Celebrating the Life of Robbin Thorp, Global Authority on Bees

A life well-lived.

Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, was a global authority on bees and he generously shared his expertise with others.

"Robbin had a long, well-respected career in pollination biology and bee taxonomy, but when he retired, he became even more engaged," said Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis. "He became the go-to person for everyone working on pollination in the western states. Many careers were made with his assistance."

"I've known Robbin since I was a graduate student at UC Davis," Kimsey said. "Even though he wasn't my major professor, my project was on bees and he was incredibly helpful and supportive. His enthusiasm about pollinators and bees in particular actually grew after he retired, and he continued helping students and researchers and was the backbone of so much research. His support and kindness was matched by his undemanding assistance and expertise. What a terrible loss to his family and to the research and conservation communities."

Now Kimsey is coordinating the celebration of life for Thorp. It will take place from 6 to 8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 11 in the Putah Creek Lodge, located on Putah Creek Lodge Drive, southwest section of the UC Davis Arboretum.

Thorp, 85, passed away Friday, June 7 at this home in Davis. He would have been 86 on Aug. 26.

Thorp, 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, Thorp 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.

“Robbin's scientific achievements during his retirement rival the typical career productivity of many other academic scientists,” said Steve Nadler, professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. “His contributions in support of understanding bee biodiversity and systematics are a true scientific legacy.

In his retirement, Thorp 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, a half-acre bee garden on Bee Biology Road operated by the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. He detected and identified more than 80 species of bees in the haven. 

Colleague Norman Gary, UC Davis emeritus professor of entomology, earlier said that "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."

"Robbin was one of the few people in North America who could identify bees down to the species level,” said former graduate student Katharina Ullmann, director of the UC Davis Student Farm, Agricultural Sustainability Institute, and a UC Davis alumnus (doctorate in entomology).

Born Aug. 26, 1933 in Benton Harbor, Mich., Robbin received his bachelor of science degree in zoology (1955) and his master's degree in zoology (1957) from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He earned his doctorate in entomology in 1964 from UC Berkeley, 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.

Every summer from 2002 to 2018,  Thorp volunteered his time and expertise to teach at The Bee Course, an annual workshop sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History and held at the Southwestern Research Station, Portal, Ariz. The intensive 9-day workshop, considered the world's premiere native bee biology and taxonomic course, is geared for conservation biologists, pollination ecologists and other biologists.

Highly honored by his peers, Thorp 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.

Professor Neal Williams, who organized a symposium in Thorp's honor at the 2019 Pacific Branch, Entomological Society of America (PBESA) meeting in San Diego, said: ‘Through his tireless efforts in research, advocacy and education, he has inspired a new generation of bee researchers…I like many others, feel truly honored, to have received the mentoring of Robbin and to have him as a colleague.”

Williams said the PBESA symposium was “perhaps the greatest honor one can receive from close colleagues--a special symposium honoring him and his contributions to the field of bee biology and pollination. We designed the symposium to honor the impact of Dr. Thorp, on the field of bee biology and conservation, but at the same time present innovative research that brings together bee and pollination biology researchers."

An authority on the critically imperiled Franklin's bumble bee, Bombus franklini, Thorp began monitoring the bumble bee population in 1998 in its narrow distribution range of southern Oregon and northern California. He had not seen it since 2006 and was instrumental in placing the bee on the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). He was the former regional co-chair of the North America IUCN Bumblebee Specialist Group.

In August of 2016 a documentary crew from CNN, headed by John Sutter, followed Thorp to a meadow where Thorp last saw Franklin's bumble bee. Sutter wrote about Thorp, then 82, in a piece he titled "The Old Man and the Bee," a spinoff of Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea."

His wife, Joyce, 84, preceded him in death on Dec. 9, 2018. Survivors include three children, Kelly, Katie and Jeff, and stepchildren Donna Gary and Steve Gary.

Those who plan to attend the celebration of life may make reservations at https://bit.ly/2lLG20E. For more information on the event, contact coordinator Lynn Kimsey at lskimsey@ucdavis.edu.