Boats and Bees


In his 2013 book, The Boys in the Boat, Daniel Brown describes the epic quest of nine Americans for an olympic gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  Each chapter begins with a citation from George Yeomans Pocock who, besides being a skilled builder of wooden racing shells and an innovative oarsman, was also a significant influence on the promotion and philosophy of rowing as a sport. 


George came from a long line of boatbuilders.  Born at Kingston Upon Thames in 1891, his father built racing shells for Eton College, where at the age of 15, he and his brother apprenticed, laboring with hand  tools to maintain and add to the school’s prodigious fleet of boats.


In 1910, George’s father abruptly lost his job at Eton because “... he had developed a reputation for being too easy on the men who worked for him,” and began casting around on the London waterfront for boat building opportunities.  His two sons, not wanting to be a burden on their father, abruptly emigrated to western Canada where, in circumstances of significant hardship, they gradually developed a reputation, first in Washington State and then on the west coast, and eventually nationally, for their craftsmanship and the quality of their product. 


In the early twentieth century the Intercollegiate Rowing Association’s regatta at Poughkeepsie, NY, was a storied institution with up to 100 000 spectators and radio coverage that rivaled the Kentucky Derby, the Rose Bowl and the World Series.   Indeed, in the 1950’s in Southern Rhodesia, I recall vividly my father sitting in front of the old valve radio one weekend each March, listening to the Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race on the Thames.  I had no visual images to refer to but his passion was contagious, and my heart would swell with pride when the boats went under Barnes Bridge!


Much of what George Pocock wrote about rowing applies equally to beekeeping, especially if one replaces words like shell, oarsman and crew with hive, beekeeper and colony, viz : 


Having kept bees myself since a tender age and having been around bees ever since, I believe I can speak authoritatively on what we may call the unseen values of beekeeping -  the social, moral and spiritual values of this oldest of chronicled activities in the world.  No didactic teaching will place these values in a young man’s soul.  He  has to get them by how own observation and lessons. 


These giants of the insect world are something to behold. Some have been in existence for a thousand years, and each colony contains its own story of the centuries’ long struggle for survival. 


Every good mentor, in his/her own way, imparts the kind of self-discipline required to achieve the ultimate from mind, heart and body.  Which is why most beekeepers will tell you they learned more fundamentally important lessons in the apiary than in the classroom. 


Keeping bees is an art, not a frantic scramble.  They must be managed with head power as well as hand power ... Your thoughts must be directed to you and the bees, always positive, never negative. 


A colony is a sensitive thing ... and if it isn’t let go free, it doesn’t work for you.


Just as the skilled rider is said to become part of his horse, the skilled beekeeper must become part of the bees. 


Why are the two disciplines so readily transferable?  Surely there are many reasons but two come to mind immediately.  The first is dedication.  Just as the oarsmen, coach and boat builder were fully dedicated to an ultimate goal, in this case an Olympic gold medal, so are the bees dedicated to one paramount objective : the long term survival of the colony and thus the species, in as healthy a form as possible. 


The second is trust.   A critical turning point for the main character in the story, Joe Rantz, is when he learns to trust his team mates utterly and completely.  Only then can the team row in complete harmony, as one unit, perhaps as a superorganism.  George wrote that “When you get the rhythm in an eight (ie. eight man boat)  it’s pure pleasure to be in it. It’s not hard work when the rhythm comes.” Joe remembered it as the boat literally flying across the water and at the end feeling energized rather than exhausted.  Bees too seem to trust each other as well as the greater whole.  They trust each bee to fulfill her designated function, and they trust the needs and consensus of the colony as communicated through pheromones. 


Daniel Brown, paraphrasing a conversation between George Pocock and Joe Rantz, describes the craft of boat building as like a religion. It is not enough to master the technical details; one has to give oneself up to it spiritually, to surrender completely.  When one is done there is a feeling that one has left a piece of oneself behind, a bit of one’s heart. “Rowing is like that,” George said. “A  lot of life is like that too, the parts that really matter anyway.” 


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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