The Bats and the Bees: Stories about adventures with winged wildlife

This week, we present two stories about the challenges of studying winged wildlife, from bats to honeybees. 

Part 1: Ecologist Cylita Guy finds unexpected adventure when she studies bats in the field.

Jump to Cylita’s story >>

Cylita Guy is a PhD candidate and ACM SIGHPC/Intel Computational and Data Science Fellow in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto. Broadly interested in zoonotic diseases and their wildlife reservoirs, Cylita’s research focuses on bats and their pathogens. Using both field surveys and computational methods she is investigating why bats seem to be good at carrying viruses that they sometimes share with humans, but rarely get sick from themselves. When not in the field catching bats or at her computer analyzing data, Cylita looks to help others foster their own sense of curiosity and discovery about the natural world. In conjunction with the High Park Nature Centre Cylita has started a Junior Bat Biologist program to engage young, future scientists. She also works as a Host at the Ontario Science Centre, educating the public about diverse scientific topics. Finally, Cylita’s hilarious field exploits are featured in a general audience book titled Fieldwork Fail: The Messy Side of Science! In her down time, you can find your friendly neighborhood batgirl chasing her next big outdoor adventure. 

Part 2: Honeybee nutritional ecologist Rachael Bonoan begins to worry she's allergic to the bees she studies.

Jump to Rachael’s story >>

Rachael Bonoan is a Ph.D. Candidate studying honey bee nutritional ecology in the Starks Lab at Tufts University. She is interested in how seasonal changes in the distribution and abundance of flowers (i.e. honey bee food!) affect honey bee health and behavior. Rachael is also the President of the Boston Area Beekeepers Association and enjoys communicating her research and the importance of pollinator health to scientists, beekeepers, garden clubs, and the general public. 


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Cylita Guy

When I started my PhD, I made one thing abundantly clear.  Under no circumstances did I want to do any type of fieldwork.  Now, this always surprises people, like how can you be an ecologist and not want to work hands-on with the animals you study?  The truth is, guys, fieldwork is hard.  Hours are long, animals don’t cooperate and situations can be dangerous. 

But despite this, five months into my PhD, one of my supervisors calls me into his office and he tells me that he wants me to work with a postdoc on a project examining the behavior of bats living in an urban park.  As much as I reminded him that this was the last thing I wanted to be doing, he told me it was a wonderful, career-building opportunity, which was his way of saying I didn’t really have a choice. 

So I started to think of all the ways that I could fake excitement for doing the one and only thing I didn’t want to do in my degree.  But you know what?  Over the next few months, Krista, my postdoc partner, and I started to get ready for the project. I actually did start to get kind of excited.  I found myself thinking, “Hey, I can totally do this whole fieldwork thing.”  And that incurable optimism lasted me right up until my first night in the field. 

It was like all of my worst nightmares had come true.  We got rained on, I would sit in the dark for hours and catch nothing, equipment broke, I had to deal with people trying to sell me drugs and steal my stuff, I couldn’t adjust to nights and, to make matters worse, the project wasn’t even working.  I wasn’t getting the usable data that I'd hoped for.  I absolutely hated it. 

Now, near the end of the summer, Krista and I found this colony of bats living in the chimney of a four-story house with a split roof.  So we decided that to capture this colony, Krista was going to get on the upper section of the roof, about four stories up, and my job was going to be to hold the ladder and provide moral support from the lower section of the roof about three stories up. 

So Krista and I get into position no problem.  After about an hour or so, she's handing me down a bag full of thirty bats.  Now, I don't know if you've ever wondered what a bagful of bats looks like… I’m guessing probably not until this point in time.  But together, the bats formed a mass about the size of two fists put together.  All individual parts of that mass were kind of squirming, trying to claw their way out of the bag, making a ton of noise as they did so.  The worst part about a bagful of bats, though, is that they smell so incredibly bad.  But irrespective of the stench, the trapping had been a success. 

So now it comes time for Krista to get down from that upper section of the roof.  I assume my ladder-holding position.  She slowly begins to lower herself down to the first step of the ladder and then she misses. 

Now, as I saw Krista come tumbling down from the upper section of the roof I thought to myself, “This is it.  I’m gonna die, she's gonna die, and like all of my worst fieldwork nightmares will come true.”  Spoiler: I’m here talking to you today so nobody died. 

I managed to soften most of Krista’s blow using my body, and then as she hit the deck and started rolling towards the edge of that lower section of the roof, I lunge forward, grabbed her by her belt just before she went over the edge.  Like I said, fieldwork can be dangerous. 

Cylita Guy tells her story at Tranzac in Toronto in September 2017.

Cylita Guy tells her story at Tranzac in Toronto in September 2017.

This near-death experience had reaffirmed for me why I wanted no part in it.  No, thank you.  I was done.  So Krista and I we decided to skip discussing what had happened and just get on with processing our bats. 

When I talk about processing, for every bat that I capture, I have to collect information on things like age and weight and sex, as well as give everybody a microchip so that I can tell them apart later.  We decided it would be best to take our bats back to Hyde Park and process them in one of those big shelters full of picnic tables. 

So we start processing and it’s not going that great.  None of our bats are cooperating.  To be honest, I can’t really blame them because if someone showed up at my house, threw a bed sheet over me as I was trying to leave, and then poked and prodded me while shining a bright light in my face, I'd probably be pretty pissed off too, to be honest.  But to complicate matters, it was also getting insanely cold.  Not only was I freezing but so were my bats. 

Now, when bats get cold, they go torpid.  Torpor is kind of like this mini-hibernation strategy that lots of small mammals use to save energy.  Torpid bats are slow and sluggish, which means when you try to release them, they try to fly, can’t, and then kind of just go thud on the ground. 

So for every bat that we process I had to somehow warm them back up.  The best way to warm up a torpid bat is to take that torpid bat, put it in a little cloth bag with all its other torpid friends, and then take that cloth bag full of bats, put it down your shirt, preferably in your armpit. 

You're all laughing like you think I’m joking.  I’m being serious.  That is like our standard operating procedure for warming up bats. 

So that’s how the next few hours went.  Every bat that we processed went in the bagful of bats, back down my shirt. 

Then all of a sudden we start hearing these voices getting progressively louder.  They're hooting and they're hollering and are clearly quite inebriated.  All of a sudden, this group of seventeen-year-old kids comes into our view.  Before I can even think about hiding, one of the girls calls out, “Hey, what are you guys doing over there?” 

I will never be able to adequately describe to you the sheer panic I experienced as these twelve drunk seventeen-year-old kids descended on my picnic tables.  All I could think was that one of these kids was going to get bit.  I was going to have to drive them to the hospital, explain to a public health official why we needed rabies vaccine, and then I was probably going to get sued by their parents. 

I thought about my fancy twelve-hundred-dollar radio receiver going missing.  I thought, “You know what?  I think these kids are drunk and high enough to like try pit-tagging each other, try microchipping each other.”  It has happened before.  But you know what?  None of that happened. 

The kids asked what we were doing and they asked if they could watch, so I told them, “Sure, so long as you don’t touch anything.”  And for the next hour and a half, these twelve, drunk seventeen-year-old kids sat and watched me process bats and asked me some of the most insightful questions I've ever been asked.  It was crazy.  I didn’t think that they could do that.  Okay, well, eleven of the twelve did.  The twelfth was like passed out on the floor.  I digress. 

They were so incredibly excited to see science being done and their excitement was infectious.  Everything was going so well, right up until the cops showed up.  Next thing you know, we've got these headlights being shone on our picnic tables and this voice gets on a bullhorn telling us that we have to disperse because the park is closed.  The kids grab their stuff and, with rushed thank-yous and goodbyes, they took off into the darkness. 

Then this big, burly police officer gets out of his car, comes over to Krista and I and asks what we’re doing, so I explain.  Looking skeptical, he asks if he can see one of these so-called bats.  Like who makes up something like that?  Really? 


Anyways, Krista obliges.  She pulls one of the bats out of the bag.  Shows him.  He seems satisfied but also slightly terrified, which I did not expect from a man his size. 

He then looks back at me and all of a sudden his eyes start getting really, really big.  Then, in a very serious voice, he leans in and he says, “Ma’am did you know that your shirt is moving?” 

I looked down at my shirt, I look back up at the police officer and I said, “Of course.  I've got twenty-five bats down there and they're starting to warm up.” 

I need you all to understand that at that point in time my response seemed perfectly normal but, retrospectively, I understand how crazy I must have been sitting in the park at 1:00 a.m. with twenty-five bats down my shirt for no apparent reason whatsoever.  The police officer took off pretty fast after that. 

So 3:00 a.m. rolls around.  For the record, just when you think things can’t get any more exciting, they always get more exciting at 3:00 a.m.  Krista and I are left with a single bat to process when all of a sudden we hear this growling in the bushes behind us.  I'd like to say that in those next moments Krista and I acted accordingly, but instead we both screamed, jumped up on the picnic table and held onto each other. 

We unanimously decided, “No.  This is not for one night.  I’m done.  We’re out.”  Lucky bat number thirty got to go free without any processing.  Krista frantically begins packing up all the field equipment.  I then sprinted over to our car and turned on the headlights in the hopes of scaring off whatever was in the bushes.  I then remembered that I still had like twenty-nine torpid bats down my shirt, because you forget those sorts of things in that kind of situation. 

So I cranked the heater in the car, I put the bats under the heater and within minutes the bag was squirming.  I ran out, I grabbed the bag, I ran out to the center of the main road going through the park and I began to release the bats one by one telling them to be free.  I think that if there had been bystanders, it might have looked a lot like the scene from the Wizard of Oz where I was the Wicked Witch of the West telling my pretties to fly.  “Fly, my pretties.  Fly!” 

I really do think that the ridiculousness of that night is kind of what kept me going.  It showed me that I could handle a lot and still have a really good cathartic laugh about it later.  Since that night, I've done a second summer of intense fieldwork.  It was hard, but I have some really cool data to show for it.  Along the way, I've had a lot of other hilariously ridiculous experiences but none quite as ridiculous as the night of the colony. 

As for the girl who didn’t want to do any fieldwork in our PhD?  I’m currently trying to figure out how I can get myself down to Panama next summer to work with exotic species.  Turns out fieldwork kind of was my thing.  It only took a near-death experience, twelve drunk teenagers, one police officer thinking I was bat-shit crazy, and a Wizard of Oz moment to help me realize it.  Thank you. 

Part 2: Rachael Bonoan

So I slowly move the honeybees from the entrance of their hive to the jar of sugar water nearby being very careful not to bump into one of my interns.  Holding my breath, I place the bees at the base of the jar and I kneel down and get a closer look. 

Now, I’m holding my breath because honeybees, and pretty much all insects, do not like carbon dioxide, which we happen to exhale.  They don’t like carbon dioxide because natural predators of honeybees, such as bears or the infamous honey badger, also breathe out carbon dioxide.  So if you don’t want to upset a bee, don’t breathe on it. 

Anyway, I take a look and watch the bees as they stick out their tongues and drink up the sugar water.  I stand up to let out a deep breath and I turn around to go get some more bees.  So what I’m actually doing is training honeybees to drink from artificial feeders.  That’s basically science talk for jars of sugar water, specifically mason jars.  Very scientific. 

I’m doing this because I’m interested in the mineral preferences of honeybees.  This is because beekeepers have noticed that even though they give their bees a really nice, clean dish of water, their bees always go for really dirty water sources.  By dirty I mean bird baths and compost piles and even puddles on cow pies.  So this makes the beekeepers nervous. 

But what I was thinking is maybe these dirty water sources are a way for honeybees to supplement minerals in their floral diet.  In fact, that’s true.  Honeybees actually use dirty water sources as a vitamin supplement.  But before I could figure that out, I had to train these bees. 

So I’m training these bees and I’m not wearing any bee gear because I don’t like the bee gear.  I can be a little bit hard-headed at times.  For example, for our one-year anniversary, my fiancé made me a mix tape.  And the very first song on that mix tape was Cat Stevens’ “Hard-Headed Woman.”  When I saw this, I was at first offended.  But then I listened to the song and I was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s totally me.”  So that’s just an example. 

Also, the bees are usually pretty okay when we’re training them and that’s because they love sugar.  So the way we train them is we basically kidnap them from their homes and we give them candy to make it better, which isn’t exactly right.  But they're usually okay with it.  Sometimes they do get a little upset, understandably so. 

So I’m on my way back to the hives to get more bees and I get dive-bombed.  A bee comes out of nowhere and gets stuck behind my glasses, which obviously upsets her, and she stings the really sensitive skin right below my right eye.  I’m saying “she” because any stinging insect that can sting is actually female.  A stinger is a modified egg-laying organ and males don’t lay eggs.  So male stinging insects can’t actually sting. 

I've never had an adverse reaction to a bee sting before.  I calmly walk inside, have an intern take the stinger out of my face, and continue training bees.  I finish my workday, I go play my softball game like normal, play second-base, all is well.  At the end of the game, the shortstop says, “Yeah, you're a little bit swollen.” 

So I go home, ice my eye, take some Benadryl, go to bed.  The next morning, my alarm goes off and something is not right.  I cannot open my right eye.  I hear my fiancé in the kitchen putting dishes away so I pull myself out of bed. I follow the hallway into the kitchen, being super careful not to look at myself in the mirror.  “Billy,” I whine, “I think you need to take me to health services.” 

Billy turns around, looks at me and calmly answers, “Yup.” 

Now, more than ever, I am extremely grateful for Billy’s calm, level-headed demeanor because I can’t see out of my right eye and I’m beginning to freak out.  So I grab a pair of sunglasses, which does not cover the fact that the entire right side of my face is swollen, and we go to health services.  They take one look at me, get me in there right away, prescribe me some steroids and then EpiPen. 

Rachael Bonoan tells her story at the Oberon in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Rachael Bonoan tells her story at the Oberon in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

So Billy takes me to pick up my meds and to lunch, because Chipotle makes everything better, and I notice that the girl behind the counter at CVS is giving Billy a pretty dirty look.  Then the girl making my burrito is also giving him a dirty look.  I’m really confused by this until I realize I am a five-foot-tall female with a swollen face and sunglasses sitting next to six-foot-four tall male. 

Can you believe this guy still wants to marry me?  Really? 

So Billy takes care of me.  He gets me home.  A few hours later after taking prednisone, icing my eye, and listening to a Sherlock audiobook because it’s pretty much all I can comfortably do, I have to go to lab meeting. 

So I grab those same clearly useless sunglasses.  My eye is partially open now and a little less swollen, and I go to lab meeting.  My adviser takes one look at me and says, “What happened?”  So I explain that I was training bees yesterday like normal.  I wasn’t wearing the bee suit because it’s too hot and it’s too big and the bees are usually okay.  That day, my adviser buys me an extra-small bee suit so I will at least have one less thing to complain about. 

The next week, my eye is not even fully back to normal, I’m training bees, and I get stung smack in the middle of my forehead.  As you may imagine, I’m not wearing my bee suit even though I now own an extra-small, my-size bee suit.  I said, “Whatever.”  I brush it off.  I have work to do.  Intern takes the stinger out of my face again, and I get back to work. 

That night, I get home and the house is empty, because Billy’s at work for a dinner party, and I just go about my business trying not to think about my forehead until I look in the mirror and I realize that the swelling is so bad my forehead is lowering over my eyes.  Now that I’m thinking about it, my throat is itchy and my chest feels a little tight. 

I call Billy. “We need to go to the ER.” 

In the meantime, I call my mom, who happens to be at a furniture store picking out a bedroom set, and explain the situation.  Basically, I’m debating whether or not to use my EpiPen.  I can breathe so I don’t need to use it, and if I use it, I have to call 911 anyway, so I might as well just wait.  My mom agrees but continues talking to me to make sure that I am in fact breathing. 

Then finally Billy gets home, we get in the car to get me some medical attention.  I don’t even try the sunglasses this time. 

So we get to the ER and, as you all may have experienced in the ER or know about the ER, I’m telling person after person my story.  Every person is asking me if I’m experiencing any swelling.  I’m pretty offended by this because my face doesn’t look like this.  But then I think, “Well, maybe these people just don’t know what I actually look like.”  So the next person who asks me, I pull out my license and show her that, yes, I’m swollen. 

They finally get me a bed and this time I get steroids via IV.  They pump me with the steroids for a few hours.  My swelling goes down, my throat is not itchy anymore, my chest is no longer tight and the doctor comes in and tells me that I can go home. 

As the doctor is filling out the paperwork, he says, “You need to stay away from bees.” 

Billy chuckles as I explain to the doctor that that’s actually not possible.  I am a graduate student in biology studying honeybees so it is literally my job to be near honeybees. 

The doctor’s face drops and he very seriously says to me, “You have a very dangerous job.” 

That’s when it hit me my job is pretty badass.  I am a badass field biologist.  I’m a badass woman in STEM and I am not going anywhere. 

Since that experience, I have been stung, this time through the suit.  I was wearing a suit.  It was in the arm.  I had a normal reaction, some swelling, some itch, but other than that, I was fine.  As a honeybee biologist, the most common question I get asked is how many times have you been stung.  The answer is always “way too many to count,” plus “you probably don’t wanna know.” 

The follow-up question is usually, “Are you allergic?”  Now, I can answer, “Based on scientific evidence, only my face is allergic.” 

Thank you.