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.