Bug out in a Forensic Entomology Career

Seeing what they look like up close
••• PeopleImages / Getty Images

To a lot of people, bugs are creepy, crawly, nasty things that never mean anything good. To forensic entomologists, though, insects, arachnids, and other arthropods - the fancy way of saying bugs - provide a wealth of information about grisly and gruesome crimes. If this appeals to you, you may want to consider a job as a forensic entomologist.

From the Greek "entomos," which describes something that is segmented or cut into pieces, entomology means the study of insects and is a sub-discipline of arthropodology, which studies all types of bugs and invertebrate animals. In the strictest sense, entomology now refers only to insects, but the term is commonly used to describe the study of bugs of any kind, including spiders, scorpions, and other creepy crawlies.

The term forensic is from Latin and describes anything that has to do with the law or legal field. It has thus come to be used to describe any discipline that may be employed in the criminal justice system. Forensic entomology, then, is simply the application of entomology towards the criminal process, specifically in the investigation of crime.

History of Forensic Entomology

According to international forensic entomologist Dr. Mark Benacke in his Brief History of Forensic Entomology, the first documentation linking bugs to forensic investigations is found in the work of Sung Tzu. In his work Hsi yuan chi lu (The Washing Away of Wrongs), the thirteenth-century Chinese lawyer and death investigator described various techniques to determine causes of death and solving murders.

According to Benacke, Sung Tzu recounts a case in which he was able to identify a murder weapon - and subsequently the murderer - by observing flies that were attracted to a sickle that Tzu surmised carried invisible traces of blood. This concept forms the foundation of forensic entomology.

Over the ensuing centuries, both artists and scientists who studied human bodies observed how all manner of arthropods were attracted by and contributed to the decomposition of corpses. In the 18th and 19th centuries, French and German doctors made special note of the types of bugs that were involved in decomposition and began to attempt to learn how long a corpse had been dead, by the rate of decomposition and the number of maggots and other bugs present.

The field continued to advance and gain respect within the scientific community and has grown into the fascinating forensic science specialty it is today.

Job Description

Forensic entomologists study decomposing corpses and, more specifically, the types of invertebrate animals that are involved in the process. Specific types of bugs are believed to be attracted to specific types of bodily substances, and their presence can be used to help detectives and investigators learn how a crime occurred.

Forensic entomologists can also assist in the investigation of other violent crimes in which various bodily substances may be released, as well as cases of neglect. They can even help investigators learn whether a body has been frozen or refrigerated, which may indicate intent or signs of a cover-up.

They can also help identify whether a decomposing body has ever been present in a particular area. During the trial of accused murdering mom Casey Anthony, a forensic entomologist testified that a certain fly associated with decomposition was located in the trunk of Anthony's car, suggesting a body had been stored there.

Most forensic entomologists work in the more general fields of entomology and arthropodology at colleges and universities. They often provide assistance and consulting services to law enforcement agencies and medical examiners on an as-needed basis.

Forensic entomologists perform work both in a laboratory and in the field. Naturally, due to the subject matter they examine, the scenes they respond to and crimes they help investigate are often gruesome and are not for the faint of heart. They may be called upon to produce reports and to provide courtroom testimony, and they work closely with police, detectives, and other forensic scientists.

Education Requirements

People who are interested in a career in forensic entomology need to pursue a degree in entomology or a related field such as arthropodology. They should also expect to earn a master's degree or doctorate in their field, with coursework that includes forensics and the application of entomology to the legal process and the solving of a crime.

There are several certifying bodies lending credibility to forensic entomologists, and candidates would do well to seek certification or diplomas from organizations such as the American Board of Forensic Entomology.

Average Salary

Forensic entomology is a growing field, and the discipline has only recently begun to enjoy widespread credibility and notoriety. According to indeed.com, the average salary for forensic entomologists is $42,000 per year.

Job Outlook

Many investigative bodies are only just beginning to make use of forensic entomologists, and very few are employed full time by police agencies. Those interested in working in forensic entomology will likely find more success working as a college or university professor and performing consulting work in forensics.

Is a Career Right for You

If you find biology, bugs and other creepy critters fascinating and enjoy solving problems and puzzles, working as a forensic entomologist may just be the perfect criminology career for you.

Understand that the work involves dealing with disturbing scenes and sights, and is certainly not for everyone. However, if you're not one to get queasy easily, a career in forensic entomology may be right up your alley.