Bee Speak : Nature: The prevailing scientific wisdom that these insects have a dance language has long charmed nature-lovers. But Adrian Wenner calls the theory an embarrassment.


Every month, professor 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 the high ground with a handful of student volunteers, listens for a buzz and scans the sky.

He is looking for an end to 25 years at odds with the scientific community, for a validation of his life’s work. For honey bees.

“They credit me with going out to cause trouble,” Wenner 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.”

Wenner, a vigorous 63-year-old with an outdoorsman tan and a closely trimmed silver beard, has been battling since 1966 against one of the most widely accepted scientific hypotheses of the 20th Century: the idea that honey bees direct each other to food by doing intricate dances in their hives.


That theory, framed in 1946, earned German zoologist Karl von Frisch a Nobel Prize. It has convinced two later generations of scientists, who have conducted follow-up tests of their own, and has 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 calls it all “a romantic story,” and says he was shunned and forced into another specialty for more than a decade because he doubted it.

“The whole episode is basically an embarrassment to science,” Wenner says.

But now, Wenner believes his work on Santa Cruz Island is yielding results that might help overturn the dance-language theory. Once out of the hive, he says, bees are like plenty of other insects: They follow their sense of smell.


If he can advance that theory, Wenner continues, he will probably be able to make some progress with another of his unpopular arguments: that much of the science done today operates under a philosophy that invites politicking and personal prejudices.

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

The Columbia University Press was intrigued enough by Wenner’s case that it last year published “Anatomy of a Controversy,” a 399-page insider’s analysis of the dance-language dispute 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 in Texas and president of the American Bee Research Conference. “He asked some very good questions, and he has presented some very convincing information.”

But mention Wenner’s name among the world’s leading bee behavior specialists and you hear something else entirely.

Last year, Scientific American called him a “maverick” and a “gadfly"--curse words in the lexicon of that publication.

Says 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.”

Says 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.”


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

Born Into Bees

On a sun-drenched Friday morning, Wenner hurdles up an island hillside in an ancient jeep. He’s on a dirt road, traveled once a month, if that. Suddenly, Wenner brakes and points.

“We’ve got two colonies down in this canyon,” he says, hopping out. “And here’s a honey bee right here.” At his feet buzzes the bee in question, dining on a thistle blossom, collecting nectar on its tiny tongue.

Wenner was born into bees.

The son of a bee-keeping mail carrier in rural Minnesota, he was also the nephew of three bee-keeping 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 bees. And by the time Wenner had started on his Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, bees were his specialty.


The man at the top of that specialty was Karl von Frisch, a zoologist from Munich who began his study of 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 and announced that honey bees recruit and direct each other 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. Honey bees, 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 one mounted a strong challenge to Von Frisch’s findings, 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 had become conventional wisdom.

Wenner was among the believers. As a professor at UC Santa Barbara, he published papers on the division of labor in honey bee colonies, the flight speed of honey bees and the sounds made by honey bees during their “waggle” dances.

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

“We thought we’d find some new words in the language, as it were,” says Patrick H. Wells, now professor emeritus of biology at Occidental College. Instead, both men say, they were struck dumb by unexpected results. By their interpretation, the bee recruitment 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 made the most of it. From 1965 to 1969, he published half a dozen articles challenging accepted wisdom on bees and their 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 applied words such as self-righteous , negative and obnoxious to Wenner.

“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. At a Salk Institute conference in 1966, he remembers, a prominent physiologist rose from an angry audience to shout, “What’s the matter? Don’t you believe anything unless you have done it yourself?”

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

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

Wenner says research grant opportunities vanished and top journals stopped accepting his submissions. He stopped going to national conferences, he says, “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 Thomas Seeley, one of Wenner’s strongest critics over the years.

James Gould, another longtime 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 on Wenner from 1975 to 1977. 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.

The argument that bees aren’t so special after all, Veldink noted, “hardly grips the imagination.”

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 European team of 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 from 1974 to 1986. Instead, he turned to marine biology, helped organize the Crustacean Society, arranged various symposiums and edited several crustacean publications. He took an office in UC Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute, with a window view of the Pacific and Santa Cruz Island.

In 1989, university officials selected him as provost of the Santa Barbara campus’s College of Creative Studies.

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

And at home, there were other careers to consider. Wenner’s wife, Hilda, is an author and locally known musician. Their son, Kurt, is an artist known for his temporary festival street murals in the United States and Europe. And their daughter, Gretchen, is using her UC Santa Barbara music degree as a guitarist for a Seattle rock band.

But even in ostensible 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 less than normal and found that state officials were unwilling to bankroll his plans for further study.

A few years later, he challenged experts on the subject of Monarch butterfly migration. Most experts believe Monarchs deliberately migrate every winter to California and Mexico from northern states. Wenner argues that western Monarchs are merely flying against the wind, which happens to leave 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 honey bees on Santa Cruz Island.

Island Study

Santa Cruz, the largest island off the Southern California coast, is home to two kinds of bees: solitary native types and European honey bees introduced in 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 the European bee-eradication contract.

The arrangement amounts to about $6,000 a year in support from the Nature Conservancy, Wenner says. But more importantly, it gives him his own sprawling, open-air bee foraging laboratory.

Since he began making monthly bee-collecting expeditions in 1987, Wenner and his student volunteers have found more than 120 colonies--and in the process 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, rather than individual routes.

“And we are finding colonies (in times) as rapid as half an hour. Half a day is sort of usual,” Wenner says.

If Wenner’s methods are sound, they could help authorities in the Southwestern 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 on bee foraging.

Between island trips, Wenner has been re-reading experimental data gathered by himself and his rivals over 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, Oct. 5-8, 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 present 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, Thomas 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.

“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.”