In 1914, von Frisch demonstrated that honey bees—whose livelihood after all depends on flowering plants—are able to discriminate by color, despite being red-blind. A few years later, he worked on bees’ sense of smell. His work on the “language of bees” starts in the 1920s at the Institute for Zoology at Munich University, where he became a professor in 1925. Although beekeepers and naturalists had known for centuries that bees communicated the location of food sources to each other, no one knew how. Von Frisch was the first to make the distinction between what he called the “circle dance” and the “waggle dance” performed by bees returning to the hive. He tracked the movements of their bodies and realized that communication of some kind was taking place. Initially, he thought that bees used the dances to indicate different kinds of food, but when he resumed his experiments in 1944, he realized that both dances communicate location. When the food was more than 100 meters away, the bees used the waggle dance to indicate the far more complex information of location. This communication required a bee to register the details of its flight, recall its content hours afterwards, and, of course, translate and perform its significant information to a comprehending audience. It’s a complex and beautiful thing. The bee has to figure out how to use the sun as her directional reference while dancing in complete darkness inside the hive!
more of the conversation with Hugh Raffles about bees at Cabinet here.