- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
Dragonflies, cabbage white butterflies, skippers, and honey bees especially drew his attention.
His choice of a career—entomologist, botanist, paleontologist, anthropologist, herpetologist, everything with an “ist”—“rested largely on what I could sneak into the house,” Grissell quipped, recalling that his mother wasn't terribly enthusiastic about bugs or snakes. In fact, she hated them. “But I could hide a lot more bugs in my bedroom than I could snakes—take my word on it!”
“I eventually gravitated to what was most abundant in my habitat, namely plants and bugs,” Grissell, would later write in his chapter, ‘City Toads and Country Bugs,” in Jean Adams' book, Insect Potpourri: Adventures in Entomology. “Of the two, insects fulfilled a more immediate need than did plants. After all chasing butterflies was a lot more stimulating than chasing dandelions.”
Born Aug. 10, 1944 in Washington, D.C., Eric lived in San Francisco from 1947 to 1952. His adventures led to his first published paid story ($2) in 1954 at age 12 in the San Francisco Examiner. “It was about a crawfish.”
E. Eric Grissell went on to receive his master's degree and doctorate in entomology from the University of California, Davis, completing his Ph.D. in 1973. Grateful for the advice, encouragement, and opportunities given him, he is now giving back to the university that mentored, molded and motivated him.
The entomology fund is geared for undergraduate and graduate students studying insect systematics, with preference for students associated with the Department of Entomology and Nematology's Bohart Museum of Entomology, named for his major professor, Richard M. Bohart (1913-2007).
The botany fund is in appreciation for the mentoring, advice and assistance Grissell received from UC Davis botanist John Maurice Tucker, “Dr. Oak” (1916-2008), professor and longtime director of the UC Davis Herbarium. (See more information about the herbarium and its founders).
“My thesis and dissertation dealt with parasitoid wasps that prey on gall-forming insects (some of which cause gall formation on oaks),” Grissell said. “Any botanist at Davis during the last half-century knows that Dr. Oak was the foremost authority on the oak genus at the time.” Tucker identified Grissell's specimens and “was always willing to help.”
Grissell received Sigma Xi and National Science Foundation grants to survey the western states for oak galls and reared parasitoids. Today many Grissell oak specimens are housed in the herbarium.
“I ended up essentially minoring in botany because I've always had an interest in plants,” Grissell said.
Fast forward to today. “The main reason I am supporting students in both the Plant Science and Entomology departments is that I received support when I needed it in the form of jobs from Richard Bohart (work study, research assistantship), much needed guidance and advice from John Tucker, and encouragement from both. Dick and his wife Margaret even housed and fed me for his last year of study.
“The Law Family Award is named in recognition of the moral support given by family members who never understood my attraction to bugs but opted not to place me in a mental institution where I would have been much better off,” he joked.
Following his UC Davis studies, Grissell accepted a position as a taxonomic entomologist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services until 1978. From 1978 to 2005, he worked as a research entomologist for the Systematic Entomology Laboratory, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), located at the U.S. National Museum of Natural History. During his periods of employment, Grissell authored more than 100 papers, and served as editor of the Journal of Hymenoptera Research for seven years. Although retiring in 2005, he continues his work as a Smithsonian Institution research associate with the Museum of Natural History, and is a former adjunct associate professor at the University of Maryland.
Grissell authored several books published by Timber Press, including Bees, Wasps, and Ants: the Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in Gardens (2010); Insects and Gardens, in Pursuit of a Garden Ecology, published in 2001 and recipient of two of the "Top 10" 2002 Garden Globe Awards presented by the Garden Writers Association of America -- one for Best Book and one for Best Writer; and another award from the American Horticultural Society); A Journal in Thyme(published in 1994); and Thyme on My Hands (published in 1987). He is currently writing a book on the history of garden zinnias. He hopes to finish the book, about three-fourths finished, by the middle of next year. “I've tried to make the book readable by including many odds and ends associated with the garden zinnia.”
In his book, Bees, Wasps and Ants, he writes: “Few insects are more important than bees, wasps, and ants. They maintain the garden's biological balance, fertilize vegetables, fruits, and flowers, and recycle nutrients within the soil. It's no exaggeration to say that a garden can't be understood without an understanding of its insects.”
Grissell and fellow UC Davis entomologist Arnold Menke nominated Bohart for the International Society of Hymenopterists Distinguished Research Medal, which he received at a ceremony held May 15, 2006 in Briggs Hall. They also coedited an honorary edition of the Pan-Pacific Entomologist (vol. 59) on the occasion of Bohart's 70th birthday. “Doc Bohart” died Feb. 1, 2007 in Berkeley.
Menke, a decade older than Grissell, was a postgraduate student in the Richard Bohart lab when Grissell was an undergraduate. “I knew him because I helped Dick catalog wasps for his book,” Grissell recalled. “Arnold took a job with the Systematic Entomology Laboratory when he graduated and then a number of years later, I took a job in the same lab a few doors down the hallway in the U.S. National Museum. I lived near Arnold and we commuted to work together until he retired.“ Today they live about 60 miles from each other.
“Eric was one of a group of Doc Bohart's favorite students,” said Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology, professor of entomology at UC Davis, and one of Bohart's last graduate students. She received her doctorate from UC Davis in 1979 and joined the faculty in 1989. “Eric is an excellent insect taxonomist and his research and writings have always brought together his interest in insects and plants. His generosity with this scholarship will help support and encourage students who share these interests.”