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UC entomologist Eric Mussen remembered

Fellow scientists around the U.S. mourn loss of longtime honeybee expert, who died June 3.

Kathy Keatley Garvey, Senior writer

June 7, 2022

14 Min Read
Dr. Eric Mussen at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, UC Davis. Mussen died June 3.Kathy Keatley Garvey/UC-Davis

Celebrated honey bee authority Dr. Eric Carnes Mussen, an internationally known 38-year California Cooperative Extension apiculturist and an invaluable member of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology faculty, died Friday, June 3 from liver cancer. He was 78. 

Dr. Mussen, a resident of Davis, was admitted to a local hospital on May 25. He was diagnosed with liver cancer/failure on May 31 and returned to the family home June 1 for hospice care. He passed away the evening of June 3.  

“Eric was a giant in the field of apiculture,” said Steve Nadler, professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. “The impact of his work stretched far beyond California.” 

Dr. Mussen, known to all as “Eric,” joined the UC Davis entomology department in 1976. Although he retired in 2014, he continued his many activities until a few weeks prior to his death. For nearly four decades, he drew praise as “the honey bee guru,” “the pulse of the bee industry" and as "the go-to person" when consumers, scientists, researchers, students, and the news media sought answers about honey bees. 

“Eric's passing is a huge loss," said longtime colleague Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and a UC Davis distinguished professor of entomology. "He was always the go-to person for all things honey bee. He worked happily with hobbyists, commercial beekeepers and anyone just generally interested."

Colleagues described Mussen as the “premier authority on bees and pollination in California, and one of the top beekeeping authorities nationwide,”  “a treasure to the beekeeping industry," and "a walking encyclopedia when it comes to honey bees.”

'A book would be required'

Norman Gary, a noted UC Davis emeritus professor of entomology who served as a faculty member from 1962 to 1994, described Eric as “by far, the best Extension apiculturist in this country.” 

“Eric's career was so productive and exciting that a book would be required to do justice for his many contributions to his profession as extension entomologist specializing in apiculture, better known as beekeeping,” Gary said. “His mission basically was facilitating productive and reciprocal communication between beekeeping researchers at UC Davis, commercial beekeeping as it affects California's vast needs for the pollination of agricultural crops, providing helpful information to hobby beekeepers, and educating the general public concerning honey bees.  His great professional successes in all areas have been recognized around the world.  He has received numerous awards, especially from the beekeeping industry.  He was by far the best Extension apiculturist in this country!” 

“In addition to professional duties, he enthusiastically tackled other projects for entomology faculty,” Gary said. “For example, he critically reviewed most of my publications, including scientific papers, books, and bulletins.  He worked diligently to help create the Western Apicultural Society and later served as president. (Mussen served six terms as president, the last term in 2017.)  I especially appreciated his volunteering to moderate a video that historically summarized and recorded my entire 32-year career at UC Davis.  And his tribute would not be complete without mentioning that he was one of my favorite fishing buddies.” 

“Eric was proud of his loving wife, Helen, and family (sons Timothy and Christopher and two grandchildren),” Gary said. “His family support was unconditional.  He will be sadly missed by everyone.” 

Leslie Saul-Gershenz, a UC Davis doctoral alumnus in entomology, praised his kindness and generosity. “I have known Eric for over 30 years and he was the kindest, most supportive human being.  He always came to speak at the San Francisco Bee Club to support local beekeepers and was the most generous of colleagues anyone could ever hope for. He was a immense resource of knowledge about honey bees, and I am sure he will be missed by many people across the state of California.”

“Despite his illness, which I was unaware of, he helped me with a honey bee issue just a couple of weeks ago," said Catherine Tauber, a UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology associate and a retired Cornell University senior research associate. "He even wrote to the person he thought could help out and ‘greased the skids' for me. A truly unselfish, helpful, and thoughtful person. The department and California bee enthusiasts lost a true friend.”

An 'icon' of the industry

Mussen's longtime friends and colleagues--bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey of Washington State University (WSU), a former manager of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Facility, UC Davis, and her husband, Timothy Lawrence, WSU associate professor and county director, WSU Extension, Island County--are heartbroken.

“Eric is an icon of the beekeeping industry and beyond,  a career shaper, problem solver, the information man who always had an answer or would find one, and, always given with integrity, regardless of the issue, biological or political, to whoever posed the question and need," Cobey said. "His contributions, impact and love from the people he touched will live, continuing to contribute and benefit their lives. His spirit is with us.” 

“As an Extension professional, Eric set the standard that I tried to emulate," said Lawrence. "We had very different approaches but our goals were similar:  give people the information they need to make the best decision, based on the current body of scientific knowledge for their given circumstances. Instead of telling folks how to do something, he would listen and guide them on the science and let them make the decisions (and mistakes) on their own. He did this with Sue and me, and we greatly benefited from his mentorship. I observed him apply this approach from hobbyists to large-scale professional beekeepers. He was the preeminent Extension Professional.” 

Jackie Park-Burris of Jackie Park-Burris Queens, Inc., Palo Cedro, a leader in the queen bee breeding and beekeeping industries, said she met Eric more than 40 years ago “and from day one he was mentoring me. He was the bee guy for the entire country!  Eric was the bee industry's connection to the scientific world. Eric understood both camps and he connected them. Eric had incredible integrity that I have never seen matched. Because of that integrity, beekeepers felt confident in sharing their problems with him, knowing their secrets were safe. Eric always voiced the opinion he felt was right, even if it wasn't the most popular.”

“Eric told me that he looked at the bee industry as his family,” said Park-Burris, a past president of CBSA and a member of the board of directors for more than 20 years. “When my son attended UC Davis, he and Helen made sure Ryan knew he could contact them if he needed anything. Eric even came to a function on campus that my son was in charge of to show support.” 

Supported bee breeders

“Eric supported the California State Beekeepers Association and the California Bee Breeders wholeheartedly!” said Park-Burris, who served as the first woman president of the California Bee Breeders Association and the first woman chair of the California State Apiary Board. “He did an incredible job as our Extension guy from UC Davis. We loved him. What a sad loss for us all.” 

“At last year's CSBA convention. I was awarded the Eric Mussen Distinguished Service Award. Eric sent me an email, congratulating me and told me he could not think of a more qualified person to receive it. It bought a tear to my eye back then, now I will treasure that email even more.”  A photo of an early-career Mussen appears on her website.

Patrick “Pat” Heitkam, owner of Heitkam's Honey Bees, Orland, recalled the beekeeping industry's turbulent times in the 1980s.  “He was many things and I'm certain no one will fill his position as admirably as he did. The mid-'80s were a turbulent time for commercial beekeepers in California. The advent of tracheal mites and later varroa disrupted our ability to make a living. We were affected in different ways. Passions ran high. Eric maintained the respect of all concerned. I was frustrated, more than once, because he wouldn't tell me what I wanted to hear. He was a scientist, stayed neutral, and only commented when he could be factual. I saw him as the level-headed patriarch of his dysfunctional beekeeping family. This is one of his many attributes. I can't say enough about his value to bee world.”

Randy Oliver of ScientificBeekeeping.com ("beekeeping through the eyes of a biologist") treasured him. "Eric Mussen was not only a  longtime friend and collaborator of mine, but a model for me. He was a beloved and exemplary Extension apiculturist, with his engaging presentations, interpreting the science for the benefit of beekeepers.  His monthly newsletter was an important source of information to not only California beekeepers, but also to many across the United States and around the world. Eric always made time to happily share information with anyone who asked. I reminisced with his wife Helen shortly before his passing about his joy at doo-wop singing, and I'm sure that that's how this bright light of a man would like to be remembered."

Amina Harris, director of the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center and co-owner of Z Specialty Food, Inc., commented that "When I first came to California in the early 1980s,  I was working with my husband establishing and growing a varietal honey company. One of the first people I met at UC Davis was Eric Mussen, the state apiculturist. Eric was someone who had a lot of answers to a lot of questions! Ever the educator, Eric was well versed in all of the issues of the bee world and readily shared his knowledge with any and everyone who asked. His answers were always down to earth and understandable, with his wry Midwestern sense of humor running underneath. You'd ask a question – and you always got an answer!"

"Eventually I came to the university to start the Honey and Pollination Center--a bridge between the world of honey (for consumption) and the world of bees and pollination," Harris said. "Eric proved to be a helpful guide in those initial years, sitting on the supervisory committee and giving action to ideas as we created the first UC Davis Bee Symposium. He understood that in the food world, honey played an important role that went beyond feeding bees, but delighted the consumer. He relished all the varieties of honey, showcasing them on Picnic Day to thousands of eager tasters. Eric understood that education takes place in many dimensions, through discussion, reading, hands-on experiences and even eating!"

Born May 12, 1944 in Schenectady, N.Y., Mussen received his bachelor's degree in entomology from the University of Massachusetts (after declining an offer to play football at Harvard) and then obtained his master's degree and doctorate in entomology from the University of Minnesota in 1969 and 1975, respectively. Mussen credits his grandfather with sparking his interest in insects. His grandfather, a self-taught naturalist, would take his young grandson to the woods to point out flora and fauna.

Devoted to bees

Bees became his life, and Mussen thoroughly enjoyed his career. For nearly four decades, Mussen wrote and published the bimonthly newsletter, from the UC Apiaries, and short, topical articles called Bee Briefs, providing beekeepers with practical information on all aspects of beekeeping.  His research focused on managing honey bees and wild bees for maximum field production, while minimizing pesticide damage to pollinator populations.

During his tenure as the state's Extension apiculturist, Mussen traveled to beekeeping clubs throughout California, addressing some 20 beekeeping organizations a year. For 10 years, he also conducted the California State 4-H Bee Essay Contest, disseminating guidelines, collecting entries and chairing the judging.

A favorite among the news media for his bee expertise and personality, Mussen appeared on the Lehrer Hour, BBC, Good Morning America, National Public Radio (Science Friday) and other major news outlets, and was quoted by the New York Times,  Boston Globe,  and Los Angeles Times, among others.

Highly honored by his peers, Mussen received the 2006 California Beekeeper of the Year award; the American Association of Professional Apiculturists' 2007 Award of Excellence in Extension Apiculture; the 2008 Distinguished Achievement Award in Extension from the Pacific Branch of the Entomological Society of America; the 2010 statewide Pedro Ilic Outstanding Agricultural Educator; and was a member of the UC Davis Bee Team that won the 2013 team award from the Pacific Branch of the Entomological Society of America. 

Among his scores of awards: the 2013-14 Distinguished Service Award for Outstanding Extension from the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) and the 2013 Alexander Hodson Graduate Alumni Award from his alma mater, the University of Minnesota. 

Gene Brandi, the 2018 president of the American Beekeeping Federation,  remembers presenting him with the prestigious Founders' Award from the Foundation for the Preservation of Honey Bees at the 75th annual American Beekeeping Federation conference in Reno. "Eric received a well-deserved rousing standing ovation!” said Brandi, extolling him as "an outstanding liaison between the academic world of apiculture and real-world beekeeping and crop pollination."

When Mussen was nominated (and received) the 2013-14 Distinguished Service Award for Outstanding Extension from the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR), MacArthur Genus Awardee Professor Marla Spivak, Distinguished McKnight University Professor Apiculture/Social Insects at the University of Minnesota, wrote:  "Without question, Eric is the No. 1 Extension person dealing with honey bees in the nation, if not the world. Research colleagues, beekeepers and the public are all very lucky to have him.” 

Wrote Extension Specialist John Skinner of the University of Tennessee: “Eric is one of the most well-respected and influential professional apiculturists in the nation. If I could select one person to represent the apicultural scientific community including research, regulation and extension, I would choose Eric.”

'Amazing knowledge'

Mussen's team of nominators singled him out for his “amazing knowledge of bees, his excellent communication skills in a diverse clientele, including researchers, Extension personnel, legislators, commodity boards, grower organizations, pesticide regulators, students, news media, and beekeeping associations at the national, state and local levels; his eagerness to help everyone, no matter the age or stature or expertise, from an inquiring 4-H'er to a beginning beekeeper to a commercial beekeeper; and his  ability to translate complicated research in lay terms.” He presented multiple talks to every beekeeping association in California, and spoke at a variety of events, including pollinator workshops, animal biology classes, UC events, and fairs and festivals.

The nominators lauded him for “his valuable research, which includes papers on antibiotics to control American foulbrood; fungicide toxicity in the almond orchards; the effect of light brown apple moth mating pheromone on honey bees; the effects of high fructose corn syrup and probiotics on bee colonies; and the invasion and behavior of Africanized bees. He was often consulted on colony collapse disorder and bee nutrition.”

Overall, Mussen was known as "a well-respected, well-liked, honest, and unflappable person with a delightful sense of humor."

Mussen was a longtime board member of the California State Beekeepers' Association and a consultant for the Almond Board of California. He co-founded the Western Apicultural Society, serving six terms as president, the last during the 40th anniversary conference at UC Davis in 2017. He also was involved in the formation of the American Association of Professional Apiculturists and held the offices of president or treasurer of that association for many years. He was a scientific advisor to the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center.

Mussen was instrumental in the development of the Almond Board of California's Honey Bee Best Management Practices for Almonds. The Almond Board honored him with a service award, describing him as being an “authoritative and trusted source for guidance on research, technical, and practical problem solving and issues facing both industries.”  Shortly after he retired, both the CSBA and WAS created an Eric Mussen Award to present to their outstanding members.

“Eric is a worldwide authority on honey bees, but no problem is too small and no question too involved for him to answer,” said the late Extension entomologist Larry Godfrey prior to Mussen's retirement. “He devotes his research and extension activities to the improvement of honey bee health and honey bee colony management practices. Eric helps growers, consumers, UC Farm Advisors, agricultural commissioners, scientists, beekeepers, researchers, pesticide regulators, 4-H'ers, and state and national agricultural and apicultural organizations. He ignites their interest in maintaining the health of bees, cultivates their friendship, and generously gives of his time and intellect.”

William Hutchison, professor and head of the Department of Entomology at the University of Minnesota, who presented him with the 2013 Alexander Hodson Graduate Alumni Award, related at the ceremony that Mussen tackled "many new challenges–mites, diseases, and Africanized honey bees, to name a few–to enhance the pollination success of California's diverse agricultural cropping systems, with considerable emphasis on almonds. In brief, he is in demand, and he continues to be a primary source for objective information on honey bee health and pollination in California."

In his retirement years--in between his family commitments and his hobbies of birding and singing doo-wop with a local group--Mussen not only served as the 2017 president of the Western Apicultural Society but doubled as the program chair at the UC Davis conference. He reviewed funding proposals for Project Apis m., which makes funding decisions and handles the funds for the National Honey Board and other entities; and served on the scientific review panel for the Bee Informed Partnership organization, which reviews funding requests of tech teams. He was a scientific advisor to the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center. 

"I am basically all pro-bee,” Mussen told the American Bee Journal in a two-part feature story published in September 2011. “Whatever I can do for bees, I do it...It doesn't matter whether there is one hive in the backyard or 15,000 colonies. Bees are bees and the bees' needs are the bees' needs.”

A celebration of life is expected to take place at UC Davis.

Source: University of California, Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, which is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

About the Author(s)

Kathy Keatley Garvey

Senior writer, UC-Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology

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