1.1. What is entomology?

Entomology is the study of insects. Entomologists, the people who study insects, observe, collect, rear, and experiment with insects. Research undertaken by entomologists covers the total range of biological disciplines, including evolution, ecology, behavior, anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and genetics. The unifying feature is that the study organisms are insects. Biologists work with insects for many reasons: ease of culturing in a laboratory, rapid population turnover, and availability of many individuals are important factors. The minimal ethical concerns regarding responsible experimental use of insects, as compared with vertebrates, are a significant consideration.

Modern entomological study commenced in the early 18th century when a combination of rediscovery of the classical literature, the spread of rationalism, and availability of ground-glass optics made the study of insects acceptable for the thoughtful privately wealthy. Although people working with insects hold professional positions, many aspects of the study of insects remain suitable for the hobbyist. Charles Darwin’s initial enthusiasm in natural history was as a collector of beetles (as shown in the vignette for this chapter). All his life he continued to study insect evolution and communicate with amateur entomologists throughout the world. Much of our present understanding of worldwide insect diversity derives from studies of non-professionals. Many such contributions come from collectors of attractive insects such as butterflies and beetles, but others with patience and ingenuity continue the tradition of Henri Fabre in observing close-up activities of insects. We can discover much of scientific interest at little expense concerning the natural history of even “well known” insects. The variety of size, structure, and color in insects (see Plates 1.11.3, facing here) is striking, whether depicted in drawing, photography, or film.

A popular misperception is that professional entomologists emphasize killing or at least controlling insects, but in fact entomology includes many positive aspects of insects because their benefits to the environment outweigh their harm.

Chapter 1