Lords of the flies: How scientists are using maggots to help solve murders

Police are turning to forensic entomologists to gain vital evidence in the fight against crime

Flies feeding off dead flesh in a Gothic tower and a suitcase with a pig’s head in an overgrown garden are the sort of things you expect to see in a horror movie – but for scientists at the Natural History Museum they are crucial to research in the fight against crime.

At the top of the south-west tower of the London museum, stillborn piglets are laid out in a room with open windows to see how long it takes for flies to lay their eggs on the decomposing flesh. Meanwhile, in the wild garden at the side of the museum, a pig’s head bought from a local butcher for £3 is locked in a small suitcase on the ground to see whether flies are able deposit their eggs through the zip – and how long it takes if they can.

Forensic entomology – the study of insects to solve crime – has already helped to put several murderers behind bars and researchers at the NHM are working with the forensic arm of the Metropolitan Police to discover new insights into the murky world of the flesh-eating blowfly.

One of the most notorious cases was the murder of a health worker, Leah Questin, by her boyfriend Clinton Bailey. Leah’s badly decomposed body was found in a suitcase in Kent and the time of her death – determined by the blowfly maggots on her body – formed a critical piece of the evidence that led to Bailey’s conviction in 2010.

The type and number of insects living off a decomposing body can be crucial to working out when someone has died. Estimating time of death with conventional forensic techniques gets increasingly difficult after several days, said Martin Hall, a blowfly specialist at the museum.

“We’re trying to simulate a suitcase disposal here in the museum’s wild garden. This one here may be laying eggs. You can see she’s a female because her eyes are wide apart,” Dr Hall said yesterday, pointing at a fat fly sitting on the suitcase zip.

“We want to know how sealed the environment of a suitcase is and this kind of work shows that a zip can be quite leaky. We’ve found that some zips are more leaky than others.”

A variety of zips are being tested in the lab (PA) A variety of zips are being tested in the lab (PA)  

A study underway at the museum has shown how easy it is for blowflies to lay their eggs through the tiny gaps in the sealed zips of a suitcase – still a popular method for disposing of a dead body. Poulomi Bhadra, a research scientist at King’s College London, keeps a collection of zips and blowflies in another room at the top of a stone staircase leading up the south-west tower, where the smells of rotting  flesh waft safely away over London rather than over the museum  visitors. “We’re testing a range of zips to see how easy it is for blowflies to lay their eggs through them. It’s quite surprising how they can wiggle their eggs through the gaps,” Ms Bhadra said.

There are 20 species of blowfly in the UK but only a handful are known to lay their eggs on human flesh. How quickly the eggs develop depends on the species as well as the ambient temperature – blowflies can even lay eggs in winter if it is a sunny day.

Poulomi Bhadra holds a tub of maggots in the Insectory lab (PA) Poulomi Bhadra holds a tub of maggots in the Insectory lab (PA)

 

An important part of the forensic entomologist’s job is to be able to name the precise species found on a body, Dr Hall said.

“Putting a name on the evidence is critical to an investigation. Getting the wrong species can introduce an error of three days in estimating the time of death,” he said.

Leah Questin's body was found in a suitcase in Kent. Forensic entomology was used to determine the time of her death (PA) Leah Questin's body was found in a suitcase in Kent. Forensic entomology was used to determine the time of her death (PA)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A PHP Developer with knowledge ...

SThree: Associate Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree are seeking Associate Recruitm...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Software Engineer - PHP

£33000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas