Crime-Fighting Insects: How to Become a Forensic Entomologist

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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 they pertain to criminal investigations. The primary use of forensic entomology is in death investigations as insect activity can reveal when, where, and sometimes how a person died. That said, forensic entomology can also assist in detecting drugs and poisons; determining the location of a crime; finding the presence and time of trauma; and even tying suspect, victim, and crime scene to each other.

The first recorded incident of forensic entomology dates back to the 13th century when a Chinese farmer was found murdered in a field. According to the book Forensic Entomology in Criminal Investigations, “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 made its way into the courthouse; today, police detectives, coroners, federal agencies, and medical examiners work closely with forensic entomologists to uncover criminal evidence.

So how does one get started on a career in this field? While experience and educational requirements may vary, there are some common training programs and certifications that can prepare professionals for a career in forensic entomology.

Skills and Personality Traits of Successful Forensic Entomologists

Forensic entomologists often work with mites, spiders, ticks, and other non-insect anthropoids. Maggots often appear almost immediately after a person dies. Deceased individuals release a specific chemical that maggots can detect, which causes them to find and feed off the body.

Each type of insect can tell an important story. Forensic entomologists use their knowledge of species identification and growth rates to help determine the time and manner in which a person died. 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 to identify cases of anaphylactic shock, car accidents, murder, and other types of sudden death.

The investigation of insects and their effects on cadavers requires a very specialized skill set. Below are some important qualities and skills of forensic entomologists:

  • Interest in insects: This might go without saying, but first and foremost, entomologists must not be squeamish around insects. As noted by entomologist George Keeney, “You can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.”
  • A degree in biology or other natural sciences: Depending on the job, a bachelor’s in biology or a related field might suffice, although many entomologists have spent years studying entomology at the undergraduate, graduate, and even doctoral levels.
  • Interpersonal and communication skills: While these skills might vary according to position, forensic entomologists, regardless of whether they are professors, consultants, or expert witnesses, will need to have strong written and oral communications skills.
  • Knowledge of the law: Because most forensic entomologists work directly with law enforcement officers, they should have a strong understanding of criminal law.
  • Public speaking skills: Forensic entomologists may be called upon as expert witnesses in criminal trials, and they should expect to be able to speak clearly and concisely to large groups of people.

Role Requirements for Forensic Entomologists

There are several different subfields available to forensic entomologists. 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 of their duties include:

  • Consulting with police investigation units and other research staff
  • Examining deceased bodies at a crime scene
  • Taking photographs of victims of homicide
  • Collecting and analyzing insect DNA from crime scenes
  • Studying the size, number, and type of insects present to provide an expert opinion in a criminal case
  • Determining the time since colonization, meaning the time the victim has been dead
  • Extracting substances from insects to aid in toxicology investigations
  • Determining whether a rape victim was drugged or otherwise injured before or during the crime based on the attraction of insects to bodily fluids

Steps to Becoming a Forensic Entomologist

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 (4 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. Entomology students take a range of 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. Students should take every opportunity for hands-on experience through internships or part-time work.

Step 2: Get some experience in the field (1-3 years).

There are some job, internship, 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 him- or herself as a leading forensic entomologist. Many agencies offer internships for budding forensic entomologists. Job openings can be found on the Entomological Society of America website. In order 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 his or her resume to be considered for the exam.

Step 3: Pursue technician certification through the American Board of Forensic Entomology (less than 1 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 his or her 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 (2-4 years).

For aspiring leaders in research and academia, a graduate degree is essential. The University of Nebraska, for example, offers an online master of science (MS) in entomology. Students take core courses in insect ecology, insect physiology, and 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 independent study project. This program is only one example of the many possibilities available.

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 attending seminars and research. They may also need to complete written or oral exams in addition to their dissertation.

Step 5: Achieve diplomate or member status through the American Board of Forensic Entomology (less than 1 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 a 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 offer networking, continuing education, conferences, and other resources.