Von Frisch, Karl (1886-1982) was an Austrian zoologist and co-recipient of the 1973 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his groundbreaking work in animal behavior. He shared the award with Austrian Konrad Zacharias Lorenz and Dutch-born Nikolaas Tinbergen, naturalists who also did work on animal behavior. Frisch's most well-known work, which came from his study of the communication systems of insects, was the discovery of the “dance” that bees perform to communicate the location of food to others in their hive.
Frisch, who was born into a family of sc entists, physicians, and university professors, developed a keen curiosity about the natural world early on, while spending his boyhood summers at the family's country home at Brunnwinkl. Throughout his school years he returned there each summer, and later Brunnwinkl became the site of some of his most important discoveries.
Frisch entered the University of Vienna in 1905 as a medical student, in deference to his father's wishes. The elder Frisch, himself a physician, felt becoming a physician would be a more suitable career for his son than zoology. But after a short period, Frisch quit medicine and turned to ethology, the study of animal behavior, and received his Ph.D. degree in zoology in 1910. His prior study of physiology, however, proved invaluable to his later research.
Frisch studied under Richard Hertwig at the University of Munich's Zoological Institute. After earning his doctorate, Frisch studied whether fish were color-blind. The predominant belief at the time was that fish and all invertebrates were unable to detect colors, but Frisch suspected otherwise. Unlike many others of his day, he believed that Charles Robert Darwin's theories were pointing in the correct direction and that animal behavior derived from the biological imperative to adapt rather than being unchanging mechanical processes.
He determined that fish were clearly not colorblind, based on meticulous research, which aroused the ire of Karl von Hess, director of the Munich Eye Clinic. The two engaged in a heated public debate on this.
Frisch went on to do much further research on the sensory apparatus of both fish and insects. Among many other findings, he was able to prove that fish could distinguish changes in the brightness of light and that their hearing was acute, despite having no cochlea in the inner ear.
Much of Frisch's most important work, however, involved the study of bees, which he began in the early 1900's and continued during several summers at Brunnwinkl. Using Ivan Petrovich Pavlov's method of providing food rewards to train the bees to perform specific behavior, as he had with his fish, Frisch determined that bees could see some colors and that they could distinguish different scents. He also discovered that bees dance as a method of communication, which for him was the most astounding discovery of his career.
That dance, performed by a “scout” bee after finding a food source and returning to the hive, is perhaps the most complex example of invertebrate communication currently known. Remarkably, Frisch found that the bee's dance, which is performed in either a circular or “waggling” sort of motion on the honeycomb, tells the other bees both the direction and distance of food from the hive. It also indicates the angle of the food source in respect to the sun. Additionally, Frisch found that bees learn, from the scent carried by the scout, what type of plant they are looking for.
Frisch's research on bees and fish was conducted over more than 40 years. In that time, he taught at both the University of Munich and the University of Rostock, worked the Zoological Institute in Munich, and moved to the University of Graz during the mid-1940's. In his years at Munich, and with help from the Rockefeller Foundation, an entirely new building for zoological research was built under Frisch's direction, but it was almost completely destroyed shortly thereafter during World War II (1939–1945). In 1950, Frisch returned to Munich after the institute was rebuilt to serve as its director. He retired in 1958 as professor emeritus, but continued research at the institute for many years. He wrote several well-received books, both scientific and popular in nature. As well as his Nobel Prize, Frisch was awarded the 1962 Balzan Prize.