Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson: Rise of the Planet of the Insects
The Internet has been set abuzz (pun intended) lately by rumours of the Insect Apocalypse. And whilst the concept itself is depressing, it’s worth smiling at the fact that the public has finally started to take an interest in the ecological plight of a group of animals until recently ignored whenever possible. After all, insects include, wasps, cockroaches, bees and myriad other ‘nasties’.
Professor Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson is one academic/author who has made it her life’s mission to turn people around on insects, which includes her recent Brage Prize nominated book “Terra Insecta”. Sam Perrin and I sat down at the recent Norwegian Ecological Society Conference to ask Anne about why people have an aversion to creepy crawlies, how scientific communication helps in her mission, and whether or not the planet could survive the eradication of the mosquito.
Tanja Petersen ( TP): You’ve made it your mission to make the world love insects. If you don’t mind me asking, why?
Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson (AS-T): Because they’re just the most amazing organisms around. They are incredibly species rich, and they’re both fun and fascinating in many ways. They’re also incredibly important. We completely depend on them for our lives and welfare.
Sam Perrin (SP): Why do you think there’s such an aversion to insects in much of the public?
AS-T: People think that insects are ugly creatures, pest species. We don’t want them, we don’t like them around us. The main problem is that most people have no idea what they are doing for us. People have a hard time switching their opinion on something that is ugly or nasty.
TP: People might not like insects because they’re uncharismatic. How do we get people to recognise that they need uncharismatic species?
AS-T: That’s what I’ve tried to do in my book, to tell fun stories, strange and fascinating facts about the funny little lives of insects, and sometimes play on these parallels, these metaphors. I sometimes use anthropomorphisation, by playing on the fact that they’re similar to us. Of course in many ways they’re not, but they take care of their kids like we do. Dung beetles make little rooms for their kids with dung stuffed into sides of the walls. Talking about babies swimming when insects are in their larval stages in water is another example. Using the words janitor or caretakers when talking about decomposers. There was a study which showed that the ants of Manhattan eat an amount of fast food off the pavement equivalent to 60,000 hot dogs every year. That gives people a visual picture of 60,000 hot dogs strewn everywhere, which is not a very nice idea. I think that’s the way to go about it. Because through the fun stuff, you can edge in more understanding. Then you can start to talk about their importance, because you’ve opened up a door a little bit so it’s easier to get the message through.
SP: I noticed that your book was called Buzz Sting Bite in America, as opposed to Amazing Insects in Britain. Did you have an aversion to the title change?
AS-T: Is it interesting that you comment on Buzz Sting Bite, because when I first heard this title I was opposed to it. I wrote to the US editor that I’m not too fond of having a title that focuses on the negatives of insects. Because there are so many journals, newspaper articles and so many people focusing on that already. I have made a point out of being on the other side of the argument. I usually try to talk about the positives to outweigh all these others. So I wasn’t fond of having a negatively focused title. But they convinced me that would be the best for the US market. It does have a subtitle, “Why We Need Insects”. Which is a nice contrast.
TP: What were your expectations when you wrote the book?
AS-T: I didn’t even think that it would be translated. It was never ever in my head. That was a complete surprise. Of course I was hoping that the book would sell in Norway. It was the first time I ever wrote a book. Of course you’re hoping that it’s going to sell at least so it’s not a catastrophe for the publishers. But I would never have expected it to be nominated for the Brage prize. That was amazing.
It’s been an amazing year. It’s not even a year since it was out, and it’s not even 2 years since I was asked to write the books. It’s very promising that it has gotten such a lot of focus and positive focus. It shows that you can get through to people about these seemingly narrow subjects. I think that’s nice to know, and has relevance to a lot of ecologists. Because it gives hope that it’s possible to communicate strange stuff to people.
You can tell them about then fun things, and that by itself can have the effect of people being less negative and hostile towards insects. But also I do believe that if people think that insects are fun, they will continue thinking and realise that these critters are quite important, and wonder how they’re re they faring. Are we taking care of these little things? And then they will engage and realise we’re not. I think that sort of engagement coming from inside has so much more impact. It’s better than me or anybody else standing there telling them to think about it, because we hear that all the time and we tend to ignore it. You get so tired of hearing all these things we do wrong and all these things we should do instead. And I think that’s quite an important point. Trying to trigger this sort of motivation coming from inside.
SP: You studied journalism in the US?
AS-T: Yes. I was there for one year and I had only been studying for one year. It was very early in my college education. In the US, you would choose a lot of small subjects and build a lot of different skills together. So I was doing a lot of different things. I took some journalism classes but I also took courses in Greek literature, scuba diving and American foreign policy. But also mass communication courses.
SP: Do you think having a diverse background helps in science?
AS-T: I think it does. The year before America, I studied history for a year in Norway. And I think having studied both within the humanities/social sciences and STEM sciences is very useful. Because people have a different way of talking and thinking. And people tend to discuss concepts more within the social sciences and humanities. Take the concept of uncertainty, it’s not called uncertainty in social sciences, it’s talked about as how you interpret or your sources, or their reliability. But the discussions about uncertainty, you don’t have facts, you have different sorts of input and you talk through them more comprehensively. And I think that’s quite useful, I learned a lot from that. And of course meeting lots of different people from different backgrounds and different cultures, I think that’s good for everybody, it’s stimulating.
TP: What would be your advice for young people looking to get into scientific communication?
AT-P: I think starting with a science blog is quite a good idea. It’s a low threshold thing, you can decide how often you’ll use it. In Norway we have Forskning.no, which hosts all sorts of research blogs. You can write every week, every month, you can have irregular intervals if you want. It reaches a lot of people and stays out there for a long time, so often the older articles are still read a lot. It also allows you to experiment with different ways of writing. Sometimes it gets picked up by the newspapers. They will see it and ask you to write particular articles for them if you’re lucky. If you want to, after you’ve written a couple of blogs, before you post it you can try to send it to a newspaper and ask if they’re interested.
I think that’s a very good place to start. It helps to have a team working together on it. We started out as three, now we’re four people, and we circulate whose turn it is, which reduces pressure. We always read each other’s posts before we publish, which also helps.
SP: Do you think there’s a danger in getting more and more people into SciComm, that we get people who aren’t good at it putting stuff out there?
AT-P: If you’re good at it, it’s fun, and if it’s fun, you get even better at it. So it’s a positive feedback loop. And that also goes the other way. If you think it’s really hard, and not fun, that’s probably related to you not being super good at it. There also of course a sort of filter out there, because the newspapers will go for those who are good at it and they will get more publicity. So I’m not so worried about that.
But I think it’s important for those that do want to become better at it, that we can help them. That colleagues, peers and PR people can try to give them the tools. Because it’s not like people are super good the first time you try, you have to learn it. I think putting this into course curriculum at Universities is a good idea. Because then a lot of people can try, and the good ones will hopefully continue. And there is room for a lot more researchers doing outreach work!
SP: Last but not least, could the world survive the complete eradication of mosquitoes?
AS-T: All species of mosquitoes that bite humans? Well there’s a high degree of uncertainty, so we can only guess. Mosquitoes are food for many other species, bats, birds. But together with other biting flies, the dipterans, they influence much larger animals. In Northern America and Canada, they force the caribou to certain places in summer because they’re being annoyed by the biting dipterans. Entire parts of their migration patterns are driven by where the biting flies and mosquitoes are at certain points in time. And of course the caribou influence the entire ecosystem, where they walk they destroy vegetation, they expose bare soil. They defecate of course, and that adds nutrients to the soil. And all this is partly driven by these very small flying insects. So they influence large ecological patterns.
And of course we don’t know what would replace mosquitoes if they were eradicated. What else would step up? Species that might be worse, for all that we know. Especially in those places where mosquitoes belong. Eradicating the Zika mosquito in South America for instance is another question, because they’re an introduced species. Doing the same in Africa is a different question.
Anne’s book Terra Insecta is available on Amazon.com (Buzz Sting Bite, US edition), on Amazon.co.uk (Extraordinary insects, UK Edition), ark.no (Insektenes planet, Norwegian Edition) and most other book retailers.