The distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis--he preferred to be known as “Robbin”--was a global and legendary authority on bees, an amazing person and an incredible scientist. He passed away today (Friday, June 7), surrounded by family at his home in Davis. He was 85.
Robbin, 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, Robbin 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.
As Steve Nadler, professor and chair of the UC Davis Department said: “Robbin's scientific achievements during his retirement rival the typical career productivity of many other academic scientists. His contributions in support of understanding bee biodiversity and systematics are a true scientific legacy.”
And as Norman Gary, UC Davis emeritus professor of entomology, commented earlier this year: “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.
Yes, he was.
Born Aug. 26, 1933 in Benton Harbor, Mich., Robbin 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. Then it was off to UC Berkeley for his doctorate in entomology, awarded in 1964, 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.
In his retirement, Robbin 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.
On a personal note: I first met Robbin in 2005. He maintained an office in the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road. Although he was “officially retired,” he worked at least 40 hours a week or more--yes, every week--from the time I met him in 2005 through 2018. He'd park his white pickup truck in front of the Laidlaw facility and head eagerly to his office. The bumble bee conservationist decorated his door and office with bumble bee images and posters. He greeted everyone as his friend. After his wife, Joyce, died in December 2018, he shortened his "office hours" at the Laidlaw, but he was always available by computer or phone.
Robbin would identify native bees for everyone—from scientists to students to colleagues to journalists and, frankly, anyone with an interest in bees. And he was delighted to do it. “I enjoy it,” he once told me. And for the same reason, he'd give presentations about native bees throughout much of California and beyond. Often he'd bring along bee specimens and--if one were available--a live male Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta. He called this fuzzy, green-eyed blond "The Teddy Bear Bee" and urged folks to look AND touch. "Boy bees can't sting," he assured them.
An authority on Franklin's bumble bee (Bombus franklini), Robbin began monitoring the franklini population in 1998 in its narrow distribution range of southern Oregon and northern California. He last saw it in 2006 and was instrumental in placing it on the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Folks took notice of his scientific and public awareness efforts. In August of 2016, a documentary crew from CNN, headed by John Sutter, followed him to a meadow where Robbin last saw Franklin's bumble bee. Sutter wrote about Robbin, then 82, in a piece titled "The Old Man and the Bee," a spinoff of Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea."
Next, Robbin sought to place the bumble bee and others on the Endangered Species List. Just last month Fish and Wildlife emailed us that this might occur. Meetings are underway for four petitioned species (B. occidentalis, B. crotchii, B. franklini, and B. suckleyi).
Highly honored by his peers, Robbin 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.
In an email today to colleagues, UC Davis doctoral alumnus Leslie Saul-Gershenz, associate director of research, Wild Energy Initiative, John Muir Institute of the Environment, praised his "kindness, his support and his tremendous depth of knowledge. We will all miss the privilege of his friendship and joy of his buoyant personality."
Indeed, we will all miss Dr. Robbin Thorp, scientist extraordinaire, an absolute genius about “everything bees.” But he was much more than that. He was kind, gracious and caring. He was curious, knowledgeable and inspirational. He was the best of the best.
Toward the end of his life, his family read him accolades from his colleagues, researchers, alumni, students and citizenry, and he acknowledged each and every one, smiling. Did he know how much he was loved and appreciated? He did.
Might As Well Be Spring
"I'm as restless as a willow in a windstorm
I'm as jumpy as puppet on a string
I'd say that I had spring fever
But I know it isn't spring."--Frank Sinatra
Wait, it is spring!
Today is the day we've all be waiting for--the first day of spring.
If you're lucky, you'll see bumble bees nectaring on spring flowers, including nectarine blossoms.
We spotted this bumble bee, Bombus melanopygus, also known as a black-tailed bumble bee, heading toward our nectarine tree and foraging on the blossoms.
This is one of the 27 species of bumble bees in California. We frequently see the yellow-faced bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii, and sometimes Bombus californicus, aka the California bumble bee.
Our little buddy, Bombus melanopygus, appears to be nesting nearby due to her frequent visits to the nectarine blossoms. Hmm, wonder if she is occupying a rodent hole or maybe an old birdhouse....
If you're interested in learning more about bumble bees, check out the book, California Bees and Blooms: a Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists, the work of UC Davis and UC Berkeley scientists, including Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, who is also the co-author of Bumble Bees of North America: an Identification Guide.
Hey, honey bee, I'll race you to the flowers.
Okay, but you'll lose. I can go faster. Watch me!
The scene: a male bumble bee, Bombus melanopygus, and a worker honey bee, Apis mellifera, are buzzing along at breakneck speed toward the lavender in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.
They nearly collide but Mr. Bumble Bee pauses in mid-air and gives Ms. Honey Bee a free pass---and just in time for National Pollinator Week, when all of our pollinators need free passes! That starts out with two crucial steps: plant bee-friendly flowers and avoid using pesticides. Feed them food, not poison.
The end result here: plenty of nectar for everyone.
Bombus melanopygus, also known as the black-tailed honey bee, is among the bumble bees featured in the book, Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University), the award-winning work of Paul H. Williams, Robbin W. Thorp, Leif L. Richardson and Sheila R. Colla.
Thorp, a distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, is also the co-author (along with Gordon Frankie, Rollin Coville, and Barbara Ertter) of California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists. They offer great information on bee identification, but also crucial advice on how to attract and retain bees in your garden.
Happy Pollinator Week!/span>
Nice to see you!
That's how we greeted our very last bumble bee of 2016.
The yellow-faced bumble bee, Bombus vosnesenskii, apparently came out of hibernation and started nectaring on mallow Nov. 14 at the Natural Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz. We were at the park to see the overwintering monarch butterflies, but it was definitely delightful to see another insect species as well.
Ms. Bombus buzzed from one mallow to the other, keeping her distance from the two-legged park visitors. Once she nearly collided with an overwintering monarch heading for tropical milkweed blossoms.
B. vosnesenskii, native to the west coast of North America and found from British Columbia to Baja California, is an iconic pollinator and also an important pollinator for such crops as greenhouse tomatoes. It's among the bumble bees featured in the book, Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University), the award-winning work of Paul H. Williams, Robbin W. Thorp, Leif L. Richardson and Sheila R. Colla.
When you click on the Princeton site, you'll hear the familiar buzz of bumble bees. It's just like encountering them in a wildflower meadow and listening to them take flight. It's a sound, unfortunately, that we're not hearing that much any more. The world's bumble bee population is declining, and some species are extinct or critically imperiled.
Speaking of bumble bees, did you see the paper, “Bumble Bees of Montana,” published this week by faculty and students in the Montana State University College of Agriculture in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America (AESA)? The scientists researched and compiled the state's first inventory of bumble bees known to live in Montana.
"The first time a bumble bee was recorded in Montana was in the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805," wrote Jenny Lavey of the MSU News Service.
Four scientists co-authored the paper:
- Michael Ivie, associate professor of entomology in the MSU Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology
- Kevin O'Neill, professor of entomology in the MSU Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences,
- Casey Delphia, MSU research scientist, and
- Amelia Dolan, former MSU entomology graduate student
"Because of Montana's size, landscape diversity and regional junction of eastern and western geographies, when it comes to bumble bees, Montana hosts a diverse, large and globally relevant community of species,” Ivie said in the news release. “Our research shows 28 different species of Bombus, with four more expected to make the list. That's the largest number of bumble bee species recorded for a state in the entire country."
Said Dolan: "It was amazing because we had people collecting specimens across the state, in varying elevations and diverse ecosystems – areas we alone wouldn't have had access to in the time that we had to complete the project. The number of species is representative of Montana's wild spaces and diverse landscapes that host these bees."
When was Bombus vosnesenskii first recorded in Montana? In 1923 (Frison).
If you want to hear more about bumble bees and other bees (some 1600 species of bees reside in California), be sure to attend a free two-hour presentation on "Bee Aware Bee Cause" at 1:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 7 by Robbin Thorp at the Rush Ranch Nature Center, 3521 Grizzly Island Road, Suisun. A worldwide expert on bees, Thorp is a distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis who continues his research, writings and bee identification work. (See information on the event on previous Bug Squad blog.)
Specifically, California bees and blooms.
Even more specifically, undomesticated bees (that is, not honey bees).
Did you know that:
- Of the 4000 undomesticated bee species in the United States, some 1600 species are found in California?
- Seventy percent of bees nest in the ground, and 30 percent in pre-existing cavities?
Like honey bees, native bees are declining due to pesticides, habitat destruction and fragmentation, global climate change, drought and other extreme weather events, and lack of nutrition.
Native pollinator specialist Thorp, a Bohart Museum associate, is a distinguished emeritus professor, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology and also the co-author of Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide (Princeton University Press). He retired in 1994 after 30 years of teaching, research and mentoring graduate students but continues his research on pollination biology and ecology, systematics, biodiversity, and conservation of bees, especially bumble bees. Among his special interests: native bees of the vernal pool ecosystem.He maintains his office in the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, west of the central campus.
Native bee expert Frankie is a professor and research entomologist at UC Berkeley. His specialty is behavioral ecology of solitary bees in wildland, agricultural, and urban environments of California and Costa Rica. More information on his projects can be found at www.helpabee.org. See also the Bay Nature interview.
Coville, who holds a doctorate in entomology from UC Berkeley, is a noted insect and spider photographer. Check out the photos on his website. Coville also has a strong interest in the biology and behavior of Hymenoptera and has published papers on Trypoxylon wasps and Centris bees.
Ertter is curator of Western North American Botany at the University and Jepson Herbaria, UC Berkeley. Primary research interests include western floristics (including the East Bay), systematics of several members of the rose family (that is,, Potentilla, Ivesia, Rosa), and the history of western botany.
California Bees and Blooms showcases 22 of the most common genera (and six species of cuckoo bees). You can learn about their distinctive behavior, social structure, flight season, preferred flowers (there are more than 6500 flowering species or angiosperms in California), and enemies, such as praying mantids.
The some 200 photos in the book will help you identify native bees, such as the bumble bee and carpenter bee below. We found these foraging in our backyard pollinator garden.