Friday 5: The Dark Side of Being an Entomologist

Welcome to Friday 5!  Wanted to take a moment before I jump into my list to say thanks.  My blog post on Monday, the one about my family, was featured on WordPress’ Freshly Pressed and the response to that little blog post was… well, more than I ever imagined to be honest.  So, I know I say it fairly often, but to my long-time blog followers: I am incredibly honored that you are a part of my blogging experience.  It means so much to me that you take time out of your day to read what I write here and your continued support means the world to me.  To the newbies: welcome!  I hope you enjoy what I do here and look forward to interacting with you in the future.  Thank you all!  But let’s get to Friday 5!

I love being an entomologist.  I know, I know, this is coming as a shock to you all, but I really love what I do!  However, there is a dark side to being an entomologist too.  People don’t always talk about these things, but it’s true: being an entomologist isn’t all carrion beetles and sunbeams and butterflies!  There are some downsides too.  These include:

1. YOU CAN’T TALK ABOUT WORK AT THE DINNER TABLE

lunch

Most people don't want to hear about gross insect things while they're sitting down to eat something like this!

Dining with other entomologists is great!  You can talk about anything.  Most non-entomologists, however, REALLY don’t want to hear about how carrion beetles strip the skin off of dead mice, roll them into little balls, bury them in the dirt, spit all over them to keep them from growing fungus, and then watch their wormy little offspring devour the meat.  I saw a fantastic time lapse video of maggots decomposing a bear at the Entomological Society of America meeting a few years ago, but do people want to hear about how it exploded into a mass of writhing maggots while they’re eating?  No!  I generally avoid talking about work at dinner.  People like me better if I do.  :)

2.  You’d better like insect gifts!

insect paper

A very good friend of mine sent me a package one day and this wonderful aquatic insect paper was inside. This friend knows me well and knows I enjoy paper crafts, so I love it!

Once people learn you’re an entomologist (or want to be one), you’re doomed: you’re never getting another non-insect gift again!  Okay, this isn’t totally true.  The people who know you well will get you things that have nothing to do with insects (unless of course, you actually want insect things!).  But those other people who feel obligated to give you gifts, yet don’t really know you well…  Prepare to be gifted insect things, the entomological equivalent of the gift card!  Now I personally love insect gifts, especially insect art, but sometimes you just have to sigh discretely and ponder how many bug vacuums one person really needs.

3. People ask for insect ID’s all the time

wasp

It's a wasp. That's all I can tell you other than it's likely a parasitic wasp in the family Braconidae or Ichneumonidae, probably the former.

I am sure you’ve heard me say this before, but it bears repeating: I am not a taxonomist and therefore not an expert in insect identification.  I know my Arizona aquatic insects really well, but I am thrilled when I can identify a land dwelling insect without sitting down at a microscope with a bunch of keys and a specimen.  I definitely can’t ID anything from a verbal description like this: “It was this little black/brown beetle/moth with antennae! What was it?”  When people discover you are an entomologist, you become The Bug Expert.  They assume you can identify every one.   It doesn’t matter if I tell someone that there are over a million species of insects and no one person can possibly know them all.  People are invariably disappointed when I tell them I have no idea what the little black/brown beetle/moth they saw was from a verbal description alone.  Now a photo…  That I can often work with!

4.  People ask you identify skin conditions

bug bites

See, you didn't need to see this! I only took photos of these bites because I had over 300 biting midge (aka, no-see-um) bites all over my legs and arms and I was SO miserable that I felt I should document them. This photo now reminds me to wear long pants in the field!

This is the worst part of being an entomologist for me!  There are a lot of people in the world who are bitten/stung by insects, spiders, or scorpions and it is absolutely reasonable that they want to a) know how dangerous whatever bit them was or b) identify what bit them if they didn’t see it.  However, these are things that a doctor, perhaps even a dermatologist, should diagnose.  Or contact a poison control center!  Some entomologists do know a thing or two about different bites and what they look like, but most of us do not and will not be able to help you.  Heck, I usually can’t diagnose my own bites!  If you happen to have taken some bad acid and have become convinced that there are bugs crawling on you, your local entomologist is not going to be thrilled when you show them your oozing scabs or bring them bloody bandages to see if there are actually bugs in them.  And please, for the love of all that is good, do not call/e mail to ask if the scorpion that you purposely allowed to sting sensitive sexual organs as a sort of natural Viagra is going to cause permanent damage!  I don’t know and I really don’t need that mental image etched into my brain for the rest of my life, thank you very much.  (You all didn’t need it either, I’m sure, but it’s a great example of the sort of thing I have actually dealt with.)

Most people don’t appreciate your contributions to the world

Sabino

Me in Sabino Canyon. Photo by Laura Goforth.

Maybe it has something to do with the part of the country they’re from or that they tend to be rural corn farmers (certainly nothing wrong with being a corn farmer – I LOVE corn!), but I dread talking about what I do with the people in my mom’s tiny little town of 1000 people.  My least favorite question, which I get every time I go to visit, is this: “You study bugs in the water, huh?  Why would anyone even want to do that?!”  If you’re reading this, you probably have an interest in nature and/or insects, or are at least amused by the fact that some random woman in Arizona is way too in love with insects for her own good.  You are awesome!  But most people are nothing like you.  Many see absolutely no value in what I do, nevermind that aquatic insects will likely play an important role in water resource management in the future and are a valuable scientific tool for addressing water quality problems now.  Plus, aquatic entomology is FUN!  However, I’ll admit: it’s a little disheartening to get The Question because I love what I do and I know it’s important, but some people don’t see it.  Sigh…

There are, of course, downsides to every profession.  On the other hand, entomology tends to attract a certain type of person, people who have passions that are a little outside the mainstream.  We love what we do, regardless of what other people think, and most of us are used to people thinking we’re weird.  And, the opportunity to spend our lives working with insects (and get paid for it no less!) generally far outweighs the negatives parts of the job.  So I can’t talk about disgusting work things at the dinner table (or on Facebook) and a lot of people don’t “get” me.  I don’t mind!  I am doing what I love to do every day and that makes me a really happy person.

Hey!  I think I just found a good response to The Question!  :)

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