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The Dancing Bees: Karl Von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language

Biography / MemoirNew

By: Tania Munz (Author)

278 pages, 26 b/w photos, 7 b/w illustrations

University of Chicago Press

Hardback | Jul 2016 | #227702 | ISBN-13: 9780226020860
Availability: Usually dispatched within 5 days Details
NHBS Price: £20.99 $26/€23 approx

About this book

We think of bees as being among the busiest workers in the garden, admiring them for their productivity. But amid their buzzing, they are also great communicators – and unusual dancers. As Karl von Frisch (1886–1982) discovered during World War II, bees communicate the location of food sources to each other through complex circle and waggle dances. For centuries, beekeepers had observed these curious movements in hives, and others had speculated about the possibility of a bee language used to manage the work of the hive. But it took von Frisch to determine that the bees' dances communicated precise information about the distance and direction of food sources. As Tania Munz shows in this exploration of von Frisch's life and research, this important discovery came amid the tense circumstances of the Third Reich.

The Dancing Bees draws on previously unexplored archival sources in order to reveal von Frisch's full story, including how the Nazi government in 1940 determined that he was one-quarter Jewish, revoked his teaching privileges, and sought to prevent him from working altogether until circumstances intervened. In the 1940s, bee populations throughout Europe were facing the devastating effects of a plague (just as they are today), and because the bees were essential to the pollination of crops, von Frisch's research was deemed critical to maintaining the food supply of a nation at war. The bees, as von Frisch put it years later, saved his life. Munz not only explores von Frisch's complicated career in the Third Reich, she looks closely at the legacy of his work and the later debates about the significance of the bee language and the science of animal communication.

This first in-depth biography of von Frisch paints a complex and nuanced portrait of a scientist at work under Nazi rule. The Dancing Bees will be welcomed by anyone seeking to better understand not only this chapter of the history of science but also the peculiar waggles of our garden visitors.

"A fascinating biography [...] This is not the first biography of Frisch [...] but this may be the first biography to examine Frisch's life in the context of the sociopolitical history of science [...] His biography is by turns inspiring, informative and more than a little frightening as an object lesson on the vulnerability of the scientific enterprise."
Times Literary Supplement

"In The Dancing Bees, historian of science Munz recounts the fascinating story of Karl von Frisch, the Austrian ethologist who discovered that honeybees communicate the direction and distance of food sources through elaborate dancelike behaviors. The book is a biography of a remarkable and gifted scientist whose work proved foundational for the discipline of comparative physiology, but it is also much more than that [...] The stories of scientific discovery that typically make their way into textbooks are clean and elegant, removed from both time and place. In this engaging and accessible book, Munz shows that there is often more to such stories than meets the eye."

"Intraspecies communication is a hot research topic, but Karl von Frisch was decoding honeybee messages long before most of today's scientists were born. Set against the backdrop of the Third Reich, Munz chronicles the Austrian ethologist's life and his Nobel-winning study of one of the animal kingdom's most intriguing forms of interpretive dance."

"This is a concise, well-written account of an important scientific life – von Frisch shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973 – that places him deftly in his historical context [...] Munz's account is a gripping, informative read."
Times Higher Education

"Munz rescues from semi-obscurity the life of Karl von Frisch (1886–1982), winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and 'one of the most gifted scientists of the 20th century.' [...] Munz takes readers beyond the science by delving into WWII-era German politics. Though von Frisch was raised a Catholic, he was accused of having a Jewish maternal grandmother, and regularly threatened with removal from his scientific position. Munz explains how von Frisch was able to continue working by generating support from a wide array of collaborators and former students, and by reframing his research program to be critically important to Germany's war effort. By examining the figure of von Frisch and his accomplishments, Munz develops 'a more accurate and compelling portrayal of the time and the lived experience of most people under Nazism.'"
Publishers Weekly

"In The Dancing Bees, Munz gives us von Frisch the man, whose stellar accomplish­ments are well known but whose personal history has not been so well described – especially his years under the Third Reich. Many German scientists fled the country when Hitler came to power; those who remained were expected to contribute their expertise to the war effort. Although von Frisch was never a member of the Nazi Party, his research flourished against the odds during the Second World War, while he was based at the Zoological Institute at the University of Munich. As Munz rivetingly shows, von Frisch was triply vulnerable. His maternal grandmother was deemed Jewish under Nazi doctrine. His laboratory reputedly employed numerous Jewish researchers [...] And von Frisch had enemies in academia, driven by either professional jealousy or rabid anti-Semitism [...] But in the end, it was the bees that earned him an academic reprieve."

"This book is a story of fearsome determination. It is a biography of Karl von Frisch, who discovered the language of the honeybee, but Munz's account is much more besides, as it reveals the scientist's struggle for survival under the Nazi regime."

"The Dancing Bees is a surprising biography, one of the rare books that elicit deep emotions alongside science, nature, and history. Munz draws a well-crafted, parallel narrative between the human condition of von Frisch's time surrounding the world wars and the natural history of honeybees, both as evolving societies. It is between these parallel worlds where the reader's mind dances with thought and inspiration throughout this fascinating read."
– Noah Wilson-Rich, author of The Bee: A Natural History

"The Dancing Bees will surely become a classic in the literature on the history of biology in the twentieth century. It is the definitive account of the intellectual development of Karl von Frisch and of his discoveries about the ability of honeybees to communicate with the waggle dance. Perhaps most fascinating is what Munz has uncovered about how von Frisch – declared a 'Quarter Jew' by the Nazis – was able to navigate a frightening political landscape in war-torn Germany, suffer the destruction of his Zoological Institute during the bombing of Munich, and still continue conducting experiments that revolutionized our thinking about animal communication. This book also provides intriguing insights into what von Frisch thought and felt during the heated debates about the meaning of the waggle dance in the 1960s and 1970s."
– Thomas D. Seeley, author of Honeybee Democracy

"The Dancing Bees is a triumph of science writing, a well crafted, deeply researched story of politics, ethics, and the fascinating lives of humans and bees. Munz weaves a strong cast of characters into a rich and powerful work of history."
– Jonathan Eig, author of The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution

"Munz's intellectual biography of the animal ethologist Karl von Frisch records his ingenious experimental demonstrations of the honeybee's communication 'dances.' She skillfully places the history of twentieth-century science alongside its calamitous political history in a rich texture that weaves the civic operations of the hive with the gross incivilities of Nazi science, the irenic experimentalism of von Frisch with the violence of total war, and the narrow mechanism of American behaviorism with the latitude of its European counterpart. Von Frisch is a low-key hero of modern science, and the moving story of his discovery of honeybee 'language' is almost as remarkable as the insect itself."
– Claire Preston, author of Bee


Introduction: Sensational Findings
Bee Vignette I: Victorian Bees
Chapter 1: Coming of Age in Vienna
Chapter 2: The Bees That Could
Bee Vignette II: Sensing the Senses
Chapter 3: Calm before the Storm
Chapter 4: In the Service of the Reich
Bee Vignette III: Deep inside the Hive
Chapter 5: State of Grace
Chapter 6: Picking Up the Pieces in Postwar Germany
Chapter 7: Coming to America
Bee Vignette IV: Seeing Bees
Chapter 8: Attack on the Dance Language
Conclusion: 180/60


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Tania Munz is a lecturer at Northwestern University. Previously, she was a research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

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