In Loving Memory of

John Alcock

1942 – 2023

Memorial Service

Date & Time: 2/20/23 at 5pm
Location: Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix AZ

Dr. John Alcock was born in Charlottesville, VA in 1942 and died in Mesa, Arizona on January 15, 2023. He grew up in rural Landenburg, PA surrounded by farms, woods and marshes. He was given a pair of binoculars at age seven and this gift sparked his life-long passion for birdwatching and nature. 

He dedicated his academic career to the study of living things. He graduated from Amherst University in 1965 and received his PhD from Harvard University in Evolutionary Biology in 1969, studying under Ernst Mayr and E.O. Wilson.  

After graduation, he was quicky hired by the University of Washington. A field trip to the Chiricahua mountains in southern Arizona changed his life. He fell in love with the Sonoran Desert and decided to move to Arizona. He said on many occasions that the Sonoran Desert is the only place he would ever consider living.

He joined the Zoology faculty, now named the School of Life Sciences, at Arizona State University in 1972. At ASU, Dr. Alcock was among the first to be named Regent’s professor. He was a prolific author of hundreds of articles in the scientific and popular press.  In 1975 his Animal Behavior textbook was published.  With 11 editions, the textbook was highly regarded and was printed internationally in many different languages. He also received many awards and professional recognitions.

He had an insatiable curiosity for the natural world. He loved the birds and insects in the Sonoran Desert and bees and orchids in Western Australia. He was a quintessential field biologist, armed with his binoculars, specimen jars, and insect net.  His favorite study site was in the Usury Mountains near Phoenix, where he carried out decades of research on the mating systems of insects. Dr. Alcock was especially interested in how tarantula hawk wasps find mates. Year after year he would trek to learn how these formidable wasps interacted with males and females of their species. In later years he repeatedly visited Western Australia where he discovered a new species of orchid, studied the mating behavior of Dawson Burrowing bees, and made lasting friendships with human beings.

He authored eight books on natural history, including In A Desert Garden. He was a very early adopter of desert landscaping. That book described both that process and the insect life that flourished in his yard after the transformation. His yard won an award from the City of Tempe and the book won the John Burroughs Medal for distinguished natural history writing. 

He was known for his impressive garden in his front yard in Tempe. He would ride his bicycle to the University rain or shine. Neighbors would invariably bring bizarre insects in jars to his front door, knowing that he would be able to unfailingly identify them. He loved reading to his grandchildren. From time to time, had to take a break from a chapter if the book became too sentimental.

Dr. Alcock continued to publish and do research until his last years. During the summers you could find him on the family farm in Virginia studying fireflies and a variety of other creatures that lived in the lawn. Despite his infirmity, he found the strength to hike down the hill and across the creek to the Bald Eagle’s nest on his property.

His passing has been felt by his colleagues, friends, and thousands of his students and readers. Warm wishes have come from all corners of the world by people who were affected by his keen academic mind. One student from Poland wrote that he spent the equivalent of a month’s salary for a copy of his Animal Behavior textbook in the 1980s. He still had the copy and regarded the purchase as one of the best he had ever made.

Dr. Alcock fought a courageous and admirable battle against Parkinson’s disease. He is survived by his sons, Joe and Nick, grandchildren Abby and Jacob, his sister Nan, and his wife of 53 years, Sue. Memorial services to be announced at

Share your favorite memory of John

Nikole Casteel – shared a memories


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Bernd Burwell – shared a memories


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Andrew Centanni – Botanist, Teacher of Zoology/Botany at Corona del Sol High School – shared a memories

I only just found out about Dr. Alcock's passing, but I wanted to express that he was a great help to me as a young biologist & teacher: I remember clearly that his & Dr. Rutowski's Animal Behavior class was one of only a handful I had at the Undergraduate level that I felt was taught with real planning and passion, such that my understanding of the scientific process was really solidified through their tutelage. After I graduated with my degree in Animal Physiology & Behavior, I quickly enrolled in an accelerated graduate program to get a Master's degree in Secondary Education and a teaching certification. As I did this, I met with Dr. Alcock on two separate occasions (alongside some email correspondence) to ask for advice and guidance in giving my future students the best possible science education they could get. He talked with me in his office and generously gave me one of the books off of his shelf, "Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science" (published by the National Academy of Sciences) as a parting gift. I still have that book, and I now teach a popular Zoology/Botany course at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe. The course's curriculum – written by myself over multiple years – uses evidence-based teaching practices to give students hands-on experiences that allow them to do science and truly understand the nature of life on Earth. I can say with confidence that Dr. Alcock was one of a number of key influences that led to the genesis of this curriculum, and for that I am thankful. Rest in peace.

Michael G. Bartlett, CCXP – shared a memories

In 1998, while attending Sussex University during my masters degree, I discovered John’s book. I loved it! In 2022 I tracked down the book (after forgetting its title) and then John himself. He sent me the new edition which I only wish I had had him sign!

His book has left a lasting impression on me. My condolences to his family. What a lovely person and great scholar he was!

Barbara Lyon, John’s chair yoga teacher – shared a memories

Dear Sue,
Hello from Barbara – I taught chair yoga to John during the pandemic (Dave & Mary Salkever had invited him to join my classes). He was such a lovely man and so enthusiastic about the yoga! We discovered we both liked playing games (I probably mentioned Boggle and Bridge, and he had his favorites) and Dave told me about John's lifelong love and study of the creatures of the air, land, desert and the many books he'd written. Fascinating! I remember you from classes that you attended, too.

Today I picked up an envelope from John that was addressed to me (in his memorable handwriting 🙂 at my Cambridge yoga studio. It contained a check for $100 for yoga classes, written in Jan of 2021. I immediately worried that it arrived because he had passed and someone was sorting thru his things, discovered it, and dropped it in a mailbox. And indeed yes, I looked him up on Google tonight, and was directed to this John Alcock site. I am very sorry for your loss. I loved reading about his life and his family.

I thought you might like to know what was in the "mystery envelope'' (of course I would never cash the check) and to let you know what fond memories I have of John.
All good wishes,

Terry Stone – shared a memories

John graciously allowed me to interview him for the Boyce Thompson Arboretum magazine. As part of the interview, I got to accompany him on one of his trips to Usery Mountain to watch him catch male tarantula wasps. It was an honor to see him in his favored surroundings.

Paul Wolterbeek – shared a memories

My sympathies to Sue and close family members — I just learned today about your loss (April 11, 2023).

I'm envious of those who knew Dr. Alcock for so many years more than I had the pleasure of his acquaintance and friendship – but I'm thankful to have known him. Sonoran Desert Spring was among the first books I bought when we moved to Arizona in the late 90s, and there are chapters i have re-read over the decades since.
I'm also thankful for the years I worked at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, where my job gave me an excuse to meet and collaborate with so many biologists, naturalists and authors I held in esteem. Including John, who graciously accepted several invitations to host slideshow lectures and meet-the-author events at BTA.
As we grew better acquainted, he expressed interest in my home-brewed beers and wines — and we began trading — and my library boasts several signed editions of his books, bartered for my comparatively humble homebrews.
Among memories I'm happily summoning today?
One late spring day when I was invited to join John and two other guests of his, counting insects and surveying spring flowers at one of the many hilltops in the northeast Mesa area, which were featured chapters in Sonoran Desert Spring and Sonoran Desert Summer.
I last saw John during the first year of the covid pandemic, when he drove up to Globe for a morning of 'socially distant birding' outdoors — and my offer to sned him home with a few bottles of pomegranate-mulberry wine. Among our goals that day? To see the beautiful and snow-white leucistic Redtailed Hawk, which had taken up residence in this area — and she circled overhead just before he needed to depart and drive back to Tempe.

I'm thankful to have known him.

Randy Thornhill, Distinguished Prof Emeritus, University of New Mexico – shared a memories

I send my condolences to the family of John Alcock. His passing revived many fond memories of our friendship, interactions and collaborations. John and I first met in 1974 at a conference of the Society for the Study of Evolution held in Tempe, AZ. At the end of my conference presentation (topic: female mate choice in an insect species) John introduced himself and offered some encouraging remarks about my research talk, which I needed as I was a grad student at my first scientific conference. We immediately saw our similar interests in and perspectives on evolution and behavior, which was a new and controversial field in biology at the time. John told me then of his book coming out soon and published in first edition one year later, Animal Behavior An Evolutionary Approach. This book was foundational in the rise of behavioral ecology and very highly cited in the scientific literature. To date it has been published in 11 editions! John and I kept in touch after 1974 and in 1980 began collaboration on a book, The Evolution of Insect Mating systems, published in 1983. John could write it beautifully the first time. The rest of us take several tries to get something scribbled out. Our book has been high cited and influential, including the basis of two scientific conferences, one in 1985 at Uppsala University (Sweden) and one in 2013 at St. Andrews University, Scotland. The latter was a conference entitled “30 Years of Thornhill and Alcock”. Many scholars in insect behavioral ecology gave research talks there. On visits to AZ to work with John on our book I had opportunity to see his field sites where he studied hilltopping mating systems of various insects. And opportunity to sit in on his lectures in his large undergraduate course on animal behavior at ASU. His students during lectures were passionately involved with learning the material. He reached them at a level that I had never seen before or since in any classroom. John’s impact on so many through his research, writing and teaching is eternal. This brilliant, gifted man will be remembered and missed by many.

Dr. Stephen L. Buchmann, Adjunct Professor, EEB Dept., The University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ – shared a memories

Where to begin. I first met John in 1972 when I was a college sophomore at CSUF in Fullerton, CA and in the laboratory of botanist C. Eugene Jones, Jr. This was John's first year as a professor at ASU in Tempe, AZ. All of us were studying the nesting and mating biology of our favorite bee, the ground-nesting Centris pallida Fox, a pollinator of palo verde trees in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. Some of this early work was conducted near Earp, CA while most of it happened at a massive nesting and emergence site along the Salt River in the Blue Pt. Bridge area. I continued to study the biology of this wonderful native desert bee for many years and even now almost 43 years later. I was fortunate to publish quite a few papers with John on this and other species of Centris and Habropoda bees in Arizona. John and Sue welcomed me into their Tempe home when John and I would venture out to the Blue Pt. Bridge site. I loved that John ditched his grassy front yard and terraformed it into an island of native plants, much to the consternation of some neighbors. Some of my fondest memories are of John deftly sweeping up male bees in his aerial net. He would use a dial caliper to measure their head widths. John discovered that the larger males were often the most successful at securing a mate. Often, he would apply a dot of paint so that we could identify the same bees when they returned to patrol areas searching for mates. I remember his intense focus on the bees and ideas about sexual selection (his book with Randy Thornhill, his many papers and 10 editions of his classic Animal Behavior textbook). John, and his many papers and books, were and still are an inspiration to me. I considered John my mentor in the ways of bees. His passing has left a big void in my life, but every time I read one of his papers or popular books (e.g. Sonoran Desert Spring, The Kookaburra's Song etc.) a smile comes to my face and I treasure the memories of my dear lifelong friend, mentor and scientific colleague. I almost got my Ph.D. with John at ASU. I say almost because some pesky SAT scores got in the way. No way around those departmental rules and I went to UCD instead with Robbin Thorp. John was incredibly supportive throughout my career. My last field experience with John and Sue was in 2021 at a big nesting site of the rare Centris caesalpinae along Jomax Rd. in Scottsdale, AZ. I take great pleasure in co-dedicating my new book "What a Bee Knows" to John, that is being published by Island Press on March 7, 2023.

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