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Octogenarian Couple Donates $10 Million Insect Collection

Charlie and Lois O'Brien pose for a portrait inside their home in Green Valley, Ariz., on March 8. The couple spent six decades collecting more than a million insects. Deanna Dent/ASU Now hide caption

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Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Charlie and Lois O'Brien pose for a portrait inside their home in Green Valley, Ariz., on March 8. The couple spent six decades collecting more than a million insects.

Deanna Dent/ASU Now

It's a love story for the ages: a boy, a girl and more than a million bugs.

Lois and Charlie O'Brien, two octogenarian entomologists, have spent their life together chasing insects around the world — some 60 years of romance and field work. Now the married scientists are donating their vast insect collection to Arizona State University.

ASU estimates the collection is worth $10 million, and says the carefully curated insects within it are a "transformative" gift with "enormous scientific value." The couple also donated $2 million to endow professorships dedicated to identifying new species.

The trove of insects reflects the passions of the two entomologists. There are more than a million weevils — Charlie's great insect love, famous for the damage they can wreak on agriculture. And there are 250,000 planthoppers, the colorfully camouflaged bug of choice for Lois.

Lois O'Brien holds a few examples from her collection of some 250,000 planthopper specimens. Several rooms in the O'Brien house are filled with glass-topped shelves that she built to house the couple's insect collection, which is one of the world's biggest private collections. Deanna Dent/ASU Now hide caption

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Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Lois O'Brien holds a few examples from her collection of some 250,000 planthopper specimens. Several rooms in the O'Brien house are filled with glass-topped shelves that she built to house the couple's insect collection, which is one of the world's biggest private collections.

Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Lois, 89, and Charlie, 83, met at the University of Arizona in the late '50s. Here's how The Guardian describes their romance:

"Lois was a working chemist at the time, with a part-time job in the school's toxicology department, when she decided to take a course in entomology. She fell in love with insects and Charles, a teaching assistant, in that order.

" 'They're such wonderful creatures,' she said. 'Wouldn't you like to fly? Wouldn't you like to swim underwater for three days? Not to mention stinging. I have a neighbor I would like to sting.' ...

"In class she bickered and bantered with Charles, who felt awkward about any appearance of preferential treatment. Eventually he left for a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, though not before singing the school's praises to Lois. She wanted her own PhD.

" 'I didn't want to stop,' she said. 'And I was also chasing Charlie the whole time.' "

They both earned their Ph.D.s in entomology. ASU reports that Lois got hers first, despite Charlie's head start, because he took some time off for field work in Antarctica — where he found some lice on penguins, and precious few other insects.

But eventually he made it back to California, and he and Lois were married.

"They launched their personal and professional collaboration by collecting insects during their honeymoon in Canada," ASU reports, "and eventually they traveled all over the world."

Charlie O'Brien's calls this his "oh my" case. Deanna Dent/ASU Now hide caption

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Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Charlie O'Brien's calls this his "oh my" case.

Deanna Dent/ASU Now

The rest of their lives were spent collecting, examining, labeling and storing their massive collection of bugs — a mix of exhausting field work and exhaustive categorizing at home.

They were a coordinated pair in most ways, but Lois told ASU there was one "little bit of difficulty."

"He would like me to know more about weevils," she said. "But the more I know about weevils the more I have to help him." She said the world at large is more interested in his weevils than her planthoppers; still, she's written more than 50 papers on her own interests.

At one point they drove from Florida to Panama and back, collecting all the way. They lived in Chile, in Texas and in Florida, where Charlie O'Brien taught at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University.

There were adventures — a case of mistaken identity in the Solomon Islands, where alarmed villagers thought Charlie was a government officers, and armed men in Venezuela who suspected Lois was trying to steal caimans.

When they "retired" to Arizona, they filled multiple rooms with the specimen shelves Lois built, and kept working.

"Age has slowed the couple down," The Guardian reports, but ... well, it's all relative. The couple used to work 14 hours a day, seven days a week. Now they say they're down to 10 hours a day, seven days a week — mostly at home, pinning specimens in front of the TV.

"It's been a great life," Charlie told The Arizona Republic. "And it's been our life."