Celebrating the women trailblazers of entomology

How four brilliant women shaped the study of insects and awakened us to the impacts of harmful pesticides

by Clay Bolt

Since childhood, insects have been my obsession. I delight in their beauty, amazing behavior, complex life histories, and the key roles they play in nearly every ecosystem on Earth. As a child (and let’s be honest, as an adult too), each log or rock concealed endless six- or eight-legged treasures, which fed my imagination and watered the seeds of curiosity within me. And while I was generally shy as a young person, when it came to insects, I was an emboldened protector, willing to defend them against anyone who sought to harm them.

Over the course of a long and winding path, this passion only grew, leading me to my role as WWF-US’ manager of pollinator conservation. Although, admittedly, a reputation as the “bug boy” hasn’t always been easy—at least socially. As I’ve sought insight into the origins of my own fascination with these animals, I’ve spent a great deal of time researching fellow entomophiles. What drives us toward the species that so many are repelled by?

Through my research, what I’ve discovered is a treasure trove of brilliant individuals who made great contributions to growing our understanding and compassion for these remarkable creatures. However, it’s no secret that the field of entomology is mostly populated by white men like me. That is, at least at the institutional level. There are many passionate individuals who were not accepted into the fold because of their gender, race, and social class. Fortunately, in many cases, these unjust societal pressures were not enough to subdue their love of the “smaller majority.”

These “unsung heroes” of entomology include four brilliant women who have not only had an influence on my education and worldview but on the scientific community at large. For those who don’t already know these changemakers, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Maria Sibylla Merian, Edith M. Patch, Margaret S. Collins, and Rachel Carson. They were not only pioneers in their fields but also some of the first people to sound the alarm that insect species, which are so vital to sustaining life on our planet, are being wiped out due to our reliance on dangerous pesticides. I believe that it wasn’t despite, but because of their perspectives as women, that allowed them to penetrate the drive to use entomology to control and subdue nature. Centuries and decades later, as we consider our continued attachment to harmful pesticides, their work holds as much, if not even more relevance than it did during their lifetimes.

Read at the World Wildlife Foundation