CCS Alumna Marlene Zuk Remembers Professor Adrian M. Wenner

October 5, 2023

"In Memoriam: Adrian Wenner" by Marlene Zuk '77 (CCS Biology)

L: Professor Adrian M. Wenner, CCS Provost (1989-1993) ; R: Marlene Zuk '77 (CCS Biology), Regents Professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota
L: Professor Adrian M. Wenner, CCS Provost (1989-1993) ; R: Marlene Zuk '77 (CCS Biology), Regents Professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota

"Adrian Wenner didn’t believe that Acorn Woodpeckers – those black and white birds with the clownish faces and raucous calls common in oak woodlands – store acorns. Sure, they take the acorns, bore holes in trees (or telephone poles, or even the walls of houses), stick the acorns in the holes and retrieve them to eat later when food is scarce. But it’s not storing, he maintained, it’s accumulating. 

The distinction was crucial to him, and it is also crucial to understanding Wenner’s character as a scientist. Storing, you see, implies that the birds have forethought, that they understand what their actions will cause. It may look like they do, and the result may be the same as if they did – they eat those acorns, after all. But presuming intent or purpose when no evidence of them exists is the antithesis of what Wenner saw as the strength of science. He exhorted his students to avoid teleology – the assignment of purpose – whenever they could. Unless you demonstrate that the woodpeckers envision the result of their actions, you shouldn’t presume. Accumulation is a more neutral, and hence better, term.

Let’s face it: no one really cares about the woodpeckers and what term you use for their activities, at least as long as they aren’t hammering at your siding. That was not the case for another of Wenner’s iconoclastic convictions: that the famous honeybee “dance” that supposedly indicated the location of nectar sources to hive-mates did nothing of the sort. The experiments that claimed the bees had a kind of language were flawed, in his opinion, and in his pursuit of the way that honeybees did find flowers Wenner went up against Nobel laureate Karl von Frisch. 

The resulting controversy proved costly for Wenner’s career, and he largely veered away from bee research, despite having grown up in a family of beekeepers and being intimately familiar with the insects. Details of the experiments and the coverage of the issue are beyond what I want to say here. The point is that Wenner was interested in how we draw conclusions in science, and thought that all students should rigorously examine their assumptions, their biases, and the way they knew – or thought they knew – a subject. In a course I took from him as a sophomore he unapologetically assigned Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as well as material from Karl Popper. These are not easy to get through, but if we found them hard going, that was our problem, because Wenner thought we needed to understand how science worked. I didn’t realize then how unusual it was to expect undergraduates to read that kind of material, nor how lucky I was to have had an instructor who didn’t think we should merely regurgitate the information we were given. He highly prized the ability to be critical, not in a “gotcha” way, but because it meant better science.

Wenner combined his unswerving devotion to evidence and hypothesis testing with a deep love of natural history. He took great pride in being a Professor of Natural History, not of Biological Sciences or Zoology or any more modern term. His classes were full of field trips around Santa Barbara to collect insects and turn over rocks in streams. His knowledge of bees came out on those trips, even though he was no longer studying them. Once he took our class up a trail in Rattlesnake Canyon, where we kept walking and walking without him telling us where we were going, and without pausing to catch anything or check out the vegetation for insects. 

Finally he stopped. “Listen,” he said. We all stood still, and heard a far-off humming, slightly ominous, but we couldn’t see what was making the noise. Wenner bent down and picked up a pebble, and flung it into the air. Within moments, it fell, with two bees clinging to it. “They’re drone honeybees,” he told us, “on their flight following a virgin queen after she left the hive.” We were hearing a drone swarm. The drones are the males, exquisitely tuned to notice anything even slightly bee-like as it moves in the air. Once a drone finds a female, he mates with her, after which his genitalia explode and he falls, lifeless, to the ground. As I used to point out to my own students, this act is exceeded in its tragic nature only by the alternative, which is not to mate at all, a fate far worse than death in evolutionary terms.

I never found out how Wenner knew where to go, and when, to find the swarm. To us he seemed like a conjurer, manufacturing bees out of thin air. He also was so good at distinguishing female bees from the harmless males that he would sometimes see a bee and snatch it from a flower in his bare hand, eliciting gasps from us as we expected him to get stung. He never was. 

Wenner frequently took students to Santa Cruz Island, where we collected insects, swam in La Cascada, and stayed in the rustic field station that preceded the more deluxe facilities now provided. He didn’t have much in the way of formal assignments, but wanted us to experience the place as a microcosm of California habitats. Once he drove a group of us up one of the tall hills, pointing out the oaks, the valleys, and the different places where we could find insects. Then he dropped us off individually and told us to walk back to the station by ourselves, about a six- or seven-mile hike. I’d never been alone in wilderness before, and I was more than a little intimidated. But I grasped my insect net and started hiking, figuring that I couldn’t get too lost as long as I kept going downhill. It took several hours, but we all made it. I never asked him why he thought it was important that we go separately, but it was a memorable experience in paying attention to my surroundings and being alone with my thoughts.

It's too easy to conclude that Wenner taught me to see the world more critically, or to notice the small lives that are all around us. Maybe it’s better to note that I always say that Acorn Woodpeckers accumulate acorns, and that you should too."

––Marlene Zuk '77 (CCS Biology), Regents Professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota


Refer to “In Memoriam: Professor Adrian M. Wenner, CCS Provost (1989-1993) is Remembered (1928-2023)” for further memories and testimonials of Professor Wenner’s dedication to students at CCS and UCSB as well as his research on bees.