Karl von Frisch and the Dancing Bees

Interpretation of the honey bee waggle dance

Interpretation of the honey bee waggle dance

On November 20, 1886Austrian ethologist and Nobel Laureate Karl Ritter von Frisch was born. His work centered on investigations of the sensory perceptions of the honey bee and he was one of the first to translate the meaning of the waggle dance, which he described in his 1927 book “Aus dem Leben der Bienen” (The Dancing Bees). He received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973, along with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz.

Karl von Frisch was the son of the surgeon and urologist Anton von Frisch. Frisch studied in Vienna under Hans Leo Przibram and in Munich under Richard von Hertwig. He received his doctorate in 1910 and in the same year started work as an assistant in the zoology department of the University of Munich. In 1919, Frisch was appointed professor and two years later he went to Rostock University as a professor of zoology. In 1923 he accepted the offer of a chair at Breslau University, returning in 1925 to Munich University, where he became the head of the institute of zoology.

While the German Nazi Party was on the rise, Frisch was forced into retirement, but the decision was reversed due to advances in his research on combating nosema infections in bees and his forced retirement was postponed until after the war. Frisch also worked actively to help Polish scientists who had been singled out for internment by the Gestapo. In 1946 Frisch went to work at the University of Graz since the Munich institute was destroyed during the war, remaining there until 1950, when he returned to the Munich institute after it was reopened.

Frisch studied aspects of animal behaviour, including animal navigation, in the Carniolan honey bee, a subspecies of the European honey bee. Knowledge about feeding places can be relayed from bee to bee. The means of communication is a special dance of which there are two forms, the round dance and the waggle dance.

The so called round dance provides the information that there is a feeding place in the vicinity of the beehive at a distance between 50 and 100 meters, without the particular direction being given. By means of close contact among the bees it also supplies information about the type of food. The waggle dance on the other hand is used to relay information about more distant food sources. In order to do this, the dancing bee moves forward a certain distance on the vertically hanging honeycomb in the hive, then traces a half circle to return to her starting point, whereupon the dance begins again. On the straight stretch, the bee waggles with her posterior. The direction of the straight stretch contains the information about the direction of the food source, the angle between the straight stretch and the vertical being precisely the angle which the direction of flight has to the position of the sun. The distance to the food source is relayed by the time taken to traverse the straight stretch, one second indicating a distance of approximately one kilometer. The other bees take in the information by keeping in close contact with the dancing bee and reconstructing its movements. They also receive information via their sense of smell about what is to be found at the food source.

Next to his work on bee dances, Karl Frisch also researched on bee perception, including the sense of smell, powers of orientation, internal clock, and optical perception. Frisch’s honey bee work further included the study of the pheromones that are emitted by the queen bee and her daughters, which maintain the hive’s very complex social order. Outside the hive, the pheromones cause the male bees, or drones, to become attracted to a queen and mate with it. Inside the hive, the drones are not affected by the odor.

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