BUMBLEBEE ECONOMICS (247 pp., Harvard University Press,1979; republished with new preface in 2004)

From the book jacket of 2004 edition: "In his new preface Bernd Heinrich ranges from Maine to Alaska and north to the Arctic as he summarizes findings from continuing investigations over the past twenty-five years--by him and others--into the wondrous energy economy of bumblebees."

REVIEWS (5 of 5 stars on Amazon): “This is a remarkable and rewarding book, complementary to, yet in some respects going far beyond, its predecessors. It is highly recommended.The New York Times Book Review

Heinrich is the author of several notable books about nature. This one, first published in 1979, is a classic, a fascinating, readable study of life as organized (sort of) by a most endearing little creature. A new preface summarizes findings of the last quarter-century. A splendid work.The Globe and Mail

“Extraordinary… The implications of work such as Heinrich's seem to me more resonant than the promise of a rich harvest of new research.”—Harper’s

A magnificent book that combines the best of both writing and science...Heinrich has performed a masterful job of sharing his personal research efforts and those of others in his field. He has written an extremely interesting book and in the process has shown how one kind of organism can be used as a model to investigate behavior, physiology, ecology and evolution. Bumblebee Economics should serve as a model for good scientific writing.—Matthew M. Douglas, Quarterly Review of Biology


This was my first book. It was not planned. But it has a history reaching back to vivid childhood memories. One of the most evocative of them is of a spring morning when, on our way to the village school through the woods, my sister and I crossed the black-pebbled trout brook by our cabin, as we did every day. But this time I stopped, arrested by the just-returned birds chirping in a big willow at its bank. The tree was resplendent in yellow catkins. As I stood transfixed, listening, I heard humming and saw black and rust-brown bumblebees buzzing from one yellow catkin to another. It was a magic moment that has always stayed with me.  

About twenty years later this is what I told a professor at the University at Buffalo when he asked me, "Why did you decide you wanted to be a biologist?" I gave him the answer, describing the moment of meaning that I had sensed in its beauty. He was aghast, saying, "You are a naturalist!" as though I were unsuited for science.  He was a physiologist.  And then he cut the interview short, and despite my having been invited expenses-paid to fly there and be interviewed for their Ph.D. program, despite my 99th percentile in the graduate record exams in biology, I was dismissed, and not accepted into their program.

My masters thesis advisor at the University of Maine had more faith. I had started in his lab washing glassware, and ended up working on the respiratory metabolism of Euglena gracilis, a protozoan that could be induced by light to have chloroplasts. He wrote me a glowing recommendation to his alma mater, UCLA, where I was not only accepted, but also offered a research fellowship.

After another couple of years, during my Ph.D. qualifying exam at UCLA, one of the professors asked me the same question as the professor at Buffalo. Again, I answered exactly the same—the bumblebees and flower epiphany of beauty in mystery and meaning. They did not dismiss it. I had by then done research, and when I graduated and got my Ph.D. they awarded it  "with distinction." I had deciphered a physiological mechanism involving the blood circulation for body temperature regulation in sphinx moths, and thus potentially possible in other insects, that was absolutely new and revolutionary. I had in my Eureka moment written it up for a report in Science, the then most prestigious outlet for discoveries. The reviewer to whom the journal sent the manuscript had nothing good to say about it. In fact, mostly bad things, and it was rejected. I was outraged, knowing I had overturned a previously held major thesis. As a grad student I should not have been so bold as to challenge both the science establishment, and the Science journal editorial policy. But I did. I wrote the journal that I would gladly accept the criticisms if they had come from anyone—except a person I named whose thesis I had demolished. The editors recanted and my paper was published, to be followed soon by two others in the same journal. On my first job interview and seminar on the topic, I landed a position as assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley, the most renowned entomology department in the country. I was hired as their "insect physiologist."

 I was proud to be one, having made a discovery in part because of my reference to the animals in the field in their natural environment, which strict lab experimentalists would have missed. I was a lab experimentalist trying to get a handle on almost anything that seemed enigmatic, from how the bees shivered without vibrating, how they heated their larvae using their abdomen like a brooding bird does yet maintained cool abdomen when not incubating, why they were hot-bodied on some flowers and could barely crawl because their body temperature was so low on others. I referenced my questions and experiments to observations of the animals in the field. I  took note that the physiology as such meant little without the behavior, and bumblebees' behavior has meaning in context of the different flowers they visited in the vastness and complexity of their environment, such as what I found of my bees in Huckleberry Bog, one of my field sites in Maine, as I commuted back and forth in the summer between field work and my lab at Berkeley.

One day back at Berkeley, one of the older professors in my department and I met at adjacent urinals. He pulled the pipe out of his mouth, hesitated a moment, and casually asked, “So—did you learn last summer how bees make honey?” I was naive. But not so naive that I didn't know what he was saying. His remark that may have been humorous, but given a recent experience I had had with another gentleman, it wasn't.

The picture that I saw was larger. It was still that of wonder of the bumblebees on that willow tree by the brook. But I had by then found many more pieces of that picture. They needed to be tied together. So I wrote, connecting one thread to another, and finding energy economy at the core. I could have called the book Bumblebee Energetics, but on a whim titled it Bumblebee Economics instead. It was, in fact, not just about bumblebees. But they had led me to something bigger.       

In my field work in Maine I was following some individually marked bumblebees (#3 red, vs. #8 blue, etc.) day after day for weeks at a time (they often took the same or similar foraging routes, revisiting many of the same plants or flowers) as they chose their flowers from those available, and then "majored" and "minored" on different kinds depending on their food rewards. Curiously, some flowers (monkshood, turtlehead) were so constructed that it sure looked as if they had evolved to make it difficult for the bees to reach the attractants that the flowers needed to provide as the lure to attract the bees to come and pollinate them. The bees performed contortions and learned to handle the flowers, as I learned from experiments in an enclosure I made to mimic the field, where I could test one bee at a time, starting from its first trip out of the nest.

It sometimes seemed unclear to me who was manipulating whom, the bees the flowers, or vice versa. Since bumblebees are major pollinators, they have been selective agents of flower evolution. But something was going on in their dance with the flowers that we had missed, because as it stood, it made no sense that the bees select and thereby shape flowers that would hide the nectar and even make it difficult for them to get precisely that which has evolved as attractant to feed them. It made no sense. What can be more exciting than that? Except maybe the specifics leading up to it that made the book.

I had been greatly excited in every step of the process of this great bumblebee adventure over the years that started at UCLA when for comparative observations to my Ph.D. on sphinx moths I of course also examined bumblebees. They quickly had occupied me full-bore even before I started at Berkeley, and I excitedly showed off to my academic advisors, telling them what I was finding. My major professor at UCLA even asked me if he could use my unpublished bumblebee data to present to a scientific audience at a meeting before I even had my Ph.D.—I was thrilled. I then developed an idea of flower evolution based on energetics, and wanted to get feedback on my idea from a botanist, and he referred to one of his friends who he thought might be helpful.  Indeed, this professor was even more complimentary. He was downright excited as I spouted my data and ideas in a presentation to his class of graduate students. As he accompanied me at the parking lot as I was about to leave, he told me he had had the same idea and wanted to publish it, with me or without, and that he had clout and would help me get a grant if it was with.

Helen Jackson, our department secretary, had by then re-written my manuscript at least eight times—enough times that she was inquiring about my personal life. This was my then fourth intended research paper for Science. Being now a much wiser (ha!) assistant professor I declined my senior's offer, but as first intended sent it to him for comments nevertheless. He sent it back, fully rewritten on his own typewriter and for critique he had sent it to luminaries, including members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, who sent it back to him with comments and high praise for his ideas. It was immediately accepted without a hitch. This was in no way my Bumblebee Economics book, nor the idea for it then. It was groundwork leading up to it, which tied the physiology to ecology and evolution.

Bumblebee Economics was to me an unanticipated success beyond the immediate science community. It was nominated for The National Book Award in science, was highlighted by economist Stephen Rothschild in his book, Bionomics: Economy as Ecosystem, resulted in invitation to an economics conference, and offers to write two op-ed pieces for The New York Times, as well as an article for Scientific American magazine and one for Business and Society Review. I accepted all. I was convinced more than ever that science is exciting, and not just to narrow specialists.