The Old Man and the Bee

Dr. Robbin Thorp started looking for Franklin’s bumble bee in the 1960s. It remained easily found throughout its range since the 1990s, but subsequent yearly surveys by Dr. Thorp have suggested this bee is nearly extinct. No Franklin’s bumble bees were observed during surveys in 2004 – 2004 with the exception of a single worker bee found in 2006. And yet, 10 years after last sighting the bee Dr. Thorp continues his search and remains hopeful.


Mount Ashland, Oregon (CNN) He was an old man who spent his days alone in the mountains of southern Oregon looking for a bee. He hadn’t seen the bee — no one had seen this particular bee species — in 10 years when he asked me to join him.

It was August, the last breath of summer bee season. Robbin Thorp, then 82, a retired entomologist from University of California-Davis, wore a safari hat, tinted bifocals and a T-shirt with an image of Franklin’s bumblebee printed on the chest. That black-and-yellow bee, which looks like so many others except for the characteristic “U” on its back, is the object of Thorp’s obsession. It’s a creature he told me flies through his dreams, always just out of reach.
Finding it — believing it can be found — is what brings him to this spot 6,400 feet above sea level, near the base of a ski lift, even though his gait is wobbly now and these craggy, alpine ravines could break a 20-something hip.
Franklin’s bumblebee is a species other scientists fear extinct. But Thorp will barely entertain that idea.
“When things are rare, they’re really, really hard to find,” he told me.
Thorp can be matter of fact like that.
And so the old man keeps looking, bee net in one hand and “bee vacuum” in the other. He walks from one flower to the next, inspecting the pollinators. If he sees one that might be Franklin’s he’ll slurp it into the bee vacuum, which looks like a child’s water gun. Then he closely inspects it: “Just another one of the common bumblebees.”
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