, Volume 38, Issue 3, pp 535-570

The Bee Battles: Karl von Frisch, Adrian Wenner and the Honey Bee Dance Language Controversy

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In 1967, American biologist Adrian Wenner (1928–) launched an extensive challenge to Karl von Frisch’s (1886–1982) theory that bees communicate to each other the direction and distance of food sources by a symbolic dance language. Wenner and various collaborators argued that bees locate foods solely by odors. Although the dispute had largely run its course by 1973 – von Frisch was awarded a Nobel Prize, while Wenner withdrew from active bee research – it offers us a rare window into mid-twentieth century discussions about animals, language, and cognition. Historians, sociologists, and scientists have commented on the debate and its outcome, but none has seriously questioned why von Frisch and Wenner pursued such different explanations of the bees’ dances. In this paper, I explore von Frisch and Wenner’s differing visions of animals and their behaviors and show how these contributed to their respective positions. Von Frisch’s early-twentieth-century training in experimental physiology disposed him to focus on individual animals, their abilities, and their behaviors’ evolutionary significance. Wenner, by contrast, was trained in mathematics and statistics and the Schneirla school of behavior. He viewed the bees’ behaviors probabilistically with an eye toward the entire hive and its surroundings and ultimately explained them in terms of simple stimulus–response conditioning. Finally, while the debate was resolved in von Frisch’s favor, he neither waged nor won the battle by himself. Instead, I show that practitioners, whose agendas ranged from the nascent fields of sociobiology to cognitive ethology, took up the cause of the communicating bees.

Winner of the 2005 International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology Marjorie Grene Graduate Student Essay Prize.