Karl von Frisch

Karl von Frisch is best known for two major discoveries about honey bees. First, he demonstrated that honey bees have color vision, and published these findings in 191*. Second, in 193* he showed that honey bees use a dance language to communicate food locations to other bees.

Color vision

His demonstration of color vision is simple and elegant. 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 an array of gray-toned cards, as illustrated below. If the bees see the blue card as a shade of gray, then they will confuse the blue 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 blue card, as it is visually distinct from the other cards.

Figure 1. Grids for the color vision test. The training color, marked with T, is blue in both cases; all other squares are shades of gray. The left box shows how the grid appears to an animal with color vision. The right box shows how the same grid may appear to an animal without color vision. The training square appears to be the same shade of gray as other squares in the grid. If the test animal cannot see in color, it will confuse the training square with other squares matching its shade of gray.

This clever test for color vision can be applied to any animal which can learn to recognize a feeding station using visual patterns.

The dance language

von Frisch observed that once one honey bee finds a feeding station, many other soon appear at the same station. This suggests that the first bee recruits other bees to the food. How might honey bees recruit help in collecting food? von Frischıs discovery of the dance language of the honey bee required careful determination of the correlations between movements of bees inside the hive and the locations of feeding stations. He found two types of dance. The round dance (Figure 2A) causes bees to look for food a short distance (up to about 50 meters) from the hive. The waggle dance (Figure 2B) tells bees the direction and distance to fly to find more distant food sources. Scout bees use these dances to recruit assistance in collecting food resources.

Figure 2. A. Diagram of the round dance. This alerts bees to food near the hive but does not convey directional information. B. Diagram of the waggle dance. The tempo of the dance tells recruits how far to fly (the slower the dance, the greater the distance) and the angle of the straight part of the dance tells them the direction to fly. C. Because the inside of the hive is dark and the comb is vertical, bees make a convert the angle of the dance on the vertical comb to the angle formed by the feeding station, the hive, and the sun. A dance straight up the comb, as illustrated in B, tells recruits to fly towards the sun. A straight-down dance tells them to fly directly away from the sun. Dances at angles to the vertical indicate intermediate flight directions. The bees use their circadian clock to correct their dances for the movement of the sun in the sky.

Similar dances are used when bees swarm, to help the swarm find a new home. In this case scouts dance to direct bees in the swarm to hollow trees, caves, or other likely nesting sites. After a number of bees have visited each nesting site, a ³voting² process takes place, until one site (generally the best available location) wins out by having more bees dance for it.

Frisch, Karl von. 1993. The dance language and orientation of bees. Harvard Univ Press.

Frisch, Karl von. 1956. Bees; their vision, chemical senses, and language. Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press