Entomology is the study of insects, and forensics relates to the scientific investigation of crimes. So how do insects and the law come together? Forensic entomology is the study of insects as it relates to criminal investigations. For example, the presence of certain types of insects can reveal a lot about when, where, and how a person died.
Forensic entomology can also assist in detecting drugs and poisons; determining the location of a crime; finding the presence and time of trauma; and finding links between suspects, victims, and specific crime scenes.
The first recorded incident of forensic entomology dates back to the 13th century when a Chinese farmer was found murdered in a field. The Journal of Forensic Dental Sciences reports that according to the book The Washing Away of Wrongs by Sung Tzu, “…all the suspects were told to place their sickles on the ground. Only one sickle attracted blowflies to the trace amount of blood hidden to the naked eye, which resulted in the confession by the murderer.”
Several decades later, forensic entomology remains a relevant discipline used by police detectives, coroners, federal agencies, and medical examiners who work closely with forensic entomologists to uncover hidden criminal evidence.
So how does one get started in a forensic entomology career? While experience and educational requirements may vary, some standard training programs and certifications can prepare professionals for a career in forensic entomology.
Read on to learn more about fighting crime with insects and become a forensic entomologist.
First and foremost, it should go without saying that forensic entomologists should be comfortable interacting with insects. By observing mites, spiders, ticks, and other non-insect anthropoids in the presence of human remains, a forensic entomologist can decipher when and how the person whose remains are left behind died. For example, a forensic entomologist knows the presence of maggot larvae indicates a recent death as maggots appear almost immediately after a person dies.
Second, forensic entomologists should have solid coping skills since they will likely work in traumatic crime scenes. Beyond the gruesome scenes, each type of insect at a crime scene with human remains can reveal important information. Forensic entomologists use their knowledge of species identification and growth rates to help determine the time and manner in which a person died. For example, deceased individuals release a specific chemical that certain types of insects can detect at different stages, which helps forensic entomologists determine the current stage of decomposition.
Last, objective observation and communication skills are essential for forensic entomologists. Many agencies, including police detectives, coroners, federal agencies, and medical examiners, work with forensic entomologists to identify these crucial pieces of information. They can help identify cases of anaphylactic shock, car accidents, murder, and other types of sudden death.
Investigating insects and their effects on cadavers requires a very specialized skill set. Below are some essential qualities and skills of forensic entomologists:
There are several different subfields available to forensic entomologists. For example, product entomology refers to the study of contaminated food; urban entomology involves studying how insects affect humans and the larger environment; and medico-legal entomologists (a.k.a., forensic entomologists) specifically study insects that feed on the remains of deceased humans.
Some forensic entomology duties include:
Here is one possible path to becoming a forensic entomologist, including the requisite education, experience, and credentialing.
Step 1: Earn a bachelor’s degree in entomology, biology, zoology, forensics, or other natural sciences (four years)
Joining this career starts with graduating from high school and enrolling in a bachelor’s program in forensics, entomology, or related natural sciences. While aspiring entomologists do not need to major in the field specifically, it is encouraged.
The Department of Entomology at the University of Texas A&M offers a bachelor of science in entomology. While this degree program emphasizes the relationship between insects and agriculture, students can combine it with other four-year forensic science programs accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). In addition, Texas A&M offers several other entomology programs that confer master’s, doctoral, minor, and certificates.
Entomology students take various courses while completing their degrees, such as biology, criminalistics, ecological impact, evolution, forensic science, genetics, human anatomy and physiology, insect anatomy, life cycles, microbiology, parasitology, physiology, population dynamics, reproduction, taxonomy, and toxicology. In addition, students should take every opportunity for hands-on experience through internships or part-time work.
Step 2: Get some experience in the field (one to three years)
There are some jobs, internships, and other hands-on opportunities available to aspiring forensic entomologists with at least a bachelor’s degree. One common way to achieve this is to work as an assistant for someone who has already established themself as a leading forensic entomologist.
Many agencies offer internships for budding forensic entomologists. Graduates can find job openings on the Entomological Society of America website. To qualify for certification through the American Board of Forensic Entomology (ABFE) as a forensic entomology technician, a candidate must have some relevant experience on their resume to be considered for the exam.
Step 3: Pursue technician certification through the American Board of Forensic Entomology (less than one year)
The first level of certification available through the American Board of Forensic Entomology (ABFE) is the forensic entomology technician credential.
To qualify for the exam, a person must submit a detailed resume listing all entomology courses and experience, university transcripts, and a $50 fee to the ABFE. Certified technicians are authorized to collect and process entomological specimens before sending them to ABFE diplomates or members for further analysis. Dues are $50 annually, and technicians must recertify every five years.
Step 4: Pursue a master’s degree and/or doctorate (two to four years)
A graduate degree is essential for aspiring leaders in research and academia.
The University of Nebraska offers an online master of science (MS) in entomology. Students take core courses in insect ecology, insect physiology, insect identification, and natural history, as well as electives, which include aquatic insects, medical entomology, forensic entomology, insect behavior, and insect toxicology. Students also complete a research project and an independent study project.
Students wishing to teach or simply to obtain a higher position can continue towards earning a doctorate in forensic entomology. Doctoral candidates should expect to devote extra time to attend seminars and research. They may also need to complete written or oral exams and their dissertation in which aspiring forensic entomologists can focus their research on a specific area of forensic entomology.
Please see our guide to forensic entomology programs for more detailed degree program information.
Step 5: Achieve diplomate or member status through the American Board of Forensic Entomology (less than one year)
Forensic entomologists at this stage can apply for the terminal certification in this field: member or diplomate status through the American Board of Forensic Entomology (ABFE).
Candidates must pass a peer-review process and practical and written exams. The board offers the exams at least once a year to members of the organization. For more information about achieving these credentials, please contact the ABFE chairperson.
As a final note, forensic entomologists in the U.S. may want to consider joining professional groups such as the North American Forensic Entomology Association, which offers networking, continuing education, conferences, and other resources.
Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).