Prize-Winning Research Inspired
By Unlikely Source: Black Soldier Fly

black soldier fly larvae
Max D Solomko
Amy Zhang ’16 Ph.D., who graduated in December from the combined F&ES/Anthropology doctoral program, was recently awarded the Roy A. Rappaport Prize for the best student paper of the year in environmental anthropology at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. Her paper examines China’s urban waste challenge through the lens of an unlikely actor: the Black Soldier Fly.
Her paper, “Reconfiguring the Black Soldier Fly for Urban Waste in Guangzhou,” was inspired by a conversation with an entomologist she met while conducting fieldwork in Guangzhou, China’s third-largest city. The scientist, whom she calls Dr. Wu, was working on a pilot project to breed the Black Soldier Fly (Hermetia illucens), a non-pest species and highly efficient decomposer that has been used to consume organic waste, which accounts for over 50 percent of China’s total urban waste. Wu hypothesized that he could use an enclosed box to contain — essentially isolate — both organic waste and the flies. But the flies couldn’t survive in the enclosed box, and Wu was forced to replace the box with human caretakers who could maintain appropriate growing conditions for the flies.
In other words, the flies could consume the waste — a highly beneficial function — but only with human assistance.
This project reminds us that green solutions to waste require more than just appropriate machines but also care and more intimate engagement with insects.
— Amy Zhang
In her paper, Zhang argues that Wu’s experiment illustrates the importance of re-imagining our relationships with the non-human world, including flies, in order to create a modern, sustainable city. And, she says, these two different approaches — isolating flies (and waste) in an enclosed box versus relying on the attention of a human caretaker — symbolize larger questions about the role of insects in contemporary China.
“This project reminds us that green solutions to waste require more than just appropriate machines but also care and more intimate engagement with insects,” Zhang said.
Many Chinese consider flies and other insects antithetical to modern city life and various government programs have been designed to eliminate them. Zhang says the enclosed box experiment represents an “enclosed imaginary” — the common notion that we humans can divorce ourselves from certain creatures (such as flies) and unsavory processes (such as dealing with municipal waste).
The Black Soldier Fly’s larvae rapidly devour organic waste, including leftover meat and oil products, which constitute a significant portion of Cantonese kitchen scraps. The flies can also be used as a protein source for animal and fish feed. Several companies already commercially breed the fly to consume organic waste, but Zhang’s paper looks specifically at Wu’s methods for raising flies and the way that he imagines fly biology can be used to close the loop of waste and reproduction.
Insects have long been central to urban life in China. For example, crickets have occupied a significant role in China’s teahouse culture for more than 2,000 years. But starting in the 1950s, China began a targeted campaign to “eliminate the four pests” — rats, sparrows, mosquitos, and flies — in an effort to become more modern.
“Insects are something we still need to be a fair distance from, but we also want to use their biology to do work for us — to eliminate waste, to make cities more sustainable,” she said. “These flies sort of exemplify these longer historical relationships between insects and humans in China.”.
Zhang is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Fairbanks Center for Chinese Studies, where she’s working on a book based on her dissertation. She is also helping to establish Harvard’s Environmental Humanities Initiative. Her work draws on the fields of environmental studies, anthropology, science and technology studies, and human geography.   
Yale’s combined degree program requires students to fulfill requirements of both F&ES and the anthropology department, including comprehensive exams that address topics in both fields. But individual coursework is to some extent tailored to each student’s specific research interests. The combined prepares students for a wide range of careers in both fields.
As F&ES, Zhang worked extensively with Michael Dove, professor of social ecology and co-chair of the combined Ph.D. program, and Marian Chertow, associate professor of industrial environmental management. Zhang says the combination gave her a good sense of different approaches to the topic of waste management in China.
“Being in the School, being aware of other debates in environmental studies and being able to pair that with anthropology was really great,” said Zhang. “I really enjoyed my experience and I would definitely recommend the program to anyone interested in working on environmental anthropology.”
– Timothy Brown    203 436-9503
PUBLISHED: January 19, 2017
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.