In this episode of Good Natured, we meet Kenyan insect researcher and evolutionary biologist Dino J. Martins. The Executive Director of the Mpala Research Center in Kenya, Dino is also a research fellow and a lecturer in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University. In 2015, he won the 2015 Whitley Gold Award for his work in East Africa on plants, people, and pollinators.
“One of my earliest memories,” Dino reminisces, “is actually of insects.” He recalls, as a child, sitting by a stream in Western Kenya and being surrounded by “clouds and clouds of butterflies” of every dazzling color imaginable. The experience, more wonderful and exciting than anything he had ever experienced up to that point in his young life, instilled the powerful sense of awe and wonder that he would always bring into his work.
Another moment of revelation came when Dino was observing some amegilla bees as they pollinated the critically endangered African violet. He realized, after a few days, that the bees were also flying into the surrounding farmlands, pollinating the crops in farmers’ fields.
For him, the moment perfectly captured the ties between the survival of species in the wild and the production of food for people in the very same landscape. With this realization, he says, Dino became a conservationist, determined to study these fascinating little creatures while also working to preserve these intricate connections that support all of us living things.
RECONNECTING PEOPLE WITH INSECTS
A lot of people have a fear of insects, though Dino believes this is more of a learned fear than an innate one. To get people to connect with insects, he says, it is enough to let people really see them to appreciate them for their intricacies: their shapes and colors, their behaviors, and their similarities to us in all their variety and strangeness.
He brings a similar approach of this shared sense of wonder to his work with farmers and pollinators in East Africa. Though many in the world of conservation view farmers and the agricultural sector as “opponents”, Dino thinks differently. “I really believe that many farmers have a connection with nature that just needs to be better understood.”
Indeed, a lesson he learned early on from his mother was “you catch a lot more flies with honey than vinegar.” In other words, it is easier to work with people when you listen to them, show them respect and understanding, and engage with them on common ground.
One of Dino’s favorite things to do with farmers is to show them insects like aphids, little bugs infamous for sucking sap from plants and ruining entire harvests, up close under a microscope or a magnifying glass. “They’re just blown away and their jaw drops,” Dino recalls enthusiastically. “They’re suddenly filled with wonder, because there’s this tiny aphid and it’s giving birth and it’s got eyes and legs and it’s navigating this complex world … and it’s living in a group, and they are all watching out for each other.”
“The future of the planet, I think, is exciting.” Dino says. For one, he is inspired by the resilience of life and nature. Having worked for some time in the harsh landscapes of Northern Kenya, he has seen life thrive and bounce back — even in the most damaged and exploited places — when it is given a chance.
His other great source of inspiration is the energy young people are bringing to conservation, citing movements like Extinction Rebellion as well as the wider cultural conversation around racial justice and equity around the world. “I just see the students are so less willing to take any nonsense. They will cut through the BS and they will make things happen. And that passion and that drive is unstoppable.”
To learn more about Dino and his fascinating work, listen to our podcast.