The little-known black high school science teacher who revolutionized the study of insect behavior in the early 20th century

On a cool fall morning in 1908, an elegantly dressed African-American man paces back and forth among the oaks, magnolias, and silver maples of O’Fallon Park in St. Louis, Missouri. After placing a dozen dishes filled with strawberry jam on several picnic tables, biologist Charles Henry Turner retired to a nearby bench, notebook and pencil close at hand.

After a mid-morning break for tea and toast (garnished with strawberry jam, of course), Turner returned to his outdoor experience. At noon and again at dusk, he placed dishes filled with jam on the tables in the park. As he discovered, the bees (Apis mellifera) were reliable visitors for breakfast, lunch and dinner at the sweet buffet. After a few days, Turner stopped offering jam at noon and sunset, and only presented the treats at dawn. Initially, the bees continued to appear at all three times. Soon, however, they have changed their arrival habitsonly visiting the picnic tables in the morning.

This simple yet elegantly designed experience led Turner to conclude that bees can sense the weather and will quickly develop new feeding habits in response to changing conditions. These results were among the first in a cascade of groundbreaking discoveries Turner made about insect behavior.

Throughout his distinguished 33-year career, Turner is the author of 71 articles and was the first African American to have his research published in the prestigious journal Science. Although his name is hardly known today, Charles Henry Turner was a pioneer in the study of bees and must be considered among the great entomologists of the 19th and 20th centuries. By searching my book on human interactions with insects in world historyI learned about Turner’s pioneering work on insect cognition, which was a big part of his groundbreaking research on animal behavior.

Humble beginnings

Turner was born in Cincinnati in 1867, just two years after the Civil War ended. The son of a church keeper and a once-enslaved nurse, he grew up under the specter of Jim Crow – a set of formal laws and informal practices that relegated African-Americans in second-class status.

Turner’s childhood social environment included school and residential segregation, frequent lynchings, and the denial of basic democratic rights to the city’s non-white population. Despite immense obstacles to his educational goals and career aspirations, Turner’s tenacious spirit carried him through.

As a young boy he developed a lifelong 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.

Turner went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Cincinnati, and he became the first African American to receive a doctorate in zoology from the University of Chicago. Turner’s cutting-edge doctoral dissertation, “The return of the ants: an experimental study of ant behaviorwas later excerpted in the September 1907 issue of the Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology.

Despite his genius, Turner was unable to secure long-term employment in higher education. The The University of Chicago refused to offer him a job.and Booker T. Washington was too short of money to hire him at the All-Black Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama.

Sumner High School in St. Louis, Mo., circa 1908.
Missouri Historical Society

After a brief stint at the University of Cincinnati and a temporary position at Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University), Turner spent the rest of his career teaching at Sumner High School in St. Louis. In 1908, his salary was a measly US$1,080 a year – approximately $34,300 in today’s dollars. At Sumner — without access to a fully equipped lab, research library, or graduate students — Turner made pioneering discoveries about insect behavior.

Investigate the minds of insects

Among Turner’s most important discoveries were wasps, bees, sawflies and ants – members of the Hymenoptera command – are not just primitive automata, as so many of his contemporaries thought. Instead, they are organisms with the abilities to remember, learn, and feel.

Black and white engraving of a variety of bees from 1894.
Bees were not well understood at the turn of the 20th century. Illustration published by the Popular Encyclopedia, 1894.
mikroman6/Moment via Getty Images

In the early 1900s, biologists knew that the flowers attracted pollinating bees by producing certain scents. However, these researchers knew next to nothing about the visual aspects of such attractions, when the bees were too far from the flowers to smell them.

To investigate, Turner hammered rows of wooden pegs into the lawn at O’Fallon Park. At the top of each stem, he affixed a red disc dipped in honey. Soon the bees began to travel from afar to his makeshift “flowers.”

Turner then added a series of “control” rods topped with blue discs that bore no honey. The bees paid little attention to the new “flowers”, demonstrating that visual cues provided guidance, when the bees were too far away to smell their targets. Although a The ability of bees to detect red remains controversialscientists have determined that Turner’s bees likely respond to something called achromatic stimuliwho enabled them to discern among various shades and tints.

The lasting legacy of an underrated pioneer

Turner’s astonishing range of discoveries over three decades of experiments has established his reputation as an authority on the behavior patterns of bees, cockroaches, spiders and ants.

As a research scientist without an academic position, he filled a strange niche. In large part, his situation was the product of systemic racism. It was also the result of his commitment to training young black students in science.

Along with his scholarly publications, Turner has written extensively on African-American education. In his 1902 essay “Will the education of the Negro solve the racial problem?Turner argued that trade schools were not the route to black empowerment. Instead, he called for widespread public education of African Americans in all subjects: “if we set aside our prejudices and try the highest education on both whites and blacks, in a few decades there will be no more nigger problems”.

Turner was only 56 when he died of acute myocarditis, infectious heart inflammation. He is survived by two children and his second wife, Lillian Porter.

Turner’s scientific contributions endure. His articles continue to be widely citedand entomologists have subsequently checked most of his conclusions.

Despite the colossal challenges he faced throughout his career, Charles Henry Turner was among the first scientists to shed light on the secret life of bees, the winged pollinators that provide the well-being of human food systems and the survival of the terrestrial biosphere.

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