Karl von Frisch: Discoverer of the Honeybee Language

Karl Frisch

“The bee’s life is like a magic well: the more you draw from it, the more it fills with water” – Karl Von Frisch

The natural world is a place full of wonders. When the attention of science was first turned towards the secrets of how nature works, an entire generation of researchers was needed in order for us to have such an extended knowledge and understanding. Karl von Frisch is one of the most remarkable names in this area of study and he even received a Nobel Prize for his contribution.

The honeybees are some of the most intelligent insects and their ability to organize the hive is truly astonishing. The honeybees are a fine example that not only humans are able to develop complex social hierarchies and to impose the division of labor. Von Frisch studied bees for decades before he was able to prove the theories we now know.

Karl von Frisch’s Early Years

Karl Ritter von Frisch was born on November 20, 1886, Vienna, at that time the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Karl was the son of the surgeon and urologist Anton von Frisch, which can explain his interest in medicine and later in natural sciences. It is interesting to know that the Austrian scientist grew up in a family with a strong connection with the academic environment. All the four sons of Anton von Frisch eventually became university professors, which is a clear sign that the young Karl received a lot of help and support from his family.

The career of Karl von Frisch took a turn when he decided to change focus from medicine to natural sciences. Although the two are a bit related, this comes to show that students are not always convinced of what they should study in university and that it is perfectly normal to follow your true passion. Initially an assistant, Karl von Frisch became a professor in 1919. After that, von Frisch continued his academic career by teaching at the universities of Rostock, Breslau, and Munich. In Munich, von Frisch held the position of head of the institute of zoology. The rise of Nazism in Germany meant that racial discrimination was an obstacle to overcome in your career if you had other origins than German. Von Frisch encountered a couple of problems, but managed to continue his work.

After the Second World War, the scientist continued at the University of Graz, mostly because the Munich institute has been destroyed. He resumed work there in 1950 and continued for another 8 years. He will need close to 3 decades of continuous work before receiving general recognition.

Frisch’s Rise to Prominence

It is hard to point out exactly what was the best period for the work of Karl von Frisch. The Nobel Prize for his contribution to the study of animal behavior came in 1973, but we all know that Nobel prizes are given many years after the actual research is done.

The Austrian naturalist was one of the first to study carefully the less known aspects of animal behavior. His focus was on a type of bee belonging to the European honeybee family. Many researchers before Karl tried to show that the behavior of bees is not random and that every action and movement they do serves to a precise purpose. Although their intuitions were correct, they lacked the methods and the perseverance in order to bring credible results. We all know that the scientific community is very happy to reject arguments that lack enough support.

Probably the best thing we learned from Karl von Frisch is that bees are very sensible when it comes to smell and that they make the difference between different types of flowers. We can say that each bee chooses its own type of plant and collects pollen only from it.

The most popular experiment conducted by the Austrian scientist wanted to prove that bees could see colors. In order to do that, von Frisch placed water with sugar to attract the bees and test their sensitivity to color. In the first stage of the experiment, the transparent water bowls were put on top of a blue cardboard and bees were trained to feed from it. Once the bees established the connection, the blue cardboard was put next to some other gray cardboards. Lacking color vision would have meant that the bees would be unable to spot the blue cardboard. Many animals see the world in black and white and it was thought for a long period that bees are colorblind, and therefore have a limited perception of the surroundings.

Another very interesting thing about bees that was tested and proven by Karl von Frisch was that bees communicate information to the other members of the hive. For example, when one bee discovers a place from which it can feed other bees quickly arrive at the same place. Bees are a very example of why it is important for animals to organize themselves in a social structure. Collecting food resources for the hive is not something easy, and bees need all the help they can get. Scout bees are the ones send ahead to search for potential food sources and avoid dangers for the working bees. The way in which scout bees communicate their findings is fascinating. They move in a certain way, which can appear to us humans as dancing. Different types of movements are used to indicate the direction in which bees from the hive need to travel, as well as how far they need to go. You might think that this is not necessary, as bees have other ways of sensing places from which they can gather food. It could be a surprise to know that bees have a weak sense of taste and their sense of smell is comparable to ours. From this point of view, there is nothing to explain how they manage to go so far away from the hive and return successfully. The dance of the bees can be considered a primitive form of language, and this is because Karl von Frisch invested a lot of time and patience studying them.

The discoveries of Karl von Frisch did not stop there. He also showed that bees are able to navigate through the air using sunlight as a compass. Bees have a very good perception of time, and this allows them on changes in sunlight patterns in order to go to the place where they gather food and successfully return to the hive. Bees also seem to remember landmarks along the way, making their journey easier. It seems that bees rely on a very accurate internal clock to have that correct perception of time.

Lasting Legacy of Karl von Frisch


Karl von Frisch offered us a better understanding of the animal world. He showed that although being small, bees are highly intelligent. They know that working together is the only way to survive and they have perfected the methods.

Von Frisch received the Nobel Prize in 1973 for his extended work in the area of studying animal behavior. As it happens many times with the Nobel Prize, it was shared with two other scientists, Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen. This was for the first time when the scientific community recognized the importance of studying animal behavior.

What bees were capable of was for a long time an area of speculation. Because they are insects, people normally assume they have a limited intelligence, by no means comparable with ours. Although they need to cover long distances each day in order to collect food, bees do it in a clever and efficient way. The time spent in the air is carefully accounted so that the energy used is less than the energy that can be extracted from the collected food.

Karl von Frisch can be praised for opening another chapter in the study of bee behavior. He correctly identified that pheromones (air particles) act as a personal signature of bees, which allows them to identify each other. For the hive, it is very important that hierarchies be respected. The same way we humans play different roles in society, bees do the same thing.

Although we now take as true the findings of Karl von Frisch, it was not the same decades ago. Even when he received the Nobel Prize, people were still laughing about his fascination with the insect world. Going back in time, people were less likely to accept the idea that bees are able to transmit information hidden in the way they move. The “dance” of bees was nothing more than a chaotic movement before the Austrian scientist recognized the patterns.

Additional reading: The Dancing Bees: Karl von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language by Tania Munz

Karl von Frisch

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