As a caricature, the entomologist is often portrayed as a wispy, bespectacled man wearing tropical shorts and pith helmet chasing exotic butterflies with a long-handled net.
Sure, some of them do things like that. But many others perform painstaking work that non-entomologists would see as sheer drudgery--the meticulous slow work of scientists.
"They save us a lot of grief," says Henry Becker III, an information specialist in the Agriculture Department's main science agency, the Agricultural Research Service. "They certainly make life easier for us by studying these insects, the good ones as well as the bad ones."
Becker, in a recent telephone interview from his Beltsville, Md., office, is one of those attending a two-day conference in Washington on Tuesday and Wednesday that will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Entomological Society of America.
Entomologists are intense about their experiments, he said. For example, when they observe a parasite lay eggs in a destructive beetle, for example, "it's like they're watching their kids do a virtuoso concert . . . they really get excited."
But some entomological research "is so plodding, such as categorizing and cataloguing insects," Becker said. "But, yet, they're very, very interested in what they're doing."
Today's society dates from the founding in 1889 of the American Assn. of Economic Entomologists, and the 1906 beginning of the Entomological Society of America. The two were merged, adopting the latter's name, in 1953.
The society, a nonprofit educational group, says it is the largest international association of entomologists, with more than 8,700 members.
Becker, who claims his only experience with entomology is "swatting flies and spraying cockroaches," said the society hopes for an attendance of around 350 at its centennial symposium this week. Some members from Britain, Canada and Australia are expected to attend the sessions held at the Smithsonian Institution.
Julius J. Menn, associate deputy area director for the Plant Sciences Institute at USDA's research center in Beltsville, said the symposium is unique in that it is directed at an intended audience of "decision makers who are not familiar with entomology."
Menn said the sessions will be geared to legislators, federal and state officials, industrial representatives, news media and other non-entomological persons.
Allen L. Steinhauer, head of the University of Maryland's Department of Entomology, College Park, said more than 15 authorities "on all aspects of insect-related research worldwide" are on the program.
A few of the program highlights provided by the society, which calls itself ESA, illustrate what Steinhauer meant:
In the first session, Carroll M. Williams of Harvard University will talk about "unraveling the secrets of insect life." Williams is a pioneer researcher of insect development biology.
"He developed several novel techniques for performing surgery on insects," the society said. "One, which uses carbon dioxide anesthesia, was adopted the world over."
Thomas Eisner, Cornell University, is the world's leading authority on insect defenses and communication. His topic is the insect as a chemist, describing the ingenious ways insects use odors, poisons, plants and disguises to repel or injure a predator.
"Societies: Insect and Human" is the topic of Edward O. Wilson, Harvard University, who is called the father of modern sociobiology and is an expert on ants. He says biological laws are the basis of social behavior among ants and humans. Wilson won a Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1979 for "On Human Nature," about the influence of genetically determined patterns of human behavior.
Other sessions will include talks on entomology in the developing world, insects in agriculture, the impacts of insects on public health, applying biotechnology to entomology, and policies for the future.
Looking ahead, Donald L. Mclean of the University of Vermont will describe entomology in the 21st Century. He is an expert on the relationship between several insects and the diseases they cause on many important crops.