Crosswords and Early Life Experiences

A clue in a recent Sunday edition of the New York Times crossword  was “Not black and white” and I had three of the seven letters : _  N  C _ _ _ R.  Clearly, the answer was UNCLEAR


However none of the four down clues would fit.  After a brief struggle I put it aside and sometime in the  night I realized that, obvious and appealing as ‘unclear’ was, perhaps it was incorrect.  Once this possibility was recognized an alternative arose which immediately accommodated the four down clues.  This new response is at the end of this piece in case you want to come up with it yourself before reading further. 


There are many things that we assume are correct because they are appealing and seem obvious but which may in fact prevent the completion of the full picture.  For example, keeping honey bees side-by-side in 3/4” white pine boxes, or using open bottom boards, or feeding a syrup made from white sugar in the fall or winter (I have to ask, were I  in danger of starving, and was fed nothing but white bread for a month or more, I would survive but how healthy would I be?)


The question that arises is why do some beekeepers search for  alternative management strategies whereas others (I would suggest the majority) accept the basics without question?  


Our education system inadvertently preaches obedience and repetition.  Initially, it is important for survival (“Don’t touch that hot plate - it will burn you”) but too often it continues unchecked into middle and high school, even tertiary education. To succeed, students are encouraged to repeat on a test what they have been told in class and, rather than  trust their own judgements, to accept that an external authority will decide whether they are right or wrong, whether their thoughts have value.  The risks of disagreeing, of thinking outside of the box, are a bad grade and ‘failure.’


I witnessed this first hand when a student teacher was required to come up with a one week syllabus for a section on the Caribbean for a 9th grade social studies class.  He devised a creative video based on Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean, in which students would travel from island to island in search of treasure.  His  supervising teacher rejected it out of hand because she did not know how to grade it, instead handing out work sheets in which the students had to fill out the capital, population, currency, etc. of fifteen islands.  It was mindless busy work with minimal educational value …but it was easily graded.  Of course every student got an  A - how could they not? 


There is significant research and evidence which shows that much work and testing at the post-secondary level is not much different. 


In an age of search engines it is more difficult to write with originality in that most college students today submit say, an essay, without actually ever having read a book on the subject.  The search engine takes them to a variety of specific sources which they stitch together in the form of an essay.  Ironically, when 327 members of Mensa were asked to describe the major environmental factors responsible for their intelligence, the foremost consideration was reading : “Intelligent people tend to be heavy readers throughout life.  They read for information and for entertainment. Although the reading habit should ideally be established during childhood … it is possible to develop a love for reading at any age.”


I too am guilty of over-use of a search engine, primarily as a fact-checker, and like to think that years of reading have provided a larger context into which the cyber-data will fit. 


We have not lost our ability to think so much as created a culture in which thinking is regarded as unnecessary.  Most things - news, information, entertainment, medical care, food, merchandise - are provided in neat packages , prewrapped, preconditioned and predigested.  For example, with the prevalence of GPS many adults concede that their map-reading skills have declined.  For some unknown reason, some GPS systems take delivery vehicles to an address one block and a side street from our house.  They blithely drive by our mail box with the address in large letters, faithfully following the voice in the box, and then call to say they are lost.  I don’t know whether it is a matter of trusting GPS without question, or losing the skills of observation as they drive. 


Twice a year in the 1960’s I would drive 28 hours to university, the first 400 miles of which passed through one town. There was no radio in the car (nor any radio stations for most of the journey) and no tape deck or cassettes.  Sometimes I drove alone, sometimes I had a companion.   And yet I cannot remember being bored, or dreading the trip.  In retrospect I realize it was a great time for reflection, and although time is available to all of us equally, without exception, we choose to fill it with neat packages of sound. 


And yet, despite this, there are some people who rise above it, who trust their own thought processes and have the self-confidence to act on them, accepting failure as an essential part of that process. Why do some of these ‘initiators’ emerge?  After all, “Loyalty to petrified opinion,” Mark Twain wrote in his Notebook, “never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.”


As with almost any aspect of human nature, some of the answer comes down to our genetically inherited disposition, but increasingly, psychologists are realizing the important part that early life experiences play, not least,  the way our parents behaved towards us.  The intentions behind helicopter, or bulldozer parenting, may be those of protection but, according to Dr. Judith Locke of the Queensland University of Technology, by ensuring children do not face uncomfortable challenges there might be  unhelpful effects, including making them less confident and less capable of facing difficulties, therefore leading them to exhibit weaker leadership skills.


Chinese psychologist Yufang Bian and her colleagues at Beijing Normal University  surveyed 1,500 teenagers at 13 schools in Beijing and assessed their leadership potential while at the same time the teens rated the extent to which their parents had been overprotective. After controlling for the influence of factors such as family socioeconomic background and the teenagers’ academic achievements, Bian and her team found a clear pattern. The more overprotective their parents, the less the teens were perceived as having leadership potential by others, and the less likely they were to be in leadership roles. Teens with helicopter parents, it was surmised,  tend to have lower self-esteem, are less willing to take risks, and are less confident about their leadership skills. 


Studies at Florida State and Miami universities arrived at similar conclusions. 


Yet there are those who trust their own thought processes and have the self-confidence to act on them, accepting failure as an essential part of that process. These initiators, or leaders, reflect the less protective  parenting style of their parents which made them more confident of their abilities in the face of adversity and more willing to accept the consequences of taking risks.  The good news is that, with the benefit of age and experience, those who were over-parented can choose to see themselves as more independent and practice making autonomous decisions, build their emotional and decision-making skills, and slowly build their confidence


This clearly has major significance as we face international crises like climate change, but how does tit relate to beekeeping?  It was Clare Densely at Buckfast Abbey who first suggested to me that it takes five years for a new beekeeper to learn how to read a hive, and that this need to be the main focus.  It is equivalent to the “Don’t touch that hot plate - it will burn you” phase of childhood.  I recognize that people manage bees for different reasons, and some want to invest as little time as possible; for those who want more it is after those first five years that one can choose either to continue the ‘you throw, I catch’ methodology we too often see in schools, or one can choose to conduct some citizen science with one’s bees, knowing that, besides the girls themselves (and they are remarkably forgiving and resilient)   you are the judge of your levels of success. 


In my case, the trigger to this transition is described beautifully by Grant Gillard in the January issue of ABJ.  He describes how initially he micromanaged his colonies ‘as if the bees had no clue’ and could be ‘domesticated to best serve our human objectives.’ Over time, and a million mistakes later, Grant ‘began to appreciate the basic foundations of honey bee biology and what drives the colony’s development …  I watched how the bees took their cues from what was happening around them and how it informed their behavior.” His role was to trust the bees to do what they do best while providing the colony with what it needed. “The successful management of a beehive is more about collaboration rather than manipulation,” he concludes. Or as Brother Adam said to Lotte Moller, the author of “Bees and Their Keepers,” Remember, you have to listen to the bees. They follow their own desires and not ours.” 


Ed Colby has said more than once in his column in Bee Culture,  “The world doesn’t  need more beekeepers. It needs more good ones.” Sometimes that means having the self confidence to question what is unclear; you might just replace it with something that is IN COLOR 


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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