From 1993 until 2012 I taught a final year course at Imperial College called Applied Ecology. The relevant part of the course blurb used to say:
Course Outline: Applied ecology, philosophy and concepts. Nature Conservation, Nature Reserves (history and philosophy), SSSIs, legal aspects, SLOSS, butterfly case studies. Mammal conservation, issues and dilemmas. Forestry and woodland management, effects of afforestation, effects on pest and disease incidence, conservation. Habitat creation and management. Waterways and fisheries. Agroecosystems, agricultural practice and objectives, crop history and evolution, pest incidence. Organic farming, effects on pest incidence, weeds, workshops. Pest management and the environment, residues, niche replacement, biocontrol, resistance, social and economic effects, IPM in harmony with conservationists. Sampling, forecasting and monitoring. Workshops and mini-conference. Visit to London Zoo (Captive breeding programme).
Those of you with eagle eye vision may have noticed that one of the topics covered was biocontrol; for those of you with vision more like mine, I have highlighted the word biocontrol in bold. As most of this course was material that I had lived and breathed either since I was an undergraduate, or as part of my professional research career (except for the rivers and lakes), I was in the enviable position of not having to do a lot of background research to prepare lectures and source material. It was quite literally, sitting there in my head. This did of course lead to some sloppy habits. For example, as an undergraduate my crop protection lecturer at Leeds (the late Dr Noel Gibson) when telling us about biological control and its history, mentioned that the Chinese had, long ago, introduced ant nests to citrus orchards and to enhance their activities, stretched bamboo poles between trees. So to my lazy self, this was a fact and thus when preparing my slide on the history of biological control I put it down as a fact without acknowledging any source [something I happily tell students and others off for not doing!].
I sort of felt guilty about this but always said in the lecture that this is what my lecturer had told me when I was an undergraduate and as none of the students ever asked me for the actual reference I let it slide. Then one year (2006), I was reading a science fiction novel by a Scottish novelist, Kenneth McLeod, who just so happens to have a degree in zoology. The book, as far as I remember, described the attempts of earth colonists attempting to establish crops on an alien planet. Their crops were being devastated by pests and the xeno-biologist said, and I quote very loosely, as this was back in 2006, said (and I am sure you have guessed it already) “I remember my lecturer telling me when I was an undergraduate about how the Chinese used to facilitate biological control by running bamboo poles between orange trees so that the ants could be more effective”. “Wow” I said, and “Wow” again, because Ken McLeod had put a reference in a footnote, to Wheeler (1910). So there was my source. I now had a mission. Despite the fact that I had accepted the story as fact since 1976, I felt an urgent need to see the reference for myself. Using the internet I tracked down a copy of Wheeler in an antiquarian book shop in Amsterdam and ignoring the sarcastic comments of my wife, purchased it on-line and waited impatiently for it to arrive. As we were now in the Christmas vacation it didn’t arrive until the New Year. I ripped open the parcel and was the proud owner of a copy of Wheeler’s Ants ; interestingly, the copy I now owned had once been in the library stock of Cornell University, so had made rather a long journey to end up in Bracknell almost a hundred years later.
I started to read it; luckily I didn’t have to go very far as there on page 9 was the story of the Chinese ants in black and white; unfortunately, it appeared that Wheeler was not the primary source, he was indulging in yet another bug-bear of mine, quoting someone,
McCook (1882), who had quoted someone else (Magowan), without giving the original source. So now I had to track down McCook!
Luckily, since Wheeler had actually cited McCook, I was able to do this successfully using the inter-library loan service.
So now I had the citation for Magowan. Unluckily it was in rather an obscure newspaper, The North China Herald. This posed a bit of a problem and slowed my search down. Luckily in recent years, there has been a huge international effort made into digitising newspapers and I was finally able to track down an electronic archive holding the relevant issue and
eventually find the relevant page. Success, after almost seven years I had finally tracked down the original source of the ‘fact’ that I had been retelling for all those years. I felt quite
proud of myself , although my wife, who is not a scientist, says that this is yet another example of how weird we scientists are. On the other hand, I was somewhat disappointed that I had only tracked it down to 1882 as I am sure that this must be an ancient agricultural practice with its roots, many hundreds, if not thousands of years in the past. Perhaps my next self-imposed mission impossible, will be to find the oldest mention of the practice.
Today, I just happened to be looking for a book in my office, when I noticed one of my old course texts, Van den Bosch & Messenger (1973),
which I notice cost me £2 in 1976, actually quite a lot of money as my student grant was just over £600 in total.
Flicking the book open I soon found the page with the Chinese ant story on it and a citation to the 1882 McCook paper. So, if I had thought to look at my old text-book I could have saved myself the expense of buying Wheeler’s book, which was not cheap. But then if I had, I would never have discovered Wheeler and I would have missed all the fun of chasing the references down, so I think it was worth it overall.
McCook, H.C. (1882) Ants as beneficial insecticides. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences Philadelphia, 34, 263-271.
van den Bosch, R. & Messenger, P.S. (1973) Biological Control, Intertext Books, New York & Leighton Buzzard.
Wheeler, W.M. (1910) Ants: Their Structure, Development and Behavior, Columbia University Press, New York & London.