Entomology: Definition & Types

Instructor: Stephanie Gorski

Steph has a PhD in Entomology and teaches college biology and ecology.

In this lesson, we'll learn about types of entomologists and where entomologists can find jobs. Entomologists are diverse enough that there's something for everyone.

What do you imagine it might be like to study bugs? Why would someone do it? An entomologist is a scientist that studies insects and related creatures. Still not interested?

Perhaps you imagine an entomologist as someone who likes exotic pets like tarantulas and scorpions. And, yes, some entomologists do study those creatures! But even if you don't like tarantulas or scorpions, insects are way more important to life than you might imagine. Entomologists study bugs in a wide variety of contexts, and you can bet that many of them affect the world we live in.

Some entomologists work hard to study things that improve our health and safety. Some are interested in the food we eat. Some are interested in making sure we are comfortable at home and some are interested in the environment. And, yes, some entomologists keep scorpions, tarantulas, and other exotic pets as a hobby. Let's take a look at some important entomologists and what they do.

Types of Entomologists

Med-vet, or medical/veterinary entomologists, are interested in how insects affect human and animal health. A veterinary entomologist might, for example, study flies that bother cows and pigs. One inspiring story of creativity in veterinary entomology is the 'sterile insect technique', which successfully rid the US of screwworm flies by 1982. Screwworm flies are flies whose larvae (maggots) feed on wound tissue. They can kill a whole cow in a week or two, and they used to be a huge problem in the US. Edward Knipling, Raymond Bushland, and their team released thousands on thousands of sterile male screwworm flies, making it difficult for female screwworm flies to find a mate. Over time, the population crashed. Depending on where you live, if you've never seen a screwworm-infested wound, you may have Knipling and Bushland to thank.

What about people? There's one pest you almost certainly can live without - mosquitoes. Mosquitoes aren't only annoying; they can also transmit diseases from malaria to zika. Some entomologists have begun to use transgenic technology to bring sterile insect technique into the 21st century, preventing mosquitoes from transmitting diseases like dengue.

Agricultural entomologists are interested in how to keep bugs from eating our crops. Agricultural entomologists cover a very broad ground. Geneticists may study the genes in bugs that make them pesticide resistant, or behaviorists may study ways to confuse bugs into avoiding laying eggs on crops. A shining example of clever agricultural entomology is the apple maggot trap. Apple maggot flies look for big, round, red things (like apples) to lay their eggs on. Some clever entomologist discovered that if you hang a trap that's bigger, redder, and rounder than the most beautiful apple, apple maggots go crazy! They will lay their eggs on the trap, and the apples will be protected.

Entomologists who are ecologists are interested in the interactions between insects, organisms and their environment. You can imagine that many agricultural entomologists are ecologists as well. But not all ecologists deal with pest insects. Some ecologists get to deal with charismatic, fun insects like butterflies. Some monarch butterflies, for example, migrate more than 2,500 miles to overwinter in a small region in Mexico. Ecologists are learning more about how they migrate and how they overwinter, so that we can better protect the beautiful monarch.

Monarch butterfly

Urban entomologists deal with insects that infest our homes and businesses, like termites, cockroaches, and bedbugs. These insects may not be appealing to the average person, but their evolution, behavior, and relationships to humans make them endlessly fascinating to entomologists. Urban insects are really weird! Besides, if you like helping people with their termite, cockroach, or bedbug problems, you'll always be employed.

Entomologists who are systematicists are interested in classifying insects by their evolutionary relationships. Systematicists may use morphology (shape) to determine these relationships, or they may use molecular data. You need to have steady hands to study fly wings under a microscope all day, but some adventurous systematicists get to travel all over the world to collect specimens.

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