Written by Nancy Miorelli
I will give you that “Entomologist” isn’t a particularly popular term. In fact, when I tell people that I’m an entomologist, they usually ask, “… so like, words?”
I then have to explain to them that studying words is “Etymology.”
Entomology isn’t a common word that you hear around, so it makes sense that people don’t really know who we are or what we do.
So what are we? Who are we? What do we do?
First and foremost, we’re people. Like you. Or your teacher. Or your cashier at the supermarket. We’re not super mutants, we’re not some gold standard of a human being. We’re just people. With an interest in bugs. Sometimes. More on that later.
If you want a nice basic, boring definition, I’ll direct your interest towards its final resting place, the definition provided by Wikipedia. An entomologist studies entomology, which is
the scientific study of insects, a branch of zoology.
But here’s an answer from Joe which is slightly more human than a dictionary.
So, if it’s got six legs, entomologists study them. But really we’re more than that. So let’s look at all the things that entomologists do.
Terms, Terms, and More Terms
Science is littered with terms. It’s because when you get to a certain level, using words becomes easier than long phrases like “The person who studies spiders, scorpions, and daddylong legs, and other 8 legged creatures.” We call those people “Arachnologists”. They’re not “Entomologists” because Ento people study 6 legged things and Arachno people study 8 legged things.
That being said, both groups of people usually know at least a little about both 6 and 8 legged creatures.
I’ll fully admit that I’m not that great at identifying spiders. I never learned much about them in my Entomology classes. What I do know about spiders I learned from friends, colleagues, and the internet. However, depending on what area of entomology a person is in, they may have to know about certain types of both insects and arachnids. So, in practice, the terms can be fluid.
Although, don’t ask us about crabs and stuff because we probably don’t know.
Because the question specifically asked about Entomologists, that’s the term I’m going to be using for the rest of this post. But remember, that these can apply to arachnologists too.
Entomologists are Students
Let’s set the record straight. We all have to come from somewhere! While some high schools offer entomology, or maybe mention it once in a biology class, such schools are in the minority. Even the number of colleges offering Entomology as a major has dwindled. I got my first formal taste of Entomology in graduate school. Regardless if you’re in a college lecture hall, pipetting away in a lab, or a world away learning what you can about insects in the rain forest, you’re an entomologist.
Entomologists are Hobbyists
Even if you’re past the age where being a student is reasonable and you don’t love entomology enough to sacrifice the rest of your life to it, there are still things you can do! Insect rearing as a hobby or for pets is something that is popular, especially in Europe. While these people may be devoting their working life to computer science or hairdressing, they have a room full of exotic insects for pets.
Other hobbyists just like going for hikes with a field book in hand, trying to identify whatever they come across.
Others enjoy photographing these magnificent animals.
Others just like scouring the internet for information that they can find on a particular group.
Some contribute their time to citizen science projects. What are citizen science projects? Well, sometimes researchers ask big questions. So big, in fact, that the researcher can’t be everywhere at the same time. Therefore, they ask the public to help out. This a great way to help and contribute to science but not devote your life to academia. It’s great, it’s fun, and it helps out students, professors, and researchers. You can help out with pollinators, fireflies, or moths and help scientists answer large ecological questions.
You can be an entomologist.
Entomologists are Researchers
Insects make up over 50% of all the species known on the planet. That means there’s lots of things for entomologists to research! If you can dream it, you can do it.
Entomological research knows no bounds. We think from the big scale to the small scale. Industry to general ecology. Food chain interactions to gut biota. Collaborative intelligence of ants to how nerve cells work in cockroaches. Transmission of diseases through populations to how the microbes collaborate with the insects. Some people even study human diseases, like diabetes, in insects. This helps us better understand disease progression and to test potential cures.
Some research has applications in industry. Some people learn how insects work on the inside and some people classify insects into their proper groups. Others study behavior, genetics, or symbiosis. We all have our expertise, but the one thing that unites us is that we work on insects.
Many entomologists aren’t even in a formal entomology department. They’re in evolution departments, ecology departments, genetic departments, or even medical departments.
Entomologists are in Industry
Some entomologists just get their degree and venture off into the world to find a job. Graduate school and academia isn’t for everyone. Even if some of them did go to graduate school, they’re now off in the industry job market.
There are entomologists who work for the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These entomologists study insects and arthropods that vector diseases. They’re responsible for telling you what vaccines you need when you travel across the world. They also study the relationships between the vector and the disease microbes. The more we know about them, the better we can prevent problems.
Other entomologists are in the pest control industry. Pest Control Operators help you rid your home of unwanted invaders. Outside, some entomologists help farmers keep their crops from being plagued by a swarm of insects.
Entomologists and chemists work together to develop safe, targeted, and effective insecticides. Of course, there are entomologists working on organic solutions. There are other entomologists that help people understand the pest biology. By altering our behavior and practices we can dissuade unwelcome guests. Many entomologists suggest combinations of tactics to control pests.
There are many extension professors in colleges who both research insects in relation to industrial applications and can be called upon for advice about problematic situations. If you’re ever in doubt about something, call one of these guys (or gals!). They have one foot set in the scientific literature and one foot set in the real world of industry and can oftentimes give you a balanced opinion on your situation.
Entomologists are Protecting Your Country
Army and Navy entomologists protect our people overseas. See, the United States is pretty lucky. We don’t have to worry about many insect or arthropod borne diseases. If you are unlucky enough to contract one, you go to the doctor who helps you fix your problems.
Things aren’t that simple if you’re in a rain forest half a planet away. Army and Navy entomologists are asked to assess disease risk, identify habitats where diseased laden insects may be waiting, and control infestations. A military isn’t very good if they’re getting malaria every five seconds. So, it’s up to the entomologists to assess the situation and give sound advice to the superiors.
Entomologists are Teachers
This is where it comes full circle. Entomologists are professors, teachers, outreach coordinators, bloggers, writers, and artists. We share our love of entomology with you, the public, students, children, really anyone who will listen to us.
We love these animals that bedazzle our little blue planet and we just want you to love them and appreciate their complexity as much as we do.
Entomologists are people. We’re fathers, mothers, sisters, that person standing next to you at the bank, and that gamer who probably just head-shotted you from across the map. We’re not scary. We’re not preaching doomsday.
We all have our specialties that range from ecology to disease assessment to teaching. Some of us are researchers, some of us are pest control operators, and some of us are bringing tarantulas to your 5 year olds (because we’re really 5 at heart too).
The stakes we have in Entomology are all different. Someone who is studying arctic region arthropod food webs probably doesn’t have much of an interest in routine agricultural pesticide application. We’re a diverse group of people and we’d like you to get to know us just as that. People.
Thanks to Joe for contributing ideas for this post. Entomologists do so many things its hard to keep track of them all! We hope this was a good overview though!
Came Upon a tiny and by tiny I mean pinhead-sized spiders that appears to have covered itself in an exoskeleton of web and was literally floating in the air is this common?
It’s hard to say from this description? If you have a picture, email it to email@example.com
Pingback: What is it like to be a scientist? | Ask an Entomologist