5 Black Entomologists Who Made History
How do we at Bug Bite Thing know so much about how insect bites and stings affect us? Like the rest of the world, we rely on the discoveries, knowledge and experience of entomologists to guide us, alongside our own research.
Entomology is the ancient science and study of insects and their relationship to humans. Thanks to entomologists, our world has a better understanding of how we can safely protect crops growing on farms, how bees play a role in the food chain, how insects factor into the spread of disease, and why ant and mosquito bites itch so much!
While observing Black History Month this February, we’re taking time to celebrate some of the incredible Black entomologists who shaped this history with their contributions while overcoming prejudices at the same time. These scientists made advances in their field all in an effort to keep our environment and communities safe and educated, while pursuing something they loved.
Here is a glimpse into the work of some of the scientists and researchers who made history with their findings to get us where we are today.
Dr. Margaret S. Collins
This pioneer in her field was the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in entomology. Her father was a professor at West Virginia State College, where she became such a scholar on her own time that she was able to enter the school’s undergraduate program at only 14 years old! She continued to study biology and zoology at historically black colleges and universities, and later returned to teach at some of these same institutions.
Dr. Collins became known as “Termite Lady” due to her enthusiasm over this bug and she ultimately co-identified a new species, Neotermes luykxi. During her time as an entomologist, Dr. Collins traveled the world for her research and published 40 scientific articles. That doesn’t mean she did not encounter challenges. Dr. Collins overcame many prejudices, both as a Black individual and as a woman. To help herself and others battling racism, she become involved in the Civil Rights Movement and even paused her professional career for five years to focus on activism. During this time, she served as a volunteer driver for coworkers as part of the Tallahassee Bus Boycott, which made a great impact but also put her at risk of arrest.
Dr. Charles Henry Turner
Entomologist, zoologist, comparative psychologist, behavioral scientist … this man did it all! Believed to be the first Black professional entomologist in North America and the first African-American to publish in the notable journal, Science, he earned advanced degrees in biology and zoology and authored more than 70 papers throughout his lifetime. And he did this all while facing a plethora of challenges, including restrictions on access to labs.
Dr. Turner tested the learning ability of ants and cockroaches, as well as the visual abilities of honeybees, often developing his own apparatuses for deeper research. He was the first to study Pavlovian conditioning in an invertebrate. Because of this, he is best known for his work highlighting that social insects can modify behavior as a result of their experiences.
Even with his intellect and experience, however, Dr. Turner sometimes had difficulties finding a job at his level or earning fair wages, likely due to racism during this era. Like Dr. Collins (though he came before her time), Dr. Turner is known for his lifelong dedication to civil rights and his attempts to overcome racial barriers in American academia. His work and articles in this area overlapped that of his behavioral work in zoology, as his animal research implied the existence of two forms of racism.
The primarily self-taught Sophie Luttlerlough originally sought a job as a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in the 1940s, but was denied, as there were sadly no protections against racial discrimination during that time. Determined to follow her passion, she continued her own personal education and more than a decade later, successfully pursued another job working on a collection of centipedes, millipedes and ticks. She built up such an in-depth expertise that she was dubbed “the one-woman insect bureau” by colleagues.
In addition to focusing on her own learning, she prepared and restored specimens critical to her field, including 300,000 ticks in one year. With this experience, she also discovered 40 type specimens. The mite species, Pygmephorus lutterloughae, was named in her honor. She earned the Exemplary Service Award with her work, and also finally landed her dream job at the Smithsonian later in life. When she retired in 2008 before her passing, she was one of only eight registered Black entomologists.
Dr. Lonnie N. Standifer
Honeybees are a central part of our agricultural system. Bees may be a pain to humans at times – literally! – but they are a major player in many of our ecosystems. Thankfully, Dr. Lonnie Standifer can be credited with much of what we now know about honeybee toxicology.
Earning his Ph.D. from Cornell University, Dr. Standifer studied the information that was used to develop modern insecticides, before moving on to honeybee nutrition and physiology. He used his knowledge to research the dangerous effects of different chemicals on plant pollen and honeybees. He worked with the USDA and led the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Arizona. His invaluable research focused on the timing for removing honeybee colonies from farm fields, as well as the best watering devices to protect them from exposure. His work laid the groundwork for any feeding studies that are currently conducted.
Dr. Alvin Simmons
History doesn’t end with those before our time, so we also want to highlight the excellence of Dr. Alvin Simmons, who is currently making waves in entomology. He grew up on his family’s farm, and we can relate to his inspiration for his roles today. “I found species, diversity, biology, and behavior to be fascinating. Receiving stings from paper wasps was unpleasant, yet it was educational; the stinging events were many,” he wrote in the Memoirs of Black Entomologists. This sounds a lot like our Bug Bite Thing founder and mom on a mission, who launched the brand after she and her daughters suffered from the effects of mosquitoes.
In addition to serving as a research entomologist with the U.S. Vegetable Research Laboratory and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Dr. Simmons is the first African-American to serve as president of the Entomoloical Society of America (ESA). Through these organizations, Dr. Simmons has led more than 100 journal articles and is committed to expanding the science of entomology through its people and its technology.
Dr. Simmons is also a leader in creating environmentally friendly solutions for crops. Other accomplishments include the impact of climate change on insects, the first DNA sequence of a whitefly (gardeners unfortunately may know these insects well), and determining a pest-related threat to watermelon plants.
This list is just a sample of the Black scholars and scientists who have added to the rich culture of our nation’s and our world’s bug-related history, which has affected areas of our lives in one way or another.
Want to learn more about other Black leaders and fearless females who impacted our lives today? Check out our recent blog post on Black mompreneurs for more inspiring content!
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