James Akers Pence (February 10, 1948 – September 25, 2016)

by David L. Auth

Akers, as everyone called him, was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. He had a three part life geographically; starting in Arkansas (1948 – after 1970), second in New York City (? – 1997), and lastly here in Gainesville, Florida (1997 – 2016).

I first met Akers just after the start of his third and final life phase, when he was a graduate student in entomology at the University of Florida. I was searching for our Suwannee-St. Johns Group of Sierra Club for a more convenient general meeting location on the U.F. Campus and had received departmental approval to use its largest lecture room in the brand new entomology/nematology building. The one condition was one of their graduate student had to be responsible for opening and closing up at night, after practically everyone had already left for the day. Akers performed this mission without fail for seven years, ten times a year, receiving a free Sierra Club membership for his trouble. He got his doctorate in December, 2005 and stayed in the department as a post-doctoral butterfly researcher (Florida Butterfly Monitoring Network, etc.). On April 6, 2006 he switched Sierra Club gears and gave one of our programs, on “Sweadner’s Hairstreak: Keeping Florida Natural”, the Florida butterfly subspecies subject of his five years of dissertation research.

According to his Gainesville Sun obituary, Akers was a musician member of an Episcopalian student group in high school called the “Retreat Singers”. He had the opportunity to travel and perform internationally. He graduated from Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, a United Methodist school, in 1970, majoring in English. He has one sister, Marilela Pence Bloom, who had two children, all of whom survived him.

I don’t know what prompted the move, but Akers eventually left Arkansas and moved to New York City, the largest city in the United States. He met Linda Hollahan in 1976, who eventually became his wife in 1984 until his death. Not many people find and keep a soulmate for 40 years, but this was Akers and Linda’s lucky break. They lived and worked together in New York and continued that tradition in Gainesville, where Linda was one of Akers’ field assistants. Linda was born on Staten Island, the least urbanized of New York City’s five boroughs. She eventually became a watercolor artist, who got her training at the Philadelphia College of Art, Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and Art Students League and Cooper Union, both also in New York City. In Gainesville she exhibits her work at the Artisans Guild at Union Street Station. She states on the AG website (linda@lindapense.com) that her work “reflects the beauty of our natural world and inspires its conservation and protection.”  The same applies to Akers.

Akers and Linda lived in Brooklyn, teaching until 1996 at the School of Tai Chi Chuan and the Arica Institute. The later school was started in 1971 by a Bolivian born philosopher, Oscar Ichazo (born in 1931). He teaches a form of mysticism devoted to the abolishment of human suffering and the achievement of human enlightenment, the details of which he asked his followers to keep secret. This makes sense, because I had many discussions with Akers about his insect research and our Florida conservation efforts, usually at Sierra Club General Meetings, but not much discussion about our past lives. I do remember him telling me he taught Tai Chi.

Studying other life forms typically becomes an all consuming passion, which also hopefully pays the bills, often as hard, practical science, while integrating the human spirit by also including religion, environmental activism, and mutual human experience. It was the hard science which slowly accrued in Aker’s life after he and Linda arrived at the University of Florida, to complete their combined package of life fulfillment. Unfortunately, because of the incredibly stupid and massively destructive practices toward all non-monoculture species, which do not fit into our present dominant economic strategy, biological life fulfillment does not mean the abolishment of human suffering. Akers had entered the most competitive entomological environment in the world here in Gainesville, hoping to join over 300 Ph.D. insect researchers already in residence. Insects are our nearest competitors as well as our essential partners here on earth, with enough basic and applied studies still undone to last several human lifetimes. The amazing thing about Akers is that he remained a “kind, gentle man who made everyone feel important” (Cathryn Hartwell) through his Gainesville years, rather than devolving into something closer to the devil’s behaviors, as too often happens among scientists.

Lepidoptera are commonly incredibly numerous as individuals and species, and also relatively small and easy to culture in captivity. When you kill one, it isn’t the end of the world. They also appeal to our artistic natures, beautiful to look at, both stationary and in flight. It isn’t surprising then that Akers chose butterflies as his research subjects. Their larvae are often destructive to our crops and fibers, which also attracts the industrialist scientists in our cohort. But Akers as an adult was always oriented toward biological conservation, not killing insects with pesticides, which meant that he took grant money from a Swiss pesticide corporate giant called Syngenta, with global revenue of 13.4 billion dollars in 2015, but his interests were in saving native insects, not killing so-called pest species. Many of the native flowering plant species on earth are pollinated by butterflies and moths, not just our food crops covering in their monocultures every acre of productive land to keep our human population exploding seemingly without limit. In addition to studying the natural history of his chosen Ph.D. butterfly, Akers also worked on much more endangered species, the Miami Blue Hairstreak and the Schaus Swallowtail of the Florida Keys, before engaging in his more general pollination studies during the last portion of his life. Syngenta and to a much lesser extent, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, provided money for five years of research, starting in 2011, ironically on the usefulness of native insects, primarily bees, in pollinating our food crops. The research money was shared between Michigan State University, the University of California at Davis, and the University of Florida IFAS. Akers was chosen to lead the International Food and Agricultural Sciences effort based near by in Citra. It was at this time that the introduced European Honey Bee populations in the United States, Apis mellifera, primary pollinator of our almonds, apples, blueberries, citrus, cucumbers, melons, squash, and sweet cherries, were crashing down toward zero. Was it possible that Florida’s 316 species of native bees, among over 4,000 bee species in the United States, would accomplish the pollination job if the honey bee disappeared? The cause of the honey bee’s demise, along with much of the rest of earth’s animal biodiversity, has, ironically, turned out to be in part caused by the herbicides and pesticides produced by giant, profit-driven corporations like Syngenta! Humans are the only insane species alive today to evolve on earth.
Akers had taken on an essentially impossible research project, which involved directing the efforts of many graduate students as well as degree holding professional entomologists, to study the natural history of hundreds of pollinator insect species. Just the effort required to identify each individual bee, not to mention the non-bee insect pollinators also being monitored, was enormous. Akers got his start as a professional entomologist very late in life. In 2011 he was 63 years old, starting this giant five year research project. He was not in the best of health, already overcoming two bouts of cancer earlier in his life. In 2011 he had a massive stroke, which would have killed most people. Slowly he regained his mobility and ability to speak, but he had to give up being lead investigator on the pollinator project. When he recovered sufficiently he was given work to do by Lepidoptera researcher Jaret Daniels at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, working at lower frenzy on a “Plant for Wildlife” project. During the last year of his life, he became a master gardener, and even though capable, could not secure more entomological research funding. While working Sunday evening in his home butterfly garden, he suffered a heart attack and died immediately. Akers had worried about a second stroke and becoming a burden, so this was a better way for him to die.

Linda Pence has planned a memorial service at Kanapaha Botanical Garden for Sunday, November 13, from noon to 3 o’clock. According to Linda last night, anyone interested in Akers life should participate.