Insects play a crucial, yet often overlooked role in forensics. Just as food crops cannot pollinate without honey bees, murder mysteries would go unsolved without bow flies, maggots, and flesh-eating beetles.
Forensic entomologists are experts in the fields of criminal justice and science who, using their knowledge of how insects aid in bodily decomposition, can determine the time and source of death.
Representing a unique niche of forensic science, entomologists are often likened to forensic biologists. So how do these careers differ? While a forensic biologist examines all types of physical evidence at a crime scene such as bodily fluids, bones, hair, plants, insects, and animals, a forensic entomologist focuses her or his investigation on the presence or absence of insects to draw conclusions about the cause or time of death.
For centuries, forensic entomologists have been using insect evidence to bring criminals to justice and exonerate innocent people. Notably, in the 1800s, the idea of insect succession (the order in which insects participate in decomposition) was tested and proven in a famous case involving a French couple who found the remains of a child when they remodeled their home. The couple was spared criminal prosecution when Dr. Bergeret d’Arbois autopsied the remains and used insect life cycle knowledge to prove the couple’s innocence and charge the previous tenants with murder.
Today, the same principles are used in forensic entomology to solve cold cases such as the one investigated by Dr. Eric Benbow, an entomology professor and forensic entomologist at Michigan State University. In 2019, using his knowledge of aquatic insect succession, Dr. Benbow ruled out the possibility that a body had been submerged in a lake for 21 days as originally suspected.
So what does it take to become a forensic entomologist? Like other forensic science careers, gaining education and experience through school and work is necessary, as well as pursuing certification. For those who aren’t bothered by bugs and crave a multidisciplinary career in criminal justice and science, becoming a forensic entomologist positions a professional for a rewarding career in this fascinating subfield of forensic science.
Read on to learn more about how to become a forensic entomologist.
The career outlook is bright for forensic entomologists. Although the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t report specific data for forensic entomologists, a closely-related field of forensic science technicians is growing at a rate of 14 percent which is nearly triple the national average for all occupations (BLS 2020). Between 2019 and 2029, the BLS projects that 2,400 fresh positions will be needed, adding to the 17,200 currently employed forensic science technicians.
As of 2020, the number of forensic entomology positions was slim, but forensic scientists who have their sights set on solving crime with science and insects are advised to network and keep their eyes open for jobs.
Becoming a member of a professional society such as the Entomological Society of America or Entomology Today could lead to valuable networking opportunities or first glances at forensic entomologist jobs as they arrive on the scene.
The BLS lists the average annual salary of forensic science technicians—a position related to forensic chemists—as $59,150 (BLS 2020). Self-reported salary data from PayScale.com (2020) shows the average annual salary of forensic chemists to be $52,341.
The BLS reports the following annual salary data for forensic science technician salaries in the 10th, 50th, and 90th percentiles:
Salary data from PayScale.com (2020) reports average annual salary data, based on years of experience, for professionals working in forensic chemist positions as:
Here is a list of average annual salaries for the top-paying industries for forensic science technicians (BLS May 2019):
Below is a list of the states paying the highest salaries for forensic science technicians, the number of employed professionals in each state, and the average annual salary (BLS 2019):
Below is a list of the cities and metropolitan areas with the highest number of forensic science technicians, the number of employed professionals, and the average annual salary (BLS 2019):
|Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA||970||Data unavailable|
|New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA||670||$67,880|
|Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX||470||$77,160|
|Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL||460||$64,210|
|Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA||410||$49,690|
|Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX||390||$58,880|
Here is a step-by-step guide to becoming a forensic entomologist: a career that typically requires seven to nine years education and experience.
High school students who enjoy the arts and sciences and are not squeamish around insects are advised to keep their grades high to gain admission into a reputable bachelor’s degree program. Students should take courses in math, science, communications, and public speaking.
To stand out on college applications, high school students are encouraged to pursue internships in laboratory-based or criminal justice settings. Extracurricular activities involving teamwork and problem-solving are also recommended.
Most colleges and universities offer bachelor’s of science degrees in biology and chemistry and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) keeps a list of forensic science educational programs. While specific forensic entomology programs are rare, there are six universities that feature forensic entomology programs and degrees.
A list of accredited general forensic science programs is maintained by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). The mission of FEPAC is to “maintain and enhance the quality of forensic science education through formal evaluation and recognition of college-level academic programs.” The benefit of choosing a forensic science program accredited by FEPAC is that these institutions have met rigorous accreditation standards for undergraduate and graduate study. Programmatic accreditation gives prospective students and employers confidence in the quality of an educational program.
The Department of Entomology and Nematology at the University of California Davis (UC Davis) offers a four-year bachelor’s degree in entomology with options to specialize in medical entomology and toxicology. Students in this program learn fundamental biological concepts and encouraged to pursue research internships in laboratories. Double-majoring is possible through applying to the College of Biological Sciences, College of Engineering, or College of Letters and Sciences.
While most forensic science technician positions require a bachelor’s degree, those who are sure they want to specialize in forensic entomology are advised to earn a master’s degree.
FEPAC accredits more than fifty forensic science programs, many of which are master’s programs. Schools with regional accreditation are also recommended for prospective graduate students.
The University of Nebraska offers an online master’s of science in entomology. This two-year program prepares its graduates for careers related to forensic science including forensic and medical entomology; natural history; middle and high-school teaching; plant resistance research and development; and insect pest management.
For more than 100 years, the University of Nebraska has offered distance education courses and excels at making online learning interactive. Students are given multiple opportunities to interact with world-class faculty and researchers as well as their classmates who bring unique global perspectives to the online learning environment.
Before graduating, bachelor’s and master’s degree holders are advised to begin networking and job searching. Through talking with professors, classmates, and joining networking groups, forensic entomologists can use their connections to learn about job opportunities in forensic science or entomology.
The Entomological Society of America has an online career center that allows job seekers to upload their resumes and search for jobs. The organization also offers professional development through annual in-person and virtual meetings as well as career development webinars. As well, the North American Forensic Entomology Association (NAFEA) supports professionals in the field of entomology and criminal justice through research, memberships, and annual conferences.
The American Board of Forensic Entomology (ABFE) offers two types of certification for forensic entomologists who have a bachelor’s degree and are pursuing a PhD, or have already earned a master’s degree in entomology, biology, zoology, or ecology as well as professional experience.
Having a member or diplomate certification strengthens the professional credentials of a forensic entomologist. Detailed certification information for forensic entomology is included below.
To be a forensic entomologist means being ready to work with dirt, insects, and dead bodies. While determining the cause of death is not without its emotional and physical challenges, at the end of the day, forensic entomologists do this work in service of the loved ones of the deceased and the safety and justice of their communities. The work of forensic entomologists is split between crime scenes, laboratories, offices, and courtroom settings.
Daily job responsibilities include:
As previously mentioned, the American Board of Forensic Entomology (ABFE) offers two types of board certification for forensic entomologists: Member and Diplomate.
Member certification is available to forensic entomologists who meet the following criteria:
Board-certified Members can apply to be promoted to Diplomate status if they meet the following criteria:
Applicants who meet these requirements are eligible to pay a fee and take comprehensive, write, and practical examinations to test principles of medico-legal forensic entomology. Applicants must pass with a score of 80 percent or higher on each exam.
Applicants who score under 80 percent must wait one year to re-take the exams. Once earned, certification is good for five years and can be renewed with the submission of five or more medico-legal case reports related to forensic entomology.
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).