Celebrating the women trailblazers of entomology

How four brilliant women shaped the study of insects and awakened us to the impacts of harmful pesticides

Photo illustration of plants and four women leaders in entomology
Colorful engraving of flowers and insects

Engraving by Maria Sibylla Merian

Since childhood, insects have been my obsession. I delight in their beauty, amazing behavior, complex life histories, and the key roles they play in nearly every ecosystem on Earth. As a child (and let’s be honest, as an adult too), each log or rock concealed endless six- or eight-legged treasures, which fed my imagination and watered the seeds of curiosity within me. And while I was generally shy as a young person, when it came to insects, I was an emboldened protector, willing to defend them against anyone who sought to harm them.

Over the course of a long and winding path, this passion only grew, leading me to my role as WWF-US’ manager of pollinator conservation. Although, admittedly, a reputation as the “bug boy” hasn’t always been easy—at least socially. As I’ve sought insight into the origins of my own fascination with these animals, I’ve spent a great deal of time researching fellow entomophiles. What drives us toward the species that so many are repelled by?

Through my research, what I’ve discovered is a treasure trove of brilliant individuals who made great contributions to growing our understanding and compassion for these remarkable creatures. However, it’s no secret that the field of entomology is mostly populated by white men like me. That is, at least at the institutional level. There are many passionate individuals who were not accepted into the fold because of their gender, race, and social class. Fortunately, in many cases, these unjust societal pressures were not enough to subdue their love of the “smaller majority.”

These “unsung heroes” of entomology include four brilliant women who have not only had an influence on my education and worldview but on the scientific community at large. For those who don’t already know these changemakers, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Maria Sibylla Merian, Edith M. Patch, Margaret S. Collins, and Rachel Carson. They were not only pioneers in their fields but also some of the first people to sound the alarm that insect species, which are so vital to sustaining life on our planet, are being wiped out due to our reliance on dangerous pesticides. I believe that it wasn’t despite, but because of their perspectives as women, that allowed them to penetrate the drive to use entomology to control and subdue nature. Centuries and decades later, as we consider our continued attachment to harmful pesticides, their work holds as much, if not even more relevance than it did during their lifetimes.

The Traveler: Maria Sibylla Merian

Painting of Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian was born in 1647 in Frankfurt, Germany. After her father passed away when she was young, her mother married painter Jacob Marrel. Marrel is thought to have had a tremendous influence on Merian’s artistic practice. The young artist’s interests soon blossomed into a remarkable talent for accurately illustrating the natural world from living insects and plants, unlike many of her male contemporaries who worked primarily from preserved specimens. Like most women of her time, in her early years, Merian was not permitted to travel for research, so she instead focused her artistic practice on silkworms and other insects in her backyard. During this time, she was fascinated with the process of metamorphosis, collecting, and raising many species of caterpillars to adulthood, which she illustrated in brilliant colors and compositions. She also became one of the first scientific illustrators to represent species ecology by including an insect’s food plants in her drawings.

Despite societal barriers, Merian’s dogged pursuit of passion led to a professional career as a scientific illustrator. Her achievements didn’t stop there though: In 1699, thanks to a grant from the City of Amsterdam, she became not only one of the first women to travel to the American tropics for scientific research but one of the first naturalists to do so, period. She and her daughter spent months in Suriname studying and illustrating butterflies, moths, and other insects, until Merian was forced to return home after she contracted malaria. This work resulted in her brilliantly illustrated book, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. In 1991, the illustrator was featured beautifully on a German Deutsch Mark as an acknowledgment of her contributions to science.

The Trailblazer: Dr. Edith M. Patch

Portrait of Edith Patch in black and white

Dr. Edith M. Patch

Born in 1876, Dr. Edith M. Patch was a groundbreaking woman of science, who earned her PhD in entomology from Cornell University in 1911. Over her career, she was the author of various important papers, and despite living during a time when there were very few professional female scientists, she developed the University of Maine’s Department of Entomology in 1903, ultimately becoming the program’s department chair. In 1930, Patch was elected as the first woman president of the Entomological Society of America. Despite these amazing accomplishments, it was her early advocacy for the care of insects for the benefit of all, and the threat posed by pesticides to insect communities, that has had the greatest influence on my work.

In her essay “Without the Benefit of Insects” (1938) Patch wrote, “No one disputes, that ‘in the large economy of nature, insects are beneficial.’ We take their help for granted. Why not? Their gracious bounty has never failed mankind. We have abundant food, in the form of fruit and vegetables, as an incidental result of the pollen-activities of insects…Are these and many other blessings bestowed by the grace of hexapods assured to mankind forever and ever, Amen? However, “IF the time ever comes when insects are fought to the extent recommended by economic entomologists there will be in consequence the greatest of economic disasters due to the scarcity of insects."

Fast forward to 2024, and we are seeing those fears coming home to roost, with scientists raising an alarm that the insect apocalypse is upon us.

Edith Patch and other staff of the Maine Agricultural Experiment Station, 1914–1915

The Termite Lady: Dr. Margaret S. Collins

Margaret S. Collins stands in front of a microscope in a black and white photo

Dr. Margaret S. Collins

Dr. Margaret S. Collins was the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in entomology and a champion of civil rights during the Jim Crow era. Growing up in the home of an agriculture professor, Collins’s brilliance was evident from an early age, and she was permitted to HBCU West Virginia State College’s biology program at the age of 14. After receiving her master's, she enrolled in the University of Chicago’s zoology program, where she fell in love with termites. Although she was not allowed to participate in fieldwork, she poured over specimen collections to complete her dissertation in 1950.

After putting her life on the line during the Civil Rights Movement, she went on to participate in many field expeditions as a research associate for the Smithsonian Institute, discovering new species of termites, and informing the Guyanese military how to use termite excretions—substances that termites produce to adhere wood and other natural materials together to form their nests—to strengthen building materials. The insect specimens she collected are still held in a collection that bears her name at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Other notable achievements include her tenure as president of the Entomological Society of Washington and a 1979 symposium for the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Question of Human Equality.

The Triumphant: Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson photographed in black and white and smiling at the camera

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring drew national attention to the harmful impacts of DDT and other pesticides on birds, insects, and human health. This awareness led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and the Endangered Species Act. Although Carson is now a household name, the author received a litany of personal attacks after Silent Spring was published, including rumors that she was the leader of a mystical society, and slanders like those from an official with the Federal Pest Control Review Board who quipped, “I thought [Carson] was a spinster. What’s she so worried about genetics for?”

Carson had been concerned about the impacts of pesticides for over a decade and made attempts to encourage several well-known, male writers to take up the cause. However, after a breast cancer diagnosis, she pressed forward, and in 1960 began writing a book, despite the pain that her cancer caused her. She kept her illness secret though, to avoid any public scrutiny of her motivation for drafting the book. Prior to John F. Kennedy’s election, Carson joined the Natural Resources Committee of the Democratic Advisory Council, helping to write a report on pollution control, which the young candidate read with great interest. After the election, upon Jaqueline Kennedy’s invitation, Carson joined the Women’s Committee for New Frontiers, which helped to amplify her message on the terrible harm pesticides were causing. After the book’s release, The New Yorker serialized the publication, bringing it to the attention of a wide and influential audience. Although Carson didn’t live to see the full impacts of her work, her legacy continues to impact how Americans view and care for the nation’s wildlife species—including insects—perhaps more than any other modern scientist.