Communicating science to the willing…and the unwilling

This week I had the privilege to give a talk at a local science/astronomy society not too far from where I live and work. It was a delight – I met some lovely new people, there was a bit of debate at the end and many fascinating and thought-provoking questions. Altogether, a thoroughly wonderful experience and the kind of thing I really value. Getting out of the old ivory tower can be an eye-opener – meeting new people can make you think about your research in a fresh way, and that’s fantastic.

However, a difficulty with communicating science more widely is that the type of people who get involved with public science events often seem to belong to one of three groups: young people who are forced to by their school/university, people of any age who do something related to this as their job anyway, and retired people who have the time and perhaps have rediscovered an old interest they’d always wanted to cultivate. Of course, all these groups offer wonderful opportunities, and the above is a sweeping generalisation with many exceptions. However, the truth of the matter is there there are oodles of people in society who we, as scientists, ecologists, and so on, are not really reaching…ever, in any meaningful way. Presumably most of us would like to communicate well with a diversity of people, because they all have the ability to influence science and environmental policy, they can all consider how their own lifestyles may or may not benefit climate change, biodiversity, etc. And we’d probably all like the scientists of the future to be as diverse as possible in their backgrounds and perspectives.

Studies are finding again and again that people’s relationship with science is very variable and seems to suggest that at the moment we often end up preaching to the choir, if you like – talking to people who were already interested and open to engagement – rather than genuinely seeking out people who weren’t interested in science before and find a way to ignite a spark of fascination in them. Indeed, the link above divides people into four groups, from the ultra-engaged “Fan Boys and Fan Girls” through to the 20% of people who are “Concerned and Disengaged” with respect to science and technology.

“One of the other key findings of the CSIRO study was that the Fan Boys and Fan Girls are further away from the average point of community values than any other segment of the population. This means that Fan Boys or Girls probably have the least idea of what might appeal to the other segments. They know what turns them on, but they are probably only guessing what will work for the other segments.”

So what do we need to be doing better? This wonderful pamphlet from ecoAmerica caught my eye recently – although aimed at US audiences, people are people, and it does highlight a few key truths. As scientists, we may sometimes assume that something should be inherently believable because we’re familiar with the research and the peer review process and we know it to be true, and therefore surely everyone should just see the truth and agree? But it’s not that simple…

Firstly, it reminded us that “the public” are not an amorphous mass: whether you’re talking to (in the USA) mostly Republicans or Democrats, people who identify with a religion or not, married or single people, different educational backgrounds – all these things are pretty important not just with respect to the jargon you choose to leave in or take out, or the topic areas you choose to cover, but also in terms of what values will matter to different people. As an example in ecoAmerica’s report, a lot of environmental messages are pitched by and for liberals as a “care versus harm” type message, which resonates with the message creators, but with more conservative audiences, rephrasing the arguments as a question of “sanctity versus degradation” apparently holds more weight because many of these people have strong moral values to do with protecting what is sacred from defilement. They list a whole load of such continuums that may resonate more or less strongly with different groups – liberty versus oppression, fairness versus cheating, loyalty versus betrayal, etc.

This led to a discussion of the theory of virtues – i.e. things that people in a given group consider to be important. So while one person may consider education, critical analysis and freedom of choice to be highly important traits, another may place a higher value on faith, loyalty and deference to authority. The first person is never really going to engage constructively with the second by building an argument about sustainable farming, for example, on the basis of scientific datasets and published papers, but may perhaps see more success with a case based on respect for the earth and community, interconnectedness of ecosystems such that one person’s actions affect another’s or reference to a respected authority figure endorsing a strategy.

The thing that struck me most is that part of connecting with your audience is creating a sense that you and they are part of a single group, on the same side. Everyone, in the end, wants to do things that they regard as fundamentally decent according to the values of the group in which they feel they fit. So for climate change behaviours, you create a group in which you and the audience all feel a sense of belonging, and then those behaviours feel a lot more appealing than if you’re simply a distant, “other” scientist lecturing them about what they need to do. This means looking for common ground with your audience, especially in cases where at first impressions you may not seem like part of the group (e.g. your accent, age, gender, cultural background or dress style is different).

I think some of these ideas of how to connect with people are really good to keep in mind not just when making a speech to a Permanent Secretary, but in a whole variety of areas of science communication – from schools outreach, lectures, talks to the local beekeeping club, meetings with farmers, conference presentations, etc.

Most importantly, perhaps we need to just make fewer assumptions about the people we’re talking to and try and see the arguments from their perspective?


The vulture bee

Today is the annual Verrall Lecture and Supper, a time for entomologists in the UK to gather in the vicinity of the Natural History Museum, looking uncharacteristically well-turned-out, and enthuse about insects over good food and wine. Taxonomists frequently bring pinned specimens of weird and wonderful species for show-and-tell, so it seems appropriate that the post today is all about a weird and wonderful insect. Or rather, three related species of weird and wonderful insects.

As a child, after barbeques on long summer evenings, we’d sometimes be sitting there in the garden when wasp workers (Vespula vulgaris, mostly) would fly down and start gnawing leftover scraps of meat from abandoned chicken legs and flying off with them. Most Vespid wasps are pretty partial to both meat and sugary liquids (hence the success of cola bottle traps). Bees, on the other hand, have given up their carnivorous ways and turned to exclusively plant-based diets.

Or have they…?

I found out about vulture bees recently and I decided they were weird and wonderful enough to warrant a little post.

Vulture bees are not like most bees. They are, to put it delicately, “obligate necrophages”.

Most bees eat nectar and pollen.

Vulture bees eat dead meat.

They were only really appreciated in the early 1980s, but a few people seem to have found them fascinating enough to engage in studies of their behaviour. The majority of work on them that I can find, at least recently, seems to have been done by David Roubik at the Smithsonian (who first published on them) and colleagues.

There are three main species, all in the genus Trigona: T. hypogea, the aptly-named T.
and T. crassipes.

Their behaviour is nicely described by Noll (1997) and Roubik (1982)1, and isn’t so very
different from how common vespid wasps approach food sources, really. Apparently they won’t go for utterly rotten, stinking meat – they like it at least reasonably fresh.

Trigona, of course, are eusocial stingless bees – so after one individual finds a carcass, they rapidly recruit more foragers to the food source and soon you end up with many. It only takes a matter of minutes or a couple of hours after the first visit – till you can have between 40 and 108 bees on the carcass, which if you’re talking about something the size of a rat or lizard is quite some density of bees. They’re flexible – they’ll take brood from wasps’ nests in the right circumstances as well2 (interestingly, as normally it’s wasps doing this to bees!).

A little like flies, they feed by regurgitating saliva with a sort of honey-like concoction of fruit juices on to the food source and then lapping it up. The strange meat-mead mixture, if you can call it that, is then stored in honeypots much as their herbivorous cousins store regular nectar, honey or other sugar solutions! The three species don’t do it exactly the same way – T. hypogea seems to add a lot more nectar/juice, whereas T. necrophaga stores pretty much just meat “solution”.

They’ve completely given up gathering pollen – the workers don’t even have pollen combs on their legs any more. They have, however, occasionally been seen visiting stinkhorn mushrooms3 – if you’ve ever encountered a stinkhorn while walking in the woods, you can probably appreciate why, as they do smell quite convincingly like a dead fleshy thing! Apparently they may actually consume the spores (which are suspended in a goopy icky brown semi-liquid goo), and may also have a role in spore dispersal for these fungi.

Camargo and Roubik4 have looked into their anatomy in a bit more detail – it seems like apart from having fairly good mandibles and the lack of pollen combs, they’re not terribly exceptional, but usefully are able to produce antibiotic compounds in their salivary secretions (as a result of an interesting microbial gut flora). Which, if you’re eating raw meat, is probably helpful. Slightly more worryingly, Camargo and Roubik also comment that these bees produce a “sweet, clear honey…of unknown origin”. I am not altogether sure how they deduced that this honey was sweet, but as much as I like honey, when offered it from a nest where the bees were known to store partially-digested bushmeat broth I’d personally have given it a miss…


1Noll, F. B. (1997). Foraging behavior on carcasses in the necrophagic bee Trigona hypogea (Hymenoptera: Apidae). Journal of Insect Behavior, 10(3), 463-467 and Roubik, D.W. (1982) Obligate necrophagy in a social bee. Science 217 (4564), 1059–60.
2Mateus, S., & Noll, F. B. (2004). Predatory behavior in a necrophagous bee Trigona hypogea (Hymenoptera; Apidae, Meliponini). Naturwissenschaften, 91(2), 94-96.
3Oliveira, M. L., & Morato, E. F. (2000). Stingless bees (Hymenoptera, Meliponini) feeding on stinkhorn spores (Fungi, Phallales): robbery or dispersal. Revista Brasileira de Zoologia, 17 (3), 881-884.
4Camargo, J. M., & Roubik, D. W. (1991). Systematics and bionomics of the apoid obligate necrophages: the Trigona hypogea group (Hymenoptera: Apidae; Meliponinae). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 44(1), 13-39.