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This Couple Just Donated Their Collection of More Than a Million Insects

The O’Briens have carried on a decades-long love affair with the critters—and each other

The O'Briens have amassed over 1.25 million insects over six decades. (Deanna Dent/ASU Now)
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In the late 1950s, a newly married couple started a collection. But they didn’t amass art, china or cars—rather, they collected huge quantities of insects, continuing to expand their trove for over 60 years. It’s the tale of a lifelong romance that has two happy endings. As Anne Ryman reports for The Arizona Republic, not only is the couple still happily married, but they just donated their gigantic collection of insects to Arizona State University.

It’s a gesture as romantic as the common obsession that brought them together. Lois and Charlie O’Brien became entomologists and traveled the world collecting insects, Ryman reports—well over a million of them. The specimens now live in over 1,000 glass drawers in the O’Briens’ home, and will put ASU on the entomology map with the help of two professorships the couples has endowed, as well.

In a press release, Arizona State University says the couple’s donation is worth $12 million. It will more than double the school’s existing collection and includes rare specimens.

The collection itself has two main themes: weevils and planthoppers.

Charlie O’Brien is an internationally recognized expert in the beetle, which is familiar to both as a crop-munching pest. As Entomology Today reports, Charlie O’Brien sees them differently. His research has helped weevils become warriors against invasive weeds that can decimate ecosystems. The documentation of over a million weevils will help future researchers better understand the insects.

Lois, however, favors the colorful planthoppers. Though she, too, works with the weevils, she has amassed about 250,000 planthoppers in the collection.

Collecting insects may ring of hoarding to some, but it has real benefits for scientists. As Texas A&Ms Bug Hunter writes, preserved insects last for hundreds of years as opposed to the days-long lifespan of many creatures. They can help researchers better understand the features of insects and how they interact with their environments. And, the Bug Hunter notes, there are a huge number of undescribed insects still roaming around. ASU estimates that only a tenth of the world’s 10 million insect species have been identified or named.

The O’Briens’ collection is engrossing, indeed. But as fascinating as the collection itself is the story of the couple who has carried on a life-long love affair with each other and the insects they love. In an interview with The Guardian’s Alan Yuhas, the couple tells him that insects brought them together—and on trips to over 70 nations and all seven continents.

Though couple may have slowed down these days, writes Yuhas (Lois is nearly 90 and Charlie is 83), their infatuation with weevils and planthoppers hasn’t. They tell Yuhas that they still spend much of their time organizing and mounting insects. Does it get any more romantic than that?

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