Insects have been buzzing in wildlife news for several months, so let’s check in with an expert, Lauren Davidson!
Lauren Davidson works as an entomologist, specializing in husbandry and education. She received her bachelor’s in entomology from Texas A&M University and is currently finishing her master’s in the same field. She is often asked how many pet bugs she has. The answer…. None! She gets her “bug fix” at work. However, she does have 3 senior dogs, 2 rescue parrots, and a husband that keep her busy when she’s not at work. Lauren recently returned from Kenya where she met many of the farmers who supply African pupae to butterfly houses all around the world.
Entomology is the study of what most people would call creepy crawlers… insects (sometimes more broadly including arachnids and other invertebrates)! For a lot of people this might be a nightmare, but I’m sure you feel otherwise since you decided to make a career out of studying them. What was it about this field that really caught your eye?
I have ALWAYS loved insects. I have to quote E.O. Wilson because I think it is true for many entomologists, “Most children have a bug period, I never grew out of mine.” I always had “pet” insects when I was a kid. They each had such different behaviors and I remember watching them for hours. I knew, from a very young age, that I wanted to be an entomologist. As I grew up, I sometimes waivered from that idea, but I always came back to bugs.
Over the last couple of decades women have been getting more and more advanced degrees in entomology. For any women interested in pursuing this line of study, what advice would you give them?
Few universities offer undergraduate degrees in entomology. However, you can still get into the field with a life sciences degree such as biology or zoology. If you choose to pursue a higher degree, have an idea of what career in entomology you are looking for. Although entomology is a narrow field, it covers a broad spectrum of subjects from agriculture to veterinary entomology.
Now although women make up about half of the graduates of entomology programs in the US, according to the National Science Foundation, only about a quarter of university and federal positions in the field are held by women. What has been your experience in finding and securing relevant jobs? Were there any resources that were helpful to you?
Networking is probably the most important thing you could do in any career, but especially in entomology. Conferences are a great place to start. There are several entomology-related conferences every year all around the world. Social media is also surprisingly helpful. I have met so many great contacts through Instagram and have even been offered some cool opportunities. Just make sure to keep your account professional if you are going to use it in this manner.
As a practicing entomologist, where do you work and what are some of the things you do on a day to day basis? Is there even a typical day?
I am really lucky to work as an entomologist at the Cockrell Butterfly Center which is in the Houston Museum of Natural Science. My main responsibilities entail taking care of the butterflies. We receive hundreds of exotic butterfly pupae every week from sustainable farms all over the world. I take care of gluing them up and general husbandry in the emergence display, releasing them as they emerge, and researching dietary needs. I also work with our non-butterfly invertebrates and our large collection of plants as needed. Another large component is giving outreach presentations to schools. I think it is a great way to introduce these animals before societal fears are established!
Dealing with insects is both your day job and a hobby. I found you on Instagram where you have a very healthy following of nearly 30,000 people and you also have more than 20,000 likes on your Facebook page. What are some of the strategies that you use to keep so many people (on multiple platforms at that!) engaged with insects and arachnids, species that usually draw disgust from folks?
People are interested in insects, whether they actually like them or “love to hate” them. I try to keep followers engaged by mixing up the content as much as possible and show some bugs that many people do not realize even exist!
Speaking of social media, I’ve seen several reputable articles published and floating around Twitter that make the claim that insect populations around the world are collapsing. There seems to be some disagreement among professionals about how true this might be because it’s so difficult to count insects and get a proper baseline (starting point to measure against). What are your thoughts?
I will agree that a proper baseline is difficult with most insect groups. Though scientists have been collecting insects for hundreds of years, most emphases have been put on beetles and butterflies. Insects such as flies do not have as many detailed records. That said, there is an obvious and widely accepted decline in insect populations and the science behind the most recent articles is valid. I think many can remember having tons of insects hit our windshields on road trips. That just isn’t the case anymore.
As we close out this interview, I just really need to know something. For me, certain insects are really special, like butterflies and (most) beetles. Do you have a soft spot for any specific types of insects and are there any that make you just not want to bother with them? Why?
Oh, this is a tough one! I would have to say cockroaches are one of my favorites. They really have gotten a bad rap but are incredibly vital to the health of our ecosystems. They can also be very beautiful! I am weary of centipedes, just because they are so fast and “leggy”. I wouldn’t say I am scared of them, but I definitely wouldn’t handle one!