A personal reflection by Michael Breed, Insectes Sociaux Editor-in-Chief
I was one of the 42 students who received PhD’s under Charles Michener’s tutelage. Mich was quiet, unassuming, and never sought to publicize or self-promote his work. He thought deeply about science, the art of mentoring, and how he got his start in entomology. Fortunately he recorded his own history, including a very thoughtful section on mentoring, in a memoire published in 2007 in the Annual Review of Entomology. His memoire obviates much of the need for a formal scientific obituary, as Mich recorded the details of his career with far more precision than anyone could achieve from the perspective of looking at his career from the outside, but I think it’s valuable to reflect on the immensity of Mich’s less tangible contributions to science and to the study of social insects.
This summer I was privileged to visit Mich at his house in Lawrence, and he talked about getting his start in science doing watercolors of flowers as a child. Bees visiting the flowers intrigued him, and that was the start of a lifetime passion for bees. He published a note on his observations of bees while in high school. He corresponded with T.D.A. Cockerell, curator of entomology at the University of Colorado. Cockerell encouraged him by inviting Mich to join him and P. H. Timberlake in collecting trips in California. In the summer before Mich’s senior year in high school Mich was invited to spend several weeks in Boulder with the Cockerells, studying bees. In my opinion the kindness that Cockerell and Timberlake showed Mich, as a high school student, fed forward through Mich’s own commitment to mentoring students.
For me, Mich was the perfect mentor. Always supportive, but also demanding, you never wanted to meet Mich in the hallway without having progress to report, as he unfailingly knew exactly where you had been with a project the last time you talked and he always remembered what you had promised to do, and by when. I’m not sure what happened if you didn’t meet his expectation for progress, it was just understood that it would be best not to have to report falling short. This may give the impression that he was an unkind taskmaster, but far from it; he was gentle and supportive, but he also knew what was needed to succeed and he knew how to keep his students on track.
Mich liked going to professional meetings, particularly those of the Entomological Society of America and the IUSSI, and only stopped going when problems with his hips made flying too uncomfortable. He didn’t attend many talks, but could always be found within sight of the room where the social insect talks were being held, always engaged in conversations with current and former students as well as colleagues who shared his interests. He served as a catalyst for keeping the IUSSI going in North America and while I don’t think he thought about networking in the mundane sense, he actively worked to introduce his students to scientists with similar interests and to promote the intersection of social and scientific relationships among colleagues.
He also liked going to lunch, either at the Kansas Union or in later years at a restaurant near the west end of main campus. I was first invited to go with him to the Kansas Union the day I had a bad experience taking the comprehensive exam for my master’s degree and, when I reached for my wallet to pay for my lunch, he said “your money’s no good here”, and paid for my lunch. This was a kindness that created for me the principle of always paying for my own students’ lunches. According to students who went through the program after I left, he developed a deep fondness for nachos. I don’t recall that nachos existed in eastern Kansas in the mid-1970’s when I was there but I can easily imagine Mich embracing them when they became a part of the cuisine of Kansas.
Another important part of Mich’s abilities as a mentor was that in addition to his mastery of the study of bees, he was surprisingly up to date on topics distant from bee systematics. He was always fully aware of the leading edges of scientific progress and he encouraged his students to explore new ideas and to incorporate new tools into their scientific toolboxes.
Mich was an outstanding friend, companion, and fellow voyager for students of bees and of social insects. His academic legacy consists of massive contributions to our understanding of bee systematics and behavior, his academic ‘children’ and ‘grandchildren’, and his encouragement of a much larger scientific community to pay attention to the behavior of bees.
Note: Mich’s academic genealogy is at:
Check it out if you’re interested and add to it if you have information that currently isn’t in the tree.