Book Review: The Last Butterflies

(This is the accepted version of my review published here in Trends in Ecology & Evolution.)

It is an unfortunate paradox that insects, the most abundant and diverse class of animals on Earth, are also the most understudied and misunderstood. With diversity comes complexity, and scientists have only scratched the surface on knowledge of global insect ecology. In The Last Butterflies, ecologist and butterfly expert Nick Haddad explores some of this complexity.

Despite the title, this is not a story of despair. Nor is it just about butterflies. Haddad weaves an absorbing narrative about the multidimensional process of science and insect conservation, the damaging impacts humans can have on the web of life, the ethical quandaries of conservation, and the positive changes and solutions that give us hope. Each main chapter is focused on a single butterfly species: six of the rarest North American butterflies that Haddad has spent his career studying, and two more well-known species from North America and the UK. The eight butterflies are framing devices, each one illustrating pieces of the challenging puzzle that is insect ecology and conservation. Continue reading

The windscreen phenomenon: anecdata is not scientific evidence

The windscreen phenomenon refers to people’s perception that there are fewer insects being splattered on their windscreen than they used to see. It is one of the most common anecdotes presented as evidence of global insect decline in the Insectageddon stories. But anecdotes are not scientific evidence. Anecdotes describe local conditions, not globally-relevant facts.

People often claim the ‘windscreen phenomenon’ is established evidence and proven fact. But a search of academic journal databases returns only one published study that has used car windscreens to measure changes in local insect abundance. In that study, Anders Møller compared insect abundance (although it’s not clear from the Methods if he actually measured density) with breeding rates of insectivorous birds in an agricultural landscape in Denmark. Data was collected in the same way at the same location for 20 years, which is very impressive, and analysis showed an 80% decline in insects across the period. Continue reading

The real Tinkerbell: don’t mess with these tiny fairy wasps

Have you ever seen a fairy? They exist, and may very well be in your garden. But you would need a high-powered microscope to spot the dainty creatures.

Fairy wasps (family Mymaridae) are tiny, feathery-winged parasitoid wasps. They’re often called fairy flies, which is a misnomer. The Mymaridae family includes the smallest known insects in the world. Most species are less than 1mm long – smaller than the average pinhead.

Read on at The Conversation.

© Manu Saunders 2019

Insect apocalypse: no simple answers

After my blog post earlier this year on the questionable insectageddon review paper, American Scientist invited me to write a perspective article on the media hype surrounding the story.

The review paper has many flaws and caveats (stay tuned for a more thorough treatment of the paper coming soon) and the breathless media hype around it was confused and misleading. But the overall message is valid – our collective actions are impacting ecosystems (including insects) in dangerous ways through forest clearing, pesticide use, fossil fuels, and widespread simplification of landscapes. Some insect species are being seen less frequently in some areas because of this.

However, this message is not new – we already have access to decades of more rigorous evidence showing these effects and how we can mitigate them, so the engagement value of this latest review paper is unclear. Is it worth risking public trust in scientific rigour, just to get a bit more attention for the issue?

You can read my article here: No Simple Answers for Insect Conservation

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© Manu Saunders 2019

Bees in her eyes: lost in translation or fake news?

On Wednesday afternoon, I noticed the steadily increasing coverage of the story about sweat bees living in a Taiwanese woman’s eye. It seemed implausible – very few bees are small enough to get in your eye without knowing it, and they certainly wouldn’t survive very long.

But what first caught my attention was the poor communication around this story. The use of words like ‘nightmarish’ and ‘weird’ for a completely normal animal interaction. And the number of stories that were headlining their report with a picture of a totally unrelated bee (usually Apis mellifera), or even other insects. Toby Smith and I have previously looked at how misuse of pictures of Apis mellifera in media stories can affect accuracy of science communication. Continue reading

Roosting insects: avoiding predators, or just after a cosy nap?

On Sunday, as I walked a load of washing to the Hills Hoist, an odd pattern caught my eye. It’s autumn here in Armidale (which is very cool climate by Australian standards) and temps have been cooling off for a while. But Sunday was our first proper cold snap, a lot earlier than usual and much colder than the March average minimum (about 11°C). We got down to about 3°C overnight and there was frost in some parts. I was shivering before I’d finished hanging the washing out.

Our vegie garden is effectively dead – a few late-ripening tomatoes and the flowering borders are hanging on. But as I walked past a dead plant full of dill seeds, something caught my eye. Continue reading

Bogong moths: pest, icon, or just another insect species we know very little about?

The Bogong moth story is a fascinating example of how complex insect life cycles don’t translate well to simplified sound bites.

Recent observations that there are fewer Bogong moths (Noctuidae: Agrotis infusa) in the Alps this summer made the news. One of the researchers credited with the observations found no moths in three caves he had visited last year, but he did find some in other caves in the region. There are limited long-term data on Bogong moth populations, and all of this news appears to be based on anecdotes, so it is impossible to verify if the species is truly in decline. Continue reading