Forensic Entomology: How Bugs Solve the Crime

forensic entomologyIf you have ever seen an episode of CSI you are probably already familiar with the term “Forensic Entomology”.  The main character, Grissom is an entomologist, and he uses his knowledge of insects to aid in solving crimes.  His job is not one that only exists in the realm of hour-long TV dramas, though. It is a very real, and very important aspect of criminal investigations.

This topic is not for the faint of heart.  It involves insects, human remains, and how the two of them can lead to solving murders or crimes involving accidental deaths.  While the rest of the world recoils at the sight of bugs, a forensic entomologist gets up close and personal. They are highly specialized scientists who can use insects pinpoint aspects of a murder investigation such as time of death, whether a body has been moved from another area, and certain telltale signs of an attempted cover up.  Read on to discover why they are such an important part of the criminal justice system.

What Exactly Does a Forensic Entomologist Do?

In any crime scene involving human remains, there are typically insects present on the body, and in the immediate area.  Unpleasant as that may seem, it is a natural biological process, and one that can actually be very helpful in solving crimes.  A decomposing body goes through several stages beginning with a freshly dead corpse, and ending with a skeleton.  Micro-organisms play a role in the decomposition of a body, but so do bugs.  Certain bugs will be attracted to a body at different stages of decomposition.  In fact, the change in insects present happens so predictably, specialists like forensic entomologists can tell a lot by examining the insects at the crime scene.

Time of death is typically the most important thing discerned by studying insects.  This evidence can be applied to other aspects of the investigation, such as who was seen in the area, and at what time.  By narrowing the time of death, investigators can have a much more solid basis on which to build their case.  Forensic Entomologists can also discern certain aspects of the crime such as whether a body has been present in a certain area for a long time, or if it is likely to have been moved from somewhere else.  The insects present might not be local, and can therefore be a sign that the body was placed in a different location, before it was discovered at the scene.

Are There Any Famous Cases Where Forensic Entomology Played a Major Role?

There are a few which made big headlines.  For instance, the case of “The Ken and Barbie” murders in 1991.  The Canadian press reported that a forensic entomologist helped narrow a possible time of death window of 15 days down to four.  This was critical evidence, and helped in convicting the two perpetrators who were responsible for the murder of two teens.

There was also the case of Kevin Neal who was tried and convicted of killing his two children.  In this case, entomologists were able to pinpoint not only the time of death, by using not only bugs that were present on the scene, but also bugs that were not.  A certain species of fly being absent from the scene led investigators to believe that the crime took place in the winter.  This information helped prosecutors ultimately win their case.

Is Forensic Entomology Used Only in Murder Cases?

Actually no.  Any time remains are discovered, there is reason to consult an entomologist.  Sometimes, the death was accidental, and even in those cases, the insects will tell the same tale.  In fact, sometimes when bodies are discovered in a state too far gone to collect any meaningful evidence, the insects may be the only source of vital clues.  For instance, if a victim died as a result of drug use, maggots in the area would test positive for drugs if they have been feeding on the body.

In some extreme cases of abuse or neglect, insects can colonize a living person.  It is an upsetting and infuriating thought, but the people most at risk for these circumstances are the elderly, and children.  Untreated wounds like bed sores, or infected cuts can attract maggots and flies.  In these cases, an entomologist would be able to present evidence of very neglectful conditions, and also offer information as to how long it has been going on.

Also, insects can often be used to place a suspect at the scene of  a crime.  Even in cases of assault, rape, or other violent crimes, if they were committed in a certain area with a known insect population, finding those insects on the clothes or skin of the suspect can tie them to that location.  If a suspect is found in a suburban neighborhood, but has insects on his clothes found only in the mountains where the crime was committed, that can be very compelling evidence suggesting that the suspect was there.

How Much Training Do I Need to Become a Forensic Entomologist?

A good place to begin is always in an introductory biology or criminology course to see if you like the subject matter.  Afterwards, it is usually a matter of having a Bachelor’s Degree in a science like Biology.  Afterwards, there are a few options available such as graduate degrees in Entomology.  There are also many certification tracks you could follow, as well as internships with law enforcement agencies.

However you choose to pursue your career, you should know that you will be providing crucial evidence to criminal investigations.  The victims of murder can not identify their attackers, or speak up about what happened and when.  That is why the field of forensics is so important.  These investigators are speaking for the victims, and making sure that their attackers can not harm anyone else.

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