Arthropod April: Insects are animals too

When people say ‘wildlife’, they usually mean ‘animals’ (and sometimes birds). Occasionally, they might lend a fleeting thought to botanical beauties. But rarely are arthropods thought of. Aside from the charismatic honey bees and butterflies, the tiny, squidgy, creepy, crawly arthropods are easily overlooked. They can’t be cuddled and squealed over, and the most commonly-encountered ones are often scary or annoying. Google image search ‘I love wildlife’ and you mostly get big cats, bears, meerkats and baby things.

Technically, arthropods are animals too, just another Phylum in the Kingdom of Animalia, parallel with the chordates (animals, reptiles, and birds). So there is absolutely no reason not to include them in talk of ‘wildlife’. Yes, cheetahs, pygmy possums and meerkats are darned cute – I get giddy over them too! But arthropods are just as endearing. And they are also a vital link in the ecosystems that the cheetahs and meerkats frolic in every day.

Unfortunately, most of the attention that arthropods get is unfavourable or in shock. Spiders are terrifying, mosquitoes and flies are annoying, cockroaches are gross, praying mantises are just off the charts with wackiness. If we are not staring in horror and awe, we’re reaching for the spray can. Remember Danny Kaye’s soothing fairytale ode to the Inchworm? Today, inchworms are mistakenly blacklisted as pests, doomed to death before they can finish measuring the marigolds. Continue reading

Humanities vs Science: is writing a dying art?

Mentioning the word ‘humanities’ in a room full of scientists is pretty risky. For some scientists, there is a stigma attached to the study of ‘arty’ subjects. The process of research and inquiry in classics, history, literature and anthropology is very different to the scientific method. Yet neither approach is wrong, both are equally creative, and both have the ultimate goal of discovering and sharing knowledge. Having studied and worked in both disciplines, I can’t see any way that one is more rigorous than the other. But there is a huge difference in the way that most students are educated in each discipline. Humanities courses, in particular, are often better at teaching students how to write.

Science is about generating and sharing knowledge to build our collective wisdom. So communicating the results of scientific research is a core responsibility of a scientist…something that has become a bit of a topical issue. Experts of various disciplines have been sharing great ideas through blogs, popular science media and academic journals on how scientists can communicate more effectively. However, the majority of these pieces focus on communication as a practising scientist, i.e. after graduation. Far less attention is given to how communication skills can be enhanced prior to starting a science career by top-down initiatives at the education level. Continue reading

Wild pollinator count

Last spring,with the help of Karen Retra, a local permaculture teacher and native bee naturalist, I trialled a wild pollinator count citizen science event. It started off as an experiment – both of us were passionate about wild pollinators and keen to encourage people to think outside the ‘pollinators are just bees’ box. So we organised a week-long ‘wild pollinator count’ for residents in our region (southern New South Wales and north-east Victoria).

The inspiration came from similar counts overseas, like the UK’s Big Butterfly Count and USA’s Great Sunflower Project. There was an opportunity to create a similar event here, and this style of citizen science is a great way to engage people beyond the ‘active’ amateur naturalists and science fans. Time-and-Place events, like local bioblitzes or museum-based events, may not connect with everyone who is interested if they don’t have time or money to attend. In contrast, backyard citizen science has the potential to engage more people, as it allows people to participate in their own time. Continue reading

Artisan insects and scicomm

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

Hop Bush Hex

There are so many complex interactions in Nature that we know so little about. Before emails, corporate-structured universities and funding cycles, ecologists spent a lot more time in nature, observing patterns that inspired questions to answer. Now that we spend more time indoors than out, how many ecological puzzles remain unsolved?

For the last few months I’ve been sampling insects in apple orchards for an ecosystem services project I’m working on. As a habitat comparison, I also collect insects in patches of native vegetation next to the orchards. At one of our sites, a biodynamic orchard in northern Victoria, the native vegetation is a stand of mixed Eucalyptus, Acacia and Dodonaea species that were planted on the farm some years ago.

Dodonaea (hop bush) is the largest genus in the soapberry family (Sapindaceae). It is predominantly Australian and a bit of a black sheep in the family. Many hop bushes prefer dry, open woodland; most other Sapindaceae species are found in dense tropical rainforests. Hop bushes produce small winged seed capsules; tropical Sapindaceae usually produce large fleshy fruits, like the lychee, longan, tamarind and rambutan. Hop bushes are wind pollinated; other Sapindaceae use extravagant, perfumed flowers to attract bird and insect pollinators. Continue reading

10 minutes with Nature

(Or Ode to Ecology Part 2)

We have a cicada plague* at home. The house we rent is bordered on two sides by a tiny patch of remnant eucalypt woodland. It is infested with cicadas, which started singing here around September. At first it was an occasional chirp, almost unnoticeable. But the heat of the last few of weeks means the chorus has swelled. At peak cicada, we can no longer hear traffic on the Hume Freeway, about 300 metres away. Thankfully, cicada chatter is much less offensive to the ear…although some claim it can damage your hearing, and the cicada boom has unfortunately resulted in the disappearance of most of the birds we see very morning.

Continue reading