Tuesday March 28, 2017

Elderly couple donate life's work — $10M worth of insects — to Arizona State University

Charles and Lois O'Brien pose for a portrait inside their insect-filled home in Green Valley, Ariz.

Charles and Lois O'Brien pose for a portrait inside their insect-filled home in Green Valley, Ariz. (Deanna Dent/ASU Now)

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Story transcript

Some couples have his-and-her towel sets in their homes, but Charles and Lois O'Brien have his-and-her insect laboratories.  

The Green Valley, Ariz., couple, both entomologists, have spent their lives travelling the world together, collecting and studying insects.

Now they're donating their collection — worth $10 million US — to Arizona State University.

ASU Now - O'Brien Weevil/Plant Hopper Collection

Throughout their marriage, Charles and Lois O'Brien have been partners in both life and science. (Deanna Dent/ASU Now)

"We have over a million and a quarter in our collection at home," Charles, 84, told As It Happens co-host Carol off. 

"We sometimes rear them," added Lois, 89. "We had one cactus bug that we kept alive for how long, Charlie?"

"Twenty-five months as an adult, which is very unusual," Charles replied.

"And every night it walked around the aquarium —walk, walk, walk, walk, walk," added Lois. "It was looking for its own kind of cactus to lay eggs, but it never found it and it never found a mate, poor thing."

The cactus bug may have had a lonely life, but the O'Briens certainly have not.

Student and teacher

In the late 1950s,  Lois — then a chemist — took a part time job at the University of Arizona entomology department to pay for her teaching degree. Listening to the professors wax poetic about bugs piqued her interest and she decided to take a class. Charles was the teaching assistant. 

'I certainly didn't fall in love with him because of the bugs, and I certainly didn't fall in love with the bugs because of him.' - Lois O'Brien

They had their first conversation when she challenged him on her test score. She'd gotten nine out of 10 answers correct.

"And I said, 'This is what I said and this is what the book said. How do they differ?' And he said, 'They don't, but I told the class the book was wrong'," Lois said.

Her work kept her from staying for the duration of the lab class, so she'd often miss things.

"And I put my hands on my hips and I said, 'Well, you didn't me the book was wrong!' And he folded his arms in front of his chest and said, 'I told the class the book was wrong. I can't help it that you weren't there!'"

"And I can't spend my time chasing you around just to tell you that things are different!" added Charles with a laugh.

ASU Now - O'Brien Weevil/Plant Hopper Collection

Just a few of the weevils on display at the O'Brien's home. Charles is an expert in the critters. (Deanna Dent/ASU Now)

Still, she won him over in the end.

"I modified her grade on the basis of the nine questions instead of 10 and she got 100 as usual," he said.

Love and insects

After that class, Charles went on to Berkeley University to get his PhD in entomology. Lois went to San Jose, Calif., to take more classes in the field, and later joined Charles at Berkeley to get her own PhD.

Asked who she fell in love with first — Charles or  insects — Lois hesitated.

"I guess it was about the same time," she said. "I certainly didn't fall in love with him because of the bugs, and I certainly didn't fall in love with the bugs because of him."

And she is undeniably in love with the bugs.

ASU Now - O'Brien Weevil/Plant Hopper Collection

Lois O'Brien shows off a small portion of her massive planthopper collection. (Deanna Dent/ASU Now)

"They can do everything we can do and everything else. Bees can air condition their hives. They can tell each other how far to go and in which direction to find the honey that they picked up," she said.

"Nectar," corrected Charles.

"Nectar," she agreed, before continuing. "Most of the insects, we don't know what they do. We think they're just sitting around on plants sucking juices or maybe flying around and biting us, but when you actually see what they can do they're fantastic. ... They're just wonderful and some of them are beautiful."

For Charles, it's as much about collecting experiences as it is about collecting insects. 

"I like going into the field to collect them and I've travelled all over the world doing it," he said. "I've been to all the continents."

"Including Antarctica," said Lois.

ASU Now - O'Brien Weevil/Plant Hopper Collection

An undated photograph in the O'Briens' Arizona home shows Charles during his work researching insects on the Solomon Islands. (Deanna Dent/ASU)

Their collection includes rare species that have never been studied before in a university setting.  

Charles has discovered hundreds of new species of weevils, his specialty. Lois is an expert on planthoppers. She's collected some 250,000 specimens and penned 50 papers about them.

But now it's time to pass on their knowledge to the next generation of bug lovers.

"We're in our 80s and were not gonna live forever, and we want to see it go to an institution that will benefit from it and respect it and understand the value of it," Charles said. 

"And continue the work," Lois added.