Wow, six months without a post is the longest I have neglected the blog for a while! I’ve got a couple of posts to write now that the summer is over, but I thought I would start with something that was a bit of a challenge for me over the summer. I spent a couple of weeks in Beijing in August, including five days attending the International Congress on Ecology (INTECOL). Usually, I like to try to promote the work that is going on at conferences and contribute to the general online science community by live-tweeting. The only trouble is that in China Twitter is banned… I came up with two solutions:
Solution 1: VPN
I used a virtual private network to bypass the firewall. That worked pretty well, and while VyperVPN cost about $12 for a month it gave me regular access to the web for the duration of my stay in China. Not bad value. However, part of my reason for going to China in the first place was to exchange ideas with Chinese researchers, and that’s tough if they can’t see what you are tweeting.
Solution 2: Weibo
My second solution, then, was to take to Chinese social media to try to communicate. There is a fair amount of guidance on Twitter and conferences, but I couldn’t find anything on Weibo and conferences. Also, Weibo is very much Chinese (as opposed to global) and so there wasn’t much hope of me communicating in the local language. Still, I tried my best and punted most of my first day of tweets (in English, unfortunately, and one as an experiment in Chinese via Google Translate) out through Weibo as well.
The results were not that surprising… I got a bit of interest on the Twitter feed (interestingly, many many bot accounts, which has never happened before), but very little on the Weibo feed. In fact, I got absolutely no interaction whatsoever. The Twitter feed was completely out of sync with the rest of the planet (or so it seemed), but at least a few people both saw and understood them!
So, what I learned here is that social media is tough to crack in China, even when trying to use local tools. It’s also tough to sign up for Weibo because the authentication uses Chinese mobile phone numbers… Aside from that, the hashtags are a little different (note the “#” at the beginning as well as the end of the hashtag above) and I really never got to grips with finding profiles of people who might be interested and trying to add them to “Weibos”. Has anybody else had any success? Are there academics using both Weibo and Twitter in their social media arsenal?
I have written about mimicry before, describing why most mimics are imperfect and how some mimics imitate not only the appearance of other animals but also their sounds and behaviour. Now, I need your help with an ambitious experiment to test theories about the evolution of mimicry. Most people know that there are harmless animals that have yellow and black stripes to look like stinging bees and wasps. But did you know that there are many thousands of such species, all with different degrees of “bee-ness” or “waspiness”? The new experiment is designed to compare 56 harmless hoverflies with 42 wasps and bees to measure how similar they are. That’s 2,352 unique comparisons! This information will allow us to test exciting new ideas about the evolution of mimicry. There’s only one catch…
This particular experiment will use the human brain as a processing tool and the power of the crowd to generate data. It’s a bit like “Strictly Come Mimicking” (or “Mimicking with the Stars“, if you’re in the US): you just need to rate how similar you think the two insects appear out of 10. I’d appreciate it greatly if you could take some time to run through the experiment below. Don’t do it thinking that there is an end, though – there are 2,352 combinations, remember, and the images are randomly paired on each screen! You can access the experiment here:
My goal is to reach 10 ratings of each pair of insects. That means a total of 23,520 ratings. I know this is a long shot, but that’s the aim, people! Please do share it far and wide! I’ll share regular updates on the blog as the ratings come in (however many or few there are!).
Walking home after a few drinks on New Year’s Eve, I spotted a small sign in a shop window. The text says:
“As the bee collects nectar and departs without injuring the flower, so should a man behave in his village”
– Dhammapada (1st Century BC)
Two things sprang immediately to mind. The first was the tendency that we have to attribute greater emphasis to quotes from older civilisations, despite the fact that those civilisations are less developed. Older civilisations are not wise like older people – they are actually younger in an absolute sense (as pointed out by Eliezer Yudkowsky). It is as if being from a time far distant to our own confers wisdom that we perceive lacking in contemporary society.
However, the second thing that occurred to be was that “that’s not how bees work”… Pollination is a mutualism most of the time, but not always. By offering a nectar resource in exchange for the transfer of pollen, flowers have evolved relatively straightforward paths to that nectar for their respective pollinators. Sometimes that is a big, open flower that can be accessed by many species, but other times the flower has a peculiar shape or the nectar well is particularly inaccessible. The latter cases often result in very specific species that are able to access the nectar using particular behaviours or very long tongues.Read More »
I’ve been working on the animals and plants that live in urban ponds for a few years (you can find some of my work on my Kudos page here, here, and here), and I have a Google Alert running for mentions of “pond” or “wetland” in the media. However, far from lots of stories about fish, ducks, and dragonflies, all I see is this:
I went to a fascinating talk by a colleague at Leeds, Dr Mark Davis, a few weeks ago. Mark works on Alternative Finance (“altfin”), which involves a shift in economic thinking away from traditional big banks (with low interest and risky investments) towards peer-to-peer and community-based lending. You can read more about Mark’s ideas in his recent Conversation article: “How alternative finance can offer a better banking future“. Mark had a lot of fascinating insights which (to a lay person like me) resonated strongly. The notion that banks are inherently risky and create the circumstances for economic collapse, and the idea that all of our money that we give to banks ends up going far away into large, complex economic systems, rather than helping closer to home. Mark also made the point that there is a parallel between the “Big Society” notion promoted by the UK Conservative Government under David Cameron, and the Alternative Finance concept that he promotes. Under the Big Society, it is assumed that everybody has a little bit of spare time here and there and that we can volunteer that time to solve social problems. This means lower investment from the government because we are (in theory) capable of taking over from public services. Some people are skeptical… Altfin, on the other hand, takes the same approach to capital: almost everybody has a small amount of capital sitting around that is doing nothing productive, and if we pool our spare capital then we can do good things with it. This got me wondering whether the same thing was true for research…
A few weeks ago, I was honoured to have been given the Early Career Entomologist Award from the Royal Entomological Society and the Marsh Christian Trust. I’m not good at accepting praise and have always suffered from imposter syndrome. In the last year, I have done some relatively high profile events that have led to me speaking in front of hundreds of people. However, the thought of receiving an award in front of a few dozen of my peers terrified me. It is easy to sit in a lab or office all day, receiving scathing reviews of papers and grants (which are just par for the course, of course) and think that someone must have made a mistake when you finally achieve some degree of success.Read More »
I started Katatrepsis in 2011 and this is the 200th post! At the time of writing, the blog has been viewed 138,967 times by 85,866 different visitors (according to the WordPress stats). That might sound like a lot to some people, but others would scoff at such puny numbers. I think it probably puts me […]
I just had my first article published at the Conversation – an excellent online collaboration between journalists and academics. As part of their publishing model, anybody can share any articles. So here’s mine!
To bee or not to bee – why some insects pretend to be dangerous
In the summer of 2011, panic gripped a small community in Gatineau, Quebec. Hundreds of small, striped insects were buzzing around a children’s playground. The playground was evacuated and entomologists were called in to establish whether or not the animals were dangerous. The answer was no, but it is easy to see why local residents were concerned. The animals that had taken up residence in the playground were hoverflies, a family of harmless fly species that have built up quite an arsenal of tricks to convince would-be predators that they are dangerous.
The panic that a swarm of hoverflies can generate belies the fact that they are immensely beneficial insects. Many of their larvae (the baby hoverflies that look like maggots) crawl around on plants feeding on the aphids that would otherwise eat our flowers and crops. Meanwhile the adults –- the stripy, flying insects that instil such terror –- spend their days pollinating flowers as they feed on nectar and pollen. But flying around in the open leaves hoverflies vulnerable to predators, a problem they have solved by evolving to resemble the stinging, pollinating insects such as bees and wasps with which they share the flowers.
Yet the story is not quite so simple. For every hoverfly that presents an exquisite example of mimicry (like the wonderful Spilomyia longicornis pictured above) there are several that really do not seem to be trying at all. Given that mimicry can obviously benefit hoverflies, why don’t they all evolve such excellent abilities?
Researchers found a potential solution to this Darwinian puzzle in 2012, when they looked into the characteristics of mimicking and non-mimicking hoverflies. You might expect that birds would prefer to eat larger species of hoverfly, since those hoverflies represent a bigger, more rewarding meal. Those larger species would therefore have more to gain from mimicry because they are under greater pressure from predators. Sure enough, it turns out that the colour patterns of the largest hoverflies (which are effectively flying buffets for birds) bear a close resemblance to the yellow, black, and white stripes of wasps and bees. The smallest species (which are barely worth chasing) do not show such similarity.
However, hoverflies have more than just wasp-like costumes. Some species also have considerable acting talents. It has been known for decades that certain hoverflies will pretend to sting when attacked, or hold their dark front legs in front of their heads to make it appear as though their antennae are long like those of wasps.
A recent extensive field survey showed that the species that behaved like wasps and bees were comparatively rare (just like the species that look like wasps and bees). This behavioural mimicry also tended to occur only in those species that already showed a strong visual resemblance to wasps and bees. In other words, those species that had the costumes also had the acting skills.
Insect sound bites
One of the most fascinating aspects of hoverfly mimicry has recently been dissected in great detail. As well as looking like wasps and bees, and acting like wasps and bees, some species also sound like wasps and bees. As part of our most recent project, my colleagues and I caught 172 insects from 13 species of hoverflies and nine species of wasps and bees, and brought them into a soundproofed recording studio. There, they recorded the sounds the insects made during regular flight and when the animal was attacked (simulated using a sharp poke with a pair of tweezers).
When they ran a statistical analysis on these sounds, the researchers found that some species of hoverfly make sounds when they are attacked that are indistinguishable from the high-pitched alarm buzz of bumble bees. The high-pitched buzz that bumble bees make seems to be produced by the bee unhooking its wings from the muscles that drive them, resulting in a completely different sound. This is a bit like what happens when you take your car out of gear and rev the engine – a lot of noise and you don’t go anywhere. It seems that hoverflies are capable of the same behaviour.
But just because statistical analysis can’t tell the difference, that doesn’t mean natural predators can’t. To test for the benefits of this sound imitation in the wild, researchers presented pastry models of insects to wild birds with the different sounds. Pastry has approximately the same nutritional content as the insects that the birds forage on naturally, being part fat and part carbohydrate. The pastry can also be painstakingly painted to resemble insects as well, as in the photo to the right. To the surprise of the researchers, the birds only avoided the bee sounds. This was despite the fact that the hoverflies sounded identical to the computer-based analysis.
So we are left with a situation where an animal brain outperforms human researchers and their technical wizardry, which is not altogether surprising. Birds have evolved alongside a host of potential prey, developing the ability to find safe prey while avoiding animals that sting. While the hoverflies have a complex and fascinating suite of acting skills to dissuade would-be predators, they are still part of an evolutionary “arms race” where predators either keep up or starve.
The best part of this particular story is that it is possible to watch it unfold in your back garden. Next time you see or hear an animal that makes you reach instinctively for the rolled up newspaper, take a minute to check that it isn’t one of nature’s great actors.
I realise that this is the second eulogy that I have posted on the blog in the last couple of months (which is all the more striking due to the low frequency of posts), but there was one passing recently that I simply have to mark. I was devastated to hear that Professor Brian Moss died recently. You will find a number of obituaries written by people who are better qualified to comment on his scientific work, and who knew him better as a person. However, while I was not as close to him as some, I did have the honour and privilege of learning from him as an undergraduate, a postgraduate, a postdoc, and as junior faculty, and so I feel the need to share some of the affection and deep respect that I felt for Brian. There have been a number of leading academics who have influenced my work and career (Dave and Tom in particular) and without them I would not have the collaborations, publications, or career that I enjoy today. However, I think it’s fair to say that Brian had the single largest personal influence over me from anyone within the academy, and shaped the academic that I have become. Other people watch David Attenborough on television, but I had the privilege of being taught by and working alongside my very own Attenborough who inspired me to think in different ways across disciplines. Read More »
1) Quotas are important. If we fish all the fish, there are no more fish. The fishing industry has been utterly unable to regulate itself. EU quotas have led to the glacially slow recovery of managed stocks, because the quotas are higher than scientists advise. We need lower quotas combined with no-take zones, otherwise there will be no industry at all. Furthermore, UK quotas are divided among UK fishermen by the UK government so if one individual boat loses out it’s not necessarily the EU’s fault.
2) Three large companies own 61% of all fishing quotas. This isn’t about Michael Gove’s father alone on a tiny boat in a stormy sea. This is an industry monopolised by millionaires who are fighting regulation, just like all other industries. Viewed in that light it is completely unsurprising that “Big Fish” has joined Farage, alongside his banker allies.
3) Fishing rights to certain waters are set based on historic use. The fisheries industry does not want that to change because British boats are in loads of places that definitely aren’t British.
I know emotive stories about these poor Scots in their woolly jumpers and orange hats are relatable, but (as always) it is more complicated than that. It is completely understandable that they are unhappy: the history of their industry has generated a lot of jobs that simply cannot be supported through sustainable fisheries. It seems that the fishermen think Brexit would lead to higher quotas. Someday quotas might increase, but only if ecosystem-based management leads to increases in stocks that can support higher quotas, and that is the point of the EU Common Fisheries Policy.