The Dancing Bees

Dancing Bees: Karl Von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee LanguageDancing Bees: Karl Von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language by Tania Munz

In his retirement, my father has begun keeping bees. Last year he had four or five hives, and if you let him he will talk to you for hours about the structure of the hive and the division of labor and the life cycle of the bees as he worked to naturally control the pests that threatened them. This year he is trying to go even more natural. He is not purchasing the domestic hives that seem less resilient to colony collapse disorder but instead is catching wild, native swarms. Learning along with him, I’ve come to realize how much of our agricultural system depends on the work these millions of bees do. I joke with my dad that he has a hundred thousand pets, though of course there is no way to keep them all straight as they fly in and out of the hives.

Yet that’s exactly what Karl von Frisch did in his studies to discover and understand how bees communicate with one another. Tania Munz’s study of the life and work of this Austrian naturalist is a surprisingly effective combination of my father’s hobby with my field of the history of science. Munz offers an accessible and somehow universalizing account of an individual who may not be well known to the wider public. Through an exploration of his career and influence, Munz explores not only the skill of a naturalist and the theoretical questions of communication among animals but also what life as a scientist was like in Germany during the Second World War.

Karl von Frisch discovered the “dance” of bees at their hive to communicate food finds with other bees. This might seem like an esoteric and rather minor discovery, but it had huge implications for the study of animal communication and the debate as to whether animals could actually think or simply acted on impulse and instinct. But Munz’s work and his directorship of a laboratory in Munich were threatened with the rise of the Nazis when it became known that he had Jewish great-grandparents on his mother’s side. One of the most fascinating aspect of Munz’s story is the narrative of von Frisch and his allies navigating the dangerous and complex Nazi bureaucracy to try to save his work and career. Ultimately, Frisch’s work was declared vital to the Reich, and Frisch began studying a parasite that was decimating bee colonies and threatening German agriculture.

Munz has done a fantastic job of interweaving the personal and political with the scientific. In the midst of her narrative she provides a series of “Bee Vignettes” illustrating different aspects of life in the hive and the history of apiary science. Just as fascinating as the portrayal of the rise of Nazi power and the war’s effect on working scientists like Frisch, Munz outlines the careful experiments Frisch performed to discover and then confirm the bee’s form of communication and how Frisch communicated this proof to other observers. The work is a powerful account of how field work is done, made even more compelling by not ignoring the things that were happening in the background. After the war, Munz explores how Frisch’s unique position (as a one-quarter Jew persecuted by the Nazis though still allowed to continue his work) helped him repair scientific relationships between Germany and other countries, particularly the United States.

For me though, Munz’s work was less important for the story it told than as an example of how to tell the story. The work balanced careful treatment of the science with understanding of the context in which it was done and returned a figure who might otherwise be obscure to a primary role in the development of theories of animal intelligence. My only regret was that while it did all this with an eye to Frisch’s personality and life, it was less biographical than one might have hoped. We learn about the beginning of Frisch’s career and his childhood, but we’re left with only a sketch of his final days, and though we’re told his wife struggled with depression we never get a complete domestic view. Though the world outside his lab affected his work and is handled deftly in Munz’s treatment, the domestic sphere was certainly just as important and was treated much more superficially.

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