The Man Who Discovered that Bees Can Think

You probably know that Karl von Frisch figured out how honey bees use their waggle-dance to communicate. He won the Nobel Prize for that and for other studies of bee behaviour. I think it was well-deserved and his experiments withstood criticism and independent confirmation. His discovery was intuitive and required hundreds of replicated experiments conducted over years of work in personally risky circumstances in Nazi Germany. But there is another scientist who came close to figuring out many of the things which brought von Frisch fame. The other scientist did his experiments in America, decades earlier. But he’s mostly unknown, largely forgotten.

This year – 2017 – marked the 150th anniversary of Charles Turner’s birth.  He’s likely the most important biologist you’ve never heard.  Charles Henry Turner published at least 70 papers, mostly on animal behaviour. Years before Karl von Frisch realized that bees possess colour vision and can recognize and remember patterns, Turner had published his own results on exactly the same thing.  Turner published the first research showing that insects can learn and solve problems.  At the time, in 1900, it was generally believed that invertebrate activity was due to reaction to chemical and physical stimuli, without the need for neural discernment. Following Turner’s discoveries, we have seen that insects of all sorts exhibit signs of personality and certainly demonstrate problem-solving skills. Turner’s experiments created a new field of science focused on cognitive ability in insects and other invertebrates.

Turner’s father, from Alberta, Canada, was a church custodian. A church custodian who was known as a master of debate and who – in the 1870s – owned several hundred books.  Charles Turner’s mother, who was from Kentucky, was a nurse. Our budding scientist was born in Cincinnati where he attended public schools and graduated as class valedictorian. Charles Turner studied biology at the University of Cincinnati, graduating in 1891 – the same year he published his first paper (“Morphology of the Avian Brain”) in the Journal of Comparative Neurology. He followed that with another avian neurology paper, this time published in the prestigious magazine Science. He earned his MSc just a year later. His research moved from dissections and interpretations of bird nervous systems to spiders, river shrimp, and insects. Turner was also the first to demonstrate Pavlovian conditioning in an insect. In 1907, Turner became one of the first African-Americans to receive a graduate degree from the University of Chicago. His doctorate, “The Homing of Ants: An Experimental Study of Ant Behavior,” was emblematic of his work in the learning and thinking patterns of invertebrates.

One of Turner’s biggest discoveries involved honey bees, which he trained to recognize shapes and patterns and which – he discovered – could remember the colours of hidden trays of sugar syrup, returning to the correct colours even when tray positions were scrambled.

Dr Charles I. Abramson, a professor at Oklahoma State, investigated Charles Turner’s life. Abramson, in his piece “A Study of Inspiration” describes Turner’s honey bee research:

“Turner begins the paper with a scholarly review of the literature in which the various theories of why bees should see colors are enumerated, followed by a discussion of the limitations of the existing data.

“To investigate the problem, he studied honey bees in O’Fallon Park in St. Louis. He designed various colored disks, colored boxes,and “cornucopias” into which the bees were trained to fly. Thirty-two experiments were designed, and controls for the influence of odor and brightness were instituted. The results of his experiments showed that bees see colors and discriminate among them. It is interesting that in considering the results of his experiments, he believed that bees may be creating, in his words, “memory pictures” of the environment. The idea of memory pictures is certainly contemporary.

“The second paper of the series on honey bee learning was stimulated by the color vision paper. The methods used were identical to those in the color vision paper with the exception that various patterns were used, as were colors. The use of patterns and colors on the same target is the first use, in my opinion, of the compound-conditioning methods popular in contemporary studies of animal discrimination learning. The study contains 19 experiments and the results show that honey bees can readily distinguish patterns.”

Although he earned his PhD as a magna cum laude graduate at the University of Chicago, Turner didn’t find the sort of work that such a brilliant scientist would be expected to receive. He ended up with no laboratory to direct, no grad students to mentor, and no position at any research university. He applied to various universities, but was routinely rejected due to his race. Consequently, Turner spent most of his career as a high school science teacher at the Negro Sumner High School, conducting his experiments at a city park, paying for his spare-time research out of his own pocket.

Historian W.E.B. Du Bois wrote:

Charles Turner “became a teacher in a small colored Methodist school in South Atlanta which had at the time about a dozen college students, no laboratories and few books. He received inadequate pay and a heavy teaching load . . . but the only appointment carrying a living wage that he was able to get was in the Negro Sumner High School in St. Louis. There he stayed until he died of overwork. He was a promising scientist; with even fair opportunity he ought to have accomplished much; but his color hindered him.”

Charles Henry Turner died young from a heart attack, passing away in 1923 at the age of 55. For a comprehensive biography and an analysis of the science behind Turner’s work, I invite you to read “A Study of Inspiration” by Charles I. Abramson.

Most of the material in my blog piece today comes from various papers by Abramson, who has researched Turner’s life for years. You can download Dr Abramson’s biography about Dr Turner, see a brief review in Nature, or read more about Turner (and see some family photos) at Abramson’s Charles Henry Turner website. It would be a nice tribute to Charles Henry Turner if you could read more of his story as the sesquicentennial of Dr Turner’s birth draws to a close.

🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
This entry was posted in Bee Biology, Culture, or lack thereof, History, People, Science and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to The Man Who Discovered that Bees Can Think

  1. susan rudnicki says:

    Thank you so much for this! vonFrisch gets all the attention. This reminds me of the study of the double helix, in which Watson and Crick get the accolades by their research, but much has been made of how Rosalind Franklin’s images and research were fundamental to the W and C outcome.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      It’s similar, isn’t it? I don’t want to take anything away from Dr von Frisch’s achievements, his science went beyond what Dr Turner was able to do in Turner’s restricted circumstances. Von frisch (~1940) was likely aware of Turner’s earlier work (~1910), considering that Turner was publishing in the top science journals. But we don’t know for sure. The bigger point is that Charles Turner didn’t have the opportunities he should have had – and we are all the poorer for that.


  2. Pingback: The Man Who Discovered that Bees Can Think | Raising Honey Bees

  3. Emily Scott says:

    Infuriating… sometimes I wish we were all identical in looks so that appearance was considered as irrevelvant as it should be.

    Incidentally I recently had a discussion online with someone who refused to believe that the waggle dance is real. They thought it a ridiculous idea that bees could take in information from vibrations in the hive and use it to locate forage. They believed the dances were only foragers going through the motions of their days in a similar way to someone sleep walking or pedalling in their sleep after a day of cycling. I could follow their argument and see how they reached their conclusion, but I do still believe the dances convey useful directional information which the bees follow.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thanks, Emily! Regarding the bee dance, every few years someone makes a serious effort to overthrow von Frisch’s discovery. Sometimes the arguments make pretty good sense to me. However, there have been some studies which reversed the science – imitation bees are made to waggle in a hive. Recruits are then followed as they go out the hive and head off to the spot that the robot dancer indicated. So, it seems that “the dances convey useful directional information which the bees follow” as you wrote.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Emily, you cannot have a rational discussion with an irrational person! I don’t know what it is about bees (and vaccination protocols) that brings out the medieval in people, but it is certainly there. The demon-haunted world, to quote one my heroes!

      Liked by 3 people

      • Ron Miksha says:

        Nicely worded! (BTW, for readers who don’t recognize “the demon-haunted world”, that’s from the title of a Carl Sagan book. Sagan was an astronomer and science promoter who railed against pseudoscience. I liked him, too – my backyard, 8-inch telescope is named Carl.)

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: The Man Who Discovered that Bees Can Think | Beginner Beekeeper

  5. PS thanks for this very interesting, inspiring but sad post on an unsung bee hero. But it does go to show you the value of what is often disparagingly called “citizen science”. Lots of good inquiries can be done sans funding.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Pingback: Happy Birthday Charles Henry Turner by Ron Miksha | Beekeeping365

  7. Connie says:

    That was a fascinating piece of history you shared- thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This has nothing to do with Charles’ amazing feats, but that seems VERY early for his father to have been from Alberta (or Rupert’s Land as it would have been then). He would have had to be associated with the fur trade? A mere quibble, the Alberta origins are likely in error, but if they aren’t, I’d be VERY interested to learn about Thomas Turner, free black trader of the North Saskatchewan. ~Will


    • Ron Miksha says:

      Great comment, but I can’t tell you any more than what I learned from Charles Turner’s biographer, Dr Charles Abramson of the psych department Oklahoma State University.
      Here’s an excerpt of a paper which Dr Abramson published in the Annual Review of Entomology, 2009:

      Turner bio background


  9. Pingback: Goodbye, Susan | Bad Beekeeping Blog

  10. Pingback: Remembering Susan | Bad Beekeeping Blog

  11. Pingback: Happy Birthday Charles Henry Turner by Ron Miksha | Beekeeping365

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