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

Australia’s threatened insects

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

Insect declines: pay attention

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

Insects in decline: why we need more studies like this

Ecological Armageddon is a bit dramatic. But the message from this paper published in PLOS One is important. The study shows an 82% decline in mid-summer flying insect biomass since 1989 over multiple sites in Germany. Mid-summer is usually peak insect activity, so this is weird.

But every ecological study has a context. This context is described in the Methods section – the most important but least-read section of a scientific paper. For this study, most of the media stories glossed over or overextended the context. Continue reading

Shakespeare knew his insects

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.

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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