In memory of Roy Snelling

Yesterday I received the sad news that Roy Snelling, one of the most significant figures in modern myrmecology, has passed on. He was on an expedition in Kenya and apparently suffered a heart attack in his sleep.

Roy’s prolific career as a curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County produced dozens of studies on the taxonomy of bees, wasps, and especially ants. Among other accomplishments, his works are the primary reference for the honeypot ants of North America, numerous groups of carpenter ants, and the entire Chilean myrmecofauna. Roy was a devoted desert rat, an aficionado of fine Mexican food, and- and I mean this in the very best way- a curmudgeon’s curmudgeon.

We’ll miss you, Roy.

**update** James Trager writes a thoughtful eulogy in the comments

photo: antweb

15 thoughts on “In memory of Roy Snelling”

  1. James C. Trager

    I am truly saddened by Roy’s death. We had been collegial friends since the mid-1970s, when I was a masters degree student at the University of Kansas. (I gather that Roy, too, had spent some time at KU, though apparently not as a formal student. I never quite got the details). Some years later, I especially appreciated the several phone calls a year I got from Roy during the 1990s and first few 2000s, when I was not able to be very active myrmecologically.

    Roy was personally linked to more myrmecologists than I can name, but figuring especially among them was “Ants of North America” author William S. Creighton, with whom Roy had a long and productive professional interaction. Dr. Creighton’s very important ant collection is now housed at the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles, where Roy built up one of the most important ant collections in the world during his many years as curator of Hymenoptera for that institution.

    Since Roy was never (at least outwardly) one to place much importance on ceremony, and was always one to appreciate dark humor, I feel it appropriate to suggest, in jest — Maybe we should get together a Festschrift! Roy learned really and utterly to hate Festschrift-making during the course of “editoring” the recent one honoring Ed Wilson . I hope this gives him a wry and hearty laugh, wherever he is. I’ll really miss him, but at least, I am somewhat cheered to know that he died while on an ant collecting expedition, as I think he would wish it (and as would I).

    By the way, Roy was more than just an ant taxonomist, but also a respected bee and wasp taxonomist, an active proponent of Native American rights, an avid and knowledgeable listener of classical music, a connoisseur of all variety of ethnic foods and of good beer, and an outspoken atheist.

    A final point, I remember once seeing a photo of three generations of Snelling males and a number of other anty folk out in the California desert together. If there’s such a thing as a myrmecology gene, this is clearly indicative of the dominance of Roy’s alleles! Too, one could say that in view of the number of unrelated myrmecologists whose careers he aided and abetted, his very un-antlike altruism was also an extraordinary thing.

  2. I met Roy in Kenya where he dragged me to collect ants and bees with him in Kakamega Forest and a few other locations. I was doing my fieldwork then and Roy was excited to find someone who could take him around to some nice locations. I was happy to rub shoulders with an authority in the field and was keen to learn from him – especially tit-bits about field techniques – something that I kept getting wrong by myself. We hit it off right away, and kept in contact for several years after that.
    I think he was a great personality and a warm human being, and I shared his love for all things natural and mostly for all things Hymenopteran.
    My regret is that over the years I lost contact with him, and though every year I met to get in touch with him again and to share some ants with him, I just never got round to it. And now it is too late.
    My condolences go out to his family. I am sure he will be much missed. I am sad he died so far away from home, but I think he was doing what he loved to do, and he was at peace in the African wilderness.
    Thank you, Roy.

  3. Many thanks for the thoughts. Anyone knowing Roy will know going i his sleep is not his style, but at least he was in the field and not trapped in Southern California

  4. Off to the big ant hill in the sky. Roy, you will truly be missed. I have many great memories of you and I know I am not alone. The ant community is a better place for your contributions both scientifically and personally.

  5. Pingback: Roy Snelling’s species « Myrmecos Blog

  6. Angel M. Nieves-Rivera

    Roy.–Thanks for your words and for being an example to me. I will remember our conversations on the chaos theory, mysticism, Indian lore versus science, and –of course– the arguments with our pal Juan A. Torres on the subject. I also miss the field trips to Isla de Mona! Thanks for sharing your life with all of us! Nos veremos pronto amigo mio! Un abrazo

  7. Roy was for many of us was, as they say in the South, “the genuine article”. I first corresponded with him decades ago as a graduate student, and by his articulate, quite professional replies, I somehow imagined Roy to be a quiet, clean-cut, museum kind of guy. Imagine my shock on our first meeting! Being with Roy has left many of us with vivid memories and stories, as in some ways he was bigger than life. I’ll relate but one.
    He joined my wife and I in Mobile Alabama in our quest for new populations and nesting sites of a new species of Hesperapis bee native to the northern margins of the Gulf Coast. We met Roy at the little Mobile airport. He was dressed in black…hat, shirt, pants and boots, with a choker of porcupine quills and turquoise. You can bet that he turned some heads in that Deep South airport! Roy proved to be a fine camping buddy, helping with cooking and cleanup, uncomplaining, appreciative of the little sandy Eden where the Park Service had dropped us off. When my wife found she had not packed her elastic ties for her braids, why of course Roy gave her two of his! The bee was everywhere we found its floral host. It was a memorable trip, topped off for Roy by a plate of freshly fried frogs legs at the Wolf Bay Lodge (an old-fashioned linoleum-floored eatery down there).
    Roy Snelling has left us all with a world of good memories, unforgetable stories, and a good education about aculeates. He is deeply missed by people scattered all over the globe.

    Jim Cane

  8. I first met Roy Snelling in summer 1968 at LACM when I was barely 13. I was an ant-addicted youth and Roy was my first contact with a professional myrmecologist. He served as a mentor for me as I visited him yearly at his office, through my high school and UC Irvine undergrad years. After leaving CA in 1975 for grad school, and then 6 years postdoc in TX, I still got back to see him almost every year.

    Each visit, we’d talk for 1-2 hours about ants and everything else– politics, habitats, music, theater, field techniques, and food. I brought him specimen series every time… I was not ever a hardcore ant systematist gonnabee. He did the sp. ID. Although we never went into the field together, he was always enthusiastic to meet and talk ants. When I left myrmecological research in 1990, he was one of the few I went to see and say goodbye. (Sorry to say he never mentioned you, Gordon.)

    As others have described, Roy was One of a Kind. In all of organismal biology, the systematists are the most Hardcore, and I mean that in a good way. Roy was Hardcore Myrmecology.

  9. I love reading this, it gives me even more perspective on him. Some of these tales I have heard bits and pieces of and others I have not.
    Alex I’m not surprised as he rarely talked family even with me.

  10. My memories of Roy are many and nearly all from working at the Natural History Museum. I knew of Roy’s focused dedication to science but only later realized how much he hated my first bees. I am a botanist…bees are pollinators to be identified by an expert. Who know back in the mid 1970s that sewing pins were a no no and Roy was THE expert. He teases me about my lack of pinning talent…but he kept the bees. For many years at the Museum four of us shared 10 oclock coffee downstairs in the cafeteria. Roy would always bring his own brew but be able to complain about the cafeteria version. Two others, Charlie Hogue and Fred Truxell were nearly always there. We shared great times over that coffee covering recent trips, collections, politics, tales of the demise of the Museum, and of course one or more of Charlies trove of jokes. We all watched for the telltale little hitch in Charlie’s mouth as he delivered the intricate tale and had thought ahead to the punchline. Roy always sat quietly even if he had heard it before and loved the good laugh that always came. I treasure those memories of coffee at the museum. You either liked Roy or not and he either liked you or not. I told those who were about to meet him not to worry if Roy did not like you you would be the first to know. Roy was always gracious to any visitor and answered all phone calls. He was able to share his vast knowledge of natural history with anyone who was not afraid to ask. After I left the Museum Roy and I used to go to La Luz del Dia on Olvera Street for lunch, have the carnitas plate and Negra Modello when I was able to get to the Museum. Roy was a great teacher of truth to science and and a great friend to many. Roy never disliked anyone in particular but rather concerned hisself with friends and some folks and just did not take time for others. I will miss our time together and good conversation.

  11. Pingback: The comments on Roy Snelling’s memorial post… « Myrmecos Blog

  12. I did not know Roy Snelling personally, but for the first time have read his articles about ants in 1979 when still was the schoolboy of 14 years and when has taken a great interest in myrmecology. And already much later, when I in 2003 have created the first Russian-speaking site about ants – – communicated with Roy on the Internet. He at once has responded to my letter from depth of Russia and has more exhaustively answered my questions. It is sad, but he any more will not answer me… Help me to find his biography. I want to translate her to Russian and to place on the site together with earlier placed biographies –

  13. Please help write the Roy Snelling biography on the English language Wikipedia.

    Roy is cited in many Hymenoptera-related articles on this wikipedia.

    He is sorely missed here in Brazil, as in the rest of this wide world where he was so well known.

    Bill Overal

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