The Bee Guru

Since The Bees’ Needs focuses much attention on bees, it seems reasonable to mention Dr. Charles Michener, arguably the most knowledgeable human on the subject of bees – ever. His treatise, The Bees of The World, is THE comprehensive work on bees.

Rather than regurgitate the statistics of his 80 years as a professional entomologist, with over 500 publications, over 600 described species, and around 100 species named for him – all things that you can read about by clicking on the reference links below – I’d rather focus on his connection to Boulder.

As a teenager, he became interested in bees and ended up corresponding with T.D.A. Cockerell, our Entomology Collection’s first curator and, at the time, a world expert on bees.  In fact, Mich ended up coming to Boulder, from Pasadena where he lived, to spend a summer with the Cockerells and learn about bees. That was 1935, the same year he published his first professional paper which happened to be on the nesting habits of a California species of Dianthidium.  Not bad for a 16 years old!

The first time I met Mich, I was a shy, insecure, beginning Master’s student at Michigan State, and I was giving a presentation on Hylaeus nesting biology at the Entomological Society of America meetings. Because of a scheduling conflict, he couldn’t attend my talk. At his request, we went down to the slide screening room and I was able to give a personal encore presentation to both Mich and Walley (LaBerge, another bee systematist). I was totally frightened at first – mortified actually – in the presence of THE world’s authority on bees, but I soon came to realize Mich wanted to hear what I had to say. The talk became a discussion. He wanted to learn from me, but I think he also wanted me to learn from the discussion, not through him telling me, but from me telling him. It’s a concept that I have come to appreciate over the years – and that is, the best way to learn something is by teaching it.  By doing that, you refine your own thinking on the matter, you see ideas from other people’s perspectives, and often times you absorb what they have observed and shared with you. Our Citizen Scientists, our wonderful volunteers, remind me of that, quite often.

Another thing I learned is that when you study bees, all roads lead to Kansas. Mich was hired on at the University of Kansas in 1948 and has remained active there for 67 years, building a world-wide collection of bees that dwarfs our entire entomology collection here at CU. I’ve visited several times over the years, and was always welcomed with open arms. Mich also has amassed a large collection of students, grand-students, and great-grand students. All living bee workers are somehow “related” to him, academically. He built a legacy studying what he loved.

Several days ago, Mich passed away peacefully at the age of 97. By all accounts, he had a good life — a life full of bees.

Links to reference: (limited access)

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One Response to The Bee Guru

  1. Leif says:

    Thank you for this touching story. I knew the name, but not his story, and it’s nice to know the Boulder connection. I agree about teaching to learn too!

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