If you look a little closer, listen a little harder, you’ll notice the secret life of things all around you. Want to know about the secret lives of bees, crickets, coral — and your own backyard? Give a listen!

For more information on disappearing bees, check out this post.

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CREW: Is it coming yet?


Any second now. Almost here. Prepare yourselves. We can't wait.

MOLLY BLOOM: Hi, you're listening to Brains On, a show about science for kids and curious adults. In this episode, we're looking closer and finding out about the secret life of things all around us like--

TARA: Plants.


TARA: Crickets.

MOLLY BLOOM: And your backyard. Ready for some secrets? Keep listening.


CREW: (SINGING) It's time to get our brains on. We're gonna get our smarts on. Fire up your neurons. It's science time. It's science time. It's time. Brains on! Brains on!

MOLLY BLOOM: Hi, I'm Molly Bloom. And I'm here today with Tara [INAUDIBLE]. Hi, Tara.


MOLLY BLOOM: Tara, can you tell us a little about yourself?

TARA: I am 12 years old. I have two pets, a cat, and a dog. I have a little sister named Kaitlyn. She's in first grade.

I love animals. I think they're super cool. I like big cats like ocelots and servals. But I think narwhals are cool, too.

MOLLY BLOOM: What was that last one?

TARA: Narwhals.

MOLLY BLOOM: What are narwhals?

TARA: They look kind of like dolphins, except they have a giant horn sticking out.

MOLLY BLOOM: So you and I are communicating now with our words, and our facial expressions, and the way that we move our hands. But there are things communicating all around us, and we don't even know it. We spoke with three scientists who are in on some of these more hidden ways of communicating. First up, Daniel Chamovitz of Tel Aviv University. He's here to tell us about plants.


DANIEL CHAMOVITZ: I think it's pretty surprising for most of us to realize that plants actually are communicating with each other. We understand animals communicating, people communicating with each other. But we sort of think of plants as inanimate, these unmoving objects around us, but when, actually, there's a lot of information being exchanged back and forth between them. And it's really most obvious when they're sick or when they're being attacked.


So what we know is, for example, that when one tree is attacked by a bunch of beetles or a bunch of caterpillars and they're starting to being eaten by the caterpillars, as the leaves are eaten, they give off a gas into the air. And this gas goes through the air to the neighboring leaves on the tree next to it. And when these leaves absorb that gas, in other words, when they're smelling it, they start making chemicals which are really untasteful to the caterpillars, so that when the caterpillars come on their leaves, the leaves just don't taste good. And they'll leave them alone. So these plants are communicating with each other through the smells that they're giving off.

There are certain plants that when they're being eaten by caterpillars, they give off a different smell into the air. And that this smell is irresistible to wasps. And then the wasps come to them and eat the caterpillars.

Just like we can get infections with bacteria and viruses, plants get infected with viruses and bacteria. And they give off a different type of gas. Actually, it's very interesting. When a plant is infected by a virus, it will give off a different gas than when it's being eaten by a caterpillar so that the other leaves around know what's in the neighborhood. Should they be protecting themselves against viruses, or should they be protecting themselves against caterpillars?

Just because we don't see plants move doesn't mean that they're not really dynamic. When a plant gives off nectar, what's it doing? It's calling for the bee to come to pollinate it.

Who's in charge? Is the bee in charge? Or is actually the flower in charge?



MOLLY BLOOM: Do you hear that? Marlene Zuk from the University of Minnesota is here to talk about--

TARA: Crickets.

MARLENE ZUK: Crickets sing to communicate with each other because they're mostly active at night. And so, of course, they can't see each other very well. And so when they communicate, it's mostly the males that are making the noise. So when you go outside at night in the summer and you hear chirp, chirp, chirp, that's pretty much always a male cricket that's saying, I'm over here. Any females want to come by?

The females don't say anything. It's not that they could talk, but they don't. It's that they actually can't produce any of the sounds.

Male crickets produce sound by rubbing their wings together. And they have special structures on those wings that help to produce the sound and to make it louder. But the female wings don't look like that at all. And so even if females did rub their wings together, it wouldn't make any sound.

Imagine that you're running your fingernail across the back of a comb. And so the comb has all these little teeth that stick up. And then you make a little noise as you're running your fingernail across it. Well, that's pretty much what the crickets' wings look like.

There's what's called a file on one wing that's rubbed against a scraper on the other wing. And the scraper goes against these pegs that are on the file, and it makes a little [CHIRPING] type noise. So every time a cricket closes his wings, it makes what we call a pulse of sound. So he goes [CHIRPING], and he can do that really fast, especially if it's warm outside.

And the timing of those wing closures is what makes different species of crickets sound different. But you can think of them saying a couple of different things. One of them, and the most important thing is I'm a male, and I'm a cricket of this particular species. And so that's the most important thing they need to convey.

They're also saying, in a sense, I'm here, and other males better keep away from me. And finally, we think that at least in the crickets that have been studied, they might be saying, not only am I a male and of my particular species, but I'm a really good male. And you'd be better off coming to me than to the next guy that's down at the next bush.


MOLLY BLOOM: Now we're heading underwater with Virginia Weis from Oregon State University. She's here to talk about--

TARA: Coral.

VIRGINIA WEIS: We are looking at a baby coral. Overnight, it was released from its parent as a little larva that swims around. Then it settles down onto the bottom of the ocean. But in our case, to the bottom of the tank.

It looks like a speck to us. But it will eventually turn into a big coral colony. To the eyes of a coral biologist, it's very cute.

Corals don't have things we would use to communicate with voices or eyes. They don't have senses that we think of typically. But they're still animals. And they have to sense their environment.

And they have to talk among themselves in their own way to be successful. They start off as a single individual animal. But over time, they can divide and become hundreds, or thousands, or millions of those individual animals all hooked up together.


And so really, instead of using voices or using touch, they're using chemicals to tell each other whether they need food, if there's danger. Chemicals are central to corals. That's the way they sense their world. And that's the way they communicate with each other.

One of the best examples I can think of corals on a reef communicating is when they reproduce. And in some places in the world, for example, in Australia, they have very, very carefully timed reproduction. One night out of the year, just a single night, every coral on the reef releases its eggs and sperm at a single time. And they have to communicate in order for that to be timed correctly.


MOLLY BLOOM: Anything about those interviews surprise you? Or anything you found particularly cool?

TARA: Well, the coral. I don't typically think that they could communicate because they don't have eyes, or ears, or mouths, or any type of thing like that to communicate with.

MOLLY BLOOM: Hey, Tara, it's time for the mystery sound.

CREW (WHISPERING): Mystery sound.

MOLLY BLOOM: Here it is.


TARA: It sounded like a train.

MOLLY BLOOM: Interesting, what about it made you think it was a train?

TARA: Well, during the middle part of it, you heard this high-pitched noise coming out, which kind of sounded like a train whistle. And then just the overall noise kind of sounds like while a train's going on.

MOLLY BLOOM: Very interesting. So I'm not going to tell you if you're right or wrong yet. So you're going to have to think about it for just a little bit. But while you're thinking about it, we're going to hear from a woman who found there was a whole secret world right in her backyard.

MJ HATFIELD: The most ticks I've ever had in a 24-hour period was 21. Talk about grossing people out. Oh, ick.

My name is MJ Hatfield. I am a retired UPS driver. I'm from Central Iowa. I'm an insect enthusiast, is what I like to be called.

I got glasses when I was in fifth grade. And at that time, I couldn't see the big E. So my theory is I couldn't see anything, so I didn't notice anything. So ever since fifth grade, my whole life has been looking close and starting to notice things.

One of the things that really got me on insects is I don't focus very well and I don't pay attention very well. And with insects, I can see something every day that I have never seen before in my life. I either see an insect I've never seen.

I see it on a plant I've never seen it on before. I see a life cycle I've never seen. There's just so much information out there. There's just so much going on that I've never paid attention to before.

OK, we're going to walk out here. We can hear the toads calling. We can hear the water. And we can hear the wind. [WATER RUNNING] Somewhere, I just hear a bumblebee flying around.

Flowers are a good place to look for insects. There's a little ant. Oh, here's a good little bug spittle. And what that is, is that's home to the larva of a spittle bug. Doesn't have wings yet. But there he is. Kind of cute.

So this is the lab. There's a couple of microscopes, the computer, the camera on the microscope so that I can actually photograph things through the computer. And then this balcony, this balcony is great because it leads to my insect rearing. This is where I rear insects. And they've got labels on them where they came from corresponding to a file in the other room I like them to be outside because whatever the temperature is and whatever's going on outside is where they would be naturally.

So everything up here has already pupated. Most insects, 86% have four life stages, which would be egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Actually, these are a new species up here. And we've been working on this since 2009.

Let's go on inside and take a look through the microscope and see what you can see because that's kind of fun. I actually have a pretty cool little bug here. It's a bee. Actually, it's a bee. And this is a little bee that I collected on a wild geranium.

I will never get done with my bugs with what I have right now identifying them. I'll never get done. I have too many. And I'm still doing more photography and more collecting. I don't even have any idea how many species I might have.

Insects is an area where the common, the ordinary, the everyday person can make a difference. You can find new species. You can find new behaviors. There is so much that isn't known.

Turn off the TV and get outside. There is so much fascinating information out here. Look and see what's in your own yard. Look in your own garden. Just start paying attention.

Why? Just because we don't know that much about life around us. We know a lot, but not nearly what there is to know out there.

MOLLY BLOOM: So Tara, like MJ, you spend a lot of time in your backyard. And instead of insects, you're looking at plants. And I understand you and your neighbor have been collecting sunflowers and doing experiments on them.

TARA: When they break down because they become too heavy, the heads do, we just take them and drag them into their garage. And then we also collected lamb's ear, which is super soft. It's like a pillow almost. It's so soft.

And then we collected a rotting tomato just to see what it was, and then a green tomato that was almost ripe. And then we collected some dead ferns, and some live ferns, and a morning glory, and a petunia.

MOLLY BLOOM: Did you keep these after you examined them?

TARA: Mm-hmm, and then we try and spray them with water so they will stay alive a little longer so we can continue doing experiments with them.

MOLLY BLOOM: That's really cool. So what have you found during your experiments?

TARA: Well, that it's really hard to get the seeds out of the tomato to do separate experiments on them. And we are wondering if we combine seeds, could we make another plant. But in sunflowers, there's these little bells on the outside with black seeds in them.

So what we did, is we cut open a sunflower seed. And then we took the inside out. And then we stuffed one of the black ones in there, and closed it again, and planted it. So I'm wondering, even since they both grew on the sunflower, would that make a difference or not?

MOLLY BLOOM: So you'll have to wait till the spring, then, to see?

TARA: Yes.

MOLLY BLOOM: I'll be interested to hear what you find then.

TARA: Mm-hmm.

MOLLY BLOOM: It seems like you guys spend a lot of time just sort of exploring what's around you.

TARA: Yeah, in the summer, we were out there together like maybe eight hours a day. And then even now, we're still out for like four hours a day.

MOLLY BLOOM: That's really cool. I think MJ Hatfield would be really excited to hear about your exploration.


Now back to the mystery sound. Are you ready? Are you sure?

TARA: Yes.

MOLLY BLOOM: Are you 100% sure? All right.

TARA: I am guessing it is not actually a train even though we didn't talk about them or anything. [LAUGHING]

MOLLY BLOOM: Here it is.


All right, you've heard it a second time. Any other guesses?

TARA: Well, I don't know specifically, but I'm guessing since we're talking about communicating, it involves a communication between one thing and another--

MOLLY BLOOM: That's a good guess.

TARA: --which is why I said a train whistle at first because that's how you hear them coming.

MOLLY BLOOM: Definitely, yeah, I mean, that is the way that trains communicate with people, like get out of my way. But you ready to find out the answer?

TARA: Yes.

MOLLY BLOOM: Producer Sanden Totten is here with Marty Wohl to reveal the answer. Here's Marty.

MARTY WOHL: What we're hearing is the reflections of meteors that are hitting the Earth's atmosphere.

SANDEN TOTTEN: Meteors are rocks from space that fly into the Earth's atmosphere. When it's dark out, you can see them. They look like comets blazing through the sky. But when it's light out, you can't see them very well. So how are we hearing them?

MARTY WOHL: In this case, we have radar stations around the country that send out radio waves. And if something bounces back, it tells them there's an object there. Typically an airplane or something like that.

When meteors enter our atmosphere, they create a trail of ionized gas. And those ionized gases have the ability to reflect and bend radio waves. The radar hits the meteor and the gas, and it bounces that signal back. So actually instead of seeing the meteors on a radar screen, we're actually hearing the signals coming back to the originating station.


SANDEN TOTTEN: So OK, we're hearing the sound. It sounds like static. But then there's a little whistling.

MARTY WOHL: Right, background noise is everywhere. You have to filter that out. It's just those little pings coming back.

SANDEN TOTTEN: So what we're listening to was a radio wave that had bounced back off a meteorite and then come down to make that whistling noise, that [WHISTLING].

MARTY WOHL: That's exactly right.

SANDEN TOTTEN: That's so cool. So when we're listening to these files, we're hearing a radio that's turned on, and it's just picking up natural sounds in the environment?

MARTY WOHL: That's right. We're hearing a receiver. Some of these recordings were made by radio observatories which have very, very big antennas and very sensitive equipment. Not the kind of thing you'd find in somebody's home.

Just like a very sophisticated telescope can pick up great images from ours and other galaxies that we can't see with the naked eye, a good receiver and a good antenna can pick up radio signals that we couldn't otherwise tell were there. That's part of the fun of science is finding things that we didn't know were there.

SANDEN TOTTEN: All right, let's listen to another secret sound from the radio waves.


OK, what was that?

MARTY WOHL: That was a single meteor. But in this case, it was moving away from the listening station. Did you notice how the pitch went from high to low?

SANDEN TOTTEN: Yeah, it sounded like a slide whistle.

MARTY WOHL: OK, exactly. Do you ever stand near a train track and you hear a train coming, and as it passes, the horn drops in frequency, it gets lower?


MARTY WOHL: OK, that's called the Doppler effect. And astronomers use it. We see it in nature all the time. And that's what's happening here. As the meteor is going away from the listening station, the apparent frequency is getting lower and the pitch goes lower.

SANDEN TOTTEN: So like when a car drives by and it's like, [ENGINE ROARING], then it passes you and it goes [ENGINE ROARING]?

MARTY WOHL: Yes, that's exactly right, same thing.

SANDEN TOTTEN: So we're hearing a meteorite basically go by. And it was going [WHOOSHING].

MARTY WOHL: That's right.


MARTY WOHL: And if it were coming toward us, the pitch would have been going higher instead of lower.


MARTY WOHL: Just like that.

SANDEN TOTTEN: Then you need to run because that meteorite's coming right for you.

MARTY WOHL: It probably will burn up before it gets very close to you.

SANDEN TOTTEN: Phew, good to know.

MOLLY BLOOM: What do you think about when you think about bees?

TARA: Honey.

MOLLY BLOOM: Honey, yeah, or maybe getting stung on your foot, perhaps. But there's a lot more to bees than meets the eye. The number of honeybees has actually been shrinking. And scientists are working to figure out why this is happening and how they can reverse it.

There are multiple factors that scientists have identified. They include parasites, loss of habitat, and pesticides. And if you're interested in getting more details, you can find them on our website brainson.org.

And bees are really important to a lot of aspects of our daily life. And it turns out that our world would be very different without them. We asked Rupert Angeleyes to write a song about what would happen if there were no more honeybees if they all disappeared.


(SINGING) Walking in the garden with my baby on my arm, we throw our picnic blanket to the ground. Smelling flowers, tasting fruits makes me wonder what we would do if we no longer heard that buzzing sound. The coffee that my parents drink, the cotton in my favorite jeans are products of the humble bumblebee. The cherry tree I rest beneath, the pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, even avocados could cease to be.

To be or not to be, I don't know. I don't want to know because bees help our flower gardens grow, because bees give us more than honeycomb.

In the competition to survive, we depend on the beehive to cross-pollinate and mix plant genes. One and one is more than two. A mutation to something new could mean a luscious apple extra sweet, yummy, yummy, yummy.

Aside from apples for the kids or painters painting blue orchids, other animals need these, too. Pollination gets the plant consumed as a rodent eats the falling fruit. A watchful owl swoops down with her [INAUDIBLE].

To be or not to be, I don't now. I don't want to know because bees help our flower gardens grow, because bees give us more than honeycomb.

Don't go feeling too sad. Don't go feeling too blue. Mankind's well-known for messing up. But that could all change with you.

TARA: That was Rupert Angeleyes with the song, Because Bees.

MOLLY BLOOM: His song imagined a world without bees. Now what if there was a world without Brains On?




CREW: Brains on!

MOLLY BLOOM: Well, this episode is over and out. But you can always head over to brainson.org to find more.

TARA: This episode was produced by [LISTING HONOR ROLL].

MOLLY BLOOM: Any questions or ideas? Got something you want to see in an upcoming episode? Write to us at brainson.org. While you're there, you can also find past episodes of this show. Or you can subscribe in the iTunes store.

TARA: Thanks for listening.


CREW: Brains on! Brains on!


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