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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