Interview: Northwestern professor talks about bees, science, and her new book


by Annie Cebulski In the midst of a bee population crisis, Tania Munz, former lecturer and adviser for Weinberg, wrote The Dancing Bees, a thoughtful account of the history of a scientist in Germany  during World War II and his groundbreaking discovery of honey bees’ communication through dance. Munz gave In Our Nature an exclusive interview about how and why The Dancing Bees came to be.

What is the central theme?

The book is about Carl von Frisch, who discovered honey bees could communicate with their dances. It’s become very iconic of a successful animal behavior study. What’s much less well-known are the politics and background, the circumstances under which the study took place. I wanted to talk about the fact that this was discovered under really interesting circumstances you wouldn’t normally hear about.

How long did it take to write and research all this?

Tania Munz is a professor and advisor at Northwestern University.

Take a guess [laughs]. I started it as a dissertation project. If you count that time, all together it took about ten years. It’s a horrifying [amount of] time.

Are you proud of it?

I don’t know if I’m proud of it. I’m pleased with it.

What drew you to bees? Was there an “A-ha moment”?

I did a master’s project on Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. And I was really interested in what that theory demanded on animals, cognitively and aesthetically. Animals had to be able to distinguish very carefully on aesthetic grounds. Females especially had to choose their partners and turn away other partners. It asked a lot out of female animals. I was very interested in the animal-human boundary. For my PhD project, I was interested in how scientists have sought to understand what makes humans humans, and what makes non-human animals different from humans. I came across Carl von Frisch’s work, and I just thought his experiments were super smart and really elegant. I wanted science that was compelling.

What was the most interesting fact you uncovered while researching?

Von Frisch was found to be a quarter Jewish by the Nazis, and he ended up doing his most important work during World War II with funding from the Nazi government. It was almost like he did this work not in spite of the Nazis but because of the Nazis. To me that was really crazy. And that needs to be explained.

There are so many political implications when you think about “Oh, this theory on bees came about because of these terrible circumstances.” 

That’s what’s so interesting about science. In a way you look at these bee experiments, and they’re very elegant and the story that’s told is a very intellectual story where one discovery leads to the other. There’s a way to buy into this idea that science happens outside of its time and place, that it’s injective and just uncovers truth about nature. But when we dig a little deeper, science is political. It’s really messy, and it’s very much part of our time and place. Food politics were super important during WWII. It was clear Germany wouldn’t win quickly anymore, and [Von Frisch] was able to make an argument that bees were important to the food supply. At the time, bees were dying from a bee plague, just as they are now.  

Is there anything that people can learn from bees or Carl von Frisch?

Humans can learn that people need to pay attention to our ecology. Bees have for vast stretches been taken for granted. It’s important to pay attention not just when there’s a crisis, but at all times.

What is the state of bees right now?

They’re still under a lot of stress, and hives are still threatened. Researchers are coming closer to identifying various factors that are contributing. But when something like this happens, like Hive Collapse Syndrome, it’s not just scary that the bees are dying, but it’s also scary to think about the limits of science and our ability to fix and understand things.

What do you hope people can take away from your book?

I try not to just tell the story of the scientist and the science, but I also tell the story of the bees. Bees have served for centuries as fruitful mirrors for us. Humans have looked to the hive for politics, [seeing] a monarchy or a commune. People have looked to the hive for moral instruction for society. And over the course of the 20th century, animal science has told a story of how it too has become more objective and how we don’t do those anthropomorphic projections anymore. But I think in the story of bees, especially with Hive Collapse Syndrome, we still see our fears and anxieties in the hives. We continue to bring our own questions to animals and to bees, and that’s the story I wanted to highlight in the book. We’re in it together. Bees and humans are deeply entwined.

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