“The Lasting Influence of Two Men”

Bee Culture (March 2003), Vol. 131, No. 3, pp. 19-22.




Malcolm T. Sanford




In February, 1986, when it was called Gleanings in Bee Culture, Dr. Walter Rothenbuhler at The Ohio State University (OSU) wrote an article in that publication entitled: “The Lasting Influence of A Man,” based on a presentation celebrating the Entomology Centennial Symposium at Iowa State University.  It was dedicated to his mentor Oscar Wallace Park.  Dr. Rothenbuhler said the lasting influence of O.W. Park came from several channels, including his personal as well as academic family.  The latter category included his colleagues and academic children such as Roy A. Grout, and of course, Dr. Rothenbuhler himself.  Seven students in total were listed in the article. 


Walter Rothenbuhler had six times as many (44) academic children, who by extension are then O.W.’s academic grandchildren.   Some of O.W.’s great academic grandchildren are also on the horizon.  Richard Helmich, now at Iowa State University, says, “Dr. Rothenbuhler meant the world to me. I find myself passing these words of wisdom on to my own graduate students – as if from a grandfather.  I appreciate the way he always wanted to simplify the message and, of course when writing, eliminate unnecessary ‘the’s.  He once said that at a meeting a person came up to him and said ‘at least I understood what you said.’  At first he thought that person meant his research was so simple anybody could understand it.  But then he knew he did such a good job of explaining his research, even if it was complicated, everybody could understand.” 


In more than one sense, therefore, the lives of Walter and O.W. Park were linked.   Both trained their students in a similar manner, the subjects of their published papers were parallel, and their views on the importance of both biological and academic family the same. Thus, I have chosen to title this retrospective on Dr. Rothenbuhler’s career, “The Lasting Influence of Two Men.”


Dr. Walter Rothenbuhler began beekeeping on July 8, 1925, according to his resume.  The fact that the very day is noted points to the importance of attention to detail that is so significant in any scientist’s life, and was the hallmark of Walter’s career.  Another example:  On June 3, 1980 at the Iowa Centennial Entomology Symposium, Walter said, “Forty one years ago on a day in July or August, O.W. Park sat at his desk and addressed this envelope to bring a set of reprints to a farm kid in Ohio.” Walter did indeed have that very envelope in his hand.  No doubt both Dr. Lloyd Watson, who is credited with bringing instrumental insemination (II) of queen bees to bee breeding, and later, Dr. Otto Mackenson, for whom a current II machine is named, saw that same trait in Walter when he worked under their tutelage. This employment would lead Walter to look in greater depth at the genetics of the honey bee, first under the guidance of O.W. Park, and then in collaboration with his colleagues and students.


Walter did a stint of commercial beekeeping in 1941 and 1942, where he worked first for Mr. S.E. Bailey and then Dr. Winston Dunham.  This was an important phase in his career.  Throughout his employment at both Iowa and Ohio state universities as a premier researcher he always took time for reflections on the practical side of beekeeping.  He stated in his June 1980 Gleanings in Bee Culture obituary of W.A. Stephen, long time Ohio state beekeeping extension specialist, “Some of my most pleasant memories relate to Steve’s and my traveling together occasionally to do his short courses.”  And in the same issue, in Dr. Dunham’s obituary he wrote, “…he recommended that I get experience in a large commercial beekeeping operation…I have always been grateful for his guidance.” 


It was at a beekeepers meeting in South Georgia that I first met Walter and saw his characteristic smile.  We talked into the night about both the academic and practical side of beekeeping.  This conversation led to my being interviewed and hired as extension specialist in beekeeping at The Ohio State University in 1978.  In a sense, I was one of his academic nephews, for we had a good many chats in his office, and he was unfailing helpful to me as my extension program matured.  I will always be grateful that he weighed in on my side or I probably would not have been hired.  He and his first academic son and colleague, Victor Thompson, took me in and made me feel very much a part of the University’s beekeeping family.   He wished me well when I decided rather abruptly to take a job at the University of Florida, even though he knew that the beekeeping extension program he had worked hard to develop would be in jeopardy with my departure.


Walter’s academic career began in 1945 when, after a tour in the Army Medical Department, he visited O.W. Park at Ames, Iowa.  As Walter said, “I arrived at Iowa State on April Fools Day, 1946, but was not an April Fool for doing so.  I could not have had a better place to go to school.”  Again, the influence of Park’s work in behavior, genetics and breeding is palpable.   Thirty-four years later Walter was to say,  Looking at his work…it remains for us to follow, to reap the great practical and theoretical benefits of bee behavior and genetics.”


After receiving his Ph.D. degree in 1954, Walter quickly ascended the academic ladder, becoming full professor at Iowa State University five years later.   In 1962, The Ohio State University invited him to join that faculty where he had appointments not only in entomology, but also in the departments of zoology and genetics.  A look at his resume suggests that a turning point in his career may have been the Behavior Genetic Conference at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences held in Stanford, CA in August of 1962.  A tribute to him published by the OSU Department of Entomology said that Walter’s “work on honey bees was the first to establish a genetic basis for behavior, and his seminal work in the this field during the 1960’s is rightly considered to have laid the foundation for the current discipline of behavioral genetics.”


Many of us in the beekeeping arena are now reaping the benefit of Walter’s research.  It was in determining the resistance mechanisms honey bees have built into themselves to fend off one of apiculture’s most feared diseases, American foulbrood, that his work would have the most importance.  Here Walter might demur, giving credit as well to his students who played a great role in helping him find many of the details of what is collectively called  hygienic behavior.” Especially important contributions came from those in his Iowa days like Victor Thompson, Hachiro Shimanuki, and John Bamrick.


Dr. Bamrick states, “Whenever a student had some problem whether in academics, research, personal life or whatever Walter was always willing to take the necessary time to help the student work things out. He was the same way if you goofed up in your research - but then he didn't expect you to make that mistake again! He had a couple of favorite sayings that he liked to use…One was "I don't want you to work beyond your capabilities, but I have no problem with you working up to them!" The other one had to do with running some experiment for the first time. You would get some good results and would be all excited about it. When you showed it to him he would always look it over carefully. If he agreed, he would be quick to congratulate you. Then he would look at you and say ‘Anything can happen once.’ You didn't have to ask what he meant, you just did it again, and maybe a couple times.


Hygienic behavior has only recently been rediscovered by bee breeders, and it looks to be something that is correlated not only with foubrood resistance or tolerance, but also may be important in controlling other bee maladies, including Varroa mites.  The idea languished for years in obscurity due to widespread use of antibiotics and a tragic consequence of the bee breeding process itself, the total loss of the foulbrood-resistant stock Dr. Rothenbuhler had labored so long to develop.  The story as related to me was that aggressive inbreeding of the stock to concentrate the foulbrood-resistant genes caused it to become susceptible to what is called hairless black syndrome, a viral condition.  In short, the stock, resistant to one disease, was eliminated by another, because both expressed themselves through concentration of resistant genes via inbreeding.  This is an important lesson for those who would breed bees in the contemporary beekeeping environment.  It is a characteristic of many scientists’ work that even failure can result in an important legacy.


A full list of Walter’s academic children is not possible here, but some that are perhaps most recognizable for their considerable contributions to the beekeeping community include: H. (Shim) Shimanuki (retired research leader Beltsville, MD lab); William T. (Bill) Wilson (retired research leader Weslaco, TX lab), Anita Collins (currently at the Beltsville lab); Tom Rinderer (current research leader Baton Rouge, LA lab); Frank Eischen (currently at the Weslaco lab); Nick Calderon (a faculty member at Cornell University). 


Significantly, several of Walter’s students work outside the practical beekeeping field, and so are making his educational efforts felt in the larger academic and scientific community.  Richard Hellmich, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on pollen hoarding in honey bees, and worked for a time at the Baton Rouge lab, now hangs his hat at Walter’s alma mater.  He says, “Ironically, Chris, my daughter Allyse, and I live in the town where Dr. Rothenbuhler started his honey bee research (Ames, Iowa), but my research has switched to corn insects and monarch butterflies.  Often I drive by their house on Ash Avenue and think of all the wonderful memories and all the important lessons I learned from him.” 


Keith Waddington began his graduate school training with Walter, writing his thesis on the effects of hairless black syndrome.  He now teaches at the University of Miami and also does research on other pollinators (bumble bees, carpenter bees) as well as honey bees.  About his mentor he says, “I was an MS graduate student at OSU for just 1.5 years, yet on reflection the duration seems long because of all I learned from Walter.  He took me under his wing and trained me to think, to design experiments, to analyze data and to write.  I idolized him. All of Walter's students know how he meticulously read and commented on their writing. He used a mechanical pencil to rearrange sentences, write paragraph-length notes in the margins, and otherwise undo twisted prose.  He was a master - and he did all of this in that well known animated, almost theatrical fashion, as I sat and watched by his side.  He gave much to his students and treated us as family.  I last saw Walter in 1995; he was sitting in the front row of the audience with Claire (his wife) at my departmental seminar at OSU.  I started by thanking them for attending, and I remember proudly acknowledging that I had worked with Walter 25 years before.  And I said, ‘Dr. Rothenbuhler is my hero’ - he will be always.”


It is difficult to get anything but the highest praise for Walter from his students.  William (Bill) Wilson says, “there are humanitarian aspects that I like to remember about him. Dr. Rothenbuhler had a sincere interest in each of his students.  He not only strengthened their ability to do meaningful research but he taught students how to live well.  He believed in being honest and noble.  He had high ethical standards and he expected these traits from those who trained under his guidance.  He encouraged the very best performance from everyone and he was never satisfied until each student demonstrated that he/she was a quality person.” And Tom Rinderer concludes, “There is no way that I can condense what he did for me to a story of how he helped me achieve one or two accomplishments or a single fond memory. There are far too many memories for one or two to stand as hallmarks.   Doc's influence on me constitutes a body of work not amenable to distillation.” 


One of Walter’s most significant colleagues (an academic brother if you will), whom I met while at the Ohio State University, was Dr. Jovan Kulincevic.  Jovan (most knew him as “John”) was a great source of bee knowledge that both the students and I could call on.  He is now Professor Emeritus of the biology faculty, University of Belgrade.  He writes: “Walter and his family were longer than a decade a part of my life. In the sixties of the last century, with his generous help, I came to USA as a post-doctoral student to study honey bee genetics, honey bee diseases and honey bee behavior.  During this unforgettable time I learned a lot from Dr. Rothenbuhler and we worked hard on many bee projects, that resulted in quite a few scientific publications concerning selection for resistance and susceptibility to virus diseases in honey bees, successful selection for fast and slow hoarding in the honey bee, and for long and short length of life...”  And he concludes: “As long as I am alive I will keep Walter in my deep recollection and I will be very thankful for everything what he has done for me to improve my knowledge in the science and art of apiculture.”


It was Jovan Kulincevic, Victor Thompson and Walter together who designed the new bee laboratory that was to be erected at the agricultural campus on the University grounds. This process was often interrupted after Walter retired in 1985, and affected by the Parkinson’s disease that was to be responsible for his death on August 14, 2002.  When, the laboratory was finally finished in 1989, it was named in Walter’s honor.  His  influence continues to permeate the Rothenbuhler Honey Bee Laboratory  atmosphere, and a picture and tribute to his career adorn one wall. 


Beyond a legacy of human capital in colleagues and students, any great scientist also leaves a body of published work. Walter’s official resume lists 51 refereed papers, ten invited papers, twelve abstracts, and thirteen non-refereed papers that appeared in a variety of publications such as Annual Review of Entomology, Annual Review of Genetics, American Zoologist, Genetics, Bulletin of the Entomological Society of America, Journal of Apicultural Research, American Bee Journal, Bee Culture and various proceedings of Apimondia congresses.  From a practical standpoint, I believe his most influential paper is “Necessary Links in the Chain of Honey-bee Stock Improvement,” published as two installments in the 1980 edition of American Bee Journal (Vol. 120, pp. 223-5, 304-305).  This outlines the rules for the coming of age of a genetic revolution in bee breeding that will help beekeeper’s exit the chemical treadmill they have been on for the last four decades.


Walter also served as editor for the Journal of Apicultural Research, and Revista Brasileira de Genetica.  He was science editor of the American Bee Journal from 1958 to1964 and throughout his career, he peer-reviewed papers for over ten journals in as many disciplines.  He was also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and took part in the historic National Research Council’s investigation of the African bee in 1971.   During his 29 years at OSU, Walter delivered some 100 invitational lectures in a wide variety of settings from the scientific fraternity, Sigma Xi to national and local beekeeping associations. 


Although his academic family consumed a great deal of energy, Walter was not one to slight his biological one.  He and Claire had four children, resulting in six grandchildren. Again, we see a parallel to O.W. Park, who took his entire family (wife and two daughters) to West Texas in 1937 as part of an attempt to rear a new generation of resistant bees.  At Iowa State University O.W. also promulgated a custom called the “breakfast picnic,” to which all members of both biological and academic family were invited.  The Rothenbuhlers also had many a picnic in their back yard for both their families.  It seems more than fitting that the hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River,” was featured during Walter’s memorial service.