Karl von Frisch (1886-1982) was a celebrated Austrian ethologist (a subsection of zoology which focuses on animal behavior). The son of a urologist father and the youngest of four sons (all of whom went on to become university professors), Frisch became legendary in the zoological community for his foundational work with Apis mellifera carnica–the European honey bee. Spending years in keen study of the creatures, Frisch was the first to recognize the sharpness of their sense of smell, and to point out that bees are “flower constant”–often passing over (in a somewhat Romantic fashion that must have been appealing to the German-speaking Frisch) more pollen-full or nectar-rich flowers in order to visit select species or morphs of their preference. He also did foundational work on the ways in which bees orient themselves in space, showed that bees have limited color vision (tending toward the ultraviolet spectrum, so that while bees cannot distinguish between red and black, they can see vibrant patterns in a flower that to the human eye looks monochrome), and was the first apiologist to successfully interpret the so called “waggle dance”–a complex series of movements by which a bee recently returned to the hive communicates to his fellows the exact location of a distant food source.
But his life was not all bees and lemonade, for Frisch’s career came into full bloom just a few years before the National Socialists came to power in Germany. The perceived liability of having one Jewish grandparent led to his eventual dismissal from his post as head of the University of Munich’s Zoological Institute, despite the supportive staff and colleagues there. This was only a convenient excuse, however. More direct reason for his dismissal lay in the fact, as reported by a jealous colleague to officials of the Reich, that Frisch refused to debase his scientific instincts or integrity by extrapolating–as was common among regime-loyal scientists–lessons from apian society that would fall in line with Nazi propaganda. After the war he returned to his post at the university, and before his death was the winner of such prizes as the Balzan Prize for Biology, foreign honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1973 a Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. // Patrick Barrett