Are plants intelligent? Can they think? Can they hear, see, feel, smell and taste? Throughout history, most Western philosophers and scientists answered those questions with a resounding “no.” Plants have long been treated as passive, inanimate objects that form the backdrop to our active lives, rather than highly sensitive organisms with intelligence and agency of their own. But on the cutting edge of modern science, this orthodoxy is being questioned by a group of daring and imaginative scientists — including our guest, Monica Gagliano — who think that plants are radically more sophisticated and sensitive than we’ve been giving them credit for. Gagliano pioneered the field of “plant bioacoustics,” the study of sounds produced by and affecting plants. The results of her groundbreaking experiments suggest that plants may perceive, solve problems, remember, and learn via mechanisms that differ from our own. In this episode, we speak with Gagliano about the profound implications of her discoveries and how listening to plants changed her understanding of the world.
In the spring of 1963, when our guest Dr. Thomas Seeley was not quite 11 years old, he lived — as he still does today — in a wooded stream valley just east of Ithaca, New York. One day, he heard a loud buzzing sound and saw a bread-truck-sized cloud of honey bees swarming an ancient black walnut tree near his family’s house. From a distance, he watched as the bees took up residence in a cavity in the tree. Why, he wondered, did the bees choose that particular tree cavity for their home? Humans have lived with bees for our entire existence as a species, but the vast majority of studies have focused on how bees live in managed colonies, whether the clay cylinders used to keep bees in the Iron Age or the white boxes of neighborhood beekeepers. But here, in the black walnut tree, were wild bees — living without human supervision or human understanding. Their lives present great mysteries. That 11-year-old grew up to become the world’s leading authority on honey bees, and a magnificently gifted writer about their worlds. Dr. Seeley joins us to discuss his research about wild honey bees’ behavior, social lives and ecology, and his new book: “The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honeybee in the Wild.”