Artisan insects and scicomm

One of the positives of our modern dependence on technology and the Internet is their ability to allow us to connect and engage with more people. This is a common argument for open access publishing: because we now have the technology to make scientific articles freely available to all, we should embrace it and make it happen.

Does making information freely accessible online automatically make the material more accessible? Not necessarily. Scientific articles are not a ‘mainstream’ medium. They use language that only peer-group scientists and specialist science communicators can understand. Just making an article free to view doesn’t make it more accessible or useful to a general audience.

Take the Law, for example. Australia’s Commonwealth and State government legislation are online for everyone to access for free, whenever they want. But, seriously, when was the last time you sat down with a cup of tea to read the Albury-Wodonga Development Act 1973?

For science to have impact beyond its peer audience, it usually needs to be translated through a common language. So publishing open access is not a replacement for science communication, it is complementary to it.

I recently acquired the wonderful ‘Insect Artizans and their Work’ (1919) by Edward Step. Step was a naturalist who contributed a number of beautiful books to the natural history literature. His works were considered popular at the time, although his account of a mouse-eating grasshopper from the Congo in ‘Marvels of Insect Life’ may have subsequently blacklisted him with the scientific community.

Regardless, ‘Insect Artizans’ is a wonderful piece of scicomm…from a time when communicating science wasn’t scicomm, it just came with the job for most scientists and naturalists. The book explains the insect world within a context of interest to contemporary society (economics and industry). Step chose this approach to awaken an interest in people for “whom a more systematic treatment would be considered dry and uninteresting”.

He uses the categories of artisanship or ‘industry’ (in the old-fashioned sense of craftsmanship) to group insect species. This would have made sense to many readers, because it was similar to how the community functions of our own families were once identified by their surnames. I am the combined product of Baker and Taylor lineages and, funnily enough, I really love sewing and bread.

Once upon a time, it was common to approach nature as functional, rather than delineated. ‘Ecosystem services’ is really just a new name for an old method. Everything in nature has a role. Before individual species were given names and separated into organisms, people recognised different animals, birds and plants through their seasonal activities. This tied in with mythologies and cultural beliefs, where every kind of plant, animal and ecosystem had a symbolism relative to human life. And so Step groups the insects he describes by the crafts they contribute to nature.

Spinners and Weavers’ covers silkworms, weaver ants, moths and butterflies.

Miners’ discusses species from the mining bee and wasp genera, like Andrena, Colletes, Halictus and Pompilus, a few excavating beetles, and leaf-mining moths, flies and sawflies.

Masons’ looks at the bees, wasps and termites that build nests out of mud pottery.

Carpenters and Wood-workers’ covers the carpenter bees and ants, bark beetles, wood moths and sawflies.

Upholsterers’ are the solitary bees ‘that exhibit a tendency to luxury’, including the carder and leafcutter bees who line their nest cells with scraps of leaves and flower petals.

Wax-workers’ is devoted to social honey and bumble bees, while the social wasps are the ‘Paper-makers’.

Tailors’ are the moths, caddisflies, ants, beetles, lacewings and bugs that fashion cocoons out of cut-and-paste plant material.

Horticulturalists’ are the ants and termites that cultivate fungi and plants inside their nests.

Sanitary Officers’ are the beetles, flies and wasps that decompose carrion, dung and rotting matter.

The band of ‘Musicians’ is made up of cicadas, crickets, grasshoppers and a couple of random beetle and butterfly groupies.

Burglars’ mostly covers the parasitic cuckoo bees and wasps, while the glow-worms and fireflies are the ‘Lamp-bearers’.

What a great way to illustrate the role of insects in ecosystems. I couldn’t find a review or mention of the book in the scientific literature, although reviews of similar books have been common in journals for decades. It does appear in an education journal from 1925, in an article listing books suitable for a high school science library. The criteria for selection were “up-to-date”; “accurate”; and “of the proper style and vigor [sic] [to] fire the imagination of the young people who read in them of the wonders of science in the service of mankind”. (So, ecosystem services…not a new concept.)

Step’s chapter on ‘Sanitary officers’ is particularly entertaining to read. Successful ‘science communication’ relies on blending facts with audience values. Facts are static but values vary, depending on the audience. Step illustrates this beautifully by showing how our cultural ideas of decomposer insects do not match their role in nature.

Long before cities were invented, with their elaborate schemes for making life possible under unnatural conditions, Nature had her sanitary commission at work to keep the earth sweet…owing to most of us having lived under urban conditions all our life, we fail to recognize the officers as such when we see them, and in most cases take offence at their presence. In the majority of cases we have only ourselves to thank for their visits, which are due to our having some nuisance or other on our premises…Looked at from Nature’s point of view…everything that is dead is a nuisance and a menace to the living; so it must be cleared away as soon as possible and reduced to an elementary condition in which it can be used over again in the processes of the universe.

Much has been made recently on the challenges of communicating science beyond a peer audience. Scientists have an in-depth understanding of the facts, while communicators may have a better handle on audience values. But where does the audience fit into this picture? How can scientists, ecologists and communicators blend facts and values to educate most effectively when urbanisation has resulted in society’s values being increasingly removed from nature? What do you think?

A psyllid’s hand-built house.

© Manu Saunders 2015

8 thoughts on “Artisan insects and scicomm

  1. Michel February 13, 2015 / 3:57 AM

    Why ecologist scientists with one hand, complicate the vision and with the other hand ask how we can make it understandable by other people than just us? This is a true question you asked when we know that our sustainable development model (our civilisation model) now needs to be understood by all and not only by peers, by kids, by science illiterates (our governments), etc.

    In a nutshell : Sustainable development will be simple or simply won’t be.

    Maybe ecological scientist should not be shy to take a broader view. They should research for the place of life within our civilisation and not within the field only. They should work on our model and not within the model.

    For example, we should think that urbanisation is not – resulting in – society’s values being increasingly removed from (living) nature but actually – IS – society’s values being removed from (living) nature. Indeed, Greeks, creators of the city, gave formal “droit de cité” to foreigners and even slaves but never gave it to non-humans, plants and animals…

    That’s why I work with “Biodiversity against environment” model. Even 6 years old kids understand it. It is a much better model than the monoblock “all is environment” and ecosystemic model.

    Maybe one can try storytelling his public that life fight the environment to develop itself instead of storytelling its public that all is environment.

    Simple, Straight forward… and so true.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Brianne February 13, 2015 / 4:12 AM

    I really like those categories Step put the insects in! They’re so approachable. I am very interested in translating my work outside of scientific outlets, but you’re so right about the difficulty of getting natural history information to a society increasingly distant from nature. Perhaps using urban media venues to get the information out would help…but mass media is often more interested in conflict and argument rather than fact. You’ve posed a really interesting question here! Thank you also for the link to that PNAS article. I’m eager to read it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • manuelinor February 13, 2015 / 6:55 AM

      Thanks Brianne! I know, aren’t they great? They just make you smile reading them! I completely agree, the mass media want drama, controversy and conflict even when it’s not there…sad, as it portrays a false view of the world that many people buy into. Glad you enjoyed reading!


  3. PK Read February 13, 2015 / 5:00 AM

    Great post! You’ve articulated some of the notions that go through my mind when writing on my own blog and trying to find ‘approachable’ ways to present complex issues. I often choose to use artwork to illustrate my posts, rather than more straightforward photos or graphs, to try and get across another level of understanding or perspective.
    The insect classification is inspirational – mind if I reference it (and your post here) on my own blog?


    • manuelinor February 13, 2015 / 6:51 AM

      Thanks! Yes, art is a great translator and you use it really well on your blog. ‘Approachable’ is a good word – anyone can put words on a page, but approachable implies that next level down of meeting the audience halfway.
      Happy for you to reference my blog – I think the text of Step’s book is online somewhere too, maybe the Biodiversity Library.

      Liked by 1 person

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