Shakespeare knew his insects

Robert Patterson (1802-1872) was a remarkable naturalist you’ve probably never heard of. At the age of 19, he co-founded the Belfast Natural History Society. He also wrote a number of zoology texts and designed a series of zoological diagrams for use in schools. In 1857, he posted a ‘real Irish Rabbit’ across the Irish Sea to Charles Darwin, at Darwin’s request.

Patterson was also a bit of a Shakespearean. In 1838, he published a little book called ‘Letters on the Natural History of the Insects Mentioned in Shakspeare’s Plays.’

‘Shakspeare’ is not a typo, it is spelled this way throughout the book; Patterson was clearly in the Victorian-era camp that thought the Bard’s name should be spelled as he signed it.


The book consists of 12 papers that were read out on ‘Public Nights’ held at the Belfast Society’s museum during the 1830s. These public events were common at learned societies of the time. For one night, the doors were opened to non-members to listen to the experts talk science (or literature, or whatever the society scholars were into). Clearly ‘science communication’ was just part of the job in those days. Continue reading

Box–Gum woodland pollinators: the case of the mysterious urn heath

Have you heard of urn heath (Melichrus urceolatus)? I hadn’t, until July last year. It grows along most of Australia’s east coast, but only in Box–Gum Grassy Woodland ecosystems (update: also in other ecosystems! see Greg Steenbeeke’s comment below). For most of the year, it’s an unassuming, prickly little shrub, usually less than 1 metre in height. Then in late winter, it bursts into a mass of tiny creamy-white urn-shaped blooms. Each individual flower is only a couple of mm in size. But a shrub in full bloom will stop you in your tracks.

Albury urn heath

This is what happened last July, as I took my regular afternoon walk through a local urban nature reserve. The reserve (Eastern Hill in Albury, NSW) is a tiny fragment of the Box-Gum Grassy Woodlands that were once common across the region. Continue reading

Goodies v baddies? Why labelling wild animals as ‘pests’ or ‘friends’ is holding farming back

It’s hard to keep wild animals out of farms. Birds, mammals and insects all affect crop yields, in positive ways (such as flies pollinating flowers) and negative ones (such as when birds damage fruit).

Agricultural research and management programs often deal with these interactions by focusing on simplistic “good” and “bad” labels: aphids are annoying pests, for example, whereas bees are little angels.

Read the rest of our piece at The Conversation.

And see the papers behind the article here:

Saunders ME, Peisley RK, Rader R, Luck GW (2016) Pollinators, pests, and predators: Recognizing ecological trade-offs in agroecosystems. AMBIO 45:4-14.

Peisley RK, Saunders ME, Luck GW (2015) A systematic review of the benefits and costs of bird and insect activity in agroecosystems. Springer Science Reviews 3:113-125.

Why I ‘liked’ your blog post: on sharing content for science communication

The Internet is no longer a space for readers to simply consume content passively, it’s now a place where readers can actively engage with content and its author. Social media, in particular, are based on content sharing and discussion.

As a medium, blogs are different to news, books or academic literature. They are community-focused…but the content acts as a go-between for author–audience interactions, rather than a quod scripsi, scripsi contribution from the author. For bloggers, having a social media presence and not engaging with your social network is like going to a dinner party and sitting in the corner all night with your back to everyone.


Here’s an engagement tip not often mentioned in the ‘how to blog’ guides. Sharing other people’s posts is a positive and effective way to expand your network. So what are the best ways to share other people’s content without losing your own individual voice? Continue reading

Emancipation, Evolution…and Agroecology: Lincoln & Darwin on land-sparing vs. land-sharing

Every year, I get to share my birthday with these guys:


I’ve been mildly obsessed with both of them for years, for obvious reasons. But it was only recently that I discovered their early contributions to the land-sharing/land-sparing debate, something directly relevant to my own work. Darwin’s ecological legacy is well-known, but how often do we consider Lincoln’s impact on environmental history? Continue reading

Evaluating scientific evidence

In an era where PR rules the news and superlatives rule science, how can a reader really know what’s what?

Critical analysis skills are a key survival skill, but facts-on-demand has taken over in many modern educational structures. And despite the best intentions, the ‘openness’ of the internet has simply confused things. Opinions on scientific issues regularly rub shoulders with evidence and sometimes it can be hard to tell which is which (for scientists and non-scientists alike).

And what is ‘scientific evidence’ anyway? I wrote about this a few years ago, but it’s much more complex than I had room to explain.

I recently stumbled across this great series on how to evaluate scientific publications, from the German peer-reviewed medical magazine Deustches Ärtzeblatt. The papers are useful for teaching, for critical news audiences, and for practicing scientists. All articles are open access, translated from German. The series started in 2009 – I haven’t found a contents list or an apparent end-date for the series, so I will keep this updated as they get published. Continue reading

Why I don’t want to be paid for peer review

If you believe the hype, peer review is flawed and corrupt, a broken system threatening to undermine the very foundations of academia…particularly science. From fake reviews to biased ones, one of the main arguments for ditching the system is the myth that reviewers can no longer be trusted to give a fair assessment of another scientist’s paper.

But the problem is not with peer review per se, it’s with our expectations of the system.

Right now, many people think peer review means, “This paper is great and trustworthy!” In reality, it should mean something like, “A few scientists have looked at this paper and didn’t find anything wrong with it, but that doesn’t mean you should take it as gospel. Only time will tell.”

The academic review system as we know it today began around the 1960s. But the process of peer review has been around for centuries, formally and informally, from the Greek Agora to the first Royal Society meetings.

We need peer review because science (and scholarship generally) is a community endeavour.

Sure, there are some cheaters, but most scientists behave ethically. In my short career, most of the reviews I’ve received have been genuinely helpful and I’ve published better papers because of them. Continue reading