University of Illinois entomology professor and department head May Berenbaum will receive the 2011 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, an international award that recognizes “those individuals who have contributed in an outstanding manner to scientific knowledge and public leadership to preserve and enhance the environment of the world.” Previous Tyler Prize recipients include American biologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward O. Wilson, primatologist and animal conservationist Jane Goodall and conservation biologist Paul Ehrlich.
“Just about all my scientific heroes have been Tyler Prize recipients,” Berenbaum said. “I didn’t consider that I was up in that orbit. I mean, G. Evelyn Hutchinson, the founder of modern limnology, and Edward O. Wilson and Tom Eisner and Jerrold Meinwald and Paul Ehrlich – yikes! That is pretty amazing.”
“Professor Berenbaum has done more to advance the field of entomology and explain its significance than nearly any other researcher today,” said Owen T. Lind, a professor of biology at Baylor University and the chair of the Tyler Prize executive committee. “Her expertise on bees and the causes behind declining bee populations has further positioned her as a leading resource for the media, policymakers and peers.”
The Tyler Prize consists of a $200,000 cash prize and a gold medal.
In addition to her ongoing research on the chemical interactions between plant-eating insects and their host plants, Berenbaum has built a second career as a science communicator. She has written or co-written numerous books on insect fact and folklore, and has led several projects aimed at communicating science to the public and engaging “citizen scientists” in the process of collecting data on environmental subjects.
In 1984, Berenbaum founded the annual Insect Fear Film Festival, a popular campus event that combines insect horror movies with basic education about the creatures portrayed in the films. In 2007, she initiated the BeeSpotter website, a tool for collecting information about the abundance and diversity of wild bees in the U.S. The website helps people identify local wild bees and post photographs and enter geographic information about them. Berenbaum also founded the campus Pollinatarium, a free-standing museum dedicated to broadening the public’s understanding of flowering plants and their pollinators.
Berenbaum was the 2009 recipient of the Public Understanding of Science and Technology Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The committee giving the award commended her for her extensive service on the National Research Council. She is a National Associate, an honor reserved for National Academy of Sciences members who make extraordinary contributions to the NRC.
Berenbaum has been a prominent advocate for pollinating insects. She chaired the committee on the status of pollinators in North America, which released its findings in October 2006 – months before apiculturists first reported the widespread disappearance of honey bees in North America, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Berenbaum emerged as spokesperson for the scientific community on the disorder, and has conducted research, written op-ed essays and testified before Congress on the issue.
“The university is fortunate to have a faculty member of such expertise, energy and enthusiasm for her work,” said Bob Easter, interim vice president and chancellor of the Urbana campus. “In addition to her groundbreaking entomology research, she is an outstanding teacher and public spokesperson for the sciences.”
On Thursday, April 14, at 2 p.m., Berenbaum will deliver a public lecture at the Davidson Conference Center of the University of Southern California, which administers the Tyler Prize. She will receive the prize at a private banquet on April 15.