Harry Laidlaw, ‘father of honeybee genetics’ and namesake of lab, dies

Harry Laidlaw works with his bees at UC Davis.
Harry Laidlaw works with his bees at UC Davis.

A memorial service was held Thursday for Professor Emeritus Harry Laidlaw Jr., widely known in the scientific community for his pioneering work in bee breeding and bee genetics, who died Sept. 19 in Davis. He was 96.

Born in Houston, Laidlaw developed a keen interest in bees as a child working with his grandfather, who had taken up beekeeping in retirement. Together, the pair experimented with mating queen bees and control breeding.

He went on to earn a master’s degree in entomology from Louisiana State University in 1934 and a doctoral degree in genetics from the University of Wisconsin in 1939.

During that time, he developed a series of instruments that enabled him to inseminate anesthetized queen bees with sperm from selected drones. His work made it possible to selectively breed bees and opened up the field of honeybee genetics.

Laidlaw served as an Army entomologist during World War II and in 1947 joined the faculty of what was then the University of California College of Agriculture, Davis. He established a program in bee genetics, focused on improving bee-breeding stocks and began a collection of bee mutations that became the basis for a national stock center.

“Harry is considered the dean of apiculture and the father of honey bee genetics,” said Rob Page, chair of the entomology department who was mentored by Laidlaw.

Laidlaw also studied bee pests, such as American foulbrood, and conducted research on the breeding of queen bees and on re-queening bee colonies. His research on artificial insemination of bees even inspired a poem by well-known author E.B. White in the New Yorker magazine in 1947 that included the lines “What boots it to improve a bee, if it means an end to ecstasy.”

Laidlaw was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1955 and the Entomological Society of America in 1991. In 1969 he was appointed the first associate dean for research in what was then the College of Agriculture and in 1997 was awarded the College of Agri-cultural and Environmental Sciences’ Award of Distinction.

He taught courses in apiculture from 1948 until his retirement from UC Davis in 1974. After retiring, he remained active in outreach efforts for the campus, establishing in the 1980s a honeybee-breeding program for the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture as part of a joint UC-Egypt agricultural development program.

He also continued to train beekeepers from around the world, to refine his instruments for insemination, and to write two books and scientific papers. He published his last scientific paper at age 87 and the last of his four books at age 90.

In 2001, UC Davis’ bee biology laboratory near the campus airport was renamed the “Harry H. Laidlaw, Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility.”

He is survived by his wife, Ruth, of Davis and by a daughter and and granddaughter, both of Washington.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility Fund. Checks should be made payable to the Regents of the University of California and sent to the Department of Entomology (attention: Department Chair), UC Davis, One Shields Ave., Davis, CA 95616-8521.

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