Charles Michener, ‘patriarch’ of bee research, dies at 97

KU entomologist published more than 500 works over 80-year span

Charles Michener, a retired Kansas University biology professor, displays bees found in the rain forest. He joined in research showing that coffee plants growing near rain forests are better producers, because of the bees' pollinating efforts.

Charles Michener’s fascination with bees and other insects started early — early enough, in fact, that he published his first writings on them when he was just 16.

That early start plus a long life in which his mind, passion and productivity stayed sharp enabled Michener to mark 80 years of continuous publishing that yielded more than 500 citable academic products full of “paradigm-changing research,” colleagues say.

Considered one of the world’s foremost experts on bees, if not the foremost expert, Michener was the Watkins Distinguished Professor Emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology and curator emeritus at the Natural History Museum at Kansas University.

Michener, known to most simply as Mich, died Sunday at age 97.

“His years of active research exceed that of an average human lifespan,” said Michael Engel, the current senior curator of entomology at the museum and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “That is phenomenal.”

Michener was the first scientist in Kansas to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences, according to KU. That membership — among countless other achievements — placed him in the ranks of KU’s most elite professors.

Charles Michener, a retired Kansas University biology professor, displays bees found in the rain forest. He joined in research showing that coffee plants growing near rain forests are better producers, because of the bees' pollinating efforts.

He also was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Michener’s encyclopedic book, “The Bees of the World,” published in 2000 with a second edition in 2007, is considered the definitive source on the subject, according to KU.

“We have the largest collection of the world’s fauna of bees here at KU, largely through his efforts,” Engel said. He added that Michener laid foundation for the field now known as “sociobiology” — studying the behavior of bees.

In a video tribute to Michener, former student Jim Cane, now with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service’s Bee Biology and Systematics Lab, called him “the patriarch of a vast and successful academic family of bee biologists, taxonomists and sociobiologists.”

Michener joined the KU faculty in 1948 and retired in 1989, but continued researching. Though he used a wheelchair in recent years, Michener was on campus often until just a couple of weeks ago and “his mind was as sharp as ever,” Engel said. Engel said there are about 20,000 species of bees in the world with more being identified all the time, and Michener was continuing to help do that.

Michener published his last work earlier this year. In honor of his 97th birthday and his 80 years of publishing, the KU-based Journal of Melittology published a comprehensive list of his publications, all 514 of them.

Michener, the son of avid birdwatchers, grew up in Pasadena, Calif., and spent hours studying wildlife.

Charles Michener, curator emeritus of entomology at Kansas University's Natural History Museum, uses a microscope to inspect bees from the tropical regions of the Americas.

“I drew as many of the native flowering plants in bloom as I could,” Michener said in a Q&A published by the journal Nature earlier this year. “At about age 10, I ran out of new plants to draw, so I started collecting and drawing insects. I made more than 1,200 sketches, many of them of various types of bee.”

In 1943 he volunteered for the Army Sanitary Corps, and on his travels from Mississippi to Panama continued to study and write about bees he saw there, according to the article.

Michener realized that to undertake bee biology studies, he needed experience in wild-bee behavior and nesting habits — which led him to Kansas, where his work enabled him to contribute to finding solutions for pollination problems, he told Nature.

Michener researched and published on other insects, as well, but bees were a priority.

“He had a general interest in entomology but also a real passion for bees … and their importance for sustaining our world,” Engel said.

“They’re not an insignificant little group. They keep our world flowering. He was deeply interested in every aspect of them.”

Many in academia who achieve the fame that Michener did rack up egos to match, Engel said.

“That was not the case with Mich,” who was mild-mannered and quite soft-spoken, Engel said. “He was a very humble gentleman and had an open door policy. That’s pretty rare.”

Michener’s wife of nearly 70 years, Mary Michener, died in 2010. She was 91.

Michener’s son Walter Michener said his father died peacefully of heart failure at his home in Lawrence. A public memorial is not planned, Walter Michener said, in part because Michener was so often and so highly honored during his life.