It’s Women’s History Month, so let’s celebrate some girls and women who have made significant contributions to our understanding of insects, shall we?
Recently a friend sent me an article about Sophia Spencer, a young Canadian girl who loves bugs. From the time she was a toddler, she’d already developed a fascination for all kinds of insects. As she shared her interest in kindergarten, the other kids seemed just as curious. But when she got to first grade things changed. She proudly brought a grasshopper to school and the other kids flicked it off her shoulder and killed it in front of her, in an act of wanton cruelty. Persistent bullying about her passion almost led her to give it up.
Until her mother rallied the entomologists of the world to support her, that is. Luckily for all of us, her passion was reignited and she’s now the author of a beautiful children’s book, The Bug Girl. And in 2017 she co-authored an article about her story in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America. The full article is available here. By the way, the hashtag I used in the title of this article, #BugsR4Girls, was used by entomologist Morgan Jackson to encourage support of Sophia on Twitter. Thanks to him for helping the world to support her.
Her story makes me want to stand up and cheer — way to go, Sophia!
Here’s an interview with her in 2020 when she was 11 years old:
I’ve just started reading the new book by Oliver Milman, The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires that Run the World. Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, told Milman that it’s common for small children to be fascinated by insects but their attitudes change by the time they get to middle school. Black says, “Many actively fear, dislike or are disgusted by insects. I believe this is something that is taught by parents, peers and even teachers.” I absolutely agree. We adults need to set a better example for kids in this regard.
And let’s not forget the role of Hollywood and the other media outlets in shaping our fears about arthropods. We’ve all seen movies where the monsters are giant insects, right? And this harmful practice continues in our culture today. Look at this recent article about spiders that appeared on a major US news channel’s website. I don’t consider it news, I consider it clickbait, pure and simple. (This is a screenshot that I altered with red and blue text.)
That’s so annoying!
But remembering that we’re here to celebrate women who study insects, let’s talk about another one. I just learned about Evelyn Cheesman, an English woman born in 1881 who became curator of the London Zoo’s insect house, bringing new life back to that exhibit. At a time when women were expected to stay home and take care of children, she traveled the world studying insects. Ms. Cheesman collected over 70,000 specimens of plants and arthropods.
Whether liaising with cannibals or escaping giant spider webs, Cheesman took the challenges of perilous fieldwork – and patriarchal views – in her stride.(From the article linked below.)
You can read more about her fascinating contributions to entomology in this article by the British Natural History Museum. And this beautiful book about Evelyn Cheesman is a wonderful way to introduce young girls to her story. I purchased both of these children’s books this week so I could add them to my own library for inspiration, and maybe I can pass them along to a curious young girl soon.
For several years I’ve been following the BugChicks, entomologists Kristie Reddick and Jessica Honaker, who help inspire interest in insects among people young and not-so-young. Several years ago I bought a “BugDork” sticker from them and I proudly display it on the bumper of my car (alongside my “Odes” license plate). On their website they explain why they chose to use “bug” instead of “arthropod,” and why they’re okay with using the sometimes-derogatory “chicks.” Worth a read on their “About” page if you’re curious.
Their tireless support of teachers and students is impressive, and I highly recommend following them on their various social media (which you can find on their website, thebugchicks.com). Here’s a screenshot from one of their course descriptions (click to see it bigger):
I could go on and on, but let’s just do one more. Maria Merian (1647-1717) was a German woman who was one of the first people to study insects. She did field studies of insect metamorphosis, documenting and illustrating the life cycles of 186 insect species.
Her illustrations of plants and insects are beautiful and realistic. Just look at how she included the larval feeding holes on the leaves in this depiction of the life cycle of the white witch moth. I think these are fantastic! Read more about Maria Merian here.
I sure wish I’d discovered my own love of insects decades ago, and I’m so inspired by the stories of women and girls who are making such important contributions during this time when there are steep declines in insect populations worldwide. We need their research. We need their enthusiasm. We need their ability to get more people to pay attention to the role of these essential animals in the food web.
Earlier I mentioned my disdain for sensationalism about insects as monsters; you may think some people are being sensationalistic about the insect declines too. It seems there’s another headline about the “insect apocalypse” every day. I don’t know if those types of headlines make people tune out, but I do think that we need a bigger sense of urgency about the rapid disappearance of so many essential insect species. If we can’t revamp the general public’s feelings toward insects, there’s not much hope of getting everyone on board to save them. That’s why I gravitate toward people who are are also members of “Team Insect,” using humor and enthusiasm to share their love of insects with anyone who will listen.
I hope to follow this up with another article with suggestions of things you can do to help insects. But in the meantime, one thing you can do right now is to open your mind to the reality that insects are the basis of our own life support system and should be respected rather than feared. And grow some native plants — even a few plants is better than nothing!
It’s Women’s History Month, and I wrote this to celebrate the women and girls, past and present, who have contributed to the world’s knowledge of insects. Thanks for reading!
Thank you, Kim! Another wonderful post. I just put a few of these books on hold at the library — can’t wait to read them. Always learning from you! Cindy 🙂
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Thanks, Cindy! I waved in your direction as I drove around the edges of Chicago this week, LOL. Story to come in my next post!
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As a member of Team Insect, nice post. I’m going to take it as a challenge too to write more insect themed essays myself.
That’s awesome, Bob, I look forward to reading those!
Good article and you always teach us something!
That’s my hope — thanks!
Maria Merian clearly had a lot of talent as a scientist and an artist. The drawing of hers that you include is excellent.
Hi Neil. Yeah, her illustrations are really lovely!
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Good post Kim! I’m not quite as enthusiastic as you when they are in real life but I do enjoy reading about them and seeing photos. I think we could also add Pulitzer prize winner, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard to the mix. I’m reading it now and have just finished a section about her early interest in moths and other insects like mantises, very touching. I have a small collection of children’s books that I find inspiring too, and I have no children with which to share them, but maybe someday. xx
Thanks, Ardys. I’ve not read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, so I’ll put it on my list right now. And as for the children’s books, I have a few young adult titles in my library, but these are my first of the large illustrated chidren’s books, and they really are gorgeous. The artwork is amazing in both of them. I do want to pass them along to a young girl, but I’m not sure I want to let them go for quite a while…just lovely.
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BugDork! Love it!
Wonderful article, Kim. Like you, I wish I’d come to learn about and appreciate bugs more as a youngster, but it’s never too late, I say. I’m determined to create a bee- and bug-attracting wildlife garden at my new home in Vermont, just as I did in Idaho, so I can watch them up close. Taking snow-motion videos of bumblebees brings me such joy!
This is my first spring here. I’m excited to see all of the flora and fauna that return once the snow melts, although I admit, I’m not looking forward to “black fly season.”
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It’s so exciting to have a new property full of undiscovered insect joys, isn’t it? Can’t wait to see what you find. Thanks for reading!