Dr. Margaret S. Collins: The Termite Lady – Featuring Black Entomologist Stories

Written By                                        Nancy Miorelli

A Note

The Ask an Entomologist Team would like to first and foremost express our heartache and anger with the recent injustices. We here believe that entomology, nature, and science are for everybody. Despite the unfortunate history of science rooted in exploitation and racism, we are breaking that narrative.

Entomology, Science, and Nature are for *everyone* to enjoy and partake.
The injustices that our black and POC communities face every day are unacceptable. We are heartbroken, angry, and ready for change.

For the month of June we will be focusing on black entomologists who not only furthered science and entomology as a whole but also fought for civil rights and equality. We are filled with gratitude for their contributions to entomology and it is with great respect, pleasure, and honor that we are sharing their stories.

Today, we will be featuring Dr. Margaret S. Collins. A self-proclaimed field biologist, termite scientist, and humans right activist.

A photo of a young African American woman by a microscope in the Science magazine. The caption reads "Studies Termites: Following the presentation of a paper on 'Differences in Toleration of Drying and Rate of Water Loss Between Species of Florida Termites' to the 125th Annual Meeting of the American Assoc. for the Advancement of Science, Dr. Margaret S. Collins, professor of Biology at Florida &M in Tallahassee, conducts experiment.
Margaret S. Collins. The Termite Lady
Herbert and Veronica Collins

Dr. Margaret S Collins (1922-1996)

The termite Lady

Education and Career


This entomologist started her college career at just fourteen years old!  Considered a child prodigy, Margaret quickly earned her biology degree at West Virginia State and later a PhD from the University of Chicago, becoming the first African American female entomologist and the third African American female zoologist.  

Upon her PhD orientation, she met termite expert Alfred Emerson, who quickly became a friend an mentor. However, Emerson was not without his biases. While his mentorship protected Margaret from racism, he thought that women conducting field research were meddlesome and annoying which meant that Margaret kept to the lab working with his termite collection, the largest at that time. She rapidly finished her PhD and proceeded to leave a lasting impact not only in the realm of entomology, but the civil rights movement as well.

A termite named after Margaret Collins in her honor
Parvitermes collinsae
Scheffrahn RS, Roisin E (1995)

She went on to teach at Howard University before briefly leaving and teaching at Florida A&M because of Howard University’s unequal treatment of men and women. She later returned to Howard University in 1964 after some of her activism work. On top of that she was president of the Entomological Society of Washington and a research associate at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Activism

In her free time, which I’m sure she didn’t have much of publishing 40 scientific articles in the entomological literature, Margaret was donating her time to speak out on human rights issues. One of her presentations was even cancelled due to a bomb threat as she was scheduled to speak about biology and equality at a predominately white local college. She was also tailed by the FBI and police as she was a volunteer bus driver for the Tallahassee Bus Boycott.

Newspaper clipping with a headline that reads "Tallahassee Bus Boycott Effective"
Great Bend Tribune
Great Bend, Kansas
31 May 1956, Thu  •  Page 11

Margaret cared so much about civil rights that she put her entire scientific career on pause for FIVE years turning her focus from publishing to activism between 1952-1957. Just as modern bloggers, influencers, and gurus are expected to consistently post content, the same goes for scientists. Publishing often and consistently is the way to move up the ladder, earn tenure, earn prestige for you and your university, and maintain funding. To potentially lose all of that is a sacrifice that, I’m willing to bet, not many people would be bold enough to make even today. In 1979, Margaret orchestrated a symposium at the American Association for the Advancement of Science titled “Science and the Question of Human Equality

Research

Margaret's Belize field notebook.

Despite her mentor’s disdain for women in the field, Margaret’s termite research allowed her to travel the world, visiting the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, Guayana, Belize, and the Caribbean. Her final trip led her to the Cayman Islands where she ultimately died of heart failure.

Margaret identified and described a new species of termite, Neotermes luykxi. She also helped further research on termite desiccation and heat tolerance, taxonomy based on chemical cues on the exoskeleton, generalized termite taxonomy, and structural and nutrient ecology of tropical termites.  Her research helped construct fundamental building blocks for future entomologists and especially those invested in termite biology.

TLDR;

Dr. Margaret S. Collins, The “Termite Lady” progressed the entomological field with not only her studies on termite ecology and taxonomy, but also through her civil rights and human rights activism.

If you would like to learn more about Margaret and others like her, The Entomological Society of America published “Memoirs of Black Entomologists” (2015).


Highlighted Works from Dr. Margaret Collins

  1. Collins MS, Wainer IW, Bremner. 2019. Science and the Question of Human Equality. Kindle Edition
  2. Harverty MI, Nelson LJ, Collins MS, Thorne BL. 1997. Cuticular Hydrocarbons of Termites of the British Virgin Islands. Journal of Chemical Ecology 23(4): 927-964.
  3. Strickland (Collins) M. 1950. Differences in Toleration of Drying Between Species of Termites (Reticulitermes). Ecology 31(3) 373-385
  4. Thorne BL, Bjorndal KA, Collins MS. 1996. Architecture and Nutrient Analysis of Arboreal Carton Nests of Two Neotropical Nasutitermies Species (Isoptera: Termitidae), with Notes on Embedded Nodules. Florida Entomologist 79(1):27
  5. Thorne BL, Haverty MI, Collins MS. 1994. Taxonomy and Biogeography of Nasutitermes acajutlae and N. nigriceps (Isoptera: Termitidae) in the Caribbean and Central America. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 87(6): 762-770

References

  1. Fthenakis L. 2018. “Margaret Collins: Scholar, Civil Rights Activist, and MentorSmithsonian Institution Archives. Accessed 2 June 2020
  2. Lewis VR. 2016. 2016. Child Prodigy, Pioneer Scientist, and Women and Civil Rights Adcovate: Dr. Margaret James Strickland Collins (1922-1996). Florida Entomologist 99(2): 334-336.
  3. Scheffrahn RH & Roisin Y. 1995. Antillean Nasutitermitinae (Antillean Nasutitermitinae (Isoptera: Termitidae): Parvitermes collinsae, a New Subterranean Termite from Hispaniola and Redescription of P. pallidiceps and P. wolcotti).  The Florida Entomological Society 78(4): 585-600
  4. Tracey L. 2020. “Margaret S. Collins, Pioneering Black EntomologistJSTOR Daily Accessed 2 June 2020
  5. Warren & Wini. 1999. “Black Women ScientistsBloomington Indiana University Press

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