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The bees and the birds

The barb of a stinger needs to lodge in an elastic material to pull away from a bee's bottom and deliver venom. Thick skin and feathers provide birds with protection, but they can still get stung. Honeyguides—small birds in Africa and Asia that feed on beeswax from honeybees—have been found dead under beehives with hundreds of stings.

Bees are most likely to sting when they are protecting the hive, but some species vigorously defend nectar sources. Quarrels over flowers are most likely to arise when resources are limited. During these disputes, the bully and the bullied have been observed to reverse places. At times, hummingbirds chase bees away from flowers, but at other times, the bees turn around and chase the bird instead of fleeing.

One study in the Sierra Nevada discovered that in a meadow where bees were abundant, hummingbirds foraged mainly in the morning and evening, when it was cooler and bees were less active. In a meadow that was devoid of bees, hummingbirds collected nectar all day. Hummingbirds did not show hawkmoths the same respect—the birds chased them away from flowers.

The birds and the bees are not all about conflict. More than 100 species of birds, especially in the tropics, have been reported to build their nests close (less than 5 feet) to the nests of bees, wasps, and ants. The birds take advantage of the biting and stinging insects' defensiveness of their own broods.

Predation is the greatest risk to birds' eggs and nestlings. Building nests in places that are inconspicuous or inaccessible does not always work, especially in regions where terrific climbers are prevalent. So neighboring nests of bees, wasps, and ants help birds up the ante against potential predators.

A study in Costa Rica in which wasp nests were relocated close to the nests of wrens showed that the young of wrens nested near wasp nests were more likely to survive than the young of wrens without wasp nests in proximity. The researchers observed the birds' main predators, monkeys, beating a hasty retreat from attempts to rob the birds' nests when confronted by the birds' aggressive insect neighbors. The birds avoided the wasps and were not usually disturbed by them.

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