Dream Jobs: Entomologist (bug scientist)
Dino Martins is an entomologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. He studies pollinators and how they interact with the environment. Pollinators are animals, objects or forces such as wind that transfer pollen from one plant to another, allowing seeds to develop.
Most of Martins’ work focuses on bees and other insects that are responsible for pollinating plants from almonds to zucchini.
“Insects are the invisible, behind-the-scenes workers that keep the planet going,” Martins says.
Martins grew up in Eldoret, Kenya. Today, Eldoret is one of the fastest-growing cities in Kenya, but Martins says it was a “farming town” when he was growing up. The rural area surrounding Eldoret meant “there were always plenty of bugs,” Martins says.
In fact, “my earliest memories are of insects,” Martins says. His interest may have been sparked by watching the “eruption of color” near local streams as hundreds of brightly colored butterflies ascended after taking a drink.
Martins’ family didn’t have a television, and watching insects became his after-school entertainment. He says praying mantises, ants and butterflies were among the first insects he informally studied. “I tried to catch any insect I could.”
Some of the insects Martins wanted to bring home for study were dangerous, like scorpions, or found on roadkill — animals killed by vehicles on busy roadways. Still, his parents were both naturalists and encouraged his interest in bugs and the outdoors.
In high school, Martins volunteered with the National Museums of Kenya. The organization supports natural science and ecotourism as well as art and culture. Martins volunteered with the entomology department, of course.
After high school, Martins went to the United States and graduated with degrees in anthropology and biology from Indiana University in Bloomington.
“I had total culture shock,” Martins says. “Imagine going from rural Kenya to rural Indiana!”
Martins returned to Kenya and briefly abandoned his work with bugs to pursue what he thought of as “more serious work” in anthropology.
Ultimately, he decided to return to his passion and earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. “In entomology, all the way!”
Most Exciting Part Of Your Work
“Spending the day outside, running around chasing after bugs.”
Most Demanding Part Of Your Work
“A lot of time in the lab.”
How Do You Define Geography?
“How do I define geography? How do bugs define geography?” Martins laughs. “Geography is complexity; it’s everything in the world that allows bugs to be interesting.... The spaces and temperatures, climate and landscape.... Geography is everything that makes a good place for a bug to live.”
Martins uses geography before, during and after his work in the field. Before even going out, he consults maps of the area he’s interested in. He keeps an eye out for any unusual features, such as volcanic hills. These geographic features may create “sky islands,” small habitats with distinct vegetation.
“Geography determines vegetation,” Martins says, “and vegetation determines the pollinators we’re looking for.”
For instance, most desert plants are low-growing, with small flowers close to the ground. Hills and rocky crags, on the other hand, provide more spaces for plants to grow, leading to larger stems and flowers.
In the field, Martins uses geographic tools such as GPS and GIS “all the time.”
“One of the ways we work is that we’ll catch [an insect] and place it in a cool box. We’ll place a harmless colored dot on it, with a number so we can identify the individual. We record the GPS where we tagged it, and then we let it go. As we’re studying the area, we may come across the same insect again, and we record that location.
“Back in the lab, we can generate maps,” Martins continues. Map layers include information about the land cover, such as plant species present, and the number, diversity and species range of pollinators. “The maps help tell us how bees and flowers need each other.”
Martins won’t run out of work anytime soon: “About two-thirds of all flowering plants are pollinated by bees. There are more than 300,000 flowering plants in the world! What’s most important is that we have no idea what [bees or other pollinators] pollinate most of them.”
Martins and other entomologists use geography to help identify new species of insects. It doesn’t always take them where they expect.
“Most insect biodiversity is in tropical rain forests,” Martins says. “Most insects like hot and moist. However, bees like hot and dry. They like dry areas because they store their food, which makes it susceptible to mold in really humid climates. That’s why you get really incredible bee diversity in desert areas like the American Southwest, the Negev Desert, East Africa ...”
When Martins thinks he may have spotted a new species, he often takes out his magnifying glass and looks it in the eye.
“It either has a bee face or a wasp face. Bee faces are kinder. Their faces are rounder, and their antennae sit higher on their heads.”
So You Want To Be An ... Entomologist
“Anyone can be an entomologist! The most important things are passion and patience. It’s a lot of fun, but also a lot of hard work.”
Martins offers an example of the patience required in fieldwork. “Recently, a student and I were looking to document a new bee species. We were sitting close to the ground, in the open desert, 46 degrees Celsius (114 degrees Fahrenheit) .... We waited for eight hours.”
Although Martins encourages families to visit museums and butterfly gardens, he stresses the importance of just looking around.
“No one is ever far from an insect. There’s no excuse to be bored. Insects are all around you.”
Writing Prompt to do on Google Classroom:
Write three paragraphs in response to this prompt: Would you consider a career in this field? Why or why not? Use details from the article and from your personal life to explain your answer.