Observers of bees had repeatedly noted that sometimes a bee in a colony will perform repeated circular movements, closely followed by other bees, but it was Karl von Frisch who firmly established the connection between these movements and recruitment, and, in the course of a long career, discovered many aspects of communication by the dance language.
Von Frisch began his studies of the dance language in 1919, with the simple yet powerful approach of marking bees with paint as they fed at a flower he had enriched with a drop of sugar syrup (and in later experiments with a simple scented syrup feeder). He then watched their behavior when they returned to a glass-walled observation beehive. He observed his marked bees doing circular "round dances," which were followed attentively by other bees in the hive. He then observed that bees, presumably those that had followed the dances, would investigate nearby flowers of the same type as those at which the marked bee had fed but did not investigate flowers of other types as much. Von Frisch inferred that the dance stimulated recruits to look for food, and that odor in the nectar, and on the body of the dancing bee, communicated to the recruits the scent to seek. He also described a "waggle" form of the dance in which a dancing bee rapidly waggles her abdomen laterally while moving in a particular direction on the comb, then turns back more or less to the starting point, repeats the waggle on the same course, turns back the other way, and so on, describing a squat figure-eight with the waggle in the middle. The artificially small scale of his early work, in a small, walled, Munich garden, caused von Frisch to mistakenly conclude that the two kinds of dance he saw indicated different types of food. The waggle dancers often had pollen on their legs, whereas the bees he provided with nectar did not, so he concluded that waggle dances indicated pollen and the round dances nectar.
This error persisted for 25 years, but von Frisch himself discovered the full story when, during World War II, he was forced to take his studies away from the war-torn city to rural
Brunnwinkel, Austria. There, in 1944 and 1945, working under conditions that more accurately reflected the natural scale of bees' foraging, he found that when bees fed at long distances from the hive they performed the waggle dances for nectar, as well. At the same time, he also made the startling discovery that the bees were communicating the direction and distance to the food source, as well as its odor.
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