In two rooms of Charles and Lois O’Brien’s modest home in Tucson, Arizona, more than a million insects – a collection worth an estimated $10m – rest in tombs of glass and homemade shelving. They come from every continent and corner of the world, gathered over almost six decades; a bug story that began as a love story.
This week, the O’Briens, both octogenarians, announced that they would donate their collection, one of the world’s largest private holdings, to Arizona State University.
Nico Franz, an entomologist at ASU, said the O’Brien collection was a goldmine for researchers and would double the university’s current holdings. Every specimen of the collection is worth $5 to $300, depending on its rarity, he said, and perhaps 1,000 of the O’Briens’ insects are “new to science”. The collection will help scientists piece together a large branch of insects’ family tree and also be a resource for scientists who study natural controls on the environment.
Franz has enlisted students in search of part-time work, like the O’Briens were a half century before, to help sort the insects.
“We were brought together by insects,” said Charles, 83, remembering how he met Lois, 89, at the University of Arizona in the late 1950s.
Lois was a working chemist at the time, with a part-time job in the school’s toxicology department, when she decided to take a course in entomology. She fell in love with insects and Charles, a teaching assistant, in that order.
“They’re such wonderful creatures,” she said. “Wouldn’t you like to fly? Wouldn’t you like to swim underwater for three days? Not to mention stinging. I have a neighbor I would like to sting.”
Charles grew up poor and put himself through school on a fellowship of $100 a month, with a part-time job caring for cockroach colonies used for research.
“I had to feed them, clean the cages, give them their dog biscuits and various foods,” he said. “I didn’t have very much money. Later I had a job feeding the sucking insects, bedbugs, kissing bugs – not feeding them with my body, but I had to be cautious about it.”
He remembers the roaches fondly – “I fed them and they helped me eat” – but has less love for the mosquitos.
Lois remembered the late 50s as the era of “women’s lib”. In class she bickered and bantered with Charles, who felt awkward about any appearance of preferential treatment. Eventually he left for a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, though not before singing the school’s praises to Lois. She wanted her own PhD.
“I didn’t want to stop,” she said. “And I was also chasing Charlie the whole time. I worked harder for my marriage than my PhD.”
At school, Lois grew to love planthoppers, the insects best known for their colorful, often bizarre, camouflage designs. Charles preferred weevils, the small beetles, many with distinctive snout-like appendages famous for their powers as a pest.
“They intrigue me, and they’re tough,” he said. “I’m very happy with the weevils. Otherwise I wouldn’t have a million of them.”
After graduation they took a series of posts at universities studying biological control, studying the relations between insects, plants and humans. They also went collecting, across 70 nations and seven continents.
Charles searched frozen islands off Antarctica for rare weevils and spent months in New Zealand and the Solomon Islands. Trekking across a beach of one of the Juan Fernandez Islands, of Chile, Lois nearly drowned in a sudden high tide. In Nicaragua they met a man who had only ever heard parrots speak English, but never human beings.
In Venezuela, Lois said, she was out by the car one night collecting with a blacklight and an aspirator – an insect snatching device involving a hose, net and jar. Charles was in a pond collecting water insects when two men with guns jumped out of the brush, surprising Lois. They were worried the Americans wanted to steal caimans, the small crocodiles of the Americas. To their growing disbelief, Charles then marched out of the pond, insect net in hand, and explained they were there for the bugs.
“It was sort of an Indiana Jones life for Charley,” Lois said. “It’s been a wonderful life for me.”
Their technique is simple, Charles said. “We rent a car and go out into the bush or jungle or desert, wherever, to collect. Hit and run, is what we call it. We drive down the highway from some town and see a place that looks like it might be worth stopping, and we stop. If it’s good we spend several hours collecting there.”
Once, he said, the couple drove from Tallahassee, Florida, where he was teaching at the time, and drove to Panama and back. The trip took 4.5 months, and they made “500 or 600 stops”, he added, mostly at night to accommodate nocturnal weevils.
“We go to a place at night and get set up, put up lights, collect on the trails, in the trees and plants, until two or three in the morning,” he said. “And then we crash and get up at nine in the morning and keep going. It’s something we love to do.”
Age has slowed the couple down. O’Brien has fractured his back twice in the last six months, keeping the couple mostly indoor. “Since we have no children, this became our life’s work,” he said. “We work seven days a week, we used to work 14 but now we’re down to 10 hours a day.”