I recently completed the master beekeeper course offered by the University of Montana. Since then, a number of people have asked me if I thought it was worth it, whether I learned anything, or if it was something they should do.
The last question is the difficult one. Some months ago—it may have been January or February—I read with amusement a discussion of master beekeeping programs on BEE-L. Some people thought these programs were the best things since sliced bread, while others thought they were a stupid waste of time that would yield nothing in return.
Education for its own sake
I believe the answer comes down to a belief in the value of formal education. Some people never want to walk into a classroom again, and some people cannot be kept out of the classroom. For that reason, I’m probably the wrong person to ask.
I know people who quit partway through advanced-degree programs when they decided the price for additional schooling would not pay back in increased salaries. I know others who decided they were bored and knew more than their professors, and those who decided they no longer wanted a career in whatever it was they were studying. Each of these thought the cost of education “wasn’t worth it.”
Personally, I believe that learning is an end onto itself. For me, the reward of knowing—of understanding the world around me—is the only compensation I need. Besides attending college and grad school, I’ve enrolled in continuing education of all shapes and sizes. I’ve taking non-credit courses in things like darkroom techniques, navigation, archeology, potato production, and interrogation methods. I received my novice ham radio license back when you had to know Morse code, and last year I became a certified NRA range safety officer. And now I’m a master beekeeper.
Value beyond dollars
Each of these endeavors has paid off in some way, although usually not in a way I anticipated. But I can understand the other side too. Sometimes I feel that I cannot bear to study for one more exam. Even this spring, in the midst of analyzing the movement of hemolymph through the bee body, I got to thinking, “Why memorize all these parts when I can look them up in the book?” It happens.
So the answer to “is it worth it?” depends on your mindset. If you believe education has value regardless of financial reward, then it is definitely worth it. But if education must pay back in dollars and cents, then maybe or maybe not.
The warriors and the scouts
This morning I listened to an insightful TED talk entitled “Why You Think You’re Right—Even When You’re Wrong” by Julia Galef. She compared warriors to scouts and pointed out that warriors defend their point of view regardless of the facts, while scouts seek the truth. Scouts must assess the enemy, the lay of the land, and confounding variables. A scout can’t allow emotion to get in the way of discovering and reporting the truth. Warriors on the other hand act on emotion or belief. Might is right. The truth is not as important as winning. Galef encourages us to be scouts in our thinking, to seek truth rather than succumbing to emotional judgment.
Truth seeking is exactly what the UM Master Beekeeper program is all about. Beekeeping should be based on facts, science, and research, not on emotion. We should never let belief systems get in the way of evaluating what is actually in front of us. The UM course helps you know the difference and enhances your ability to find the information you need and evaluate its source.
Seeking knowledge in research
The highlight of the course was the research paper. Everyone had to write a paper, individually or in a group, about some aspect of beekeeping. It could be a paper based on your own research or it could be a literature review. I used the opportunity to answer a question I had scribbled on a sticky note over a year earlier.
The question originated from my readers. Every now and again someone will ask, “What about honey keeps it from going bad?” or “Why does honey work as a wound dressing?” I was never happy with my answers because I didn’t know much about the why of it. So there was my paper: a literature review of the antibacterial properties of honey and how it all works.
For me, this was an excellent choice. I now know the answer to these questions. I know why honey behaves the way it does and, incidentally, I know how you can destroy those properties. I also learned some unexpected information: that the honey bee’s diet can affect the amount of antibacterial action in the honey. Really interesting stuff, but if it weren’t for the course, I would never have looked up the details. The exercise was definitely valuable to me and the paper was selected by one of the instructors as “best paper” in the class. Awesome.
The downside of the UM instruction is something I began to notice back in the journeyman class. Simply put, I now have less tolerance for voodoo beekeeping than I did before. In truth, I never believed in bowling-alley beekeeping, but I figured, “Let them believe what they want to believe.” The difference is now I find it more aggravating.
For example, I was recently told by a reader that he kills all Varroa mites and hive beetles by feeding his bees ground up marigolds mixed with syrup. This appalled me but before saying so I dutifully searched everywhere for references to marigolds as bee feed and marigolds as parasite control. When I couldn’t find anything on Google Scholar, I even checked Earth’s Largest Repository of Beekeeping Misinformation, but even there I couldn’t find anything. So where do these ideas come from? And why are people so willing to believe hearsay and so reluctant to check the facts?
What to do with the warriors
The larger question for me personally is how much time do I allot to the warriors, the ones with all the answers who rely on emotion for decision making? Do I try to steer them in another direction? Does being a master beekeeper confer a responsibility like that? Or should I stay silent? I hate to admit it, but statements like the pureed marigold thing keep me awake at night. In my mind I write and re-write my response, and then usually opt for saying nothing.
As it is, I can barely keep up with questions. Furthermore, I have many posts from six or more years ago that need to be updated, where information (or my understanding of it) has evolved. So what should be my website priority for the coming year? Do I spend more time updating, more time with the good questions, more time with the warriors, or more time scaring up new information—”scouting” as it were? These are rhetorical questions, of course, but they are the things I think about in the darkness of night.
Honey Bee Suite