Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Learning by Playing Around - Avoiding Dogma

I get quite a few emails from people asking me to explain in more detail how to perform some aspect of top bar beekeeping.

Some of these ask for details of measurements that I have forgotten to add to a diagram, or the best type of wood to use, or the right size of mesh for floors - and I'm happy to provide information like this when I have it, and when I'm fairly sure of my ground.

Often, the questions are about matters for which there is no hard-and-fast answer, such as 'when should I split a colony?', or 'should I remove bees from my attic?', or 'how many bars should I use on my hive?', and I feel the need of these people for solid answers, even though usually there are none.

I think our education system has conditioned us to expect there to be simple answers to all questions - things we can memorize and write down on demand in an examination paper, and have it marked by the teacher as right or wrong.

But life isn't like that - and bees are certainly not like that.

In your first year of beekeeping, you can read a lot of books - and even take some exams - and feel like you know a lot about bees and beekeeping. We all know people like that - I was probably one of them! Recently, I heard about a beekeeper who passed all her BBKA modules and was actually taken on as a Seasonal Bee Inspector before she had completed her first full year of beekeeping! Then she made herself thoroughly unpopular among her local beekeepers by laying down the law to people who had been keeping bees for 30 years and more.

It is natural for beginners to ask questions - I encourage it and this is why we have a thriving Natural Beekeeping Forum with over 3,500 members around the world. Often, when I give a talk, I spend as much time answering questions as I do speaking, and that is how I like it - it's always more interesting to be responding to genuine interest in people than to be just talking at them. And when I don't know the answer, I say so.

As we accumulate experience, I think one of the most common things I hear is not so much that all our questions are answered, but that we find ourselves asking more and more of them - not necessarily of others, but of ourselves. Questions like, 'why do I do it this way?' and 'is there a better way to do this?' and, best of all, 'what would happen if I did this?'.

For me, it is vital that I go on questioning everything I do with bees, to make sure I don't get stuck in doing things only one way 'just because that's the way it's done'. Whenever I see someone doing something mechanically, I am likely to ask them why they do it, and if they can't come up with a better answer than 'because that is the way I have always done it', then I'm liable to ask a lot more questions! And that's what I like to do to myself.

And this is why I like the way we can discuss new ideas on the forum, and why we generally don't go in for 'laying down the law' of 'natural beekeeping'. We are a broad church, and we welcome people with no experience (even those who ask 'what does a honeybee look like?') as well as those who have been looking after bees for decades. By and large, we like to encourage the attitude of 'have you tried this' rather than 'you need to do it this way'.

Every month or so I receive an (un-asked for) email from a woman who claims some sort of hot-line to the mind of Rudolf Steiner, and on this basis makes largely unintelligible pronouncements about the way we should be keeping bees. She has convinced herself that 'there is only one way'.

As a lifelong dissenter from all things religious, I have an abiding dislike of dogma. I can see the damage that has been done in the world by the blind following of rules, and the last thing I want is to be making more rules. So I encourage everyone participating in the great experiment of 'natural beekeeping' to ask more questions, use your senses to seek answers from the bees themselves, and don't get bogged down in the pronouncements of people with axes to grind or 'gurus' to follow. What seemed to be true 100 years ago may be quite wrong, or no longer relevant to current conditions, or it may have some truth still in it, but in any case it is only one person's view.

1 comment:

The Luddite said...

bravo! thanks.
needed to be said (typed. posted.)

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