Karl von Frisch

Karl von Frisch

German zoologist, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1973
Date of Birth: 20.11.1886
Country: Austria

  1. Biography of Karl von Frisch
  2. Early Life and Education
  3. Research on Bees
  4. The Dance Language of Bees
  5. Contributions and Awards

Biography of Karl von Frisch

Karl von Frisch was a German zoologist and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973. He was credited with the unexpected discovery of "sensor windows" through which animals perceive the world, such as bees using color and polarized light.

Early Life and Education

Karl von Frisch was born in Vienna, Austria, as the youngest of four sons to Anton Ritter von Frisch, a surgeon and urologist, and his wife Maria (nee Exner). Coming from a family of scientists, doctors, and professors, young Karl was stimulated intellectually and nurtured in his curiosity. He spent summers in the family's country house near Lake Wolfgang in Brunnwinkle, where he could freely indulge in observing animals for hours. He kept detailed records of his observations and wrote articles for nature enthusiasts' journals. After completing secondary school at Schottengymnasium, a school affiliated with a Benedictine monastery in Vienna, Frisch hoped to join a scientific expedition. However, at his father's request, he enrolled in medical school at the University of Vienna in 1905. Under the guidance of his uncle, renowned physiologist Sigmund Exner, he immersed himself in research on the distribution of pigments in the visual cells of beetles, butterflies, and shrimps. However, he later abandoned medicine in favor of ethology, the study of animal behavior, which he pursued at the Zoological Institute of Munich University, a renowned center for experimental biology. Under the supervision of Richard von Hertwig, Frisch became interested in light perception and the effect of light on color change in certain fish. After returning to the University of Vienna, he continued his work and obtained his Ph.D. in 1910. At that time, it was commonly believed that fish and all invertebrates were completely colorblind. This view was defended by Carl von Hess, the director of the Munich Eye Clinic. Frisch disproved this theory through experiments with sticklebacks, showing that trained individuals react differently to various colors. However, Hess refused to accept Frisch's findings from his stickleback experiments, leading Frisch to criticize the old scientist's views, which he felt were an attempt to discredit his work. Frisch later became more tolerant of this incident, as it drew the attention of other scientists to his research.

Research on Bees

As a Darwinist, Frisch found it unlikely that insects were unable to distinguish colors. He hypothesized that the remarkable color combinations of flowers had evolved because they served as signals, attracting insects that carried plant pollen while seeking nectar, thus facilitating plant reproduction. After obtaining a position at the University of Munich in 1912, Frisch began conducting experiments to confirm his hypothesis about bees' color vision. He successfully trained bees to associate food with a specific color by repeatedly rewarding them with sugar syrup when they landed on a square of that color. The bees continued to land on that square even when the food was removed or the position of the square was changed. Unfortunately, his research was interrupted by World War I. Although exempt from military service due to poor eyesight, Frisch worked in a military hospital near Vienna. In January 1919, Frisch returned to the Zoological Institute of Munich University as an adjunct professor. Two years later, he became an adjunct professor at the University of Rostock, and in 1923, he obtained a professorship at the University of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland). Throughout these years, he continued to study bees. He demonstrated that bees could distinguish up to ten different smells, as they consistently chose a cardboard box emitting a floral scent, even when no food was present on it. However, once the syrup ran out, the bees stopped entering the box. But as soon as a scout bee discovered a new food source, a swarm of bees would immediately head towards it.

The Dance Language of Bees

"It was clear to me," Frisch wrote in his autobiography, "that the bee community had an excellent reconnaissance service, but I could not fully understand how it worked." In the spring of 1919, Frisch conducted the following experiment: by marking several worker bees with paint, he observed the behavior of a bee that had tasted the syrup and returned to the hive. "I could barely believe my eyes," Frisch wrote, "when she performed a circular dance on the honeycombs, arousing nearby bees marked with paint, which immediately flew to the feeding spot... This was, I believe, the most important observation in my life, at least with the most far-reaching consequences," he noted. For several years, he worked to decipher the meaning of the bee dance. In 1925, Frisch returned to the Zoological Institute of Munich University, this time as the successor of Richard von Hertwig. Eight years later, a new laboratory building was constructed under his supervision, specifically designed for research purposes. After the institute was nearly destroyed during World War II, Frisch moved to Brunnwinkle to continue his studies. In 1946, he became a professor at the University of Graz, but returned to Munich after four years to rebuild the Zoological Institute, where he remained as director until his retirement in 1958.

Contributions and Awards

Over the years, Frisch realized that the bee dance was much more complex than he initially thought. He discovered that bees communicate information about the approximate direction, distance, and amount of food in a new source through a series of carefully designed dances, each containing specific information. If the food is nearby, the bee performs a "round dance"; if the distance to the food source exceeds 85 meters, the bee uses a "waggle dance" in the form of a figure-eight. Frisch also found that the angle at which bees perform this dance relative to the vertical axis of the honeycombs corresponds to the angle formed by the food source and the sun. He also discovered that even in variable cloud cover, bees can locate food by orienting themselves to the plane of polarization of light passing through clear gaps in the clouds. Frisch was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973, along with two other ethologists, Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen, "for their discoveries concerning the organization and elicitation of individual and social behavior patterns." "The discoveries made by this year's Nobel laureates... may... not seem so important from the perspective of human physiology or medicine," said Björn Cronholm of the Karolinska Institute during the award ceremony. "However, these discoveries have provided the basis for extensive research, which has also included mammals." Cronholm added that the laureates' work could have significant implications for assessing "the impact of anomalous psychosocial situations on individuals," such as those that "can cause not only deviations in behavior but also serious somatic diseases" like hypertension or myocardial infarction. At the time of the award ceremony, Frisch, who was 87 years old, was represented by his son Otto.

Frisch's discovery of "sensor windows," through which animals perceive the world, including bees using color and polarized light, was considered revolutionary. According to animal behavior specialists Peter Marler and Donald R. Griffin, "the revolutionary aspect of the discovery lay in the fact that, by means of a flexible system of canonical differentiated gestures, insects are able to convey information about distant objects that are essential to the social group as a whole. This led to behavioral continuity between animals and humans, making it possible to compare communicative connections in animals and human speech." In 1917, Frisch married Margaret Mor, a nurse and artist who later illustrated the collections of his lectures. They had three daughters and a son. Frisch passed away on June 12, 1982. He received several other awards during his career, including the Magellan Award from the American Philosophical Society (1956), the Kalinga Prize from UNESCO (1959), and the Eugenio Bolzano Award in Biology from the Bolzano Foundation (1963). He was a member of the academies of sciences in Munich, Vienna, Göttingen, Uppsala, Stockholm, and Washington D.C., as well as a foreign member of the Royal Society in London.