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:



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


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


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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29 thoughts on “Friday 5: The Dark Side of Being an Entomologist

  1. I found your blog on freshly pressed and this post is a delight…I laughed out loud. You are doing what you love and following your authentic path and that lights up your writing and I have no doubt your life. I look forward to future posts – Jane

  2. Its really nice. REALLY people do ask for pesticides from an entomologist….. and we know they are never the only solution. And of course no bug talk while eating. Enjoyed the other side (Laugh)!

  3. I love reading your blog! I find insects to be very interesting even though they sometimes tend to creep me out if they actually crawl on me. I love watching them go about their business and photographing them.

    I think entomology is a facinating field and the work you do is so important in many different aspects. I’m so glad I found your blog! Thank you!

    PS: Even though my tummy wouldn’t handle “Bug Talk” during mealtime..I would love to hear/read about your work any other time!

    • Thanks for the lovely compliments! I’m so happy you’re enjoying what you read. And there’s nothing wrong with being creeped out by having bugs crawling on you either. The fact that you’re willing to learn about them, even if they bother you a bit, means you like bugs more than most people!

  4. Greetings! I, too, stumbled upon your blog via Freshly Pressed, & I am so glad! I have thoroughly enjoyed your posts. While I’m not an entomologist, (I’m just a lowly high school science teacher) I do share your affinity for aquatic insects. At a previous job, I sponsored what was called W.E.T. (water education team). I took students to a local river monthly, and they did various tests to monitor the health of the stream. The biology team was my favorite. We would scour the water’s edge for macroinvertebrates that served as indicators of stream cleanliness. I gave a little chuckle when I read your comment about hellgramites. They were often the least favorite of my students! I do miss it, so when I read your posts, it brought a big smile to my face! My students are often surprised to learn that insects and other creepy crawlies don’t bother me, & I’m a “girl”! :)

    Glad I stumbled upon your blog, & I look forward to reading many more!

    • Aw, just a lowly high school science teacher? The work you do is SO important! Don’t sell yourself short. Especially if you’re a female science teacher who likes bugs. You rock!

      I am happy to hear that you took your students out for the WET work! That’s fantastic! I love introducing young people to the water because there are so many amazing things in streams and lakes if you actually bother to look. And yes, the hellgrammites are super creepy, yet I also find myself squealing with happiness just a little every time I find them. They are absolutely fascinating! I consider them the aquatic entomological equivalent of a car wreck – you don’t want to look, but you just can’t help it. :) (Okay, that’s two “entomological equivalents” on this page now, but it just had to be said.)

  5. Hilarious, Dragonfly Woman. HIlarious! I’m no entomologist, but have been hugely disappointed when family members couldn’t share my delight over the Mastophora hutchinsoni spider that turned up on my patio.
    Had to contact a researcher from Florida to get a worthy response :)

  6. I joined your followers after freshly pressed and see that I am going to enjoy your blogs. You touched a nerve with this one. My late husband was a police officer and bloodstain pattern expert. You can imagine the conversation at our dinner table! I became quite used to crime scene and autopsy photos, but we soon learned to put them away when guests came.

    • I can definitely imagine the sorts of dinner conversations you had! Funny how you become so immune to things that so many other people think are completely disgusting. Conversations among groups of biologists dining together can get quite interesting. :)

    Why don’t you ask me out once? I’m not an entemologist, and I assure you that the things I talk about on the dinner table will freak you out.

    > Most people don’t appreciate your contributions to the world
    Yea, thats so true isn’t it. They never gave me a nobel peace prize. ;)

    > People ask for insect ID’s all the time
    I work for a security firm, and people ask me for free copies of antiviruses, they ask me about all the viruses and worms they think have infected their PCs. Comes with the job I guess. Sometimes, I just say something to keep them happy.

    Have you read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha? Highly recommended.

  8. Found this via twitter. I once tried to discuss my lab tech work catching tiger beatles with some family members. I got the, “that work has no value because it does not directly benefit humans, why are my tax dollars paying for that” response. It ain’t fun.

    • I’ve been there! My dissertation research focuses on the origin of parental care behaviors in giant water bugs. People eat water bugs in some part of the world and it’s possible that they are one of the carriers of the chytrid fungus that is causing so many problems in amphibians recently, but otherwise… No benefit to humans at all! Still, with some exceptions (i.e. some of the things that win Ignoble Prizes), most science has SOME value. It’s just a matter of trying to spin it so that people understand why your work is important. :)

  9. Great blog. As an entomologist myself I empathise with most of your comments, especially no. 3. It’s nearly always the unidentifiable stuff that people send me. For all those non-entomologists out there the subject is really really important, especially for understanding biodiversity and what will happen if we lose too many more species. I live in the UK and we have a huge problem with insect population decline that’s been measurable for the last couple of decades or so and the worrying thing is that no one is quite sure why it is happenning – lots of theories so the research is extremely important. I’m retired now, but doing a lot of volunteer survey work – great fun.

    • You know, I really wish Americans would pay more attention to the declines of insects in your country. I’ve referenced several studies from the UK about distributional shifts and population declines for various projects and they seem to be to be striking examples of what might happen in other places in the world if climate change and other environmental problems continue as they are today. Makes me wonder if we aren’t seeing many things like that in the US yet only because we’ve got more space for things to move about, or maybe it’s because we don’t even have all of our insect fauna identified, so we don’t know where things are supposed to be and aren’t noticing some of these shifts. I realize that a lot of people don’t care about insects and wonder why anyone should spend money protecting them, but considering how important so many insects are to environmental processes and other animals and how little we know about them overall, wouldn’t it be a good idea to protect them just in case we really screw something up by letting a few slip through the cracks…?

      I’m glad that you’re enjoying doing volunteer survey work in your retirement! I can see myself doing that when I retire, just to keep my feet wet. Probably will literally keep my feet wet since I work with aquatics! :)

  10. It’s not just entomology, if it makes you feel better. My first job out of college was in a tropical medicine lab, and I was enthusiastically describing what I did to my family, only to get told “don’t do that again.”

    In my current job, I have the nickname “the bug guy,” mainly because I can at least identify a good portion of what I see to general family. I’ve also learned – by necessity – to identify ones that either are invasive species or can be mistaken for them. I spend a lot of time telling people “Nope, that’s a pine sawyer, not an Asian longhorned beetle.”

    • Ha ha! I’m sure there are lots of professions where people just don’t talk about work at meals. One woman in the comments here talked about how her blood splatter expert husband brought photos from work home and they had to learn not to show them to other people at meals. People might actually prefer my bear full of maggots story! :)

      And it’s nice of you to be the bug guy and identify things for other people. It’s a hard job, but a lot of people really are curious about the things they see (even if they only want to know how dangerous or pestiferous something is) and it’s great that you’re willing to ID things for them.

      • My being “the bug guy” was a result of taking aquatic invertebrates and entomology as an undergrad, and aquatic ento as a grad student. Even though it’s “not what I do,” it’s something that sticks with you. I actually still have my aquatic invertebrate lab collection.

        There’s been a big push by NY state and federal people to educate everyone about the Emerald Ash Borer and Asian Longhorn Beetle. The problem with the ALB is that there’s a couple of “look-alikes” which are native, so I end up reassuring people who come running up with “I found an ALB!”

  11. I’ve really enjoyed your blog in the 15 months or so since I’ve found it. I especially like this post for all the memories it brings. Forget talk at the dinner table; how about a now-ex-husband who refused point-blank to allow me to bring home silk moth caterpillars to raise during my first ENTO class? It’s been a decade since I was last paid to be an entomologist with a work space big enough to appropriately house all the insect paraphernalia, and I still have some of those gifts, like dead spread 89 butterflies from the ex who finally realized after our divorce that what I loved was kinda cool and an awesome dragonfly wind chime. But, seriously, what can I do with a hideous butterfly knickknack made out of a sliced geode? Even now I still get asked to ID insects or mysterious bites. One thing that really pushed me to get out of the field was I felt lonely. Too bad my time of sunbeam butterflies was before social media took off. Wishing you all the best for 2012!

    • Thanks Katie! I really appreciate having you as a reader! I read all of your blog posts too, even though I don’t think I’ve commented for quite a while. I tried to comment on your post about the teasel recently, but I wasn’t ever able to get the system to accept my comment. Maybe I should try again…

      Your ex wouldn’t let you bring home SILK MOTH CATERPILLARS? Good lord! Those are so innocent and cute compared to what I bring home! My husband doesn’t like bugs at all and it was a struggle for me to get my roaches home without his freaking out entirely, but he’s generally supportive of my having bugs in the house so long as they’re contained in cages and can’t get loose. I really love that about him.

      Oooh, the geode butterfly sounds… bad. Really bad. That’s the sort of thing I might get someday because I grew up mineral collecting with my dad and I like insects, so why not combine the two? My grandmother used to give me the WORST insect costume jewelry. Some of the really ridiculous pieces I kept because they were so bad they were funny, but some of them, the ones that are coming right up to that ridiculous line but not quite crossing it… What does one do with a horrible piece of jewelry that’s taking itself too seriously? Ugh…

      Happy new year to you too! I look forward to more of your blog posts! I know next to nothing about plants, so I’m learning to appreciate them more through your blog.

  12. Oh, the jewelry! I forgot that I still have several pieces when my mentor’s daughter gave me all of her mom’s after she died. They can be just as hideous as the geode butterfly, but I’ve searched online and certain costume jewelry with the designer’s inscription can be quite valuable. I have an ugly caterpillar in semi-precious stones that is now an expensive collectors’ item. Who knew?

    The ex believed I would let loose the silk moth caterpillars in our apt. and they would feed on all of our houseplants or find their way to our bed. Too funny! He came over once when I had several hundred monarch caterpillars in my bedroom, not to mention a giant millipede, hissing cockroaches, mantids, and a variety of other insects in my kitchen. He never visited afterwards. Haha!

    I now have an ichneumonid from caterpillars I raised this summer still in the fridge next to the mustard, mayo, and jam. My new love doesn’t seem to mind. I think I found the right man for me. :)

    • Ha ha! The silk moths were going to find their way to your bed? Yeah… Glad you have someone who tolerates the bugs in your fridge now. He sounds better suited to your interests.

      And good to know about the costume jewelry! Maybe I should actually look at my pieces before I give them away, though knowing my grandmother’s shopping habits they probably came from Walmart.

  13. It’s the same for botanists and gardeners – and you lose people as soon as the talk turns to insects unless they are asking about what’s wrong with their plant and how to kill insects.

    I too have enjoyed your blog for some time – thanks!

    • Isn’t it kinda sad when people do that? I try to tell people the exciting things that insects do (or the really gross things) to get them interested, but a lot of people just really don’t care regardless of how awesome my little factoids are…

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