Long before I knew it had a name, I wrote about the Dunning-Kruger effect in beekeeping. In a blog post titled “I Was So Much Smarter Then,” I revealed the results of my one-sided, unscientific, and misguided study on the knowledge base of beekeepers as it correlates with the time they’ve been keeping bees.
From my extensive research, I discovered that first-year beekeepers know the least. Not a surprise. Many don’t know a mite from a mouse — after all, they both live in beehives — but that’s okay because the beginners absorb knowledge and learn fast. They read, attend classes, ask questions. They are grateful for any help you may offer.
The trouble starts in year two
The practitioners who know the most, those who know everything there is to know about bees, are in their second and third years. If you have a question, they have the answer. If you have an opinion, they let you know what they think of it — and of you. They don’t read, because they could write it better. They don’t listen, because they could say it better.
Trust me, they are beekeeping prodigies. If you need a fast answer and a confident opinion, they are the people to see. If you want an explanation not tempered with caveats, they are the ones to provide it. I am happy for them as they revel in their sea of knowledge.
It’s all downhill after that
Then, long about the fourth year, something happens — their knowledge erodes. It’s not that they know less, but they suddenly grasp the complexity of beekeeping. They realize they’ve learned but the tip of the iceberg.
These more experienced beekeepers see issues as complex rather than simple. They see answers as multi-faceted, not smooth and round. The amount they want to learn gradually becomes infinite. As their knowledge increases, their answers become longer, beginning with phrases like “It depends” or “It could be several things” or “I need more details.”
The tree of knowledge
Back in my 2013 blog post, I compared the learning pathway to the tree of knowledge. The first-year beekeepers occupy the ground, right where the tree breaks through the soil. The second- and third-year beekeepers live on the trunk where everything is smooth, well-defined, and orderly. Those who’ve been at it longer are in the limbs, branches, and twigs where every question has a complex answer, and all the pathways are obscured by leaves.
Knowledgeable beekeepers go to lectures, read scientific papers, and experiment. As their knowledge increases in multiples, they feel they know less, yet they want to know more. They are awed by the bees, mesmerized, humbled. They never have fast answers, only well-considered opinions tempered with experience and the realization that, with bees, there are no simple answers.
Beekeepers are not alone
While I was busy thinking my observations were brilliant, I did not know of the research reported by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger at Cornell University. In 1999, they published a paper titled, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.”1
In part, the paper says that incompetent individuals dramatically overestimate their own ability and are unlikely to recognize competence in others. It’s not until they eventually become more competent that they realize they were ever incompetent. Conversely, those who are truly competent often underestimate their ability as they embrace the intricacy of their subject.
According to an article in Psychology Today, the tendency to overestimate one’s own ability “may occur because gaining a small amount of knowledge in an area about which one was previously ignorant can make people feel as though they’re suddenly experts. Only after continuing to explore a topic do they realize its extent and how much they still have to master.”2
The crash before the climb
The best thing Dunning and Kruger gave us is their curve. The curve shows that as a beginner we start from zero and learn fast. Our self-confidence ascends like a rocket, nearly straight up. When we’re on the top of the curve — which doesn’t take long — we know it all.
Unfortunately, while we’re sitting at the top, we don’t know what we don’t know. Characteristically, our confidence doesn’t stall until something causes us to question our own ability, something like an apiary full of dead-outs. Then we avalanche to the bottom of the chart, landing in a humble heap in a deep trough.
But after that, true learning begins. In a painfully slow process, fallen messiahs brush away the humiliation, shed the arrogance, and begin a journey toward enlightened beekeeping. The second hump on the Dunning-Krueger curve is where we all want to be. This is the place where true experts reside and thrive.
I used to know it all
I am speaking partially from experience gathered from my website, classes I’ve taught, and lectures I’ve given. Sad to say, I’ve also been there myself. I used to know much more about bees than I do now. In fact, I used to know just about everything.
However, once I began studying bee nutrition, pathogens, pesticide interactions, reproduction, genetics, health, hygienic behavior, flower selection, pollen composition, bee communication, social interactions, nest-site selection, and environmental stressors, something happened. I knew less and less every day until I knew — and still know — almost nothing. I soon realized I had but one short lifetime to puzzle through an endless assortment of parameters, confounding variables, inconvenient facts, and scads of combinations and permutations.
Too much help from the top
The most troublesome beekeepers are the ones who rapidly ascend the steep slope and get stuck at the peak, sometimes for many months or even years. Having learned everything there is to know in ten months, they contemplate us mere mortals from their aeries in the sky and condescend to help.
And what do they do? They share their ineptitude. They pontificate in books and blog posts and slide shows and videos, trying to educate us laggards in everything bee. They even teach classes. They have simple, one-sentence explanations of every problem and they can’t understand why white-haired beekeepers with forty years of experience can’t give a straight answer.
And the YouTubers. Oh, my. Beekeepers on YouTube should be grateful my rapidly spinning hive tool can’t traverse the ether and conk them on the veil. YouTubers seem to have no filters — after all, they never see their words in print and never ask for edits. Much of it makes no sense, yet newbies thrive on it.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult for newbies to distinguish between sense and nonsense. Especially on the Internet, it’s easy for the know-it-all to out-compete the reserved professional. The right keyword and a little glitz can garner far more followers than a reserved and staid professional.
Preparing for the fall
In case you don’t know what an aerie-perched know-it-all looks like, here’s a real-life example.
A few years ago, I stopped at our local post office, a dilapidated trailer painted forget-me-not blue with a chalky red stripe around the edges. The postmaster took one look at me, threw open the window, and called to a man in the parking lot, asking him to come back inside. Then he turned to me, “There’s someone I want you to meet. A new beekeeper.”
Oh no! I wanted to hide, but there was no place to go — just one tiny aisle, one warped door, one splintery porch. The entire place lurched south as the guy mounted the steps.
I do not enjoy answering newbie questions when I’m not bee-ing, but I needn’t have worried. The guy never stopped talking long enough to take a breath. He said he just moved to town from the city. He now lived only three miles away. He got his first package of bees back in April, but now that he had rock-solid experience under his belt (it was June), he planned to expand to 500 colonies. He had his woodenware on order.
I did the mental math and decided my bees were toast. I must have mumbled something about mites because he reassured me.
“Oh, don’t you worry about that, little lady. I’m a treatment-free beekeeper and I know for a fact if you don’t start treating them mites, they ain’t ever showin’ up.”
Little lady? My skin crawled as I listened. And although the postmaster had introduced me as a “fellow beekeeper,” the newbie showed not a scintilla of interest in anything but his unprecedented success. All six weeks of it.
Predictably, I lost more colonies that fall than I did in the previous five years combined. But I don’t know what happened to the guy. I never saw him again, never heard a peep. I feel blessed.
Getting a head start
One thing the Dunning-Kruger curve doesn’t address is the people who know it all before they start. One wrote to me last year. She began, as they often do, with obsequious praise for my website.
The soon-to-be beekeeper is building her first hive. Based on her extensive knowledge of honey bees, she had a laundry list of “improvements” she plans to make, including:
- Interior lighting so her bees can work at night
- Crossbeams of ultraviolet radiation that sweep the hive entrance and kill viruses and other pathogens that may attempt entry
- Space heaters so her bees can stay toasty and avoid clustering
- Aquarium heaters to keep the syrup at afternoon-tea temperature
- Beetle traps with warm, bacon-scented oil to better attract beetles and mites
- A solar-powered air circulation system
She finished by asking for my opinion.
Probably because of all that fulsome praise, I took the time to explain why I thought each idea might not work. I have nothing against innovation, but if you don’t know what normal looks like, how will you know if you’re getting results?
Ultimately, I suggested she spend her first year using standard protocols and learning everything she can about honey bees and varroa mites. I suggested an apprentice-level course as a good place to start, and I endorsed some fact-based, no-nonsense books including The Beekeeper’s Handbook by Sammataro and Avitabile, Honey-Maker by Rosanna Mattingly, and Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping by Caron and Connor.
I expected the next correspondence, and it arrived swiftly. After the newest rendition of unctuous praise, she explained in painstaking detail why I was wrong on each count. Then she said something about a time warp. (Was she calling me a fossil?) Furthermore, she said books and courses would be of little use since she’s read so much already.
So here’s a woman who’s never kept a bee in her life. If you placed some bugs on a table — bumble bee, honey bee, drone fly, yellowjacket, leaf-cutter — I’m sure she’d be hard-pressed to pick out the honey bee. Yet, she knows more than the professionals, authors, teachers, writers, and the people she questions.
I used to try to help these people, but not so much these days. The people in it for the long haul will slide down the curve, cross the abyss, and eventually become good beekeepers. The others just disappear, maybe open a restaurant, run for president. You know the type.
Is the Dunning-Kruger effect real?
Like many popular theories, the Dunning-Kruger paper is subject to constant criticism, especially the statistical analyses that are part of the original paper. But its general applicability to human behavior is strong, and most of us have seen examples of it — or even slid down the curve a time or two ourselves.
Learning about the work of Dunning and Kruger made me more tolerant of know-it-alls. To be sure, they are still irritating, but now I know the condition is not confined to beekeepers. People in any field can fall victim to overestimating their knowledge, and I find that comforting. I can now rationalize that the overzealous second-year beekeeper is suffering not from an overdose of bee venom but from being human.
In fact, the Dunning-Kruger paper spawned real-life empathy in me because now I know those on the top of the first curve will soon come crashing down, sliding to earth at breakneck speed, bursting their egos along the way, and dissolving into a pool of harsh reality.
Alright, I admit that only part of what I feel is empathy. The rest is pure glee.
Honey Bee Suite
- Kruger J, Dunning D. 2009. Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77 (6): 1121-1134.
- PsychologyToday.com. 2021. Dunning-Kruger Effect. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/dunning-kruger-effect. Retrieved February 17, 2021.