Aby Warburg’s ‘Bienentanzbrief’

On 19 November 1923, Aby Warburg (1866-1929) sent a letter from the Bellevue sanatorium in Kreuzlingen to congratulate his youngest child, Frede Warburg (1904-2004), on her upcoming nineteenth birthday. He wrote to her after reading a feuilleton in the daily newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung about new research on the ‘language’ of honeybees by Austrian zoologist Karl von Frisch (1886-1982). For the most part, the letter – later named the Bienentanzbrief – summarised the newspaper article on von Frisch’s empirical observations of the Apis mellifera carnica (a subspecies of the European honeybee) and his theories on their communication through dance.

In this blog post, Stephanie Heremans, an occasional student at the Warburg Institute and a PhD candidate at KU Leuven, tells us more about the Bienentanzbrief as a biographical titbit. She discusses Warburg’s take on the honeybee ‘language’ and how the topic lingered in his correspondence.

In his memoir, A Biologist Remembers, Karl von Frisch recollected the first time he suspected that honeybee dances were a form of communication: “I could scarcely believe my eyes. […] This, I believe, was the most far-reaching observation of my life.”1 Though von Frisch’s ideas on honeybee dances were regarded with scepticism throughout his career, his discoveries and life’s work were recognised with the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 1973. Today, his research is still relevant in discussions about animals, language and cognition.

In the early 1920s, von Frisch discovered that scouting honeybees use dance to communicate with one another about new feeding places, which facilitates their orientation in the world outside the beehive.2 According to the zoologist himself, his experiments demonstrated “how a complicated and extremely purposeful action can come about, quite simply by instinct.”3 He was able to distinguish between two types of dance phrases: the ‘round dance’ (Rundtanz,also known as Nektartanz) and the ‘tail-wagging dance’ or ‘waggle dance’ (Schwänzeltanz).

Front page of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, no. 1574, 144, Thursday, 15 November 1923.

These findings, reported in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on Thursday, 15 November 1923, captured Aby Warburg’s attention.4 Aside from explaining how honeybees communicate, the newspaper article discussed von Frisch’s theory which held that each dance phrase relates to a particular food source: the round dance would point to sources of nectar (or the sugar water he was feeding the bees) and the waggle dance to pollen.

Schematic representation of the round dance (left) and waggle dance (right). © Karl von Frisch, Erinnerungen eines Biologen, Ber

Schematic representation of the round dance (left) and waggle dance (right). © Karl von Frisch, Erinnerungen eines Biologen, Berlin: Springer, 1957, p. 126

Schematic representation of von Frisch’s marking system. © Karl von Frisch, Tanzsprache und Orientierung der Bienen, Berlin: Spr

Warburg’s letter to his daughter Frede – whom he called Tanzfrede because she was an amateur dancer and fond of Ausdruckstanz – expressed his fascination for von Frisch’s experimental physiology and explained to her that nature uses dance as a ‘language’. In particular, he detailed von Frisch’s interpretation of the round dance and addressed the system for marking and identifying honeybees, which enabled the zoologist to trace the movements of roughly 500 individual insects.

Much to Warburg’s regret and disquiet, the fragment on honeybee dances initially fell on deaf ears. Frede did not respond to his comments on von Frisch’s research. Yet the absence or rather his apparent need of recognition may be one reason why the subject lingered. Over the course of two weeks, he returned to the honeybee dances in correspondence with his wife Mary Warburg (1866-1934). In search of heartening words, he asked over again whether she and Frede had enjoyed the Bienentanzbrief.5 As a postscript of nurse Lydia Kräuter’s updates on Warburg’s mental health, which she regularly forwarded to Mary, even reproached Frede for only showing appreciation for her birthday presents, her ‘lacking’ response must have frustrated him: Miss Frede should also write about the bee letter, which is more important than chocolate (Frl. Frede soll auch über den Bienenbrief schreiben, dass sei wichtiger wie Schokolade).6 Kräuter’s updates around that time also reveal that his nerves were tense due to the political situation in his hometown in the aftermath of the Hamburg Uprising (22-23 October 1923).

In the second letter to Mary, Warburg still accepted von Frisch’s theory on the dancing communication among honeybees, who would instinctively transfer vital information in support of their spatial orientation and search for new feeding places. He sympathetically likened these functional dances to newspapers of the animal kingdom, written in dancing movements (die getanzte Zeitungen im Tierreich).7 Continuing this analogy in his last letter on the bees, Warburg raised doubts about their dance as a form of communication (a so-called ‘intelligence gazette’) (Tanz als Mittheilungsform (Intelligenzblatt)).8 After all, couldn’t von Frisch’s interpretation have been too teleological and narrow? Perhaps the honeybees’ dancing was simply an expression of intoxicated rapture, a “Native American dance” (vielleicht ist es einfach ein Rauschtanz oder „Indianer Tanz“), after indulging in the sugar water that von Frisch had fed them?

Warburg was not alone in contesting von Frisch’s Bienensprache. Indeed, some of the physiologist’s colleagues deemed that his theories went too far. In part because of the common notion that language is one of the salient distinctions between animals and humans, he was accused of blurring the animal-human boundary. Despite agreeing with his critics that honeybee dances are not equivalent to human language, von Frisch insisted that they had an in-between status on account of the detailed and complex information they transferred. In his published writings, he tried to defuse tireless claims of anthropomorphism with punctuation marks – and if not a language than a honeybee ‘language’.9

Title page of the Warburg Institute Library’s copy of Karl von Frisch’s Sinnesphysiologie und „Sprache“ der Bienen (1924)

During Warburg’s lifetime, one publication by von Frisch – an offprint of the lecture Sinnesphysiologie und „Sprache“ der Bienen (1924) – was acquired for the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg.10 Currently, the offprint is shelved under ‘animal psychology’. As a PhD candidate, at a time when he was still studying swarms of fish rather than bees, von Frisch had already recognised, “It is not a large step from sensory physiology to animal psychology… Many drives and emotions of the human psyche already appear in very rudimentary form in the mental life of animals.”11 It is not surprising that he considered himself an “enthusiastic Darwinian”.12

In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Charles Darwin (1809-1882) had referred to the humming of bees – the beekeeper’s barometer of the hive’s mood swings – as proof of the non-vocal expression of insects.

“Everyone who has attended to bees knows that their humming changes when they are angry. […] Some writers have laid so much stress on the vocal and respiratory organs as having been specially adapted for expression, that it was advisable to show that sounds otherwise produced serve equally well for the same purpose.”13

However, von Frisch’s writings do not comment on honeybees’ dancing movements as a means of expressing emotions, focusing exclusively on their functional nature. Contrary to what the library’s classification leads us to believe, von Frisch’s published theories rarely spill over into animal psychology.

Though Warburg could not have known this, his ideas on sugar-crazed honeybees bear a closer kinship to the writings of the beekeeper and zoologist Hugo-Berthold von Buttel-Reepen (1860-1933) than they do to those of von Frisch. As von Buttel-Reepen understood it, the insects ‘swarmingly’ and rhythmically move about in a state of slight drunkenness (trunkener Lust [Schwarmdusel]) as an expression of their play instinct (Spieltrieb).14 His argument built on the psychology of animal play described in Karl Groos’ (1861-1946) Die Spiele der Thiere (1896) – a book that makes no mention of honeybees, but which Warburg read with much interest.

„Als die ursprünglichste psychische Begleiterscheinung des Spiels wird das Lustgefühl bezeichnet werden müssen, das auf der Befriedigung des Instinktes beruht. […] Ferner liegt eine Quelle der Lust in der energischen Tätigkeit als solcher.“15

According to the beekeeper, the purring (ein ganz besonderes behagliches Schnurren) of honeybees, that can be heard during their intoxicated flights, is a sign of the pleasure they take in movement and of their general playfulness. Groos in turn relied on Paul Souriau’s (1852-1926) writings on the pleasure of movement, quoting from the same passage in L’esthétique du mouvement (1889) that Warburg had also copied in ZK 41 Ästhetik.

« Les mouvements rapides et bruyants produisent même une sorte d’ivresse et d’étourdissement qui a un charme particulier. […] Nous allons, nous suivons notre élan. C’est une folie peut-être: eh bien, tant mieux, soyons déraisonnables, une fois en passant. Plus fort! Plus haut! Plus vite! Et maintenant, advienne que pourra! – Qu’est-ce que cela, si ce n’est précisément l’ivresse? »16

Warburg’s Kreuzlinger account of honeybees, dancing and buzzing on in a state of intoxicated rapture, may well have been echoing his reading of Souriau: Lauter, lauter!17

Stephanie Heremans

Stephanie Heremans is a PhD candidate in Art History at KU Leuven. She is working on the project “Kairós, or the Right Moment. Nachleben and Iconology” supervised by professor Barbara Baert (KU Leuven) in collaboration with professor Han Lamers (University of Oslo/KU Leuven). This research initiative deals with the reception of kairós in the visual medium from antiquity to the Renaissance by combining perspectives from classical reception studies and iconology.

At the Warburg we welcome applications from international students registered for a PhD in their own country to join the Institute as an occasional student. Find out more. 


* In a Festschrift in honour of Barbara Baert (KU Leuven), The Right Moment (Studies in Iconology) Leuven-Walpole: Peeters, (forthcoming), a chapter will be dedicated to Aby Warburg’s letters on honeybee dances. By situating Warburg’s take on these dances against the background of comparative physiological and psychological explanatory models of honeybee communication, popular culture in his time and his own scientific authorities, this chapter reveals the relevance of these ‘amusing anecdotes’ for the historian of art and culture’s biography and scholarly legacy.

1. Karl von Frisch, A Biologist Remembers, translated by Lisbeth Gombrich, Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1967, pp. 72–73.

2. Karl von Frisch, Über die „Sprache“ der Bienen. Eine tierpsychologische Untersuchung, in Zoologische Jahrbücher: Physiologie, 40, 1923, pp. 1–186.

3. Karl von Frisch, You and Life, translated by Ernst Fellner and Betty Inskip, London: The Scientific Book Club, n.d., p. 157.

4. Adolf Roelich, Feuilleton: Bienentänze, in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, no. 1574, 144, Thursday, 15 November 1923; WIA, FC [Family Correspondence], A. Warburg to F. Warburg, 19 November 1923.

5. WIA, FC [Family Correspondence], A. Warburg to M. Warburg, 22 November 1923; WIA, FC [Family Correspondence], A. Warburg to M. Warburg, 26 November 1923; WIA, FC [Family Correspondence], A. Warburg to M. Warburg, 28 November 1923.

6. WIA, FC [Family Correspondence, Krankenakte], L. Kräuter to M. Warburg, 1 December 1923.

7. WIA, FC [Family Correspondence], A. Warburg to M. Warburg, 26 November 1923.

8. WIA, FC [Family Correspondence], A. Warburg to M. Warburg, 29 November 1923.

9. Tania Munz, The Dancing Bees: Karl von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016, p. 211.

10. Karl von Frisch, Sinnesphysiologie und „Sprache“ der Bienen, in Die Naturwissenschaften, 12, Berlin: Julius Springer, 1924, pp. 5–27.

11. Tania Munz, The Dancing Bees: Karl von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016, p. 101.

12. Karl von Frisch, A Biologist Remembers, translated by Lisbeth Gombrich, Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1967, p. 42.

13. Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, London: John Murray, 1872, p. 94.

14. Hugo-Berthold von Buttel-Reepen, Sind die Bienen „Reflexmaschienen“? Experimentelle Beiträge zur Biologie der Honigbiene, Leipzig: Verlag Arthur Georgi, 1900, pp. 72–73.

15. Karl Groos, Die Spiele der Thiere, Jena: Verlag Gustav Fischer, 1896, pp. 293–294. For an English translation see Karl Groos, The Play of Animals, translated by Elizabeth L. Baldwin, New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1898, pp. 288–289: “The feeling of pleasure that results from the satisfaction of instinct is the primary psychic accompaniment of play […] and, further, energetic action is in itself a source of pleasure.”

16. WIA III.2.1.ZK 41, Ästhetik (041/021173–041/021174); Paul Souriau, L’esthétique du mouvement, Paris: Félix Alcan, 1889, pp. 16–17. For an English translation see Paul Souriau, The Esthetics of Motion, translated by George H. Brown, New Ulm., Minn.: The Turner Publishing, 1917, p. 11: “Rapid and noisy movements produce even a sort of intoxication and giddiness that have a peculiar charm. […] We follow our impulse. ‘It’s foolish perhaps; very well, let’s be foolish and unreasonable for once. Louder, higher, faster! The devil take the consequences!’ What is this if not exactly intoxication?”

17. WIA, FC [Family Correspondence], A. Warburg to M. Warburg, 29 November 1923.