Tag Archives: shifting baselines

Global Insect Extinction – a never ending story

I have had an unexpectedly busy couple of weeks talking about declines in insect populations.  Back in November of last year I wrote a blog about the sudden media interest in “Insect Armageddon” and followed this up with a more formal Editorial in Annals of Applied Biology at the beginning of the year (Leather, 2018).  I mused at the time if this was yet another media ‘storm in a teacup’ but it seems that the subject is still attracting attention.  I appeared on television as part of TRT World’s Roundtable programme and was quoted quite extensively in The Observer newspaper on Sunday last talking about insect declines since my student days 🙂 At the same time, as befits something that has been billed as being global, a similar story, featuring another veteran entomologist appeared in the New Zealand press.

The TV discussion was quite interesting, the panel included Nick Rau from Friends of the Earth, Lutfi Radwan, an academic turned organic farmer, Manu Saunders from Ecology is Not a Dirty Word and me.  If they had hoped for a heated argument they were out of luck, we were all pretty much in agreement; yes insects did not seem to be as abundant as they had once been, and this was almost certainly a result of anthropogenic factors, intensive agriculture, urbanisation and to a lesser extent climate change.  Unlike some commentators who firmly point the finger at the use of pesticides as the major cause of the declines reported, we were more inclined to towards the idea of habitat degradation, fragmentation and loss.  We also agreed that a big problem is a lack of connection with Nature by large sections of the population, and not just those under twenty.  We also felt very strongly that governments should be investing much more into research in this area and that we desperately need more properly replicated and designed long-term studies to monitor the undeniable changes that are occurring.  I had, in my Editorial and an earlier blog post, mentioned this point and lamented the paucity of such information, so was pleasantly surprised, to receive a couple of papers from Sebastian Schuh documenting long-term declines in Hemiptera and Orthoptera in Germany (Schuh et al., 2012ab), although of course sad, to see yet more evidence for decreasing insect populations.

The idea that insects are in terminal decline has been rumbling on for some time; more than a decade ago Kelvin Conrad and colleagues highlighted a rapid decline in moth numbers (Conrad et al., 2006) and a few years later, Dave Brooks and colleagues using data from the UK  Environmental Change Network revealed a disturbing decline in the numbers of carabid beetles across the UK (Brooks et al., 2012).   In the same year (2012) I was asked to give a talk at a conference organised by the Society of Chemical Industry. Then, as now, I felt that pesticides were not the only factor causing the biodiversity crisis, but that agricultural intensification, habitat loss and habitat degradation were and are probably more to blame.  In response to this quote in the media at the time:

“British Insects in Decline

Scientists are warning of a potential ecological disaster following the discovery that Britain has lost around 7% of its indigenous insect species in just under 100 years.

A comparison with figures collected in 1904 have revealed that around 400 species are now extinct, including the black-veined white butterfly, not seen since 1912, the Essex emerald moth and the short-haired bumblebee. Many others are endangered, including the large garden bumblebee, the Fen Raft spider, which is only to be found in a reserve on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, and the once common scarlet malachite beetle, now restricted to just three sites.

Changes to the insects’ natural habitats have been responsible for this disastrous decline in numbers. From housing and industrial developments to single-crop farming methods, Britain’s countryside has become increasingly inhospitable to its native insects.”

I chose to talk about “Forest and woodland insects: Down and out or on the up?” I used data from that most valuable of data sets, the Rothamsted Insect Survey to illustrate my hypothesis that those insects associated with trees were either doing better or not declining, because of increased tree planting over the last fifty years.  As you can see from the slides from my talk, this does indeed seem to be the case with moths and aphids that feed on trees or live in their shade.  I also showed that the populations of the same species in northern Britain, where agriculture is less intensive and forests and woodlands more prevalent were definitely on the up, and this phenomenon was not just confined to moths and aphids.

Two tree aphids, one Drepanosiphum platanoidis lives on sycamore, the other Elatobium abietinum, lives on spruce trees; both are doing rather well.

Two more tree-dwelling aphids, one on European lime, the other on sycamore and maples, both doing very well.  For those of you unfamiliar with UK geography, East Craigs is in Scotland and Newcastle in the North East of England, Hereford in the middle and to the west, and Starcross in the South West, Sites 2, 1, 6 and 9 in the map in the preceding figure.

Two conifer feeding moth species showing no signs of decline.

On the up, two species, a beetle, Agrilus biguttatus perhaps due to climate change, and a butterfly, the Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria, due to habitat expansion and climate change?

It is important however, to remember that insect populations are not static, they vary from year to year, and the natural fluctuations in their populations can be large and, as in the case of the Orange ladybird, Halyzia sedecimguttata, take place over a several years, which is yet another reason that we need long-term data sets.

The Orange ladybird Halyzia sedecimguttata, a mildew feeder, especially on sycamore.

It is obvious, whether we believe that an ecological catastrophe is heading our way or not, that humans are having a marked effect on the biodiversity that keeps our planet in good working order and not just through our need to feed an ever-increasing population.  A number of recent studies have shown that our fixation with car ownership is killing billions of insects every year (Skórka et al., 2013; Baxter-Gilbert et al.,2015; Keilsohn et al., 2018) and that our fear of the dark is putting insects and the animals that feed on them at risk (Eccard et al.,  2018; Grubisic et al., 2018).  We have a lot to answer for and this is exacerbated by our growing disconnect from Nature and the insidious effect of “shifting baselines” which mean that succeeding generations tend to accept what they see as normal (Leather & Quicke, 2010, Soga & Gaston, 2018) and highlights the very real need for robust long-term data to counteract this dangerous and potentially lethal, World view (Schuh, 2012; Soga & Gaston, 2018).  Perhaps if research funding over the last thirty years or so had been targeted at the many million little things that run the World and not the handful of vertebrates that rely on them (Leather, 2009), we would not be in such a dangerous place?

I am, however, determined to remain hopeful.  As a result of the article in The Observer, I received an email from a gentleman called Glyn Brown, who uses art to hopefully, do something about shifting baselines.  This is his philosophy in his own words and pictures.

 

References

Baxter-Gilbert, J.H., Riley, J.L., Neufeld, C.J.H., Litzgus, J.D. & Lesbarrères, D.  (2015) Road mortality potentially responsible for billions of pollinating insect deaths annually. Journal of Insect Conservation, 19, 1029-1035.

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

Conrad, K.F., Warren. M.S., Fox, R., Parsons, M.S. & Woiwod, I.P. (2006) Rapid declines of common, widespread British moths provide evidence of an insect biodiversity crisis. Biological Conservation, 132, 279-291.

Eccard, J.A., Scheffler, I., Franke, S. & Hoffmann, J. (2018) Off‐grid: solar powered LED illumination impacts epigeal arthropods. Insect Conservation & Diversity, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/icad.12303

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

Grubisic, M., van Grunsven, R.H.A.,  Kyba, C.C.M.,  Manfrin, A. & Hölker, F. (2018) Insect declines and agroecosystems: does light pollution matter? Annals of Applied Biology,   https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/aab.12440

Keilsohn, W., Narango, D.L. & Tallamy, D.W. (2018) Roadside habitat impacts insect traffic mortality.  Journal of Insect Conservation, 22, 183-188.

Leather, S.R. (2009) Taxonomic chauvinism threatens the future of entomology. Biologist, 56, 10-13.

Leather, S.R. (2018) “Ecological Armageddon” –  more evidence for the drastic decline in insect numbers. Annals of Applied Biology, 172, 1-3.

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

Schuh, S. (2012) Archives and conservation biology. Pacific Conservation Biology, 18, 223-224.

Schuh, S., Wesche, K. & Schaefer, M. (2012a) Long-term decline in the abundance of leafhoppers and planthoppers (Auchenorrhyncha) in Central Europe protected dry grasslands. Biological Conservation, 149, 75-83.

Schuh, S., Bock, J., Krause, B., Wesche, K. & Scgaefer, M. (2012b) Long-term population trends in three grassland insect groups: a comparative analysis of 1951 and 2009. Journal of Applied Entomology, 136, 321-331.

Skórka, P., Lenda, M., Moroń, D., Kalarus, K., & Tryjanowskia, P. (2013) Factors affecting road mortality and the suitability of road verges for butterflies. Biological Conservation, 159, 148-157.

Soga, M. & Gaston, K.J. (2018) Shifting baseline syndrome: causes, consequences and implications. Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment, 16, 222-230.

 

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Insects in flight – whatever happened to the splatometer?

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

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

splat-1

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

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

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

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

splat-2

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

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

 

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

splat-3

The “Splatometer” as designed by the RSPB

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

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

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

splat-4

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

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

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

Post script

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Where have all the woolly bears gone? Woolly bears what are they?

Just a brief thought this week, mainly about shifting baselines and changing perceptions.  I attended the launch of the State of Britain’s Larger Moth’s Report   http://www.mothscount.org/uploads/State%20of%20Britain’s%20Larger%20Moths%202013%20report.pdf last week (February 1st) which as well as giving me the chance to catch up with a number of old friends, also enabled me to hear Chris Packham http://www.chrispackham.co.uk/  giving a lively and very entertaining talk about why moths are important and how he got hooked by ‘natural history’.  He cited as one of the main factors,  his childhood experiences of rearing (or attempting to rear) woolly bear caterpillars, the larvae of the Garden Tiger moth Arctia caja,  a widespread and common species when I was a child and teenager in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Woolly bear larva

http://www.wildlifeinsight.com/Insight/?p=3468

GardenTiger2SF

When I was earning extra money working as a postman in the Vale of York during my student years, it was one of the insects that I could guarantee I would encounter on my round.   Despite its wide range and great abundance, this moth has suffered a huge decline in numbers and I have hardly seen one since I was a long-haired, flares wearing student.  Like Chris Packham, it was the opportunity to interact with such a striking insect, which kept me interested in the natural world despite the competing interests of girls and beer.  As I write, I am teaching on a module (Ecological Entomology) of our MSc Entomology course http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/postgraduate/201004/entomology (incidentally the only one in the UK).  Having been reminded of the Garden Tiger by Chris Packham, I quickly substituted my population simulation modelling exercise on the Speckled Wood Butterfly, with one on the Garden Tiger.  After I had finished introducing the subject to the students, Kevin, a mature student said that it was collecting and rearing woolly bear caterpillars as a child that had led to him to be sitting in front of me now.  One of the other students, a recent graduate, piped up and asked “what is a woolly bear?  I have never heard of them”.   He was there because he had been inspired by his project supervisor.

I guess the point that I am trying to make, is that whilst Kevin and I were inspired to become entomologists by our childhood experiences, Craig had to wait until he was exposed to the wonder and awe of working with insects as an undergraduate.  So what’s the problem you may ask?  Both students have ended up in my class. There is a problem however; the last BSc in Entomology in the UK stopped running in 1995, there are no Entomology Departments in UK universities , there are as far as I can ascertain, very few academic entomologists who describe themselves as entomologists in their job title e.g. as Professor of Entomology.  As far as I know, there is only me, http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/staff/profile.cfm?id=201220 and then there is Francis Ratnieks at Sussex who proudly describes himself as the UK’s only Professor of Apiculture http://www.sussex.ac.uk/profiles/128567.  Others who I regard as mainstream entomologists are not described as such as in their job titles, e.g. Richard Wall at Bristol, Professor of Zoology; Jane Memmott also at Bristol,  Professor of Ecology; Bill Hughes at Sussex , Professor of Evolutionary Biology; Charles Godfray at Oxford (Hope Professor of Zoology) and the list goes on.  Even Mike Siva-Jothy who describes himself as an angry old entomologist on Twitter is just listed as Professor. Unlike arachnologists in Canada who are extremely rare organisms as outlined in Chris Buddles’ great blog article http://arthropodecology.com/2013/02/06/where-are-all-the-arachnologists-and-why-you-should-care/  we are still around in fairly respectable numbers.  We do, however, seem to be making it difficult for potential students to find and identify us.  The reasons for why I think this has happened will be the subject of another blog.  The point is, that if we are hard to find and identify, then the pool of potential future entomologists is going to become smaller as fewer and fewer undergraduates are exposed to basic entomological teaching and thus fewer and fewer entomologists will make it through to academia and our profile will become even lower and therefore even fewer students will be able to be inspired and so on and so on.  As a result, we too are likely to become as endangered as Canadian arachnologists.

So, if you are an academic who works mainly with insects and you are able to identify more species than just those you work on, then why not identify yourself in your job title as an entomologist and stand tall and proud and countable.

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Think small and local – focus on large charismatic mega-fauna threatens conservation efforts

What’s the problem?

Mention conservation to most people and they immediately think of tropical rainforests, tigers, polar bears and elephants.  But high profile so called “conservationists” are no different from the general public; for example, Robin Hanbury-Tenison whose dream job is Ranger in an African national park (Daily Telegraph, July 2nd 2009).  His writings focus on South America and Africa, and his thoughts concern saving rhinos etc.  The small essential organisms that run the world are beneath his ken.  This focus on the large and charismatic organisms fostered by TV programmes is having a harmful effect on our children’s perception of nature; a future generation of conservation scientists are receiving a highly biased view of the world.  For example, when I talk to ‘A’ Level Biology students and show them the following slide, they are all able to answer the questions posed in the middle.

Biodiversity foreign

When, however, I show them the following slide of common British invertebrates they are almost always at a complete loss, although some students are able to name the aphid,

Biodiversity arthropod UKa

although not of course, to species.  When I show them the next slide of rare

Biodiversity UK rare

animals and an internationally rare habitat, they fail dramatically, except sometimes one will guess the dormouse correctly.

Funding bodies are no less biased (Leather, 2009).  The Darwin Initiative, a UK Government fund for international nature conservation projects, has a less than enviable record when it comes to funding entomological research; since 2003 they have awarded 154 grants, 9 that specifically name invertebrates, but 50 that name vertebrates, and did not fund any invertebrate research in 2010, despite Darwin’s well known love of invertebrates, especially beetles, and his extensive research into barnacles, insect pollinators and earthworms.  Nature conservation is also internationally biased, with less and less focus placed on the UK and an ever-increasing number of TV programmes about exotic mega-fauna.  Large areas of the UK, such as towns and ex-industrial areas are often considered wastelands in terms of nature conservation but actually, may be rich in diversity.  To remain this way, however, they need not only to be protected but also to be managed.

 Why are insects important?  Are they endangered?

Most of the world’s animals are invertebrates: insects and allied invertebrates comprise approximately 78% of the world’s macro-biodiversity, whereas vertebrates, even using the most generous estimates, make up less than 3% (Clark & May, 2002). Invertebrates have more species than all other groups put together and are an important food source for other, more popular, animals. They also carry out vital roles for us, including cleaning our air and soil, breaking down decaying material and pollination.  If these groups are not looked after and protected from extinction then not only will the favoured charismatic animals not continue but we are at risk also!   About 250 species of beetle have not been seen in the UK for 35 years, bees are in decline,  and we have no idea if earthworm and Collembolan populations are coping with modern, intensive agriculture.  Only a tiny amount of money gets channelled into nature conservation, and only a minute fraction of this then finds its way into conserving invertebrates, the majority is siphoned off to conserve the much smaller numbers of the furry, feathery and flowery.  As a result, whilst we have detailed lists of the endangered vertebrates worldwide, we don’t even know how many invertebrates there are, let alone if they are endangered or not. As Papworth et al. (2009) point out, how can we expect people to care about the environment and conserve it, if they do not perceive it in its entirety?

Why is local important?

The only places suitable for nature are considered to be untouched areas in the open countryside.  While these areas are protected, local nature reserves or patches of green space are discarded and become more and more fragmented and degraded in quality.  The biodiversity of urban gardens has been intensively researched in previous studies in Sheffield (the BUGS project) demonstrating surprisingly high invertebrate diversity (Smith et al., 2006) as have the roundabouts of Bracknell (Helden & Leather, 2004; Helden et al., 2012).  Some focus should be shifted to these sorts of sites and not just the isolated big patches, and this will allow us to support the greatest amount of habitat for British wildlife.

 What can we do?

Regardless of what exotic animal you hear about as being greatly endangered, try to look a bit closer to home and down by your feet.  You’re more likely to encounter something there which would actually make a difference if you cared about it and protected it.  And for those contemplating conservation gap years overseas, why not save money and make a difference at home.  It might not be as exotic, but your efforts will be just as valuable.

 

Clark, J.A. and May, R.M. (2002) Taxonomic bias in conservation research. Science 297, 191–192.

Helden, A.J. & Leather, S.R. (2004)  Biodiversity on urban roundabouts:  Hemiptera, management and the species-area relationship.  Basic & Applied Ecology, 5, 367-377 http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/staff/profile/files/uploaded/Helden&Leather2004.pdf

Helden, A.J., Stamp, G.C. & Leather, S.R. (2012)  Urban biodiversity: comparison of insect assemblages on native and non-native trees.  Urban Ecosystems,  15, 611-624 http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/staff/profile/files/uploaded/Helden_et_al_2012.pdf

Leather, S. R. (2009). Institutional vertebratism threatens UK food security. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24: 413-414. http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/staff/profile/files/uploaded/Leather_2009_Trends-in-Ecology-&-Evolution.pdf

Papworth, S.J., Coad, L., Rist, J., Miller-Gulland, E.J. (2009) Shifting baseline syndrome as a concept in conservation. Conservation Letters 2, 93-100. http://www.iee.unibe.ch/cb/content/e7117/e7118/e8764/e9981/e9990/Papworth_ConLet2009.pdf

Smith, R.M., Gaston, K.J., Warren, P.H., Thompson, K. (2006) Urban domestic gardens (VIII): environmental correlates of invertebrate abundance. Biodiversity & Conservation 15, 2515-2545. http://bugs.group.shef.ac.uk/BUGS1/sources/bugs-reprint8.pdf

 

Notes:

Although this article is written from an entirely UK-centric viewpoint, I would be very much surprised if what I have described is confined to the British Isles.

The UK Government commemorates Darwin with the ‘Darwin Initiative’ a fund for international nature conservation. But the little animals he loved are not well catered for. In 2009 only one project specifically relating to invertebrates was included in the 74 projects short-listed by the ‘Darwin Initiative’.

Matt Shardlow, Director of Buglife – The Invertebrate Conservation Trust said “Darwin loved bugs and understood their critical importance supporting life on earth. Currently society invests a pathetic amount of money into conserving these natural riches; without sufficient Government funding we have to depend on the generosity of individuals to save the small things that run the world.”

 

(DEFRA funding to The Darwin Initiative assists countries that are rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources to meet their objectives under one or more of the three major biodiversity conventions: the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES); and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), through the funding of collaborative projects which draw on UK biodiversity expertise). http://darwin.defra.gov.uk/

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