By Emily Hunter, Field Book Project
I’m not a scientist. I appreciate nature, but I’m not someone who has dedicated my life to studying it. Maybe it is because I’m an outsider to the discipline that I’m absolutely fascinated by the range of topics that the fervent scientist pursues. Whatever you can think of… someone out there probably has a near-fanatical devotion to understanding it. And I mean really, think about it! What’s the most boring, uninteresting animal, plant, or rock you can imagine? I am willing to bet that someone somewhere finds it riveting. And thank goodness for that! If I were a scientist, I’d probably study something cute and furry, but I sure am glad that there are good people out there studying the worms and the not-so-cute things.
I just couldn’t fathom the motivation for entomologist Margaret Collins’s passion for termites. Margaret Collins was so enthralled with termites that she observed them, wrote about them, collected them, even ate them. I just so happened to read all about it in her field notes, part of the collection “National Museum of Natural History (U.S.) Dept. of Entomology, Curatorial Records, 1959-1996” (SIA Acc. 01-038).
Why was I surprised that Margaret Collins was obsessed with termites? Maybe part of it was that what I learned about Margaret Collins herself made me see quickly that she was a fascinating woman! Logically it would follow…fascinating person, must be studying fascinating things. And so, with an open mind, I read her field notes.
Dr. Margaret Collins
First, some background on Collins. Margaret Collins, affectionately known as “the termite lady” to friends and colleagues, was declared the first African-American female entomologist by the Entomological Society of America (Peters, 2010, p. 654). She was born in 1922 in Institute, West Virginia, where she grew up in a well-educated family. Collins was interested in nature from a young age, observing and collecting small animals in the creek near her house. She was extraordinarily gifted and graduated from high school early in 1937. Margaret Collins was just 14 years old when she enrolled in college.
Collins studied zoology at West Virginia State University and went on to earn her PhD in 1949 from the University of Chicago. Her accomplishments are many, including discovering Neotermes Luykxi. She held professorships of zoology at Howard University, Florida A&M, and Federal City College. In the late 1970’s Collins came to the National Museum of Natural History as a Research Associate where she worked to organize the termite collection.
I can only imagine what Collins faced as an African-American and a woman scientist through the decades, including the struggle for civil rights and equality during the 1950s-1970s. In an interview with Black Women Scientists in the United States author Wini Warren, Collins said, “Because of my family and our community I had a unique childhood. I never learned what I couldn’t do—as a child, as a woman, or as a Black person.” (p. 52).
Collins felt most at home in the field. She traveled to Belize, Dominica, Guyana, Cayman Islands, Suriname, Bahamas, and British Virgin Islands collecting and studying termites. She did not allow age to slow her down, continuing to work in the field into her 70s. In 1996, on a field trip to the Cayman Islands, Margaret Collins passed away.
The Fascinating Termite
In her field book, Collins wrote with admiration about the termite’s ability to digest wood. I decided to investigate termites a little more.
It turns out that despite their bad rap as destructive pests, termites are ecologically beneficial in some ways: they recycle nutrients, clear up organic debris (rotting limbs and leaves), and create hollowed spaces that other animals might call home. They also have pretty interesting social structures. Termites are eusocial animals that, like ants, have societies with various roles like soldiers, workers, and queens. Termites build complex nests using a mixture mud, feces, and saliva. Have you seen a termite cathedral mound? Just take a look at the sophisticated engineering of this structure.
Maybe Margaret Collins was right about termites! By the end of the collection, I have to admit, I was starting to think termites were pretty cool. Fortunately, Margaret Collins studied these creatures, learned about them, wrote about them, and most importantly, paved the way for others to do the same. Thank you, Termite Lady!
Peters, J. G. (2010). Bill Peters and Entomology at Florida A&M University. Florida Entomologist, 93(4), 654. Available online at: http://journals.fcla.edu/flaent/article/view/76176/73834
Termite Expert Margaret Collins Dies During Trip. (1996, May 5). The Washington Post, p. B9.
Warren, W. (1999). Black Women Scientists in the United States. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Learn more about termites!