On This Day: Remembering Karl von Frisch

A writer reflects on the Nobel Prize recipient and his foundational findings.

Joe Keeble
20th November 2023
Today marks the anniversary of the birth of Nobel Prize recipient and ethologist, Karl von Frisch whose explanation of concepts such as the 'waggle dance' proved to be foundational for the behavioural studies of honey bees.

Born in Munich, West Germany (now Germany) on November 20th, 1886, Karl's parents were Surgeon Karl Ritter von Frisch and Marie Exner. He studied at the Universities of Vienna and Munich, and received his PhD at the latter university in 1910, specializing in natural sciences. He undertook a teaching position at Munich in 1912 in the field of zoology.

His early research focused on the perceptions of the honey bee. He was the second to demonstrate that bees have colour vision, using sugary coloured paper to study their movements, and discovered that they have a similar colour range to humans with a propensity towards the UV light spectrum. This is important because they can distinguish between hundreds of flowers which seem identical to human eyes but have much more variation in the UV spectrum.

However, it is his later research which led to his award of the Nobel prize. In his research, Frisch discovered that bees perform a certain dance to each other to indicate complex information about nearby food sources.

He observed that they move towards the honeycomb and waggle their posterior and then fly back to their initial starting positions. The length of time they waggled their posterior corresponded to the distance towards the food source, the angle with which they flew from the vertical was the angle of flight from the sun towards the food source. They use their sense of smell to detect other characteristics of the food source, such as its pollen count.

This system is so effective that even large physical barriers such as mountains don’t prove to be too complicated to figure out and is remarkably some of the most sophisticated non-primate communication between animals ever observed.

Whilst initially met with some skepticism, it was found to be an accurate theoretical description of the communication of honey bees , hence the later award of the Nobel prize. The ceremony was held on December 12th, 1973 in Stockholm however Frisch was unable to attend. On his behalf, Frisch's son, Otto von Frisch was presented the ceremony and decoration by Nobel Committee member, Börje Cronholm.

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