One of the largest private insect collections in the world is changing hands, and along with it will go an endowment for continued study of the insects it contains.
Yesterday, Arizona State University announced that the massive private entomological collection of Charlie and Lois O’Brien, including more than 1 million weevil specimens and 250,000 planthoppers, has been donated to the school—a gift valued at $12 million and which doubles ASU’s current entomological collection size.
The husband-and-wife team are also endowing professorships in ASU’s School of Life Sciences devoted to systematics, and their collection will be entrusted to the direction of Nico Franz, associate professor, curator of the Frank Hasbrouck Insect Collection, and director of the Biodiversity Knowledge Integration Center at ASU.
Charlie and Lois met at the University of Arizona in the 1950s and spent six decades studying insects and building their collection together, as chronicled in a profile of the couple published by ASU this week. They have both been members of the Entomological Society of America for more than 50 years.
Weevils are often known as pests, but Charlie’s research efforts led to weevils also being used as biocontrol agents for invasive weed plant species. The preservation of the collection will allow future generations to closely study weevils and continue to uncover new knowledge about their place in Earth’s ecosystems.
“The O’Briens have placed great trust in us as a research community,” Franz told ASU Now. “And at the same time, it’s a responsibility for us to make sure this collection has the greatest possible impact in terms of research and mentoring for future generations.”
Entomological collections—like libraries, but containing insects—provide immeasurable value to for scientists and, if properly maintained, can stand as a resource for centuries. In its position statement on entomological collections [PDF], issued in 2016, the Entomological Society of America described them as “a rich source of specimens and data for modern research and an irreplaceable historical reference for all of entomological science.”
However, collections are at times not well understood among the general public and are occasionally targeted for funding cuts. The ESA statement continues: “The costs of preparing, curating, maintaining, and providing access to these collections are relatively low compared to the devastating impact not doing so would have on the global scientific community.”