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

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

Times have changed: dealing with dodgy science in the internet age

Dodgy science, dodgy scientists and dodgy humans are not a new thing. And dodgy scientific papers have been published since the dawn of scientific publishing. In 1667 an article on ‘snakestones’, a pseudoscience medical cure with absolutely no basis in truth, appeared in one of the first issues of the oldest known scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (now Phil Trans A, one of the most prestigious modern scientific journals).

Since then, disreputable papers have made regular appearances in reputable journals. And there are different scales of disreputable. The paper claiming that octopi originated from outer space was clearly far-fetched, while the scholars who recently argued there was a ‘moral panic’ over free-ranging cats simply highlighted how interdisciplinary research is often challenged by opposing methodological approaches (note: I agree with most ecologists that free-ranging cats are not good for wild animals, including insects). Continue reading

Notre Dame vs. Nature: on why valuing nature is a challenge we need to face

The recent Notre Dame fire grabbed global headlines. The morning I woke to see it on the news, I felt sad. I’m not a Christian and I’ve never been to Paris. But my mother is an artist and I studied French and ancient history for years. I recognise the intrinsic cultural value of Notre Dame and everything within it. The iconic cathedral has value, not only for Parisians, but for many parts of global society: art, religion, history, architecture, popular culture…

As concern over the fire grew, I was surprised at the response from some people online, including scientists, who began criticising support for the burning cathedral. They compared the cultural losses of Notre Dame with nature conservation and species extinction. What about forests? What about species extinction? What about the Great Barrier Reef? The implication was that if you cared about the Notre Dame fire, then you didn’t care about Nature (see these great blogs by Sam Perrin and Jeff Ollerton, including the comments from readers).

I felt confused, because I cared about both! Continue reading

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