Why Locusts Would be Hawks

“War, huh, yeah
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing.”
Edwin Starr

It’s arguable that things aren’t as clear cut as Starr’s 1969 hit makes out – that in fact, it all depends on perspective. Take locusts for example: if they were able to have a perspective, they’d be inclined to see the positive side of military might and political strife.

Locusts have a tendency to thrive where chaos reigns. War is good for going biblical, and in complex modern conflicts, they could often be considered the only winners. The problem with them taking their spoils of war, from an admittedly anthropocentric point of view, is that they’re spoiling often already-strained lives along the way.

It is a tragic truth that some of the world’s poorest – and most politically unstable – countries fall in the heart of the age-old battle against the family Acrididae’s most notorious member.

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Photo: Christiaan Kooyman/ Wikimedia Commons

Before we get into that, a slight clarification: locusts have very little in the way of hawkish tendencies when they’re on their own – they’re just solitary grasshoppers getting on with their lives. The problem is that they are the ultimate example of individuals which change their character in a group. When coming into close contact, for example in vegetation flushes after a drought, over a few generations, solitary becomes gregarious behaviour – and then comes potential trouble. War offers the chance to increase population density while no-one’s watching on. If caught too late, potentially catastrophic progress could be only at the whim of the wind.

At worst, locust swarms can reach hundreds of square miles in size, and travel vast distances. With each eating its weight in plants a day, the potential consequences are not hard to grasp.

But all is not lost. The fight to curtail locust upsurges brings out a gregarious side to entomologists, too. The field is often seen by outsiders as hermetic – but controlling locust populations is the definition of applied entomology, gone geopolitical and by its very nature, public.

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Photo: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano. Editorial use only. Copyright FAO.

Annie Monard has been at the forefront of the human-locust struggle for over two decades at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). For her team, tackling the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) in particular, is a never-ending and sometimes perilous mission.

“We balance the situation in a country when there are conflicts or instability,” says Monard. “We use information we can get in the neighbouring countries because what always has to be present in mind is that locusts are a trans-boundary pest. Generally, when there are locust issues, it is immediately in three, four countries.”

FAO has three Commmissions to cover S. gregaria’s huge distribution area. One of the three covers West and Northwest Africa – a region which includes Libya and Mali, two countries with current active conflict.

Mali is one of four countries in the region with permanent S. gregaria breeding populations. With access to the northern part of the country currently impossible, monitoring relies entirely on reports from locals and retired staff living in that area. These can be delayed or incomplete, but it’s something. At the same time, surveys have been intensified in bordering areas of neighbouring countries.

Instability can breed a pragmatic sort of creativity, and it is in evidence here. Soldiers in the national military have been given basic training to report on locust sightings, giving some added, combat-style ‘boots on the ground’ to the intelligence-gathering effort.

But there is conflict and there is conflict – and Yemen currently represents the gravest end of the spectrum. “Forget everything,” says Monard. “The same message is coming back: no surveys were carried out due to insecurity. So I mean, there is nothing. It is not possible to do the basic work in that country.”

When upheaval comes, agricultural budgets are often the first raided – as was the case during Madagascar’s military coup in 2009. Monitoring stopped, locusts bred unwatched, and populations surged quickly.

In frontline countries – those with permanent locust habitats and breeding areas – the aim is to survey as thoroughly as possible, aided by technology such as satellite imaging, drones and the FAO’s elocust system, which allows national field staff to input standardised data. If locusts would have a preference for states of war, the human counterinsurgency effort is becoming increasingly sophisticated.

Timing is everything in this war-within-wars. There’s no use trying to wipe out every locust, so you have to know when there’s enough massing to justify a strike. “We advocate a locust preventive control strategy relying on monitoring, early warning and early reaction,” added Monard. “Our aim is to try and be as proactive as possible – not acting as ‘firemen’.”

Though this human Vs. insect struggle offers no prospect of a definitive winner, and containment the only realistic prospect, rarely has entomology been so vital.

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Much ado about mothing

On a clear sunny day, a butterfly skips across a field; its bold colours brightly displayed against the backdrop of a clear blue sky. It floats in the air with such a grace and beauty that all who see it point and marvel at this wonder of nature. However, as the day draws on and the night creeps in a looming shadow stretches out from dark. From the dimmest corners of the forest, a creature lurks ready to infest our homes and bring us dread. As you look in terror, it enters your home- its dark brownish-grey form skulks through the corridors as it settles on your carpet, sofa or within your wardrobe.

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Poster from the 1961 movie “Mothra” wherein a giant moth attacks Japan and is belived to be evil, it is later revealed that Mothra is trying to protect its island’s culture.

There, the beast starts to munch away at the material until a multitude of holes cover your belongings. You know that when day comes it will melt back into the shadows, but for now your traps and mothballs are for naught as your home is savaged by a bleak, boring and fearsome moth; a slave only to street lamps and bedside lights.

Misunderstandings can lead to us causing an array of mistakes and acts of poor judgement, in the Shakespeare play “Much ado about nothing” a character is fooled into believing their betrothed is a scoundrel and cheat resulting in them leaving their lover at the altar. In the same way we have been led to believe that whilst butterflies are resplendent gems of the warmer seasons, their moth cousins are drab grey beasts ready to ruin our homes in the dark unforgiving night. Instead, both butterflies and moths deserve to be celebrated for their beauty and wonder, all preconceptions about moths should be put aside so they can be appreciated and not just be thought of as pests. Why are moths not so bad? Why should we like them as much as butterflies? Well, there are plenty of answers to these questions and, hopefully, I can convince you why moths should be given a chance by separating mothmyth from mothfact.

MothMyth #1- Moths are all dull, boring and small
In mothfact, much like our resplendent butterflies, moths come in a plethora of shapes, sizes and colours. The atlas moth (Attacus atlas), as its name suggests, is one of the largest moths in the world with a wingspan reaching up to 30cm.

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The Atlas moth (Attacus atlas). basking on a tree

Instead of being drab, its wings are a wonderful orange colour with white and black patterning on the inner wing with purple, yellow and red outlines. The pattern on its forewing “hooks” are reminiscent of a snake’s head- this is thought to help deter predators who would eat this goliath of a moth. The Merveille du jour (Griposia aprilina), meaning “wonder of the day” is a resplendent creature with a light-green colouring banded with black and white to make it appear like lichen on a tree; this wonderful pattern allows it to seem almost invisible when sitting in plain sight.

MothMyth #2- Moths only ever come out at night
Although many moth species do come out at night, in mothfact a large number of them can be seen fluttering around in the daytime. The Humming bird Hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum) is one of the best examples that moths have to offer.

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A humming bird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum) feeding on flower nectar

It gains its name from the way its wings move in a figure eight motion and paired with its fondness for nectar has been likened to a hummingbird. Most importantly (for this section at least) it mostly flies during the day, favouring bright sunny weather over moonlit skies.

 

 

MothMyth #3- Moths just want to eat my clothes
Different species of moth dine upon a variety of food items, from fruit to nectar. For these mothfacts I will mention a few of the fascinating dietary options some moth species have chosen. Firstly, we have a vampire moth (Calyptra thalictra) which, as you may have guessed, stalks the dark night in search of blood. Using its proboscis (an elongated mouthpart) it pierces the hide of mammals, like elephants and buffalo, where it sucks up blood which wells towards the entry point. Although this may seem scary, it represents a unique, interesting feeding method only seen in one moth subfamily, showcasing how intriguing moths can be.

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One of the death’s head hawkmoths (Acherontia atropos), with it’s beautiful skull markings and yellow colouration

Next, we have our superstar moth the death’s head hawkmoth (Acherontia styx, to name one), famed for the skull shaped pattern on its abdomen and high-pitched squeaking- this moth rose to fame when people believed it was an omen of death and later when it starred in “Silence of the Lambs”. The black and yellow colouration of this moth helps it blend into beehives allowing it to dine on honey, not your socks.

So next time you hear someone complain about moths, just remember this small insight into their fascinating world and how interesting they really are despite their poor reputation

 

‘Lady Entomologists’ – International Women’s Day 2019

If when you hear the word “Entomologist” your mind instantly jumps to a Victorian man brandishing a butterfly net and carefully pinning glittering beetles, I can’t entirely blame you. Entomology took off during the 19th and 20th centuries and, with Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace famously interested in Entomology, its image has remained stuck in that time. Entomology wasn’t and isn’t just eccentric old men with big beards (although there are a fair few of them) and as today is International Women’s Day, I thought I would research a few historical ‘Lady Entomologists’ and to look to the present day to see how equal entomology really is.

We start with Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), a German-born naturalist and illustrator who published many illustrations of insect metamorphosis some of which we saw at the Royal Entomological Society. So prolific is her work that the Sibylla genus of mantises, the Cuban sphinx moth (Erinnyis merianae) and the cane toad (Rhinella meriane) have been named after her!

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A portrait of Maria Sibylla Merian.

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A lifecycle illusration from the Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (the Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname) from the library of the Royal Entomological Society.

Moving closer to home, Lady Eleanor Glanville (c. 1654-1709) collected large numbers of butterfly specimens around her Somerset home which are now some of the earliest in the Natural History Museum. After separating from her second husband, Eleanor pursued her interest in Entomology, distancing herself financially from her immediate family, who disapproved of her interest.

“Some relations that was disappointed by her will, attempted to let it aside by Acts of Lunacy, for they suggested that none but those who were deprived of their senses, would go in Pursuit of butterflies.” – Moses Harris, 1776

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The Glanville fritillary which Lady Eleanor discovered and gave its common name (Melitaea cinxia L.).

In the field of Agricultural Entomology, Eleanor Anne Ormerod (1828-1901) published a series of articles on pests and beneficial insects in the Gardeners’ Chronicle and the Agricultural Gazette. She worked as an honorary consulting entomologist for the Royal Agricultural Society (she was NOT paid) from 1882-1892 and lectured on scientific entomology at the Royal Agricultural College. She was recognised throughout Europe, receiving gold and silver medals from the University of Moscow for models of pest insects and known for carrying out “brave” natural history experiments including one where she put a live Great Crested Newt in her mouth, presumable to test its toxicity.

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Eleanor Anne Ormond, presumably not whilst holding a newt in her mouth.

“The first effect was a bitter astringent feeling in the mouth, with irritation of the upper part of the throat, numbing of the teeth… holding the animal, and in about a minute… a strong flow of saliva. This was accompanied by much foam and violent spasmodic action, approaching convulsions, but entirely confined to the mouth itself. The experiment was immediately followed by headache lasting for some hours, general discomfort of the system, and half an hour after by slight shivering fits.” – Gadow, 1909

Evelyn Cheesman (1882-1969) “the Woman who Walks” initially wanted to be a veterinary surgeon but was unable to because at the time (1906) the Royal Veterinary College did not accept women. She later studied Entomology under the Professor of Entomology at Imperial College at the time, Harold Maxwell-Lefroy. In 1917 she became the Assistant Curator of Insects at London Zoo and, in 1920 became the first female Insect House Curator, recruiting local children to help her restock the dilapidated Insect House. From then she started her lifelong passion for scientific expeditions, including eight solo trips to the South Pacific, collecting over 70 000 specimens. Cheesman worked as an unpaid volunteer for the Natural History Museum for many years until her death, writing and classifying specimens and in 1955 was awarded an OBE for her contributions to Entomology.

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Portrait of Evelyn Cheesman. The caption reads “Friendship between man and animal: butterflies on the Curator’s eye-catching blouse in her London Insect House.”

“We drop down, or get run over, but we never retire.” – Evelyn Cheesman

In America Annette Frances Braun (1884-1978) was a leading authority on Microleptidoptera. She was the first woman to earn a PhD from the University of Cincinnati in 1911 before working for 8 years as a zoology teaching assistant. Throughout her later private research career she described and named over 340 species, often illustrating her own field observations. She served as vice-president of the Entomological Society of America in 1926.

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Some of Annette Fraces Braun’s entomological illustrations.

It’s easy to look at these women, who were pioneers in their field, and to put them into a time bubble of “long ago” where historical context excuses the discrimination they faced but is the situation really ‘fixed’?

A study published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America in October 2018 found that, despite women making up 40-50% of PhD graduates in Entomology in the last ten years, the percentage of female Entomologists in postdoctoral academic and government positions decreases with increasing rank more than for men. Women are more likely to hold low-ranking positions within a faculty such as instructors or lecturers, a situation not that different from when Annette Frances Braun could only work as a teaching assistant despite holding a PhD. The author of this study, Karen A. Walker, was quoted in Entomology Today as saying “Citizens tend to equate being an entomologist with being a man, and I have been referred to as ‘the bug lady’ before, as though it is remarkable that a woman would want to work with insects”.

It seems socially acceptable to be repulsed by invertebrates, especially for girls and women which, along with other societal pressures and gender stereotypes around STEM subjects, may explain why fewer women study entomology. After all we know that men have no innate ability in STEM subjects. It seems that there are barriers stopping female entomologists progressing into STEM careers. Women are as likely as men to want to stay working in STEM after completing a PhD but less likely to be able to get a job in research. That combined with the fact that women and people of colour are likely to have a significantly lower mean salary than men makes high-tier STEM positions seem unachievable to minority groups.

This glass ceiling will never be shattered in one blog post or at one university or in one year, it’s a global issue which is going to take a time to resolve but we are well on the way to future equality. In the meantime we can encourage prospective entomology students, support women already in the field, and to increase visibility scientists from every background.

“You cannot be what you cannot see”

Links to organisations:

 

EntoMasters vs Royal Ent Soc 2019

The 13th of February heralded an early start for the Entomologists as we assembled, ready for another coach trip halfway across the country. The destination: The Royal Entomological Society headquarters in sunny St Albans, a recent(ish) move from London, where the society had been since its foundation in 1833.

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An illustration from an 18th century guide to insects of Suriname. This was, unsurprisingly, in the “European Insects” section.

We made good time on the way down and were greeted by some very welcome tea and coffee and, if that hadn’t woken us all up enough, an incredible selection of biscuits (both chocolate and shortbread). After initial introductions had been made, we had some free time to very carefully explore the Society’s collection of historical entomological texts including some beautifully illustrated guides to insects from all over the world, and to explore the building. The ‘little’ details around the RES make it a great place to visit; from the giant ant model outside, the figurine of Barry B. Benson in the library, or, of course, the incredible lift, it was nice to see insects so front and centre.

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Exploring some of the library’s collection.

After an especially winning group photo underneath said giant ant, we had a series of talks from three bona fide entomologists of the society. First we were welcomed by the Director of Science, Jim Hardie, who gave us an introduction to the society and its history, as well as the conferences, prizes, special interest groups, and opportunities that the society offers. This was followed by another talk from the Director of Outreach and Development, Luke Tilley, who emphasised the need for science communication in general, but especially in entomology where the common response is usually a lack of understanding and often disgust.

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No group of people I’d rather stand under an enormous ant with.

Serendipitously, our visit fell just a few days after the biggest entomological, if not scientific, news story of 2019 (so far): Insectageddon. This led to a very interesting talk on how the RES fields media interests and re-directs them to experts who would be willing and able to talk about the story whilst fielding sometimes unrelated information about everything insect. Emphasis was put on the need to read the source material and know who the ‘good’ journalists are, as well as how to best communicate entomology in an accessible way.

Luke Tilley and Outreach and Engagement Executive Fran Sconce presented the range of science communication events which the society runs and participates in, including the Big Bang Fair, Insect Week, and Field to Fork- keep an eye out for Harper students at these events in future!

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Eerie wilderness or potential insect haven?

Once the talks had finished, we had some more free time. Some of us went outside to explore the abandoned Royal National Rose Society Garden, which is now owned by the society. Abandoned fountains and mossy paths provided the perfect opportunity for some of us to have a cheeky insect hunt whilst others of us just suppressed the urge to push them into the water.

 

After our little explore we were treated to a lovely lunch (shout out to the range of vegetarian options, especially the goat’s cheese mini croissants) and the opportunity to chat with staff, visit the council room, and peruse the range of entomological publications merchandise on offer before starting our long journey back to Shropshire.

In many ways this trip provided a gentle introduction to important information and networking opportunities. For example, whilst in awe of the colour plates of the insect guides, we were told that we are welcome to use the texts there and that librarian Val McAtear will be happy to help us where required. The presentation on the different conferences and meetings introduced us to the opportunities to engage in the entomological community both as students and in the future as we enter our entomological careers. My main takeaways from the day were an understan

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One of the Ento Masters found a novel use for the phone holder.

ding of the opportunities, publications and support offered by the society, a pending membership application and a plastic phone holder from the 00s which definitely doesn’t fit my phone in but which I am determined to find some use for.

 

On behalf of all the Masters students, I’d like to thank the Royal Entomological Society for their warm welcome.

Insects: today’s fashion icons

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Creobroter gemmatus doing a little turn on the catwalk. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Insects are no slaves to fashion – they’ll evolve their looks according to what’s needed for survival, whether that means growing enormous horns on their head, losing their wings, or turning the colour of a pollution-stained surface.

But that doesn’t stop the creators of taste and style having a go at shoehorning insects into the fashion world. Members of the orders Lepidoptera and Coleoptera have been consistent influences on the work of the fashion house of Alexander McQueen, for example, while Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana have gone big on bees.

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McQueen’s bag-based take on insects. Photo: Bagaholicboy.com

It could be argued that this marks a considerable shift into the mainstream. Insects have always had their fans among subcultures, and if you attend an entomological fair, you’re very likely to be doing so along goths and metal fans as well as purist insect enthusiasts. Yet this latter-day aesthetic admiration seems different. Never have insects been so on-trend; not underground but out and proud.

It’s quite possible to argue, though, that the visual power of insects has been tapped almost as long as there’s been civilisation, from the Scarabs of the Ancient Egyptians to the totemic insects of aboriginal peoples. There’s no doubt that insects look cool, and have been making an impression for time immemorial. Every single student on the Entomology MSc this blog aims to represent would strongly agree with this position.

The problem is, it’s not clear whether looking cool is proving any use to them in this age of maximal human destruction. At the same time as all this high praise of the aesthetics of arthropods, the other notable high profile insect-related theme is their decline – so much so that the issue recently made the front page of the New York Times Magazine. Our very own Prof. Leather has also commented on the phenomenon of ‘insect apocalypse’ extensively, calling for long-term data sets to counter the shifting baselines of successive generations which mean a full understanding of changes in insect populations is never grasped.

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Photo: Gucci.com

How can the doyen of designers also be the enormous arthropod in the room when it comes to the global threat to species’ survival? It appears we’re culturally confused about insects in the culture known as ‘The West’ – we’ll happily co-opt their image, but see a living insect in your home or near your picnic and it’s likely to be a case of smack, goodnight. Add to that the deranged media panics about disease-laden ladybirds and mosquitoes, or even the ultra risk-averse responses to the notorious non-insect, the false widow spider, and it seems clear that there’s a huge gap in perception between threat and fashion that needs to be filled, urgently.

On the subject of spiders, Camilla Brown, an arts writer friend of mine, went deep into our confused attitudes around arachnids, with a specific focus on gender, for her MA final work ‘Spider Woman’ (NSFW content warning). It looks at notable spider-themed works of art and embedded childhood fears, certainly touching on themes that are also relevant to the discussion of insects in culture and society more broadly.

So, what are insects to us? The miniature bogeymen stalking our waking dreams, convenient ornaments, or not worth thinking about at all? Perhaps worse than a panic about insects and the rest of the arthropods is an indifference to their ecological relevance.

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Oak treehopper, Platycotis vittata –another big player in the style stakesPhoto: Wikimedia Commons

Finding a solid middle ground between fetish and fear needs to start with a greater understanding of the myriad roles that insects play. They are far from just pollinators (even though that’s hardly much of a ‘just’); they’re also pest controllers and decomposers of the highest order, and an enormous supply of meals to animals higher in the food chain. Without them, careful balances may become irreparably skewed.

It seems apt to brush off the shallow wants and desires of the human in the era where their consumption seems to be akin to a declaration of war on the other residents of planet Earth. Yet nature and our culture are not mutually exclusive entities: they’ve been deeply entwined since we were out in the wild and we started to try and make sense of our surroundings in a more profound way than addressing basic needs. Fashion designers riffing off insect wing venation is simply an extension of this.

So outright-dismiss insects making an impact in the Instagram age at your peril. More visual presence for insects can hardly be considered a bad thing – and there’s maximum scope to do much more than haute couture. Interestingly, on this theme, it was recently mooted that insect-related street art could be a way of bridging the gap between the visual and the actual by providing a constant reminder of the vitality of nature in people’s everyday lives.

Perhaps in the coming years we’ll see more attempts to bring science and culture together in a very necessary joining of dots – moves like the University of Nebraska-Lincoln offering an Insects in popular Culture module as part of its entomology qualification. Science is in no way discredited by the suggestion that the zeitgeist may have to be ridden from time if we’re to become more even-handed participants in a world shared.

Fear of Moths: Ridiculous or Reasonable?

Alright, confession time: one of my best friends is scared of moths. I know, it was a shock for me too. I found this out about two and a half years ago when I sent this friend (let’s call her Sarah because that is her name) pictures of a poplar hawk moth I’d caught. In hindsight, maybe I should have checked first.

Like all phobias, it can be really difficult for those of us without it to understand what the problem is so I asked Sarah exactly what she doesn’t like:

“I don’t like them cause they freak me out irl when they fly in my face and they’re fuzzy and look like death and just looking at them gives me shivers

That any good for your blog?”

Although we often refer to it as lepidopterophobia (the irrational fear of all Lepidoptera), its true form is actually very rare. Many people are terrified of moths but have no problem at all with butterflies, leading to mottephobia (the irrational fear of moths) being increasingly common.

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The picture that started it all.

 

Specific phobias” are an intense and persistent fear of a certain object or situation, most of which are thought to develop in childhood as a result of a traumatic experiences and/or genetic predisposition, and usually go away by adulthood. In the case of a lot of common fears, such as arachnophobia or cynophobia (fear of spiders and dogs, respectively), it is thought that they might be an evolutionary adaptation to things which were once dangerous for us, even if they aren’t any more. Both of these factors make sense for fears of things which can hurt you, bees and wasps for example, but what possible harm can moths do?

According to some sources, it seems Sarah is not alone, the fear is mostly linked to movement. Some find the unpredictable fluttering flight patterns unsettling, feeling uncomfortable when a butterfly or moth flies near them in case it lands on them or brushes against their skin. These fears are multiplied when the insects are swarming in groups, something which must make lepdiopterophobes who live in monarch butterfly migratory “highways” somewhat uncomfortable. At the end of the day, it seems to be the unpredictability which is especially fear-provoking, which ties in with the fear of the unknown. This still doesn’t answer why more people are scared of moths than butterflies and it doesn’t seem that clear. My best guess is that is has something to do with the fact that we mostly encounter moths by night as they try to get into our houses – a distinctly creepy scenario.

Although it is important to be understanding of people with true mottephobia, there is a greater issue here: that of irrational disgust and dislike of interests, without the excusable irrational fear and panic of a phobia. A third of fear of British animals in UK adults was of “fear-relevant animals” (snakes etc.) and invertebrates. Not of fear relevant invertebrates like wasps and bees, or even disease relevant invertebrates like mosquitos and cockroaches, just “invertebrates”. The paper even lists slugs and worms as given examples of feared invertebrates, suggesting that the disgust the great British public feels about “creepy crawlies” is entirely without logical reason.

To a certain extent it can be argued that fears develop because of a lack of exposure: students from urban areas on field trips to wildland areas were recorded as frequently expressing a fear and disgust of insects, as well as snakes, plants, and “getting lost”. Fear of the unknown is considered by some researchers to be “the fundamental fear”; what you don’t know can, in fact, hurt you. To link this back to mottephobia, if the only exposure you have to moths is them flapping in your face on summer evenings, I can see why it would be annoying, even distressing and how that could develop into a fully blown phobia.

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Even by the BBC’s standards this was a weird one

The idea for this article was sparked by an episode of Doctor Who back in November where the Doctor and her companions ended up in an anti-zone between universes infested with flesh moths: enormous carnivorous moths which are attracted to light and movement and could strip the flesh from prey in moments. Look, don’t ask me, ask the BBC.In order to reduce and remove specific phobias, exposure therapy is used to gradually reduce the amount of fear associated with a trigger.  But how are people supposed to ‘grow out’ of their childhood fears if the media constantly feeds us negative images of insects?

Now whilst some moths do, as Sarah said, “look like death” (I’m looking at

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Acheronita atropos, the Death’s Head Hawk Moth with its distinctive skull-shaped marking

you, Death’s Head Hawk Moth), there are many more which are beautiful and play incredibly important roles in their ecosystems – one of the best well known being the obligate mutualism between yuccas and yucca moths. Maybe the fact we never see these moths represented in the media but are regularly exposed to butterflies in a positive context also contributes to the difference in attitudes.

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The truly beautiful, and somewhat butterfly-like, atlas moth (Attacus atlas) defies all preconceptions about moths’ small and dowdy nature.

 

Sometimes we have a tendency, as people who know about and spend time with insects, to find the level of disgust the British public feel towards invertebrates frustrating. That’s fair enough, but what scares people, scares them, and there’s nothing we can do except try to support those with true phobias and educate those who just don’t understand.

And whatever you do, don’t send mottephobes pictures of hawk moths!

 

 

On Insect cocks

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Cock. Penis. Dick. Wang. Whatever you call the male appendage, this is an area of insect physiology where things get pretty wild. Or perhaps more accurately, wilder than the usual.

But let’s start scientifically-correct: in the insect world the closest thing to the human penis is more properly known as the aedeagus. But ‘closest thing’ does not in any way imply great similarity. It’s actually part of the insect abdomen, and the external part of the male’s sexual weaponry is a phallus of extremely various flaps, hairs and hooks. Still with this? Good.

When it comes to shape, describing the situation as complex doesn’t get anywhere near to doing it justice. Menno Schilthuizen’s account of genital evolution is a comprehensive overview (far more so than can be included here), highlighting a wonderfully alien world of ‘prongs’, ‘pegs’, ‘springs’ and ‘titillators’. If insects are purely in it for the passing of genes, they could’ve fooled us.

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Amazing aphid dicks: from Wieczorek et al, 2011 

There’s so much to say about the morphology of aphid appendages alone that the main journal paper on the matter comes in two parts. For relatively small insects, aphids come with a significant package – “relatively large and discernible under a hand lens or even with the naked eye”. The paper includes such descriptive gems as “a few circular pits distributed mostly in its medial part. Sclerotized arms with distal part rather long and thin, and proximal part shorter and wider. Aedeagus long, inverted question mark-shaped.” And that’s just the aphid Drepanosiphumplatanoidis. Big name, big aedeagus.

Smutty jokes aside (but not for long), in insect taxonomy, male sexual organs can be extremely helpful in establishing exactly what species you’re dealing with. In fact, it can often be the only way of making a certain identification. So far, so useful, to us as well as them. But how do insects actually, you know, do it? Again, this is no simple matter.

dragonfly dicks - miller 1991

Normal for dragonflies: from Miller, 1991

The ‘lock and key hypothesis’ is an idea that has persisted in entomology – and, naturally,
argued over. It asserts that male and female sexual organs of an insect species, whatever wacky shape and size they are, have evolved to only be the exact ‘fit’ for each other. The theory, however, has been largely discredited over the years.

What’s abundantly clear is that sex is rarely anything straightforward in the insect world – there’s little by way of proxy for missionary. Dragonflies are a good go-to example for the messiness of it all – so much so that their sexual antics inspired a New York Times article, in which the slaty skimmer (Libellula incesta) is described as having a “fairly rococo penis”. Sex begins with what constitutes foreplay – the male grabbing the female at the back of the head – while dragonfly dongs are not just about depositing sperm, they’re also about removing that of rivals. Naturally, females are tooled up to stop that happening, if at all possible.

220px-callosobruchus_maculatus_penis

Brutal bruchid beetle bell-end: Wikimedia Commons

The mealworm beetle (Tenebrio molitor) also has a dick geared up to dispatch the genes of its rivals. In the words of this paper on the matter, it “comprises a central shaft enclosed within a flexible sheath covered with chitinous spines. As the shaft extends within the female’s copulatory bursa the sheath and its covering of spines rolls back producing a `scouring’ effect.” Lovely.

With schlongs often more resembling torture implements, things can get even more brutal. Males of the bruchid beetle (Callosobruchus maculatus) actually damage the female’s reproductive tract during sex, and females, understandably, kick them for it. If she doesn’t kick, injuries tend to be worse after a longer sex session. Yet according to this paper, the carnage is not a deliberate act of destruction by the males, just an unfortunate by-product of them evolving weapons that are literally weapons. Why, it’s not yet known, but the theory is its all about being able to cling tightly to their ‘loved’ one.

If this blog puts insects in danger of being adopted by the alt-right as beacons of ultra- masculinity, hold that thought right there. Transgression of gender norms is happening in Brazilian caves, don’t you know. In the louse genus Neotrogla, it’s the females with the penis-like protrusion, and the guys with a chamber comparable to a vagina. A very niche re-definition of ‘wearing the trousers’ for sure, and in marked contrast to the species of beetles and dragonflies using their phallus to screw over their rivals with a bit of sperm scooping, our ‘macho’ cave-based females are using theirs to collect it up. Through all the kink and horror, life finds a way.

So there, a piece about insect nobs has been published on the Entomology MSc blog. I can only hope this comes up in the exams in March, making things a little less hard. Too much smut? Probably.