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.

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”

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