Like insects? Become an entomologist!

25 June 2010

Interested in insects? Then become an entomologist! There may be a shortage of insect experts, but this is not true at the Natural History Museum.

Over 100 entomologists are busy behind the scenes at the Museum studying everything from flies to fleas, butterflies to beetles, and bees to wasps.

They carry out a wide range of research on insects, from crucial identification of existing and new species, to studying diseases like malaria, monitoring climate change, and even investigating police crimes.

So, how did Museum scientists get where they are today?

An early passion was the key. ‘I was small and spent a long time on the ground watching ants,’ says Museum's Dr Erica McAlister, fly expert who also writes a blog on the Museum’s NaturePlus website. ‘I also used to watch the maggots crawling around the dead animals that the cats brought in, and trap the cats’ fleas and watch them under the microscope (Dad got me one!).’

Museum Forensic entomologist Amoret Whitaker, who is part of the team that helps the police with crime scene investigations, says, ‘I thought I would save some big cuddly animals like polar bears or gorillas, but instead I became fascinated by insects as soon as I saw them under the microscope.’

How to become an entomologist

Asked what tips they would give anyone wanting to become an entomologist, Amoret says, ‘Stick to the traditional subjects at school, like biology, maths and chemistry, followed by a Zoology degree at university. 

'Explore your local environment with a field guide and a magnifying glass and you'll be amazed at what you can find on your own doorstep!’

Erica says, ‘Join in! There are loads of different amateur groups (whose members are some of the best Entomologists in the Country). They will give tips on collecting, identifying etc and are generally more than welcome to help the beginner.’

So, what might entice someone to become an entomologist? Erica says, ‘Show them the insects – there are some of the most amazing morphological adaptations including antlers, stalk eyes and hugely feathered legs (and that’s just flies!)’

Vital insects

As well as providing food for many other animals, insects play a vital role in maintaining the delicate balance of nature’s ecosystems. They pollinate many of the plants that produce much of the fruit and vegetables we eat. And, without insects, we’d be deep in dung and would lose the beauty of butterflies, beetles and more.

‘We need to teach people that insects aren't "creepy crawlies",’ adds Amoret, ‘but that they have a massively beneficial role to play in nature, and should therefore be nurtured not terrorised, and respected not feared.’

An incredible 80% of the world's known species are insects and Amoret explains that here is much more to understand, ‘We still have so much to learn about insects, even our most common species, so work is never boring and you're constantly making new discoveries.’

Erica sums up why she likes being an entomologist. ‘Insects are the best things on the planet! They have the most diverse ecological roles including being hugely important in nutrient cycling, biocontrol through predation and pollination.

‘The more I learn about them the more I want to learn. I get to travel all over the world, sampling from many different habitats, collecting many different types and it still amazes me.’

National Insect Week

This week is National Insect Week, organised by the Royal Entomological Society. There are still 2 days left, so find out the activities at the Museum still to come this weekend.

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