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
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
A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk at the Insect Ecology Research Chapter workshop at the Ecological Society of Australia’s annual conference in Brisbane. I talked about how policy and popular media influence insect conservation in Australia; as an example, I discussed this research by Toby Smith and me showing how introduced honey bees dominate mainstream media coverage of pollinators in Australia.
I also collated data on which insect species are officially listed as threatened species in Australia. In Australia, we have a national list (under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999) of flora and fauna species that are considered threatened at a national scale. In addition, each individual state and territory has its own threatened species list under various state legislation. Continue reading
Last year I wrote about the Insect Armageddon story – an important paper that received some exaggerated media hype.
A new paper just published in PNAS adds another twist to the insect declines saga…clearly, this story is far from over.
Lister & Garcia analysed data collected in the Luqillo Experimental Forest in Puerto Rico. This area of tropical rainforest is not a ‘pristine’ untouched wilderness, as some media reports are claiming – no place on Earth is untouched by humans! The site has been a long-term research location for decades, going back to the early 1900s, with a focus on experiments to understand the effects of disturbances of all kinds. Many important experimental research projects involving human disturbances (like this one) have happened in the Luqillo forest.
This study is important for a few reasons. Continue reading
I recently discovered this gorgeous book, loaned to me by a colleague (Elizabeth Hale, who blogs over at Antipodean Odyssey).
These days, children’s books and popular media often portray insects as scary creepy-crawlies, and the decline in outdoor play and education means many kids rarely encounter an insect that’s not a household pest.
Back in Victorian times, before screentime entertainment, things were a bit different. Victorian entomologists wrote widely on the wonders of insects, from their roles in Shakespeare’s plays to the ecosystem services they provide. Continue reading
I was recently interviewed for a great new podcast on ABC called Science Friction by Natasha Mitchell. The episode is about insect declines, including the Insect Armageddon story I blogged about last year. Natasha also talks to two well-known Australian entomologists, Ary Hoffmann and Ken Walker, as well as Caspar Hallmann one of the authors of the German insect decline study. It’s really nicely produced and explores more than just the decline issue, showcasing how wonderfully unique insects are and why we need to spend more time getting to know them!
You can listen to the Insect Armageddon story here, or subscribe to Science Friction through your favourite apps.
My most-cited paper so far (although not really the most-cited when you take years of publication into account) is an entomological field methods paper. It was also an unplanned paper. It came out of my PhD data, but wasn’t one of my research questions.
Methods papers are great contributions to the literature, and I highly recommend PhD students consider writing one, especially if they are working on understudied systems, or find some interesting patterns during data collection. Methods papers have much broader application to diverse fields and sub-disciplines than the PhD results themselves might. Continue reading
It’s true, nocturnal bees exist. Bees are generally considered a day-active creature, but there are many species around the world that have evolved to love the night…perhaps because their favourite flowers open at night, or maybe they just prefer to feed in peace and quiet!
Because bee species, like most insects, are very sensitive to cold temperatures, most of these nocturnal bee species are found in tropical and sub-tropical areas. One species is known from Australia and it’s found in north and central Queensland. It’s likely that others exist, but they either haven’t been found or night activity hasn’t been observed yet. Continue reading
Robert Patterson (1802-1872) was a remarkable naturalist you’ve probably never heard of. At the age of 19, he co-founded the Belfast Natural History Society. He also wrote a number of zoology texts and designed a series of zoological diagrams for use in schools. In 1857, he posted a ‘real Irish Rabbit’ across the Irish Sea to Charles Darwin, at Darwin’s request.
Patterson was also a bit of a Shakespearean. In 1838, he published a little book called ‘Letters on the Natural History of the Insects Mentioned in Shakspeare’s Plays.’
‘Shakspeare’ is not a typo, it is spelled this way throughout the book; Patterson was clearly in the Victorian-era camp that thought the Bard’s name should be spelled as he signed it.
The book consists of 12 papers that were read out on ‘Public Nights’ held at the Belfast Society’s museum during the 1830s. These public events were common at learned societies of the time. For one night, the doors were opened to non-members to listen to the experts talk science (or literature, or whatever the society scholars were into). Clearly ‘science communication’ was just part of the job in those days. Continue reading
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. Continue reading