He had to fight to get his ideas about communicating plants accepted. When he couldn't find anyone to give a lecture on insects in art, he reinvented himself as an art connoisseur. After being told hardly anyone was interested in insects, he drew 20,000 people to Wageningen. Marcel Dicke really gets going when the going gets tough.
'Well, I wouldn't have liked that as much,' interjects his wife Alida from the dining table. The interview is taking place in his detached home in a quiet road in Wageningen-Hoog. There is insect art hanging on the wall, including a reproduction of a work by the German artist Maria Sibylla Merian. Around 1700, she was one of the first artists to depict insects together with their host plants.
Alida relates how in the mid 1990s his passion for insects found common ground with her passion for art. 'I was already a regular visitor to art museums, but suddenly Marcel took the lead. He started digging up insects in art works. Until after three months he had launched a whole new specialism in art history.' Dick described, for example, how flies stand for the transitory nature of life on earth, while butterflies stand for eternal life.
His sudden interest was born of necessity. For some time, he and his colleague Arnold van Huis were looking for an art expert who could give a lecture on insects in modern art. And they couldn't find one. I'll do it myself, then, thought Dicke. And there were no half measures - he tackled the task with all the thoroughness of a scientist, ending up with a publication in American Entomologist (Insects in Western Art). The table with the European museums he went to - from the Tate to the Uffizi, from Westbroek to Weimar - takes up a whole page.
Insects became his life's work, although it would seem that they are above all a vehicle with which he can transmit his passion for life to other people. 'It doesn't matter to me whether people start to look differently at insects, or at bacteria, proteins or any other life form. The earth is made up of life. More insight into life forms contributes to a better understanding of the world and of what we should and shouldn't be doing with it.'
With this attitude, Dick fits his own definition of a Wageninger: someone who 'is passionate about contributing something to the world'. But he also notes that Wageningen UR is now distancing itself from such people. And that hurts. 'I am not happy with the way the organization has been in the news recently.' One of the developments this is a reference to is the recent discussion about food security and the media image of Wageningen as standing for a heedless intensification of agriculture. Dicke: 'There are all sorts of problems in the world, and Wageningen is trying to contribute to solving them. At Entomology, for example, we are trying to find solutions to the malaria problem and to the problems of crop protection and the world food supply. These are complex issues and by definition the solutions to them are manifold. But at
the moment it seems as though Wageningen looks as what is perhaps the most complex problem of them all, how to feed the world, and puts forward one simple solution. Namely, that you can do it by just increasing production.'
In Dicke's opinion, Wagengen is alienating itself from the people who feel a bond with it. 'I know people we have worked with for years on sustainability issues who can no longer relate to the noises coming from Wageningen. There are even partners who say: I don't want to have anything more to do with an organization like that.'
Dicke talks a bit about the collaboration between his group and a large organic chicken producer. The entomologists get chicken blood from the company in which to breed the mosquitoes which can spread the West Nile virus. 'You have to have bird blood for that. So you need a company that breeds organic chickens, because we don't want any pesticides or hormones in the blood. But last week our partner abandoned the collaboration because of Aalt Dijkhuizen's statements.
A real pity, says Dicke. 'It was not that easy to get hold of a company of this kind and we had built up a good working relationship. Of course we are going to explain that there are other perspectives at Wageningen UR than this one, but this just shows how fragile it is. I find that hard to take. This will definitely have a broader impact, with people thinking Wageningen has turned into a bio-industry partner.'
As far as Dicke is concerned, Dijkhuizen has every right to say that intensive livestock farming is in some ways more sustainable than organic farming. 'There are arguments to support that. But he neglects to add that lots of other developments could contribute to a solution. There are many examples - let me take one that is close to home for me. A life cycle analysis of mealworms shows that it takes much less land and feed to produce the same amount of mealworm protein as you could get from meat, and with much lower greenhouse gas emissions. I don't hear Dijkhuizen talking about that, and that means he doesn't do this organization justice. It is precisely the wide range of possibilities we have for effectively addressing complex problems that fairly reflect our wonderful organization.'
Marcel Dicke is a highflier. His chair group gets the maximum possible score from visitations, and he brought Wageningen its first Spinoza award. On several occasions, his colleagues have feared he might leave. And not without reason, given that at least one Dutch University and a Max Planck Institute have had their sights on him. But: 'I don't think I will leave. I'm a loyal soul. There is a strong scientific base here and a collegial atmosphere. There is a spirit of putting your shoulders to the plough together, both during working hours and outside them. Years ago, for instance, we had evenings when we would meet at someone's house to talk about predators and parasites. We called them the 'pre-par' meetings.' Alida lets out a shriek of laughter at the memory.
Dicke's colleagues are full of praise for his enthusiasm and commitment to promoting entomology. Admittedly, he could sometimes relax his grip on things. 'I am not a control freak but I do like to hold the reins,' is Dicke's response to that. 'I make sure what we have agreed on happens.'
In 2006, Dicke and his team won the first Annual Academic Prize, a competition run by the Dutch royal academy of sciences and the newspaper NRC Handelsblad for an activity aimed at making top research accessible to a broader public. Dicke was able to use the prize money of 100,000 euros to finance the City of Insects festival. The entomologists' original plan was to publish a book, but the jury found that too traditional. That set Dicke thinking. He proposed a public festival about insects - to run for a whole week. Jury member Piet Borst was sceptical: he did not think the entomologists would manage to reach a broad audience. 'At the most the odd landlady,' he added somewhat dismissively. Dicke: 'If someone says, "you are not going to make it," I see it as a challenge.' In the end, 20,000 people came to the insect week.
Which is typical Dicke: he likes a challenge. The best way to get Dicke to do something is to tell him it's impossible. Then he goes into top gear. He had this experience with his PhD thesis, which - in retrospect - opened up a new field of studies. He discovered that a plant that is being nibbled at by a mite gives off an odour that attracts the mite's natural enemies, ensuring that the mite gets devoured in its turn. This was a revolutionary idea, that plants defend themselves against predators by communication.
What Dicke was claiming, in fact, was that plants can talk. There were many critics of the idea, who proposed alternative explanations. For example, could the odour perhaps come from the faeces of the plant-eater? It took him five years of control experiments to get his idea accepted. 'That discussion helped me to make more progress,' says Dicke now.
The idea that was so innovative then has now almost become a paradigm. Dicke is sometimes sent articles to evaluate, which describe a similar interaction between other plants and insects. In his view, some people are extremely quick to draw conclusions, in which case he is the one to ask for control experiments. Because he knows from experience that it makes for better science if you don't always have the wind in your sails.
Insects and society
Marcel Dicke and Arnold van Huis are organizing the lecture series Insects and Society for the eleventh time this year, from 9 January to 27 February. The topic on 16 January was insects as spreaders of diseases (malaria, Lyme's disease), while the other lectures look on the bright side - at insects as pollinators, as toys, as food, as Hollywood film stars and as sources of inspiration for architecture and for espionage.
Erik Poelman, former PhD student of Dicke's, now assistant professor
'I see him as my great teacher. He is accessible and enthusiastic. He creates an open, non-hierarchical structure. He is clear about his rules and demands commitment to each other and to the science. He likes to be in control, and he could leave things to others more often, and let them solve problems themselves.'
Ernst van den Ende, director of Plant Sciences Group
'Marcel is always looking for innovations in his research, he has a good sense of what is going on in society, and he is extremely driven. He will tear down walls if necessary. He had an uphill struggle to get his field of research on the map. If things get tough, he gets fired up. In some ways Marcel is dominant, too. He really stands up for his ideas. Whether it concerns his chair group or the Myportal website, he always has clear ideas. He is not afraid.'
Arnold van Huis, professor of Entomophagy, has worked with Dicke for 30 years
'He replies to emails promptly and with great precision. Sometimes I wonder how he does it. He notices everything. In terms of science, but also in terms of social issues in the chair group. In the higher echelons you sometimes see managers losing touch with reality. Not him. We talk regularly, and he asks me if he's doing things right. He has the courage to examine his own performance.'
Marcel Dicke (Dordrecht, 1957)
1982 MSc Entomology (cum laude) from Leiden
1988 PhD Entomology Wageningen (cum laude)
1997 launches lecture series Insects and Society
2002 Professor of Entomology
2002 receives British Rank Prize and a Vici grant
2006 wins Annual Academic Prize and organizes insect festival in Wageningen
2007 wins Spinoza award ('the Dutch Nobel Prize')
Textbook: Insect-Plant Biology; popular books: Blij met een dooie mug; Muggenzifters & mierenneukers, Het insectenkookboek