Tug Boats and Tankers

Two stories that somehow seem appropriate as winter approaches when we, as beekeepers, spend time reflecting on the season past and the year that is yet to come. 


In October a book group of mainly medical men chose Our Green Cathedral for their monthly book choice and invited me to attend.  One of those present, Jay Jackson, a retired OBGYN doc, photographer and wine connoisseur, was sufficiently intrigued to ask to visit my apiary.  After the requisite walk through the hives we joined Mary in the kitchen for a cup of tea, during which Jay recounted an analogy he shares with the college students in his photography classes.


Many of us spend the first part of our lives ‘standing on one leg’ as we struggle to make a living, master our profession and raise a family.   And, to refer back to the previous column, our fluid brains respond positively to challenges requiring energy, analysis and application.  


If we are fortunate, we discover a ‘second’ leg - an interest which becomes a passion - and realize that when we stand on both we are not only more balanced but we can start to walk, one step at a time, and progress down paths  previously unanticipated.  For Jay that second leg was photography.  For Mary, a family physician, it was art, poetry and reading.  In both cases, their first leg was scientific, right brained; the second was creative, left brained.  


Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, researchers at Michigan State University, in their study of the avocational interests of Nobel Prize winners in Economics, Peace, Literature and Science, argue that arts and crafts foster scientific creativity. Indeed Nobel laureates have about three times more creative, imaginative outlets than the general U.S. public. There are many examples : Madame Curie and long distance cycling, Nikola Tesla and pigeons, Enrico Fermi and tennis, Erwin Schrodinger and dollhouse furniture, and famously Einstein and the violin. After Einstein had performed for a violin maestro (I believe it was Jascha Heifetz) he asked for feedback.  “It was relatively good,” the virtuoso is said to have replied.


I wonder if, for many of us, beekeeping is that second leg which offers a sense of balance and unrealized fulfillment.   Certainly in my case it has taken me down roads I could not have imagined twenty years ago.  And unlike Jay and Mary,  the mainstream of my career was first history, particularly the teaching thereof, which is an art  form, and secondly group dynamics and the part they plan in effective learning.  Beekeeping has a more scientific element  to it, as well as an intimate contact with the natural world, and I find quiet delight, in my more crystallized years, of marrying the various parts. 


Writing of which, I guess that for many of us a successful marriage is when our one leg is wedded to that of another person in such a way as to bring a sense of equilibrium as well as of confidence and assertiveness in a partnership that take us down paths we would not walk alone. 


The second story began on July 31 when Mary had a pacemaker installed.  There was a minor complication and she ended up spending two nights in the hospital, which provided the opportunity to observe her interactions with the doctors and nursing staff. 


There seemed to be two genres of each.  Some doctors would enter the room, address Mary directly, stand by the bed looking down at her, interrupt as she told her history, give their opinion and, with one hand on the door handle, ask if there were any questions.  The impression was they were the authority, they were in charge, and they were busy. It didn’t help that in two instances they were tall, white men.   


The second kind would come into the room, address Mary as ‘Doctor Barnes’ out of respect for their mutual knowledge bases, shake hands with everyone in the room, draw up a chair next to the bed so they were at eye level with the patient, listen without interruption to the history and ask clarifying questions only at the end, muse openly on various courses of treatment with input from Mary, check that others in the room understood, asked if we, the visitors, had questions, and only then stand up and move towards the door, acknowledging again who was present in support of the patient. The impression was that this was a collaborative team effort, with the doctor as an informed facilitator and everyone bringing something of value to the table. 


Remarkably, one of the best examples of the latter was in the Emergency Room, which is where one would most expect the abrupt, fast-moving, decisive physician, which I have no doubt he could be if the occasion so warranted. Instead, in the absence of an immediate emergency, he was quiet, deliberate, discursive and unhurried. It was a startling example of what Hersey and Blanchard label Situation Leadership, in which one’s leadership style is not fixed in stone but is responsive to what they label the ‘maturity’ of the followers, ie. a combination of the ability to complete the task at hand and the quality of the relationship between leader and followers.  As such it can range from laissez faire/delegating (eg. facilitating a group of experts who have convened to discuss a new item of research) to authoritarian/ telling (eg. training a new hiree on a  new task.)


Maturity in this sense has nothing to do with age.  A child, for example, may be mature at riding a tricycle but immature when confronted with a bicycle. How her parents handle the instructions for each needs to be diametrically different.  To be authoritarian when she picks up the trike might result in indifference; to be laissez faire when she is anxious about the bike might result in frustration. 


Thus a new beekeeper requires a different type of leadership and instruction from one who has ten years under his or her belt.  This is one of the challenges faced at club meetings when there can be a wide range of competence and confidence in the room, all seeking some kind of fulfillment. 


Like the doctors, the nurses were notably proficient.  Some would enter the room quietly, take the vital signs, check the IV, and leave.  Others would do exactly the same, but chatted continuously, explaining what they were doing, asking how the patient was feeling and if there was any thing he/she could bring for the rest of us,  describing what the weather was like outside … 


There was no difference in the tasks they did; the distinction lay in how they did them. The second seemed to see the patient as an integral part of the process. 


Beekeepers with small apiaries have a distinct advantage compared with the larger commercial operations.  It is like the comparison between an oil tanker and a  tug boat.  The largest example of the former is the Knock Nevis, which takes 5.5 miles to stop with a turning circle in excess  of two miles and 15 minutes to turn 180 degrees.  The Edward J. Morgan, by comparison, a  modern ocean-going tug boat, can go from 13 knots forward to 13 knots in reverse in 15 seconds, and can pivot 360 degrees within her own length.


My thought then, is how do we approach a colony of honey bees? Do we see ourselves as a large vessel set on a predetermined path, reluctant to slow down or change course, make decisions based on our preconceived perceptions of what is good for the colony (or the corporation) … in other words, exercise a top-down, one way, authoritarian management style in which we have the power and jurisdiction?


Or do we approach slowly and gently, spending significant time observing the entrance to the hive before so much as lighting the smoker?   We know, for example, that pollen coming into the hive indicates the presence of larvae in the brood area that need to be fed, and we can distinguish between returning foragers and robbing behaviors.  Heinrich Storch, in At the Hive Entrance, suggests for example that bees with swollen abdomens rushing into the hive are water carriers and that an increased need for water indicates an increase in egg laying.  Or that foragers arriving at the colony a little below the hive entrance, so that they have to fly upwards as they approach, are laden with nectar.  My first mentor, on approaching a hive, would spend at least a minute looking intently at the ground in front of the hive entrance; it was he who first showed me a dead bee with her orange proboscis extended, a sign of a toxic kill. 


Do we listen to the colony before removing the outer cover and adding smoke, and note how that sound changes as we continue with the inspection?  Do we talk to the bees as we work, consciously harmonizing with what they are telling us?  My worst experiences resulted from ignoring an ominous change in the music of the hive because I was hurried and wanted to get everything done in one session.  


Do we take time to ‘read’ the frames and make decisions based on our observations,  even if they are contrary to what we had anticipated?  In other words, do we see the girls, our patients, as essential parts of the process and are we willing to maneuver adeptly in response to the situation?


I recall many years ago hearing two examples of a visit to a family physician.  In the first instance,  the doctor is very confident, diagnoses the ailment quickly and prescribes a treatment.  In the second case, the doctor suggests that there may be more than one cause of the illness and he or she cannot be certain of what is paramount, suggests an initial plan of action with a follow-up plan if it is not successful, and arranges for a consequent visit if needed.  


The point was that we like the first doctor, because of the confidence exhibited, but the second is probably a better practitioner.  In the same way the oil tanker has its place on the ocean’s seaways, but it’s the tugboat that does the fine tuning as the former departs from and arrives at a harbor.


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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

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