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

Friday 21 March 2014

So much science communication fail today

A helpful guide for anyone looking to communicate research or research priorities:

"Sex" refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women.
"Gender" refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.
Seriously people, your subject may be fruit flies or endangered insects or coconuts, but you don't get to forget that your audience are people.

Monday 3 March 2014

Ticked off at the news

Today I heard the sad news that the Borreliosis and Associated Diseases Awareness UK charity is ceasing operation as a charity due to lack of funds. We in the UK are comparatively lucky in vector-borne disease stakes, able to enjoy the great outdoors without too much concern about being bitten by something that'll give us something 'orrible, but one that we do have to deal with is Lyme disease which along and its relatives, transmitted by the bites of ticks which contrary to popular belief are arachnids not insects. Lyme disease can be debilitating (as is shown by my friend's blog about living with it) and it is still often initially not correctly diagnosed, which is why the campaigning work of BADA UK has been so vital and their closure is such a tragic loss particularly now that the incidence of Lyme disease appears to be on the increase.

This campaigning was so important because there is a lot of misinformation out there about ticks and the diseases they transmit, and not just this sort of thing:

I spend more time on Pinterest than I probably should and I've encountered some quite horrifying pins describing this one weird trick some [nurse/mom/other trustworthy-sounding person] has discovered to remove ticks. Needless to say the vast majority of them are a very bad idea, which is a serious problem as incorrect removal can increase chances of disease transmission. Fortunately some colleagues of mine recently published a review paper on best practice:

Avoiding ticks


Encouragingly a randomised controlled trial showed that infections were less common in people who received education about ticks. Congratulations, by reading this post you've just joined the lucky group! The best way of preventing disease transmission is not to get bitten in the first place. Cover up: wear  trousers and tuck them into you socks - I know it looks daft but you can always pretend you're Tintin.  And if you're feeling really fancy you can even get clothes impregnated with the insecticide permethrin which has bee shown to be effective in reducing the incidence of tick bites, although it does need retreating frequently to remain effective.

Everyone's favourite racist, cultural imperialist boy reporter.
The next line of defense is to use a repellant, a substance that beasties find unpleasant smelling that you can rub on your skin to put them off their lunch. Trans-p-methane-3,8-diol (PMD), or lemon eucalyptus oil to its friends, has been shown to be highly repellent toward ticks and in laboratory studies was still providing some protection 48 hours later. By contrast there is little evidence for the effectiveness of DEET against ticks, and what evidence there is seems to suggest it only has a short-term effect. (It should be noted that this is different from the situation for mosquitoes, against which DEET offers better protection).

Tick removal

The faster you can remove a tick, the less chance it will have to get bacteria into your bloodstream. Check yourself every few hours for ticks, and - waggles eyebrows suggestively -see if you can find a tick buddy to check the areas you can't see yourself (or more boringly use a mirror).

Tick removal is the step that seems to have produced the most dangerous home remedies.  Trying to suffocate the ticks with petroleum jelly, nail polish or rubbing alcohol is likely to be ineffective as ticks respire very slowly so can keep feeding without air long enough to infect you, and if you do manage to damage or kill a tick by one of these methods or using a lighted match there's a danger that parts of it will be left in your skin, posing an infection risk. (Needless to say combining rubbing alcohol and a lighted match would be a terrible idea.) BADA has an excellent series of photographs demonstrating correct removal on their very informative website, which will remain active until December 2015: using tweezers, and using a specialist removal tool. At present the evidence in humans suggests that the safest method of tick removal in humans is to use fine-tipped tweezers - evidence for the effectiveness of the tick removal tool only comes from veterinary medicine.  However, if you're not comfortable with tweezers the removal tool is probably a better bet than any of the other methods out there. The TickTwister tool is available to buy here.

If you've been bitten


Although the characteristic bull's eye rash is probably the best known Lyme disease symptom, it only appears in around 60% of patients.  Other symptoms include:
  • unexplained headaches and neck stiffness, 
  • flu-like symptoms,
  • facial palsy, 
  • arthralgia
  • heart palpitations, 
  • dizziness 
If you experience any of these within a few weeks of being bitten by a tick, or of being somewhere you know ticks are present even if you didn't notice a bite, you should see a doctor.


Bull's eye rash, from BADA
Your GP should be able to carry out further tests, and prescribe a course of prophylactic antibiotics if necessary.

So get out there and enjoy the countryside, but respect it too: even here in the UK we have disease vectors that could make you very sick if you give them a chance!

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Go hug a bug!

I recently attended an event organised by a group of open-minded, environmentally conscious people. I realise that makes it sound like a sex party but I assure you it wasn't, I'm being deliberately vague because this isn't a complaint about a specific person or group of people, but a wider problem about our attitude to insects. At one point in the evening I got chatting to a bloke who was clearly a very intelligent person (this is sounding dodgier and dodgier) and evidently passionate about environmental issues. We discussed how the loss of hedgerows was reducing songbird habitats, and whether it was possible to compensate to some degree by growing hedgerow shrubs in gardens.  We discussed how little exposure city children got to nature, and how far it was possible to care about the environment if you weren't personally familiar with it. He told me he'd been working on a project to reintroduce willow coppice onto some neglected land that day and that he'd found a cluster of insects on one of the trees that he'd never seen before, which from his description sounded like large willow aphids.

Large willow aphids, winged and wingless forms.  Picture from the Sussex Wildlife Trust.

Every entomologist loves an easily identified insect, and as a description "it had three triangular spikes on its back" (especially if it was on willow!) is a great deal easier to work with than "it was small and black".  Although the large willow aphid is one of Britain's largest and most distinctive aphids its lifecycle is still surprisingly mysterious - no one has ever found a male (maybe it does without them) and no one knows where they disappear to for almost half the year. So I told him this, and he in turn told me that he'd killed them, and I asked "WHY?" and did a fairly decent impression of Jenna Marbles.

He at least looked a bit embarrassed about it, but told me that he always killed insects he didn't recognise because he lived in London, near Heathrow, and assumed that anything that looked odd (for example something with three horns on its back!) must be a dangerous invasive species that had come in on a plane or with some imports.  He explained that he'd killed loads of false widow spiders - even if all the spiders he killed were in fact false widows, which I think is unlikely, they're not nearly as dangerous as the media makes them out to be. Needless to say, hearing these attitudes from a smart, committed environmentalist made for a very sad entomologist.

I always find it rather sad that the reaction of so many people, including informed environmentalists who should probably know better, to arthropods is fear and disgust.  Not only are these creatures fascinating and, to my eyes at least, beautiful in their intricacy, they are also a vital lynchpin of the ecosystems that support all life on this planet including ourselves and (while this may seem an odd sentiment from someone who studies pest control) the sixty percent of invertebrate species that are declining are more vital for us to conserve than cuddly, charismatic mammals like tigers or gorillas could ever be.
If we and the rest of the back-boned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well. But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the world's ecosystems would collapse.’ Sir David Attenborough - See more at: http://www.buglife.org.uk/#sthash.xrwYmpio.dpuf
"If we and the rest of the back-boned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well.  But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the world's ecosystems would collapse" - Sir David Attenborough.

Although it's often assumed that we're hardwired to fear arthropods there is surprisingly little hard evidence for this theory, and it is by no means a universal human experience outside the west - insect collection is something of a Japanese national obsession, and insects are routinely included in peoples' diets throughout the world (very large pdf) as a vital source of nutrients which sadly is increasingly being abandoned due to the adoption of Western prejudices. (The fact that we entomologists don't feel the same way is also awkward for this theory as it rather suggests that we're the next stage of human evolution, and much as I love you all guys if that's the case we're probably doomed as a species.  Or at the very least about to become a great deal hairier).

Sadly I think much of the problem lies with our culture - what we're taught at school and what we see and read in the media.  So much reporting on arthropods seems to be about DANGEROUS INVASIVE SPECIES THAT WILL KILL YOU DEAD! or at least ruin your hairdo that it's hardly surprising that many people view insects as invasive aliens that will lay eggs in your eyeballs then kill you to death.  Even non-scaremongering stories are often negative - can you imagine a famous, popular columnist writing about mammals in this way for example?

Image from Simon Leather's post on the importance of communicating through social media for entomologists.
So what can we do about it?  In the case of the chap in the first paragraph I must confess I got his details through Facebook and sent him a copy of Chinery, and am expecting the restraining order any day now.  But for the general public the only solution is more engagement and education.  There is always a temptation, which I know I've fallen prey to at times, to focus on the horrifying or grotesque in the insect world as a way of grabbing attention.  But I'll try to avoid that in future - there's already plenty of that in the media so in the interests of balance I'll try to focus on what incredible, amazing creatures insects are and how they really don't deserve to be squashed on sight.

Insects need love too.
If we and the rest of the back-boned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well. But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the world's ecosystems would collapse.’ Sir David Attenborough - See more at: http://www.buglife.org.uk/#sthash.xrwYmpio.dpuf