We have a young border collie, Seamus, who is a bundle of energy and curiosity, constantly exploring the world through his nose. He enjoys long walks and fortunately, as part of the farm, we have a 30 acre field planted with natural
grasses, surrounded by 20 acres of woodlands and bounded by a creek. It’s his playground, and fortunately he is quick to come when called even if that means abandoning reluctantly a fresh pile of deer scat.
Last week he and
I walked to the top of the first rise, a place we have been many times before, and immediately there was a sense that something wasn’t normal. I don’t pretend to have particularly good eye-sight - that ship has long since sailed - nor do I wear
glasses for long distance vision, yet I noticed, some 200 yards away, in the north-east corner of the field where an old timber road enters the woods, a small brown object that normally would not be there. That’s all it was - an indistinct
brown blur - which would have remained unnoticed had I been talking on the phone while taking our walk.
Seamus and I sat down to await developments.
Part of the skill of beekeeping is recognizing instinctively when something
is not right with a colony, and that in turn requires knowing what is normal. I recall vividly some ten years ago when Ross Conrad was staying over with Mary and I before giving a presentation to our local bee association, a nu-bee came by and joined
us as we opened one of my hives. Ross talked Laura through the inspection and asked insistently if she was certain that the queen was not on the frame before she put it back in the brood box. Laura looked, and looked again, virtually scanning
every bee, before confidently asserting that the queen was not on that piece of foundation.
I guess we have all done that at one time. Pulling a frame means looking at a blur of activity, none of which seems to make sense initially.
It’s confusing, intimidating, a little scary, takes a long time to move through a colony, and even then we are not certain what we have seen or whether we have made the right decisions.
Do it often enough and gradually things
fall into place. Patterns emerge, images become typical, our confidence increases, until eventually all of our senses combine to tell us quickly that all is well with the world. In other words, we recognize what is normal, and equally important,
know instinctively when something is amiss.
An analogy would be learning to walk. It’s a trial and error process until eventually we do it so well, so naturally, that it is instinctive, and we give it no further thought until
we notice someone with an unusual stride, perhaps a limp, or an awkward gait. Many years ago Mary and I visited Rory, a nephew of hers, in Vermont, and went for a hike in some of the lower foothills outside of Stowe. Rory’s girl friend,
Lindsay, had that unusual ability to appear to tread very lightly on the earth. I have no idea how that impression was created but, following behind, I was fascinated by the illusion. It was the diversion from normal that caught my attention.
Honey bees instinctively know what is normal. In the swarming process, for example, scout bees search for a new home and, on their return, demonstrate the success of their search by dancing on the outside of the cluster - the more suitable the
home the longer and more vigorous the dance. This means that each bee has in her mind an image of what is normal - the volume of the space, the size of the entrance, the height above the ground, - irrespective of the dimensions of the home they
have recently left. How they develop this ideal is one of the many things that is awe-inspiring about bees, together with how they know when the moisture content of nectar is such that it can be capped, or the long term planning needed to collect and store
nectar for the survival of a future generation, or their interpretation, in the dark, of the meanings of a waggle dance.
And what of the brown blur that had originally attracted my attention? After a short while it trotted into the woods,
sporting the distinctive tail of a red fox. I guess that to him Seamus and I stuck out as not normal … and it was a ‘he’ - my eyesight is not that bad.