- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
Dr. Robbin Thorp, a global and legendary authority on bees and a distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, passed away Friday, June 7 at his home in Davis, surrounded by family. He was 85.
Dr. Thorp, a member of the UC Davis entomology faculty for 30 years, from 1964-1994, achieved emeritus status in 1994 but continued to engage in research, teaching and public service until a few weeks before his death.
A tireless advocate of pollinator species protection and conservation, Dr. Thorp was known for his expertise, dedication and passion in protecting native pollinators, especially bumble bees, and for his teaching, research and public service. He was an authority on pollination ecology, ecology and systematics of honey bees, bumble bees, vernal pool bees, conservation of bees, native bees and crop pollination, and bees of urban gardens and agricultural landscapes.
“Robbin's scientific achievements during his retirement rival the typical career productivity of many other academic scientists,” said Steve Nadler, professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. “His contributions in support of understanding bee biodiversity and systematics are a true scientific legacy.”
Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and UC Davis professor of entomology, said: "I've known Robbin since I was a graduate student at UC Davis. Even though he wasn't my major professor, my project was on bees and he was incredibly helpful and supportive. His enthusiasm about pollinators and bees in particular actually grew after he retired, and he continued helping students and researchers and was the backbone of so much research. His support and kindness was matched by his undemanding assistance and expertise. What a terrible loss to his family and to the research and conservation communities."
Colleague Norman Gary, UC Davis emeritus professor of entomology, commented earlier this year in a letter of support for a College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences award: “Robbin is recognized internationally for his expertise and research on bees, especially non-Apis species, known as wild bees. I doubt that there is anyone else in the world who can compete with his expertise in the systematics of the 20,000 species of bees on this earth. He has the perfect balance of research of field research on the biology and behavior as well as laboratory research on the taxonomy of bees.” He was the go-to person to identify a bee by species.
Professor Neal Williams, who organized a symposium in Dr. Thorp's honor at the 2019 Pacific Branch, Entomological Society of America meeting in San Diego, said: ‘Through his tireless efforts in research, advocacy and education, he has inspired a new generation of bee researchers…I like many others, feel truly honored, to have received the mentoring of Robbin and to have him as a colleague.”
In his retirement, Dr. Thorp co-authored two books Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University, 2014) and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday, 2014). Locally, he was active in research projects and open houses at the Bohart Museum of Entomology and the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven. In his research, he monitored bees in the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a half-acre bee garden on Bee Biology Road operated by the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. He established a baseline in 2008 and detected more than 80 species of bees.
Born Aug. 26, 1933 in Benton Harbor, Mich., Dr. Thorp received his bachelor of science degree in zoology (1955) and his master's degree in zoology (1957) from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He earned his doctorate in entomology in 1964 from UC Berkeley, the same year he joined the UC Davis entomology faculty. He taught courses from 1970 to 2006 on insect classification, general entomology, natural history of insects, field entomology, California insect diversity, and pollination ecology.
Every summer from 2002 to 2018, Dr. Thorp volunteered his time and expertise to teach at The Bee Course, an annual workshop sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History and held at the Southwestern Research Station, Portal, Ariz. The intensive 9-day workshop, considered the world's premiere native bee biology and taxonomic course, is geared for conservation biologists, pollination ecologists and other biologists.
Highly honored by his peers, Dr. Thorp was named a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco in 1986; recipient of the Edward A. Dickson Emeriti Professorship of UC Davis in 2010; and recipient of the UC Davis Distinguished Emeritus Award in 2015. Other honors included: member of the UC Davis Bee Team that won PBESA's Team Award in 2013. In addition, he was a past president (2010-2011) of the Davis Botanical Society, and former chair (1992-2011) of the Advisory Committee for the Jepson Prairie Reserve, UC Davis/Natural Reserve System.
Leslie Saul-Gershenz, who received her doctorate in entomology from UC Davis and is now an associate director of research with the Wild Energy Initiative, John Muir Institute of the Environment, said “I am heartbroken. I really hoped with all my heart that Robbin was going to get better and we would have more time with him, more of his sweetness, his kindness, his caring. He helped so many people over so many decades, his contributions were immense in his scientific contributions but also in his positive support of students, and colleagues alike and encouragement of public engagement. I miss him so much. “
Williams said the PBESA symposium was “perhaps the greatest honor one can receive from close colleagues--a special symposium honoring him and his contributions to the field of bee biology and pollination. We designed the symposium to honor the impact of Dr. Thorp, on the field of bee biology and conservation, but at the same time present innovative research that brings together bee and pollination biology researchers."
Richard Hatfield, a senior conservation biologist with Xerces' Endangered Species Program presented him with a framed illustration of Bombus franklini, the work of artist April Coppini of Portland, Ore. An authority on Franklin's bumble bee, Dr. Thorp began monitoring the bumble bee population in 1998 in its narrow distribution range of southern Oregon and northern California. He has not seen it since 2006 and was instrumental in placing Franklin's bumble bee on the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Long active in the North America IUCN Bumblebee Specialist Group, Dr. Thorp served as its regional co-chair, beginning in 2011.
In August of 2016 a documentary crew from CNN, headed by John Sutter, followed him to a meadow where Dr. Thorp last saw Franklin's bumble bee. Sutter wrote about Dr. Thorp, then 82, in a piece he titled "The Old Man and the Bee," a spinoff of Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea."
“Robbin has done so much for me over the years,” Hatfield said. “I'm pleased to give back even a small fraction.” Hatfield praised him as a “a Living Legend of North American Bee Conservation” in a Xerces Society blog during Earth Week. “He has made lasting contributions to the bee conservation community in ways that might never be measured, but will certainly be felt.” https://xerces.org/2019/04/24/robbin-thorp-earth-week/.
"It was great to see Robbin interacting and enjoying the conference and the company," said Professor Gordon Frankie of UC Berkeley, one of the speakers at the Robbin Thorp Symposium. "We all have learned much from him over the years, and this was a good occasion to say thanks and acknowledge Robbin's many contributions."
Professor Diane Ullman, former chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology, said: “Robbin was my faculty advisor when I was a student! He gave me the courage to stay in graduate school and was a wonderful supporter when I came back to Davis as a faculty member. He was an amazing and passionate scientist and an extraordinary person.”
Eric Mussen, Extension apiculturist emeritus: "We should not forget that Robbin originally was hired to work on honey bees, and he did. His greatest area of expertise was the use of honey bees in almond pollination. Robbin determined that until the colonies reached the population size of six frames of bees, they did not have enough spare bees to serve as foragers (pollinate almonds) since they were all needed to keep the brood warm. He also noted that the amount of pollen collected by the bees in a colony was pretty much in direct proportion to colony size, peaking at between 10 and 12 frames of bees. It was obvious to Robbin that the bees still visited almond blossoms for nectar, days after there was no pollen left in the flowers and the stigmata were no longer young enough to be pollinated. Other studies determined which blossoms along the branches were pollinated earlier and later during the season. All of those studies were very well designed and the results contributed significantly to our recommendations to growers and beekeepers for obtaining maximum benefit from the bees."
Professor Claire Kremen of the University of British Columbia, formerly of UC Berkeley, praised him in her letter of support for his nomination for distinguished emeritus professor in 2014:
"I have had the privilege of working with Dr. Thorp as a close colleague since 1999. I can definitely say that without his contributions, I could never have developed as extensive and impactful a research program on pollinator conservation and pollination services. It is even more noteworthy that Dr. Thorp's contributions to this research program have all occurred since his 'retirement'– he has had a very active retirement indeed."
"Dr. Thorp has contributed in three main ways. First, he has provided expert input into the design of protocols for the research, including assays for pollinator effectiveness, developing citizen science methods, rearing experimental bumble bee colonies, monitoring bumble bee colony properties in the field, and developing pollinator survey methods. Second, he has provided expert taxonomic services, including personally identifying over 100,000 native bee specimens that we have collected during this work, and working with us to develop a bee traits database. Third, he has trained numerous field assistants and graduate students from my lab in different aspects of bee biology. He's spent long hours with many of my graduate students helping them learn to identify bees. He also helped us develop methods and information sheets for teaching field and lab teams to recognize key generic and family characters for identifying bees in the field and sorting them in the lab. He's advised many of my graduate students on different aspects of their work.
"Collectively, Dr. Thorp's contributions have impacted 35 publications that have emerged from this research program to date, with many more either submitted or nearing the submission stage. He has also been a co-author on a number of these publications. Not only has Dr. Thorp had such a significant effect on the work of my lab, but he conducts his own primary work documenting the status of rare bumble bee species like Bombus franklini and B.occidentalis and contributes at a similar level to other research labs such as with his long-time collaborators Dr. Gordon Frankie and Dr. Neal Williams. It's really quite amazing how he manages to do it all."
In another letter of support, Katharina Ullmann, director of the UC Davis Student Farm, Agricultural Sustainability Institute, and a UC Davis alumnus (doctorate in entomology) wrote:
"I met Robbin Thorp in 2007 and assumed that he was an active professor because of his continued contribution to the field of entomology, teaching activities, publishing in peer-reviewed journals and vocal support of pollinator conservation efforts. For these reasons I considered asking if I could join his lab. I remember telling someone my plan and they said 'That probably won't work. Robbin is retired.' He does so much in the field of pollination ecology that I didn't even realize he was retired.
"...The entire time that I've known Robbin I've been impressed with (1) his depth and breadth of knowledge about bees and crop pollination, (2) his willingness to share what he knows, and (3) how approachable he is. It doesn't matter if you're a MacArthur Genius or a field technician just learning about bees, Robbin always makes time to talk with you and answer your questions.
"Robbin is one of the few people in North America who can identify bees down to the species level,” Ullmann said. As a result he's in high demand and has identified thousands of specimens for numerous lab groups since his retirement. However, he doesn't just identify the specimens. Instead, he's willing to patiently work through dichotomous keys with you so that you can learn those skills."
Research entomologist James Cane of USDA's Agricultural Research Service, Logan, Utah, wrote in 2014 that “Dr. Robbin Thorp should be the first scientist to be cloned, so valuable and broadly integrated are his knowledge about bees and pollination. No one else I know has his combination of skills; normally several people would be needed. Thus, he is a taxonomist of several genera of bees, a competent pollination biologist studying both native bees and honey bees in both natural and agricultural realms (with research experience in several crops), and a conservation advocate for bees. Moreover, I have watched his considerable teaching skills while helping in The Bee Course over the years. There I also get to see what a model human being Robbin is: thoughtful, considerate, a great listener, playful, polite unpretentious, all traits that the students gravitate towards. I have looked to Robbin as a role model for over 30 years, listen carefully to what he has to say, and always look forward to being in his presence. UC Davis is very lucky indeed to have attracted and retained such a fabulous faculty member.”
Ron McGinley, an instructor an organizer of The Bee Course, said “Robbin Thorp converted me from bugs to bees. To say that Robbin changed my life would be a vast understatement! In retirement, Robbin continues to be one of the most highly regarded bee workers in the world. He also continues his outstanding educational/mentoring skills.”
McGinley shared several comments from The Bee Course alumni:
- It was really a pleasure to learn from one of the best "Bee Dudes” out there.
- Professors with a great deal of experience can sometimes find it difficult to teach students who are just being introduced to the material. Their command of the material is so great that it seems second nature and they can forget how to guide students through the labyrinths of taxonomic structures. Not so for Dr. Robbin Thorp. The paths laid out for students in The Bee Course were clear and the light at the end of the tunnel, although sometimes faint, was always visible.
- Robbin even bought me a Dairy Queen treat for being the first to find an active bee nest….Centris. I said ‘Robbin, you don't have to buy me this treat' and he answered ‘Yes, I do, it's tradition.'
- Robbin is fun to be with in the field and welcomes questions for which he gives very clear answers.
- I sincerely hope that I will meet and work with Robbin again in the future. He is just a joy to be with.
Stephen Clement, emeritus lead scientist and research entomologist with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, said "He welcomed me back to the department in 1970 after I got out of the Army and a year of combat in Vietnam. He was my major professor for my master of science degree, which I completed in 1972. I did the field research in Yellowstone National Park and he ventured up to the park to mentor my field work (special memories of the time I spent with Robbin in the Park). Robin was instrumental in my development as a field biologist. I had hoped he would be at the recent reunion but now know he was at the ESA Pacific Branch meeting where there was a symposium in his honor."
Dr. Thorp was known for his public service, his response to all requests for bee identifications, and his friendships.
Insect photographer Allan Jones of Davis: “I feel particularly privileged as an outsider to have drawn his friendship, attention and support. A picture is said to be worth a thousand words. But a picture with accurate text is a treasure. He has been adding depth and meaning for all of the visitors and friends he has kindly touched.”
Naturalist and bumble bee enthusiast Gary Zamzow of Davis said that “Dr. Thorp frequently helped the Wisconsin Arboretum staff and volunteers. He identified the bumble bees photographed at the Arboretum and other areas. He would confirm our identifications. A great learning experience for all of us. We could have not done it without Dr. Thorp's help.”
His wife, Joyce, 84, preceded him in death on Dec. 9, 2018. Survivors include three children, Kelly, Katie and Jeff, and stepchildren Donna Gary and Steve Gary.