Editor’s Note: Dr. E.O. Wilson was Dr. Barbara Thorne’s dissertation advisor at Harvard University. She was a member of his lab for 15 years (Masters 1978, Ph.D. 1983, followed by a post-doc and fellowships). What follows are her remembrances of a remarkable scientist, mentor and friend.

At his core, Edward O. Wilson was a field biologist. He was a natural naturalist, curious and observant since a boy romping through forests in Alabama to find and watch snakes, ants and other exciting creatures. Those childhood adventures sparked his understanding of and passion for the diversity of life and the complexities of ecological communities, setting the foundations for his commitment to conservation.

Ed approached urban entomology from the bug’s point of view, the perspective he took in exploring any ecosystem. Human structures, availability of water, food abundance, sun exposure, yard landscaping, etc. are habitat elements that integrative thinkers – E.O. Wilson or expert PMPs – would recognize as influential to a pest’s success.

Dr. Barbara Thorne

Those environmental features and knowledge of the insect’s biology are essential in designing and implementing an effective IPM program. Ed respected PMPs because they are a type of field biologist, examining and analyzing each infestation to inform the best detection, treatment and prevention strategies forward based on habitat and the creatures’ life history characteristics.

Ed Wilson held a disdain for invasive pests, not only for their impacts to humans, but because they displace and disrupt native fauna, often significantly altering ecosystems. Two specific examples are fire ants, an introduced nemesis long spreading in Ed’s beloved southeastern U.S., and conehead termites, currently the focus of an eradication effort led by Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in south Florida.

Ed followed the conehead termite effort with interest and expressed his support that eradication of their still limited infestations is achievable. Although breeding populations of social insects are difficult to halt, Ed recognized that conehead termites are tractable because colonies can be located as they build conspicuous foraging tunnels and nests, and once found they can be efficiently targeted with precisely delivered insecticides.

In addition to being a brilliant scientist and expansive thinker, Ed Wilson was a role model and mentor extraordinaire. He inspired through his prolific writings and lectures, but even more so in person with his remarkable combination of intellect, energy, innovation, wit, ethics and humble modesty even when recognized with prestigious honors.

Ed held his students to very high expectations and standards which motivated us to work hard, think vigorously, and treat people respectfully. 

Written on 6 January 2022

 

The author is research professor and professor emerita in the Department of Entomology at the University of Maryland, focusing on the biology of termites, including studies in evolution, genetics, population biology, behavioral ecology, taxonomy and systematics. Since 2012, Dr. Thorne has served as a science adviser for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ efforts targeting the exotic conehead termite. She earned her Ph.D. in organismic and evolutionary biology from Harvard University in 1983.