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

Happy 10th birthday to Ecology is not a Dirty Word!

Cheers to everyone who has read and shared my blog posts over the years. I’ve had some great discussions here and made some really worthwhile connections because of this little blog. Most importantly, it’s kept me inspired and connected through the highs and lows of academia. Here’s to many more blog posts, discussions, and connections to come!

I’m so happy that my current second most visited post is ‘On the importance of observations to Ecology’, an ode to natural history notes and a reminder that ecological science will stagnate without observing natural interactions occurring around us. It sums up many of the reasons why I started blogging in the first place. (It was pipped to the post by one of my insectageddon articles)

Some more on why I love blogging:

The buzz on (ecology) blogging

On 7 years of ecology blogging

Our paper on why ecology blogs are so valuable to the academic community: Bringing ecology blogging into the scientific fold: measuring reach and impact of science community blogs. For anyone who still needs convincing that academic blogs are not a waste of time, this paper is an excellent piece of evidence: co-authors are from Don’t Forget the Roundabouts, Scientist Sees Squirrel, Dynamic Ecology, Jeff Ollerton’s Biodiversity Blog, and Small Pond Science

P1040957

© Manu Saunders 2019

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

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

Insectageddon is a great story. But what are the facts?

Hype is an ineffective communication strategy, especially when based on limited facts. There are many elements to effective communication – simply raising awareness about a problem is not enough if audiences don’t engage with the facts and participate in developing solutions.

The latest instalment in the Insect Armageddon saga is out. I wasn’t going to write about it. After my previous posts, I didn’t want to sound like a stuck record. But I’ve had a few media requests, some from journalists who found my original blogs. Most journalists I spoke to have been great, and really understand the importance of getting the facts straight. But a few seemed confused when they realised I wasn’t agreeing with the apocalyptic narrative – ‘other scientists are confirming this, so why aren’t you?’

This latest review paper has limitations, just like the German and Puerto Rican studies that received similar hype over the last few years. This doesn’t make any of them ‘bad’ studies, because every single research paper has limitations. No single study can answer everything neatly. Science takes time. Continue reading