Karl von Frisch

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Karl Ritter von Frisch (born November 20, 1886 in Vienna , † June 12, 1982 in Munich ) was a German-Austrian zoologist and behavioral scientist .

He was a long-time professor at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich and is considered one of the most important German-speaking behavioral researchers. The focus of his work was the exploration of the honeybees' sensory perceptions and the way these animals communicate with one another. For his achievements, he was honored with the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1973 together with Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen . The award recognized “her discoveries about the organization and triggering of individual and social behavior patterns”.

Signature of Karl von Frisch


Karl von Frisch was a grandson of General Staff Doctor Anton Ritter von Frisch (1811–1886), who was ennobled in 1877 . He was the youngest of four sons of the surgeon and urologist Anton Ritter von Frisch (1849–1917) and his wife Marie von Frisch born. Exner. The three older brothers, including the lawyer Hans von Frisch , also became university professors. After completing his schooling at the Schottengymnasium and graduating from high school in 1905, he first studied medicine, but switched to zoology after five semesters and studied in Munich from 1908 under Richard von Hertwig . In 1909 he returned to Vienna and worked with Hans Leo Przibram at the Biological Research Institute , where he spoke to Dr. In 1910 about the relationship between pigment cells in fish skin and the sympathetic nervous system. phil. received his doctorate. In the same year he went as assistant to Hertwig in the Zoological Institute of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where he joined in 1912 with colored decision to bring in fish habilitation and lecturer in zoology and comparative anatomy was. During the First World War , he worked medically and bacteriologically at the Rudolfinerhaus in Vienna from 1914 to 1919 . In 1919 he was appointed associate professor again at Hertwig in Munich.

Memorial plaque for Karl von Frisch in Rostock

In 1921 von Frisch went to the University of Rostock as full professor of zoology and director of the institute . In 1923 he followed a call to Breslau , but then returned to the University of Munich in 1925, where he took over the management of the Zoological Institute. In 1924, together with Alfred Kühn , he founded the magazine for comparative physiology , which has been published as the Journal of Comparative Physiology since 1972 . With the support of the Rockefeller Foundation , he succeeded in setting up a new zoological institute in Munich in 1931/32 (this has since been demolished). During the Third Reich , it was difficult for Karl von Frisch to keep his job, especially since he had a Jewish grandmother and did not actively cooperate with National Socialism . Karl von Frisch was always very apolitical, but campaigned for the release of Polish academics imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp . Only after he had started a scientific activity with research on nosemosis and research on increasing honey production, which was of importance for the nutrition of the population, was he left undisturbed at his workplace.

From 1941 to 1945 the Austrian marine researcher and zoologist Hans Hass was a frequent guest at Frisch. In their conversations, they exchanged their observations regarding the communication between fish and the task and function of their sideline organs . Hass was also interested in his discovery of the repellent in fish. It could possibly be used to repel sharks.

After extensive destruction of the Munich Zoological Institute in the Second World War , he went to the Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz in 1946 , where he held his inaugural lecture on November 7th, until he returned there in 1950 when the Munich Institute reopened. In 1958 he retired, but also continued his scientific research in the following years.

Karl von Frisch was with Margarete, geb. Mohr, married; his son, Otto von Frisch , was director of the State Natural History Museum in Braunschweig from 1977 to 1995 and presenter of the 1970s television series Paradiese der Tiere .

His most famous students include Martin Lindauer , Karl Daumer and Maximilian Renner , who continued his research. The extensive estate is in the Bavarian State Library .


Karl von Frisch was best known for his research on the western honey bee ( Apis mellifera carnica ), but he also made important discoveries in other animals, especially in various fish.

Works on fish

Karl von Frisch, together with his student Hans Stetter, succeeded in proving the hearing ability of the fish and the discovery of a frightful substance in the skin of the fish. He was the first to prove that fish can also see colors, which has long been controversial.

Findings about bees

The sense of smell

Frisch found out that bees can distinguish different flowering plants by their smell. Amazingly, their sensitivity to the “sweet” taste sensation is only slightly more pronounced than in humans. Due to the firm coupling of the sense of smell to the sense of touch, Karl von Frisch believed that a spatial odor perception of the bees was possible.

The optical perception

The spatial resolution of the compound eye of the bee is inferior to a lens eye strong. However, the compound eye is particularly well suited to perceiving movements due to its very high temporal resolution (faster light reaction of the photoreceptors).

The color perception of bees is comparable to that of humans, but shifted away from red towards the ultraviolet. Therefore, they cannot distinguish the color red from black (colorless). However, the colors white, yellow, blue and purple can be distinguished. Color pigments that can reflect UV components expand the spectrum of differentiable colors by two more. Several flowers, which appear the same yellow to humans, can appear differently colored (multicolored patterned) to bees because of the different ultraviolet components.

An image taken exactly at right angles to the sun with a polarization filter and wide-angle lens gives an impression of the polarization pattern of the sky: the sky is darkest in the middle, and it becomes lighter towards both sides.

The orientation ability

The studies on the bees' ability to orient themselves are important. Karl von Frisch found out that bees can recognize the desired direction in three different ways: the sun, the polarization pattern of the blue sky and the earth's magnetic field , using the sun as a guiding compass and the alternatives under the special conditions of the cloudy sun or Apply to the darkness of the beehive .

  • Karl von Frisch was able to demonstrate the variation in the position of the sun during the day as a guide for the bees. They use this ability to obtain comparable information about the passage of time in the dark beehive, as is known from the position of the sun. This enables the bees to keep the directional information in the waggle dance up to date without having to make a comparison with the sun during longer dance phases. This not only provides alternative direction information, but also additional time information.
  • The bee recognizes the polarization pattern through a UV receptor in each compound eye and a UV filter, which is oriented differently in each eye. Scattered light in the blue sky creates a characteristic pattern of partially polarized light that is invisible to humans and depends on the position of the sun. A small piece of blue sky is enough for her to recognize the pattern, which also changes over the course of the day. This gives not only directional information, but also time information.
  • In addition, the magnetic sense helps the bees with orientation.

The bee has an internal clock with three different synchronization or timing mechanisms. If the bee knows the direction of a feeding place from a morning excursion, it will find its location based on the position of the sun in the afternoon, as well as the exact time at which this source donates food.

Spatial orientation in honeycomb construction

The honeycombs (e.g. the new honeycombs of a swarm) are expanded according to Karl von Frisch on the basis of the magnetic sense in the same direction as in the home hive of the swarm. In the experiment, even circularly deformed honeycombs could be detected.

Karl von Frisch attributes the always vertical alignment of the honeycomb structure to the bees' ability to recognize the vertical through the head and the pendulum formed from it in interaction with a wreath of sensory cells in the neck area.

Waggle dance

The dance language

Findings about found feeding places can be passed on from bee to bee. A special dance language serves as a means of communication . The dances come in two forms: round dance and waggle dance.

  • The round dance serves as information that the feeding place (without indication of direction) is in the immediate vicinity of the beehive, approximately at a distance of 50 to 100 meters. When the bees come into close contact, information about the type of food source (flower scent) is passed on.
  • For information about more distant food sources, however, the waggle dance is used. The dancing bee moves a little straight ahead on the vertically hanging honeycomb in the beehive, then runs back in a semicircle to the starting point, continues the same route straight ahead and then describes a semicircle to the other side, whereupon the dance starts all over again. On the straight stretch, the bee makes wagging movements with its abdomen. The direction in which the straight stretch is traversed contains the information about the direction of the feed source. The angle that the straight line forms to the vertical indicates exactly the angle that the indicated flight direction forms with the position of the sun. The distance from the source of food is indicated by the speed of the dance, i.e. by the number of runs of the straight stretch per unit of time. The other bees take in the information by maintaining close contact with the dancing bee during the dance and understanding its movements. They also receive information about the groupage to be found there (type of feed, pollen, propolis and water) as well as its specific properties via their sense of smell.

The orientation works so well overall that the bees can find a source of food with the help of the waggle dance even if they have to fly a detour because of an obstacle, such as a mountain in between.

The majority of the findings were developed by Karl von Frisch with the Carnica bee breed . Experiments with other races resulted in a race-specific expression of the language elements, so that distance and direction information vary greatly.

Karl von Frisch could not prove a sense of hearing. However, the sensitive perception of vibrations was assumed and assumed for communication during the waggle dance. This was only confirmed later by Jürgen Tautz , Würzburg.

Popular science books

Karl von Frisch was very keen to bring biological understanding and the results of his research to laypeople. This is how the books Dance Language and Orientation of Bees and - with more recent research results - From the Life of Bees , Animals as Builders , Ten Little Housemates (first edition 1940) and Twelve Little Housemates (1976), You and Life - A Modern Biology were created for everyone (first edition 1936) and others.


Karl von Frisch has also published a number of poems. A quatrain with the title Resignation from 1967 is quoted as an example :

Man in his thirst for knowledge
Reflects and researches all his life,
In order then to see without:
Basically, he can't understand anything.

Awards and honors

The Karl-Ritter-von-Frisch Medal is the most important science award in zoology in Germany. In memory of Karl von Frisch, the German Zoological Society (DZG) awards the prize, endowed with 10,000 euros, every two years to scientists whose work is characterized by excellent zoological achievements and the integration of findings from several individual biological disciplines.

See also:


About the "language" of bees (1923)
  • The bees' sense of color and shape. In: Zoological Yearbooks (Physiology). Volume 35, 1914-15, pp. 1-188, online in the Biodiversity Heritage Library .
  • About the bees' sense of smell and its biological importance. In: Zoological Yearbooks (Physiology). Volume 37, 1919, pp. 1-238.
  • About the " language " of the bees. An animal psychological investigation. In: Zoological Yearbooks (Physiology). Volume 40, 1923, pp. 1-186.
  • From the life of the bees. Springer, Berlin 1927; 9th edition 1977, ISBN 3-540-08212-3 ; 10th edition 1993 (= Understandable Science. Volume 1), supplemented and edited by Martin Lindauer, ISBN 3-540-56763-1 .
  • with Hans Stetter: Investigations into the location of the sense of hearing in minnow . In: Journal of Comparative Physiology . Volume 17, 1932, H. 4, pp. 686-801, DOI: 10.1007 / BF00339067 .
  • About the bee's sense of taste. In: Journal of Comparative Physiology. Volume 21, 1934, H. 1, pp. 1-156, DOI: 10.1007 / BF00338271 .
  • You and life. A modern biology for everyone. German publishing house, Berlin 1936; 19th edition. Ullstein, Frankfurt am Main 1974, ISBN 3-550-06400-4 .
  • Ten little housemates. Heimeran, Munich 1940; 6th edition: Twelve little housemates. Rowohlt, Reinbek 1976, ISBN 3-499-16966-5 .
  • About a fish skin fright and its biological significance. In: Journal of Comparative Physiology. Volume 29, 1941, H. 1/2, pp. 46-145, DOI: 10.1007 / BF00304445 .
  • The dances of the bees. In: Austrian Zoological Journal. Volume 1, 1948, pp. 1-48 ( digitized version , PDF ).
  • The polarization of the light from the sky as an orienting factor in the dances of the bees. In: Experientia. Volume 5 (1949), pp. 142-148.
  • The sun as a compass in the life of bees. In: Experientia. Volume 6 (1950), pp. 210-221.
  • Memories of a biologist. Springer, Berlin / Göttingen / Heidelberg 1957 (autobiography).
  • The little insect book. With 22 colored plates after watercolors by Uwe Bangert . Insel, Frankfurt am Main 1961 (preface and explanations).
  • Dance language and orientation of the bees. Springer, Berlin / Heidelberg / New York 1965.
  • Animals as builders. With the collaboration of Otto von Frisch . Ullstein, Frankfurt am Main 1974, ISBN 3-550-07028-4 .
  • The dance language of the bees. Original sound recordings 1953–1962. Edited by Klaus Sander . 2 CDs. Supposé, Cologne 2005, ISBN 3-932513-56-8 .


  • Deborah R. Coen: Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty. Science, Liberalism, and Private Life. University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2007, ISBN 978-0-226-11172-8 .
  • Otto Koehler : Karl von Frisch. The discoverer of the bees - "Language" In: Hans Schwerte , Wilhelm Spengler (Ed.): Researchers and scientists in Europe today. 2. Physicians, biologists, anthropologists (= designers of our time. Vol. 4). Stalling, Oldenburg 1955, pp. 263-271.
  • Ulrich Kreutzer: Karl von Frisch (1886–1982) - a biography. August Dreesbach Verlag, Munich 2010, ISBN 978-3-940061-32-4 .
  • Tania Munz: The Dancing Bees. Karl von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language , The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2016, ISBN 978-0-226020-860
    • German: The dance of the bees. Karl von Frisch and the discovery of the language of bees . Czernin, Vienna 2018 ISBN 978-3-7076-0648-5

Radio contributions

Web links

Commons : Karl von Frisch  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Karl von Frisch: curriculum vitae . Munich 1980.
  2. Manfred Wenzel: Frisch, Karl Ritter von. In: Werner E. Gerabek , Bernhard D. Haage, Gundolf Keil , Wolfgang Wegner (eds.): Enzyklopädie Medizingeschichte. De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2005, ISBN 3-11-015714-4 , p. 441 f.
  3. ^ Hansjochem Autrum : Karl von Frisch. In: Journal of Comparative Physiology A . Vol. 147, 1982, pp. 417-422, DOI: 10.1007 / BF00612005 .
  4. Klaus Taschwer: The bee researcher and the Nazi regime. In: The Standard . December 31, 2014, accessed May 25, 2015.
  5. ^ Karl Frisch: Medical studies and biology lessons. Jos. A. Kienreich, Graz 1947.
  6. Hans Stetter: Investigations into the hearing of fish, especially by Phoxinds laevis L. and Amiurus nebulosus Raf. In: Journal of Comparative Physiology . Volume 9, 1929, H. 2, pp. 339-477, DOI: 10.1007 / BF00340160 .
  7. Karl von Frisch and Hans Stetter: Investigations into the seat of the hearing in the minnow. In: Journal of Comparative Physiology . Volume 17, 1932, H. 4, pp. 686-801, DOI: 10.1007 / BF00339067 .
  8. ^ Jürgen Tautz , Martin Lindauer : Honeybees establish specific sites on the comb for their waggle dances. In: Journal of Comparative Physiology A . Volume 180, 1997, H. 5, pp. 537-539.
  9. ^ Karl von Frisch: Memories of a biologist . 3rd, expanded edition 1973, pp. 173-183: Verse und Gedichte .
  10. ^ Karl von Frisch: Memories of a biologist . 3rd, expanded edition 1973, p. 183.
  11. ^ The Magellanic Premium of the American Philosophical Society , website of the APS . Retrieved October 29, 2019.
  12. The book on the publisher's website ( Memento from July 13, 2016 in the Internet Archive )
  13. ^ Karl von Frisch: The bee whisperer and his relationship to Nazi politics. In: derstandard.at . July 14, 2016, Retrieved July 17, 2016 (review).