Entobarbie: Getting up close with insects and being awed by them

By Matt Kelly | Photos by Entobarbie

Image of Entobarbie in her lab, listening to the Bee Report.
Entobarbie listening to the Bee Report podcast while at work in her lab.

Are you following Entobarbie on the socials? If not, you’ll want to check her out.

At the beginning of this year, @entobarbie appeared on both Instagram and Twitter. The accounts feature Barbie (yes, the classic doll) engaging with real, living insects at the scale of Barbie herself. She uses Barbie-sized tools and diagrams to explain what is happening with the different insects she’s collected or observing. She works both in her Barbie-sized lab and out in the real-sized world of flowers and grass. And her entomological vignettes (which weave together the bigger life stories of these different insects) are presented through absolutely incredible photography.

Barbie the entomologist is not new. In 2019, Mattel and National Geographic announced they would be creating a line of science-themed Barbie dolls. This included an astrophysicist, a polar marine biologist, a wildlife photojournalist and, of course, the entomologist. All done to allow “girls to try on new roles through storytelling by showing them they can be anything”.

Of course, these new Barbies quickly came under familiar fire, best summed up by this headline in the Guardian, “Meet entomologist Barbie: still white, pink and unattainably thin”. The article goes on to level some profession-specific criticism at the doll as well: “There is not a bit of mud in sight. Because female entomologists collect butterflies – not cockroaches or weevils or fleas or giant beetles or spiders.”

But now someone has put Entobarbie into the very real and exciting world of insects, filled with all the dirt, parasites and pathogenic fungus that comes along with it. Entobarbie tells the story of all her subjects, not in the overly-simplified way that we typically talk to children, but with the language of a scientist. For example:

The #masonbee cleptoparasitic #houdinifly, #Cacoxenus indagator emerged. They basically bulldoze their way through the mud of the brood cell walls by pumping the ptilinum on their heads with haemolymph! Highlights the need for best management practices. #entomology #bees #diptera

Screen shot of Tweet.

The creator of Entobarbie, however, wishes to remain anonymous for the time being. Which means a regular phone interview to learn more about this entomological influencer and the creative process behind these accounts wasn’t going to be possible. Instead, Entobarbie (which is how I’ll refer to both the creator and the creation from this point on) and I had several chats by Instagram, email and the Zoom messenger function. When asked, Entobarbie stated that she and the accounts are not funded by or associated with Mattel.

Here’s our conversation. Enjoy!

Matt Kelly: Hello Entobarbie!

Entobarbie: Hi Matt!

Matt: Thanks for taking the time to talk today.

Entobarbie: No problem. Thank you for the interest.

Matt: Just out of curiosity, and without revealing the creator behind the curtain, what entomological fun did you have on your plate today?

Entobarbie: Today was great! Saw my first mayfly of the season! Was working with some Lepidoptera as well. Making sure everyone has enough food for the weekend.

Matt: Are these butterflies or moths you have in captivity? Are you studying anything in particular?

Entobarbie: Some moths I have in captivity. Not studying anything in particular with these species. Waiting to see if anything interesting happens to them, like parasitoids emerging!

Matt: Parasites are always fun…

Entobarbie: Indeed! Gets even more fun with superparasitism.

Matt: You seem particularly interested in parasitism. Can we expect to see examples of this in your posts?

Entobarbie: Yes we can! It has always been something that is really fascinating to me. As spring gets underway, I hope to find more examples of parasitoids to show the world.

Matt: Dare I ask… Do you have a favorite example of parasitism?

Entobarbie: You dare indeed! Like asking me my favorite insect – impossible to answer. I would have to say tachinid fly parasitoids on Lepidoptera are my favourite. Generally, they lay their eggs on the cuticle of the lepidopteran instar. The larva of the tachinid emerges, burrows into the lepidopteran, consumes it from the inside, and then emerges as prepupae! So amazing.

But then there are Calliphoridae that lay their eggs in the nostrils of toads. Or the Oestridae that are internal parsitoids of mammals. What about the Hymentoptera parasitoids and superparasitoids though?!

Okay, nope, I don’t have a favourite example. They are all my favourite.

Matt: I do have to ask specifically about bees. What’s the story with the mason bees you’re watching?

Image of Entobarbie in her lab with a mason bee tube.

Entobarbie: About two years ago I got a bamboo mason bee house and loved watching them every spring build their nests. If unchecked, the mason bees can be negatively impacted by chalk brood, mites, kleptoparasitic flies, parasitoids and fungus. Because I put the house there, I am responsible for them and should clean and maintain the colony. With the bamboo it can be more laborious so I switched to paper tubes you can soak to remove the pupae and the wooden grooved plates. I find the entire process amazing and thought others could too. This year I may have gone overboard with the four houses. We will see how many pupae we find in the fall. The best part is sitting outside on a warm spring evening surrounded by beautiful buzzing bees.

Matt: On Twitter and Instagram, you feature an interesting range of insects. You seem to be following and studying specific species over time. True? And how did you choose these specific insects to focus on?

Entobarbie: How I come across the insects is through several ways! Most of the time it is by chance, where I am out and about and come across the insects. Other times I think, “Oh, it is almost that time of the year to find this insect or that insect.” When I do find them, I try to culture them in situ or as close to the natural habitat as possible so I can show most of the life stages.

Recently, I have been attempting to provide a habitat for insects on my balcony by having some plant diversity. In doing this, it is clear my thumb is not green and we cannot count on this route too much. Another way is to show some of my pets like the Madagascar hissing cockroaches or the Pachnoda sp.

I think it is also interesting to show the collection tools and techniques often used in entomology. Naturally, this will guide me to different environments, insects and areas of entomological studies. In the most special cases, I take holidays to try and find insects. Normal right? I think so.

Matt: You said you’re cultivating habitat on your balcony. Are you doing most of your entomology in an urban environment?

Entobarbie: Yes, where I am now is really a mix between forest, agriculture and urban environments (including in my cupboard). Soon I hope I can venture out into different environments to explore new areas and find new subjects to show the world.

Matt: As the creator of Entobarbie, is entomology a hobby or your profession?

Entobarbie: Very lucky to say entomology is both my hobby and profession. Both allow me to engage with my love of insects almost 24/7! I think and know it is something I can never get tired of because there is so much diversity in this world that discovery is always happening.

Matt: For you as the creator, what was the inspiration to bring Barbie into the mix?

Entobarbie: I found myself outside taking a lot of photos of insects. My entohuman friends then encouraged me to let the world see some of these photos. I thought that there are plenty of beautiful amazing shots of insects out there. How can I make it different? Get in front of the lens! Since I am 1/6 the average size of my entohuman friends, I thought this could really garner some of the attention insects deserve.

Matt: Who or what are your creative inspirations for Entobarbie? For example, when I work on the Bee Report podcast, I’m really inspired by the work done by other programs like Radiolab and Longform.

Entobarbie: From the naturalist and photography side of things, I admire the work produced from Piotr Naskrecki and the late Andreas Kay. Love the angles and diversity showcased in their photography.

Matt: How much time and effort goes into creating this world of Entobarbie? You have Barbie-sized props and spaces. Do you plan out your posts and stories?

Entobarbie: When I first moved into my lab, it took some time to build and procure the items required to conduct some of my research. Yes, you are right, the hard part is finding everything in the appropriate size! If I can’t find it, I make it. I still need to source a really good dissecting scope.

The posts are really centered around the range of insects I come across. If I am doing something with species identification or wanting to point out different characteristics, then there is some planning with drawing. I do try to make sure I get a good selfie-type photo showing the surrounding environment or what I am working on. Then I pull out my DSLR and aim to get some shots of the insects to try and portray how amazing they are when we really focus close on them. Overall, though, I am mostly freestyling it for now.

Matt: It occurs to me… Is creating this world of Entobarbie a bit of “Wouldn’t it be cool if”? Our ability to observe and interact with insects is really limited by scale, right? We’re so big and they’re typically so small. We need to have a lot of tools between us and them to really get to know them well. But what if I was 1/6 the size of a human? Then I could get up close to these super cool creatures…?

Close up image of Entobarbie looking at a chrysalis.

Entobarbie: Ha! You are totally right. In our normal daily activities it is not often we can get up close with the insects to see details and be awed by them. Some people are lucky enough to do this, but not many. The tools used to get great details are not easily accessible to everyone.

Matt: I know you said you’re freestyling with Entobarbie right now. But do you have any thoughts on where you’d like to take it? Is it purely a creative outlet, or would you like to grow it into something more “official”?

Entobarbie: When I started this about a year ago, it was purely fun and creative to really showcase how amazing insects are. As for where I would like to take it, no big plans as of yet. I plan to continue to focus on and show how amazing insects are, to try and reduce the fear and gross factor associated with insects. And to encourage everyone to love the world of entomology!

Matt: I’m asking this next question from a purely creative perspective, no judgment: Why Barbie? Why not Lego people or Star Wars figures?

Entobarbie: Did you see the laboratory and field collecting tools that came with my job!? I really liked the idea of children and adults seeing me out in the field or the lab, breaking stereotypes. As I thought more about it, I fell in love with the potential for multi-levelled socially-perceived juxtaposition. The more we see of women and girls connecting with all forms of entomology, the better. It just made sense to start taking the photos. I would not rule out any crossover posts though! Also, I need to introduce the world to my #entofriends.

Matt: Are there any exciting ento-events that you know you’ll be featuring in your posts that you want to give us a preview of?

Entobarbie: I wish I planned that far ahead! I have been setting up the black light when I can. If this is successful as the weather warms, I expect some beautiful sphingid moths! Oh! The other day I did find a bone! We could be dipping our toes into forensic entomology next!

Matt: People can follow you on Twitter and Instagram. If anyone has questions for you or wants to get in touch, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Entobarbie: Search for @entobarbie. If you would like to write a message, you can use those two socials or send an email to entobarbie@gmail.com. Also, if you or someone you know has a doppelgänger of myself, feel free to tag as #entofriends.

Matt: Entobarbie, thank you for making the time to chat. This was super fun!

Entobarbie: Thank you for the conversation!