From the Simple to the Complex

For the first 25 years of my teaching career, a student assignment came with the assumption that it would involve time spent in the school library.  Indeed I would work closely with the librarian in preparing the assignment. In more recent years, with a laptop and search engine, students can comfortably complete an assignment without having to leave their dorm rooms.  In fact on my own visits to the college library the majority of the students are sitting at computer terminals rather than looking at books on the endless corridors of shelves.


And books, like bee hives, can seem to be orderly shelves of ‘sameness’ at a casual glance; one has to look behind the covers to realize how different each one is. 


My concern is that as one searches for a book in a library, as one pages through the index or flips through the chapters, knowledge is found in a larger context.  A google search, by comparison, takes one straight to the requested page or paragraph; it’s a direct but narrow search.  The student is taken to the very phrase or word he or she is searching for without any reference to background or theme or context.


This came to mind reading an article in the February 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine entitled Tunnel Vision : Will the Air Force kill its most effective weapon?  Describing a conflict in Afghanistan involving Predator drones, an Air Force colonel is quoted as saying, “If you want to know what the world looks like from a drone feed, walk around for a day with one eye closed and the other looking through a soda straw.  It gives you a pretty narrow view of the world.”   Experienced A-10 pilots use the soda straw analogy in describing the video images from their targeting pods.  “You can find people with the targeting pod,” said one such pilot, “but when it’s zoomed in I’m looking at a single house, not anything else... If you’re looking only through the soda straw you don’t know everything else that’s going on around it.”


As was anticipated many years ago, there is an increasing  tendency to  learn more and more about less and less until we know everything about nothing.


New beekeepers begin with a narrow focus, understandably and rightly.  They focus on basic management skills, ask rudimentary questions, learn the terminology.  There is normally a romantic reason for getting involved - doing one’s part to save the bees, wanting an individual source of honey, wanting to increase pollination in one’s garden ... Nothing wrong with any of those motivations.   


And then frequently there is a major obstacle, a disillusionment.  The bees swarm, the queen is poorly mated and the bees wither, the colony does not survive the winter,  varroa mites and wax moths take over the hive.  In the face of what  Gartner and Hype (refer diagram above) call ‘the trough of disillusionment’ many new beekeepers, perhaps as many as half, decide not to continue.


Those who survive, those who persist, do so partly because they had realistic expectations and knew in advance that all beekeepers, no matter how good, lose colonies, heart wrenching such loss always is, and partly because they have a good mentor who can encourage them through the disappointment. These survivors enter the ‘slope of enlightenment’ where gradually they open themselves to the complexity of this fascinating hobby, and with that enhanced and deepened awareness comes the real fascination and wonder that the intricate world of honey bees can provoke.  This gradual slope leads eventually to the ‘plateau of productivity’ which is when the most profound learning occurs and meaningful interpretations and predictions of behavior can be  discerned.


There is no shortcut.  It’s a hands-on learning process with trial and error as a demanding teacher.  


Successful beekeeping, as with so many other things in life, is the gradual process of moving from simplicity  to complexity. I suspect that effective beekeeping classes and good mentoring follow the same pattern.  Yet ultimately it is up to the individual student to embrace complexity, to open himself or herself to the variety, the apparent confusion of the different words behind the book covers, and to resist the temptation to accept the quick and easy solution.  “"The test of a first-rate intelligence,’ said F. Scott Fitzgerald, “is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."


A colony can be viewed in the same way.  At one level the life progress of a worker bee is relatively simple - her cycle from egg to maturity and the tasks she completes in a hive are easy to comprehend.  But when one begins to ask what stimulates her to change activities from say collecting nectar to collecting water, or how she responds to the pheromones emanating from a larva in an uncapped cell, it gets a little more complex, and even more so when one looks at the colony as an entity with the numerous individual interactions that make up what Jurgen Tautz calls a superorganism, meaning in part a complex social and behavioral organization enabling the effective application of available material and energy.


For me, the greater the complexity the greater the sense of wonder, even more so as I see honey bees as metaphors and teachers for the Gordian knot that is our current world.  The constant challenge, whether talking over the phone to a potential nu-bee or addressing queries at an event like the Farm Show, is how to convey both the necessary simplicity and the amazement of the complex without confusing or dampening the enthusiasm of the listener.  Typically the decision as to whether or not to move to more complex answers is determined by the questions of the audience, which is how I for one gauge their level of both interest and comprehension.  



| Reply

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