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Lord of the Gadflies

Los Angeles Times – November 5, 1991


Amid Stinging Criticism, Maverick Zoologist Adrian Wenner Challenges the Theory That Bees ‘Dance’ to Communicate


By CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS
Times staff writer

Every month, Adrian M. Wenner boards a Navy boat in Oxnard for the two-hour journey to Santa Cruz Island. Once there, the UC Santa Barbara scientist makes his way to high ground with a handful of student volunteers, listens for a buzz and scans the sky.

Wenner is looking for the end to 25 years of being at odds with the scientific community, for the validation of his life’s work. For honeybees.

“They credit me with going out to cause trouble,” he has said, discounting his many critics. “That’s not true. I go out to have fun. . . But there are too many people out there trying to make nature conform to their reality.”

Since 1966, Wenner has argued against one of the 20th Century’s premier scientific hypotheses: that honeybees direct one another to food with intricate dances in their hives.

That theory, framed in 1946, earned a Nobel Prize for German zoologist Karl von Frisch. It inspired two later generations of scientists, who conducted follow-up tests of their own, and charmed millions of nature-lovers. Princeton biologist James L. Gould calls it “one of the seven wonders of the animal world – the idea that an invertebrate has the second-most complex language known.”

Wenner, a vigorous 63-year-old with an outdoorsman’s tan and a closely trimmed silver beard, calls the theory “a romantic story,” but wrong. Once out of the hive, he says, bees are like plenty of other insects: They follow their sense of smell.

Wenner believes his work on Santa Cruz Island is yielding results that might help discredit the dance-language theory. And restore his reputation.

He says that he was shunned and forced into another specialty for more than a decade because of his claims. “The whole episode is basically an embarrassment to science.”

But among the world’s leading bee-behavior specialists, the mood is completely different.

- Thomas D. Seeley, associate professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University: “If a chapter in his book were a term paper by an undergraduate, I might give him a C. In that range.”

- Fred Dyer, professor of zoology at Michigan State University: “He really is putting a distorted spin on the evidence. . . . It’s just outright deception. It’s not good history and it’s not good science.”

- Mark Winston, biology professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada: “The one thing not to lose sight of in the whole Adrian Wenner story is that Adrian is wrong.”

And last year, Scientific American magazine called Wenner a “maverick” and a “gadfly” – curse words in the lexicon of that publication.

Still, Wenner is not easily dismissed. After meeting him in the mid- 1970s, one UC Santa Barbara sociology student received a federal grant to analyze his career for her dissertation.

Columbia University Press was intrigued enough by his case that last year it published “Anatomy of a Controversy,” a 399-page insider’s analysis of the dance-language dispute, written by Wenner and his frequent collaborator, Patrick H. Wells.

Wenner is “a fresh breeze blowing across an area that no one was supposed to approach,” says Bill Wilson, a research entomologist for the federal Department of Agriculture and president of the American Bee Research Conference. “He asked some very good questions, and he has presented some very convincing information.”


Adrian Wenner was born into bees.

His father, a mail carrier in rural Minnesota, kept bees, as did three uncles. The Wenners kept scores of humming colonies in a corner of their back yard, and a boy couldn’t pull weeds there without getting stung.

“I threw rocks at the colonies,” Wenner recalls.

But as he got older, he helped his uncles tend the hives. And by the time Wenner had started on his Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Michigan, bees were his specialty.

The man at the top of that field was Karl von Frisch, a Munich researcher who began to study bees shortly after World War I. In 1946, after more than 20 years of work with marked bees, scented food and strategically placed dishes, Von Frisch defied conventional wisdom – that bees relied primarily on smell. He announced that honeybees recruit and direct one another to food sources by dancing in their hives.

“I have come to realize that these wonderful beings can, in a manner hitherto undreamt of, give each other exact data about the source of food,” Von Frisch wrote.

His theory was elaborate and astounding. If the food was close by, the dance was rapid and round in pattern. If the food was farther away, the bees danced more slowly in a “waggle” pattern. And the direction of the food determined the angle of the dance.

Even if you didn’t care much about bees, this was an event. Honeybees, whose brains are about the size of a grass seed, were apparently the only non-human animals using a “language” of symbolic communication.

When no strong challenge to Von Frisch’s findings was mounted, many scientists took the theory as inspiration to delve more deeply into other areas of animal behavior, including porpoise and chimpanzee communication. By 1961, when Wenner finished his postgraduate work, the dance-language theory was widely accepted.

At first, Wenner toiled as a true believer. As a professor at UC Santa Barbara, he published papers on the division of labor in honeybee colonies, the flight speed of honeybees and the sounds made during their waggle dances.

But in the summer of 1964, when Wenner and Wells tried another experiment to elaborate on the language theory, something went wrong.

“We thought we’d find some new words in the language, as it were,” says Wells, now professor emeritus of biology at Occidental College, Instead, both men say, they were dumbfounded by unexpected results. By their interpretation, the bee behavior didn’t seem to depend on dance information.

“When you see that happen,” Wenner says, “it’s an excruciating experience. Every true anomaly is devastating. You find that everything you’ve done in your career up to that point is in question.”

Wenner took the offensive, launching research to find out what influenced bees’ foraging habits, and writing about his findings. Up through 1969, he published half a dozen articles challenging the accepted wisdom on bee communication. Wells and graduate students Dennis L. Johnson and R. J. Rohlf collaborated on most of the research, but Wenner quickly emerged as the point man.

“He was so aggressively critical of Von Frisch that it alienated a lot of people,” recalls James Gould at Princeton. Others labeled Wenner self-righteous, negative and obnoxious.

“He’s very direct,” Wells acknowledges. “I suppose that’s one thing that caused people to think he was being mean, or aggressively negative. He’s just direct.”

Wenner wrote letters, toured universities and presented his findings at various gatherings.

He argued that Von Frisch’s experiments failed to account for extraneous odor cues and varying flight paths. Just because bees dance and scientists can glean directions from those dances doesn’t mean that other bees understand those directions, he argued; there could be other reasons for the dancing or no discernible reason at all.

Wenner’s results drew challenges from other experts and brought no substantial changes in mainstream thinking. In 1973, Von Frisch was awarded the Nobel Prize. By then, Wenner says, “I was completely ostracized.”

Research grant opportunities vanished, he says, and top journals stopped accepting his submissions. He says he stopped going to national conferences “because it was just hostility.”

Some scientists deny that Wenner received unfair treatment; others say that if he did, he provoked it, exaggerated it and then cast himself as a martyr.

“He made his bed, and he’s now lying in it,” says Seeley, a longtime Wenner critic.

Gould, another critic, says Wenner probably was mistreated early on, and that his story is an interesting lesson in science and the prejudices that scientists carry around.” But Gould also faults Wenner for refusing to concede that bees might use both dance and odor information, and for “carping about how people mistreated him.

These were some of the questions that interested sociologist Connie Veldink, who wrote her doctoral dissertation in the mid-1970s about Wenner. The scientific community spurned Wenner’s ideas, she concluded, in part because he was challenging a venerated scientist and because of the sheer seductiveness of the dancing-bee theory.

For many authorities, the matter was settled in 1974 and 1975, when Gould undertook new bee-language experiments, paying close attention to procedures in Von Frisch’s work that Wenner had questioned. In Science and Nature, the leading journals in the field, Gould endorsed the dance-language theory. Wenner took issue with those findings, but was largely ignored.

(The weight of experimental data grew heavier in 1989, when a team of European scientists built a robot bee to direct real bees to food. Wenner took issue with this experiment’s methods, too, again to little avail.)

Wenner retreated and published nothing new on bees until 1986. Instead, he turned to marine biology and helped organize the Crustacean Society, a leading scientific organization. He took an office at UC Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute, with a view of the Pacific and Santa Cruz Island.

Though his name was anathema in bee circles, Wenner says his career at UCSB never particularly suffered. And in 1989, university officials named him provost of the Santa Barbara campus’ College of Creative Studies.

“I was very quiet,” Wenner says of the ’70s and ’80s.

But even in ostensibly quiet times, Wenner’s contrarian nature surfaced more than once.

In 1982, Wenner reported that the reproductive rate of sand crabs near the San Onofre nuclear reactor was dramatically reduced. State officials would not bankroll his plans for further study.

A few years later, he challenged the theory that monarch butterflies deliberately migrate every winter to California and Mexico from northern states. Wenner argues that western monarchs are merely flying against the wind, which leaves them on the coast.

“I just basically generated a whole new career. And I would say I succeeded,” Wenner says. “But I ran out of ideas.”

And he started thinking about all the European honeybees on Santa Cruz Island.

Santa Cruz, the largest Southern California coastal island and largest of the Channel Island chain, is home to two kinds of bees: solitary native types and European honeybees introduced during the past 300 years.

The European bees are living on borrowed time. The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service want to return the island to its pre-missionary ecology, and Wenner has a contract to collect and eradicate the European bees.

He gets about $6,000 yearly in support from the Nature Conservancy, he says. But more importantly, he has his own sprawling, open-air bee foraging laboratory in which to study the bees before killing them.

Since the monthly bee-eradication expeditions began in 1987, Wenner and his student volunteers have found more than 120 colonies. And in the process, they have built new arguments in Wenner’s case against the idea of bee language.

“If we used the language hypothesis, it would take us several days to find each colony,” Wenner says. Instead, he concentrates on odor, considers wind patterns and analyzes group flight patterns.

If Wenner’s methods are sound, they could help authorities in the southwest United States track down colonies of feral and potentially harmful Africanized bees. But the new tracking technique is only half of Wenner’s new work.

Between island trips, Wenner rereads experimental data gathered by himself and his rivals during the past 15 years. His new view of those findings is scheduled to run as an article in American Zoologist late this year.

In that article, co-written by graduate student Daniel E. Meade and biologist Larry Jon Friesen, Wenner suggests that distances traveled by foraging bees seem to depend largely on what resource the bee is seeking and the odor of that resource.

Reviewing previous experiments, Wenner concludes that the findings don’t, necessarily reflect communication between bees, after all. Instead, Wenner and his collaborators argue, the average distances flown by bees in those experiments fit into a pattern one would expect from a random search.

That, the article adds, is “certainly not what one would expect if bees could use a ‘dance language.’”

Wenner took some of his findings to the annual American Bee Research Conference in Tucson last month, and found “not the slightest trace of hostility by anyone.”

“He wasn’t really challenged,” agreed entomologist Bill Wilson, president of the conference. “He can present some very convincing information that it’s odors as much or more than dancing that recruits the bees to a new food source.”

None of the acknowledged leaders in the field were at that conference, however, and at least two of them are in no hurry to see Wenner’s findings.

At Simon Fraser University, Mark Winston says, “There’s nothing remarkable about what Adrian’s doing on that island.”

At Cornell, Seeley suggests that if Wenner’s past record is a predictor of his future behavior, “he’ll draw inaccurate conclusions from his results.”

But after 25 years, it’s nothing for Wenner to brush off such discouraging words and step back into the thick brush of his island laboratory.

“If the others want to hold on to the dance hypotheses, that’s fine,” Wenner says. “The longer they hold on, the farther ahead we get.”

UC Santa Barbara zoologist Adrian Wenner, above and far left, during his research on Santa Cruz Island. Going against the grain of conventional academic wisdom, Wenner has maintained for decades that there is no persuasive evidence that bees communicate by means of dances in the hives.

Photos by DEBRA MYRENT