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.
Some folks call them "bumble bees," but they're not.
In size, the female Valley carpenter bee (Xylocopa varipuncta) resembles a bumble bee, but certainly not in color.
The female Valley carpenter is solid black with metallic wings. The male of the species is a green-eyed blond, fondly known as "the teddy bear" bee because it's fuzzy-wuzzy and cannot sting. Entomologists will tell you that the male and female are dramatic examples of sexual dimorphism. Yes, they are!
We've been seeing a lot of female Valley carpenter bees lately on our blue spike salvia, (Salvia uliginosa). They engage in nectar-robbing: this occurs when bees circumvent the usual plant-pollinator relationship and "cheat" by entering a flower from the outside to steal nectar. They drill a hole in the corolla to reach the nectar, thus avoiding pollination or contact with the anthers.
Similar-looking insects include bumble bees, cactus flies and horse flies, according to California Bees and Blooms, a Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists,by UC-affiliated authors Gordon Frankie, Robbin Thorp, Rollin Coville, and Barbara Ertter. "Carpenter bees are shinier and have less hair than fuzzy bumble bees. Carpenter bees have two pairs of wings, and they have long, slender, elbowed antennae, while fly mimics have only one pair of wings, and short stubby antennae."
The Valley carpenter bee is California's largest carpenter bee.
They're large but they're elusive. They usually don't linger long for you to grab a photo. This one did. It was early in the morning, and like a true human morning person, she declined to move fast./span>
Ah, pillow fights, popcorn, and marathon movies on TV, you ask?
No. "Boys' Night Out" is when the longhorned male bees in our pollinator garden in Vacaville engage in sleepovers on our Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia) and other blossoms.
At night, the girls sleep inside their nests, and the boys cluster on flowers.
Lately, we've been admiring a trio of boys--Melissodes (possibly M. robustior, as identified by Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis)--bunking down on a Tithonia. Every day, around sunset, they head over to the same flower, arrange themselves in comfortable sleeping positions (hey, quit kicking me), and it's nighty-night! When the sun rises, they vacate the bedroom. Sometimes it's earlier than planned, no thanks to buzzing bumble bees, carpenter bees and honey bees foraging around them and disturbing their beauty sleep. The nerve!
Other species of male longhorned bees--including Melissodes agilis and Svastra obliqua--sleep on flowers at night as well.
"Most frequently, the boy bee overnight clusters are single-species clusters," says Thorp, co-author of California Bees and Blooms, a Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists, with UC-affiliated authors Gordon Frankie, Rollin E. Coville, and Barbara Ertter.
Thorp, who holds a doctorate in entomology from UC Berkeley and taught entomology at UC Davis from 1964 to 1994, continues to "bee involved" in research, writings, bee identification and public outreach. He teaches annually at The Bee Course (American Museum of Natural History), at the Southwestern Research Station, Portal, Ariz. The nine-day intensive course is offered for conservation biologists, pollination ecologists and other biologists who want to gain greater knowledge of the systematics and biology of bees.
In a previous Bug Squad blog, Thorp responded to a reader's inquiry about "stings" from the clustering bees. "Boy bees cannot sting," he pointed out. "They lack a stinger which is a modified ovipositor in their wasp ancestors. Occasionally a girl bee may spend the night out if she is caught by sudden drop in temperature. Usually she will not be part of a group sleep over. So don't attempt to handle unless you are confident you can tell boy bees from girl bees or they are too sleepy to defend themselves."
The reader also asked: "Typically how close to the girls' nest(s) do the boys' slumber? I want to try and make sure I don't touch it when planting at end of summer."
"Boy sleeping aggregations are based on a suitable perch and not related to where females are nesting, but probably no more than 100 yards from the nearest female nest," Thorp answered. "Females nest in the ground and have rather distinctive round holes about the diameter of a pencil or slightly smaller, sometimes with small piles of dirt around them looking like mini-volcanos. The holes may be widely separated or clustered together depending on the species, but each female digs her own burrow."
The reader also wondered: "When watching the boys tonight, about ten of them started waking up and kicking each other. They finally settled down and started to nestle back in for the 'night'--it was only 6 p.m.--but I wasn't sure if my presence was getting them riled or they tend to act like kids sharing a bed?"
Said Thorp: "The boys usually settle in as the light dims in the evening. Cool, and drizzly conditions may modify bed time. Each establishes his own spot, so there may be some jostling for position initially."
Longhorned bees are among the more than 1600 species of undomesticated bees that reside in California. In their book, California Bees and Blooms, the authors focus on 22 of the most common genera and the flowers they frequent. Meanwhile, check out Frankie's UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab website to read more about native bees and the exciting research underway.
What's better than a yellow-faced bumble bee (Bombus vosnesenskii) on yellow mustard?
Not much. Both are signs of early spring.
Mustard is popping up all over, along with oxalyis and wild radish. The earth is warming. Spring is here. Get ready.
In the University of California book, California Bees and Blooms: Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists, the authors write that B. vosnesenskii and B. melanopygus "are considered spring bees because that is when their population is highest, tailing off in numbers the rest of the year."
The book is the work of Gordon Frankie, UC Berkeley entomology professor; Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis; photographer and entomologist Rollin Coville (he received his doctorate from UC Berkeley), and botanist Barbara Ertter, also affiliated with UC Berkeley.
Be sure to check out their companion pocket guide on the UC ANR website. It's titled Common Bees in California Gardens. It will help you identify 24 of the most common bees found in urban gardens and landscapes. That's 24 out of nearly 1600 species of native bees found in the Golden State.
Yellow-faced bumble bee, yellow mustard, Golden State....Life is good...
It's spring and it's loud in the Spanish lavender patch.
The girls--the honey bees--are buzzing furiously as they forage among the blossoms, but so are the boys, in this case the mountain carpenter bee, Xyclocopa tabaniformis orpifex. The girls are there for the pollen and nectar to take back to their colonies, and the boys are there for some flight fuel. And to find mates.
Xyclocopa tabaniformis orpifex is one of three species of California carpenter bees: the others are Xyclocopa varipuncta (the largest one, about the size of a bumble bee), and Xyclocopa californica. All females are mostly black. The male Xyclocopa varipuncta, aka "the teddy bear bee," is a golden with green eyes. The other males often have yellow hair on their head or thorax.
The carpenter bees usually fly from March through October, according to California Bees and Blooms, A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists, a University of California production featuring the work of Gordon Frankie Robbin Thorp, Rollin Coville, and Barbara Ertter (Thorp is a distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, Frankie is a professor at UC Berkeley, and Coville and Ertter are also affiliated with UC Berkeley).
A handy identification pocket guide--a companion to California Bees and Blooms--is Common Bees in California Gardens, published by the University of California Agriculture and Nature Resources. It will help you identify 24 bees and you can lean about the distribution, flight season, nesting habits, floral hosts and how each bee species transports pollen. You'll see beautiful images by noted photographer Coville, who holds a Ph.D. in entomology from UC Berkeley.
Excellent publications! The more you know about bees, the more likely you are to protect them and plant for them.
Ah, spring! It's loud in the Spanish lavender patch...