Here's why your new hobby should be bird watching or bee hunting

Science Friday
A bee collects pollen from a flower in Prague.

A bee collects pollen from a flower in Prague.

David W Cerny/Reuters

Bernd Heinrich, a birdwatching expert and professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont, has been known to go to extremes in his bird-watching pursuits. There is, for example, the time he drilled a hole in the wall of his home in order to get a better view of a bird building its nest. 

"I said, 'Well, this is an opportunity I don't want to miss, seeing the home life from, you know, right up close.' So, you know, I got my chainsaw out and took out a piece of the wall on the other side," Heinrich says. "I got to see everything from the laying of the eggs to the fledging of the young..."

Heinrich's new book, "One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives" records a number of stories from Heinrich's birdwatching adventures including flickers nesting in his walls, crows forming teams, and other oddities that he’s discovered from long observation. His advice for bird watchers? Focus on individual birds. For him, getting to know one bird over a long period of observation is one of the highlights of the hobby. 

Bird watchers at the Sandhill Crane Reserve near Thornton, California.

Bird watchers at the Sandhill Crane Reserve near Thornton, California.


Max Whittaker/Reuters

"You get to observe special individual birds. After a while, you know, they have individual personalities, they have individual habits," Heinrich says. "Just watching birds, especially when they're nesting, you can identify the individuals and some at the bird feeder who keep coming every day ... The process of finding things out by watching the individuals is a lot of fun."

Thomas Seeley, a professor of biology at Cornell University, says he likes watching bees for some of the same reasons Heinrich likes watching birds. He has written a book called "Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting," and he says tracking bees is not as dangerous a hobby as it might seem. 

"It's not dangerous, you don't get stung," Seeley says. "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 awesome, and you have the pleasure of discovering something out in the wild, a colony of bees." 

Hunting bees involves finding honey bees, marking them and gradually following them back to their hive in the wild.

"There's really five steps to it," Seeley says. "You catch the bees, you introduce them to a wonderful food source — usually it's a comb filled with diluted honey or sugar syrup. Then you label some of those bees ... once you've got a good bunch of bees going back and forth, the first bees that you introduce 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 species ... 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."

Bee hunting is an art that has been practiced for thousands of years, but Seeley says it's recently changed, and is no longer about raiding hives for honey.

"In bee hunting the allure lies in the chase not in the kill. You don't steal honey from from the wild colonies these days," Seeley says. "Today we locate the wild colonies partly to just enjoy the pleasure of completing a hunt. It's a lot like geo-caching in that regard ... 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."

This spring some people might be taking up golf clubs, going for bike rides or joining a geo-cache hunt, but Seeley and Heinrich argue that bee hunting and bird watching might be more enjoyable outdoor pastimes.

"It's not a real quick process but that's part of the pleasure," Seeley says. "So much of the enjoyment is observing close up these bees coming to you and flying over the trees 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."

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.