Ever wondered what makes an entomologist tick? What, exactly, drives an entomologist’s fascination in creatures that so many others avoid?
Well, if you’re an entomologist like so many of our readers here at Entomology Today, you could probably readily answer those questions yourself. But for people outside the profession, entomology can be a bit of mystery—despite insects being all around us.
In an effort to demystify the world of entomology, a team at the University of Arizona has produced and just released a 26-minute documentary titled “Insecta: Science That Stings.” The film explores the lives of three entomologists in Arizona and the insects they study.
To learn more about “Insecta,” Entomology Today spoke with UA’s Cara Gibson, Ph.D., Wendy Moore, Ph.D., and Cody Sheehy about their goals for the project and for UA Entomology’s outreach efforts.
Entomology Today: What was the inspiration for this project?
Gibson: I had been directing the Arizona Insect Festival for several years and had witnessed a positive shift in people’s interest and engagement with insects at the event. Managing the festival social media accounts reinforced this repeatedly throughout the year. I was looking for ways to reach past our one-day event and our few social media channels to a much broader audience. Our dean, Shane Burgess, pointed out that we have an Emmy-award winning videographer in Cody Sheehy, and so the time was right!
What do you hope to convey about both insects and the people who study them?
Gibson: Insects have a huge marketing problem—they are one of the last things that everyone loves to hate, right there along with tofu! I’ve spent a lot of time struggling with how to connect people to insects. For the festival I came up with, “Meet Your Tiny Neighbors!” to try to make them seem friendlier and more lovable.
I’m sure that most folks reading this are familiar with the abundance, importance, and beauty of insects, but I really want this conversation to extend beyond just us entomologists, specialists and enthusiasts. I’m hoping that this film and our associated social media campaign will convey the importance of insects and the value of our science to everyone.
Sheehy: As a filmmaker, my goal was to try and make a story that would reach beyond the community of insect enthusiasts. This group is mostly terrified or repulsed by insects and can see little else. The film we made tries to meet them with what they already believe, i.e., that all insects sting and that people who study them must be a bit off. By the end of the film, I hope we have taken them on journey that reveals the beauty and wonder of insects, science, and exploration. If we’ve done our job well, a certain percentage will have developed a small obsession of their own to learn more about a world they didn’t know anything about before.
Moore: My goal was to emphasize the importance of insect collections. Most people are not familiar with the huge diversity of insects, nor are they aware of the small body size of most insects. So, the importance of maintaining collections might not occur to them. While it may be possible for one human brain to recognize all the species of birds, and maybe all the species of bats, it would be unfathomable for any one person to recognize all the insect species—even in only one small corner of the world. Insect collections are the ultimate repository of Earth’s biodiversity. They also are essential for making correct identifications that lead to informed conservation decisions. The ability to accurately identify insects also results in reduction of pesticide use. All these things are important for optimizing human health, agriculture, and our economy.
How does this documentary fit into University of Arizona Entomology’s broader outreach and public education efforts?
Gibson: In addition to the great coursework we offer our students in entomology, it is critical to our mission to deliver our research findings and expertise outside of the university walls. As a land-grant institution, the University of Arizona has a focus on agriculture, and other sciences, throughout its research, teaching, and extension work.
On a more personal note, its clear that the world is changing dramatically in so many ways—our population is growing rapidly as other species vanish at an unprecedented rate. Its vital that every scientist does as much as they can to convey the critical connections we have to our one, shared planet—hopefully beyond just a single day of marching!
What advice would you offer to other entomologists about producing or participating in a documentary?
Gibson: The most fundamental advice I would give was presented repeatedly at Entomology 2017 in Denver this month, at the excellent plenary with science writer Mary Roach and the many workshops and symposia about science communication. As a scientist you can get really focused on your particular questions, but effective communication requires that you recognize that few others share your perspective. We need to truly put ourselves in our audience’s shoes and craft messages that resonate with where people stand. And then, be prepared to work really hard!
Sheehy: I would encourage all scientists, not just entomologists, to welcome opportunities to work with communicators. With the challenges facing us today, this has never been more important. Often, the biggest barrier is that scientists do not seek to be the center of attention and generally try to be dispassionate in their view of the world. These skills are great when doing science, but when partnering with a communicator, the approach needs to be a bit different. I think that the public only listens when they are emotionally invested in the people delivering the message. This means you can’t be too afraid to let your human side shine through, including your weaknesses. It is scary, but that is how people can connect with you and perhaps listen to what you have discovered.
Moore: Public science education is one of the most important things we can do. Participating in a documentary, with people you trust, is a good way to get the word out about what entomologists do on a daily basis, and it helps the public understand why insects and entomology are important. Threading new ideas into the consciousness of day-to-day life is as important and as impactful to human well-being as are the insects themselves—the pollinators, decomposers, and disease vectors in the insect world.