Museum insect detectives join forensic team

16 June 2009

Insect detectives at the Natural History Museum in London have teamed up with the Forensic Science Service (FSS), to create a new forensic entomology service, launched today.

Mature maggots or larvae of the bluebottle blowfly.

Mature maggots or larvae of the bluebottle blowfly.

The FSS is one of the world’s leading providers of forensic science services, working for 43 police forces in the UK and many governments and law enforcement agencies overseas.

The Museum’s forensic entomology (insect) service has worked with the UK police and others for more than 20 years. Their insect expertise helps solve crimes from murders to drug trafficking, and the team are supported by a world-class entomology collection of about 28 million specimens, the most comprehensive in the world.

Insect clues

FSS body fluid expert, Andrew Hart, explains why the addition of the Museum’s entomologists is so important.

‘Under some circumstances, such as when a body has been burned, or if it is badly decomposed, it can be difficult to ascertain a time of death using traditional pathology techniques,’ says Hart. ‘However, by determining the age of the insects found on the body, a more accurate time of death can be determined in most cases.’

Museum forensic insect expert, Martin Hall, explains. ‘By studying the life stages of the insects present on a body, in particular blowflies and their larvae but also beetles and even ants, entomologists can estimate when a body was first colonised by these insects, and therefore the minimum time it has been in situ.’

Other insect clues

It’s not just the time of death that experts can detect from insects. Insect infestations can also prove critical in cases of neglect, by indicating how long the neglect has been going on for.

The DNA of a victim can potentially be extracted from insects which have fed on a body as well as indicating any drugs that may have been present in the victim's system. And the presence of insects in drug hauls can help work out the country of origin.

The job of a forensic insect expert

Today, the job of a forensic entomologist includes a variety of tasks. Taxonomy is a crucial skill because the important first step in any investigation is to determine the identity of the insect evidence. The team also train others in insect identification.

They also prepare expert witness reports and give courtroom testimonies and advise crime scene investigators on how best to collect and handle insect evidence.

‘By joining forces with the globally renowned experts from the Natural History Museum,’ concludes Andrew, ‘we can now offer the full range of services to police forces across the country to maintain the FSS’ position as a world leader in the provision of forensic services.’

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