The Birds and the Bees

20:24 minutes

With spring weather tempting us to explore outdoors, we hear from two biologists who make watching the birds and the bees their business. First, University of Vermont professor emeritus Bernd Heinrich has been keeping a keen eye on birds from his cabin in Maine. He shares stories of flickers nesting in his walls, crows forming teams, and other oddities that he’s discovered from long observation. Then, Cornell University professor Thomas Seeley walks us through the treasure hunt of finding wild bees and tracing them back to their treetop nests. They both share the joy and science of observing animals in nature.

Bee hunter Thomas Seeley catches a few wild honeybees with his “bee box.” He’ll later track these bees to their treetop nest in the forest.

Seeley marks two wild honeybees for the purpose of calculating how long it takes them to fly to and from their nest.

Segment Guests

Bernd Heinrich

Bernd Heinrich is professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont and author of several books, including  One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives.


Thomas Seeley

Thomas Seeley is a professor of biology at Cornell University, and is author of Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting. He lives in Ithaca, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. How many times have you seen a group of wild birds and wondered if you could just follow one of them for weeks at a time, observe their habits, their nesting skills, sort of like adopting one as a companion?

Well, that’s exactly what my next guest has done. And he’s written a book about his experiences. And he’s here to share with us his love of birds and the stories he’s seen play out from his cabin in Maine.

Bernd Heinrich is a biology professor emeritus at the University of Vermont. He is the author of One Wild Bird at a Time- Portraits of Individual Lives. And if you have a personal experience with our fine feathered friends, give us a call at 844-724-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I.

Welcome back to the program, professor.


IRA FLATOW: Let me just say, it’s a beautifully written book. And the illustrations are terrific.


IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about– it sounds like up there in Maine, you’re living in a bird watcher’s paradise.

BERND HEINRICH: Well birds, they’re just about everywhere, even in Central Park in New York.

IRA FLATOW: What kind of birds have you been seeing this spring?

BERND HEINRICH: Oh, well, they’re just flooding in right now. We just had a northern oriole come to the hummingbird feeder yesterday, the first one. And we’ve had the hermit thrush back and the blue-headed vireos. And the robin’s been here a long time. The woodcock’s been here long time. Lots of turkeys, there’s no end.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, but you know what’s interesting? In your book, you treat one bird at a time. You observe, I mean, whether it’s a crow or whether it’s a yellow-bellied sapsucker. I mean, you have incredible stories of how you take out your pen and your paper and your pencil, and you sit with a notebook, and you watch one bird at a time.

BERND HEINRICH: Yeah, I’ve been here in the same spot for a long time. You get to observe special, individual birds. After a while, they have individual personalities. They have individual habits. I mean, for example, like the flicker that built its nest in my house and started to make a hole. And I let him in basically so could watch it from the beginning of the nesting season to the end.

And so just watching birds, especially when they’re nesting, you can identify the individuals. And some at the bird feeder will keep coming every day. So that makes it fun to find out. The process of finding things out by watching the individual is a lot of fun.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that flicker that’s a kind of woodpecker, right?


IRA FLATOW: And I remember you tell the story that it started punching a hole in the side of the house. And instead of chasing it away, you got your buzz saw out. And you cut out a hole on your side of the wall so you could watch it build the nest and the whole family of birds.

BERND HEINRICH: Exactly, when I saw him, I heard this tapping on the walls. What the hell is that? And then every time I went out, I saw a flicker fly away. And I eventually looked. And there was a little hole he was trying to make. And I said, well, this is an opportunity. I don’t want to miss seeing the home life from right up close.

So you know, I got my chainsaw out and took out a piece of the wall on the other side. And I could darken it out on that side. And so I got to see everything from the laying of the eggs to the fledging of the young just from two feet away by just sitting right there. So this was a perfect opportunity to start this thing about watching individual birds.

IRA FLATOW: You know, and I was particularly taken with the crows you wrote about because I’ve seen crows around all the time. And I have watched them when I play golf actually steal a golf ball. You’re looking for your golf ball and it’s not there because a crow took it. And they just seem so intelligent, and so friendly sometimes, and very smart. And you talk about that in your book.

BERND HEINRICH: Well, I talk a little bit about a group of five that came regularly. Actually, I’d put it out for ravens because I’ve been studying ravens for quite a number of years. And I wanted to see the differences in the behavior between the crows and the ravens. And it was quite interesting to see the differences.

But then I also mentioned an interesting thing just down the road. Somebody had noted crows apparently murdering one other when they ganged up on one and killed it. So you know, I got into the idea of what kind of a character are they?

They’re very friendly, very friendly birds. And I used to have them as pets when I was a kid. I had pet crows. And they’re just wonderful, and very attached to you, and followed me around. And I would go down the road, and the crows would be flying over. And I’d call them, and they’d circle down and land on my shoulder. So it was a lot of fun. So yeah, I really like crows.

IRA FLATOW: How do you get them to? How? They land on your shoulder?

BERND HEINRICH: Yeah, these was birds that I’d raised. You know, and I just fed them. And they hung out around the house. And you know after a while, they were independent. But they would still come by once in a while and visit. And especially when I was jogging down the road in the vicinity, people were kind of amazed to see a crow come out of the sky and land on me.

IRA FLATOW: You need your own show I think. Joining us, I’m talking with Bernd Heinrich. He’s a professor of biology at the University of Vermont. And he’s got a great book out now, One Wild Bird at a Time- Portraits of Individual Lives. And he lives up in the mountains of Western Maine. And he talks about watching– what you can learn from just watching and making pals with one bird or a flock of birds.

What surprised you most about watching individual birds that you would not have expected?

BERND HEINRICH: Most? Well, gosh. I guess one of them would be, I mean a lot of times I couldn’t really solve the total puzzle. In other words, I couldn’t study them forever. But I got insights into what might be happening, not necessarily always to a scientific proof, but until I had a pretty good idea.

For example, I was looking at blue-headed vireos. I was trying to photograph them at the nest. And I built a blind to get closer to the nest. And then, after I built it, the crows– the birds knew apparently I was in there and wouldn’t let me photograph. And then I found another nest where I eventually was able to lift the female off the nest with my fingers she was so tame and had no blind whatsoever.

Anyway, so it was very bad weather. And I saw the eggs number disappearing. And I realized, a lot of birds’ nests were being destroyed because they couldn’t find food. And here, this bird was reducing the eggs and it looked like kind of birth control, to allow the few to live.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s quite interesting. Let’s see if I can get one phone call in. Let’s go to Brooklyn, New York. Tony, hi. Welcome.

TONY: Good afternoon. How are you?

IRA FLATOW: Fine. How are you?

TONY: Excellent. Listen, I’m on Paerdegat Basin in Brooklyn– it goes into Jamaica Bay– at the wildlife refuge. And I’ve had a boat in here for the last 10 years.

And there’s been a male swan in here for that 10 years. And over that time it’s had two different females with it. One unfortunately, went under the docks to get the food, and got hung up in a rope, and drowned.

But that bird has been around for a least five years, and I never saw any babies. And now, it’s got a new female that stays with it for another two or three years now. And there’s still no babies. So I was wondering– I’ve actually seen them mate right in front of the club. So I’m wondering what might be going on there, if the gentleman would know.

IRA FLATOW: All right, Tony. I’ll ask. What do you think?

BERND HEINRICH: OK well, it’s hard to know. But it’s possible that there are predators around. I know there’s a goose that always nests on a little island here nearby. And every time they get ready to hatch, a raccoon or something goes over there and destroys it.

So the raccoons live long too. And they know if they always come back to the same place, they know what a nest is. And they know how good eggs taste, especially with little chicks inside. So that’s one–

IRA FLATOW: That’s one possibility. OK. I want to talk about the birds, but I also want to talk about the bees. You can’t talk about the birds without talking about the bees. Just like you might be watching birds in the wild, have you ever thought about watching wild honeybees? And not just watching them, but capturing, tagging, and tracking the bees back to their hives.

Sounds cool? Sounds a little dangerous to you? Well, that’s exactly what Thomas Seeley, biology professor at Cornell, does. Tom has been studying bees for 40 years. And his latest book, Following the Wild Bees- The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting is a how-to guide for finding wild bees and finding their nests.

And he says it’s a treasure hunt on which anyone can embark, no matter where you live. You can see a video of some parts of this treasure hunt on our website at ScienceFriday.com/birdsbees.

Professor Seeley, welcome back to Science Friday.

THOMAS SEELEY: My pleasure to be back with you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: You know, in the video that we have on our website, you actually capture some bees, you bring them back to your folding chair, and you take out a red marker and mark the bees. And they don’t seem to mind it at all.

THOMAS SEELEY: No, when you’re bee hunting, you’re offering the bees a wonderful free lunch. So they’re really happy. They’re not disturbed at all. And that’s part of why you can do this and why this is a fun sport to do. It’s not dangerous. You don’t get stung. And you have the pleasure of discovering something out in the wild, a colony of bees.

IRA FLATOW: So what do you do? You just follow with your compass what direction they’re flying back? And you keep moving your chair closer to the hive until you find the hive?

THOMAS SEELEY: Yeah, there’s really five steps to it. You’ve described the first one where you catch some bees, you introduce them to a wonderful food source– usually it’s a cone filled with diluted honey or sugar syrup– then you label some of those bees, as you pointed out. Once you’ve got a good bunch of bees going back and forth– and the first bees you introduced to the food source, they go home and they share the news of this wonderful free lunch with their dances to bring other bees.

Once you’ve got a good traffic of bees going back and forth, then you look at the beeline, the direction of the beeline, the flight line home of those bees. And because you’ve got your bees labeled with paint marks for individual identification, you can also measure their– how much time they spend away between visits to the feeder. And that gives you an indication of the distance as well.

And then, once you have a good sense of the direction and an approximate sense of the distance, you pick up your apparatus, including your folding chair, and you move a couple hundred yards to another clearing in the direction of their home. And step by step, you work your way back to their home, back to their bee tree.

IRA FLATOW: You’re saying that don’t be afraid of being stung. It’s not that risky. The bees are not after you.

THOMAS SEELEY: That’s right. And this is really– bee hunting stands in contrast to bee keeping in a number of ways. When you’re a beekeeper, you’re dealing with a whole colony of bees, you’re often opening up the hive and so disturbing the bees, and you’re looking at thousands and thousands of bees.

When you’re a bee hunter, you’re not disturbing the bees, you’re giving them something really nice, and you’re dealing with a handful of bees. So you get to know them as individuals like the birds you were talking about before.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Talking with Thomas Seeley, author of Following the Wild Bees- The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting on Science Friday from PRI.

This is quite interesting. What happens when you find the nest or the hive? Should you just– you know, people want to go out and touch it. Is that a bad thing to do?

THOMAS SEELEY: Well, one thing I want to stress is that in bee hunting, the allure lies in the chase, not in a kill. You don’t steal honey from the wild colonies these days. That used to be– people, humans have been doing that for thousands and thousands of years. And that was the original purpose of bee hunting.

But today, we locate the wild colonies partly to just enjoy the pleasure of completing a hunt. It’s a lot like geocaching in that regard, the pleasure, except that the clues don’t come from honeybees, instead are from human beings. But we also use the wild colonies that we locate to better understand what’s going on with honeybees in the wild.

We know a lot about the problems that beekeepers are having with their managed colonies of honeybees. But until recently, we’ve known very little about this whole population of wild colonies, which are living out all on their own, exposed to natural selection from these new diseases and so forth. And that’s proving to be a fascinating story in itself.

IRA FLATOW: Bernd Heinrich, your own professional work was in bees before you retired. Did you ever do any bee searching, bee hunting like that?

BERND HEINRICH: Yeah, I sure did. When I was a kid, that’s how I got into bees. I was lining bees when I was a teenager, and doing just exactly as Tom is explaining. And as he said, you know, it’s an old art. It’s kind of not very popular right now, but I think it’s a wonderful thing to do. And it’s a lot of fun. You learn a lot about bees.

And so I really got fascinated about especially the communication of bees. So they can– when you line the bees, you let it go. And it finds its way back. And usually others will come there before the marked bee comes back. So they’ve been told at the hive where the food is. And that information is transmitted. And that’s what really caught me with bees.

But I worked some with honeybee swarms, but mostly with temperature regulation and physiology of bumblebees and behavior too.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that brings me to a good question from one of our listeners. I want to go to the phones to Angie in Santa Cruz, California. Hi, Angie.


IRA FLATOW: Hi there, quickly.

ANGIE: Yes, I had a question about the bee hunting. And maybe Dr. Heinrich can speak to this too. But if they have any techniques or tactics for finding the other native bees that exist aside from honeybees? Perhaps, bumblebees or other kinds of bees.

IRA FLATOW: What about that? What about that, Tom? Can you track other kinds of bees that way too?

THOMAS SEELEY: Yes. Bumblebees are a really good comparison. Even though they don’t recruit, they will go back and forth. You can introduce them just in the same way you do with honeybees. And they will lock in on your rich food source. And then you can trail them back as well.

And they’re so big and they fly so slowly, it’s actually relatively easy to line them back to their nests. I’ve also done it with yellow jackets. The other bees, which live in a solitary fashion, we usually just find those by looking, studying the ground, or studying twigs, or putting out blocks of wood with holes in them to find their nests.

IRA FLATOW: OK, it’s quite fascinating. I was watching the video. I was reading the books. So let me just to remind everybody that we’re talking with Bernd Heinrich and Tom Seeley about tracking bees and about birds. Following the Wild Bees- The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting is Tom Seeley’s book. And then Bernd Heinrich is One Wild Bird at a Time- Portraits of Individual Lives.

So we’re going to continue our conversation. Our number 844-724-8255. Take a short break. We’ll be right back. Don’t go away

This Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. In case you’re just joining us, I’m talking with Thomas Seeley, professor at Cornell University, author of Following the Wild Bees- The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting. And Bernd Heinrich is biology professor emeritus at the University of Vermont. He’s the author of One Wild Bird at a Time- Portraits of Individual Lives.

And the thing I think both you gentlemen have in common is observation. I mean, the joy of observation, it just seems like you do it as a hobby for the fun of it.

THOMAS SEELEY: How true. It’s really true.

BERND HEINRICH: Yeah, but usually it gets really fun when you have a problem that you’re trying to solve like Tom tracing where the hives might be. You go for little clues, little steps at the time. You get a hypothesis and you test it.

It’s just really a lot like doing science, which is kind of observations, and experiments, and basically the same process with watching individual birds, only you have a specific problem you’re trying to solve. With my different birds, I usually had some enigma that I wanted to solve. It wasn’t a bee tree, but it was an enigma nevertheless, some little problem to solve.


IRA FLATOW: Tom, I’m sorry, go ahead.

THOMAS SEELEY: I was just going to say– I was just going to say, yeah these are, in all of these situations, you’re solving mysteries. Where the bees are? How the birds live out their lives? Et cetera.

IRA FLATOW: Tom, is there any common beginner’s mistake if we want to do bee hunting?

THOMAS SEELEY: Oh, let’s see.

IRA FLATOW: Do people think it’ll go a lot faster? Because it takes some time. You write in your book about a nest that took you three years to find.

THOMAS SEELEY: Yeah, that was the extreme. That was a tough one. And especially working through the winters, that was terrible. That was a joke.

No, that’s a really good point. One of the things one learns as a bee hunter is that this does take time. It’s usually, I can usually find my bee tree. I can get my bee tree in a day.

It’s not a real quick process, but that’s part of the pleasure because so much of the enjoyment is observing, observing close up these bees coming to you and flying, flying over the tees and over the hills. And you’re just marveling at their ability to find their way over such great distances and bring their hive mates to your little tiny little food source. It’s about the size of a saucer. It’s just a dot on the landscape.

IRA FLATOW: Amazing navigational feasts.


IRA FLATOW: Tom Seeley, biology professor at Cornell University, his latest book, Following the Wild Bees- The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting. If you want to try something new this season, spring, it’s a great idea. Thank you, Tom for coming back and talking with us again.

THOMAS SEELEY: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Bernd Heinrich is biology professor emeritus at the University of Vermont. He’s the author of One Wild Bird at a Time- Portraits of Individual Lives. And it celebrates the joy of observing and give you some hints of how you might do this yourself. Thank you, Bernd for joining us today.

BERND HEINRICH: Thank you very much, Ira. It’s been a great pleasure.

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