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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Inaugural First-Bumble-Bee-of-the-Year Contest honors memory of Robbin Thorp

Bohart museum remembers former entomology professor’s legacy

In the midst of a chaotic start to 2021, Charlie Nicholson, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of entomology and nematology, found peace in going out on sunny days to observe bumble bees. After carrying out this routine every day at 3:00 p.m., he finally found one on Jan. 14 and sent a photo to the Bohart museum, winning their inaugural Robbin Thorp Memorial First-Bumble-Bee-of-the-Year Contest. 

Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology, explained that after Robbin Thorp, a distinguished emeritus professor in the department of entomology, passed away in 2019, the museum wanted to come up with a fun way to honor him while also promoting public engagement and education about bumble bees. 

“He was pretty much ‘Mr. Bumble Bee’ for the west coast,” Kimsey said. “It’s a huge loss for us and the larger community that does pollination, so we thought it would be fun to do something in honor of all the work that he did.”

Kimsey explained that Thorp had done decades of research on bumble bees, and produced a manual about them, called “Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide.” Nicholson recalled using this book and many of Thorp’s papers throughout his Ph.D., and stated it was foundational to his work. 

The closest Nicholson had ever worked with Thorp was at the Bee Course, a workshop experience organized by the American Museum of Natural History in Portal, AZ, where leading experts in bee taxonomy and bee ecology gathered. For two weeks, he described spending days in a van in the Chihuahuan desert, one of the epicenters of bee diversity. At night, he would be hunched over a microscope with Thorp right behind him, guiding participants in learning how to identify bees. 

“I didn’t work closely [with him] like a grad student or an undergrad student might work, but I had this wonderful curative two weeks at the Bee Course as one of many students that Robbin had guided during that year and over the years,” Nicholson said.

Richard Hatfield, a senior conservation biologist at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, also attended the Bee Course in the past, and described Thorp as an incredibly knowledgeable, patient and encouraging instructor. 

Kimsey noted that Thorp’s influence on the community grew exponentially after his retirement from being a professor. She had met him as an undergraduate student when she took his classes, and had known him for decades. Kimsey noticed that once he retired from his position it was as if he had been freed, and he suddenly became the go-to person for all people in the field of bees and pollination. She recalled he received endless faculty promotions because of his contributions to the field, and helped many graduate students receive their degrees through his guidance.

“It was almost superhuman,” Kimsey said. “He really, really did have a huge impact on the community, really more after retirement than before. It’s kind of interesting.”

Nicholson expressed he was very excited that the Bohart Museum is conducting this competition, and believes that the data collected from citizens could potentially be studied in the future. He elaborated that it may be interesting to see if the ‘first bumble bee of the year’ is spotted more consistently as the years progress or if it tends to vary. Kimsey added that this data also indicates current pollinator health status and knowledge about the current season. 

“I think the exciting thing is, citizens who participate in this kind of community science project will over time develop this kind of data set that you could use to answer some of those hypotheses,” Nicholson said.

As the “grandfather of bumble bee conversation,” Hatfield expressed that in addition to contributing decades of research and hundreds of research studies, Thorp was incredibly generous with his time. Hatfield remembers Thorp patiently sharing his knowledge to all who came to him, and continuing to advocate for bee protection and conservation until his passing. 

“I hope that Robbin will be remembered as a kind mentor, a generous colleague and an excellent scientist,” Hatfield said via email. “I fondly remember the many hours that I spent with Robbin in the field and in the lab [—] I now cherish those days more than ever.”

Written by: Michelle Wong — science@theaggie.org

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