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Forensic entomology to be theme of this year's 'Insect Fear Film Festival'

Jim Barlow, Life Sciences Editor


black and whilte poster showing profile of an insect wearing a hat and smoking a pipe
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The 22nd annual Insect Fear Film Festival pays homage to crime-solving entomologists.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Looking for a crime-solving career? Catch the buzz about forensic entomology while being entertained Saturday, Feb. 19, at the 22nd annual Insect Fear Film Festival at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Festival founder May Berenbaum, the head of the entomology department, usually has chosen films that often feature bad plots and acting, inaccurate insect anatomy and bumbling entomologists – with the idea of educating people in a fun way about the world of insects.

This year, however, Berenbaum says, the festival has a bona fide hero: Gil Grissom, the lead character – played by Evanston, Ill., native William L. Peterson – in the popular CBS television drama series “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”

Forensic entomology is the use of insects and other arthropods to assist in legal investigations. As fans of “CSI” know well, Grissom embraces all forms of evidence, even the six-legged variety.

“What is enormously appealing about ‘CSI’ to entomologists is that Gil Grissom is an entomologist by training, complete with a pet African red baboon spider and a stable of racing cockroaches. He’s about the only character in the history of primetime television who can use scientific names and not look uncomfortable about it.”

So, naturally, an episode of “CSI” (the ninth of the first season) will be shown as part of the festival. In the episode “Sex, Lies and Larvae,” which will begin at 7:45 p.m., maggots taken from a female corpse help investigators identify a murderer.

Forensic entomology is an emerging field with opportunities, even though the use of insects to solve crimes is not a new development, Berenbaum said.

The American Board of Forensic Entomology’s official Web site notes that, “The potential for contributions of entomology to legal investigations has been known for at least 700 years, but only within the last decade or so has entomology been defined as a discrete field of forensic science.”

“The reality is that there is a relatively small core of practicing forensic entomologists in the United States and worldwide,” said Robert D. Hall, a medical entomologist at the University of Missouri who handles the ABFE’s Web site.

The ABFE lists just seven crime-scene visiting members in the United States and 62 worldwide. The Entomology Society of America, during its annual meeting last November in Utah, had a session in which the growing demand for forensic entomologists was recognized and discussed.

“For centuries, people have recognized that insects – flies, in particular – are very good at finding dead bodies,” Berenbaum said. There are species of flies that make their living in dead bodies of various descriptions with life cycles so specific and predictable that you can use them to determine, among other things, the time since death occurred and whether a body was moved, wrapped, buried, or submerged in water.”

The writers for “CSI” do their homework, she added. Berenbaum was once consulted by a fact-checker for the show about an episode in which gunpowder residue was found in insects removed from a body at a crime scene. “As insects consume the evidence,” she said, “they can retain important clues, such as drug residues or poisons.”

The festival will be “family friendly,” Berenbaum said. From 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. there will be activities of all kinds, including some that showcase forensic entomology, a maggot petting zoo, displays of insects important to detectives, and “guess the post-mortem interval” games. Forensically themed festival T-shirts, with proceeds benefiting the Entomology Graduate Student Association, will be available for sale as well.

Films begin at 7:15, with two cartoons featuring crime-solving arthropod superheroes, “Creepy Crawlers” (1985) and “The Tick vs. Arthur” (1994). There also will be two other feature films. “Phenomena,” a Dario Argento film from 1985, features Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly as a student who telepathically communicates with insects and Donald Pleasance as a physically handicapped entomologist who recruits her to solve a series of murders at the school.

The festival will conclude with a segment of “Flicks” (1987) featuring “Philip Alien, Space Detective,” an alien crime-solving cockroach.

Winners of an insect art contest involving area elementary and secondary schools will be named, and their artwork will be on display. William Petersen’s work portraying Gil Grissom will receive the Insect Fear Film Festival’s first “Image Award” for positive onscreen depictions of the science of entomology.

“Given Hollywood’s track record, this may be the only image award we’ll ever give out,” Berenbaum said.

Admission to the festival is free. Doors to the Foellinger Auditorium, on the south end of the Quad, open at 6 p.m. Exhibitions and T-shirt sales will be in the foyer. Remarks begin at 7 p.m., with cartoons to begin at 7:15 p.m.