Talk about romantic.
Lois and Charlie O'Brien will celebrate 54 years of marriage in June, and attribute the relationship's longevity to what bugs them — insects. Millions of them, their common interest.
They've collected, sorted, studied and stored so many, they fill more than 1,200 see-through wooden drawers, the majority built by Lois to slide neatly into a vast assembly of cabinets.
Stacked floor to ceiling with table-high rows down the center, they occupy two rooms they added to their Green Valley home to serve as labs. Interspersed are microscopes, magnifying glasses, journals, reference books, computers and sometimes, visiting researchers. Relief maps of the world pepper the walls.
Next to the fireplace are authentic tribal spears from jungle visits in search of bugs. Charlie and his crew once faced the business end of some spears when the tribal elders mistook them for pig thieves.
In addition to being life partners, the O'Briens have shared their knowledge, countless travels and many harrowing adventures as two of the world's top entomologists, devoting their lives to collecting and documenting insects, many of which weren't known or categorized before.
They have no children or surviving family, and now in their 80s, are about to realize a lifelong dream to pass along their combined accomplishments to posterity, not to mention a research opportunity for many future scientists.
In March, official word came that their global collection of painstakingly notated specimens — more than a million weevils, Charlie's specialty, and 250,000 planthoppers, Lois's passion — will be endowed to Arizona State University. The gift is valued at $12 million and more than doubles ASU's collection, adding to it rare and as-yet unidentified specimens than could provide enormous scientific value.
The endowment also provides for an ongoing research chair and visiting professorship to promote the impact and visibility of the O'Brien collection. UA is getting a set of specimens that its program lacks, and the O'Briens are also donating samples to other institutions.
The couple studied at the University of Arizona, where they met in the 1950s, but chose ASU as their primary beneficiary because a professor there specializes in weevils and is a longtime colleague of Charlie's.
“They approached us after they'd seen what's been done here the past five or six years,” said Nico Franz, Charlie's colleague and curator of ASU's Hasbrouck Insect Collection. He also directs the Biodiversity Knowledge Integration Center in ASU's School of Life Sciences. In the last couple of years, a natural history collection opened there.
In the works for months, the collection's transfer to ASU is “a very close fit in specialization of Charlie and myself because weevils are known to be a very large, challenging group,” Franz said.
Continuing study is vital, he said, and the collection will be used as a baseline for undergrads, grad theses, post-doctoral projects, regional, national and international experts, and will be digitized and part of future research proposals.
Franz was thrilled to learn the O'Briens were considering the ASU endowment. Among other gains, Franz said, it's the “pinnacle of private research-grade collections that outcompetes any in the United States, except for the Smithsonian's. That combined with our training program really is going to be a big draw. We're also seeing it in terms of an increased influx of specialists.”
He's tickled by Charlie's enthusiasm for press coverage, noting that Lois seems to have taken it more in stride.
They've been media darlings for years, including in the 1990s, for engaging dermatobia hominis, the human botfly, which lay eggs in your flesh. They returned from a research trip in Brazil with one each growing in their left arms, for which tiny tweezers and scalpels were employed.
That TV appearance was for a documentary called “World's Most Dangerous Animals,” Charlie recalled. “It was sweeps month.”
They're not deadly but leave a nasty scar, Lois said.
Lately, the O'Briens are creating buzz again with their endowment, and crawling with interview requests from Smithsonian Magazine, NPR, CBC Radio, Philanthropy News Digest and Living with Insects. CNN visited last week; BBC's yet to come.
But they adore sharing their mesmerizing arrays of specimens, which range from smaller than a pinhead to fist-size African scarabs to 14-inch walking sticks, and include various patterns, jewel-like colors and stunning patinas.
Sure, they're impressive to see, but learning about what it took to collect them is as big a treat.
Charlie, 84, exuberantly tells of the times he cheated death chasing bugs, and ponders briefly other close calls he's sure he had but didn't know about.
On that jungle encounter in the Solomon Islands, Charlie and his companions were spared from cannibals by a translator who convinced the natives that the researchers were allies by waving a U.S. flag. They recalled that American troops were kind to them during World War II a few years earlier.
As a grad student at UC-Berkeley, Charlie went to Antarctica, where he spent five months flying two hours daily trying to collect air plankton with nets from low-flying aircraft.
He nearly died four times in the conditions or riding aboard Otter Arctics — planes with wheels and skis — below-zero temperatures, gale-force winds and visibility nil in total white-outs. Sometimes the planes crash-landed in snow banks. Even walking on clear ice was risky, as the orca whales swimming below might crash through, thinking the above-ground shadows were seals waiting to be eaten.
“It was 1958, only the second year of geophysical experience there,” Charlie said.
Accommodations were primitive; back then, power was supplied by oil (it's nuclear now). The empty drums, cut in half, served as privies, and when the ice shelf float out for the season, so did the filled drums, eventually to sink in the ocean. While no flying bugs were collected, parasitic worms and a louse were detected in a seal sacrificed for science.
Some scientists never returned from remote field studies, Charlie said. One time, a jar of mislabeled and extremely toxic methyl alcohol was ingested by some of his co-workers; one died, another went blind. In the South Seas, Charlie contracted malaria despite being vaccinated, requiring a month of recuperating.
He braved poisonous bugs and snakes on many a trip, and crocodiles in several locales, Australia the one where signs every 400 to 500 yards memorialized locals who hadn't survived their encounters. He was stung by Italian bees, four or five times per encounter, while training others about them.
“Fortunately, that was before they were Africanized,” he said. In all, he's visited every continent and 70 countries, all conducting research on “soft” (grant) money and no salary.
Lois has traveled less, not that she shied from it, but “There weren't many jobs in entomology,” she said. Off the Chilean coast and working for free, she was nearly washed away while trying to escape the pounding tide along a rocky shelf.
Love at first bite
The couple met while Charlie was working toward his master's in entomology at UA, and Lois, who already had a master's in chemistry, was employed part-time in the entomology department and pursuing a teaching degree.
Insects were infinitely more interesting, so she switched focus and seized an opportunity, forging a deal while working as a part-time med-technician at the veterans hospital.
“The toxicologists studying the effects of insecticides asked me to make coffee because the secretary wouldn't. I said 'Yes, if you'll teach me about insects.' They can do anything we can do and some things we can't — live underwater, fly, take slaves, keep the equivalent of cows, air condition their nests.”
And bees can communicate with other bees by their waggle dance the source, direction and distance to food, Charlie said.
“Helping people was good, but not mentally stimulating,” Lois said. She eventually earned a Ph.D. in entomology, as did Charlie.
Even honeymooning in the Canadian woods brought unforeseen adventure. While collecting bugs during a trail ride, Lois took a nasty spill from her horse. Charlie, riding ahead, remembers turning back to check on her and seeing an empty horse and Lois flat on the ground behind.
“I thought, 'Oh God, there goes the honeymoon,'” he said. Lois had only bruised a hip but not so bad she couldn't kick and shout inside their tent that evening to scare off a bear, which they later discovered was a female with a cub.
On the couple's first assignment in Chile, Lois, working gratis, gave a course for teaching assistants while Charlie collected bugs. They returned to the United States, but with work scarce, Charlie signed on with the Ohio health department studying mosquitoes, “my first hard money,” he said, meaning regular paychecks. Lois, who turns 90 in August, again worked for free, setting up work-study students.
Their home bases have also included Texas and Tallahassee, where Charlie was a professor at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University for 33 years. He specialized in weevils as bio controls of invasive aquatic weeds such as water hyacinths, using a variety from Brazil. He's discovered hundreds of weevil species and has several named after him.
Over the years, the couple traveled to the Smithsonian and European museums for weeks on end to study the earliest collected specimens, to verify that their own bug-finds are new. The original classification system was developed there in 1758, in universal Latin. For a Ph.D. in entomology, you had to be able to translate without a dictionary in German, French or Russian.
Lois filled her off-time at home growing vegetables, making her own clothes and building storage trays and cabinets for the growing insect collection. She even once built an entire kitchen, Franz said.
For decades of work, the O'Briens have still just scratched the surface of bug knowledge, and insect studies are now as relevant as ever, Lois said.
“They're coming in from all over the world, bringing diseases such as Zika. It used to take them months to get here by ship; now they come by plane and are still alive when they get here. We can't keep up with it and vector control of disease,” she said.
“With climate change, it's key to realize how important insects are to us,” she said, noting that while some crops are lost to insects, “We'll lose other crops without them.”
Other than their reputation for devastating various crops and a subject of much folklore, many weevil species may well be immensely underrated. There are 62,000 known and “we figure another 200,000 unknown,” Charlie said. There collection alone includes roughly 1,000 undescribed species.
Of those known, 2 percent are destructive, 2 percent are beneficial, leaving the rest neutral, “as far as is known.”
It's been among the couple's life goals to spread bug awareness.
“We like to let people know that not all insects are bad, they don't all bite and sting,” Lois said.
Despite many breathtaking experiences in the wilds, Charlie even found discovered adventure in relocating from Florida to Arizona.
“I was terrified crossing New Mexico for two days and not seeing another car or person. I'd never driven over 50 mph.”
This after the close calls and bug ingestions — the latter all by choice, some cooked. Yummy sauces are great subterfuge, Lois said. She's partial to chocolate chip cookies with cicadas.
Ever the practical one, she sums it up simply.
“It's been an exciting life. Not all the work happens in the lab. Some of it's like Indiana Jones. I'm going to start calling Charlie 'Arizona O'Brien.'”
Charlie rolls his eyes and shakes his head.
Kitty Bottemiller | 547-9732