Bug Week (Part 2) with Bernd Heinrich

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3)

[Thanks to Nick and Ben for pitching Bernd Heinrich as a guest.]

In the literary pantheon of bug biologists, make room for Bernd Heinrich — up there with Vladimir Nabokov and E. O. Wilson.

They were all field naturalists before they were scientists — butterfly, beetle and bumblebee hunters with gauze nets in hand. Then they became collectors, taxonomists and expeditionists, and prose masters each in his different way.

Bernd Heinrich’s The Snoring Bird reads to me like a masterpiece of the first rank. Not the sort of book I usually feast on, it’s a spellbinding family memoir of two long, duty-bound, disciplined and productive lives in science, his father’s and his own.

Subtitled a “journey through a century of biology,” it is a poignant, painful chronicle of the frosty love and profound contention between two strikingly similar personalities, father and son. Many of the barriers were personal (and Oedipal) but the biggest of them was a great watershed of scientific history, the Watson-Crick discovery of DNA in the 1950s.

DNA was the reason the Heinrichs’ year-long bird-hunting expedition in 1961-62 to Tanganyika (now Tanzania) that might have bonded the old-school German master and his brilliant American-educated 21-year-old son marked instead the point where the new biology severed their professional sympathies.

I did not know then how fortunate I had been to come on this expedition, because it would be not just the last of his expeditions. It would be the last of the classic zoological expeditions, the end of a tradition that stretched back over 100 years through the Victorian era, and it encompassed my heroes — Darwin, Wallace, Humboldt, Audubon. Such older fieldwork was giving way to the beginning of modern biology. In a few short years there would be virtually no new birds to discover, except by new methods of DNA analysis of already collected museum specimens in closely related species. Then in only a few more years, the unimaginable would happen: people would stop talking about finding new species. Instead they would be talking of ecological destruction and the extinction of even well-known species on a global scale.

Bernd Heinrich, The Snoring Bird, page 304, Ecco, 2007

Our conversation could begin with Heinrich’s introspection on the formation of biologists — first of Bernd’s father Gerd (1896 – 1984), the son of an eminent Berlin physician, who at the age of 15 asked the insect curator at the Berlin Museum of Natural History “which group of insects was least known,” and spent the next 70 years studying the thousands of world-wide species of ichneumon wasp, the nasty, predatory creature that fed Darwin’s doubts about a “beneficent and omnipotent God.”

His passion for these wasps had been the single thread of continuity as everything else — his home, his family, his loves — was heaved around by world events beyond his control. The wasps had been the anchor in the storms of his life. Was this why he so loved the order and control and steady progress that the wasps demanded of him?

Bernd Heinrich, The Snoring Bird, page 9, Ecco, 2007

And then there is Bernd himself — much admired before this for his books on Bumblebee Economics and Ravens in Winter, as well as on long-distance running — who sounds remarkably like Henry David Thoreau in his description of fishing by hand at the age of 9 or 10, with his father in post-war Germany:

Papa could catch a trout with his bare hands, and he taught me how to do it as well. We would lie on our bellies along the brook, reaching out and gently probing underwater with our hands along undercuts from the banks. When we felt a trout with the tips of our fingers, we would then carefully work the hand near the fish’s head, and then suddenly clamp down on it just behind the gills. The thrill of grasping a beautiful pink and blue spotted trout is not easily forgotten, especially when it becomes a delicious and precious meal…

I think children have a procilivity to be interested in the natural world, but often this is thwarted by a lack of exposure. Other things fill the void as their eager minds seek to learn about the world. I consider myself lucky. I had by force of circumstances, only the natural world as entertainment.

Bernd Heinrich, The Snoring Bird, pages 185, 199, Ecco, 2007

There is a spiritual and professional autobiography here that touches on the full spectrum of “public” scientific questions of our day: religion and evolution, bio-diversity, the continuing “crash” of species around the world, the US government role in science, and of course the warming cycle in the unimaginably long history of the earth’s temperature. We can ask Bernd Heinrich all the questions we would put to Darwin himself.

Extra Credit Reading

Robin McKie, Clever raven proves that it’s no birdbrain, The Observer, April 29, 2007: “Heinrich cautioned against stating unequivocally that the raven is the cleverest animal on Earth after humans. ‘It is up there with the great apes and dolphins,’ he said, ‘but I think it is very difficult to say which is cleverer.'”

Dave Pollard, Distance Running as Meditation, How to Save the World, June 26, 2006: “There is something primeval, instinctive about running. In his book “Why We Run,” Bernd Heinrich, the brilliant observer of animal behaviour, explains that we evolved the ability and passion to run because it made us more successful, and now it is part of who we are.”

Shane Jones, Brew2Brew, Shane’s Blog, March 30, 2007: “I also sat really still for awhile next to a puddle where I knew some spring peepers were calling. They’re pretty hard to spot. Man, do they make a lot of noise for being so small. If you are wondering why I’m telling you all of this it’s because I just finished reading “Why We Run” by Bernd Heinrich, who was quite the runner in his day.”

Joseph Weisenthal, Bumblebee Economics, The Stalwart, June 8, 2007:: “In the introduction to “Bumblebee Economics,” the author, Bernd Heinrich, takes umbrage to the way Bionomics referenced his book, arguing that it’s a bit absurd to draw human inferences from the behavior of bees. (He rants a little bit and lets a bit of a socialistic bias slip, although this doesn’t detract much from the book.)”

Richard, Bernd Heinrich, Winter World, Book Addiction, March 12, 2007: “Too geeky even for me, is Bernd Heinrich’s intensive study of animal adaptation to winter in New England. Sure, it’s published by a popular house, but it makes few concessions to popularity. It’s rigorous in its detail, unrelenting in its focus and internal references, and thorough thorough thorough.”

Wasps, Nick Sagan, April 2, 2007: “Warm weather has brought out the wasps. They’re inside the house, wriggling in through tiny cracks. My strategy has been to let them land on the windows, and then suck them up with a vaccuum.”

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  • Robin

    So glad you guys are devoting an entire hour to Bernd Heinrich! I remember when Sam and I first talked to him we got really excited. I didn’t know that “bee lines” were actual techniques people used to track down hives until I talked to him. Just a reminder that Nick pitched us Heinrich during the New Zoology show.

  • I wonder if we’ve seen a change in the type of person who goes into the natural sciences these days. Is the motivation more commercial and less curiosity and wide-eyed wonder? Are the areas of investigation more likely to be controlled by corporations and university tenure considerations? Does the decline in the number of people living rurally and working on farms affect the type and orientation of the natural scientists?

  • herbert browne

    In some ways, suburban development is exposing a lot more (formerly) “city” people to the wilds (eg cougars in the back yard, coyotes eating housecats, etc)… but both a lack of someone available to “guide” youngsters into a growing awareness of ‘wildness’ and the ubiquitous fascination of electronic diversions for young Americans, generally, are substantial barriers to any pursuit of “outdoor learning”.

    Re ..”Does the decline in the number of people living rurally and working on farms affect the type and orientation of the natural scientists?”-

    That’s a good question. What I’m seeing is a far greater interest in restoration of degraded wild lands, mostly for the sake of the wildlife that they support (& locally that tendency has been enhanced among city folks, as well, because of the listing of some anadromous fish species as “threatened” &/or ‘endangered”- which places strictures on waterways & shorelines of urban areas, just like it affects the general countryside). The declining numbers of rural people who depend upon agriculture probably shows up as fewer agronomists, maybe… but that may be offset by the growing numbers of young folks who are revitalizing small-scale agriculture as a result of the growth of organic farmlets, and a rise in a “subsistence” culture, generally… perhaps a response to our socio-economic “acquiescence” to dependency on oil imports, foodstuffs from far away, and the apparent end to light manufacturing in the USA. The young will always bring their idealism and problem-solving desires to bear on the milieu in which they find themselves. I see it all around my region- and am grateful for it. ^..^

  • hurley

    Haven’t read The Snoring Bird, but will on Nick and Chris’s say-so. Aspects of Bernd’s life remind me of Peter Reich, son of Wilhelm, who grew up somewhere nearbye and at about the same time with his similarly obsessed father.I wonder if the two families knew each other? Strange, fertile ground, those Maine Woods..

  • Ben

    I’m curious to know what Mr. Heinrich thinks in general terms about how some schools of thought view human activities as something to be kept separate or apart from nature. Particularly in his experiences with observing the adaptiveness of ravens and other species to human altered landscapes. We rightfully value the exotic and primeval highly as it too quickly disappears, but as a culture seem to lose more sight of valuing and understanding what is within our immediate surroundings. Our increasingly mediated relationship with nature seems to often view humankind as a villain to be kept out of the forest (and it’s been earned), yet understanding our place in nature seems to begin in earnest with those close and personal backyard variety observations. Looking forward to the show!

  • katemcshane

    I don’t know anything about these subjects, but this is wonderful, listening to him.

  • Potter

    Thanks for the show, thanks to Nick for the suggestion and to Chris for the high recommendation, the inspiration, to read the book. Heinrich’s gentle voice makes one listen between his thoughts.

    Herbert Browne’s comment made me think of Henry David Thoreau’s famous lines:

    The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild, and what I have been preparing to say is that in Wildness is the preservation of the World. Every tree sends it’s fibers forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind….


  • plnelson

    Speaking of Bug Week, I bought my first camcorder two weeks ago. (Remember, I’m a guy who doesn’t even watch TV!! )

    And while walking through my office park at lunch a few days ago I saw an ant who was single-handedly (OK – six-leggedly) dragging a worm 8 times it’s size across slabs and slabs of concrete to … somewhere.

    So I made a video of it, and set it to music with philosophical premise . . .


  • Potter

    pln- thanks. He kept falling into those gullies! Perseverance!

    Taking the time has it’s rewards.

    I am watching a woodchuck eat my garden…….

  • Pingback: Bernd Heinrich’s new book « Conservation Finance()

  • bee


    I heard the show on the bees.

    It was very interesting

    I notice the mobile phone theory of collapse was laughed off

    May I explain

    Firstly the research referred to by Stever and Kuhn, apart from winning 2 prizes for outstanding research was slightly misunderstood in the original newspaper story in the UK’s Sunday independent.

    The researchers placed digital cordless phones in the hives to create the a microwave radiation environment similar to that from a cell phone tower. It was not the phones themselves that were the point.

    Many people do not know that the cage or base unit of a cordless phone emits microwave radiation 24/7 whether or not the handset is in use.

    They also do not realise that these resulting levels are of the same order of magnitude as would result in the main beam of a cell phone tower.

    There are over 200,000 phone towers in the USA. These went up in the early 1990’s. There was an analogue system prior to that in the 80’s

    The background radiation levels have increased up to trillions of times as a result.

    There was no safety testing done.

    There are 1000’s of research papers showing adverse effects to humans as well as nature. Its just that the authorities are raking in the $$ and don’t want to know. Customers love the technology and also don’t want to know.

    Basically research has shown the radiation destroys our immune systems in a short time period say 10 years. That it would do the same to nature is not surprising.

    Bees and birds have the added complication of interference with navigation and communication.

    The Germans are way ahead on research but a lot of it is not translated into English.

    Attached is a translated letter to German beekeepers. Please see our web site.



    Best Regards from London

    Can Electromagnetic Exposure Cause a Change in Behaviour?

    (Rasband, 2005). …. [3] Rasband, W. (2005); ImageJ; http://rsb.info.nih.gov/ij/index.html [2006-04-25] …


    The Big Bee Death

    Landau: Arbeitsgruppe Bildungsinformatik, http: //agbi.uni-landau.de. …

    http://www.hese-project.org/hese-uk/en/papers/bigbeedeath_0407.pdf – Si

    Verhaltensänderung unter elektromagnetischer Exposition

    erhielten am 27.6.2005 je eine DECT-Telefon-Basisstation ….. Mayen. Dieser Text kann auch unter http://agbi.uni-landau.de als PDF heruntergeladen werden.

    http://www.hese-project.org/hese-uk/en/papers/bees_dect_stever_kuhn.pdf – Similar pages


    Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine

    Urban decline of the house sparrow

    30 Jun 2007 … reproductive success of birds (Balmori, 2005; Doherty and Grubb, ….. Universität Koblenz-Landau. http://agbi.uni-landau.de/, accessed …