History and Status of the Two Von Frisch Recruitment Hypotheses

ABJ – December 1992 – Volume 132/No. 1233.

Wenner, A. M.

That science is a process rather than an accomplishment is exemplified by the ongoing question of how honey bees (Apis mellifera) forage and recruit hivemates to resources. Ever since Aristotle, those who have studied recruitment to food sources have favored either one of two hypotheses, odor-search or “language” use (see table and Wenner, et al., 1991, Amer. Zool. 31:768-782). Von Frisch embraced an odor-search hypothesis in 1937 (e.g., Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year Ended June 30, 1938, pp. 423-431) but then proposed the “dance language” hypothesis in 1946 (The dances of the honey bee. Bull. Anim. Behav. 5:1-32, 1947 -Translated from: Die Tanze der Bienen. Oesterr. Zoolog. Zeitsch. 1:1-48, 1946). By contrast, our group embraced the language hypothesis before 1965, but adopted an odor-search hypothesis after additional evidence became available.

The von Frisch dance language hypothesis swept the world, even though that hypothesis remained untested for 20 years and the results of his early field experiments were inconclusive. Support consensus became so strong that negative results from subsequent definitive tests of the language hypothesis were ignored. Only recently have the experimental designs in the classic 1946 paper been examined critically; now, 46 years after introduction of the language hypothesis, it is becoming evident that von Frisch’s 1937 views on honey bee recruitment to food sources are more applicable to nature than his later hypothesis.

Table – People and/or group leaders and the dates they endorsed one or another hypothesis for recruitment of hivemates to food sources.

Odor-Search Hypothesis “Language” Hypothesis
Person/group Date Person/group Date
Aristotle ~330 BC
Butler 1609



Wildman 1768






Maeterlinck 1901 Bonnier




Lineburg 1924
Gowland 1927
Von Frisch 1937 Francon 1938
Buzzard 1946 Von Frisch 1946 +
Kalmus 1960 Wenner 1962
Wenner 1967 +
Rosin 1970 + Gould 1970 +
Michelsen 1989 +