An aphid. "You’re kidding me; that’s no aphid – aphids can’t talk." We may not be able to talk but we can communicate, and very well, just watch this year’s Christmas lectures.

  • 21
  • DEC
  • 2017

Insect communication, silent and often deadly, features prominently among the remarkable experiments that are performed live during the three lectures that explore “The Language of Life” for this year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures.

The three hour-long lectures, broadcast on BBC Four at 8pm from 26 to 28 December, explore the many forms of communication by humans and other life. They are presented by Sophie Scott, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London.

For the second lecture, “Silent Messages”, Scott is joined by Gia Aradottir, an entomologist from Rothamsted Research who specialises in insect-plant interactions. The episode considers how much humans say without opening their mouths and how animals make their points without a sound.

When Aradottir appears on set, her only obvious props are a family of aphids, some cabbage leaves for them to feed on and a microscope. But then she brandishes a syringe of aphid alarm pheromone, and a tub of parasitic wasps.

“Over two experiments, I wanted to show how aphids generate chemical signals [the pheromones] to alert other aphids to predators, and how the predators can use those signals to their advantage,” says Aradottir.

“And we were very lucky with how our experiments turned out, even before a live theatre audience, under bright lights and in front of TV cameras,” she notes. Details of those interactions, among aphids and between aphids and wasps, must wait for the broadcast, on the 27th.

Parasitic wasps. 2017 RI Christmas Lectures. Credit: Rothamsted Research Parasitic wasps, on an aphid hunt

“What I can say is that it was a huge honour to take part in the Christmas lectures; I was probably more excited than the children in the audience,” she adds.

Aradottir’s demonstrations at the Royal Institution reflect some of her current research underway in Zimbabwe where she is helping wheat farmers to find sustainable ways of protecting their crops from aphids without resorting to costly pesticides. See article, Trials to regain independence.

The other two lectures are broadcast on 26th and 28th December. “Say it with Sound” explores how humans and other animals use noises to communicate, from hissing cockroaches and groaning deer to the versatility of the human voice; and “The Word” seeks the source of linguistic ability.

Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, Tuesday-Thursday, 26-28 December, BBC Four 8-9pm.

About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
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About LAT
The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.