Charles D. Michener
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 by Lawrence Journal-World on Nov. 4, 2015.
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23 Entries
Whatever the time elapsed since Dr. Michener's passing, his memory will always be present among us, remembering him as a brilliant and generous person. His outstanding knowledge of the bees of the world, personally allowed me as a graduate student at KU, to learn a lot about these wonderful creatures and to convey this knowledge with enthusiasm to my own students in Chile, of which I am eternally grateful.
But Dr. Michener not only paid attention to his students with his teachings and the delivery of his human values, but also to any other person, with whom with his great kindness he could always keep an interesting and entertaining conversation. This was the experience my mother had, while visiting the US, when she had the opportunity to share with him and with his lovely wife Mery. Blessings for the whole family and especially for Barbara.
November 6, 2019
As I continue to work in the field of pollination ecology - I am always reminded what a huge gap Mich (Dr. Michener) has left in this world. I will continue to treat others as he would have treated people as he did not believe in hierarchy. Even as a lowly grad student he would respond promptly to my emails with much care and consideration. For that I am eternally grateful and will remember him with great fondness.
Hien Ngo
October 29, 2019
Mich was on my thesis committee 1975-79. Knowing him and Mary was a privilege I cherish to this day. The world has lost a great man and an inspiration to many of us in and out of entomology. I add my condolences to his family.
Robert Gorton
December 2, 2015
En nombre de la Sociedad Chilena de Entomología, dejamos nuestro más sentido pésame a quien fuera uno de los más grandes estudiosos de abejas del mundo y formador de entomólogos chilenos.
Muchas gracias por tu invaluable labor.

Álvaro Zúñiga-Reinoso
Sociedad Chilena de Entomología
Alvaro Zúñiga-Reinoso
November 24, 2015
Had the great opportunity to meet Dr Michener when he came to Thailand. What a wealth of knowledge and such a lovely guy with it. He may now have passed on but his legacy will remain forever. RIP and condolences to al his family.
Michael Birt
November 23, 2015
I would like to send my sincerest condolences to Charles Michener's entire family, friends and colleagues. Words cannot express how much he has inspired me (and many other melittologists) and will continue to do so for future generations.
Hien Ngo
November 14, 2015
I would like to send my condolences to the family of Charles Michener's family.
I never met him, but as a distance relative of his mother Effie, my great aunt,as I a child I was able to visit the great "museum House" in Pasadena,CA. What an amazing place to visit and live in. By the way, I am the grandson of Caroline N. Rigden.
Cliff Ivy
November 6, 2015
I am so sad to learn of Mich's passing, but I am grateful for having known him and benefitted from his kindness and his insights. As a grad student at KU, Mich was on my PhD committee, and my love of bees (despite the fact that I work mostly on plants) came in large part from his joy in their marvelous diversity. He was instrumental in helping us to appreciate the amazing beauty of these wonderful creatures, and his legacy will be a permanent gift to our future studies of these incredible organisms.
Lyn Loveless
November 6, 2015
I never knew Mich, and I am sad for that. But knowing and respecting so many of the people he had a profound influence on leaves me certain that he was remarkable not only in his devotion to science and natural history, but also in his kindness and devotion to students and colleagues. His legacy will certainly live on in legend and memory.
Robinson Sudan
November 6, 2015
I can attest that in his 90s, he was helping my friend, a student in Senegal, seek a Ph.d in entomology. What an amazing and inspiring human being!
Susan Telingator
November 6, 2015
I never had Dr. Michener as an instructor, but I do remember his gentleness and open-mindedness, which is reflected in his children. My condolences to the family.
Marvin Voth
November 5, 2015
Although I never met Mich, I have learnt so much from his writings. Vale a great scientist.
Tim Heard
November 5, 2015
I worked with your father in the Division of Biological Sciences in the early 80's and even took one of his classes, Insects and Man. He was a wonderful person, kind, caring, and always available to chat for a moment or an hour. I hope your many happy memories bring you and your family comfort at this difficult time.
Sherry (Michael) Graves
November 5, 2015
I had the privilege of knowing Dr. Michener and being one of his graduate students at KU in the 80s.It was a wonderful experience of having the opportunity to interact and learn so much from his experience. I always remember his generosity, great knowledge and outstanding memory. A brilliant scientist and a kind person is gone. My sincere condolescens and blessings to Dr. Micheners family.
Luisa Ruz
November 5, 2015
A great one is gone. I was Mich's student for 6 years in the late 1970s and I remember every minute. No matter how busy, Mich would look up from his microscope to talk with anyone who came into his office.We frequently walked to the cafeteria for lunch and talked about everything from science to politics.It was an enormous privilege to have known him. My condolences to Mich's family and friends. The obituary is a fine memorial.
Les Greenberg
November 4, 2015
Nuestras mas sinceras condolencias a su estimable familia, colegas y amigos. Un ejemplo a seguir para todos nosotros. Centro de Investigaciones Apícolas Tropicales- CINAT-Programa Integrado de meliponicultura
Ingrid Aguilar Monge
November 4, 2015
Remembering his generosity and bright mind. Treating him with great respect in the memory.
Jakub Straka
November 4, 2015
The opportunity to be a graduate student at KU Entomology while Mich was still there was a gift. His papers and books tell of what he was as a scientist, but knowing the human being behind that scientist is not possible through reading. He was an example for life. My condolences to the family.
Fernando Silveira
November 4, 2015
This a beautifully written and true account of the remarkable career of a modest scientist, husband and father. I was one of Mich's very many graduate students, and learned not only about bees under his tutelage but, by Mich's example, how to be a to be a good mentor and colleague to others (something I am still working on). So many have been so fortunate to have known him. If heroes can be modest, soft-spoken people, then Mich was one indeed. Thank you, Herald, for offering so much space to recount his life and legacy.
Jim Cane
November 4, 2015
Celebrating a life well lived. We will cherish the memories forever. -
María E. Bozzoli de Wille
November 4, 2015
I had the great and undeserved honor of publishing the description of Caupolicana evansi in 2004, with Dr. Michener. I send my condolences to the family of Dr. Micheners and to the the thousands of bee enthusiasts that were influenced by this great man.
Carlos Vergara
November 4, 2015
Dr. Michener was the teacher of my teacher, Dr. Alvaro Wille.
Alvaro always had nice things to say about Dr. Michener and here in the tropics we value his extraordinary contribution to biology.
Our condolences to his family.

Revista de Biología Tropical
Julian Monge-Najera
November 4, 2015
I send my condolences to Dr. Michener's family. I have a fond memory of being a passenger in (as I recall) his ancient Saab on my way to Lawrence High School in the early 1960's with his son David. The professor was truly a great man but carried his learning with great kindness and humility.
Thorold (Tod) Roberts
November 4, 2015
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