Who Was Karl Von Frisch?

Karl von Frisch illustration

Karl von Frisch was an Austrian zoologist who focused on the sensory perception of the honey bee. His work greatly advanced our understanding of insect visual and chemical sensors.

Frisch was a joint Nobel Peace Prize for Physiology or Medicine winner in 1973, along with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz. Among his many achievements, he discovered the “wiggle dance” and demonstrated that bees view the world in color.

This is part of a collection about smart people who altered how we keep bees forever.

Quick facts

NameKarl von Frisch
BornNovember 20, 1886
Place of BirthVienna, Austria
DiedJune 12, 1982
Notable Beekeeping Contributions1973 Nobel Peace Prize Winner.

Early life and education

Karl Ritter von Frisch was born in 1886 in Vienna, Austria. He grew up in an academic family: his father was a professor, surgeon, and urologist; his three younger brothers all went on to become university professors.

Frisch began his university studies in medicine but moved to the natural sciences. From an early age, Karl developed a keen interest in animals. He received helpful guidance from his uncle, Sigmund Exner, who conducted ground-breaking research into insect vision. Frisch followed in his uncle’s footsteps and began researching honey bee vision.

Karl von Frisch Profile Photo

At the age of 24, Karl received his doctorate from the University of Munich. In 1919 he became a professor and then two years later took on a role as director of the Zoological Institution of the University of Rostock.

In 1923, Frisch took on a two-year position as chair at the University of Breslau before returning to the University of Munich. It was here that he established the university’s Zoological Institution.

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Wartime impact on Frisch’s career

Karl Ritter von Frisch had a Jewish grandmother, so during the Nazi regime, he faced many obstacles. Attempts were made to discredit his work, and he was accused of practicing “Jewish science”. Fisch also got into trouble for hiring Jewish assistants.

During World War II, Frisch’s institution in Germany was destroyed. He was forced to move to Austria and continue researching at the University of Graz. In 1950, Frisch returned to Munich to work.

Karl von Frisch: Important research contributions

Frisch dedicated much of his time to studying honey bee behavior. He is best known for advancing our understanding of bee perception and how these insects communicate through dance.

  • Olfactory senses: Frisch’s research proved that bees use scent as one way to distinguish between different flowering plants.
  • Color vision: His studies confirmed the initial work of Charles Henry Turner, who concluded that honey bees could see different colors.
  • Orientation: He found that bees use the sun, the earth’s magnetic field, and polarization patterns in the sky to orient themselves. Although the sun made an excellent compass, bees rely on the other options inside the beehive or in bad weather.
  • Round dance: Bees perform a round dance to let other bees know there is forage 50-100 meters from the hive.
  • Waggle dance: A waggle dance allows bees to relay information about food sources further away from the hive. It provides more in-depth information than the round dance, offering workers in the hive the food source’s direction, distance, and type of food. This research was rejected for many years but has now been proven accurate. Read more about the bee dance here.

Frisch conducted many other studies that received less attention. He set up an investigation, proving fish could distinguish changes in color and brightness. Karl also discovered that fish have superior auditory acuity and sound-distinguishing ability than humans.

Frisch also found that drones are attracted to the queen pheromones outside the hive, but the odor has no effect inside.

How did Frisch prove that honey bees had color vision?

Frisch set up an experiment where a small bowl of sugar water was placed on a colored card amongst other cards in various shades of grey. He discovered that even when the colored card was moved to a different location among the cards, the bees would locate it. This revelation proved that the bees couldn’t have simply memorized the card’s position with the reward.

What did Frisch get wrong?

It’s not uncommon for researchers to come to an incorrect conclusion, having their work later proven flawed. One example is Karl von Frisch believed that honey bees couldn’t feel pain.

His findings were based on feeding the subject sugar water and then causing it pain, like amputating its abdomen. The bee continued to drink, seemingly unaffected by pain.

However, the section of bee that Frisch cut into didn’t have any nociceptors, which convey pain to the brain.

Scientists have recently used bumble bees to show that these insects feel pain. Read the research here.  

Top 5 English publications by Frisch

  1. The dancing bees: An account of the life and senses of the honey bee.
  2. Bees: Their Vision, Chemical Senses, and Language.
  3. The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees
  4. Animal Architecture.
  5. Twelve little housemates.

Summary of honorary awards

Lieben Prize1921
Pour le Mérite for Arts and Sciences1952
Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences1952
Foreign Member of the Royal Society1954
Honorary ring of Vienna1956
Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science1958
Bavarian Order of Merit1959
Foreign Member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences1959
Austrian Medal for Science and Art1960
Balzan Prize for Biology1962
Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, with Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen1973
Grand Merit Cross with Star and Sash of the Federal Republic of Germany1974
Bavarian Maximilian Order for Science and Art1981

Final years

Karl retired in 1958 but never stopped his passion as an ethologist. His work greatly advances our understanding of animals, particularly honey bees. In 1982, Frisch died in Munich, Germany.

Do you enjoy reading about beekeepers, melittologists, and others who have played their part in advancing the beekeeping industry? You can also read about Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth here.

Image Credit: Atelier Veritas, München (das ist Stefanie Ludwig (1871-1943)), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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