Thursday, June 30, 2011

Reflecting on Oliver's "Rules" for Successful Beekeeping

This month's American Bee Journal (July 2011) contained an important article, "Rules" for Successful Beekeeping, by Randy Oliver. I have always liked reading Mr. Oliver's works whether in a bee publication or on his website. Oliver approaches beekeeping as an empiricist, subjecting beekeeping "wisdom" to experimental verification. Over the few short years I've been beekeeping, I know that his writings have influenced my practice and have always forced me to ask, "Why am I doing this?"

Besides containing general suggestions for our beekeeping regimen, this month's article includes an assessment and critique of the field of beekeeping. In this world of the internet, new beekeepers are faced with a barrage of misinformation,  "slanted" and more "faith-based" than empirical. Oliver lays some of the blame for this on 2nd or 3rd year beekeeping bloggers (ooops, that's me!) who portray themselves as experts but lack the knowledge that comes from years of beekeeping. According to Oliver, these individuals spread misconceptions which are picked up on by newer beekeepers just starting out.

I think there's a great deal  of truth to this critique and I am probably as guilty as anyone of doing this. I started blogging about bees before I had them! I have expressed strong opinions on things occasionally, though generally, I have attempted simply to describe what is going on in my apiary. I have attempted to bring the insights of sociology (the discipline I am trained in!) into the discussion of beekeeping and have always been (at least in my own mind) tentative in anything I've written. I always try to be critical of what I've written and willing to revise my ideas as evidence comes in. I apologize to anyone who might have been led astray by things I've said. I try not to confuse my models of reality with the reality of my models.

I think my boldness in stating my opinions strongly in this blog comes from living and working  in the field of academics where the young hot shot  with new ideas often has more capital than the old-timer. The new academic can make a name for him/herself by shooting down holders of the old paradigm. Experience, in itself, is not given very much authority in this world.

Having said this, I wonder if the field of beekeeping is a little more complex than either Oliver or I see it. My experience as a newbie to beekeeping has been rather different than Oliver describes. When I entered beekeeping I was often faced with deciding which old-timer should I believe. One of these experienced,  well-known beekeepers demanded total, unquestioned allegiance, ridiculing those who asked honest questions about her practice. I steered away from that and found healthier places (e.g. to learn where I could still question, and, yes, sometimes disagree. The humility, challenge and support of  Phil Chandler's website has kept me in beekeeping, even though, Chandler and his colleagues may have fewer years of experience than other "experts".

I agree with Oliver's discussion of the misuse of the  term "natural" in connection to beekeeping. I would add one other point however. 

I do not think it's possible for me to manage bees "naturally" since the world in which my bees forage is not natural. My bees collect pollen, nectar and resin in a world of "pesticided and herbicided" golf courses, weed free lawns, open garbage pails at local convenience stores, and a city where there is a "noxious" weed ordinance. These realities mean I may need to remove comb from frames every three years, feed pollen supplements at certain times of the year,  or control mites periodically. None of these are "natural" apicultural activities.

I have always preferred to describe my practice as long term sustainable beekeeping rather than "natural".

So what are your thoughts on Oliver's article? What can we all learn from him and each other?


Max said...

Just a quick note, the link to Oliver's website you posted is the wrong address, it's not .org as you posted.


Abelisto said...

Thanks for the headsup! I hate missing something like that.