home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

the dancing bees

13 april 2021

Till I read Tania Munz' Dancing Bees, Karl von Frisch was just a name in a couple of paragraphs of a textbook long ago: the person who discovered how honeybees communicate the location of food to others in their hive. Or really, discovered that honeybees communicate, and went on to learn how, a marvelous double achievement. Come to find that von Frisch was not just an impeccable experimentalist; he led a life full of contradictions and tensions that at times belied his elegant ethological results.

Von Frisch – I'd be inclined to just call him Frisch, but Munz is consistently formal – had a knack for reducing chaotic natural processes to a few distinct variables. By training them to respond to visual and olfactory cues and then eliminating all other possible influences on their behavior, he proved that bees can detect color and odor. This seems like a "duh" observation: flowers are colorful and smell good, and bees are drawn to them. But proving that observation is quite another matter. And in proving it, von Frisch confirmed other gardening lore, such as the principle that bees don't really care about red flowers: they can't distinguish red from black.

Von Frisch worked with color-coded individual bees and transparent hives, and along the way observed bees "dancing" for their hivemates when they'd just come back from a food source. The bees danced to a strict code that von Frisch at first thought was related to the type of food (nectar or pollen) that they'd found. Having conveyed that information, he figured, bees would physically lead their fellows to the source, and their sense of smell would do the rest.

But many years later, returning to his observations of the bees' dances, von Frisch came to recognize a code in it, a code he at first found incredible: bees act out both the direction and the distance of the food source they've located. Equipped with that knowledge, bees make their famous beeline toward it, not needing constant cues from other bees or their senses. (Though that's an oversimplification; if there are obstacles in the way, bees tack around them, an even more formidable feat.)

The greatest challenge to von Frisch's theories came in the late 1960s, when he was past 80 years old. A pair of Americans named Wenner and Johnson discounted the "code" interpretation. Their critique was perhaps over-subtle. Sure, the returning bee acted out distance and direction instructions; von Frisch had proven that in thousands of observations. But did the ones back in the hive follow those instructions, or did they just use scent? As Munz portrays it, von Frisch didn't quite understand the objection. Why would a bee show off a bunch of information that its hivemates would proceed to ignore?

Von Frisch had never participated in an Internet discussion, or he'd have seen plenty examples of that. But he knew scientific controversies and he believed in the economy of natural processes. There was no initial reason to think that the bees' dance meant anything other than "I'm excited; follow me." But once the content of the code became manifest, von Frisch had to ask: "How could such a differentiated dance have evolved if it had no biological significance?" (216) You might as well hypothesize that I find my way to a location by getting detailed instructions from my GPS and then driving aimlessly in that general direction till I eventually get there. Wait, that is exactly how I find things. But bees are more efficient than I am.

Corroboration of von Frisch's work by J.L. Gould and others seemed to win the day in the 1970s, and von Frisch himself would share a Nobel Prize for his work. But Munz points out how little we still know about bees. Apparently no scientist, to this day, has truly observed how honeybees mate; our sense of how this secretive in-flight behavior occurs is based on some horrific experiments where dead-or-alive queens are variously tortured or restrained so that drones can mate with them – a methodology that I imagine would not pass institutional review if you were to propose doing it with mammals. In a series of "bee vignettes" charting the development of apiology, Munz notes just how provisional all our understanding of even the most everyday animals still remains.

Karl von Frisch simply "got" bees, and came to know them as well as anyone ever has. Humans were more problematic. As the Nazis consolidated power in Germany and then in his native Austria, von Frisch tried to keep his head down and ignore politics. But that was impossible. Even being left alone to do science was a political event: it meant that you were remaining unpersecuted while your Jewish colleagues were silenced, exiled, or disappeared. And then von Frisch learned that his grandmother had been Jewish. His academic career was in jeopardy unless he could find ways to make honeybee research indispensable to the Reich. Von Frisch reinvented himself as an expert on the colony collapses of the 1930s, the better to preserve pollinators for the agricultural war effort; he rode out the second world war in the Alps tracking his bees. He did no express evil and while doing no evil did little good; though he did come to the defense of some Gentile Polish zoologists whom the Nazis had rounded up as undesirable intelligentsia (94-95). After the war, von Frisch's credentials as a (somewhat) persecuted scientist made him something of a hero overseas, especially in the United States where his work found enthusiastic audiences.

He could have done better and he could have done worse. The Dancing Bees is biography, not hagiography, and Munz underscores the fact that in perpetually troubled times, nobody is more than a mixture of good and bad. But in the middle of that admixture, it may be possible to develop a measure of pure and disinterested knowledge of the physical world.

Munz, Tania. The Dancing Bees: Karl von Frisch and the discovery of the honeybee language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. QL 31 .F7M959