Bee Culture - October, 1996 - Pages 551-552

Both Torn Webster and Toge Johansson (August issue) seemed quite displeased at what I consider to be Ruth Rosin's excellent guest editorial in the June issue. In her editorial, Rosin wrote:

"Touting the honey bee 'dance language' hypothesis ... continues to delude beekeepers into believing that use of the honey bee 'dance language' to communicate with honey bees is some day still going to greatly help beekeepers. It also prevents honey bee researchers from studying how they could really help beekeepers by learning to maximally utilize the ability of honey bees to find food by use of odor..."

During the last couple of years I have communicated extensively with both Webster and Johansson and have furnished them with a wealth of scientific evidence that differs from their religious-like belief in bee language (much of the evidence furnished to them gathered by bee language proponents themselves). Despite that extensive effort on my part, Webster and Johansson provided Bee Culture readers only with evidence and opinion that supported their own fixed positions.

In a 1991 invited review article in a scientific journal (as furnished to Webster), my co-workers and I illustrated how the earlier results published by J. Gould, A. Michelson, and W. Kirchner (as alluded to by Webster) actually countered the claims by those researchers that they had "proved" that bee language exists. Webster did not provide that input to Bee Culture readers. However, scientists are expected to cite counter evidence and claims.

Johansson failed to provide readers with a balanced account of the excellent results obtained by John Eckert in the early 1930s. Instead, Johansson wrote "The suggestion that bees locate blooms by odor from downwind only is contrary to J.E. Eckert's finding in 1933 that prevailing wind did not influence their flight." By contrast, Eckert actually wrote on p. 282 of his account, "The direction of the prevailing winds appeared to have no definite relation to the principal direction in which the bees were flying from the different apiaries." Thus, that statement was not based on an actual experiment and was not a "finding" by Eckert. At the time, Eckert had no knowledge of competition between apiaries, a factor that could determine the direction of flight lines.

In his selective reporting. Johansson failed to include another quotation from Eckert in the same account: "The data in table 11 and figure 6 shows that beyond a 0.5 mile radius the bees distributed themselves principally in one direction." A brief glance at the information in table 11 of Eckerts account reveals that the principal flight directions were generally against the prevailing wind direction! Neither did either letter writer mention the existence of an excellent 1973 report by Larry Friesen, one that documented the importance of wind direction during honey bee recruitment to food sources. (That study was summarized in our 1990 book published by Columbia University Press - a source also not mentioned by either writer.)

Both letter writers thus continue the practice of bee language proponents - focus on popular and semi-popular accounts that support the hypothesis but ignore even later scientific contributions that counter those claims.

Furthermore, language proponents seem no longer able to state their belief in a simple scientific statement - one that can be tested by experiment. Even though they reluctantly now admit that odor is important, they seem unwilling to conduct even simple experiments that could reveal information about the foraging patterns of colonies with respect to prevailing wind direction.

We have now had the dance language hypothesis for a half a century, with no noticeable advantage to beekeepers or growers. (And, in science, a hypothesis that does not prove useful usually becomes discarded long before that much time has elapsed.) How much longer will beekeepers and growers remain in the dark about the importance of wind direction in their operations - after all, odors can only travel downwind!

1973 - Friesen, L. J., The search dynamics of recruited honey bees, Apis mellifera ligustica Spinola. Biological Bulletin. 144:107-131.

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

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.

Adrian Wenner
Santa Barbara. CA