Shelf Life 09: Kinsey's Wasps

"The larger [a collection] is, the more likely it is that you'll have more species [and] reflect actual diversity of nature in the world." 

-James Carpenter, Curator, Division of Invertebrate Zoology

First Came the Wasps

Alfred Kinsey is best known for his groundbreaking work in human sexuality, but he came to this made-for-Hollywood specialty relatively late in his career. For the first act of his academic life, Kinsey studied entomology and botany. In particular, he studied gall wasps: tiny, solitary wasps who inject their eggs into plant tissues, inducing growths known as “galls” that provide food and protection to their larvae.

Gall wasp specimen under a slide, labeled on left: Subject: Cynipid Adult Amphibolips confluens. Kinsey.
The tiny gall wasp was sexologist Alfred Kinsey's first love. 

The study of solitary wasps and human coupling may seem like wildly disparate interests. But both subjects provided outlets for what could be said to be Kinsey’s real passion—the accumulation and categorization of huge amounts of data, and the transformation of that data into new knowledge. 

Kinsey didn’t just study gall wasps: he amassed specimens with unrivaled intensity, creating a collection of more than 7.5 million wasps and their associated galls that now reside in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology of the American Museum of Natural History. In the early years of his studies, Kinsey traveled some 18,000 miles across North America, frequently camping for days while gathering thousands of galls. He would send those back to his lab in Indiana, where assistants would wait for the short-lived adult wasps to emerge. He eventually collected specimens from 36 states and numerous locations in Mexico, and compiled a collection from all over the world. 

Big collections aren’t just a feather in a researcher’s cap, though. Large series of specimens offer scientists more opportunities to answer more questions about a species, and big sample sizes make it harder for outliers—individuals that are very large or very small, for instance—to skew results. Collections on a scale like Kinsey’s need to be made responsibly, of course, and not damage wild populations. But they can also be valuable conservation tools, serving as snapshots of big trends that allow researchers to track shifts over time and place and see how populations react in response to factors like environmental change. 

Open cabinet drawer containing gall wasp samples. ©AMNH
Close-up of three rows of pinned samples with handwritten labels under each pin. © AMNH
Close-up of specimens pinned in boxes. © AMNH
Winged insect seen through microscope against white circle with lettering. © AMNH 

Kinsey's drive toward collecting more and more specimens wasn’t purely a scientific pursuit—it was a personal passion as well, and a subject on which the generally reserved researcher was inclined to wax poetic. In a biology textbook he penned, Kinsey elaborated on his voracious appetite for new specimens:

"If your collection is larger, even a shade larger, than any other like it in the world, that greatly increases your happiness. It shows how complete a work you can accomplish, in what good order you can arrange the specimens, with what surpassing wisdom you can exhibit them, and with what authority you can speak on your subject."

While analyzing his growing gall wasp collection, Kinsey demonstrated his penchant for big data and honed some of the methods he would refine in his study of human sexuality. For example, Kinsey took up to dozens of measurements on each of his wasp specimens—no small feat when you consider that even the largest specimens only grow to be 8 millimeters long. He meticulously recorded the data on sheets and sheets of graph paper, covered in notations, and later in his entomological research developed a system of coded entry.

Rows of handwritten data on gridded paper with rows of numbers indicating size of each specimen's body parts.
Kinsey meticulously measured and documented each of his gall wasp specimens.

He carried this experience encoding data into his work on human sexuality, where it allowed him to distill hour-long interviews detailing an individual’s entire sexual history to a handful of lined cards.

In the midst of his gall wasp studies Kinsey, then a professor of entomology at Indiana University, began teaching the “marriage course” in 1938. The class sought to prepare students for marriage by teaching them the facts about sex and sexuality. There was just one problem—there was a startling dearth of facts available in scientific literature.

Kinsey took it upon himself to fill this gap, conducting interviews with students in the marriage course that became the first data in his career as a sexologist. He would spend the remainder of his life in the field, producing a series of groundbreaking , and often controversial, publications.

Bringing his entomological training to bear on his new specialty, Kinsey treated his research into sex as biological fieldwork and approached it with the same diligence and dedication that drove his collection of wasp specimens and galls. His interviews with subjects were wide-ranging and meticulously documented. He was also famously, or perhaps infamously, nonjudgmental about the behaviors reported by participants in his research, analyzing sexual behavior with a scientific methodology. 

Centered copy of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, layered above page with photos of woman and couple, plus text reading Kinsey Report and Your Wife.
Kinsey's first book on human sexuality, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, and subsequent research received much attention in the popular press. 

There were some adjustments, of course. Rather than the straightforward data encoding used for his wasps, Kinsey sought the help of a professional cryptographer to develop the code for his studies in human sexuality. Nearly everything was coded for in Kinsey’s study, from the age, sex, and weight of the subjects to how excited they were by risque jokes and what kinds of music they listened to during lovemaking. Since the research was conducted largely during the 1930s, there was, alas, no code for “Barry White.”

Whether studying gall wasps or humans, Kinsey also recognized the importance of gathering information from a variety of subjects. This meant extensive travel, just as it had when he was collecting his insects. Interviews for his sexuality studies began at Indiana University in Bloomington, but eventually ranged far and wide, taking Kinsey across the country from coast to coast to collect sexual histories from prisoners, college students, and people from all walks of life. He had an insatiable drive to collect data: while on the lecture circuit for his first major book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Kinsey frequently turned down speaking fees and instead asked his hosts to arrange for him to collect more histories while he was in town.

During his lifetime, Kinsey’s work on sexology produced two books based on his interviews with more than 11,000 individuals; three more drawing from his data were published posthumously. These bestsellers changed how the world viewed what happens behind closed doors. But the techniques that made this momentous work possible were developed and refined while studying the humble gall wasp.