Numbering Bees

Numbering Bees

Historian of science Tania Munz examines Karl von Frisch’s work on honeybees over five decades and traces the transition of the bee as a cultural and scientific object.

Lifting the cover of a beehive reveals a teeming mass of tens of thousands of bees. For the human observer, it is impossible to tell individual animals apart, much less to follow them through the tangle of the hive. But precisely this kind of observation—at the level of the individual animal and its interactions with hive mates—was what the experimental physiologist and later Nobel Laureate Karl von Frisch (1886-1982) was after, when he devised a special bee numbering system in the early 1920s. Although the technique required nothing more than a steady hand, a brush, and paint, it would have profound consequences for how scientists would come to understand the animal-human boundary and know bees as communicating animals.

Karl von Frisch is best known today for having elucidated the honeybee dance language. By painting small dots of colored paint on the bee's thorax and abdomen, he could systematically mark and track hundreds of bees.


Fig. 1, Numbering System: A numbering system based on colored dots painted on the bee’s thorax and abdomen, allowed von Frisch to distinguish and track hundreds of bees. Source: Karl von Frisch, The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees, Harvard University Press, 1993, p. 15.

This elegant observational technique radically changed the way bees were seen; von Frisch was now able to “recognize” animals mid-flight, observe their interactions, and follow them as they moved through carefully designed experiments. Over the course of several decades, he discovered that foragers communicate to their hive mates the distance and direction of food sources by means of the circle and waggle “dances” they run upon returning from foraging flights.


Fig. 2: Left: The round dance alerts hive mates to nearby foods. Right: The tail-waggle dance indicates the distance and direction of more distant food sources. Source: Karl von Frisch, Erinnerungen eines Biologen, Berlin, Göttingen, Heidelberg: Springer, 1957, p. 128.

The straight part of the figure-eight-shaped waggle dance makes the same angle with the vertical axis of the hive as the bee made on her flight with respect to the sun.


Fig. 3: These images show how the forager bee signals the direction of food sources to her hive mates when the food is in a direct line with the sun (top) and when it is at a 40° angle from the sun. Source: Karl von Frisch, Erinnerungen eines Biologen, Berlin, Göttingen, Heidelberg: Springer, 1957, p. 129.

Moreover, he found that the frequency of individual turns correlated closely with the distance of the food; the closer the supply, the more rapidly the bees dance.

News of the discovery of a bee language was received as a sensation and quickly spread throughout Europe and abroad. Von Frisch’s work challenged existing notion of the animal-human boundary, as language had long been considered a window into human minds and souls and one of the key differences between humans and animals. From dolphin and whale song to signing chimpanzees, by the mid 1960s, a flurry of scientific activity surrounded animal communication. Honeybee language held a prominent place in this research and is examined in the larger context of twentieth-century sciences of communication in the “Dancing Bees.”

The Dancing Bees: Karl von Frisch, the Honeybee Dances, and 20th-Century Sciences of Communication is a book-length study of Karl von Frisch and the bees. It examines von Frisch’s work on honeybees over five decades and traces the transition of the bee as a cultural and scientific object. Commentators had for centuries looked to the bees as a model of how a well-run social polity might function. But now they were turning to the animals’ dances for insights into non-human communication. We are tempted to see twentieth-century linguistics as largely a consequence of the linguist Noam Chomsky’s revolutionary (and resolutely human-centric) work. However, there was a brief window during which the dream of universal communication seemed possible, when the bee was not simply a remarkable animal that was highly adapted to its environment, but a key that might unlock the gate that separated animals from humans.

As the example of the bee numbering system suggests, von Frisch promoted a particular way, not just of doing science, but also of observing and understanding animals. He was also an early and enthusiastic producer of scientific films and used them as tools for observation and demonstration. He often relied on the medium to demonstrate aspects of behavior that lay beyond its direct explanatory reach—black-and-white silent film was called upon to support arguments about the bees’ abilities to discern colors, scents, tastes, and sounds. In a 1927 film, von Frisch sought to demonstrate that the bees can perceive different scents. Here stains left behind by scented oils were called upon to indicate the presence of odors. Thus, another aspect of the project shows how von Frisch bridged the epistemic gaps of the medium by training audiences to read the invisible in the visual language of film.

By paying close attention to techniques of observation and their epistemological and ontological consequences, this work finds its institutional home at the MPI within the project “The History of Scientific Observation.” This multi-year project has welcomed the participation of 40 number of scholars and aims to create the first history of scientific observation as an epistemic category, from the high middle ages to the late twentieth century, in both the human and natural sciences.

Further Information

More information on Tania Munz' book project. Go to Proposal

The Film "Geruchssinn der Bienen" by Karl von Frisch (1927). Go to Film

The article “Die Ethologie des wissenschaftlichen Cineasten: Karl von Frisch, Konrad Lorenz und das Verhaltender Tiere im Film” by Tania Munz, in: montage/av (2005) Volume 14, Number 4: 52-68 (translated into German by Christine N. Brinckmann and Stephen Lowry). Go to Article

The project “History of Scientific Observation” (under direction of Lorraine Daston). Go to Website

German version of this Research Topic

Print version of this Research Topic

Research Topics Archive

Bear hunting throughout Europe led to the species’ eradication in many areas. Wikimedia.
52: How to Live with Bears
51: The Wonders of Bodily Waste
Bathymetry model of the Strait of Gibraltar ca. 1932, Instituto Español de Oceanografía.
50: The Strait in the Cold War—Deep Science and Global Geopolitics in the Mediterranean
Andreas Ryff, Münz- und Mineralienbuch, 1594. Autograph in possession of the Basel University Library (A lambda II 46a).
49: Mountain Clamor! Resource Flows and Metal Culture in Early Modern Mining
Parades of Miners, Craftsmen, and Officials Marking the Marriage of Friedrich August II, Elector of Saxony, and Maria Josepha, Archduchess of Austria in 1719. Bergakademie Freiberg.
48: Data and Decisions in Early Modern Mines
Transcript of a Bobolink song by Ferdinand S. Mathews (1904), Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music: A Description of the Character and Music of Birds.
47: Scientific Scores and Musical Ears: Sound Diagrams in Field Recording
School of Athens
46: Early Modern Adaptation of the Aristotelian Mechanics
better shelter
45: Refugee Housing
44: Mapping Climatology
Black Hole Merger
43: One Hundred Years of Gravitational Waves
42: How High Is the Sea?
41: The Renewal of Einstein's Theory of Relativity in the Post-War Era
40: Do Data Have Politics?
39: From Sound to Knowledge
38: Colours and Their Context
37: Is Bigger Better
36: Rooting Language Family Trees
35: Making Genetics Human
34: Galileo's Laboratory of Ideas
33: Historicizing Big Data
32: Ancient Balances at the Nexus of Innovation and Knowledge
31: Looking at Diversity
30: How Recipes Created Knowledge in Early Modern Households
29: Metallurgy, Ballistics and Epistemic Instruments
28: Science under Scrutiny
27: The Globalization of Knowledge and its Consequences
26: Parts Unknown: Making the Familiar Strange
25: Apprehending Human Difference and Population Size
24: Endangerment and Its Consequences
23: The Equilibrium Controversy
22: Art and Knowledge in Pre-Modern Europe
21: Knowledgescapes
20: Baby Science in fin-de-siècle America
19: Let him reconquer language
18: Histories of Scientific Observation
17: On Historicizing Epistemology : an essay
16: Johann Lambert's Conversion to a Geometry of Space
15: The Uncertain Boundaries between Light and Matter
14: Every move will be recorded
13: Courting the Crafts in Qing China
12: The Concepts of Immanuel Kant's Natural Philosophy
11: Jean Piaget and the Child's Spontaneous Geometry
10: Galileo and the Others
9: Historicizing Knowledge about Human Biodiversity
8: Dreaming in and of Neurophilosophy
7: Who Were Einstein's Opponents?
6: Physiology of the piano
5: Numbering Bees
4: New Ways of Using Digital Images
3: Telling Instruments
2: Microscope Slides: An Object of the History of Science?
1: What (Good) is Historical Epistemology?