The International Congress of Entomology: 112 Years and Counting
By James Ridsdill-Smith, Ph.D., Phyllis G. Weintraub, Ph.D., Max J. Whitten, Ph.D., and May R. Berenbaum, Ph.D.
Editor’s note: With the approach of the XXVI International Congress of Entomology,July 17-22, in Helsinki, Finland, the Entomological Society of America’s Thomas Say Publications in Entomology series has published An Important and Victorious Science: The International Congresses of Entomology. Below is an excerpt from the new book.
In 1908, two years before the first International Congress of Entomology would take place in Brussels, Belgium, Henry T. Fernald, head of the Department of Entomology at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, published an essay in the journal Popular Science Monthly to mark 75 years of economic entomology in America (Fernald 1908). Titled “The Future of Economic Entomology,” the essay set out to review past accomplishments of the field and to “consider its future possibilities.”
Today, “future possibilities” are called “grand challenges,” and most of those Fernald identified 112 years ago sound eerily familiar. He noted that “the development of speedy commerce has enabled many of the most serious pests of foreign lands to … establish themselves here … developing destructive powers greater than in their native land.” He also pointed out that
Agriculture is becoming more intensive, larger areas are being tilled, furnishing a more abundant and easily discovered food supply, and, in spite of a healthy growth of interest in preserving our insectivorous birds, it is questionable if the developments connected with an increasing density of population will permit their preservation in any great numbers for more than another century.
The language may be a little more florid, but today’s challenges of invasive species, agricultural intensification, and loss of biodiversity are clearly recognizable. The path to success in meeting these challenges recommended by Fernald also sounds familiar:
… the entomologist who would be successful must soon study more fundamental problems rather than questions of petty detail, for if the fundamental principles are once correctly enunciated the details will then become merely individual examples and can be quickly and easily solved.
Fernald embodied this duality in his own career; but, in June 1910, his job as state inspector sent him to Boston to attend “a meeting of Massachusetts Nurserymen” rather than to Brussels two months later to attend the first International Congress of Entomology (Britton 1910). ICE was founded in 1910 in part out of a need to break away from the “pure” basic biological sciences to embrace the mission of applied insect science. Although a taxonomist himself, who mobilized his extensive network of fellow taxonomists to help launch the first ICE, Karl Jordan included among the justifications for a dedicated entomological congress “the fact that there are too few scientific entomologists [in Europe] to deal with those insects that have immediate importance for economy and medicine” (Jordan and Eltringham 1912).
In 1912, at the second ICE (or “II ICE” following the ICE naming convention using Roman numerals) in Oxford, American economic entomologist Leland O. Howard convened the opening session of “Economic and Pathological” by remarking that
… when he entered the room, he was surprised to find nearly every seat was taken, whereas in a strictly Entomological congress he would have supposed that the other Sections would have been more attractive. This indicated to him very strongly the rapidly growing interest in Economic Entomology, and the further fact that the excellent work done by the economic workers in the past few years had appealed even to those engaged in pure science. (Jordan and Eltringham 1912)
The first speaker in the session was Sir Daniel Morris, addressing entomological problems in the West Indies—root borer on sugar cane, red maggots, flower bud maggots, and leaf blister mite on cotton—as well as control of certain insects with their natural enemies.
As ICE is one-fifth of the way through the 21st century, Fernald’s advice and Jordan’s vision still ring true; as in the previous century, basic and economic entomologists must partner to make it through the 21st century. Fernald had no idea how many new challenges entomologists would face in the 20th century. He had no way of knowing, for example, that six years after he published his essay, the first case of insecticide resistance would be documented (Melander 1914).
In 1908, the word “gene” had not been coined; Wilhelm Johannsen proposed the word in 1909 to describe the unit of inheritance responsible for the recently rediscovered Mendelian laws of heredity. Mendelian inheritance was discussed at the 1912 Oxford congress, but the term “factor,” the precursor of the term gene, was used to describe segregation. Although genetics as a pure biological discipline flourished over subsequent decades, it did not feature prominently at ICE in an applied context until the 1972 congress in Canberra (Chapter 6).
There is little doubt that applied genetics would have featured in earlier congresses of entomology and genetics had the pioneering work of Russian geneticists, including Alexander Serebrovsky and Boris Astaurov, not been suppressed by the machinations of Trofim Lysenko and his acolytes between 1935 and 1965 (Whitten 1985). Early acknowledgment of their innovative research took the form of the appointment of Astaurov as vice president of the 1968 ICE in Moscow following his rehabilitation in 1964 (Chapters 5 and 18). Insect-resistant biotech crops would not appear in agricultural fields for another 90 years, and genetically modified mosquitoes would not be developed for malaria control until after the turn of the 21st century (as Anthony James recounted in 2016 in his opening-day presentation at XXV ICE in Orlando, Florida).
Fernald and his contemporaries can be forgiven for not anticipating the massive transformations that biological science in general and insect science in particular would undergo, but, as entomologists, we are fortunate that our disciplinary forebears were sufficiently insightful to create a format and structure for the ICE that was flexible enough to accommodate these transformations. From the outset, the ICE has provided a forum for advancing the frontiers of entomological research, providing practical solutions to insect-mediated problems in health and food security, inventorying and protecting Earth’s six-legged biodiversity, and, more recently, developing insects as model organisms for investigating basic biological systems and as sources of inspiration for novel structures, materials, and devices. Moreover, ICE has provided a stage for facilitating collaboration, resolving differences, and promoting camaraderie in a scientific community that over the decades has become substantially larger, more broadly dispersed, and more diverse, reflecting the rise of the “global village.”
Over time, the congresses have reflected the demographic changes in the discipline. Between 1910, with 254 delegates from 24 countries in attendance, and 2016, with more than 6,600 delegates from 101 countries in attendance (Table E.1), the congresses have been held in 20 countries. Over the years, language, cultural, and political barriers have been overcome as they have arisen, allowing the entomologists of the world to gain an appreciation for how the challenges and opportunities for insect science vary from place to place, to form connections, professional and personal and to function as a global community of scholars and practitioners.
|Year||Number of congress||City||Number of delegates||Number of countries|
|2008||XXIII||Durban, South Africa||2,039||93|
As attitudes and demographics have changed, delegate demographics have changed, with increasingly prominent participation on the part of formerly under-represented groups, including women, students, and early-career professionals. Participation has been broadened further with technology, from Karl Jordan’s tape-recorded address to delegates in Montreal in 1956 to online “virtual posters,” prerecorded video, and real-time remote presentations in Orlando in 2016, for a truly global reach.
For the past half-century, convening in different places every four years or so has had the benefit of enabling host organizations to reach out to their local communities to increase understanding of the importance of insects to human and environmental health. This local engagement has taken many forms, ranging from press coverage by local media to insect-themed displays in public buildings (a bakery down the street from the 1984 Hamburg venue featured marzipan coccinellids in their window for the duration of the congress), to commemorative postage stamps, to sessions for the public. In South Korea, the local hosts organized a five-week Insect Bio-Expo that was visited by busloads of local enthusiasts; and, at XXV ICE in Orlando, more than 2,700 primary school children came to enjoy insect-based activities in the middle of the congress.
Convening ICE in different countries has made it possible to engage and inform a special subset of the nonscientific public—the local and national political leadership of the host countries. Since its beginning, ICE has embraced the opportunity to share insect science with leaders and legislators who set government policies and fund scientific research and whose support is critical for maintaining healthy entomological enterprises around the world. With the weight of the international entomological community behind it, ICE may provide the best opportunity to bring the case for evidence-based science in policy decision-making directly to decision-makers.
Many segments of the public are skeptical of the scientific enterprise and embrace fringe theories, pseudoscience, and long-disproved beliefs. The United States had the dubious honor of hosting the 2018 Flat Earth International Conference in Denver, Colorado, which was attended by more than 600 “flat Earthers” from around (or maybe on top of) the world. Entomologists have a stake in ensuring that peer-reviewed, legitimate entomological research continues to be available to inform efforts to meet the world’s entomological grand challenges. This is an incentive for a host country to take on the work of organizing an international congress, for a chance to obtain national status, and for ICE to continue to facilitate the development of entomological expertise and skills as widely as possible.
As the planet inexorably warms in response to anthropogenic atmospheric inputs, the need for global engagement has taken on new urgency. Insects from the tropics have spread into temperate zones with devastating effects on crops and on biodiversity. To manage these invasive species and loss of biodiversity will require dialogue between the entomologists in the species’ countries of origin and those from the invaded countries. Future congresses could facilitate this dialogue by working out the logistics and incentives to enable sharing of this information.
Organizing an international meeting attended by large numbers of scientists is not a task for the faint of heart. Congresses have faced risks arising from natural disasters, cultural differences, and political crises. Differences among countries arising from post-war tensions, human rights policies, and visa disputes have created complications and generated inordinate stress for organizers, as have, most recently, potential natural disasters, including possible hurricanes in Orlando and the coronavirus pandemic that has delayed the Helsinki ICE.
That the Council has continued to manage risks and that entomological societies around the world continue to bid for the privilege of hosting the congresses suggest that the ICE is worth the effort. The insect challenges are still with us; and, as we work to address them, their scope continues to expand. In 1889 in his presidential address for the Entomological Society of London, Karl Jordan’s fellow lepidopterist Thomas de Grey Walsingham pegged the number of insect species as between 500,000 and 1 million (but possibly reaching as many as 2 million) (Berenbaum 2008). The latest assessment of insect biodiversity has determined that there are likely 5.5 million species of insects, of which approximately 1 million are named (Stork 2018). ICE continues to thrive not despite the challenges of understanding the insect world but because of those challengesand because entomologists see that the best hope of addressing the entomological grand challenges, old and new, is to share their knowledge and their passion with each other and work together to advance their science.
Thomas Say Publications
James Ridsdill-Smith, Ph.D., CSIRO Health and Biosecurity and School of Biological Sciences, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia. Email: James.Ridsdill-Smith@csiro.au. Phyllis G. Weintraub, Ph.D., Agricultural Research Organization, Gilat Research Center, Israel. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Max J. Whitten, Ph.D., School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. Email: email@example.com. May R. Berenbaum, Ph.D., Department of Entomology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL, USA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Berenbaum, M. 2008. Insect biodiversity: millions and millions, pp. 576–582. In R. Foottit and P. Adler (eds.), Insect biodiversity: science and society, Blackwell Publishing, West Sussex, UK.
Britton, W. E. 1910. Current notes. J. Econ. Entomol. 3: 443.
Fernald, H. T. 1908. The future of economic entomology. Pop. Sci. Mon. 72: 174–185.
Jordan, K., and H. Eltringham. 1912. Proceedings of the Second International Congress of Entomology, Volume 1. Proceedings. Hazell, Watson & Viney, London.
Melander, A. L. 1914. Can insects become resistant to sprays? J. Econ. Entomol. 7: 167–173.
Stork, N. E. 2018. How many species of insects and other terrestrial arthropods are there on earth? Annu. Rev. Entomol. 63: 31–45.
Whitten, M. J. 1985. The conceptual basis for genetic control, pp. 465–528. In G. A. Kerkut and L. I. Gilbert (eds.). Comprehensive insect physiology, biochemistry and pharmacology. Pergamon Press, Oxford, UK.