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Robbin W. Thorp
In Memoriam

Robbin W. Thorp

Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Entomology

UC Davis
Prof. Robbin W. Thorp was an internationally recognized authority on bees and a distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis. He passed away at the age of 85. He had a long, impressive career studying the ecology and conservation of bees in managed and natural environments, their contributions as pollinators of key specialty crops and their taxonomy and systematics. He was also a passionate educator, golfer and tennis player.

Born in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Prof. Thorp received his bachelor’s 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 was a member of the UC Davis entomology faculty from 1964-1994. From 1970 to 2006, he taught courses on insect classification, general entomology, natural history of insects, field entomology, California insect diversity, and pollination ecology.

Prof. Thorp was a widely recognized authority on pollination biology, and the ecology and taxonomy of pollinators, particularly bumble bees. He explored the role of honeybees, bumble bees and other species in crop pollination, helping to set the standards for stocking densities of honey bee colonies for almond pollination that are still used today. He also pioneered studies of bee communities and their pollinator in vernal pool ecosystems as well as in urban and agricultural landscapes. He was a tireless and passionate advocate of pollinator species protection and conservation until the very end of his life.

After his retirement in 1994, he became even more engaged in research and outreach, which continued until a few weeks before his death. As many colleagues have remarked, he essentially had two full careers, one before and one after retirement. After retirement, he became the go-to person for researchers, conservation groups, and governmental agencies for all things pollination in the western USA. He also co-authored two books Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists.

He volunteered his time and expertise every summer from 2002 to 2018, to teach at The Bee Course, a workshop sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History and held at the Southwestern Research Station in Portal, Arizona. This intensive 9-day workshop is the world's premiere course on native bee biology and taxonomy for conservation biologists, pollination ecologists and other biologists. Through it and his tireless support for graduate students and younger colleagues, he has inspired the next generation of bee biologists.

Prof. Thorp’s enthusiasm for pollinators, and bees in particular continued to grow throughout his life. In retirement re-redoubled his efforts helping students and researchers. A tremendous amount of leading research on bees, biodiversity and pollination services could not have been accomplished without his assistance. His enthusiastic support and kindness were matched by his humble expertise. In 2019, he was honored at the Pacific Branch Entomological Society of America meeting in San Diego in recognition of his tireless efforts in bee research, advocacy and education.

This was one of many honors he received during his pre- and post-retirement careers. Prof. Thorp was named a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, in 1986. He received the Edward A. Dickson Emeriti Professorship of UC Davis in 2010. He was also a recipient of the UC Davis Distinguished Emeritus Award in 2015. He was a member of the UC Davis Bee Team that won Pacific Branch of the Entomological Society of America's Team Award in 2013. In addition, he was president of the Davis Botanical Society from 2010-2011, and former chair of the Advisory Committee for the Jepson Prairie Reserve, UC Davis/Natural Reserve System from 1992-2011.

After retirement, Prof. Thorp began monitoring populations of Franklin’s bumblebee. An endangered bee species with a narrow distribution range in southern Oregon and northern California. Because he had not seen the species since 2006, he was instrumental in getting Franklin's bumblebee placed on the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Prof. Thorp served as the regional co-chair of the IUCN Bumblebee Specialist Group, beginning in 2011. In recognition of this and other efforts, his colleagues commissioned and presented him with a framed illustration of Bombus franklini, the work of artist April Coppini of Portland, Oregon. In 2016, a documentary crew from CNN, headed by John Sutter, filmed him in a meadow where he last saw Franklin's bumblebee, in a piece he titled The Old Man and the Bee.

Robbin’s death has left a gap in our collective knowledge of bees that is unlikely to be filled. His understanding of bee natural history and his skill as a taxonomist place him among the ranks of the “all-time greats.”

Lynn Kimsey
Neal Williams