Karl von Frisch

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Karl von Frisch
Karl von Frisch.jpg
In traditional dress, with his honey bees
Born(1886-11-20)20 November 1886
Died12 June 1982(1982-06-12) (aged 95)
Known for Bees
Scientific career
Fields Ethology

Karl Ritter [lower-alpha 1] von Frisch, ForMemRS [1] (20 November 1886 – 12 June 1982) was an Austrian ethologist who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973, along with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz. [2] [3]

Ritter is a designation used as a title of nobility in German-speaking areas. Traditionally it denotes the second-lowest rank within the nobility, standing above "Edler" and below "Freiherr" (Baron). For its historical association with warfare and the landed gentry in the Middle Ages, it can be considered roughly equal to the titles of "Knight" or "Baronet".

Ethology Scientific study of animal behaviour

Ethology is the scientific and objective study of animal behaviour, usually with a focus on behaviour under natural conditions, and viewing behaviour as an evolutionarily adaptive trait. Behaviourism as a term also describes the scientific and objective study of animal behaviour, usually referring to measured responses to stimuli or to trained behavioural responses in a laboratory context, without a particular emphasis on evolutionary adaptivity. Throughout history, different naturalists have studied aspects of animal behaviour. Ethology has its scientific roots in the work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and of American and German ornithologists of the late 19th and early 20th century, including Charles O. Whitman, Oskar Heinroth (1871-1945), and Wallace Craig. The modern discipline of ethology is generally considered to have begun during the 1930s with the work of Dutch biologist Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907-1988) and of Austrian biologists Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch (1886-1982), the three recipients of the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Ethology combines laboratory and field science, with a strong relation to some other disciplines such as neuroanatomy, ecology, and evolutionary biology. Ethologists typically show interest in a behavioural process rather than in a particular animal group, and often study one type of behaviour, such as aggression, in a number of unrelated species.

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine One of five Nobel Prizes established in 1895 by Alfred Nobel

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded yearly by the Nobel Foundation for outstanding discoveries in the fields of life sciences and medicine.


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. His theory, described in his 1927 book Aus dem Leben der Bienen (translated into English as The Dancing Bees), was disputed by other scientists and greeted with skepticism at the time. Only much later was it shown to be an accurate theoretical analysis. [4]

Honey bee Eusocial flying insect of genus Apis, producing surplus honey

A honey bee is a eusocial flying insect within the genus Apis of the bee clade, all native to Eurasia but spread to four other continents by human beings. They are known for construction of perennial, colonial nests from wax, for the large size of their colonies, and for their surplus production and storage of honey, distinguishing their hives as a prized foraging target of many animals, including honey badgers, bears and human hunter-gatherers. In the early 21st century, only seven species of honey bee are recognized, with a total of 44 subspecies, though historically seven to eleven species are recognized. The best known honey bee is the western honey bee which has been domesticated for honey production and crop pollination; modern humans also value the wax for candlemaking, soapmaking, lip balms, and other crafts. Honey bees represent only a small fraction of the roughly 20,000 known species of bees. Some other types of related bees produce and store honey and have been kept by humans for that purpose, including the stingless honey bees, but only members of the genus Apis are true honey bees. The study of bees, which includes the study of honey bees, is known as melittology.

Waggle dance

Waggle dance is a term used in beekeeping and ethology for a particular figure-eight dance of the honey bee. By performing this dance, successful foragers can share information about the direction and distance to patches of flowers yielding nectar and pollen, to water sources, or to new nest-site locations with other members of the colony.

Early life

Karl von Frisch was the son of the surgeon and urologist Anton von Frisch (1849-1917), by his marriage to Marie Exner. Karl was the youngest of four sons, all of whom became university professors.

Anton von Frisch Austrian urologist

Anton von Frisch, full name Anton Ritter von Frisch, was an Austrian urologist. Frisch was born in Vienna.

Karl studied in Vienna under Hans Leo Przibram and in Munich under Richard von Hertwig, initially in the field of medicine, but later turned to the natural sciences. 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.

Vienna Capital of Austria

Vienna is the national capital, largest city, and one of nine states of Austria. Vienna is Austria's primate city, with a population of about 1.9 million, and its cultural, economic, and political centre. It is the 7th-largest city by population within city limits in the European Union.

Hans Leo Przibram [] was an Austrian biologist who founded the biological laboratory in Vienna.

Munich Capital and most populous city of Bavaria, Germany

Munich is the capital and most populous city of Bavaria, the second most populous German federal state. With a population of around 1.5 million, it is the third-largest city in Germany, after Berlin and Hamburg, and thus the largest which does not constitute its own state, as well as the 12th-largest city in the European Union. The city's metropolitan region is home to 6 million people. Straddling the banks of the River Isar north of the Bavarian Alps, it is the seat of the Bavarian administrative region of Upper Bavaria, while being the most densely populated municipality in Germany. Munich is the second-largest city in the Bavarian dialect area, after the Austrian capital of Vienna.


In 1912 he became a lecturer in zoology and comparative anatomy there; and in 1919 was promoted to a professorship. His research on honeybees was continued by his student Ingeborg Beling. In 1921 he went to Rostock University as a professor of zoology and director of an institute. 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.

Ingeborg Beling was a German ethologist from the early 20th century who worked in the field of chronobiology. She studied at the University of Munich under the direction of Karl Von Frisch and is known for her research on the time sense of honey bees. In her research, in 1929, she trained bees to come to a feeding station at a specific time of day, day after day. This contribution ultimately led to the discovery of the bees’ 24-hour biological clock. Because of this achievement, she was regarded as one of the first female chronobiologists. Beyond honeybees, much of Beling’s work involved studying behaviors of wasps, fly pupae, etc. Finally, she also did some research in pest control.

University of Rostock university

The University of Rostock is a public university located in Rostock, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany. Founded in 1419, it is the third-oldest university in Germany. It is the oldest and largest university in continental northern Europe and the Baltic Sea area, and 8th oldest in Central Europe. It was the 5th university established in the Holy Roman Empire.

University of Wrocław Polish university

The University of Wrocław is a public research university located in Wrocław, Poland. The University of Wrocław was founded in 1945, replacing the previous German University of Breslau. Following the territorial changes of Poland's borders, academics primarily from the Jan Kazimierz University of Lwów restored the university building heavily damaged and split as a result of the Battle of Breslau (1945). Nowadays it is one of the most prominent educational institutions in the region.

Von Frisch attracted negative attention from the Nazi regime, among other things [5] for employing Jewish assistants, including many women, and for practicing "Jewish science". Eventually Frisch was forced into retirement, but the decision was reversed because of his research on nosema infections in bees. [6]

<i>Nosema</i> (microsporidian) genus of cnidarians

Nosema is a genus of microsporidian parasites. The genus, circumscribed by Swiss botanist Karl Wilhelm von Nägeli in 1857, contains 81 species. Most parasitise insects and other arthropods, and the best-known Nosema species parasitise honeybees, where they are considered a significant disease by beekeepers, often causing a colony to fail to thrive in the spring as they come out of their overwintering period. Eight species parasitize digeneans, a group of parasitic flatworms, and thus are hyperparasites, i.e., parasites of a parasite.

The institute of zoology was destroyed in the Second World War, and in 1946 Frisch went to work at the University of Graz, remaining there until 1950, when he returned to the reopened Munich institute. He retired in 1958 but continued his research.

Personal life

Karl von Frisch married Margarete, née Mohr, who died in 1964. Their son, Otto von Frisch, was director of the Brunswick natural history museum between 1977 and 1995.


Frisch studied aspects of animal behaviour, including animal navigation, in the Carniolan honey bee [ citation needed ] (Apis mellifera carnica), a subspecies of the European honey bee.

Carniolan honey bee on a goldenrod flower head Carnica bee on solidago.jpg
Carniolan honey bee on a goldenrod flower head

Bee perception

Frisch discovered that bees can distinguish various blossoming plants by their scent, and that each bee is "flower constant". [7] Surprisingly, their sensitivity to a "sweet" taste is only slightly stronger than in humans. He thought it possible that a bee's spatial sense of smell arises from the firm coupling of its olfactory sense with its tactile sense. Frisch was the first to demonstrate (in 1914) that honey bees had color vision, which he accomplished by using classical conditioning. [8] He trained bees to feed on a dish of sugar water set on a colored card. He then set the colored card in the middle of a set of gray-toned cards. If the bees see the colored card as a shade of gray, then they will confuse the red card with at least one of the gray-toned cards; bees arriving to feed will visit more than one card in the array. On the other hand, if they have color vision, then the bees visit only the red card, as it is visually distinct from the other cards. [8] A bee's color perception is comparable to that of humans, but with a shift away from the red toward the ultraviolet part of the spectrum. For that reason bees cannot distinguish red from black (colorless), but they can distinguish the colors white, yellow, blue and violet. Color pigments which reflect UV radiation expand the spectrum of colors which can be differentiated. For example, several blossoms which may appear to humans to be of the same yellow color will appear to bees as having different colors (multicolored patterns) because of their different proportions of ultraviolet.

Frisch's investigation of a bee's powers of orientation were significant. He discovered that bees can recognize the desired compass direction in three different ways: by the sun, by the polarization pattern of the blue sky, and by the earth's magnetic field, whereby the sun is used as the main compass, with the alternatives reserved for the conditions arising under cloudy skies or within a dark beehive. [9]

Light scattered in a blue sky forms a characteristic pattern of partially polarized light which is dependent on the position of the sun and invisible to human eyes. With a UV receptor in each of the lens units of a compound eye, and a UV filter oriented differently in each of these units, a bee is able to detect this polarization pattern. A small piece of blue sky is enough for a bee to recognize the pattern changes occurring over the course of a day. This provides not only directional but also temporal information.

Frisch proved that variations in the position of the sun over the course of a day provided bees with an orientation tool. They use this capability to obtain information about the progression of the day deep inside a dark beehive comparable to what is known from the position of the sun. This makes it possible for the bees to convey always up-to-date directional information during their waggle dance, without having to make a comparison with the sun during long dance phases. This provides them not only with alternative directional information, but also with additional temporal information.

Bees have an internal clock with three different synchronization or timekeeping mechanisms. If a bee knows the direction to a feeding place found during a morning excursion, it can also find the same location, as well as the precise time at which this source provides food, in the afternoon, based on the position of the sun. [10]

Based on the magnetic field, the alignment of the plane of a honeycomb under construction (e.g., the new honeycomb of a swarm) will be the same as that of the home hive of the swarm, according to Frisch. By experiment, even deformed combs bent into a circle can be produced.

The vertical alignment of the honeycomb is attributed by Frisch to the ability of bees to identify what is vertical with the help of their head used as a pendulum together with a ring of sensory cells in the neck.

Dances as language

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:

Round dance

The "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 (blossom scent).

The foraging bee ... begins to perform a kind of "round dance". On the part of the comb where she is sitting she starts whirling around in a narrow circle, constantly changing her direction, turning now right, now left, dancing clockwise and anti-clockwise, in quick succession, describing between one and two circles in each direction. This dance is performed among the thickest bustle of the hive. What makes it so particularly striking and attractive is the way it infects the surrounding bees; those sitting next to the dancer start tripping after her, always trying to keep their outstretched feelers on close contact with the tip of her abdomen. ... They take part in each of her manoeuvrings so that the dancer herself, in her mad wheeling movements, appears to carry behind her a perpetual comet's tail of bees. [11]

Waggle dance

The waggle dance Bee waggle dance.png
The waggle dance
Interpretation of the waggle dance: direction relative to the sun is shown by angle to the vertical; distance by the time taken on the central stretch. Bee dance.svg
Interpretation of the waggle dance: direction relative to the sun is shown by angle to the vertical; distance by the time taken on the central stretch.

The "waggle dance" 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 (so the speed of the dance is inversely related to the actual distance). 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 (type of food, pollen, propolis, water) as well as its specific characteristics. The orientation functions so well that the bees can find a food source with the help of the waggle dance even if there are hindrances they must detour around like an intervening mountain.

As to a sense of hearing, Frisch could not identify this perceptive faculty, but it was assumed that vibrations could be sensed and used for communication during the waggle dance. Confirmation was later provided by Dr. Jürgen Tautz, a bee researcher at Würzburg University's Biocenter. [12]


The linguistic findings described above were based on Frisch's work primarily with the Carnica variety of bees. Investigations with other varieties led to the discovery that language elements were variety-specific, so that how distance and direction information is relayed varies greatly.[ citation needed ]

Other work

Frisch's honey bee work 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 her. Inside the hive, the drones are not affected by the odor. [13]

Honors and decorations


In German

In English


  1. Regarding personal names: Ritter is a title, translated approximately as Sir (denoting a Knight ), not a first or middle name. There is no equivalent female form.

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  1. 1 2 3 Thorpe, W. H. (1983). "Karl von Frisch. 20 November 1886-12 June 1982". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society . 29: 196–200. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1983.0008. JSTOR   769801.
  2. Michelsen, A. (2003). "Karl von Frisch lecture. Signals and flexibility in the dance communication of honeybees". Journal of Comparative Physiology A. 189 (3): 165–174. doi:10.1007/s00359-003-0398-y. PMID   12664092.
  3. Raju, T. N. (1999). "The Nobel chronicles. 1973: Karl von Frisch (1886-1982); Konrad Lorenz (1903-89); and Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907-88)". Lancet. 354 (9184): 1130. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(05)76931-2. PMID   10509540.
  4. Riley, J.; Greggers, U.; Smith, A.; Reynolds, D.; Menzel, R. (2005). "The flight paths of honeybees recruited by the waggle dance". Nature. 435 (7039): 205–207. Bibcode:2005Natur.435..205R. doi:10.1038/nature03526. PMID   15889092.
  5. Frisch, Karl von (1957). Erinnerungun eines Biologen (Memories of a Biologist. Berlin: Springer.[ page needed ]
  6. Deichmann, Ute (1992). Biologists under Hitler: Expulsion, Careers, Research. Frankfurt am Main, New York: Harvard University Press. pp. 40–48. ISBN   978-0674074040.
  7. Frisch (1962), pp. 45-51.
  8. 1 2 Backhaus, W. (1993). "Color vision and color choice behavior of the honey bee". Apidologie. 24 (3): 309–331. doi:10.1051/apido:19930310. Karl von Frisch (1914) was the first to demonstrate in behavioral experiments of this kind that bees possess a true color sense. He demonstrated that honeybees are able to distinguish a blue-colored card-board from a series of cardboards which appeared grey to the human eye.
  9. Frisch (1962), pp. 93-96.
  10. Frisch (1962), pp. 137-147.
  11. Frisch (1962), p. 102 ff.
  12. Rohrseitz, K.; Tautz, J. (1999). "Honey bee dance communication: Waggle run direction coded in antennal contacts?". Journal of Comparative Physiology A. 184 (4): 463–470. doi:10.1007/s003590050346.
  13. Frisch, K. von; Rösch, G. A. (1926). "Neue Versuche über die Bedeutung von Duftorgan und Pollenduft für die Verständigung im Bienenvolk" [New experiments on the importance of the scent organ and the smell of pollen for understanding of the bee colony]. Zeitschrift für Vergleichende Physiologie (in German). 4: 1–21. doi:10.1007/BF00341784.
  14. "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter F" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 15 April 2011.
  15. "K. von Frisch (1886 - 1982)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 21 July 2015.