Thesis in a Nutshell

Inspired by the fantastic Dr Richard Gunton, I have attached my PhD thesis summary below.

Thesis in a Nutshell

Landscape composition and crop field manipulations may be more important to natural enemies of crop pests, than pests.


There may be opportunity to enhance natural crop protection through:

  1. Reductions in crop field size
  2. Reductions in block cropping
  3. Increases to crop rotation diversification
  4. Increases in non-crop habitat e.g. wildflower margin establishments and maintenance of important grasslands


Natural pest control services can reduce the need for pesticides by suppressing pests through natural predators and parasitoids. Semi-natural habitats, such as grasslands, are central for the support of biodiversity in agricultural landscapes. Targeted management of semi-natural habitat to increase their area and/or quality, such as agri-environment schemes, can enhance biodiversity in agroecosystems. However, there is little research on how lowland calcareous grassland (LCG) extent and agri-environment schemes (AES), within intensive cereal landscapes, will affect pest regulation function. In this thesis, the impacts of wildflower field margins, semi-natural habitats and landscape composition on natural pest control services in UK cereal systems is investigated.

Large areas of LCG, and decreased cereal extent, supported increased densities of some generalist predators and higher aphid parasitism. Additionally, a decrease in interannual cereal area within the landscape was associated with an increase in aphid parasitism and generalist predator densities. While wheat fields with wildflower margins were found to support higher specialist predator densities with increased landscape proportions of cereal. However, wildflower margins, compared to grass margins, did not show any effect on natural enemy densities, richness, or aphid densities in wheat fields. Using fixed aphid bait trays to assess pest regulation services, wildflower margins were found to support increased canopy predation, though there was no indication of increased ground predation.

This study shows that fields with higher resource and semi-natural habitat availability can support natural enemy communities with higher species abundance and richness, and be more likely to suppress cereal aphids. Sustainable pest management requires further understanding of the processes acting across multiple spatial and temporal scales causing changes to the pest and natural enemy populations, communities and their interactions.

Winter wheat futures

Higher food production at lower environmental cost



Meeting Sir David Attenborough

Recently I had the opportunity to meet Sir David Attenborough in London, thanks to a great friend of mine from the UoLeeds Masters, Leanna Dixon.

Sir David Attenborough gives a talk on urban wildlife.

Sir David Attenborough gives a talk on urban wildlife.

It was one of his annual talks and this year had the theme of urban wildlife. You could meet him too by joining the World Land Trust ( for the latest information. In David Attenborough’s own words, “The money that is given to the World Land Trust, in my estimation, has more effect on the wild world than almost anything I can think of.”

Here are a few top quality moments from the afternoon in a Q and A session.

Q: What is the rarest thing you have ever seen?

A: I know exactly the rarest thing, the Pinta Island tortoise. The very last one of its species. I was lucky enough to meet him, and then again in 2012 two weeks before he died.

Background on Lonesome George here: Image:

Background on Lonesome George here: Image:

Q: What is the most dangerous animal you have been with?

A: Man. More specifically, a man who doesn’t speak your language, drunk and with a gun. It happens more than you would think!

Q: What has been your most memorable adventure?

A: There are many, one of the most unforgettable would be underwater diving in the Great Barrier Reef. You can go up or down, left or right, and be surrounded by so many different fish.

Summary background on David at the Great Barrier Reef recently here: Image by Joshua Nguyen:

More on David at the Great Barrier Reef recently here: Image by Joshua Nguyen:

There were other questions too, including GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), favourite animal (“it changes every day, today… it is Seaweed pipefish*.”), education in urban wildlife, how to get closer to nature, how to get into a conservation/filming career, invasive species (“I for one, welcome the ring-tailed parakeet. They are beautiful to see visiting your garden bird table.”) and a fantastic answer to a question on why there are flightless birds.

Extraordinary times.

*There was mention of “seaweed” and “fish”, I think this is the one he said?

Extra note:

It was David Attenborough’s birthday 8 days prior to this event, and someone surprised him with a birthday cake as a gift. How kind is that? There was also a chap who brought in a chameleon which I think he liked very much.

As I look on at this lovely moment, an organiser says to me “I hope it’s not poisonous.”, I say “What if it is?”, he gives me the wide eyes.

As I look on at this lovely moment, an organiser says to me “I hope it’s not poisonous.”, I say “What if it is?”, he gives me the wide eyes.

Old literature: Never lost or forgotten, but can be tricky to find

Here is one happy experience I had which may lighten your day. The blog has technosavvy, points set aside in heaven, and profound gratitude. What comes to mind is the theory of six degrees of separation. I have changed the names and some details below, but I am sure you can relate to a similar situation to this – when you would like to track down some science but can’t find the full article.


Emails listed with oldest at the top, in storyline style.


Hi Dr Bob,

My name is Victoria Wickens and I am a current PhD researcher at the University of Reading in the UK. I recently discovered your fascinating 2011 paper titled: Excellent Research. Within your paper, I noticed you referenced F et al. (1983) and I have had absolutely no luck tracking it down. I wondered if you could help me locate a copy?

Kind regards,




Hello Victoria

I had no trouble finding the article on the Web of Science, which your university may have.  Failing that, try google scholar and again you will be directed to the article only this time you (or I) would have to pay a fee to gain access to the paper.  I would make a copy of the paper from the Web if I could but unfortunately I do not know how to manage this.  Let me know if neither of these options will work and I will try to contact a colleague to see if he can help me help you.

Best of luck


Hello Bob,

Thank you for such a quick reply! I have looked on the web of science, science direct and scholar and found my university does not seem to have access and paying for it is unfortunately not an option. The closest I managed was to see read the exciting abstract from the Canadian Entomologist site here: Exciting.Research.Link

However, I did not have access. I would be ever so grateful if you could ask your colleague for me?

Many thanks,



Hi John,

I believe you once told me how to make a mailable copy of a journal article via the Web of Science.  A Victoria Wickens has asked me to help her get her hands on a paper and I told her to check out web of science etc and she says she has done so without success.  Sorry to bother you with this issue. If you can help, more points will be set aside for you in heaven.




Here is a way to do this.  You can go to the X Library web page and search for the journal.  If X has a subscription you can then surf around in the electronic version of the journal until you find the desired article in a downloadable pdf version.  Then download the pdf and send it as an attachment to Ms. Wickens.

So, I checked and X does have a subscription to this august journal.  In fact when I clicked on the link in Ms. Wickens’ email the article came right up.  This may not work for you unless your computer is hooked up to X through the X library.  In any event, I downloaded the pdf version and have attached it to this email so you can impress the enthusiastic Ms. Wickens with your technosavvy!

May the bobolinks be with you.

All the best,



Dear Victoria

My colleague John very very kindly told me how to do this AND he attached a pdf file of the paper you requested so that I do not have to test his wisdom.  You may wish to drop him a note of profound gratitude at John@place

Best wishes


# Post note: Are bobolinks something other than the bird (Dolichonyx Oryzivorus)? Did you understand this meaning from John? Or did it sounds like Star Wars talk to you too? Looking it up, maybe it was in fact a simile linking to the small bird which travels great distances, awwww

My PhD Journey

Every person embarking on a PhD will have a unique journey through which they learn, grow and adapt. I hoped to share with you my experience, as there may be some aspects you can relate to and perhaps find helpful.

My PhD journey started a little unusually in March, rather than September time.

This meant for a very rapid move from Leeds to Reading and the setting up of field sites. Luckily for me, I had an amazing team of supervisors (Prof. Simon Potts, Dr. Mike Garratt and Dr. Alison Bailey), partners in the EU project STEP (Status and Trends of European Pollinators, and a second complimentary PhD project (Jennifer Wickens). Most PhD students will form the beginning of their PhD plans during the winter months and then test them the following summer. For me, I started and dashed over to Serbia for my first STEP meeting. This was a fantastic catch up game to start with and kept me on my toes. We utilised a range of resources and generated a farmer network in double time. The fieldwork was tough, as it is for everyone. However, it was absolutely worth the challenge. There are lots of stories, I can tell you. For instance, reasoning with a farmer we weren’t littering with pan traps (coloured bowls of water), finding piglets running from a car in the road and discovering a mammal’s very well concealed home to the side of the road which happened to be the place we pulled over in to. Ultimately, I’d suggest reading early, giving yourself plenty of preparation time, and documenting it absolutely everything.

Level one: Setting up the sites, and seeing the sights.

Level one: Setting up the sites, and seeing the sights.

After one year, it is normal to assess the first year and adapt or continue for the next year.

This is a time to see what worked and what didn’t over the season (it is typical to have some unsuccessful projects, you are discovering something new after all), and share it with others. For example, contributing posters and talks at conferences, departmental events and workshops. This is a daunting time, and I found it a time when you can overly judge yourself. The ‘second year blues’ some call it. It is something many scientists can experience, but fear not, you are probably doing fine (“you will do well if you are worried”– a wise Dr. Sara Ball once said). I found a helpful activity was to talk to others, as you’ll find out you’re not the only one with these thoughts, and very often the solutions are just around the corner. Also, try talking to others outside your immediate group, and you will soon find that you know more than you give yourself credit for!

Level two: Talking to statisticians, a stitch in time.

Level two: Talking to statisticians, a stitch in time.

Third time’s a charm.

By your third year you will feel you know the roads, understand your system and have a good idea what to expect. My supervisor once said, “By the third year you feel like you are ready to start the PhD”. This is because you are more efficient and effective and will achieve record breaking levels of productivity. This is a really fun time. A piece of advice here, if you haven’t managed it earlier then consider working with others on a shared project. For example, for me I enquired for assistance to help identify some insects. This is the most positive thing, for both you and your fellow friend can immensely benefit. Jon Finch was my friend indeed. He identified numerous carabids and helped boost the strength of the results and discovered a new species not yet discovered in the thousands previously identified. Awesome! I talked about PhD opportunities and what to consider when planning a project (update: he is now taking his own PhD journey in Australia! A great credit to his hard work).

Level three: There will always be surprises round the corner, but now you know what to do.

Level three: There will always be surprises round the corner, but now you know what to do.

What happens in the fourth year?

Everything. Everything except the fieldwork it feels like. In reality, it was the time to write like there was no tomorrow. I might just add, you will be writing throughout, but it is the final year when I felt like I could really write (as with anything, you get better with experience). Writing was part of it, but there were also opportunities to go to further conferences and speak more confidently about your findings based on your three years of research. By this point you will have made numerous friends supporting academically and non-academically (e.g. support in the audience, sharing conference notes and even sharing when something extraordinary happens – like Prof. E.O. Wilson comes to visit the UK!). I have now submitted my thesis only in the last week. The next stage is to prepare for the Viva exam and show the world what has been discovered through papers. Talk about exciting, right? This is not the end, but the start of something new. It’s going to be another step-change for sure. I wonder what new and exhilarating adventures will be next…


In summary, in my opinion the key to success is perseverance, friends … and good luck! Good luck my friends.


What was your PhD journey like? Do you have some words of wisdom you wish you could have told yourself at the start?

Highlights on the BES-SFE International Conference

I recently attend an international conference, and wanted to share my top three highlights.

This event brought together the British Ecological Society (BES) and the Société Française d’Ecologie (SFE). It was located in Lille (France) during one of the quieter insect months, December.

A small group of us arrived a day early to explore and take advantage of the delicious food and interesting sights (from the opera house to the ferris wheel).

How about this on arrival for the BES-SFE conference

How about this on arrival for the BES-SFE conference

The following days were spent at the conference centre, Lille Grand Palais, along with ~1,100 other delegates from around the world. It was a buzzing atmosphere from day one, meeting old friends and making new ones. It feels like different academic parts of your life come together as you see those from recent conferences to those you haven’t seen for years. If this is not the case for you, no worries, it means you have more people to acquaint yourself with and give your elevator speech to. Highlight numéro un.

Numéro un: Where the magic happened

Numéro un: Where the magic happened

Time flies as you move between sessions, workshops and various events. When you go to an event like this one you will find similar themes with lots of different perspectives (fantastic for solving complex problems as a team). Interdisciplinary research is the way forward (even better from those at different stages), and these events help form those connections. Highlight numéro deux.

Numéro deux: Old friends and new from a variety of backgrounds, PhD (left), Postdoc (right) and lecturer (middle)

Numéro deux: Mixture of backgrounds, PhD (left), Postdoc (right) and lecturer (middle)

If you are lucky, you can present your research through a poster or talk, and learn at an even faster rate. To my delight, I was given the chance to give a talk on my research. What an opportunity! I stood there and spoke for 15 minutes to an international audience and benefited from their wealth of experience and knowledge. It felt like a rollercoaster ride; mixture of scary and enjoyable (and maybe gets easier the more you do?). It was a memorable moment, one of the highlights for sure and I absolutely recommend it. Highlight numéro trois.

Numéro trois: An unforgettable experience

Numéro trois: Presenting, an unforgettable experience

Were you there too? What are your highlights from attending this conference, or conferences like this one? I hope you find them as rewarding as I did.

Life in the swishing lane: A PhD’s perspective on being part of an EU project

A lucky few get the chance to be part of European projects, such as STEP (Status and Trends of European Pollinators, I have been one of those lucky ones and I hoped to share some insights I have had along the way.


STEP: Status and Trends of European Pollinators,

I started my PhD in April 2011 and was swiftly included on one of the annual meetings with all the P.I.s, Postdocs and PhD researchers.

A cracking team: First meeting in Serbia 2011

A cracking team: First meeting in Novi Sad, Serbia, 2011

Just to give you an idea of how it felt to attend, imagine meeting your favourite musician, actor or all-round epic person. Then multiple it by the number of attendees. Being part of the group enabled you to have a front row seat on the project design and allowed you to learn and participate like nothing experienced before. You learn about individual issues and complications, and you help solve these in creative ways as a team.

Each year you meet and provide evidence for your country’s progress and it gives you opportunity to share and solve new situations, and even add bolt-on projects for the following year. It really gives you an immersive experience mixing with the giants. It doesn’t stop at these meetings, you are in constant contact working together throughout the project.

Pisa_Low res

Taking it to the next level: Second meeting in Pisa, Italy, 2012

Interesting results appear and you consider the next step; joint papers. This is another great leap forward, learning from experienced manuscript creators and who are well practiced at working in large scale multi-national projects. Fascinating and valuable time spent together, you press on rapidly.

New sights: Third meeting in Krakow, Poland, 2013

New sights: Third meeting in Krakow, Poland, 2013

It’s worth highlighting it’s not all work, it’s also travelling together, sharing stories and seeing amazing sights around the world. Each meeting we take the opportunity to go on excursions together.

The most recent highlight has been the workshop this year (last week actually) and the enjoyable and fast-paced discussions on current manuscripts and the future. This may be my fourth meeting, but I still fail at the simple greeting routine for each different country (hug? Hand shake? Two kisses or one?! Cue inevitable collision).

Top workshop: Working in beautiful surrounding of Doñana National Park, Spain, 2014

Top workshop: Working in beautiful surrounding of Doñana National Park, Spain, 2014

I take these chances to also ask about other people’s interests, plans and life goals. We share so many interests, it is fascinating to hear how we all reached the point where we are today. Lots of differences, but overall one united theme, an ambition to make a difference. It’s a very tall order, but I am going to try my best. Prof. Edward Wilson once said “There is no better high than discovery”, I might just add it’s even better with friends.


Life in the swishing lane: Signpost at Doñana, Spain, 2014

Feeling really privileged to have this opportunity. Hoping there are many more projects for others to have their own adventures.

Blooming Success: Flower Rich Crop Margins Benefit Natural Pest Control

My name is Victoria Wickens and I am a final year PhD student studying natural pest control in agroecosystems. This is my first blog post here and I would like to share with you my research topic on flower rich margins and their role in pest control. Let’s start from the top.

We have all heard we need to produce more food for an increasingly populated planet. In order to do this, we need to either make more food from the land we already use or face using more land to make up the difference. I am in favour of making more from less. More specifically, I would like us to waste less wheat from feeding aphid pests by using our natural environment in a more clever way. This can be done through improving our natural pest control service.

Sounds great, but how do we do that? We increase the number of aphids being attacked by natural enemies by promoting natural enemy abundance and movement into arable fields.

Specialist Pest Control Action Shot: Aphids are green on the right, and those which have parasitized by a specialist parasitic wasp are brown shells on the left.



Generalist Pest Control Action Shot: Aphid being eaten by the eating machine, a hoverfly larva.


Sounds like a plan, so what can we do to achieve that? We transform grassy field margin deserts into a flower rich supportive habitat with as little effort as simply removing the grass and dusting some seeds in.

Success Attracts Others In: Flower rich margin success with additional benefits, not only improving natural pest control but also enhancing crop pollination nearby as well.


Sounds easy, so why aren’t we doing it already then? Insecticides have been the norm for most growers to protect their crops from pests for years, but times are changing. There are a range of reasons to suggest we need to cut back on the use of insecticides and find more alternatives to fill in this gap. There are studies looking at ways to improve the natural predation of pests through small land management changes, such as adding a hedge here or putting in a raised bank there. However, few researchers have looked at using flowers for boosting our beneficial predators and parasitic insects.

So where do I come in? Right here. This flower gap, that’s me. I have found flower rich field margins can massively increase the predation rates of aphids. That is to say, fewer aphids would be found in our fields, so more wheat would be saved from damage and disease.

Great, we have the answer, right? We have one answer; there are many we still need. For example, we found the boosting predation rates declined as you moved from the field margin into the field. This makes sense, a decay of action. This means we need to design our fields in such a way that we can still achieve desired control throughout the field. There are also questions relating to the surrounding landscape around our fields. How do they change the effectiveness of our small margin managements? I could go on.


Winter Wheat: There is so much going on in this one field.

Winter Wheat: There is so much going on in this one field.


It’s exciting stuff, perhaps the future of sustainable crop protection! But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves; we need to publish this evidence first…

First blog post, what did you think? Comments, thoughts and suggestions very welcome below.