The Jig Saw Puzzle


The Jigsaw Puzzle


Jeremy Barnes


In my younger days I enjoyed doing jigsaws puzzles.  Indeed, in moments of supreme but misplaced self–confidence, I would ask my mother to remove the lid of the box so that I could not see the big picture before starting to assemble the pieces. 


The assembly process is revealing.  First, identify the four corner pieces followed by the straight edges, and then find similarities and patterns in the individual  pieces as they began to fit together. And finally that wonderful moment of sitting back and admiring the completed puzzle, hoping it would remain undamaged and unbroken for at least a little while.


Generally speaking we don’t teach this way, either in the classroom or to new beekeepers.  We tend to work through the syllabus, which is a conglomerate of little pieces, and assume that each student  will find for him/herself the ‘corner’ pieces and will eventually stumble on the big picture.


I suspect that many never do, especially when we add the stressors of tests, quizzes and exams with an emphasis on short term  memory rather than long term learning.


For example, how long would it take you to memorize the following, and for how long could you retain it?




My guess is that some considerable effort is required to memorize this apparently senseless jumble of letters,  nor would you retain it for long unless you used it regularly. But what if there is a pattern to the above?  What if you could understand the reasoning behind it and recall it at will? *


There are inspirational examples of starting with the big picture.  Typically, the first year of medical school begins with classes in anatomy, with students being introduced to patients only in year 3.  But at McGill University in Montreal students are introduced to patients on day one, in the belief that they should see them first and foremost as functional human beings, a superorganism if you will, rather than as a conglomeration of anatomical organs. 


For a second example, I think back to the ‘O’ level history syllabus we taught in Rhodesia, in the 60’s and 70’s, that began with the French Revolution.  We examined the causes, followed by each event from the meeting of the States General in May, 1789, to the Whiff of Grapeshot in October 1795, and then moved on to Napoleon Bonaparte. In retrospect, it is only too clear that Rhodesia at the time was mirroring those same causes and events (an elite minority imposing it’s will on a majority for personal benefit,) but few realized or acknowledged it at the time.  It took me years to stand back and see those events in France in a bigger context, and if I couldn’t do it, certainly generations of students couldn’t, immersed as they were in memorizing the details of events that might appear on a test.


So what if we started with the big beekeeping picture and asked questions such as, what are the corner pieces of beekeeping,?  ie. the fundamentals that hold everything else in place and that are vital to seeing where the pieces fall together?  What are the parameters, and, if we’ve seen the ‘picture’ before we start, how realistic is that image? Indeed, are we all making the same jigsaw? 


For me the corner pieces are 

  1. the biology of the honey bee; 
  2. the differing flows of nectar and pollen throughout the year; 
  3. parasites and pathogens to which the bees are exposed;
  4. the functions of the beekeeper.


The basis for these choices is that bee behavior is an interaction between bee biology and food availability as the colonies work toward long term survival using the hive space we have created for them and combatting the toxins and pathogens that we have added to the environment.  Hopefully every instructor will make his or her own selection.


Every day, as I inspect the hives, read the journals and talk to colleagues, more pieces of the puzzle fall into place, more connections are made and patterns are  continued, making the bigger picture more intricate, more complete, more fascinating than I had initially imagined.  For example, I recall vividly when it dawned on me that honey bees are one of the very few species of insects that survive the winter as a community, and they can do this because millions of years ago they ‘realized’ that if they reduce the moisture content of nectar it will survive in near perfect condition as honey which not only isa winter food source but also a vital stimulant early in the spring.


How did this ‘realization occur?  I have no idea (does anyone?) but an associated piece of the puzzle is a bee’s brain, which is the size of a sesame seed, but is packed with more than one million neurons, a density equivalent to our human brains.


What are your corner stones?   Sometimes they can be revealed in an AHA! moment when you say to yourself, “Now I get it.  I wish someone had explained this to me earlier.”  Again, I can recall distinctly coming to the understanding that honey bees are defensive rather than aggressive, that they will protect their home and children against attack, as will we all, but beyond that they are gentle and pre-occupied.  This realization radically changed the way in which I manage my hives, and is something I wish I had been told from day one. 


Initially I thought I was dealing with a 100 piece jig saw.  Now there are 1000 pieces and counting, some of which still have to find a home in the puzzle which itself still has large empty spaces. But the big picture is beautiful, amazing, awe inspiring, every time I care to step back and take a look. 


* It is the initial letter of each month of the year followed by the initial letter of the days of the week.   Ie. January monday February tuesday … etc. 




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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

21.05 | 07:18

Its pleasure to read about Boy Scout here. He plays vital role to serve humanity. I will share after my