Island Odyssey

Joe Traynor

Three years ago, I fulfilled a daydream common to many – I spent a week on a Pacific island.

The island, Santa Cruz Island (SCI), is the largest (approximately 100 square miles or about three times the size of Manhattan) in a chain of five islands (called the Northern Channel Islands) that lie 25 miles off California’s coast near Santa Barbara. To make things better, the month was April, always (in my opinion) the best month in California, especially for one with an interest in bees and flowers. The island sojourn was not really a vacation, as I was there to observe Adrian Wenner’s work on removing honey bees from the island.

Santa Cruz Island and a visit with Adrian Wenner

Island Background
First, a brief history: Evidence of human life on SCI goes back 7,500 years. The original Native American population gave way to Spanish, then Mexican rule, and in 1860, 10 Americans purchased the island. The Americans introduced agriculture, including cattle, sheep, vineyards, and European honey bees. Island ownership evolved down to one owner, who established a working relationship with the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) in 1965. In 1966, UCSB set up a field station devoted to research and teaching. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) took over ownership in the 1980s (at a fraction of the market value) and TNC and UCSB work closely to maintain the island. This work includes returning the island to its natural state, which means eliminating introduced species, including honey bees.

As the resident bee expert, Adrian Wenner volunteered to eliminate honey bees from the island. Over a seven-year period, Wenner located over 200 feral honey bee colonies and eliminated 150 of them – a remarkable task considering the rugged terrain and limited road access on the island. Location of these feral colonies was based on wind-borne odor detection and communication by honey bees; the methods used for this “search and destroy” mission were published in 1992.

Wet winters in 1994 and 1995 resulted in prolific swarming (one colony became 14 in just 18 months), and it was decided to introduce Varroa mites to eliminate the remaining honey bee colonies. The Varroa mites have been effective, and elimination of honey bees from SCI is now in the final stages. In the unlikely event that a colony survives, that colony (or colonies) will be of great value to bee breeders.

Santa Cruz Island lies 24 miles off the coast of Califomia. (Santa Rosa Island, another of the Channel Islands, lies to the west.)

Santa Cruz Island lies 24 miles off the coast of California. (Santa Rosa Island, another of the Channel Islands, lies to the west.)

An Ideal Research Site
SCI has been dubbed a “miniature Galapagos” and has become a Mecca for researchers in a wide range of disciplines. As can be deduced, it is a dream workplace for bee researchers desiring to evaluate the impact of honey bees on wild bee populations. The authors of the recent popular book The Forgotten Pollinators speculated on honey bee vs. wild bee dynamics (and the consequent impact on plant species), but they could only speculate because they could not control honey bee populations. SCI is the ideal laboratory in which to crystallize such speculation into hard data. Wenner recognized this and has been generous in sharing this resource with others, including Robbin Thorp, who has come up with some excellent data on plant-pollinator interactions.

Accommodations on the island are Spartan – bunkhouses and a large mess hall – but more than adequate. My first day on the island was spent checking feral colony locations with Wenner and his assistant, and the experience gave me the opportunity to appreciate the accomplishment of removing 150 feral bee colonies. We used a Jeep to check a series of honey bee colony sites in order to determine if nests previously anesthetized and sealed with polyethylene were indeed moribund and had not been recolonized. Occasional swarm traps were also checked.

Keeping Up With Wenner
In checking colony locations, our route appeared to be haphazard, but Wenner honed in on each site with amazing accuracy, rarely referring to his records and with only an occasional twitch of his nose – he obviously had a precise mental picture of the locations of well over 100 colonies. Many locations were well off the road and had to be accessed on foot over terrain suitable mainly for mountain goats. Being in good shape, I welcomed the challenge, as well as the opportunity to demonstrate how fit I was. I was able to keep up with Wenner and his assistant for the first few stops, but as the day wore on, it became more difficult. By the end of the day, I was forced to admit that I had been out-hustled by a man approaching 70. Subsequent days were spent in similar fashion with asides to observe bee activity (including native bees) and other research projects on the island.

Several botanically oriented research-study groups from U.C. Berkeley and U.C. Santa Cruz passed through during my stay, greeting Wenner as an old friend and entering into animated discussions on a variety of topics. A grad student planning a Ph.D. thesis on honey bee communication was part of a UC. Davis contingent and, needless to say, there was a spirited evening discussion on dance language that lasted far into the night. I retired at 10 p.m., but Wenner was still going strong at midnight. What impressed me about Wenner in these discussions was the sheer joy he took in them – unlike many such discussions which turn into contests (particularly among the male of the species) as to who can score the most debating points. It was the give-and-take of the discussion itself that energized Wenner – getting lost in the pleasure of the serve and volley of the game rather than concentrating on winning the point.

In spite of demanding workdays and late-night discussions, Wenner was invariably the first one in the mess hall in the morning. Following his midnight session, I made it a point to get to the mess hall at 6 a.m., a half hour earlier than usual, confident that I would be the first one there. I was greeted by Wenner, who apologized for the coffee not being ready yet.

Dance Language vs. Odor
From my limited exposure to the “dance language controversy” previous to my visit, I was aware that Wenner’s position (that odor, not dance, was the primary means of recruiting honey bees to a food source) was at odds with the conventional wisdom on the subject and had spawned much criticism. One might think that this barrage of criticism would cause Wenner to hunker down, become subdued, defensive, or even paranoiac. One would be wrong.

My impression of Wenner is of a high-energy individual totally immersed in the task at hand, whatever that task might be. Although he is well aware of his critics, they appear to be no more than a minor annoyance, which, if anything, energizes rather than subdues him – “happy warrior” would be an apt so-briquet for Wenner. I won’t get into a lengthy discussion of the dance language controversy here, but any sketch of Wenner would be incomplete without some comment on the subject.

First, anyone who takes the requisite hour to read the three pages of a 1968 experiment by Wenner et al. and doesn’t come away, if not convinced of Wenner’s position, at least receptive to it, hasn’t been focused during that hour. This experiment was done in August, a time of year when California is bone-dry, and interfering, competing odors are minimized. This convergence of time and location provided an excellent arena in which to conduct bee communication experiments using introduced odors. This test also considered wind velocity and direction, a critical component of any communication hypothesis and one that has been ignored time after time by language proponents (ask any deer hunter about the importance of wind direction in odor transmission and detection).

Odors, Odors, Everywhere
I work as an agricultural consultant in the San Joaquin Valley and have observed a technological explosion in insect monitoring and control over the past decade. This revolution is based on odor, specifically pheromones, that either lure insects to traps (to monitor their populations) or are used directly to confuse and control them. There is hardly a crop grown in California today that does not depend on pheromone traps to monitor insects, and one sees these traps everywhere – 6″ x 6″ cardboard “houses” coated with pheromone and a sticky substance to trap the target insect. These traps have proven highly successful and are based on the remarkable ability of insects to detect odors. The fact that honey bees respond just as vigorously to queen pheromone shows that honey bees surely possess a similar, finely tuned odor-detecting mechanism.

When one drives or walks past one of the ubiquitous insect pheromone traps, one detects no odor whatsoever – the odors are far beyond the receptive capacity of our crude odor-detection mechanism, the nose. If the size of our nose was proportionally increased to achieve the odor-detecting capacity of insects, it would not be a pretty sight. It is, perhaps, a conceit of man that if he can’t detect something – odor, in this case – then that parameter must not be important. Is it not possible that it is this arrogance that has prevented researchers from devoting more time to investigating odor communication by honey bees rather than concentrating on something they can readily see and quantify, i.e., dance movements by bees? Devising an experiment that sets up rigid controls over a parameter (odor) that one cannot readily detect requires a degree of intellectual rigor not possessed by everyone.

Wenner is certainly not isolated in his position on bee communication. He is supported by a number of biologists and, with mounting evidence of the pervasive influence of odor on all phases of insect biology, the ranks of Wenner supporters are increasing. It is noteworthy that a significant number of these supporters are long-term members of the honey bee research community, people who are immersed in all facets of honey bee biology as opposed to general biologists or newcomers to apiculture. Possibly the most experienced, productive honey bee researcher today is the USDA’s William Wilson. Wilson says that Wenner “is a fresh breeze blowing across an area that no one was supposed to approach. . . . He has asked some very good questions, and he has presented some very convincing information.”

Wenner has maintained a bemused detachment to the controversy swirling around him, serenely confident that his position will be vindicated with time. He has not allowed the language controversy to deter him from fruitful work in an eclectic mix of subjects including crustacean biology, monarch butterfly biology, and a discourse on mammoth elephants on the Channel Islands. He has also co-authored a popular book on environmentally safe pest control.

Wenners As Diplomats
It is worth mentioning that Wenner’s response to his critics has been rational and evenhanded. His published responses, although often forceful, are noticeably lacking in polemics, unlike the superior, condescending tone sometimes found in academic debates. This refrain from personal attacks is a quality that was also found in Wenner’s cousin, the late Darrell Wenner, a northern California bee breeder who was active in beekeeper politics in both California and the United States (and the world). Those familiar with the California beekeeping scene know that beekeepers there are a contentious lot divided into three main factions: queen breeders (mostly Northern California) pollinators (central California) and honey producers (Southern California), with the disparate interests of each group guaranteeing intergroup skirmishes that can descend into name-calling. Darrell Wenner was one of the few who had the deserved respect of each group, and with a gentle manner, was a tremendous unifying force in California beekeeping. I have since concluded that there is a Wenner gene for diplomacy and that if such a gene could be implanted in all heads of state, this world would be a far better place. One could take Adrian Wenners diplomatic demeanor, including the ability to conceal a low tolerance for fools, as a sign of weakness. This would be a mistake. If I were making a list of people that I would not want to get in a fight with, either intellectually or physically, Wenner would head the list.

UCSB recognized Professor Wenner’s broad range of skills, including diplomacy, and in 1989, appointed him to the prestigious post of provost of the College of Creative Studies. Such a position is a no-win situation in today’s academic world, and it was not long before Wenner was involved in another controversy: A group of students and faculty, using art and freedom of speech as their rationale, wanted to, then demanded to exhibit photographs of nude males in a variety of poses. The exhibit area was in full view of people of all ages who passed by in the hallway. Wenner, father of a world-renowned artist himself, employed a Solomonlike solution: A temporary partition that shielded the exhibit from passersby. This solution has subsequently been emulated by other institutions confronted with similar situations.

Wenner is currently an emeritus professor at UCSB, where he maintains an office. He continues a rigorous and productive work schedule, including frequent trips to SCI.

Plan An Island Trip
For those interested in traveling to Santa Cruz Island, there are day trips for $49 or work trips. Call (805) 642-1393 or 962-9111 for more information. Should you visit the island, you may catch a glimpse of a white-bearded, smiling, diminutive chap with a twinkle in his eye, scrambling about the island cliffs. Should such a sighting turn into an encounter, make sure you have your wits about you.

Joe Traynor is a crop consultant, author & pollination broker from Bakersfield, CA.


Wenner, A., J. Alcock and D. Meade. 1992. Efficient hunting of feral colonies. Bee Science. 2: 64-70.

Buchmann, S. and G. Nabham. 1996. The forgotten pollinators. Island Press/Shearwater Books.

Thorp, R., AM. Wenner and J.F. Barthell. 1994. Flowers visited by honey bees and native bees on Santa Cruz Island. Pp 351-365 in: Halverson and Meader (eds.), Fourth California Islands Symposium. Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara, CA.

Wenner, A., P. Wells and D. Johnson. 1969. Honey bee recruitment to food sources: Olfaction or language? Science. 164: 84-86, also called the “crucial” experiment in the 1990 book by Wenner and Wells, Anatomy of a Controversy. Columbia University press.

Reynolds, C. 1991. Lord of the gadflies. Los Angeles Times. Nov. 5, E1, E8.

Klein, H. and A. Wenner. 1991. Tiny Game Hunting. Bantam Books. (Australia/New Zealand edition, 1993).