By Liam McGillivray
You may be surprised to find out that police officers aren’t usually the first to arrive at a crime scene. The quickest first responders are actually ... bugs! As gross as this may sound, bugs can often help investigators solve crimes. The use of bugs and insects as evidence in legal proceedings and criminal trials is called forensic entomology.
Detail of the Forensic Entomology Exhibit at the Vancouver Police Museum & Archives.
The roots of forensic entomology can be traced back to 13th century China when lawyer Sung Tźu described it in his book The Washing Away of Wrongs.
In his book, Sung Tźu tells a tale of a murder that happened on a nearby rice field. Having no suspects or witnesses whatsoever, the criminal investigator gathered all of the local farmworkers, got them to form a line in front of him, put down their tools and then step away from the tools. When they did this, blowflies flew towards a single sickle with invisible remnants of blood on it. Just like that, the murderer was caught and confessed to the crime.
After the 13th century, there was little recorded evidence of forensic entomology being practiced. Although, that does not mean humans didn’t notice the effects bugs had on bodies. Medieval art in Europe frequently showed the effects of bugs on bodies, and poets like Baudelaire, in his work Une Charogne, described a body’s natural decomposition with flies and all. As a study, however, it was not until the 19th century that forensic entomology would make its official return in Europe.
An urban blowfly.
In 1855, a French doctor named Bergeret noted and studied the effects bugs had on decomposing bodies. His work would be built upon by another French doctor, Brouradel, who, in 1878, was able to determine that a child’s corpse was 6 or 7 months old before it was abandoned. In Germany, scholars Reinhard and Hofmann continued the tradition of entomology amongst European doctors—Hofmann was the first scientist to identify the coffin fly. Perhaps, most importantly, French doctor and scholar Mégnin built on the work of these scientists before him and formed a theory of entomology that described the various waves of insects arriving on corpses. This was published in his book, Les Faune des Cadavres, in 1894.
It was this book that began the study of forensic entomology in Canada, as two Montreal researchers Wyatt Johnson and Geoffrey Villeneuve started their own study a year later and verified Mégnin’s work. Forensic entomology in Canada would not develop much further than this until the 1970s.
Police interest in finding more successful ways to identify the time of death led to the reemergence of forensic entomology in Canada and North America as a whole. One of the major epicentres of entomological research was right here in Vancouver. Largely, this was due to a Vancouver research station championed by the scientist, Peter Zhu, who consulted with the police several times. This included a consultation on the brutal killings committed by Clifford Olson in the 1980s.
Over a decade later, in 1992, BC's Dr. Gail Anderson and a team of researchers and students at Simon Fraser University would receive Canada’s first research grant to study forensic entomology. Due to their success and Dr. Anderson’s move to the School of Criminology, their team was given government funding to build a full lab dedicated to the study of forensic entomology at SFU in 1999.
Dr. Gail Anderson performing an entomological study. Photo Credit: Simon Fraser University.
Forensic entomology in Canada has been used for a variety of purposes over the past two decades. Unsurprisingly, a lot of these studies relate to animals. Animal carcasses are often (or routinely) used to conduct entomological research and studies, but forensic entomology can also be used as evidence in animal-related crimes, namely poaching and animal cruelty. Forensic entomology can be used to study and recognize injuries to animals that have been abused, as well as identify periods of time where the animal was neglected, or to see if the body has been moved.
In 1995, Dr. Gail Anderson, one of the premier forensic entomologists in Canada, was able to gather entomological evidence that successfully contributed to the conviction and jail time of two poachers who were killing bears in Manitoba to obtain their gallbladders. By getting jail time as a conviction, entomological evidence helped set a legal precedent against poachers that had not yet been seen before in Canada.
Headline on Forensic Entomology. Photo Credit: Detroit Free Press, June 23rd, 2002.
Perhaps the most important use of forensic entomology is as evidence in murder cases. There have been notable cases in Canada and by Canadian scientists to both convict suspects or render them innocent.
For example, Dr. Anderson helped provide evidence that led to the conviction of a man for the second-degree murder of a teenage girl in Manitoba. On the flip side, Anderson also helped free Kristin Labato of Las Vegas who was wrongfully imprisoned for 17 years for a murder she did not commit. In this case, Anderson noticed a complete lack of blowflies on the corpse of the man, thus proving that the initial time of death recorded was incorrect and that Labato was innocent.
This also happened in Canada, when, 48 years after the case, forensic entomologists were able to get convictions discarded against Steven Truscott. Truscott was falsely convicted and sentenced to death for brutally raping and strangling his childhood friend, a 12-year girl named Lynn Harper. Even years after the case, forensic entomologists were able to use photos of the larvae present on the body to show that the original identification of time of death was incorrect and that Truscott could not have been guilty.
Steven Truscott after his release from prison. Photo Credit: The Gazette, January 26th, 2013.
To learn more about forensic entomology and so much more, come down to the Vancouver Police Museum & Archives! The heritage building in which the museum is housed served as the City Analyst Lab until 1996, and as City Morgue until 1980. Here, you can learn how scientific forensic techniques, like entomology, were used to solve crimes right here in this very building.
Anderson, Gail S. “Forensic Entomology in British Columbia: A Brief History.” Journal of
the Entomological Society of British Columbia 98, no. 1 (2001): 127-135.
Benecke, Mark. “A Brief History of Forensic Entomology.” Forensic Science Entomology 15, 1 (2001): 2-14.
Brundage A. and J.H. Byrd. “Forensic Entomology in Animal Cruelty Cases.” Veterinary Pathology 53, no. 5 (2016): 808-909.
Crawford, Tiffany. “SFU prof’s blowfly evidence cellars woman imprisoned 16 years for murder.” Vancouver Sun, December 1st, 2018.
Campobasso, Carlo, Jens Amendt, Emmanuel Gaaudry, Christian Reither, Helene N LeBlanc, and Martin J.R. Hall. “Best practice in forensic entomology- standards and guidelines.” International Journal of Legal Medicine 121, no. 1 (2007): 90-104.
Croke, Vicki. “Bugs offer clues on corpses.” Detroit Free Press, June 23rd, 2020.
Donnelly, Pat. “It’s such an important story.” The Gazette, January 26th, 2013.
Dye, Lee. “48 Years Later, Bugs Clear Convicted Murderer.” ABC News, October 24th, 2007.