Katherine Swanson died February 16th, 2023 at the age of 51. She was a powerful, smart, artistic, and compassionate woman who one friend described as, “A bundle of bouncing energy”. She was unafraid to speak her opinion and diligent in her research to discover truth and accuracy. An entomologist by education, she loved nature and was known for her skills at identifying animals of all types, but especially insects, birds and plants.
Katherine JoAnn Swanson (Lublin, by previous marriage. Orbeck by adoption. Jo Kyung Ee before adoption) was born in Seoul, South Korea in 1971. As a small child she was picked up off the street with her sister and placed in an orphanage. In the orphanage, her sister died. Katie believed it was the result of polluted water.
A family from Lemoore, CA adopted her at about the age of 4. The father was Norwegian and the mother Armenian. They had two boys of their own. She was issued a court ordered birth certificate and given the name Katherine JoAnn Orbeck. Her adopted parents picked Katherine JoAnn because they thought it sounded like Jo Kyung Ee. She became a U.S. Citizen when she was a young child.
Growing up in this strange new place was not always easy, but she made the most of it. In high school she was a gymnast and had the privilege to be the school mascot for 2 years. When she graduated, she was Valedictorian of her class. In college, she studied the sciences and earned her degree in Entomology. She graduated Suma Cum Laude from Ohio State University while working full time and paying her own way through college. She even managed to make a trip to Seoul to visit her birthplace. In college she also met and married her first husband.
After college she got a job at the Cleveland Natural History Museum. Under her mentor she helped run a large moth study, published a paper in a scientific journal, transported an active hive of bees in a very small car and developed programs for school children. She was even interviewed on TV and the radio due to her extensive knowledge of insects, and in particular, the cicada. She did so well that when her mentor died, she curated a portion of the museum on her own until a new director was found. When she and her husband divorced, she needed a change of scenery so she came out to Monterey. She had fond memories of the area from school field trips and vacations with her grandmother.
In Monterey, she worked at Spencer's Stationary as well as CTB and Hampton-Brown. She was always known for her eye for detail. After a couple of years here she met Andrew Swanson. They met online through Craigslist and hit it off right away. They were married a year later. In their 18 years together they did a lot of cool things. They hiked and camped everywhere along the West Coast. They got to travel to India, New Zealand and Rome, Italy. In her free time, she was still a scientist. On her own she did a 2 year study of butterflies in Pinnacles and the Santa Lucia Reserve. She also maintained a NatureId Blog, http://natureid.blogspot.com/, for many years. Whenever there was an insect, plant, bird or other animal that she could not identify, she would take a picture of it, research it to figure out what it was and then post about it on her blog. Through her blog she connected to scientists from around the world. Many would ask her questions when they didn't know the answers. Some of her photos have even been printed in nature books. Her most beloved scientific friend is a Professor at UC Davis. He has been studying butterflies for almost 70 years. Even he would ask Katie questions. Her blog is still up, and she continued to update it, but she stopped adding new posts in 2015. At that point she switched to Twitter and NextDoor to post her findings.
Katie began to have health problems a few years ago. It was a rough road, but she continued to ask questions and pursue knowledge throughout the time she had here. She spent her last two months at home under hospice care and was grateful that there were people who respected her final wishes. She was estranged from her parents, but had reconnected with some of her family. She had grown particularly close with one brother and an aunt and uncle. She is survived by her husband, Andrew. If he knows the name of a plant, bird or unusual animal, it is probably because Katie told him. Whenever he is in nature, he knows she'll be with him. I hope you think of her the next time you see an unusual insect or plant.