Love and insects: One couple’s partnership in life and in the lab

By

Mary Beth Faller

After Charlie and Lois O’Brien first met in an entomology class, she wanted to go collect insects with him but he turned her down.

He was the teacher and she was the student, and he didn’t think it would be fair to her classmates.

“He was a challenge,” Lois O’Brien said of those early days.

“We were evenly matched,” Charlie O’Brien said. “I couldn’t chase you around.”

Lois stuck with Charlie, and over the next six decades, they were partners in life, in the lab and on the road as they became two of the world’s top entomologists. They have devoted their lives to collecting and studying insects, and they created one of the largest and most important private collections in the world.

The O’Briens, who live in southern Arizona, have decided to donate their collection to ASU — a gift that will transform the university’s entomology research. They’re also endowing a professorship dedicated to insect systematics, the discipline of identifying and naming species, using physical characteristics, geography and other processes to improve the understanding of evolution and conservation.

“I’ve been fortunate to have a wonderful life as an entomologist, collecting with my husband, and I hope the students at ASU have as wonderful a life as we have had,” Lois said.

Now in their 80s, the two work on their collection every day, in their labs across the hall from each other in their house in Green Valley, Arizona. They live a short drive away from the place where they met — the University of Arizona, where Charlie was earning his master’s degree in entomology, and Lois, who had a master’s degree in chemistry, was working part-time in the entomology department while she pursued a teaching degree.

“The professors made insects sound so wonderful that I had to switch. They were intellectually stimulating,” she said.

Lois got her doctorate before Charlie did because he took time off to work in Antarctica. It was 1958, only the second year that scientists were working there, and Charlie’s job was to sit in a small plane with the doors off and try to catch insect fragments in a net to evaluate air currents. It was 15 degrees below zero and boring.

“We got nothing in the nets,” he said, but he did find lice on penguins. He also traveled to New Zealand and the Solomon Islands during that trip before returning to California, where he and Lois were married.

They launched their personal and professional collaboration by collecting insects during their honeymoon in Canada, and eventually they traveled all over the world, including a lot of time spent in natural history museums in Europe, examining the historic specimens there.

The O’Briens lived in Chile and then in Texas and finally settled in Florida, where Charlie was a professor at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, a historically black college in Tallahassee.

He became one of the world’s top experts in weevils, a mega-diverse group of beetles.

“They were everywhere, and almost no one could identify any of them and they were wide open for study,” he said.

“Questions! Questions! Answer one question and you have 20 more.”
— entomologist Lois O’Brien on the vast area of untapped knowledge about insects

Because most weevil species tend to eat only one kind of plant, some of those species have become a scourge of crops. With such a huge economic impact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent millions on weevil identification and mitigation. Many of the O’Briens’ collecting trips were funded by federal grants.

Charlie has discovered, or “described,” hundreds of weevil species — including three he found in his backyard in Florida — and has several named after him.

They often drove — and collected — off the beaten path. In 1974, they drove from Tallahassee to Panama for four months, and the hotel rooms were so mosquito-infested that they slept in their car.

The couple developed a routine for collecting, one on each side of a trail — if there was a trail. Back home, Lois built the glass-topped wooden drawers for their personal collections: weevils for him, planthoppers for her.

Back home, they spent hours sorting their specimens, examining and dissecting them under microscopes, and then mounting them. Lois did most of the labeling.

When they retired to Arizona about a decade ago, they added extra rooms onto the house for their labs. Each lab is stuffed with hundreds of specimen drawers, along with books, journals, file cabinets, computers and microscopes. The walls are adorned with bug posters and bug cartoons.

The breadth of the couple’s collection is fantastic. It includes weevils that are 2 inches long and others that are brown specks. Among Charlie’s favorites are “clown weevils” from the Philippines, which are colorfully striped. Others are gorgeously iridescent in purple jewel tones. A drawer of planthoppers from Asia displays wings of turquoise, coral and brilliant gold. Lois’ favorite specimen looks exactly like a peanut.

“The weevils are more important to people right now. I help him at times, and that means I don’t get to do my work,” said Lois, who has about 250,000 planthoppers in her collection and has written more than 50 papers.

The collection of specimens is just part of their amazing legacy. The level of curation is what elevates the scientific value.

“More than half of everything I have is identified, and that takes an unbelievable number of hours,” Charlie said.

“I can spend a hundred hours identifying a single species. Or I can spend a hundred hours and not identify that species.”

That’s why the pair are passionate about students learning from their collection.

“The whole approach is exactly what we were looking for as far as potential future research and the use of the collection,” Charlie said of ASU.

The couple also has a long relationship with Nico Franz, the curator of ASU’s Hasbrouck Insect Collection and director of the Biodiversity Knowledge Integration Center in the School of Life Sciences.

“The O’Briens have lived a uniquely purposeful and focused life,” said Franz, who met the couple in 1997. Charlie was his external thesis adviser, and Franz himself is one of the top experts in the world on weevils.

“It makes sense for their collection to be cared for by a weevil specialist as opposed to a bee specialist or a dragonfly specialist,” Franz said.

“There’s a universe that’s larger than mammals and yet there are very few specialists. It’s this huge portion of the tree of life that’s largely unknown.”

Lois O’Brien said that insects are a vast area of untapped knowledge.

“Questions! Questions! Answer one question and you have 20 more,” she said. 

The O’Briens’ collection donation and endowment will boost the efforts of Campaign ASU 2020, a comprehensive philanthropic effort that aims to accelerate ASU’s mission and raise support for its educational priorities by raising at least $1.5 billion by 2020. Learn more at giveto.asu.edu.

Top photo: Charlie and Lois O'Brien at their home in Green Valley, Arizona. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now