Insect Humanities

This working group brings together researchers interested in insects. We discuss the future of insect studies in the humanities and social sciences and ask methodological questions about insect research. Many existing insect studies are clustered around specific insect families and the particular interactions they have with humans both negative and positive. We are interested in what methods are promising for understanding insects within an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary context. In addition, we seek to understand knowledge systems regarding insects that lie outside the academic disciplines as traditionally construed.

The group’s core members have different temporal and geographic areas of expertise ranging from the 16th-20th centuries and covering most of the world’s continents. We have a wide range of interests from insects portrayed in art and used as commodities in the early modern period to pesticide use and concerns regarding the Anthropocene and the Plantationocene in the present day. The group is interdisciplinary in nature and we welcome curators, archivists, library professionals, scientists and many others. We intend to discuss: What is the role of insects in humanities? How do insects help us to think about non-human animal studies and multi-species relations? How do insects inspire new topics in the history of science?

Scholars studying the insect humanities represent a small but growing niche within the new turn towards non-human animal studies and multi-species concerns. Insects are a productive lens to study many current and pressing issues in the history of science. We find insects to be entities inspiring both wonder and joy.

The term ‘Insect Humanities’ was first published by Daniel Burton-Rose in 2020: “I term this body of scholarship Insect Humanities: engaging to varying degrees with social sciences such as anthropology and sociology as well as biology (particularly entomology), the primary disciplines involved are the humanistic ones of literary studies, history, philology, and religious studies.”

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Participants at Consortium activities will treat each other with respect and consideration to create a collegial, inclusive, and professional environment that is free from any form of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation.

Participants will avoid any inappropriate actions or statements based on individual characteristics such as age, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, nationality, political affiliation, ability status, educational background, or any other characteristic protected by law. Disruptive or harassing behavior of any kind will not be tolerated. Harassment includes but is not limited to inappropriate or intimidating behavior and language, unwelcome jokes or comments, unwanted touching or attention, offensive images, photography without permission, and stalking.

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Upcoming Meetings

  • Monday, September 23, 2024 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EDT

    Gene Kritsky

  • Monday, October 28, 2024 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EDT

    Tasha Fijke-Epstein

  • Monday, November 25, 2024 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EST

    Caleb Shelburne (Department of the History of Science, Harvard University) will present "Leeches for the ‘Sick Man of Europe’: Science and the Environment in the Ottoman Leech Industry, 1830-1870," followed by a discussion.
    In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, leech-assisted bloodletting soared in popularity, dramatically increasing the demand for medicinal leeches across Western Europe. As wild leech populations in France, Great Britain, and Spain were overfished and depleted by the 1820s, merchants looked further east, particularly to the Ottoman Empire. Although Ottoman leeches had long been collected for local use, the intensification of the international market transformed these practices, leading to new state regulation, expertise, and ways of imagining and engaging the wetlands where leeches lived. This paper brings together environmental history and the history of science to examine the significance of the Ottoman places where leeches were gathered and stored. It shows how these places mattered historically in advertising, regulation, and natural biology, and how they still matter historiographically, to widen our understanding of medical theory and commodity production. I argue that Ottoman subjects’ knowledge and “Turkey” leeches themselves were vital to the industry but often obscured and distrusted further down the supply chain.

  • Monday, December 23, 2024 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EST


  • Monday, January 27, 2025 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EST

    Tuomas Rasalnen

  • Monday, February 24, 2025 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EST

    Leah Mahmut

  • Monday, March 24, 2025 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EDT

    Luisa Reis Castro

  • Monday, April 28, 2025 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EDT

    Erica Fischer

  • Monday, May 26, 2025 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EDT


Past Meetings

  • June 24, 2024

    *************Rescheduled for November meeting*************
    Caleb Shelburne (Department of the History of Science, Harvard University) will present "Leeches for the ‘Sick Man of Europe’: Science and the Environment in the Ottoman Leech Industry, 1830-1870," followed by a discussion.

  • April 22, 2024

    Dominik Hünniger (Curator for Innovation Research, German Port Museum, Hamburg) and Lisa Onaga (Senior Research Scholar, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science) in conversation with contributors Leah Lui-Chivizhe, Jude Philp, and Luísa Reis-Castro, discuss the new focus section 'Magnifying Insect Histories' in Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society, Volume 115, Number 1, March 2024.
    To access these readings for free please visit:

  • March 25, 2024

    Admire Mseba (Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of Southern California) will present on "The Challenges of Collaborative Locust Control in Late Twentieth Century Southern Africa, 1960s-1980s," followed by a discussion.
    In the mid twentieth century, a plague of red locusts infested most of Southern Africa except the region’s southernmost tip. Threatening livelihoods across Belgium’s, Britain’s, and Portugal’s empire in Africa south of the equator, the plague, combined with advances in ways of knowing the pest, produced frenetic efforts at cooperation to control it. The result was the establishment, in 1949, of the International Red Locust Control Service (IRLCS). The workings of this organization and the broader work of locust control was, however, soon caught in the politics of decolonization. In the early 1970s, this cooperation completely unraveled because. The independent member states were unwilling to continue cooperation with racist regimes in South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola. This talk discusses this entanglement of struggles against settler colonialism, international cooperation, and environmental control in late twentieth century Southern Africa—themes that scholars rarely address in a single narrative. It draws on archival materials from the National Archives of Zimbabwe, the South African National Archives (in Pretoria), the Free State Provincial Archives (in Bloemfontein), the National Archives of Zambia, the British National Archives (at Kew) and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) archives in Rome, Italy.

  • February 26, 2024

    Matthew Robert Holmes (Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental History at the University of Stavanger) will present on "Taxonomic Trouble: Colonial Plantations and the Cockchafer Beetle in Nineteenth-Century Sri Lanka," followed by a discussion.
    In the late nineteenth century, the British coffee industry of Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) was decimated by a fungal disease. Facing economic ruin, British planters were also faced with insect pests, most notably beetles whose grubs attacked the roots of coffee trees. Scottish plantation owner and amateur naturalist Robert Camperdown Haldane attempted to tackle this entomological problem by producing a tract in 1881 titled All About Grub, in which he identified the island’s beetles as relatives of the European cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha) and listed methods to destroy them. Haldane’s taxonomy was erroneous and resulted in public embarrassment. His flawed beetle identification was a classic colonial misstep, driven by his faith in the authority of European entomology and his failure to engage with local knowledge. As a supporter of the acclimatization movement, Haldane saw Sri Lanka’s beetles as products of the climate and ecology of the island, assuming that they were variations of their European counterparts that had altered their behavior and life cycles to thrive in tropical conditions. He practiced a holistic approach to insect research, examining biological relationships, weather, and soil, but simultaneously remained a steadfast advocate of British expansionism and the exploitation of indentured labourers.    
    Matthew Holmes is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental History at the University of Stavanger, where he examines the modern history of the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) in urban spaces. Matthew’s previous postdoc at the University of Cambridge investigated science and agriculture in the British Empire. His forthcoming book with the University of Pittsburgh Press, The Graft Hybrid: Challenging Twentieth-Century Genetics, explores the creation of chimeral plants and animals. He also publishes on the history of biotechnology, morphology, and natural history.

  • November 27, 2023

    Columba Gonzalez-Duarte, The New School of Social Research
    The ‘Other’-than-human and Justice Beyond Borders
    In my ethnographic practice, I follow the migration of monarch butterflies to interrogate North America’s environmental ethics and border politics. In this presentation, I delve into the concept of more-than-human mobility justice by discussing the convergent migrations of humans and monarchs. Insect metaphors often represent either the repulsive or virtuous aspects of humanity. This association affects how societies imagine and construct ‘the human’ and the ‘other’-than-human. The virtuous anthropomorphized insect or the pestilent entomologized human are powerful examples of how metaphors and ideology work to trace boundaries. In producing ‘the pest’ or the noble symbol of humanity, soft and hard infrastructures are mobilized that reinforce national borders. In this intervention, I push back against the traditional Western justice framework, which assumes that individuals are isolated and sedentary, and which equates mobility rights with residency status. In its place, I propose a more inclusive ontology of mobility justice that includes both humans and more-than-human entities. This approach highlights how border justice can be served by recognizing multispecies interconnectedness.
    Columba González Duarte, Ph.D., is a Mexican socio-cultural anthropologist who studies the interaction between monarch butterflies and the human populations they encounter on their yearly migration across North America. Her main interest is in building environmental ethics beyond borders, and her project called “Convergent Migrations” has an activist dimension through which she hopes to foster “eco-social justice” for humans and other animals in migration. As a scholar born and raised in Mexico but working in Canada, she calls attention to the coloniality present in research and academic practices across North America. She also collaborates with the EMIGRA research team, funded by the American National Science Foundation (NSF), and a UNAM-funded project on Ecofeminist Latin-American Epistemologies. 
    Columba is an assistant professor at The New School for Social Research in the Anthropology department.  She publishes in academic and non-academic venues regularly. She is currently writing a book supported by the Wenner Gren Foundation provisionally titled Entangled Mobilities: An Ethnography of Human-Butterfly Migration in North America". 

    Click here to learn more about Columba's research, teaching philosophy, and other projects. 
    Click here to see a recent piece of Columba's work related to this talk:

  • October 30, 2023

    Samuel R. Dolbee (Assistant Professor of History, D Family Dean’s Faculty Fellow in Studies of the Middle East at Vanderbilt University) will present on his book Locusts of Power: Borders, Empire, and Environment in the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2023), followed by a discussion. Here is the abstract:
    In this highly original environmental history, Samuel Dolbee sheds new light on borders and state formation by following locusts and revealing how they shaped both the environment and people's imaginations from the late Ottoman Empire to the Second World War. Drawing on a wide range of archival research in multiple languages, Dolbee details environmental, political, and spatial transformations in the region's history by tracing the movements of locusts and their intimate relationship to people in motion, including Arab and Kurdish nomads, Armenian deportees, and Assyrian refugees, as well as states of the region. With locusts and moving people at center stage, surprising continuities and ruptures appear in the Jazira, the borderlands of today's Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Transcending approaches focused on the collapse of the Ottoman Empire or the creation of nation states, Dolbee provides a new perspective on the modern Middle East grounded in environmental change, state violence, and popular resistance.

  • September 25, 2023

    João Joaquim (University of Cambridge), will present on his work ‘Insect viruses as biocontrol agents in mid-twentieth century Britain’, followed by a discussion.
    Here is the abstract:
    This talk will examine the tentative use of viruses as biocontrol agents against insect pests in the UK during the 1950s/1960s. This is done through a focus on the research conducted by Kenneth M. Smith (1892-1981), a British virologist who was among those pioneering the study of insect viruses. Smith was recognised as an authority in this field and worked at highly reputed institutions. Yet, he failed in having viral biocontrol of insect pests adopted on a large scale. This failure is discussed in the context of post-war agroeconomic trends.  
    Relying on his entomological knowledge and connections in the insect breeding industry, Smith put together a specialised team and managed to conduct several successful trials in the industrial, agricultural, and forestry sectors. However, viral biocontrol methods were never adopted on a large scale and, by the late 1960s, interest in the topic seemed to have largely fizzled out. Ultimately, this paper questions what direction the use of these methods would have taken if the availability and convenience of chemical pesticides had not sidelined them. Furthermore, by examining Smith’s work, one glimpses a different side of virus research, where agricultural concerns shaped developments and where practices, techniques, and methods were solidly anchored in experimental biology and other knowledge traditions.
    To read related work in advance please see João’s blog post ‘Paying Attention to Aphids’:

  • August 28, 2023


  • June 26, 2023

    David A. Bello (E. L. Otey Professor of East Asian Studies at Washington and Lee University) and Daniel Burton-Rose (Assistant Professor of History, Wenzhou-Kean University) will present on their anthology Insect Histories of East Asia (University of Washington Press, 2023), followed by a discussion. Here is the abstract:
    Interactions between people and animals are attracting overdue attention in diverse fields of scholarship, yet insects still creep within the shadows of more charismatic birds, fish, and mammals. Insect Histories of East Asia centers on bugs and creepy crawlies and the taxonomies in which they were embedded in China, Japan, and Korea to present a history of human and animal cocreation of habitats in ways that were both deliberate and unwitting. Using sources spanning from the earliest written records into the twentieth century, the contributors draw on a wide range of disciplines to explore the dynamic interaction between the notional insects that infested authors’ imaginations and the six-legged creatures buzzing, hopping, and crawling around them.
    In addition to the co-editor, the other contributors to the volume are Lijing Jiang, Olivia Milburn, Sang-ho Ro, Mårten Söderblom Saarela, Kerry Smith, and Federico Valenti.

  • May 22, 2023

    Erinn Campbell (Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge) ‘Frank and honest’? The politics of international plant pest reporting, 1952–1994.
    From 1952 to 1994, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) published the FAO Plant Protection Bulletin as an ‘official’ outlet for reporting outbreaks of plant pests and pathogens. Like other scientific serials, the Bulletin served not only as an informational service but also as a site for developing a scientific community—in this case, a global community of plant protection researchers, united (in theory) by a shared commitment to transparency, interdisciplinarity, and transnational cooperation. The benefits of being seen to be a member of this community (complementing other conspicuous displays of post-war internationalism) were necessary to counter the economic disincentives to pest reporting; announcing outbreaks could prompt a nation’s trading partners to quarantine or ban its exports. This paper examines this tension to illuminate the politics of international pest reportingin the Bulletin. In practice, pest reporting was geographically patchy, reflecting both exploitative colonial knowledge networks and Cold War geopolitics. European nations’ reporting declined sharply over the 1950s and remained low until pest reporting became politically expedient in the late 1980s, even as European plant protection experts surveilled pests in colonised territories and newly independent states. On the other hand, many ‘developing’ countries also worked on their own terms (through various forms of collaboration among corporations, government agencies, universities, and non-governmental organisations) to participate in pest reporting and thus establish their place in modern global agriculture.

Group Conveners

  • amarquez's picture

    Angélica Márquez-Osuna

    Angélica studies the history of Latin America from a global perspective, specializing in environment, race, labor, agriculture and farming practices.

    Her dissertation Colonized Bees in the Tropical Frontier: Beekeeping and Modern Apiculture in the Yucatán Peninsula, Florida, and Cuba from 1760-1940 is about the history of beekeeping practices and industrial apiculture in the context of the Spanish colonization and the development of global capitalism. It focuses on the relocation of the European honeybee Apis Mellifera that did not exist in the Americas before colonization, and the displacement of the native stingless bee Melipona beecheii which is also capable of producing large amounts of honey and wax and has been bred by Maya communities for over 3,000 years in the Yucatán Peninsula. Her research looks at the commonalities, connections, and differences between three locations that were crucial for the development of apiculture in the tropics: Florida, Cuba, and the Yucatán Peninsula. Angélica’s work emphasizes geopolitics, the changing borderlands in the history of colonialism and capitalism in the Americas, and the role of bees and beekeepers in these processes.


  • ddmoore's picture

    Deirdre Moore

    Deirdre Moore received her PhD in the History of Science from Harvard University in 2021 with her dissertation, 'The Heart of Red: Cochineal in Colonial Mexico and India'. Her research focuses on how complex relationships between humans, plants and animals led to the production of valued commodities in the Early Modern period with a concentration on the history of cochineal dye insects in Europe, Asia and the Americas.

    Deirdre's research has been supported by the American Indian Studies Graduate Student Fellowship, Newberry Library, Chicago, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies Summer Research Grant, the Tyler Fellowship, Garden and Landscape Studies Department, Dumbarton Oaks and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada among others. Her main research interests lie in the Early Modern period, exploring connections in the history and origins of international trade, economic history and the history of entomology and insect interactions with human communities. She also makes films about insects.


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