Charles D. Michener

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Charles D. Michener

Charles D. Michener, University of Kansas Professor Emeritus of Entomology and of Systematics and Ecology, has died at the age of 97. He was considered the world's foremost authority on the natural history, classification, and evolution of the world's 20,000 species of bees.

Mich was born in Pasadena, California into the perfect family for a boy with his gifts. His parents were serious amateur ornithologists, and in their immense and densely treed back-yard, Mich learned as a young child to observe nature and record data, assisting his parents as they captured, banded, and released 45,000 birds in the course of their studies.

By the age of ten Mich had made meticulous water-color paintings of 120 California wildflowers. New plants becoming hard to find, he switched to collecting and drawing insects, producing over 1200 pages of detailed illustrations and scientific notes. When the principal North American bee expert of that time received a scientific inquiry from a precocious 14-year-old in California, he sent a quick and encouraging response, and soon Mich was accompanying renowned entomologists on collecting trips to the Mojave and Colorado deserts. Mich's first scientific paper appeared when he was 16, based on observations begun when he was 12.

Arriving at the Berkeley campus of the University of California in 1936, Mich as a freshman was assigned office space among the graduate students in the entomology department and while still an undergraduate began the research for his PhD dissertation, which he completed in 1941, just two years after graduation. In the course of that same year, while working as a lab instructor, he married his student Mary Hastings after a four-week courtship. (Their marriage would last 69 years.) In 1944 his dissertation was published as a monograph by the American Museum of Natural History. This work, "Comparative External Morphology, Phylogeny, and a Classification of the Bees," began what a colleague recently termed "the Michener era" in bee studies.

Mich's fascination was not with honeybees, but with with the many thousands of other species of bees worldwide that do not live in large colonies or make honey, but which are essential pollinators for both the natural environment and crops. But the only bees most institutions considered worthy of study at that time were honeybees, so Mich accepted a position at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City as curator of butterflies and moths. This turned out to be an excellent move that was to have a lasting effect on his career. The museum staff at the time happened to include many major figures in twentieth-century biological thought, and the institution was a center of debate on evolutionary processes. Further, as the resident expert on butterflies (and a quick study), Mich was consulted by an interesting variety of amateur lepidopterists, including Vladimir Nabokov and a 15-year-old Paul Ehrlich. Following a two-year stint studying disease-carrying mosquitoes and chiggers in the Army Sanitary Corps, then two more years back at the American Museum, Mich accepted an associate professorship at the University of Kansas. Mich, Mary, and their three children, David, Daniel, and Barbara, moved to Lawrence in 1948 and the following year bought the home Mich occupied until three days ago.

At KU Mich was able to return full-time to the study of bees and settled into a routine of teaching, research, and publishing punctuated by the birth of another son, Walter, and by innumerable overseas trips to collect examples of the world's bee-fauna. Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1955, Mich took his entire family to Brazil for a year, and a Fulbright Research Award in 1957 took them for another year to Australia. A second Guggenheim Fellowship in 1966 allowed Mich, Mary, and their two younger children to spend 14 months in Africa collecting bees and traveling almost 3,000 miles by road from South Africa to Uganda. On shorter trips Mich collected bees and shared notes with colleagues in Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, French Guyana, New Guinea, Fiji, China, and Thailand, as well as the U.S. and Canada.

In 1974, Mich published The Social Behavior of the Bees, which summarized everything then known regarding the development of sociality in bees. Appearing just as E.O. Wilson and others were launching the revolution in biological thought known as "sociobiology," the book's theories regarding the evolution of social behavior in insects and its wealth of examples were indispensable tools in the debate. In 1978, in a volume of papers assembled in honor of Mich's 60th birthday, Wilson wrote, "For forty years he has contributed an unbroken stream of books, monographs, and technical articles notable for their quality, breadth, originality, and intrinsic interest. His impact has been enormous. Thanks to the efforts of this modest and charming man, the art of the study of bees is in an advanced state and an ornament of American entomology." Who could have known that Mich's career was only at midpoint?

Mich formally retired from teaching at the University of Kansas in 1989 but continued researching, publishing, and mentoring. The culmination of his life's work, the massive Bees of the World, appeared in 2000. A thousand pages long, it contains accounts of 16,000 species. Mich published an expanded second edition in 2007, when he was 89. In 2010 he lost Mary but soldiered on. His final scientific paper, his 514th publication, appeared this year, exactly 80 years after his first (and in the same journal). In the course of his 80-year career, he gave names to 618 previously unknown species and has had 92 species named by others in his honor.

In spite of all this, the first thing that Mich's former students recall is his kindness, his readiness to help younger scientists, and his famous willingness to be interrupted at any moment to talk with others about their research. Paul Ehrlich, who followed Mich to Lawrence and was his PhD student, recalled, "He was always calm, dispassionate, helpful. Since he almost never reprimanded, the slightest twitch of disapproval was enough to send any graduate student reeling."

Mich's last years, in a wheelchair and with his beloved wife Mary gone after seven decades of marriage, must have been difficult, but he never uttered a word of complaint, and his dignified, gracious, and gently formal manner never changed. He continued to work in his university office, to exchange letters and specimens with researchers around the world, and of course to publish. Even in his late nineties, he could remember precisely a bee he had collected in Brazil in 1955, or in South Africa in 1966, probably the species of flower he'd found it on, and very likely the name of the closest village. There was a moment, though, as he lay in bed the day before his death, that it suddenly became apparent that his mind was not in the same room as his body. He seemed to be addressing a group, probably of students, and with his eyes closed he said with a half-smile, "I suppose all I have to say about these critters is that I don't know much about 'em."

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Published in Lawrence Journal-World on Nov. 4, 2015