City bees – the ultimate urban idyll or a middle class guilt trip?

Beekeeping in a busy city centre? It doesn’t sound right to me, but there’s a growing trend to put beehives on the vacant roofs of city centre shops and museums. I recently had a chance to find out what’s behind this trend when bees arrived on the Princesshay shopping centre in Exeter. There are now three beehives on the roof of this busy shopping complex, so on a recent warm day in early July I went to meet the bees and their keepers.

Princesshay shops

Exeter’s Princesshay shopping centre

The idea for the Princesshay bees came from Andrew Littlejohns, the Operations Manager of the complex. Having seen a television programme about the decline of bees, he decided to try to help. His plan was to set up honeybee colonies on the roof of the shopping centre along with a bee-friendly garden. The garden, with its raised beds and an irrigation system, was built in 2012 and left to mature until spring this year when the first bees arrived.

Princesshay roof garden

The roof garden

Andrew took me up to the roof in the service lift through parts of Princesshay most shoppers don’t normally see. We stepped out of the lift into the newly constructed beekeeper’s room complete with posters about beekeeping and a full set of beekeeping apparatus and clothing. I also met Jason Wallis from WeeTree Nurseries in Somerset who is the Princesshay beekeeper. Jason visits once a week to check the bees and to train volunteers.

Princesshay beekeepers

Once we had all “suited-up”, I went with Jason, his son and two Princesshay volunteers to see the garden and the bees. The roof space is, as you might expect, rather bleak although there are now plenty of flowers in bloom. The bees were very active on this warm day and I looked in to the hives and watched Jason and his helpers identify, mark and clip the queen in one hive. Jason fed another hive and told me that his aim is to get three strong colonies established this year with two more hives to be added next year. When the colonies can spare honey and beeswax, this will be sold through the Chandos Deli located in the shops below.

Hive at Princesshay

A rooftop hive with active bees

It was a very interesting visit but I was left with a lingering unease about the project. Is the city really the place to keep bees with its pollution and apparent lack of forage? Is this some kind of indulgence, the “save the planet” hobby as beekeeping has been dubbed by some? Do I detect a whiff of middle class guilt?

Although these are Devon’s first city bees, the idea is by no means a new one. One of the most prominent colonies of city bees in the UK was established in London in 2008 on the roof of the exclusive department store, Fortnum and Mason. High above Piccadilly there are four architecturally-themed designer hives; you can own one yourself for just £1500! The hives were set up with the explicit aim of producing a “single estate” honey and in recent years demand has been so high that there was a waiting list. There are bee cams should you wish to watch the bees and the regular rooftop visits with honey tasting and champagne are sold out. The bees are tended by Steve Benbow, a David Tennant/Dr Who look alike, who runs the London Honey Company. Benbow also tends hives on roofs of other London buildings including the National Portrait Gallery and the two Tate Galleries and has become something of a celebrity beekeeper.

Although some people may find Fortnum’s exclusive consumerism difficult to stomach, the bees here do seem to be thriving. Contrary to my prejudice, there is varied and plentiful forage in the surrounding parks, some of which are fittingly royal. Central London temperatures may allow a longer flowering season and the bees may be exposed to fewer pesticides compared with the countryside.

Paris Opera

The Palais Garnier in central Paris

Fortnums got the idea for their rooftop hives from the Palais Garnier (Opera House) in Paris. There have been rooftop bees on this magnificent building since 1985; central Paris offers a pesticide-free, forage-rich environment and the bees thrive, producing more honey than their country counterparts. Winter losses for these city bees are also very low compared with bees in the French countryside. The difference may reflect the monoculture that dominates much of rural France, coupled with the use of pesticides. Ironically, the countryside, at least in France, may now be more toxic to the bees than are the towns.
So, any concerns I may have had about the health of city rooftop bee colonies seem to be unfounded, but what about the motivation behind these schemes? The Exeter city bees were set up based on a genuine desire to help support these insects but the scheme has attracted huge local publicity which can’t have been a bad thing for the shopping centre. For Fortnums, keeping bees is part of their commercial plan but may also allow the well-off to feel they are vaguely dabbling with beekeeping. In Canterbury, the city bees provide a softening for the otherwise commercial image of the shopping centre. Other rooftop beekeepers refer to “making a small contribution to saving the planet” and wanting “to connect with nature”.
Steven Poole, writing recently in the Guardian, took a swipe at the current rash of books about “walking around and discovering yourself in nature”. He linked the popularity of the books with the rise of the north London farmers’ markets. According to Poole, the books and the markets both feed on nostalgie de la boue – a French term for a kind of rustic-fancying inverted snobbery which literally means “nostalgia for the mud”. Are the city bees part of this? They may be, although in my view, Poole’s criticism of farmers’ markets is simplistic.
Down here in Devon, farmers’ markets are very popular. Exeter has a regular Thursday market and The Real Food Store in the city centre specialises in local produce. There may be mud nostalgia involved but farmers’ markets allow small producers to sell independently of the big supermarkets and give consumers the chance to buy fresh, high quality produce and support the local economy. The produce on sale reflects the seasons so consumers may feel a slight connection with nature.

One caveat: it’s very important that people don’t think that shopping at the farmers’ market, or indeed keeping bees, is all they need to do to support the environment. The environment is under great pressure from climate change, from pollution and from industrialised farming, to name but three threats. The environment needs all the support it can get.

[The photographs were taken by Hazel Strange]

Princesshay bees 1

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From Raleigh’s pipe to tidal power

Dittisham and the Dart

Dittisham and the River Dart

A few miles before it meets the sea, the River Dart enjoys several wide meanders through beautiful South Devon countryside. Near the village of Dittisham, however, mariners must be aware of a dangerous obstacle, the Anchor Stone, a huge rock protruding from the river. Rumour has it that Sir Walter Raleigh used to smoke his pipe while seated on the Stone; Raleigh certainly spent much time at nearby Greenway House. Now, some 400 years later, the river Dart near the Anchor Stone is the site of a novel tidal power project.

The Anchor Stone

The Anchor Stone


On a recent bright but cloudy Friday morning I made my way to Dittisham. The village spreads down the hillside to a wide sweep of river and there is a proud prosperity expressed in the neat cottages and individual houses. I walked along walled paths, richly decorated with red valerian, to find the Anchor Stone Café. The café is right on the water’s edge and I was here for the first public presentation on the tidal power project.

Red Valerian

Red Valerian

The project is the brainchild of the Totnes Renewable Energy Society (TRESOC), a local group aiming to provide community ownership of renewable energy resources. The group is financed by shares owned by members of the community; I have a small number of shares myself. The flagship project was for a wind turbine on a hillside south of Totnes that would have provided enough power for 2500 homes. Planning permission for the turbine was refused by the local council earlier this year after a very polarised local debate. TRESOC is also involved in raising financial support for a project developed by a local consortium to generate hydroelectric power from the River Dart at Totnes weir. Now, further down the Dart near Dittisham, TRESOC wants to produce tidal power, exploiting the rise and fall of the tide in a deep channel next to the Anchor Stone. The channel here is more than 20 metres deep so that positioning a tidal power device would not disrupt shipping.

The forshore at Dittisham

The foreshore at Dittisham with the Anchor Stone Cafe to the left of the jetty

About 40 of us gathered in a small room in the Anchor Stone Café. I was pleased to see that the room lacked projection facilities as I hoped this might encourage brevity. Our local MP, Dr Sarah Wollaston appeared at the back of the room, so I knew that this project had some significance. First we heard from Ian Bright, TRESOC’s Director who told us that currently they were trying to assess the viability of the project and any environmental barriers. Later he spoke about the importance of engaging with all interested parties as early as possible. This, I believe, was a coded reference to the fact that they now realise that they didn’t get everyone on board soon enough for the wind turbine project.

Next, Mandy Burton, TRESOC’s engineering director told us how, with Plymouth University, they have placed a measuring device, the Sea Spider, in the deep channel at a depth of about 20 metres. The Sea Spider will measure the speed of the water flows over a two week period. Based on the results, a decision will be made on which turbine could be used; the most likely one is a 2 or 3 blade slow turbine. She told me later that the energy output might be enough to power 50-100 homes.

Third in line was Dr Dan Conley, from the University of Plymouth. His laconic North American tones provided an unexpected contrast to the previous speakers. Conley is an expert on marine renewable energy and runs the world’s first Masters Programme on the topic. With one of the MSc students, Francesca Ford, and TRESOC they have deployed the Sea Spider and will use the data to determine the potential size of the tidal energy resource. TRESOC have paid £1000 towards this project.

My overriding impression, listening to the three talks, was of enthusiasm but a lack of detail; this is frustrating but is perhaps to be expected as the project is at a very early stage and reflects the desire of TRESOC to keep everyone informed.

A question and answer session then followed and I didn’t detect much opposition to the project despite the fact that quite a few locals were there. One Dittisham resident warned Ian Bright that he had better do his homework as the Anchor Stone has an important place in the hearts of villagers. She gently chided him for already having upset the locals by mispronouncing the name of the village; real locals say “Ditsum” whereas Bright has publicly referred to “Ditshum”. Even I knew that!

There was some discussion about the effect of a turbine on the ecology of the River and the time it might take to sort out environmental issues. One concern is the effect of a submerged turbine on passing fish and seals but apparently fish are clever enough to avoid the slowly turning blades (30 rpm) and seals enjoy playing in the vortices. There could be an effect of the vortices on the river bed.

Dr Sarah Wollaston MP and Owen Hill (Legal Director of TRESOC)

Dr Sarah Wollaston MP and Owen Hill (Legal Director of TRESOC)

After the presentations, we were offered a short boat trip to see the channel. It was interesting to see the Anchor Stone close up and I thought of the boats that must have foundered here before warning signs were erected. You couldn’t really appreciate the depth of the channel but I was glad I went. After the boat trip, Sarah Wollaston asked Ian Bright if he had done his sums on the carbon emission balance for the project; how much carbon would be used to make the turbine etc in relation to the carbon saved by using tidal power? It turned out that he hadn’t. This is an important question but I suppose it cannot be answered until the results of the current exploratory study are available.

The Anchor Stone project is a small project but we should not belittle it for that. If it is successful, it will be a renewable energy project promoted and owned by a local community. It would show that people in local communities can make a difference at a time when government appears to be dragging its heels on promoting these sorts of schemes.

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From legal highs to legal supplies?

“Within five minutes I was tripping my balls off, trying to call friends for help, but I couldn’t use my phone. My heart rate was going up and I started to panic. …. I found myself in the street. The first thing I remember is being grabbed by a police officer and not knowing why. … The ambulance arrived and my heart rate was over 240 bpm”. (Guardian 27th April)

This is a seasoned user of legal and illegal drugs describing his experience of taking the relatively new psychedelic drug 25I-NBOMe. He was hospitalised for two days observation but survived.

The drug had already attracted the attention of the Advisory Committee on Drug Abuse (ACMD) and on May 16th, the Chair, Les Iversen, issued a warning about the serious risk of overdose associated with this new generation of psychedelic drugs. By May 29th, Iversen had recommended to the Home Secretary that the drugs should be banned temporarily. His recommendation was accepted and on June 10th, 25I-NBOMe and three similar drugs were banned for a year pending further investigation.

These events highlight both the problems currently facing the drug authorities and the risks facing users of these drugs. Until June 10th, it was perfectly legal to supply and use 25I-NBOMe and its analogues. They were “legal highs”, synthesised in labs in the Far East and supplied via UK web sites e.g. Lizard labs, Royal Alchemist. The risks to users were illustrated by a rash of hospitalisations in the North East associated with use of the drug. Seven cases of non-fatal intoxication were reported in January with one person suffering renal damage. Many of these cases had snorted the drug. There have also been reports of deaths following use of the drug in the USA

I knew quite a bit about the archetypal psychedelic, LSD, but I hadn’t heard of the NBOMe series of drugs before. In fact very little is known about these compounds as I discovered when I had a look in PubMed and other data bases. If so little is known, then why have these compounds been dignified by a ban?

The drugs were first synthesised by Ralf Heim in Berlin in 2003 and three years later, David Nichols at Purdue made further analogues and characterised them. Structurally, the compounds are related to the naturally occurring psychedelic, mescaline but have additional chemical substituents that massively increase their potency. There are no controlled studies on the effects of these drugs in humans, but based on reports from recreational users, 25I-NBOMe is a psychedelic with effects similar but not identical to LSD. Users have also reported serious negative side effects.

The NBOMe drugs, as well as LSD and mescaline, are thought to achieve their psychedelic effects by mimicking the brain chemical serotonin at one of its target sites in the brain (the 5-HT2A receptor). The potency of 25I-NBOMe at this site is comparable to LSD and at least 1000 times higher than mescaline. This means that whereas a typical dose of mescaline would be 200 mg, for both LSD and 25I-NBOMe a few hundred micrograms are usually sufficient. Despite the superficial similarity between LSD and 25I-NBOMe, the two drugs are quite different structurally and their effects are unlikely to be identical.

So, why are the NBOMe drugs such a problem? Here we need to think about how they are taken. Unlike LSD, the NBOMe drugs are not active if they are ingested, so other routes of administration are used. Some have snorted the drugs, some have injected them. This is possible because relatively large amounts of the pure drugs are available. Serious problems can then arise because the drugs are so potent. The effective dose is less than a milligram and this is very difficult for a user to measure accurately. Measurement errors or accidents with the powder can be very dangerous and probably account for the hospitalisations mentioned above.

Another popular route is to transfer small quantities of drug (a milligram or less) on to a small piece of blotting paper; this is usually done by the person selling the drug so that risks to the user are much less. The paper is then placed under the tongue allowing access of the drug to the bloodstream. Many people have taken the drugs this way although users have to trust their supplier to prepare the blotter accurately. The blotters are not expensive and this has tempted some people into taking several at one time. This might well lead to adverse effects because the dose will now be several times higher than the effective dose but this is pure speculation given that we know so little about the short-term physiological effects of these drugs. We also know nothing about the long term effects of these compounds on the brain or their wider toxicology or carcinogenicity so users are taking huge risks.

The NBOMe story highlights the problems posed by “legal high” drugs. Once a new “legal high” is identified, the response of the authorities in this country is to ban the substance (prohibition). These new drugs are mostly made by labs in the Far East and supplied by dealers or via the internet. The Far Eastern labs know that it takes time to ban each new substance so that when they introduce a new drug to the market, there will be a period of time when they can make money until the drug is banned. Also, banning a drug may reduce its availability but it will usually still be available via the internet. Anyway the banned drug will be replaced quickly by another substance and the cycle will begin again.

In addition, these “legal highs” lack the stringent controls applied to pharmaceuticals. They are often advertised as being of high purity but there is no guarantee that this is true. The compounds are usually poorly characterised in terms of their physiological effects as well as their toxicology and carcinogenicity. Users are taking huge risks in consuming these poorly characterised materials. It is ironic that when 25I-NBOMe was freely available, it was probably safer to take the very well characterised but illegal drug, LSD rather than the “legal high”, NBOMe.

Although banning a drug may give the politicians a nice warm feeling of being in control, this feeling is an illusion.

For some time I have been convinced that the present system (prohibition) for dealing with “legal highs” and other recreational drugs in the UK is unworkable and is exposing users to unnecessary risks. We have to accept that people want to take drugs and, therefore, we must protect them from harm. One way to achieve this is to move to a system whereby production, supply and use of recreational drugs are regulated. I realise that this would be very unpopular in some parts of society and would be strongly opposed by the present government but I cannot see another way forward.

A good example of a framework for regulation has been put together by The Transform Drug Policy Foundation. Their Blueprint for Regulation contains detailed proposals for regulating production, supply and usage of recreational drugs in this country. Until recently these sorts of proposals were theoretical exercises but in 2011 the New Zealand Government announced its intention to develop a new regime for regulating the manufacture and sale of “low risk” psychoactive substances. This was partly a response to the proliferation of “legal highs” in the country. The market for legal highs in New Zealand does seem to be different from that in the UK. For example, there are surprising reports from New Zealand of the widespread sale of synthetic cannabis-like drugs at local dairies, the New Zealand equivalent of the corner shop or convenience store.

Details of the Psychoactive Substances Bill were released in 2012. In the new framework, manufacturers wishing to sell “low risk” drugs will have to pay for clinical trials of the finished product they wish to market. Approval will be given once the substance has been demonstrated to be of low risk. Sale of the approved substances will also be controlled. The Bill is expected to be approved by the New Zealand Parliament by August 2013. This is a radical new way of dealing with the problems of recreational drug use and many countries will be looking carefully at how New Zealand’s new drug laws work in practice.

[I should like to thank Dr Chris Wilkins of Massey University for help in understanding New Zealand’s “legal high” drug market]

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The curious case of the barbecue and the toilet seat.

Bbq chicken wings

The prospect of a weekend with some warmer weather sends us Brits in to a frenzy of outdoor eating. So, in this spirit, and ignoring the light rain, I went searching for our barbecue and found it under a pile of old flowerpots in the garden store. As I struggled to extract the barbecue from the tangle of pea sticks and garden tools, I noticed our neighbour watching me. I imagined he was admiring my skill as I flicked the rat droppings out of last year’s spent charcoal. I soon found otherwise when he pointed to the rusting grill and said “Have you seen the report?”

“What report?” I answered.

“Showing that those things are dirtier than your toilet seat”. As he said this, he stabbed the air with his finger in the general direction of the barbecue and backed away.

Toilet seat 600x980

It took me a while to regain my composure as he filled me in on some of the details of “the report”.

He had been reading an article in the Daily Mail: The average British barbecue contains TWICE as many germs as a toilet seat.

The article claims startling figures. According to the Mail, a barbecue harbours 1.7 million microbes per 100 cm2, making it the grubbiest surface in the garden. By comparison, a toilet seat has only 759,950 microbes per 100 cm2 (curious readers will want to know why this figure is quoted with so much precision). Also dirtier than toilet seats are bin lids with 1.2 million microbes per 100 cm2, posing a risk to householders when they put their rubbish out. The article continues helpfully to add that microbes in the garden include E. coli, salmonella and listeria, all of which can cause vomiting and diarrhoea. So, the message seems to be: keep out of your garden, it’s one of the riskiest places around and certainly don’t cook or eat there.

But how did they get these figures for the numbers of microbes? It turns out that they were the work of Dr Lisa Ackerley, “one of the UK’s leading food safety experts”. I assume Dr Lisa, as she likes to be called, didn’t do the legwork herself. I imagine she sent one of her minions to do the spying on people’s barbecues and toilet seats. I have this image of a person with a clipboard kitted out with a white coat and rubber gloves turning up at someone’s house and demanding to sample the microbes on toilet seats and barbecues. Yes, the householder says meekly, I would be happy for you come and swab my toilet and my barbecue; apparently 1400 householders agreed to undergo this intrusion.

So far so good but, If you are a scientist, you now want to ask all sorts of silly questions. How was this work standardised, when was the barbecue (and the toilet) last used, how often are they cleaned, were any statistical tests done, and so on. Because actually this report is a load of rubbish and it’s a disgrace that someone with a PhD associates themselves with such an article. I don’t believe this kind of work tells us anything about food hygiene and it goes a long way to undermine confidence in science. Bacteria on the barbecue are unlikely to be a problem if you get it nice and hot and in my opinion, there is a far greater potential health risk from undercooked meat.

But then you read another of Dr Lisa’s statements where she stresses the potential dangers of the garden adding menacingly, “Using an appropriate disinfectant could significantly reduce the risks and lead to a healthier, safer outdoor experience for all”. And suddenly you realise what is going on. The study was paid for by the disinfectant company, Jeyes and it’s all really a sales promotion. So, if I douse my barbecue with Jeyes Fluid it will be safer. The meat will taste disgusting but we don’t care about that.

I keep asking myself how an article like this gets written. Do they just take the Press Release and add a few scary statements? I suppose they do but in this case they have also changed the facts slightly. Reading Dr Lisa’s blog, I find out that she didn’t actually test barbecues, she tested barbecue preparation areas. The Mail has form on this kind of fact-changing and it’s very misleading.

But why does the Mail choose to publish this pseudo-scientific guff? I don’t believe that it’s just careless journalism; I think they are out to unsettle their readers and to undermine their trust in science. The toilet seat/barbecue article is just part of a wider project in the Mail to rank the dirt on various items. Their reference in this project is the toilet seat (should we call this the bog standard?) and they claim that carpets, computer keyboards, kitchen sinks, kitchen sponges and mobile phones are all dirtier than toilets. You could worry about this and fanatically clean the dirty items or you could just shrug your shoulders and get on with life.

If, as a Daily Mail reader, you spend time worrying about the cleanliness of your barbecue (or mobile phone etc), it means that you don’t spend time worrying about more important issues like politics or world affairs. Depending on your point of view, this is either a form of therapy or a form of brainwashing.

By contrast, the reader who dismisses the findings may well be acting sensibly. The Mail, however, publishes a lot of these pseudoscience articles dressed up with dubious statistics and gravitas supplied by a named scientist. A problem then arises if this is your only contact with science and scientists. You may end up dismissing most of their utterances and you may come to mistrust both science and scientists; but perhaps that’s what the Mail wants.

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Alfred Russel Wallace – the forgotten man of evolution?

Following on from Sylvia McLain’s recent post on Richard Dawkins, here is more on evolution. My piece concerns Alfred Russel Wallace, who was intimately involved in the early thinking on this topic. The timing of the two pieces is entirely coincidental.


Alfred Russel Wallace engraving

Alfred Russel Wallace (from Wikipedia)


I first came across the name of Alfred Russel Wallace after visiting a second-hand bookshop. I bought a book entitled “Literary Dorset” and found a long piece on Wallace. I was surprised to see that he had proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection independently of Charles Darwin and that when he died, in 1913, Wallace was one of the most famous scientists in the world. More of a surprise to me personally was to find that for the last 14 years of his life he lived not far from where I grew up in Poole in Dorset. The proximity is not important, what matters is that when I lived and went to school there, I had never been told about this eminent scientist.

So earlier this month, when I happened to be back in the area, I decided to look for traces of Wallace. This took me to the leafy suburb of Broadstone, a few miles inland from Poole. I soon found the small cemetery, surrounded by heath land and mature housing. It’s a quiet spot and the only sounds that afternoon were the murmuring of the wind in the pine trees and the song of the birds. Wallace’s grave stands out, surmounted as it is by a huge fossilised tree taken from nearby Portland. The grave is well looked after and there is a plaque declaring that Wallace was “co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection”. Wallace lived in Broadstone towards the end of his life and wanted to be buried there.

grave of Alfred Russel Wallace
2013 is Wallace’s centenary year and his achievements are being celebrated. There is a Wallace 100 web site listing all the centenary events, the comedian Bill Bailey presented a two-part TV series where he followed the route of Wallace’s expedition through Indonesia, and Wallace’s portrait has been placed next to Darwin’s statue in the Natural History Museum. But why is it that we remember Darwin and not Wallace?

plaque on grave of Alfred Russel Wallace

The plaque on Wallace’s grave



Wallace was one of the greatest Victorian naturalists. He came up with the idea of natural selection while recovering from malarial fever on the island of Halmahera in Indonesia. He was about half way through an 8-year long expedition studying the species in the Malay Archipelago (now Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia). His observations on the distribution of different species had convinced him that evolution was occurring but he was unable to pin down the mechanism. Finally, he realised that the variation he saw in different specimens of one species could lead to differences in fitness and hence survival; this gave him the idea of evolution by natural selection. Wallace wrote his ideas up as an essay while still on Halmahera. He sent the essay to Charles Darwin in England hoping he might comment. Darwin had independently conceived the principle of natural selection two decades earlier but acting like a rabbit in the headlights of his doubts and uncertainties, he had failed to publish. Wallace was entirely unaware of the potential conflict of interest he had created given that Darwin was his principal and probably his only competitor.

Receiving Wallace’s essay, Darwin was horrified that he might lose all credit for the idea and he sought advice from his influential friends, Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker. They came up with the idea of presenting both men’s ideas to a meeting of the Linnean Society and so on July 1st 1858 a presentation was made entitled “On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection”. It contained two excerpts from Darwin’s writings on the topic together with Wallace’s essay. Although Darwin’s name came first, both men were clearly credited on the paper which was the first communication on the idea of natural selection. Some think that Wallace has badly treated. He was not consulted about publication of the essay alongside Darwin’s writings (he was still in the Far East) and had he sent his essay directly for publication then he would have had priority. There is some truth in this but the fact is that he didn’t send it directly for publication and instead unwittingly alerted Darwin and his friends to the priority issue. The end result was that in 1858 the theory of natural selection had the names of both men attached to it. The episode is a little dubious but Wallace was not unhappy about what happened.

The balance did, however, shift substantially in Darwin’s favour when about 15 months later he published his book “On the Origin of Species”. This was a detailed and accessible account of the idea of evolution by natural selection which caught the public imagination and was immensely popular. The book began the association of natural selection with the name of Darwin. Wallace received a copy of the book while still on his travels in Indonesia and was very impressed, writing that it “touches upon and explains in detail many points which I had scarcely thought upon”.

In his lifetime, Wallace did receive credit for his contribution to the theory which was referred to by scientists as the Darwin-Wallace theory. Indeed, he was awarded the Darwin and Copley medals of the Royal Society with citations referring explicitly to his work on natural selection. Many other honours came his way, culminating in the Order of Merit. His account of his travels, the Malay Archipelago, which he dedicated to Charles Darwin, was very popular and is considered to be one of the greatest scientific travel books of the 19th century. When he died in 1913 he was one of the best known scientists on the planet. He had come a long way given that he had little formal education and was frequently short of money. The contrast with Darwin could not have been greater but despite this Wallace became an accepted member of the scientific elite. There was a move to have him buried in Westminster Abbey beside Darwin but it was his wish to be buried near his house in Broadstone.

So why has he been forgotten? One account goes as follows. Towards the end of the 19th century, natural selection as an explanation for evolution became unfashionable; other theories were considered and the names of Darwin and Wallace fell from prominence. By the 1930s when natural selection was taken up again as part of the modern evolutionary synthesis, this was lead by scientists who were unfamiliar with the events of 1858. They knew Darwin’s book, “On the Origin of Species” and took his name as the originator of the theory. Nowadays, in the popular imagination, Darwin’s name is the only one associated with natural selection. So, there has been no conspiracy, just a series of events that have played up Darwin’s name at the expense of Wallace’s.

It’s certainly good that Wallace’s contribution is being celebrated in 2013 but what will the long term effects be? I doubt if much will change as Darwin and natural selection are now so strongly linked. Perhaps we could all try to engineer a small change: when we mention this topic, we should refer to the theory of evolution by natural selection as the Darwin-Wallace Theory, as was done in the 19th century.


Let’s finish with an unverified anecdote taken from the Wallace web site: “When Wallace was critically ill several journalists waited outside his house, Old Orchard, in Broadstone in order to report Wallace’s death. One of the journalists offered Wallace’s butler £5 if he would inform him the moment Wallace died so that he could publish the story first. The butler told this to the Doctor and added that the journalist had asked him to pull down a window blind in Wallace’s bedroom to signal Wallace’s death. Hearing this, the Doctor remarked “You mean like this!” and he promptly pulled the blind down! ….. because of this Wallace’s obituary notice was published 3 days early.”

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Seen in Devon

adders multiplying

On a recent family walk near Beesands in South Devon (in the fog if you look carefully), we spotted this sign on land behind the beach.  Perhaps we were all in a silly mood but it made us smile and lead my wife to sum up the mood: “I see the adders are multiplying”.



Some background

The adder is the UK’s only native venomous snake and every year as many as a hundred people are bitten.

Beesands is basically a long stony beach with a few houses, a pub and a café.  There is also a small lake (Widdicombe Ley) with a bird hide.  Not much goes on here although the café features in lists of fish shacks and there is fishing off the beach.  The pub, the Cricket Inn, is popular and I was amused to discover that many years ago Keith Richards and Mick Jagger gave their first public performance here as an Everly Brothers-style duo.

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The March of the Beekeepers

In Parliament Square in London today a diverse group of beekeepers and environmentalists are gathering; some will be wearing beekeeping suits, some will be dressed as bees, some will be carrying fruit or vegetables and you may even spot Winnie-the-Pooh with his “hunny”.  This is the March of the Beekeepers, organised by a broad range of environmental groups who are pressing for the phasing out of a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, on the basis that they are harming the health of bees and other insects.


Down here in Devon spring has been very late this year. Our fruit trees are just struggling in to blossom, by my reckoning about three weeks later than normal.   On sunny days this week, however, I have seen plenty of bees in our garden: pollen-laden honeybees busying themselves on an ornamental cherry and the plumper bumblebees enjoying the rosemary.

Unbeknown to these creatures, over the winter a battle has raged which may affect their very survival.  On one side, a range of environmental groups is arguing for the phasing out of the neonicotinoids and on the other side, the agrochemical companies and the farmers oppose any such ban.  Next Monday, the Environment Minister, Owen Paterson will be in Brussels for a key vote that may lead to the banning of these insecticides; the March of the Beekeepers will be urging him to vote in favour of a ban.

The current debate about bees and insecticides was ignited by three scientific studies published in 2012.  These studies, conducted under semi-field conditions, showed that neonicotinoids had sub-lethal effects on bee behaviour that impaired survival of bee colonies.  The concern has been that these chemicals are contributing to a decline in the numbers of bees and other pollinators.  I have written in detail about this in an earlier post but I wanted to discuss two recent developments.

Buff-tailed Bumblebee on Bergamot

The Environment Minister, Owen Paterson, does not believe there is enough evidence to justify a ban on these chemicals.  There have been moves in the EU to ban the neonicotinoids but last month when this came to a vote, Paterson failed to back the ban; there is another vote next Monday.  He has also criticised the three 2012 studies showing effects of neonicotinoids on bee colonies:  in his view they were laboratory studies and so did not reflect what happens in the field.  This is a little disingenuous as the studies actually involved treating bees with neonicotinoids in the lab followed by a field study.  To be fair to Paterson, last year he commissioned new work on the effects of neonicotinoids on bumble bees under field conditions.  The study took place last summer and the results were released a month ago. The work was done by scientists from the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) at York and was a golden opportunity to get the evidence to settle the argument.  Let’s take a look at this study.

The scientists from FERA set out to examine the effects of neonicotinoids on bumblebees under real-life field conditions.  They selected three fields of oil seed rape: a control field that had not been exposed to neonicotinoids and two others where the oil seed rape had been grown from seed treated with different neonicotinoids (imidacloprid, clothianidin).  They placed colonies of bumblebees by the sides of the three fields and followed how the colonies grew; they also analysed pollen and nectar brought back by the bees to determine the kinds of flowers the bees foraged on and how much insecticide they were picking up.  As far as I can tell, the FERA scientists expected the bees to forage from the fields of oil seed rape adjacent to their colonies but we are dealing with complex living organisms and the bees (and the crops) had other ideas.

So, what actually happened?  First they had problems with the oil seed rape in the imidacloprid-treated field.  Here flowering was two weeks late and so the study on this field was deferred for a fortnight.  The bumblebee colonies from this field behaved very differently compared to those by the other two fields: they foraged on different plants, they gained less weight and produced fewer queens (although this was not statistically significant).  It is difficult to know why the data from this field are so different but they can’t be compared with the other two fields and this certainly messes up the study.

Secondly, when they analysed pollen and nectar from returning bees they found that the bees were foraging on a wide variety of flowers with oil seed rape being only a small (~20%) contributor.  This suggests that the bees were mostly ignoring the oil seed rape near their colonies and foraging further away.  Analysis of neonicotinoids in pollen and nectar supported this idea and showed that the experimental design was completely wrong.  So, for bees next to the clothianidin-treated field, pollen and nectar were devoid of clothianidin but paradoxically they did contain another neonicotinoid, thiamethoxam.  For the control “untreated” field, bees also brought back thiamethoxam.   To explain these findings we must assume that the bees were ignoring the crops near their colonies and flying to fields and hedges further away and that some of these fields had been treated with thiamethoxam.  In fact it is well known that bumblebees fly up to 2 kilometres away from their nests for forage.  I don’t understand why the FERA scientists did not take account of this but it means that the study design is meaningless.

Can we take anything from the study?  In the conclusion to the report, the FERA scientists note that the bumblebees were unexpectedly exposed to thiamethoxam but their colonies still grew.  They conclude from this that under field conditions these chemicals are not affecting bumblebee health.  I don’t buy this idea because the experiment is entirely uncontrolled; we have no idea how much thiamethoxam the bees were exposed to or whether this level of the chemical is at all relevant to bee health.

So, if you hear anyone defending this work as providing an answer, don’t believe them.  How do we move forward from here?  One way is to perform well designed lab-based and field-based studies to address the issues.  The alternative is to set up a full field-based study and it has been estimated that this might take up to 10 years and cost £20 million.

In the meantime, there has been another significant development.  Over the recent months, several DIY stores in the UK decided to phase out garden products containing the neonicotinoid insecticides.  This was an important gesture but about two weeks ago, Waitrose, one of the UK’s leading supermarkets, entered the fray.  Waitrose supermarkets are posh supermarkets and they look after you; in many supermarkets the response to the question “Where can I find olive oil?” is “Try aisle 8, mate”.  In Waitrose, the assistant will, very helpfully, escort you personally to the part of the shop where multiple kinds of olive oil are displayed.  Waitrose is also the Queen’s supermarket; you can see her crest on the Waitrose web site with the slogan “By appointment to Her Majesty the Queen, Grocer and Wine and Spirit Merchant”.  Because of this, Waitrose has considerable clout.

Waitrose have decided that farmers supplying the company will, by 2014, stop using three systemic neonicotinoid formulations on crops attractive to bees and other pollinators.  Waitrose will also phase these out on their own farms.  They have drawn up a seven point plan for pollinators and will fund research at the University of Exeter in to the effects of multiple pesticides and alternative means of pest control.

Up to now, farmers in the UK have been strongly opposed to phasing out these insecticides.  Those that supply Waitrose will now have to stop using these chemicals whether they like it or not.  If there is significant public pressure, other supermarkets may follow suit.  Our Environment Minister is beginning to look out of step with events.  The March of the Beekeepers will put more pressure on him.      Let’s see what happens when he votes in Brussels on Monday.


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Street Science in Paris

I recently returned from a week’s holiday in Paris. It’s a beautiful place for just walking and looking and while we were there, spring finally arrived. On our last day, we were invited to a rehearsal of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under the young Venezuelan conductor, Diego Matheuz. It was fascinating to watch a big orchestra working hard and creating wonderful music but with a degree of relaxation you don’t see in a formal concert. The rehearsal was in the Salle Pleyel, not far from the Arc de Triomph and afterwards we decided to do the ultimate touristy thing and walk down the Champs-Elysees. I’ve been to Paris many times but I can’t remember ever having done this. The street itself is a curious mixture of posh and tat but it was a sunny day and the views were magnificent both towards the Louvre and back to the Arc and I can see why some call it the world’s most beautiful avenue.
About two thirds of the way down the Champs-Elysees we could see, ahead of us, a series of striking, almost life sized, pictures set up in rows either side of the pavement so that they were visible to both pedestrians and motorists. It turned out that these were all pictures of women scientists, and the exhibition was part of the celebration of the 15th anniversary of the L’Oreal-UNESCO programme “For women in science”. Here is a photograph of some of the pictures, which were all of International Laureates of the Programme; the eagle-eyed will spot one of the OT bloggers, Athene Donald.

Athene Donald poster
Each of the portraits was accompanied by a lay description of the scientist’s work and the overall effect was very impressive. I don’t recall ever having seen anything like this in a public place frequented by thousands of people each day and it seems like a very good way to publicise both science and women in science.

Here are two links, one to more of the pictures and another to a post by Athene Donald about her experience as a Laureate.

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Bad Pharma, Good Pharma, Bad Pharma

I was surprised and saddened to hear the news that the pharmaceutical company, AstraZeneca were closing their R and D facility at Alderley Park in the North West of the country.  This is an iconic research site, set among lakes and parkland.  The beta blocker, propranolol and the breast cancer drug, tamoxifen were both discovered there.  I remember visiting the site many years ago when I was a postdoc in the US.  I had come back to the UK to look for a job and went to Alderley Park for an interview but in the end there was no suitable position.    Much more recently I gave a talk there and was impressed by the beauty of the local countryside and by the opulence of the new research buildings.

Some of the R and D will be relocated to an enlarged Cambridge site and the head of AstraZeneca believes that drug discovery will be stimulated by proximity to Cambridge University.  I don’t buy this argument in an era of internationalised science and I detect misplaced snobbery in his words.  There are world class universities in the North and surely we should be distributing jobs and wealth around the country.  It is certainly a blow for the North West and for the people whose lives are affected by the decision.  One of the people affected is a former PhD student from my lab.

But of course there is no room for sentiment in these commercial decisions.  AstraZeneca has, until recently, been making vast sums of money from its blockbuster drugs.  Several of these are due to come off patent and the company has a poor pipeline of new drugs so something had to be done to get those billions flowing again.

The need for the Pharmaceutical Industry to make as much money as possible pervades Ben Goldacre’s second book, Bad Pharma, which I just finished reading.  It is a shocking indictment of the practices of this industry which is, after all, so important for the health of so many people.  There are plenty of reviews of the book around including one by OT blogger, Stephen Curry so I won’t go in to great detail.  Two of the many facts in Goldacre’s book that shocked me include: how clinical trial data on many drugs are incomplete with data being suppressed when the result is inconvenient; how doctors’ prescribing decisions are influenced by devious and dodgy marketing practices.   There is much more in the book about how “medicine is broken” and I am surprised there has not been more outcry.  It is not an easy read, which is a pity, but I urge you to have a go.

The book made me feel very uneasy, not only because I am a user of a medical system that appears to be seriously flawed but also because I have myself had a lot of dealings with the pharmaceutical industry.  These have been almost exclusively in collaborations with preclinical scientists.  My first PhD student was part-sponsored by Pfizer and about half of all my other doctoral students also had industry links.  This was a deliberate decision on my behalf; I wanted our work in basic science to have important potential applications and drug action fitted well.  I also enjoyed the stimulation of getting out to visit different Pharma sites.  Students benefitted from their industry placements: they could use different techniques and they could learn first hand how it was to work in industry.  Because we didn’t do research that was close to “market” there was never any conflict of interest and, apart from approval delays, we were always free to publish.

On my visits to different companies, we discussed science but there was always a social aspect and I got to know the Pharma scientists as people.  I found them to be honest, intelligent and hardworking so it comes as a big surprise to read Ben Goldacre’s revelations.  Of course I was dealing with preclinical scientists and Goldacre’s revelations relate to clinical aspects of drug development and to marketing practices.

At some stage, however, the preclinical teams must liaise with clinicians as they pass candidate drugs on for testing and I have no idea how the preclinical/clinical boundary is managed in the pharmaceutical industry.  As an academic, I found that the clinical/preclinical divide created some odd anomalies.  My first academic post was in the recently established Nottingham Medical School.  I hadn’t anticipated the amour propre of some of the clinically qualified staff but I soon learnt my place.  On one occasion, I had been teaching a course on brain disorders (schizophrenia, depression etc) to medical students and when it came to exam time I duly submitted my questions.  The Professor of Psychiatry vetoed my questions as they included references to drug therapy and, as a non-clinician and a non-prescriber, I lacked the ability to ask such questions.  Some years later, I got my own back by writing a book: Brain Biochemistry and Brain Disorders.  Following on from this I wrote a series of reviews on the drugs used to treat schizophrenia, including speculation on how they worked and the basis of their side effects.  As a result I began to be invited to speak at meetings in the area of psychopharmacology and this is where I had my first experience of the murkier side of Pharma marketing.  The meetings I attended, in the mid 2000s were based around strong core symposia on both pre-clinical and clinical topics.  They were held in interesting locations and we were well looked after.  I learnt a lot and I never detected any bias in the scientific content of the main symposia.  There was also a programme of Satellite symposia, each sponsored by a drug company, and on at least one occasion I detected what seemed to me to be company-driven content.

Attached to the main meeting was the Exhibition Hall which is basically a trade fair. Trade fairs attached to meetings of the Biochemical Society or the British Pharmacological Society are, in my recollection, rather grey affairs.  The psychopharmacology trade fairs were like nothing I had ever encountered.  The Exhibition Hall was decked out with brightly coloured stands for each of the drug companies making psychiatric drugs.  Attractive staff dressed in colour-coordinated business suits were on hand to speak to you and take you through the posters detailing the virtues of their drugs.  The hall was full and noisy and people, many of whom were clinicians, walked purposefully from stand to stand with carrier bags bulging with the freebies on offer.  It reminded me of traditional food markets I had visited in Southern France or Italy, only there was an altogether more sinister intent.

The psychopharmacology trade fairs are basically marketing exercises providing literature on the drugs, some freebies like pens and balloons all emblazoned with drug names, also free food and drink.  Occasionally, proceedings at one of the stands would be interrupted by a quiz.  Here one of the staff would take a microphone and ask questions to a group of people who had apparently read all the literature on the stand about that company’s drug.  The person who knew most about the drug would be declared winner and would get a slightly better freebie like a memory stick.  If this isn’t brain washing I don’t know what it is; the most surprising thing to me was the readiness of clinicians to participate in these juvenile charades.  I have to admit a conflict of interest here; I did pick up some freebies my self.  I picked up some pens and for my research, I picked up some of the articles on drugs.  According to Ben Goldacre the articles were probably ghost-written and worthless.  I also acquired two shopping bags from the AstraZeneca stand.  We still use these but what people think when they see us in Devon using a bag emblazoned with “AstraZeneca Neuroscience” I don’t know.

If any of this troubles you, please read the full story in Ben Goldacre’s book.  Also, have a look at the AllTrials web site which demands that all clinical trial data should be published so that a true assessment of the efficacy of drugs can be made.  I want to emphasise the importance of this.  There are many drugs in use around the world where published data on clinical trials are incomplete.  If you are a biomedical researcher interested, as I am, in the basis of drug action then you may be drawing incorrect conclusions because you have access to incomplete and misleading trial data.  If you are a patient, then you may be taking a medicine for which we have incomplete and, therefore, potentially inaccurate data on efficacy.

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The two ideas to fix the gender balance that do not make me cringe

When I was in the penultimate year of high school, at that point where you need to think about universities, all six of the girls in my physics class got a flyer advertising “girl days” at technical universities, during which we could visit and look around without any boys present.

I instantly decided I did not want to attend either the “girl days” in particular, or their universities as a whole. I was offended that someone thought I needed to be treated differently.

I don’t know if this early offense was the cause of it, or just another manifestation of the same thing, but I always get antsy when I see “women in science” features. Ultimately I just don’t want there to even be a reason to have to produce these things. However, in the past few years I have heard stories of women who were not taken seriously at work, who were bullied out of a job, or simply forgotten. So I can see that it’s necessary to do things. I just question what the point is of always showing examples of women in particular careers in the hopes of – what exactly?

So-and-so has a career AND a family – isn’t she amazing? And here’s another feature about how unfair the salary imbalance is. And, I know, let’s hold a panel discussion with four women who barely have time for this because they’re also the token women on every other panel, every committee, and every editorial board. They can talk about how they’re “doing it all”, where “all” is mainly sitting on panels talking about this sort of thing.

And I’m made to feel like I should read all the features and join in the discussion and spend another good portion of my time supporting other women in science, but just like when I was seventeen I don’t WANT to go to “girl days” or talk about women in science. I just want to do my actual work.

That being said, there are two recent initiatives to improve female representation in the science and tech world, and unlike the well-meant flyers and features and endless discussions, I think these two things might actually change something. For the first time since my first encounter with gender issues in science, way back in high school, I did not cringe at “women in science” initiatives. I actually like these ideas, and that’s pretty high praise coming from me!

1. The panel pledge
Proposed by Rebecca Rosen in an Atlantic piece, this amazingly simple idea is already changing the composition of conference panels. Men who have taken this pledge have promised that when they’re invited to speak at a conference or on a panel, they will only accept if there is at least one female speaker.

It’s a brilliant mechanism that uses the voice of men who notice a lack of women, and who are in a position to change that. They can put the pressure on organisers to invite women at a stage where the programme is still being made, which is much more effective than people complaining afterward that they were left out. It’s also a friendly way to remind organisers that they may have overlooked someone.

Since hearing about this, I’ve also made a point of thinking about who I recommend for panels or include in lists of scientists. So far I haven’t caught myself leaving out any women, but if I accidentally do, I’ll be aware of it, and will think a bit further before finalizing my list. I’m also trying not to recommend the usual suspects. There are more women in science than the two or three that always step up.

2. The Finkbeiner test
Ann Finkbeiner proposed to write about a female scientist and not once mention the fact that she is a woman. This idea was expanded by Christie Aschwanden to the “Finkbeiner test”, which you can use to analyse any piece of writing about a woman in science.

“To pass the Finkbeiner test, the story cannot mention

  • The fact that she’s a woman
  • Her husband’s job
  • Her child care arrangements
  • How she nurtures her underlings
  • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  • How she’s such a role model for other women
  • How she’s the “first woman to…”

I like this one because it addresses exactly the things I dislike so much about open house days for girls only or feature articles about women in science. There is no reason to write about women in science any differently than about men in science. It’s exactly that tone, that “look how much she can do! She’s so special!”-attitude that irks me about those features, and that made me avoid particular universities when as a high school student I had to make important choices about my own future in science.

Together, these two ideas say: Treat scientists all the same, regardless of their gender, but be aware that there is more than one gender when looking for representative groups of experts.

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