Is the Touted “Language” of Honey Bees Real?

Adapted from Wenner, 1998. (See below)

In a 1989 American Zoologist review paper (pp. 1186-1187), on organism vs theory centered research, I included an exerpt about the eventual demise of the notion that deer bot flies could travel at a speed of 880 mph. The biological community generally believed in that notion for about a decade until Nobel Laureate Langmuir illustrated the impossibility of that concept – leading him to later reflect on elements common to scientific sidetracks.

Bee Language: A Case of Pathological Science?

If it were not for the conspicuous nature of the highly inaccurate dance maneuver, the controversy might well fit the sociological behavioral pattern that Irving Langmuir (Nobel Laureate in chemistry) termed “pathological science” (Langmuir, 1989; Rousseau, 1992). He coined that term to describe any belief system that remains embraced by a segment of the scientific community long after its tenets become questioned (Wenner, 1989). Langmuir’s notes made the rounds on the FAX machines of the scientific community when the abortive “cold fusion” hypothesis emerged, and his points finally reached the popular press (Taubes, 1993).

The following statements treat Larigmuir’s points (as outlined by Taubes) in sequence and relate them to the question of bee language:

[Please note an important point: Langmuir's use of the term "pathological science" applies to the efforts and accomplishments of a collective science group, not to characteristics of individuals. That is, when a group of scientists treats their assumptions as facts, they tend to ignore evidence that casts doubt on those assumptions.]

1a) “The maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity…

Only some types of dance “language” experiments seem to “work” and then only some of the time. Proponents seem to avoid blind, double-blind, and double controlled experimental designs.

1b) “…and the magnitude of the effect is substantially independent of the intensity of the cause.”

The quantitative information present in the dance maneuver is simply not accurate enough to yield the precision supposedly exhibited by searching recruits in experiments that produce “supportive” results.

2) “The effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability…”

As an example, for the direction experiments reported in his 1964 Nature paper, James Gould had selected and reported on the results of only three experiments out of 33 that had been conducted that same summer. One can only imagine how many experiments that have yielded non-supportive evidence have been discarded by others. (By contrast, in our 1969 “crucial” experiment, we included all results obtained in a 24-day sequence.)

3) “Claims of great accuracy.”

Von Frisch had claimed great accuracy in the performance of recruited bees, an accuracy and predictability that now evades researchers.

4) “Fantastic theories contrary to experience.”

I now feel that honey bees are just insects, not some super beings capable of great mental achievement. One striking fantastic and ad hoc (see #5, below) explanation proposed was that recruit bees achieved more accurate information by “averaging” messages from several bees. More important, in nearly 50 years of its existence, the “language” hypothesis has yet to benefit beekeepers in their honey production or pollination efforts.

5) “Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses…”

Von Frisch claimed that our bee results, as reported in our 1967 papers, had been unduly influenced by wind. Gould claimed that we had been misled by an incorrect bee training protocol. Both ad hoc excuses were embraced by the bee “language” community, but no one set out to experiment and determine whether our results were valid. Gould and others (including the 1989 “robot bee” people) instead reverted to the use of single-controlled experiments and again obtained “supportive” results.

6) “Ratio of supporters to critics rises up to somewhere near 50 percent and then gradually falls to oblivion.”

The ratio of supporters to critics actually rose to near 100 percent (many really want to believe in bee “language”) but is now very gradually falling (another 20 years to oblivion, perhaps). “Cold Fusion” required only four and a half months to fall- bee “language” has survived for four and a half decades, but the circle of true believers is now contracting rapidly.

[7] “Langmuir added, ‘The critics can’t reproduce the effects. Only the supporters could do that. In the end, nothing was salvaged. Why should there be? There isn’t anything there. There never was.’”

Everyone now agrees that the results in the 1946 von Frisch paper were not definitive. As I view it, that means that the dance “language” hypothesis suffered an essential element of credibility since the very beginning – that is why the assumptions proponents now work under should be critically re-examined.

What does all of the above leave us with? Not much, I believe, at least not until the dance “language” proponents can formulate some very precise statements about exactly what they mean by their hypothesis, what their assumptions are, and what others can expect when they conduct routine experiments.

On the other hand, if bee “language” proponents are deeply enmeshed in “pathological science,” we can expect that they will continue to see no need to be precise about what they mean by their use of terms nor to be exact about what their assumptions are.

I am very sorry if all of the above seems unduly harsh, but I sincerely believe that serious studies of foraging by honey bee colonies cannot move ahead in a meaningful way until the considerable body of exciting quantitative results is inspected for its intrinsic merit – apart from the umbrella of existing and, so far, unproductive theory. To illustrate this point, I turn to a quotation from another Nobel Laureate in physics, Peter Medawar (from Wenner and Wells, 1990:208):

“I cannot give any scientist of any age better advice than this: the intensity of the conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing on whether it is true or not. The importance of the strength of our conviction is only to provide a proportionately strong incentive to find out if the hypothesis will stand up to critical evaluation.”

I sincerely hope that the above material indicates why I must head in the direction I have now taken (as illustrated in our 1991 invited review paper in the American Zoologist). The fact that many others are now following our lead is most rewarding.

Further Reading:

1989 Langmuir, I. Pathological Science. Physics Today, 42, 36-48. (Notes transcribed and edited by R. N. Hall)

1993 Taubes, G. Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion. Random House, NY. (See especially pp. 338-344.)

1989 Wenner, A.M. Concept centered versus organism centered biology. American Zoologist. 29:1177-1197.

1990 Wenner, A.M. and P.H. Wells. Anatomy of a Controversy: The Question of a “Language” Among Bees. Columbia University Press, NY.

1991 Wenner, A.M., D. Meade, and L. J. Friesen. Recruitment, search behavior, and flight ranges of honey bees. American Zoologist. 31(6):768-782.

1993 Wenner, A.M. [with K. von Frisch]. The language of bees. Bee World. 74:90-98.

1993 Wenner, A.M. Science as a process: The question of bee “language.” Bios. 64:78-83.

1998 Wenner, A.M. Honey bee “dance language” controversy. Pages 859-872 in Greenberg, C. and M. Hara, (eds.), Handbook of Comparative Psychology. Garland Publishing, New York.

Adrian M. Wenner
Ecol., Evol., & Marine Biology
Univ. of Calif., Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA 93106

Prof. Emeritus (Natural History)
Phone: (805) 893-2838, 963-8508
FAX: (805) 893-8062