Wasp research dilemmas

We faced abuse for asking people to kill wasps for science – here’s why it was worthwhile

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Adam Hart, University of Gloucestershire and Seirian Sumner, UCL

When we launched a citizen science project earlier this year, we didn’t expect to get in so much trouble.

We wanted to public to help us find out more about social wasps (the kind that bother us at picnics and BBQs) and so we launched the Big Wasp Survey. Social wasps are essential pest-controllers and pollinators, but some species are declining while others are expanding their populations and range. Without basic data on the abundance and distribution of these wasps, we can’t conserve (or control) them.

Yet we know relatively little about social wasps in Britain. So we asked the public to set out beer-filled traps for a short period of time when mostly old and soon-to-die worker wasps would be active. This approach would provide essential data that we need to manage social wasp populations. But beer traps kill wasps, and that seemed to upset a lot of people.

Asking the public to kill wasps in the name of science led to high–profile national media condemnation. But our negative experiences were relatively mild – some scientists studying invertebrates have been subjected to torrents of social media abuse for “killing in the name of science”.

It seems our study played into an old stereotype of an entomologist as a Victorian-style net-wielding naturalist, capturing and killing six-legged victims that are then pinned and banished to dusty drawers. More a lethal stamp-collector than a scientist.

Outdated stereotype.

The reality is modern entomologists are involved in science that underpins pressing societal and environmental issues including medicine, genetics, ecology and climate change. Unfortunately, this research still relies on killing insects, a practice accepted as a necessary evil by scientists but easily criticised by others, as we found.

There are three main reasons why entomologists sometimes have to kill what they study. First, many insects can only be identified by microscopic examination, for example by the shape of their genitalia. A photograph simply isn’t enough for this. We need a dead specimen.

Second, we often need a lethal approach to catching insects, using techniques such as pan traps (open pans of water) or pitfall traps (sunken traps filled with fluid to kill and preserve insects that fall in). Otherwise it’s much too difficult to catch them.

It’s a trap!

Finally, scientists have learnt a great deal about some important and fundamental aspects of biology and medicine by killing insects. Data on the effects of agriculture, habitat change, the effects of pollution, predator-prey dynamics, and the ecological effects of climate change come directly from studies that leave dead insects in their wake.

The field of genetics would also be nowhere without the fruit fly, which have died in their billions to provide DNA samples in our quest to unravel the fundamental mechanisms of life. Likewise, the American cockroach, the Indian cricket and the mosquito have all died to develop our understanding of nervous systems, ageing, development and disease.

In the case of the Big Wasp Survey, relying on untrained citizen scientists to observe wasps without killing them wasn’t an option. We needed a standard method that everyone could follow and it isn’t possible to reliably observe and count individuals without trapping them. Although there are only eight common species of social wasp in the UK, it’s surprisingly difficult to identify them from living specimens. Without proper wasp identification, our study would be scientifically obsolete.

If we can collect a colony’s worth of wasps we can generate fundamental science to help manage and conserve these important insects. But, again, this would be completely impossible without the actual (dead) specimens for us to accurately identify and use to find out which species are where. We also couldn’t develop any additional research, such as looking at how wasp colour varies in different places, which might reflect pollution levels.

Reduce, refine, replace

Biological research on vertebrate animals (such as fish, mammals and birds) is underpinned by the environmental principle of the Three Rs (reduce, refine, replace). Insect scientists also adopt this principle where they can.

For example, you can use statistical maths to work out the minimum number of individuals (or samples) required to test a particular theory. Improved photography can let us identify some insects such as butterflies without killing them. We can even now use non-lethal methods to take minute quantities of DNA from some insects, allowing us to identify them without killing them.

Every day, billions of insects die splattered on vehicles, poisoned by insecticides or casually swatted for no scientific benefit. In contrast, the tiny number killed by entomologists help us to understand, among many other things, genetics, disease and ecology. The Big Wasp Survey has already collected data from several thousand locations across the UK, engaged millions of people with the value of social wasps and sparked off a number of potential new scientific collaborations with ecologists across Europe.

The ConversationEntomologists have long been troubled by the need to kill insects, and are seeking ways to reduce, refine and replace fatal sampling and identification methods. In the meantime, and in the face of censure and condemnation from those that do not understand the science, entomologists will have to continue to kill insects to make meaningful scientific advances.

Adam Hart, Professor of Science Communication, University of Gloucestershire and Seirian Sumner, Reader in Behavioural Ecology, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Geoethics – Call for abstracts

The IAPG (International Association for Promoting Geoethics) organizes/supports five sessions on geoethics at the Resources Future Generations – RFG 2018 Conference (Vancouver, 16-21 June 2018) under the Theme “Resources and Society: Social & Ethical Values”.

More information: http://www.geoethics.org/rfg2018.

Big algal bloom off southern English coast?

An unusually hot day yesterday and, I think, this was the first time in a long time that we’ve had hot weather on a bank holiday weekend. So lots of people made the trip to the coast.

This photo is from a different year, looking east from Southsea (Portsmouth).

Yesterday evening, a “chemical haze” suddenly rolled in from the sea in southeastern England. People’s eyes and throats were irritated by it and some people are reported to have vomited (but I wonder if that was actually caused by whatever was in the air).

Whatever it is, it is present in Portsmouth as well. During the day, I had noticed that my throat was achy, for no reason that I could identify. In the afternoon/evening, I first smelled something that I quickly recognized as barbecue fumes and later I smelled something else that I couldn’t identify and shrugged off. Maybe someone did something weird with a barbecue.

Then I saw a tweet… After I read about a chlorine-like chemical haze, I wondered if I was merely imagining smelling something. Seems easy enough to do. I later went to the window, saw that the windows were wet on the outside so some cold air (mist) had definitely rolled in, and what I smelled was like the smell of seaweed that I smell when I hang out on the shore.

Anyway, chlorine seemed very unlikely to me and I started thinking ozone build-up. But it seemed too massive for that (and would likely have required a reversal of wind direction during the day).

What I ended up wondering is: Could it have been DMS from a massive algal bloom? (“gas production during the senescence phase is 7–26 times higher than during the growth phase”) And next: Could it have come from E hux? (And, could it be related to global warming, maybe? It’s likely to soon for it to be related to Harvey somehow.)

If that is the case, then surely active marine scientists have already contacted the authorities with their speculations.

As usual, the British authorities were saying little more than to close windows and not to worry.

Also, wouldn’t the substance spike have shown up in one of the automatic air quality monitoring stations?

Likewise, if the haze was due to some kind of industrial event in France, then surely the authorities would have already found that out. (There is a windfarm construction project off Brighton, but it seems very very very unlikely to me that that has anything to do with it, lol.)

Some people must still be very busy studying satellite images of the English Channel right now.

An E hux bloom should show up in those easily enough, but such an observation would then have to be linked to “ground truth”. If it’s some other kind of bloom, it might be more difficult to detect.

If there is a bloom, wouldn’t one of the ferries have noticed something? If not, then a bloom could be further out.

They’re working on it: https://www.sussex.police.uk/news/hundreds-affected-as-gas-cloud-hits-sussex-coast/

I am highly intrigued!

A phytoplankton bloom in the English Channel as seen by SeaWiFS (2002) (The light area near the Thames, that is sediment, however.)


What global change and allergies have to do with each other

Some people are angry when TV/radio stations allow people in their programs who don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change. I don’t see what is wrong about listening to what other people think and having conversations with them and I said that on Twitter (while I was on the road). That does not make me Donald Trump’s favorite cousin.

Green roof, part of a hotel in Utrecht, the Netherlands

We don’t have merely climate change. We have GLOBAL change.

Among other things, we appear to be at the brink of the 6th mass extinction, with the difference that this one is entirely caused by the activities of  the human species, including how we see and treat other species. It also indicates that our habitat is likely becoming unsuitable for ourselves too.

I think it’s a stupid excuse to blame people like Donald Trump and some person called Watson Lawson, who apparently was on TV/radio in some program, for what is going on and for what other people are doing.

Companies in the United States have a CHOICE, for example. They can stick to emission targets no matter what Donald Trump says. it’s a matter of taking personal responsibility. They can even make industry-wide decisions, no matter what Donald Trump says.

I don’t know who this Watson Lawson person is, but I can understand why some people don’t want to believe in global change and refuse to believe that it is mostly caused by us. First of all, the idea is scary as hell (because it threatens our own existence as a species). So the idea that it is not happening is much more likeable. So it isn’t stupid for people to stick to such a belief. It means they’re human.

Secondly, because science is big business – requiring and using but also generating loads of money – it is easy for some people to believe that scientists sometimes say things merely to get more money. it’s happened! More than once.

Also, science has fashion trends just like everything else. I remember when more and more people started asking money for CO2-related research. Suddenly, doing that was hot.

Some scientists (Bob Berner, for instance) had already been doing that for a long time but until then, not a lot of attention had been paid to them. Others were (also) experts in topics like ocean pH (Bob Byrne, for instance). CO2 and pH have a heck of a lot to do with each other.

It used to be quite hard to get earth and ocean sciences into Science or Nature. These sciences weren’t deemed of interest to a larger audience. They were for and about people who studied fossils or looked at seals and fishes. Duh.

Fossils writing about fossils for other fossils. Fossils. That was the image a lot of people had about the earth (including ocean) sciences. Stuffy people. (Okay, there were also some who thought “oil and gas” and some who thought “shiny  minerals” and “shells”.)

Suddenly, CO2 (carbon) was where the money was so CO2 was what lots of people wanted to work on.

That does not mean that it’s useless research. Far from it. Neither does it mean that researching something else suddenly became stupid. I have had all sorts of people tell me that earth science was a stupid thing to be interested in. It was never a “sexy” science – until the world started to become aware of global change.

Many other disciplines have since jumped on board of the train, often reinventing wheels that earth scientists had already not only invented but developed. Earth science also had the undeserved stigma of not having any modellers, people able to do complicated calculations. Those other disciplines had no idea how much computer power 3D structural geology modelling took or how much math there was in hydrology or how much thermodynamics in rocks and minerals.

(Not that I mind that those other disciplines have joined because they contribute their own insights.)

It takes time for new discoveries /ideas to grab hold.

There was a time – none of us were around back then – when some dudes started suggesting that the earth wasn’t flat, but round. They met with an incredible amount of resistance! They were banned, vilified, crucified, prosecuted. It was heresy! The earth was flat and that was that.

The notion that the earth isn’t flat has taken a very long time to sink in. I am sure there are still plenty of people who are unable to grasp that we are living on a large sphere. That doesn’t make them evil people. It doesn’t necessarily make them stupid people either.

It makes them HUMAN.

I have other examples. I am sure that the ones who think I am stupid when I say it isn’t stupid to talk with and listen to people who disagree on important issues occasionally get very drunk or pig out on food and then regret it deeply the next day.

They KNOW that they shouldn’t do it. They KNOW that they will get sick. They KNOW that they will regret it the next day. Yet, they still go ahead in spite of knowing all that. Why?

Because they are HUMAN.

To be human means to be fallible. None of us are perfect and none of us are 100% right about everything.

I have a personal example too. I love pasta but I’ve recently discovered that I seem to be allergic to wheat (not gluten-intolerant; that’s something else). So I get “punished” by my body for eating pasta. It’s taking me longer to stay away from wheat than is logical.

it’s like the dialogue with someone who does not believe in human-made climate change. My body says to me: “Do not eat pasta”. I keep responding: “But I like pasta!” I have the evidence, but I like pasta and it’s taking me a while to stop liking pasta and coming around to the idea that maybe I should stop liking pasta. The idea of not liking pasta any longer just seems … odd? My body says: “Eat gnocchi instead!” But I still haven’t fully made the switch.

I don’t know exactly how this works.

All I know is that it makes me HUMAN.

Why cut off communication simply because you don’t agree with someone about a topic as important as this? It is usually not a crime to disagree with someone.

I may be seeing something similar with nanoparticles. There may be people who don’t like it when I point out that we don’t have technologies yet for removing them from waste streams. Some may be thinking that if they don’t reply to me, I will go away, even though we literally used to sit at the same table in the past.

Are they thinking that if they ignore the fact that we don’t have technologies yet for removing them from waste streams long enough, it will go away? I am not saying that this will lead “to the end of the world”, but it does seem pretty stupid to me, with all that we’ve learned from all the mistakes we’ve made in the past, to keep barging ahead with new technologies before we’ve fully figured them out and mastered them.

Yes, progress is cool. Very! I get that! And Donald Trump digs coal. Really digging something isn’t always enough justification for doing it.

I don’t know who this Watson Lawson person is, but I remember a British guy telling me, years ago, that he thought Britain was so small that nothing the British did or didn’t do would make a difference to the planet.

When all the people in the world say “I only have one dollar, so I can’t contribute much, so I won’t contribute” you end up with nothing yet when (almost) all people say “I only have one dollar, so it’s not much but that’s what I can contribute” you get a fortune!

If two or three people want to keep their dollar note to themselves, oh well. I don’t mind hearing what they did with their dollar. Because I know that what I did with my dollar.

But until it’s only two or three people, stopping the conversation does not seem a good idea to me.

In no way does any of the above translate in me saying “Go ahead, trash the planet.”

Do I wish I had much better answers? Hell, yeah! I wish I had a magic wand and could fix the entire planet with one graceful wave of my wand-holding hand. But I can’t. And I feel that the way I live, including all the plastic waste I produce, is horrible, just horrible. And it makes me despair at times.

Instead of buying new shelving, I paint and stack and sometimes first fix small tables I find thrown away along the streets. My microwave is a discard from someone else’s kitchen renovation. It stands on two small cardboard boxes. I catch the cold water when I run a shower till the water gets warm. But it’s too damn little.

Read up on people like Rachel Carson, too.

Sending me a stupid spoofed e-mail about a non-existing job in Germany doesn’t do anything for the planet either, whoever…

If you don’t get my stupid analogies, reader, that’s okay.

No, it is not embarrassing or bad to have dissenting views around the table and have a dialogue. it’s what grown-ups do in a democracy. (It’s also the sort of thing people like Donald Trump don’t do.)




Green roofs

I spent some time in a green hotel in the Netherlands last week. I initially didn’t have a lot of attention for the details of my location as I was focused on meetings – and on getting my key card to open doors. Then one morning, at the top of the stairs, I realized I was surrounded by green roofs and snapped some photos. Yes, these are flat roofs that cover the ground floor level.

I later spotted more small green roofs in an office area in Amsterdam South-East, from my train. One appeared to include an entire tree! A big one, too.

It’s time to re-evaluate our relationship with animals

From the description (6 May 2014):

Lesli Bisgould is Canada’s first animal rights lawyer. For ten years, she acted for individuals and organizations in a variety of animal-related cases in the only practice of its kind in the country. She has fought for the rights of students who objected to dissection in science class, for critics of facilities where animals are held captive, and for changes in the law to ameliorate the legal status of animals. Lesli is an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of law where she instructs a course on animals and the law. Lesli is the author of “Animals and the Law”, the only Canadian law text on the subject, published by Irwin Law. Lesli was the 2012 international law lecturer for Australian animal protection institute, Voiceless – she undertook a 12-stop lecture tour of Australia, comparing the commercial hunts for seals in Canada and kangaroos in Australia. In recent years, Lesli’s full-time work has been in the human rights and poverty law fields, and she is currently the Barrister at Legal Aid Ontario’s Clinic Resource Office.

BP oil spill settlement (2010, Gulf of Mexico)

Remember the big oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a few years back? In 2010, that was. 11 people died in the disaster. I used Twitter to get a shipment of Dawn sent to a group of people who were cleaning up oiled sea birds in Florida, back then. (I used to volunteer there in the mid-1990s.)

Cleaning up oiled pelicans after the 1993 oil spill in Tampa Bay. Photo: Dawn Waldt.

Cleaning up oiled pelicans after the 1993 oil spill in Tampa Bay. Photo: Dawn Waldt.

Well, the damages have finally been settled, and approved by a judge. BP will pay the US government and the five affected states up to $18.7 billion in penalties.

Read more about the settlement: here.

There is also a film about the disaster now.


Pelican cleaned up after 1993 Tampa Bay oil spill. Photo: Dawn Waldt.

Less-waste living

I am not happy with how much plastic I put in the trash all the time and want to change that.

I am going to start by making my own tooth paste. That’s a baby step. That’s how we all learned to walk. Baby steps. Easy does it.

Here are three useful pages with information:




I am also going to start using a wooden toothbrush and I am going to experiment with making my own shampoo.

I noticed that that could produce more waste instead of less if I am not careful. Coconut milk usually is not packaged in plastic but in cans/tins (easy to recycle) and I can use the remainder of the coconut milk in food, but liquid soap is packaged in plastic. Then I found directions for turning bars of soap into liquid soap do I will look for bars that are packaged in paper and turn them into liquid soap.

There is also this method for washing hair with baking soda.

I am going to give the coconut shampoo version a shot to see how it works out and to that end, I will first try to turn bars into liquid soap. If the latter works, I also will no longer have to buy liquid hand soap in plastic. I can use the plastic pump flasks that I already have. (The pumps don’t work on many of them, so I’ve kept a few that work and I refill those anyway.)

Another advantage of using home-made toothpaste is that it won’t contain any nanoparticles. Many products contain nanoparticles these days, but there is no technology yet for removing them from waste streams.

Grow your own food inside a computer

At least, that is what it looks like, like you’re growing vegetables inside a computer case. This is a TED Talk by Caleb Harper.

TED Talks won’t let me embed this TED Talk, so you will have to click on the above link.

You can grow your own tasty Isle of Wight, Spanish or Floridian tomatoes, lettuces, broccoli, and a lot more, by recreating local climate and nutritional conditions with the aid of a computer, using recipes that you can exchange for free.

I want one!!!

This YouTube video show you how you can build one. This is not for everyone, so it is a great projects for neighborhood communities!