On a crisp autumn morning in 1908, an elegantly dressed African American man strode back and forth among the pin oaks, magnolias and silver maples of O’Fallon Park in St. Louis, Missouri. After placing a dozen dishes filled with strawberry jam atop several picnic tables, biologist Charles Henry Turner retreated to a nearby bench, notebook, and pencil at the ready.
Following a midmorning break for tea and toast (topped with strawberry jam, of course), Turner returned to his outdoor experiment. At noon and again at dusk, he placed jam-filled dishes on the park tables. As he discovered, honeybees (Apis mellifera) were reliable breakfast, lunch and dinner visitors to the sugary buffet. After a few days, Turner stopped offering jam at midday and sunset, and presented the treats only at dawn. Initially, the bees continued appearing at all three times. Soon, however, they changed their arrival patterns, visiting the picnic tables only in the mornings.
This simple but elegantly devised experiment led Turner to conclude that bees can perceive time and will rapidly develop new feeding habits in response to changing conditions. These results were among the first in a cascade of groundbreaking discoveries that Turner made about insect behavior.
Turner was born in Cincinnati in 1867, a mere two years after the Civil War ended. The son of a church custodian and a nurse who was formerly enslaved, he grew up under the specter of Jim Crow – a set of formal laws and informal practices that relegated African Americans to second-class status.
The social environment of Turner’s childhood included school and housing segregation, frequent lynchings and the denial of basic democratic rights to the city’s nonwhite population. Despite immense obstacles to his educational goals and professional aspirations, Turner’s tenacious spirit carried him through.
As a young boy, he developed an abiding fascination with small creatures, capturing and cataloging thousands of ants, beetles and butterflies. An aptitude for science was just one of Turner’s many talents. At Gaines High School, he led his all-Black class, securing his place as valedictorian.
Following a brief stint at the University of Cincinnati and a temporary position at Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University), Turner spent the remainder of his career teaching at Sumner High School in St. Louis. As of 1908, his salary was a meager US$1,080 a year – around $34,300 in today’s dollars. At Sumner – without access to a fully equipped laboratory, a research library or graduate students – Turner made trailblazing discoveries about insect behavior.
Probing the minds of insects
Among Turner’s most significant findings was that wasps, bees, sawflies and ants – members of the Hymenoptera order – are not simply primitive automatons, as so many of his contemporaries thought. Instead, they are organisms with the capacities to remember, learn and feel.
To investigate, Turner pounded rows of wooden dowels into the O’Fallon Park lawn. Atop each rod, he affixed a red disk dipped in honey. Soon, bees began traveling from far away to his makeshift “flowers.”
As a scientific researcher without a university position, he occupied an odd niche. In large part, his situation was the product of systemic racism. It was also a result of his commitment to training young Black students in science.
Alongside his scientific publications, Turner wrote extensively on African American education. In his 1902 essay “Will the Education of the Negro Solve the Race Problem?” Turner contended that trade schools were not the pathway to Black empowerment. Instead, he called for widespread public education of African Americans in all subjects: “if we cast aside our prejudices and try the highest education upon both white and Black, in a few decades there will be no Negro problem.”
Despite the colossal challenges he faced throughout his career, Charles Henry Turner was among the first scientists to shed light on the secret lives of bees, the winged pollinators that ensure the welfare of human food systems and the survival of Earth’s biosphere.
Edward D. Melillo is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of History and Environmental Studies at Amherst College. He teaches courses on global environmental history, the history of the Pacific World, the nineteenth-century United States, and commodities in world historical perspective. In 2020, Penguin Random House published his book, The Butterfly Effect: Insects and the Making of the Modern World. Melillo is also the author of Strangers on Familiar Soil: Rediscovering the Chile-California Connection (Yale University Press, 2015), which won the Western History Association’s 2016 Caughey Prize for the most distinguished book on the American West.