Entomology, chemical ecology, evidence-based environmentalism and science in general. I like big bugs and I cannot lie.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Happy Christmas!

Here's one of the oldest known illustrations of a turkey, from Konrad Gesner’s Vogelbuch, 1557.

From Kansas City's Linda Hall Library.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Praying mantis by Becca Stadtlander

Through the magic of Pinterest I've discovered this artist who does lovely nature illustrations, you can find her Etsy shop here.  To me this picture perfectly illustrates this wonderful description Gerald Durrell wrote of the mantids he encountered as a child in Corfu:

"Among the myrtles the mantids moved, lightly, carefully, swaying slightly, the quintessence of evil. They were lank and green, with chinless faces and monstrous globular eyes, frosty gold, with an expression of intense, predatory madness in them. The crooked arms, with their fringes of sharp teeth, would be raised in mock supplication to the insect world, so humble, so fervent, trembling slightly when a butterfly flew too close."
 Apologies for the lack of activity here lately folks, normal service will resume once I submit my thesis.

Monday, 24 June 2013

If you've ever wondered what it is I actually do...

...apparently I sit in a lab and wave my hands around too much when I talk.  This video was filmed at an open day at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, organised by the Wellcome Collection and Pestival, and features members of my department talking about the work we do studying the interactions between humans and insects.

Yes I have hair now.  I'm not especially happy about this development.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

How to make fake poo

Sometimes I even shock myself.

  1. Add fluorescein to sugar water, then add gravy browning till you get the appropriate colour.
  2. Soak cotton wool sheets in it, then lovingly handcraft them into the desired shape.
  3. Add sweetcorn to obtain the desired artistic effect.
As to why you'd want to make fake fluorescent poo, you'll have to come to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine's Secret Insects of Bloomsbury event next week and watch my demonstration to find out.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Fancy some Easter eggs?

But I'm sure everyone's getting a bit tired of chocolate by now, so about something savoury?

Source: Wikimedia commons
Looks tasty doesn't it?  They're described as having a buttery, nutty taste. These are escamoles or Mexican caviar, a gourmet dish eaten this time of year, made from the eggs (or more accurately the pupae) of the ant Liometopum apiculatum. As those gorgeous photos by Alex Wild show, the ants are rather ferocious, which coupled with the ants' habit of nesting in the roots of unpleasantly spiky things and the fact that the "caviar" is only available in March and April makes escamoles an expensive luxury. Unlike many luxury foods though, at 40%-60% protein it's extremely nutritious.

I suspect a few of my readers are running for the brain bleach now, but when you think about it eating insect pupae is no stranger than eating shrimp or honey.  Insect eating, or entomophagy, isn't just popular in Mexico but throughout the world, in Southern Africa for example or Southeast Asia - in fact Western cultures are unusual in ignoring a tasty source of protein. (I have an entirely unscientific, untested theory that entomophagy is taboo in Western cultures simply because in temperate climates insects tend not to grow to the size nor aggregate in the numbers to make collecting them worthwhile).

This may need to change though, as we face the challenges of feeding more and more people in an increasingly vulnerable climate. Insects convert food into protein far more efficiently than the mammalian herbivores we currently get our meat from, and produce far less methane.  The first European farm producing insects for human consumption has already opened in The Netherlands. Maybe next year we should start thinking about eating a slightly different type of Easter egg?

Friday, 15 March 2013

Engagement and inclusion #2

After writing my post yesterday about some aspects of a science engagement talk that I found problematic I emailed the speaker about my concerns. He replied and we had a fascinating conversation which he has given me permission to reproduce here. I've omitted his name and a couple of paragraphs that were specific to the content of his talk rather than relevant to the general discussion.


" Thanks for the feedback and also for giving me the chance to reply.
I admit that your post has caused me concern and I will look into what I can do. There are some of the things I can address straight away though.

I really hope that I am not sexist or racist and am alarmed that I could even appear to be so.
I did that talk 3 times today and the volunteer ratio averages out. Today I had 15 volunteers, 8 boys, 7 girls. Perhaps I shouldn't have gone for a group of friends, that was laziness of my part.

First off the werewolf, is simply because he is currently the most famous werewolf I could find. I am, I admit unaware of any female werewolves in cinema. Similarly JoJo the dogfaced boy is I think the most famous person with werewolf syndrome. Superman was chosen because it is supermale syndrome, it was just the best access I had to a chromosomal mutation. I don't know of any other superheroes I could have used to make that work. Maybe there is a problem with superheroes as a topic as a whole. I don't know of any transgenic female heroes, and Spiderman is the best known even if there are ones I have not heard off. I don't know of any. Similarly, the Hulk is the only radiated superhero I know of. That is the simple reason why there were no female superheroes- there are so few in general and I don't know of any that would have worked with the genetics I was talking about.

For infecting the volunteer with a virus- I have 3 pegs, I have always put two on the shoulders area and the final one in the hair, just because it gets a laugh. I do this regardless of the volunteers age, sex, ethnicity. I have no idea why this could be thought of as racist.

Regards Beyonce- I will be more careful here. Maybe I should just end on the cats. It was not intended as anything more than a joke, I was struggling to find an ending. I will alter it.

That is the reason why Dolly the sheep is called Dolly the sheep. It is a fact, but I think you are right, maybe not one worth sharing. I slipped that slide in last minute bearing in mind that I was talking about the names of clones and thought that I should mention Dolly somewhere given that she is the most famous clone in the world. I will remove it.

I think where I have to be careful was saying bacteria are slags. I hadn't considered that it is considered a gender specific term, and it really is isn't it. I wanted to communicate that they are not even fussy what species they get their DNA from this is a very difficult concept for pupil, but fundamental to genetically engineering bacteria. I will need to use a better word. Promiscuous would be wrong, its too formal and the kids would not get it, tomorrow I will say that "bacteria are a bit loose".

There is no such thing as a lowly volunteer. I talk to anybody who talks to me and would gladly have had a chat.

I hope that my replying has been useful and thanks for pointing these things up as I would hate to be misconstrued.

All the best."


"Thanks very much for getting back to me. I'm sure you're not sexist or racist but I'm sure you hold unconcious biases, just like we all do including myself. I think it's much like using blinding in scientific experiments; just like when we know we're more likely to judge ambiguous results in a way that favours our hypothesis we put a system in place to prevent that from happening, the important thing is to be aware of these biases. Thanks for letting me know about how volunteer selection averaged out through the day - I'm glad it was approximately 50/50, but as kids would only have gone to one talk I think maybe it's important that it balances out in each?

I do appreciate that there are fewer widely recognised female superheroes, but I do think it's important that girls should have at least one active character in the talk they can empathise with, otherwise the only females being shown are just there for passive attributes like their appearance.

I guess Mystique would probably be the best known female superhero - chameleons can change their skin colour and octopuses can change both colour and texture, but I do appreciate this is hard to link to human genetics. There are plenty of female characters with superhuman strength - Wonder Woman, Ms Marvel, Rogue from the comic book version of the X-men - and maybe this could be linked to mutations in the myostatin gene? http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myostatin#section_3 I realise I'm getting even more obscure but maybe Elastigirl from The Incredibles could be linked to Ehlers-Danlos syndrome http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ehlers%E2%80%93Danlos_syndrome#section_2?

The hair thing is because often Black peoples' hair being touched is a bit of an issue - I know it sounds bizarre that enough people would just walk up and mess with a stranger's hair for it to be a common experience, but it certainly seems to have been for the majority of my Black friends, white people feeling they have the right to just stick their hands in or stroke or pull their hair. In part because of this many Black people feel that having their hair interfered with is a bit of an insult to their bodily autonomy. On top of this hair has quite a lot of meaning in Black culture, as it was used as a marker for discrimination and as natural Black hair became something that had to be straightened or modified to look European to fit into society, so now hair is an assertion of identity. Because of all this I tend to avoid touching anyone's hair unless I have their express invitation.

Thanks again for getting back to me and for taking what I said on board."

[Incidentally I'm very aware that I'm a white person explaining Black people's feelings about hair here, if anyone can link me to a better explanation or feels like writing something let me know and I'll stick it in a new post]


" Yeah I do try and balance volunteers not only regards their sex but regarding what school they come from, position in the auditorium etc too, sometimes I just fail.

Elasto girl is in- I simply had not heard of her. It will take me a few days to incorporate her, but sounds like a great one.

Maybe this is a general problem that male role models are heroes while female ones are pop stars. But just because Hollywood and the worlds of pop music are sexist does not mean that I should be. I simply aimed to engage with popular culture and use it to explain some hard stuff, but I must have let it impact my talk negatively. That was never my intention. I have never wanted to offend or alienate anyone. I will take more care in future. Thanks.

I am going to give my volunteer a hat now. That way I can avoid any issues.

All the best."

Edited to add: anyone interested in more inclusive superheroes or comic books could do well to start here.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Engagement and inclusion: we can do better

I spent today volunteering at a major science event aimed at children. As you may have noticed I'm quite passionate about science communication, both because I feel that everyone deserves the chance to hear about something I find so fascinating and because I believe passionately that the more people of all ages but especially the more children are exposed to scientific ideas the more will realise that science is something they too can become involved in, and like every evangelist banging on about Apple products or Brompton bikes I'd like to think that something that has enriched my life so much could enrich the lives of others too.  For this reason I was delighted to be assigned to help out with some of the talks, and looked forward to seeing how the experts did it.

I have to admit that how they did it horrified me.

The first speaker gave a talk that was in many ways very good - he used superheroes as an engaging hook to capture children's interest, and designed some very novel and interactive demonstrations to convey some very complex concepts.  I sincerely hope that this post is taken in a spirit of constructive criticism that would allow him, and others designing similar engement activities, to make them truly excellent.  Where it fell down though was in the quite startling degree of sexism it demonstrated.  I'm not going to name the event or the first speaker, as I'm sure the biases and sterotypical thinking displayed were entirely unconscious rather than deliberate (after all the very definition of privilege is having the luxury to be unaware of such issues) and because I doubt he is alone in exhibiting them - rather than a critique of a single event I think this should be an opportunity for everyone to think about making our science communication more inclusive.

The speaker mentioned a number of people, real and fictional in his talk.  Males mentioned were the werewolf from Twilight, Superman, Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk - admittedly the werewolf character was probably written as eye-candy but the rest were discussed as admirable characters and powers that would be desirable to share.  Females mentioned were Dolly Parton (in the context of a joke about Dolly the sheep being cloned from breast tissue) and Beyoncé Knowles twice: the first time in the context of the fly with the golden bum named after her (yes really), illustrated of course by a picture of Beyoncé's bum in a gold lamé dress, and the second in the context of how wonderful it would be if we could all clone a copy of her.  Men, in short, were shown as heroes with agency (with the possible exception of the werewolf) whereas women were either the butt of jokes or objects of admiration, in both cases for their physical characteristics.  Given that half of the audience was female this certainly wasn't a message I wanted them to be taking away from a science fair.

Scaptia beyonceae
Another issue was the selevtion of volunteers, all five of whom were male.  Admittedly the first four all came from the front row, and as kids tend to try and sit next to their friends it's possible that there was a cluster of boys in the place where the speaker liked to take volunteers from, but the final volunteer was chosen from the side of the hall and was also a boy.  I'm sure that the speaker wasn't doing this on purpose, but it did seem to me as though he was subconciously choosing volunteers on the basis of his mental image of who would be interested in science.  The trouble is that the fact that the people on stage where entirely male may have helped reinforce any biases or insecurities the audience may have held over who should be doing science too.

On top of this one of the demonstrations struck me as potentially rather racially insensitive: the demonstrator asked for a volunteer from the audience and started putting pegs in his hair. I don't know whether he would have modified this part of the demonstrator if the volunteer had been Black, but I would have found a Black kid on stage having their hair messed with by a white man incredibly uncomfortable and really there was no need to do it at all.

To top it all off he ended with a slut-shaming joke, saying that all bacteria are slags because they'd share DNA with anyone which apart from anything else may not have been appropriate for such a young audience.

The second talk was far better, with no sexist jokes, one of the three kids selected as volunteers being a girl and videos shown of children of all sexes and ethnicities doing experiments. I did notice however that again the three demonstrators were all white and male: perhaps not a problem in isolation but coming straight after the first talk may perhaps have reinforced the impression that science was not for everyone. Both talks were repeated in the afternoon, but I was too busy to pay attention to the balance of volunteers.

I did wonder whether I was overreacting, seeing problems where most wouldn't notice them, until one of the class teachers stopped me on the way out and begged me to feed back how awfully sexist the talk was to the demonstrator. I'll try, though as a lowly volunteer I doubt I'll get the chance to talk to him, but I genuinely believe he was acting with the best of intentions, completely unaware of how problematic some aspects of his talk were, and I doubt that this issue is unique to him; for this reason I hope that this post will serve to feed back to some extent to the scientific communication and engagement community.

16/3/13: Edited the add that the speaker has now responded to me and taken these points on board.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Freaky Friday: Isopod and chips?

As something of a connoisseur of creepy things with lots of legs, you can imagine how exited I was when a member of my knitting forum posted about two odd creatures she'd found in the mouth a snapper she's just cooked (I was in fact so excited it took me a couple of months to get around to blogging about it, but that's purely a reflection of my disorganisation rather than the awesomeness of the find). I won't say it's the coolest thing I've ever seen in that forum, because it also introduced me to Fatty Thor, but it came pretty damn close.  The knitter who found it doesn't want to be identified in case she is forever known as Snapper Tongue Louse Girl, but she was kind enough to send me some high resolution pictures of them which I've put behind a link because I know that my Dad sometimes reads this blog and I suspect he'd never eat again if he saw them.

Picture 1

Picture 2

So what are these marvelous mouth monsters?  They're female and male Cymothoa exigua, known to their friends as the tongue eating louse, and look only slightly less terrifying when not baked in a salt crust.  This aquatic distant relative of the woodlouse glories in the distinction of being the only parasite known to functionally replace the organ it destroys - the female (the larger of the two nightmarish nibbles in the pictures) enters the fish's mouth through the gill slits and eats the helpless creature's tongue, then using her pincers attaches herself to the stump and spend the rest of her life serving as a replacement, living on food and mucus in the fish's mouth.  The smaller of the two, romantically roasted with her, is the male who would have been clinging to the gills in the hope of a bit of tongue action.

All in all you might think that after going through all that, being baked in a salt crust probably came as a blessed relief for the poor red snapper, so I'll leave it to Bec Crew to explain how having an alien in its mouth could have been an advantage if the fish was shy talking to the lady snappers.