Bugs and Bodies: Forensic Entomology

Michigan State University ENT 812 (section 601)


Dr. Richard Merritt

Department of Entomology 322 Giltner Hall

245 Natural Science Bldg. 355-6514

Course Meets:

Once a week in the Natural Science Bldg., Michigan State University.


Handouts will be provided.

Procedural Guide on the Collection of Entomological Evidence", Catts & Haskell - ($25).


Vials, preservation fluid (70% ETOH), temperature and insect collecting equipment will be provided as needed. Students will be required to provide transportation during short field trips around campus (carpooling is recommended), and also any materials used to complete the final project (video tapes, CD'is, cameras, props, etc).

Course Goal:

Forensic Entomology is the name given to any aspect of the study of insects that interact with legal matters. A major area of emphasis in this relatively new field of forensic science is the use of insects in establishing time estimation and geographic inferences related to location and time of human death, referred to as medico-legal entomology. This course will discuss what, why, and how insects are used in crime scene investigations and document several case histories where insects were important in establishing the time of death in murder investigations. It will involve some field work to help students understand collection methods, insect identification, and what is involved in determining the PMI. It also will introduce students to other types of forensic sciences, through guest lectures, as they relate to determining the postmortem interval.


  1. To provide students with a knowledge of the kinds of insects involved in estimating the postmortem interval (PMI) in crime scene investigations
  2. To understand the collection techniques used on a crime scene to help forensic entomologists determine the PMI
  3. To teach students how to determine and calculate the PMI using insects in crime scene investigations
  4. To show students how insects can be used as evidence in a court of law through the review of case histories
  5. To familiarize students with other fields of forensic science


Attendance will be taken at the beginning of every class. The final grades for the course are based on attendance, individual participation, and the completion of a final group project. There will be weeks where we do not meet formally, however students will be required to visit the site of a decomposing pig and collect data or work on group projects during these weeks. The final project for this course will be due during the week prior to finals week. An oral report will be required from each group followed by a written group report to be turned in at that time.

Course Schedule:

This is a tentative seminar schedule based on previous courses and the availablility of guest presenters. The final schedule will be handed out during the first day the course.


Week 1: Introduction to Forensic Entomology.

Handouts for class, Objectives & assigned readings for each lecture,

Discussion on Forensic Entomology Literature (text & lay literature).

Forensic Science Program at MSU: Oldest and largest!

Video: "CBS Early Morning Show" with Merritt'is "Bugs and Bodies class " being interviewed.

Video: "Creatures in Crime", NATURE (WNET/BBC), 1994

Week 2: History and Background of Forensic Entomology:

From the first recorded use of insects to solve a crime in rural China, 12th century BC, to the present use of Forensic Entomology.

Insects and Ecological Role of Insects Involved in Decomposition Process (necrophages, omnivores, parasites & predators, incidentals).

Concept of Ecological Succession as applied to insects being used to determine Postmortem Interval.

Stages of Human Decomposition (fresh, bloated, decay, postdecay, dry)

Week 3: Climatic and other environmental factors influencing decomposition (physical, chemical, climatic, animals)

Assignment of class to groups to study Ms. Piggy decomposition.

Video: "New Detectives: Web of Clues

Week 4: Miss Piggy Study Set-up in field.

Meet at Natural Science Bldg. and go to field site. Groups meet to organize data collection during decomposition.

Video on Evidence Retrieval:

"The Collection of Entomological Evidence from Crime Scene Investigations."

Week 5 Discussion on the status of Miss Piggy.

Laboratory on Forensic Insects.

Collection, Identification and Preservation Techniques at the crime scene.

Taxonomic identification of fly larvae.

*Required for Entomology Grad Students (open to everyone).

Week 6 Laboratory on Forensic Insects (con'it).

Determining PMI (postmortem interval): How do you calculate it?

Court TV Video:

Katheryn Crier interviews Dr. Merritt and on Court TV over VanDame murder case to show court testimony.

Week 7 Discussion of Case Histories Involving Insects.

Cases: "Windows of Opportunity", "Lost and Found," Maggots on Coke", "Sep-de Coup", "Wasps in her Belfry," & "Snake Collector Case".

Week 8 Case Histories Involving Insects (continued).

Cases: "Lovers quarrel", "Chip", "Bob ", "Boys in the Cemetary".

Week 9 Case Histories Involving Insects: Aquatic Cases.

Cases:: "Black flies used to solve a murder case", "Caddisflies on the move", "Midges as red fibers", "Unchained melody", "Torso in Alaskan waters".

The Human Body Farm.

Video: Creatures in Crime, NATURE (WNET/BBC), 1994

Slides: from our visit to the Human Body Farm

Guest Speakers Presenting Overview of Forensic Fields

Week 10 Guest: Dr. Norm Sauer, Dept. of Anthropology, MSU.

Title: "Who did it? Forensic Anthropology & Decomposed Remains".

Discussion of Miss Piggy carcass observed by students.

Week 11Guest: Dr. Joyce DeJong, Forensic Pathologist, Sparrow Hospital.

Title: "Early Postmortem Changes".

Discussion of Miss Piggy carcass observed by students.

Week 12 Guest: Dr. Jay Siegal, Criminal Justice Dept., MSU.

Title: "General Considerations on Physical Evidence Identifications".

Week 13 Groups meet in class to discuss Miss Piggy II and report status on Time of Death; Discuss final report format and presentation.

Week 14 Work on reports and Ms. Piggy II homicide. No formal class.

Week 15 Guest: Dr. Neal Haskell, Forensic Entomologist, Rensellaer College, IN (Adjunct Asst. Professor, Michigan State University).

Titles (2 lectures): "Maggots are our friends" & "Maggot Power"

Week 16 Report presentations by each group on Ms. Piggy II homicide.

Students defend their PMI estimates in mock trial scenario with instructor(s) as judge and jury 'o All reports due.