 2 is small beer.  I needed more data to satisfy my craving.  I also talk to our postgraduate students about the value of social media, including blogging, but rely mainly on personal anecdotes.  What was needed was something concrete to support my assertions.

I subscribe to, and follow a number of blogs, but there are a few that I feel are somewhat similar in their aims and scope to mine.  One is Jeff Ollerton’s Biodiversity Blog, the others are Dynamic Ecology, Ecology Bits, Ecology is Not a Dirty Word, Scientist Sees Squirrel and Small Pond Science.  Jeff is also a follower of these blogs and when I suggested that it would be a good idea to try to write something about the value of blogging to academics and why our employees should support us in our endeavours he promptly suggested that we get in touch with those bloggers.  I couldn’t see a downside to this so first approached Manu Saunders of Ecology is Not a Dirty Word and Steve Heard of Scientist Sees Squirrel as these were the two bloggers with whom I had interacted most.  Steve then helped bring the others on board and that is how it all began (at least that is how I remember it).

The Blogging Consortium

Manu very kindly took charge of the data collation and I made a first stab at drafting the paper in mid-January.  Steve did a very good job of rewriting it and Meg Duffy (Dynamic Ecology) Jeff Ollerton and Amy Parachnowitsch (Small Pond Science) got into the swing of things as well.  By the end of January we were really motoring and bouncing ideas of each other and the rapidly growing draft.  As with all non-mainstream activities, the day jobs got in the way and we had a couple of months where very little happened.  I felt that things were slipping a little and in the spring had another go at the draft and this stimulated another flurry of action from what we were now calling the blogging consortium, with major contributions from Meg, Jeff and Steve, which put us all on our mettle and something that was beginning to look like a completed paper appearing.  By May Manu had got us all working on a Google Doc document which greatly improved our efficiency.  As we were now heading toward June, some further analysis was needed and Manu bravely volunteered to become the lead author and general butt kicker 🙂 It worked, and by the beginning of July we were ready to submit and had started discussing potential journals.  As the paper was all about science communication we were very keen to get it in a high-profile Open Access journal, but one that didn’t charge an arm and a leg as our paper had no grant income associated with it.  After a couple of enquiries Manu found a journal that fitted our requirements and was willing to have a look at it and on July 20th 2017 Manu submitted our paper to Royal Society Open Science.  Six weeks later we were euphoric!

Oh frabjous day!

The comments of the reviewers were some of the best I have ever seen, and I submitted my first paper in 1979 🙂  I have never had the word limpid applied to my writing, it just shows what can be achieved by cooperation.   I can’t resist sharing some of the comments from the reviewers

Associate Editor Comments to Author:


Both reviewers are very positive about this manuscript and indeed I agree with them. It is an important piece and a very inspirational read.

Reviewer: 1

At one time, my favourite t-shirt slogan was “More people are reading this t–shirt than your blog” – those days are clearly gone as this paper shows, at least in ecology! ……..Their thoughts on citing blogs will, I suspect, launch many posts and comments on their respective blogs. I think this paper will be an important contribution to what is very much a developing field. I have no comments to add and, for the first time for me, I recommend acceptance without revision.

Reviewer: 2

 This is a fantastic and much needed piece that deserves to be published widely. ……….The authors clearly state this upfront: ‘academics wish to understand whether particular activities influence various audiences’. I command the authors for this rare instance of honesty and for aiming to publish this manuscript with the best academic journals in their discipline. The manuscript is limpid and very well written. The style is engaging and the results significant for the wider academic community. I fully support its publication.


These last nine months working on the paper were personally very rewarding and to me, a vindication that becoming a blogger was a good decision.  It was also a huge buzz to work with such a dynamic group of bloggers.  I think Steve sums it up for all of us in this Tweet

If you are not yet a science community blogger or don’t think that they have a place in mainstream science, please take the time to read our paper which you can find here.  It won’t cost you anything but time 🙂 and if any reporters are reading this – here courtesy of Manu, is our press release.

Blogs are no longer simply online personal journals. We define an overlooked category of blogs that holds immense value for the scientific community: science community blogs are written by practising scientists for scientists. As academics and active bloggers, we use data from our own blogs to show how science community blogs are a valuable outreach and professional development tool. Blogs are also a citable primary source with potential to contribute to scientific knowledge. It’s time for blogs to be accepted as a standalone medium with huge benefits for individual scientists and the science community as a whole.   


Post script

If you want to know what my fellow authors thought about our collaboration you can find Manu’s story here, Steve’s here, Amy and Terry’s here and Meghan’s here.


Filed under Science writing

Challenges and rewards – Why I started, and continue blogging

If you are reading this article this afternoon (13th September 2017) it is quite possible that I am at this very moment giving my talk about the challenges and rewards of blogging to a live audience at ENTO’17 in Newcastle 🙂  In my talk, I began by explaining how it was that I became a fan of social media, first Twitter and then as a blogger.  I have already written about my conversion in an earlier post and how much I feel that social media adds to academic life, so I will not bore you with the whole story again.

  Suffice it to say pre-Twitter and pre-blogging I was writing a lot, but mainly to the wrong audience.

The second part of my talk attempted to answer the following questions. As an academic why should you blog?  What are the benefits?  What are the risks?  What are the challenges? Is it part of your day job?  More importantly, how can you convince your university or research institute that you should spend office time blogging?  What follows is the ‘script’ of my talk.

I started blogging because I felt that the way I was trying to get the importance and wonder of entomology across to non-entomologists was too limited.  I was not interacting with enough people outside the field, I needed to widen the scope of my activities.  Yes I was going into schools and talking to natural history societies, gardening clubs and on occasions youth groups and organisations like the Women’s Institute or the U3A, but I was only talking to tens of people. I wanted (needed) to talk to hundreds, even thousands of people to feel that I had a chance of getting my message across that the future of the natural world lay in an understanding of the invertebrate world and not of the “large charismatic mega-fauna”.  Hence my leap into the world of Twitter, and certainly with a following of over 5000, I am now potentially talking to thousands of people, according to my analytics my Tweets earn nearly 5 000 impressions a day.   The trouble with Tweets is that by their very nature they are transient and flow down the Twitter timeline to obscurity at a tremendous rate.  They are also not easily reference-able.  A blog on the other hand, if hosted on a reputable site, is as permanent as anything is these days, and as each post has a unique address, also has the advantage of being able to be linked to and found by search engines.  It was thus a logical step to launch a blog which is what I did, and Don’t Forget the Roundabouts was born.

A blog is born

I did not take this step lightly.  As the point of starting a blog was to make an impact, it could not be anonymous.  The content of the blog needed the backing of my professional reputation to hopefully give it the stamp of reliability and authority.  I was, and still am, putting my reputation on the line every time I post a blog article. It was thus with some sense of trepidation that I went public.  Writing a blog is a whole different thing to submitting a paper to a journal where you are subjected to peer review and your readership is pretty much limited to people who are very similar to yourself and whom have access to scientific journals.  Anyone with access to the internet can find, read and comment on a blog. A scary thought.  I felt it was worth it and still do. There were two other reasons besides my wish to increase the range of my outreach and to increase the level of interactions, that made the idea of starting a blog seem logical.

Reasons to start a blog

As a teenager I loved English, both language and literature (I still do, I have a personal library of over 10 000 books) and even had aspirations of becoming a novelist.  As those of us who have been around for a longish time will know, as you become more successful at getting grants and increasing the size of your research group, you get further and further away from the bench and/or field and do more and more ‘editing’ and commenting on other people’s writing.  In my case this had resulted in me finding it more and more daunting when faced with a blank sheet of paper or an empty word processing document. I saw the prospect of producing blog articles as a way of getting back into the habit of starting from scratch and also of learning a more relaxed and accessible style ready for my retirement plans of writing “popular”* entomology books. Finally, I thought it might be fun, my late father often voiced the opinion (especially when I was a teenager) that I “loved the sound of my own voice”.  Writing a blog does indeed give me the opportunity to sound off now and then and I make all sorts of fantastic discoveries when I am doing the background research for an article.  I freely confess, I enjoy writing my blog immensely.  It really is great fun.

Is it all positive?  Of course there are challenges, it would be foolish to deny it.  Finding the time to manage a blog can be a problem.  I am not retired, I have a full-time academic position, running a research group, editing journals, reviewing papers and grant proposals, writing and co-writing scientific papers, sitting on committees, and of course teaching students, both undergraduates and postgraduates.   Writing a blog is yet another call on my time, but one I am happy to heed.   I do blog writing and research at work

Enough to put you off?

and at home.  My contract does actually have a paragraph that mentions outreach so I feel justified in doing this.  Another challenge that might seem daunting is that of coming up with topics to write about.  Before I went public, I wrote five articles and filled an A4 piece of paper with potential topics that I thought would be fun to write about and of interest to others.  In reality I found that just living life provides topics enough to allow me to produce an article every couple of weeks.  There is always something that sparks an idea for a potential blog article, be it a scientific paper I read, something in the news or even as has happened twice now, a piece of fiction.

A challenge to some bloggers is that of motivation.   Unless you happen to be paid to be a blogger or make a living from it, then it can be hard to make the time and take the effort to write something regularly.  Luckily for me, I am somewhat competitive, even when the only other entrant in the race is myself.  I set a target of two articles a month but regularly find myself doing three, just to make sure that I am ahead of schedule and also I get quite a buzz on ‘publication’ day when the daily view total shows a spike in response to your activity 🙂

The publication day spike

 I have to admit that the fact that WordPress generates a number of statistics that you can track and compare, gives me plenty of motivation 🙂

The other challenge which I alluded to is the slightly anxious feeling that you get every time you publish an article.  Firstly as I mentioned earlier, because I am blogging as me, I really, really want what I say to be correct.  I find that I do as much, if not more background reading for a blog article as I do for a scientific paper.  I definitely do a lot more historical reading for the blog articles because it is very interesting and I also find it fun to delve back to the origins of a topic.  If I had not written an article about aphid symbionts I would never have discovered that Thomas Henry Huxley had worked on aphids which made me even impressed with him than before. The other times that I feel anxious are when I publish something that Is not strictly within my field but moe of an opinion piece.  When I got upset about he British Ecological Society (BES) and their conference catering policy I wrote rather an angry, although, at least in my opinion, a well-argued article.  I was somewhat hesitant in pressing the publish button, but went ahead and did so, and then sat back waiting for the angry responses from vegetarians and vegans.  To my surprise the expected lambasting did not materialise and I received several complimentary comments and emails.

Having a go at the British Ecological Society https://simonleather.wordpress.com/2015/12/17/meeating-issues-with-the-british-ecological-society-why-i-boycotted-the-2015-annual-meeting/

The BES were even kind enough to publish a slightly edited version in their Bulletin.  In some ways I have been slightly disappointed that this, and other articles dealing with ‘controversial’ viewpoints have not generated more critical responses, although I guess I should count my blessings and not angle for brickbats.

Enough about the challenges, what about the benefits?  Have I made an impact?  As far as I am concerned the answer is a resounding YES.  I am read all around the world and I am pretty certain that my 175 blog posts have been read more than my 230 scientific papers.

A worldwide reach – I have been read by someone in almost every country in the world

I am particularly proud of having one of my blog posts referenced in a book about preparing for PhD vivas (Smith, 2013).

This post made an impact – https://simonleather.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/are-phd-examiners-really-ogres/

I have also been invited by magazines and societies to convert some of my blog posts into articles for publications aimed at reaching more general audiences in an accessible and informative way.

Making an impact and bringing entomology to a wider audience

More conventionally, some of my blog posts have gone mainstream and appeared in scientific journals, a bit of reverse outreach 😊

Some of my blog posts that have made it into the scientific literature

Something that may put people off blogging is the possibility that their employer may not see a benefit in their activity and only not encourage but perhaps even discourage, their staff from becoming bloggers.   It was to counter this perception that a group of like-minded bloggers and I got together to present an analysis of the value and impact of blogging in ecology.  It was an interesting and rewarding exercise** and last week we were rewarded by having our paper accepted for publication in a prestigious journal.

Squaring the circle – a mainstream paper about the benefits of blogging for scientists

Proof that this was a fun project to collaborate on and write about

I think that there is a very strong case for more scientists to become bloggers, but if you do decide to take up the challenge and become a blogger you should first ask yourself exactly what it is you hope to get from it.  Is it just for pleasure, is it for outreach, to practice writing or to draw attention to yourself to increase interactions with others in your disciplines?

Three simple rules to ease you into the blogosphere

Whatever your reasons there are things that you can do to make your blog a success and help you overcome the challenges I have outlined above.  First, be well prepared have some articles in reserve, especially when you launch your blog. It is also a good idea to post at regular intervals, not necessarily often.  Having a ‘deadline’ will help you with your writing and time management and people will start to expect to hear from and may even become subscribers to your blog.  It is also important not to get downhearted or impatient.  It takes time to build an audience.  Blogs grow at different rates depending on a number of factors including blogging frequency and audience interaction (Saunders et al., 2017).

A frequent poster

My blog, regular but not as frequent as Jeff Ollerton’s Biodiversity Blog

Finally, it is important to do as much as possible to publicise your blog, use the tag function to help search engines direct people to your blog and I would urge you to join Twitter and do remember to use all the publicise buttons that your blog host provides.

I look forward to seeing a plethora of new entomology and ecology blogs. Happy Blogging.



Saunders, M.E., Duffy, M.A., Heard, S.B., Kosmala, M., Leather, S.R., McGlynn, T.P., Ollerton, J. & Parachnowitsch, A.L. (2017) Bringing ecology blogging into the scientific fold: measuring the reach and impact of science community blogs. Royal Society Open Science,

Smith, P.H. (2013) The PhD Viva, MacMillan Education, UK.

*assuming anyone wants to read them of course 🙂

**there will of course be a blog about this in the near future.


Filed under Science writing