Beekeeping Skills

Rumor has it that an Englishman, flying to Australia, was asked by an Australian immigration official if he had any felonies or convictions.   “I didn’t know it was still a requirement,” he replied. 


Many seventeenth and eighteenth century emigrants to Australia did not go by choice, compared with many Europeans (not Africans) who chose to cross the Atlantic to the New World.   One hypothesis is that those who made this choice were the risk takers; those who were more cautious stayed behind believing they could accommodate to or co-exist with the dominant religious or governmental paradigms that were causing others to depart. 


And the current American society reflects this in that the pace of life is quicker and more finite.  Thus checkers replaced chess as the most popular board game, poker v bridge, baseball v cricket.   In cricket, a match at the traditional international level lasts for five seven-hour days and often ends in a draw.  Indeed, in some circumstances, it is honorable to play for a draw and there is no means of forcing a result - no overtime or sudden death. 


I do not have an intimate knowledge of baseball, football or basketball but I am intrigued by the skills of the athletes.  As Mark McClusky documents in Faster, Higher, Stronger (which is a great read, incidentally) the old presumption was that good athletes had the basic skills, and practice was about getting to work with your teammates. Today, innate athletic ability is the base from which one has to ascend, and with the help science and technology we are witnessing some of the best athletes in history. 


There is specific technology for every sport, an example being Nike’s Vapor Strobe goggles  which periodically cloud over for 1/10th of a second intervals  so as to train footballers’ eyes to focus in the midst of chaos. Add to this the use of biometric sensors. Chris Hoy, who won two gold medals as a cyclist in the 2012 Olympics, was followed by a team of scientists, nutritionists and engineers who monitored what he ate and how he trained (an $80 000 carbon fibre bike helped too!) and because his competitors were doing the same, he won in both cases by only a fraction of a second. 


Novak Djokovic, presently #1 in the tennis world, has a retinue of coaches to cover every skill, Ben Hogan was the first golfer to practice regularly while Tiger Woods introduced a physical training regime which most professional golfers now follow rigorously.  Using computers, chess players today can practice consistently against the grandmasters, and classical musicians routinely play pieces that once were regarded as too difficult for all but a few. 


McClusky argues that it is not that the best are so much better as that so many people are so extraordinarily good to the point that the performance curve at the top is flattening out, possibly because we are nearing our biological limits. 


In the decades after the Second World War American manufacturers faced little competition; they were profitable but complacent about quality until Japanese products began to mount a significant challenge.  In 1969 one third of people who purchased a new American vehicle found it to be unsatisfactory on delivery, and growing up in Rhodesia the first vehicles I knew were European - Citroens, Peugeots, and Renaults - which were considered more reliable.  I cannot recall when I saw my first American made vehicle in real time (compared to on TV or as a commercial in a magazine) but I guess I was well in my 30’s. Even today, turn on a safari documentary and the chances are the vehicles will be made by Toyota.  


Similarly in the 1970’s service calls for American-made TV’s were five times greater than for Japanese made sets, and the production time in American factories was three times as long. 

The Japanese emphasized quality control as part of the process rather than a response to customer complaints.  Their ethos is captured by the term kaizen or continuous improvement. And the forces of competition as well as an increasing global market compelled American companies to adapt quickly to the point where although products are more complex today they are also more reliable.  Before I could own my first car (a Peugeot 203) my father insisted that I knew how to strip and re-build the engine.  Today I wouldn’t I know where to begin, but the average age of a vehicle on the road is double that of my Peugeot when I first took possession in 1966. 


But the catch up is neither easy nor fast.  Of the ten vehicles that head the list of most reliable in the November 2014 Consumer Report, only one is US based (Buick) and this is in 6th place.


There are other fields that are still lagging.  In an article in the New Yorker of Nov 10, 2014, James Surowiecki suggests they include customer service (poorly trained workers,) medicine (high levels of medical errors and wasted spending,) and education (our teacher training programs lag behind  those of the rest of the developed world.)


And I would add beekeeping to that list, in two respects.  First, reading the Lancaster Farmer every week I am struck by the professionalism of the dairy, beef, chicken, sheep and goat industries; they have a professional staff, a coherent policy and an effective marketing campaign. Yes, I know that most of their members are full time producers with larger financial resources, but their industry relies on ours.  Without honey bees they could not effectively feed much of their stock.  In Pennsylvania we rely on volunteers for our common good and in effect the state organization is as strong as the President who is giving of his or her spare time in any one year. This was brought home when I visited Wales in August and was forcibly struck by the professionalism and presence of advertisements and displays for bees and honey in almost every town we visited; it was no surprise to stumble on a center from which it was coordinated by full time, professional staff.


The second is that beekeeping as a whole has not changed much in recent years, despite the challenges of pesticides, diseases, viruses and monocultures. 96% of us are hobbyists, doing the best we can, which is not always good enough for the survival of the bees. For many beekeeping is still the preserve of a quirky, quaint, mildly eccentric minority and, as one way put it, if pilots were allowed to start flying with the same amount of skill that beekeepers start keeping bees, no one would step on to a plane. 


And this was why the PSBA Conference at Lewisburg in November, 2014,  was gratifying.  There was a real sense of kaizen, of self improvement.  The speakers were consistently excellent and on point, the information was specific, relevant, and based on current data, the presentations professional and accomplished, the vendors more diverse than in the past, and the conversations around the coffee urns and breakfast tables were sparkling and informative. 


The disappointing side is that there are more than 3000 registered beekeepers in Pennsylvania, and more than 500 have signed up this year.  The largest turn out in Lewisburg was Saturday morning, with some 150 in the audience, which is about one in every 20 of those who are registered. 


So yes, we have our coaches and mentors who can hone our skills and monitor the results, but we have to show up.  I’m pleased I was able to be there and know that my ‘ladies’ will be the better for it. 







| 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