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Feb. 15, 2012

A Valentine to Entomology

by The Bug Chicks

Click to enlarge images

Tools of the Trade: An aerial net and aspirator.

The week surrounding Valentine’s Day makes us think about love and joy, whether we like it or not. Learning to identify people or pinpoint events and moments that make us happy is a good exercise, though. So we decided to sit down and list 5 reasons why we love being entomologists.

1.) It’s not normal. We admit it. Entomology is not a normal profession. It’s weird, it’s edgy, it’s geeky and it’s not what people expect (especially of women.) We get a kick out of telling people that we study and teach about insects. Insects are like tiny aliens that live all around us. They have bizarre biologies, incredibly cool body parts and can perform amazing feats. They sting, they bite, they fly. Some shoot boiling acid out of their butts. They make silk and honey, inspired helicopter design and air conditioning. We could go on and on—and we often do. At dinner parties. I guess we could talk about how bad the traffic is, or what Rihanna wore to the Grammys. You know, normal stuff. But who wants to be normal? Let’s talk about caterpillars that mimic snakes. Whaaaaat?

1.) We’ll never be bored. Everyone gets bored. There are a million things to do and learn and yet we all still have those moments where we think, “Guh, been there done that.” Not in entomology! We could study a different species of insect every day for the rest of our lives and not even look at a fraction of them. Say we live for another 60 years. That’s about 22,000 species if we’re really focused. Take into account that there are over one million described species of insects and it’s estimated that there could be four million species on earth. You get the picture. There’s no time to be bored. We’re freaking out right now. We should pull an all-nighter studying a species just to make up for the time it took us to write this post…

3.) A life of adventure. Some entomologists work on the frontier of genetics, biochemical engineering and agricultural science. Other entomologists, like systematists and taxonomists work to describe and classify insects and define their relationships to one another. This work is vital for the understanding and conservation of biodiversity. New species of insects are described every day. When you describe your first species you feel like a modern day Magellan, discovering a new land! If you’re lucky enough to travel to far off places and collect the specimen yourself- all the better. But there’s nothing quite like that moment when you look through the scope or analyze a marker and confirm that you’re looking at something new to science.

4.) The “look.” We teach about insects all the time and people ask us if it ever gets old, repeating the same information over and over to different people. The answer is never. See, when people first start learning about insects there’s a mix of reactions that range from fear and disgust to curiosity and fascination. For people who dwell in the fear and disgust range, there’s a surefire way to change their minds. A microscope. When people look through a simple dissecting microscope they can see the intricacy and complexity of insect morphology. The ‘look’ is that moment when people’s eyes widen and then squint and they rush to focus on a specific part of the specimen. It’s usually accompanied by an audible gasp or utterance like ooh, ahh or cool! Works like a charm. Every single time we see the look, it helps to reaffirm why we teach. It’s an everyday reminder of the happiness our chosen profession brings us.

5.) Making a difference. Getting the opportunity to apply our knowledge to help make the world a better place (no matter how small the difference) is a great perk of the profession. Extension entomologists who work with farmers first hand to solve pest problems have often told us that’s their favorite part of the job. Medical entomologists who work to eradicate insect-vectored diseases are tireless in their dedication to the communities they serve.

As educators, we usually focus on the natural history of arthropods. But sometimes we use insects and spiders as a way to talk about prejudice and racism. And it makes sense; people often judge insects and spiders unfairly because they look different from us. And different almost always equals bad. People are afraid of these small animals because they don’t understand them. Add in a few preconceived notions and you’ve got a nasty attitude toward something you know little about. Sounds a lot like prejudice doesn’t it?

Recently, we taught at a teen correctional facility for girls ages 13-19. The girls were a mix of races, backgrounds, and socioeconomic classes. When the girls were afraid to get close and learn about the animals, we made the point that they probably scare people because they are in jail. Did they want people to fear them, to judge them in that way? The answer was a resounding no. By the end of our talk not one of the 40 girls was afraid to touch, ask questions and be curious about the insects and spiders we brought. We spent a beautiful morning laughing with the girls, watching ‘youth offenders’ cheering each other on to hold a cockroach, hearing them talk about how beautiful and cool the insects were. Did we eradicate malaria? No. But we changed their minds that day, about insects and about themselves. In turn, teaching the girls at the correctional facility filled us with happiness about our work and how we choose to spend our lives.

Many people don’t live a life they love. Many people work only to get to the weekend. For us, being entomologists means every day has a bit of weekend in it. It doesn’t get much better than that.

 

About The Bug Chicks

Kristie Reddick and Jessica Honaker are The Bug Chicks. They each have Masters Degrees in Entomology and love to teach people about insects and spiders.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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