The Butterfly Analogy

“A man found the cocoon of a butterfly. One day a small opening appeared. He sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole. Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could and could go no further. So the man decided to help the butterfly. He took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon. The butterfly then emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small shriveled wings.


“The man continued to watch the butterfly because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time. Neither happened! In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly.


“What the man in his kindness and haste did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening were nature’s way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon.


“Sometimes struggles are exactly what we need in our life. If we were allowed to go through our life without any obstacles, it would cripple us. We would not be as strong as we could have been. And we could never fly. So have a nice day and struggle a little.”


The author of the above is unknown, although a version appears in Niklos Kazantzkis’ Zorba the Greek, in which a man uses his warm breath to hasten the emergence of a butterfly whose wings never unfurl and  which  dies in his hand. 


The physician, psychologist, author, inventor and philosopher, Edward de Bono, also the originator of the term lateral thinking and proponent of teaching thinking as a subject in schools, devised a number of non-competitive games to demonstrate the critical thought process.  One of them involves three bottles, four knives and a glass of water.  The task is to create a platform above the bottles strong enough to hold the glass of water, in which no part of any knife touches the ground, each bottle is further than a knife’s length from any other bottle, and the water is not directly above any of the bottles. 


I would pose this challenge to my graduate group dynamics classes, inviting them to solve it as a group.  All kinds of learning styles were in evidence, all kinds of group interactions, but the key was that, after a while and as tension mounted, I would offer a clue to the solution.  Some, out of frustration,  would say yes; others would decline and want to persevere.  I went with the latter.


Finally, once a solution was reached, the question became, did the group members wish they had accepted the offer of help?  Every time, and without exception, the response was an unanimous ‘no.’ There was a satisfaction that came with having struggled successfully, with having wrestled their way to a solution, and with having done it as a group. 


When I first began this fascinating hobby of beekeeping, and partly out of ignorance, partly out of over-enthusiasm, I threw myself into the deep end, reading demanding literature and going to conferences not only locally but, for example, Apimondia in Montpellier, France.  There was much that I did not understand but the learning curve was rapid and rewarding as each part of the puzzle found a place in the larger picture. Even today, looking back at my notes from Apimondia in 2009, there is invariably something significant which I did not fully comprehend at the time. 


Frequently new beekeepers will lament that they do not understand beekeeping  terminology and concepts, that the information can be contradictory,  that some of the topics at meetings are above their heads.  For me this is not a bad thing, nor should we talk down to them.  It’s part of the struggle from which will come meaningful understanding, a real sense of satisfaction and perhaps even ownership of the learning process. Ultimately the question is, what represents a meaningful challenge,  how do we motivate those who accept the challenge, and how do we acknowledge them once they are successful, if indeed external validation is necessary?  


As a teacher I was creative and energetic; what I lacked at any time in my 42 year career was a mentor who would encourage me to set boundaries, help me set priorities and better manage my time.  The result was burn-out.  I frequently wondered why my job cycle was seven years and now the reason is more clear.    Having not been able to name it made it impossible for me to recognize it in others and mentor them appropriately.


As a school administrator I believed that one of the gifts we can give students is to let them rub shoulders with talented people, whether as peers, teachers or guides, even as I never had such a person in my professional life.  I knew something was missing but was never able to identify it and, in effect, travelled extensively looking for it.  


Realizing this deficit in retrospect reinforces my belief that beekeepers of all ages and experiences benefit immensely from a good mentor, especially if the latter knows when to stand back and when to intervene, when to stay close and when to let go. 


For the caterpillar, the end of the larval stage may well look like a death rather than a gateway to life reinvented,  provided that well-meaning onlookers do not try to hasten the natural process. For us the question might be, what is that precious  substance that, when encouraged to move in the right direction, makes us ready for flight?  



PS. The elegant  solution to de Bono’s challenge has not been included  so that those who want to wrestle with the problem can do so without  being offered an answer prematurely.  If you are successful, or want a clue, please contact me at


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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