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What is a “Good Entomologist?”

September 13, 2016

Recently there was an article in ESA’s Entomology Today about the habits of a successful entomologist (Ten Habits of Highly Successful Entomologists).  I’ve actually sort of pondered this question before.  It never fails that whenever I am talking with colleagues and other bug folk of entomological origin, we usually start reminiscing or catching up on the latest news regarding mutual acquaintances.  When this happens there is always someone that is referred to as being a “good entomologist.”  For example, it goes something like…”Hey did you hear about Julie? Yeah, she got David’s old job at the State Department of Ag. Yeah, she’s a good entomologist.”  Or maybe something like…”Wow, did you hear about Randy? He got lost doing field work and had to eat his fly bait for a few days.  He’s a little crazy, but he’s an awesome entomologist.”  What does that really mean? Why do some entos frequently get those props and others not so much?  (full disclosure – I am in the latter category).

Getting back to the Ten Habits article, I have to say I was a little disappointed.  I mean, it was a good story and I agree with all ten of those habits, but they apply to pretty much any profession.  If you do those things you’re going to be the bomb at whatever you’ve chosen to do.  Meditation, exercise, relationships, organization, etc., yes, all those things are great, but what specifically makes your peers consider you to be a good entomologist?  Not even necessarily your peers but what prompts the layperson to heap entomological praise on you?

For me I think it is really simple.  A good entomologist is someone who, when called upon at any time and in any circumstance, can identity an insect relying solely on the knowledge accumulated in their brain.  We all know these people, those who can quickly give the species name of any fly, beetle, or bug that is presented to them.  But really it isn’t only about the ID, the good entomologist spouts off the biology of the bug in question, and the really great ones will continue to talk for another 30 minutes about it, and then want to know where the specimen was found so they can go collect a series.

Mediocre entomologists like me can usually pass for good entomologists with those who don’t know better.  You just have to cite the family name or even the order (anything sounding important) and give a few basic facts and you’re usually good.  Pretty soon, as word gets around, and you keep answering people’s questions about insects, you then get a moniker like buggirl or bugman (I guess it is sexist, but bugwoman and bugboy are more rare).  That is all fine and good (and no offense to all the “bug-people” out there – heck, I had to give myself the nickname “entophile”),  but it is the walking, talking catalogs of insect knowledge that I label “good entomologists.”  If they are lacking certain social skills they can sometimes be a little annoying, but that usually doesn’t lessen the respect they garner. By default these are usually folks that do a lot of taxonomy, people that work in museums and work with collections, or that do a lot of field work.  Most of the good entomologists I know are older, but there are some young ones too.  I love being around good entomologists because I have great admiration for the vast information stored in their heads, and I secretly hope their smarts will rub off on me (and I just find them to be cool in an unconventional way).

No doubt there are entomology icons that don’t necessarily fit in this category and that have achieved amazing accomplishments. I am not taking anything away from them.  I simply think a good entomologist is someone who can whip out an impromptu identification of an obscure weevil or moth and tell you something interesting about it like it’s no big deal. BAM!  Drop the mic (or butterfly net) – now that’s a good entomologist.

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