Moving on from the insect apocalypse to evidence-based conservation

Our insect apocalypse paper is finally published online at BioScience, with awesome co-authors Jasmine Janes and James O’Hanlon!

We summarise the major flaws in the pop culture ‘insect apocalypse’ narrative and argue that focusing on a hyped global apocalypse narrative distracts us from the more important insect conservation issues that we can tackle right now. Promoting this narrative as fact also sends the wrong message about how science works, and could have huge impacts on public understanding of science.

And, frankly, it’s just depressing. Right now, we all need hope, optimism and reasons to act, not a reason to give up.

This blog isn’t about the paper, you can read it yourself (journal, preprint, or email me for a copy). This is about why we wrote the paper. Continue reading

Let’s get political! (as scientists)

When I grew up, I was taught that politics and religion were taboo subjects in social situations, sometimes even among close family. I liked to believe this social code came from a well-meaning place…the idea that we shouldn’t judge people on their personal beliefs. But I suspect it was more of a survival mechanism, evolved over generations of bloody wars that started because of political gripes and religious persecution.

As a scientist on social media I’ve often been told that I should only comment on things I have expertise in, things I actually work on. And I shouldn’t ‘get political’.

Sure, I don’t publicly comment on scientific disciplines I have no experience in. Even within ecology, I rarely comment on animals or systems I don’t work with regularly. And fair enough too. I get really frustrated when scientists without insect expertise make inaccurate public comments about insects, or when ecologists who don’t work on ecosystem services science publicly claim the concept is flawed. Continue reading

Bees and meat consumption: a spurious correlation

I’ve seen and heard a few claims circulating that removing meat from your diet is essential to ‘save the bees’. This is misleading and draws a long bow between lots of random correlations to promote a particular agenda.

Sure, intensive meat production contributes to some big environmental problems and there are plenty of reasons to reduce your meat consumption. But there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support claims that eating meat is bad for bees.

Meat comes in many forms. From wild game to highly-processed ‘meat products’, from large-scale intensive feedlots to diversified low-intensity grazing systems, from locally-produced to high food miles. It is generally impossible to make blanket statements about all meat. Continue reading

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

How damaging is sexy soundbite scicomm?

The ‘tyranny of the sound bite’ has plagued politicians and celebrities for decades. Pithy one-liners, taken out of context, can be extremely damaging to a person’s reputation.

In science communication, Sexy Science soundbites, condensing complex ecological problems into simple data points or the efforts of single researchers, can damage public understanding of science.

We’ve seen this with Insect Armageddon and the recent ‘3 billion lost birds’ story. Ecology is the science of nuances, and any claim of global patterns or precise data points must be interpreted with context.

Much of the problem with these soundbite disasters lies with the science communication around the story, not necessarily the science itself. Continue reading

System Solutions: sustainable agriculture is about ecological interactions

The latest IPCC report was released last week, with very similar findings to the IPBES report released earlier this year. Both reports analyse published research and provide evidence-based recommendations to guide policy-making. They corroborate what ecologists and environmental scientists have been showing for the last few decades via hundreds of thousands of studies across multiple disciplines.

In a nutshell, we need to change how we, as a species, interact with our environment. Most importantly, we need to change the way we manage and use land and natural resources. And there are many ways we can do this. Continue reading

What is a species? Philosophy, Science and Scicomm

What is a species? This apparently simple question is one of the best ways to get scientists arguing.

A recent article by Henry Taylor, a philosopher at University of Birmingham, asks this question from a philosophical perspective. The article itself is okay. But there is zero chance of biologists adopting its recommendation, ‘to scrap the idea of a species’, any time soon (see also this older article at the same platform, on the same subject, from a biologist’s perspective).

What I found interesting is how different audiences interpreted the article in the comments and on social media. I saw a mix of reactions (based on my network and a few searches; obviously not indicative of everyone) – some scientists were condemning the article vocally and aggressively, while others who didn’t appear to be scientists (based on their Twitter bio), shared the article in agreement and support.

‘What is a species?’ is a classic philosophical question, not a scientific one. Philosophical questions are a valuable tool for life. They are conceptual, not factual; they are rarely ‘solved’ (in the scientific sense); and they need to be addressed with complex thinking, not just facts or empirical research. You don’t have to agree with this approach, it’s just how Philosophy differs from Science. Disciplines are defined by different methodologies, standards, systems, and norms.

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

Agriculture vs. Environment: another false dichotomy

Recently, protecting the environment has been portrayed as a hindrance to economic growth, a fluffy sideshow, or a bureaucratic obstacle to hardworking families. Ironically, the absolute opposite is true. It’s just another false dichotomy.

I grew up around Agriculture. Being a farmer was one of the first career choices I can remember as a primary school kid. I’ve hand-fed calves, shown prize dairy cattle at local shows, helped friends pick fruit, and worked as a governess on a remote beef cattle station. I did university twice, and ended up where I am today, because I learned first-hand from so many farmers that a healthy environment is essential to agricultural production.

So, very personally, I’m a bit upset that the Agriculture vs. Environment dichotomy has blown out of proportion. Continue reading