The Botany of Desire

It is intriguing how one sentence or paragraph in a book can stimulate a series of thoughts which invariably invite comparisons with honey bees.


In The Botany of Desire, for example, Michael Pollan chooses four plants (apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes) to suggest that not only do humans act on nature to get the results we want, but that plants too evolve to gratify certain human desires so that we in turn help those plants to spread and proliferate.


In the chapter on marijuana he describes how different cultures have reacted to substances that have the power to alter our thoughts and feelings, citing as an example the different reactions to alcohol in European and Muslim societies.  And he notes that, until the Industrial Revolution,  alcohol and tobacco were confined to a small, privileged elite in Europe who eventually shared them with the burgeoning proletariat to help them tolerate the monotony and drudgery of industrial urban life. 


One of the reactions to the Industrial Revolution in Europe was social and political unrest. 1848 brought the first practical experiments in socialism which argued that it was the responsibility of the state to share corporate and national profits with those who labored to produce those earnings.  Profit was shared as benefits (subsidized housing, health, education and unemployment insurance) rather than income.    Whereas Social Democrats believed this could be achieved peacefully through the democratic process, in 1867 Karl Marx and Frederich Engels argued in Das Kapital that the financially privileged would not voluntarily share the benefits of their positions and that it was the duty of the workers (or ‘proletariat’)  to seize by force what the authors saw as their just rights.   


Across the Atlantic it was feared that when Europe sneezed, America would catch a cold. 


Watching the spectacle that is the Oscars I began to wonder about the emphasis placed, and the money spent, on these extravaganzas, and postulated that perhaps the emphasis on sport and entertainment, which seems to me to be more prolific in the US than anywhere else in the world, was initially another way of providing the working classes with either relief or distraction from their industrialized working conditions. 


The first theme park, for example, was built on Coney Island in 1896.  The North American Baseball League and the American Baseball Association were started in 1876 and 1882 respectively.  The first professional basketball league was formed in 1898, the NHL in 1917 and the NFL in the 1920’s.  This was the same period of the first black-and-white movies while the first feature film presented as a talkie was The Jazz Singer, released in 1927.


Nor was this confined to the USA.  In England the National Football (ie. soccer) League was founded in 1888.


In other words organized mass entertainment evolved as the bleak social consequences of the Industrial Revolution became increasingly evident.  Coincidence?  Perhaps. 


And then there is the question of financial rewards as a reflection of societal values.  For example, the contract signed by Joe Flacco after the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2012 is more than 300 times greater than the President of the United States earns in the same period, and 2400 times greater than the income of the average teacher, policeman or fireman, whom in my opinion are the real heroes.  We no longer question a typical movie budget of $200 million while myriads of American children live in poverty. 


Listening to the interviews with movie stars on the ‘red carpet’ of the Oscars provoked the question as to why we give their pronouncements so much weight - after all they are very good at reading and performing lines and roles written by somebody else, so is it surprising that what many say is inane? - and why we place so much emphasis on what they wear, considering that they are invariably dressed by someone else.  


I’m not a late night owl but stayed up one night to watch the late night talk shows, all  in the interests of research, you understand!   The overwhelming majority of guests are actors, musicians, athletes.  Is that all we have to talk about? 


My experience in local classrooms (for many years I observed and mentored college students who were doing their ‘student practice semester’ as the last requirement before graduation) stressed the emphasis on obedience and compliance.  There is a game that we learn to play in school - “What does teacher want?”  One route to a good grade is figuring out what sir or ma’am likes, and students are very good at responding appropriately.  In other words, they are satisfying an external authority who will tell them how good their work is and ideas are, rather than referring to their own judgments and satisfaction. 


In my college classes I would offer the students a choice at the beginning of the semester.  There is much evidence to suggest that stress promotes short term memorization at the expense of long term learning, and what causes the most stress? Quizzes, tests and exams.  So the choice was either regular quizzes and tests with a final exam, or a major, open-ended project in which the students were required to apply the material we were covering in class.  (I should say that I was teaching a class on western civilization - the second option would not work in say a math or language class where constant reinforcement is necessary.  And I would not want my doctor or airplane pilot to have classes taught only by me!)  Eventually every class chose the project option but there was always a group of nay-sayers who argued for tests and exams because it was a game they knew how to play and they could track their grade as the months progressed - stress and a grade trumped higher order thinking skills and long term learning.


So, how does this apply to beekeepers?  Professional sports and entertainment set unrealistic expectations.  We know that less than 1% of those who set out to make football or baseball or music their career will succeed.  Rather we become passive spectators of TV or the movies - our involvement is vicarious, experienced second hand. 


Beekeeping is not a passive activity.  An estimated 50% of new beekeepers do not continue after the first year, primarily because it was not as easy as they had expected. It requires a combination of knowledge and action, and even then things might not go well.  Nor is it an activity of compliance; ultimately every successful beekeeper has to take responsibility for the management of his or her hives, has to take the data and develop a personal management style.  It is similar to an open, on-going project rather than a series of quizzes and tests.  And of course the ultimate satisfaction comes from goals that one sets for oneself, not from pleasing the President of the local bee club. 


Which in turn begs the question, how do we make new beekeepers aware of the realities, the commitment and knowledge required to succeed, without dampening their enthusiasm?  One doesn’t fear the rain once one is wet. We need to be clear up front.  Those who are truly committed will accept the challenge gladly and be excited by the passion exhibited by successful beekeepers; the others will shy away from something they should not have started in the first place, which is fortunate for the health of the honey bees.  



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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