$10 million Bug Collection will go to ASU

Via azcentral.com

Charlie and Lois O’Brien spent 60 years amassing a collection of 1.25 million insects as part of their research, he working one side of the trail and she collecting on the other.

A day in the field could easily stretch from 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. the next day.

They gathered insects in 70 countries and every continent.

Now in their 80s, they’ve decided to start cleaning house.

“We’re not kids, and we’re aware sooner or later, we’re not going to be able to work with the collection,” Charlie O’Brien said.

The Green Valley couple plan to give the specimens, believed to be one of the largest private collections of insects in the world, to Arizona State University.

These aren’t just any insects.

The O’Briens’ collection is worth as much as $10 million, with some rare specimens valued at as much as $300 each.

They specialize in two insects: He is an expert in weevils, a small beetle that can devastate some crops while benefiting others. She specializes in planthoppers, an insect that often resembles a leaf and uses its beak to drink sap from plants.

The couple met in the 1950s, when Charlie O’Brien was teaching for a master’s degree at the University of Arizona, and Lois O’Brien was a student in his class.

Their shared interest in entomology — the study of insects — quickly pulled them together.

And it’s a good thing, according to Lois O’Brien, because divorce can be common if one spouse is into insects and the other isn’t.

They both earned Ph.D.s in entomology. Their research took them to universities in Santiago, Chile, and to Texas, Ohio and the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, Fla., where  Charlie O’Brien spent 33 years as a professor and noted weevil expert.

Lois O’Brien wanted to be free to travel with him, so she conducted research but said she didn’t have “a regular job.” 

“It’s been a great life, and it’s been our life,” said her husband, who turns 84 next month. “We’ve traveled and experienced all kinds of exciting things.”

“And it’s mentally stimulating,” added Lois O’Brien, who will mark her 90th birthday in August.

People often ask them to name the most exciting place they have visited. They can’t pick just one.

But Charlie O’Brien remembers memorable meals in the field. He has dined on tree lizard, calling it “magnificent”; possum, “a little greasy”; and wild boar, “spectacular.”

The couple retired to Green Valley, south of Tucson, 11 years ago. But they never stopped collecting and identifying species.

They keep the specimens in two rooms of their house. They pin the insects and dry them on boards. The dead insects are encased in glass to protect them from being eaten by live insects. At last count, they had 1,260 glass drawers full of insects.

The O’Briens decided to begin donating their collection to ASU because of their long-standing relationship with Nico Franz, an associate professor in the School of Life Sciences who has known the couple for two decades.

“It’s a big deal for us,” said Franz, who is curator of the university’s insect collection and is himself a weevil expert.

The donation will more than double ASU’s current insect collection of around 1 million specimens.

Here’s why the collection is a big deal: Taxonomists such as Franz rely on collections of insects to identify new species, assign them names and arrange them within the tree of life.

About 1 million insect species have been identified. But an estimated three to eight times more species have not yet been named, Franz said.

The O’Briens’ collection is likely to contain specimens of more than a thousand new species. The couple also are endowing professorships in the School of Life Sciences, which will go toward further identifying and naming new species.

The donation will make ASU one of the premier research and training locations for researchers who study weevils and planthoppers, Franz said.

This, in turn, can attract undergraduate students, graduate students and post-doctoral researchers to the university.

The O’Briens hope that their vast collection can help researchers learn even more about the fascinating world of insects.

By donating to a university, their collection can be used for generations.

And it’s a collection not available anywhere else.

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