beekeepers

Beekeepers and the Dunning-Kruger Effect: Unskilled and Unaware

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.

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 161 No. 4, April 2021, pp. 381-383.

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.

Before I knew about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, I pictured second- and third-year beekeepers being on the trunk of a tree where everything is simple and easy to understand.
Before I knew about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, I pictured second- and third-year beekeepers being on the trunk of a tree where everything is simple and easy to understand. Later, as our knowledge expands, we find ourselves among the branches where all issues are complex and all questions have multiple 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.

The Dunning-Kruger curve shows that our self-confidence is very high when we begin learning a new skill, partially because we don’t know what we don’t know.
The Dunning-Kruger curve shows that our self-confidence is very high when we begin learning a new skill, partially because we don’t know what we don’t know. As we begin to grasp the extent of our subject, our confidence collapses. Only after the collapse are we able to slowly build true knowledge and the self-confidence that goes with it.

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.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

References

  1. 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.
  2. PsychologyToday.com. 2021. Dunning-Kruger Effect. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/dunning-kruger-effect. Retrieved February 17, 2021.

33 Comments

  • So where does “imposter syndrome” fit in with this?
    I never had that first year confidence. Seven years in, I’m pretty sure I’m a very bad beekeeper. Or at least if not VERY bad, then certainly a lot better in theory than I am in practice. I am confident I would be a better beekeeper if I could just figure out which books and websites the bees are using, so I could concentrate on those.

    • I never heard the term either Granny so I googled the term… a copy and paste definition >Imposter syndrome is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. It disproportionately affects high-achieving people, who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments.

      It would seem to be the mirror image of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

  • I loved reading this. We have been keeping bees for 35 years. Every year that passes is another year I am amazed by what I learned while observing them, coupled with how much remains unknown.
    My career was in the investment business, as a fiduciary. I can’t begin to say how much this syndrome infects newbie investors who have read a book or two and purchased a few stocks which subsequently go up. Instant brilliance. I always found this amusing. Fortunately, they are easily ignored.

  • When I started beekeeping in college a century ago in the 70’s, it was much easier without the varroa mite problem back then. I did have a problem with wax moths one year not being careful and leaving a few frames out and reinstalling and introducing wax moth larvae into the hive. Newbee mistake.

    The new millennium posed many complex problems and new ones like pesticides, lack of food due to suburban growth and tough winters.

    I have to agree the learning curve is accurate as stated. Given time, we all learn from our mistakes.

  • At one time I heard Dr Conner call this the ‘second-year beekeeper syndrome.’ If you read back thru the ABJ for the last 50 years you may discover this human malady as applied to beekeepers is not new. After some extensive interaction with the ‘commercial crowd,’ you may even come to the conclusion that this malady is not totally related to how long you have been keeping bees or for that matter how long. Everyone likes a simple soundbite for every question they pose and I suspect a lot of folks get pretty tired when I often reply ‘it depends.’ Without a doubt when you add variables like location and time scale the answer may get pretty complex.

  • I guess I don’t fit into the “normal” curve and I think I’m glad. I’m a 2nd year bee-keeper and while I’m enjoying it more than I did the first year, I feel like I know less than ever! I just can’t seem to wrap my head around their schedule of doing things and I’m pretty sure they don’t give a hoot about my schedule for them doing things. Thanks for the interesting article 🙂

    • I totally agree with you! You do the course, get a (nuc) colony, and you’re away. Then you maybe study for some of the BBKA education modules, and suddenly – Wow, there’s so much to learn here. And now after 15 years of beekeeping I now realise how enormous this subject is! And that’s why I’m hooked on it!

  • Fascinating! The Dunning-Kruger effect describes my own experience with higher education.

    I’ll admit that I don’t keep bees, I just enjoy observing and trying to identify the ones that visit the flowers in my neighborhood.

  • Thank you, Rusty, for this post. After 12 years I feel that the sea of beekeeping knowledge gets ever wider and my attempts to stay afloat in it take me ever further from the shore. 🙂

  • Thanks, Rusty. Good to see you back; I have missed you. I enjoy my bees I am up to 46 hives now. If they live through winter it will be a blessing. I do everything I have learned to do from Bob Binnie, Ian, and Kamon. They are on Youtube, but they have real knowledge.

    They are commercial beekeepers that run 400 to 3000 hives I watch them for their management, if they can keep their 3000 hives alive they are worth watching. Then there is Mr. Dunn and David Burns. These 2 men have only 20-30 hives and they are great as well. I watch these folks because I know nothing. I want to be successful in beekeeping, just a sideliner that loves their bees. Your writings are great. I enjoy reading them. In real life where I live, I have met the people u were talking about, know-it-all beekeepers. They refuse to treat etc because they are not going to make weak bees. And in the end, they make dead ones. Anyway have a great day

  • The “little lady” alone would have done me in. We’ve been keeping for five years and have never felt competent. So much depends on the situation. Still, we persevere, attending field days and meetings, and learn something new almost everywhere we go. Thank you for giving us a name for our experience.

  • Great article. We see it a lot with our Local Association beginners. Though it’s interesting that the ones who remain dogmatic that they know it all seem to disappear after the first year never to be heard of again and the ones who remain open minded become committed to the hobby.

    Hopefully I don’t think I have suffered too much from the Dunning Kruger effect. Although I am only in my second year of keeping my own bees I have been fortunate to look after our Association Apiary’s 18 hives for 3 years and have had some supportive mentors, both of which have taught me how much I still don’t know.

    I think one of the best things about beekeeping is discovering new things and the intellectual challenge of working out why bees do what they do.

  • I am a physician and I see this all the time with new residents. They eventually learn the hard way after a humbling event. As in most things in life, experience and common sense win out.

  • This is so ‘in the moment’ for me today. A couple of weeks ago a beekeeper in her first year wrote on our asociation FB page that she’d been asked to talk to her local infant school children about bees. Somebody else queried the wisdom of this and I replied (as a joke really) with: ‘If you need to know anything about beekeeping ask a second year beekeeper’. This is a standing joke locally. Well I was really taken to task over it and called ‘a crabby old beekeeper’ for not seeing the beauty of a newbie wanting to share her newfound knowledge with small children. My reponse was this: Small children are capable of asking very deep questions and they should be answered fully and accurately. Your post here is so appropriate!

    • Thanks, Linda. And I agree with you. Kids remember everything you tell them, and if it’s not true, they resent it years later.

  • I’m so grateful I learned from reading The Beekeepers Handbook and subscribing to your site. Even articles like this are enjoyable. Thank you Rusty.

  • Hi Rusty! This has been a very interesting read!

    I’ve been there myself, it takes time and a lot of self-awareness to realize that you don’t know it all. Sometimes I also struggle with another interesting psychological dilemma: the imposter syndrome. What if all I have written, even if it’s backed up by all of the sources I have read and cited at the end of the articles I have posted on my blog, is completely wrong? What if even after reading tons and tons of papers, I still can’t feel like I can write/talk about it with confidence?

    So I end up reading and researching a single topic for months and months, spiraling down a rabbit hole made of “let me just read another paper and then I will write this article… Just one more paper!”

    Maybe I’m still inside the “valley of despair” part of the graph 😀

    Thank you, Silvia

  • Thanks so much for this, Rusty. After 8 years of keeping bees, I feel like I’m finally asking the right questions, and sometimes even understanding the answers. And since this is the Comments section, let me add…

    There’s a more extreme version of D-K here in Los Angeles: brand new beekeepers who make a Facebook page advertising their hive inspection service. For a (high) price, they will get you all set up with bees of your own — inevitably a feral swarm that grows up to be aggressive. Same with live bee removals. After a few swarm catches, suddenly a new business pops up, offering to Save the Bees for just $250/hour.

    One more: I have the utmost respect for experienced beekeepers who share their hard-earned knowledge. I’m very grateful to learn from them. But it should also be said, many long-time beekeepers are not eager to consider new ideas.

    Feed bananas to bees? “That’s absurd!”
    (In spite of the studies done by Katrina DeWitt and others.)
    Screened bottom boards? “That’s just an overpriced gimmick!”
    Alternative varroa treatments? “You fool! If you’re not vaporizing OA, you must be trying to kill your hives” and so on

    [Rusty, if this too ranty, I won’t be sad if you don’t post it. But bananas really *do* stimulate the queen to lay]

    • David,

      Interesting. My objection to feeding bananas has nothing to with bees. Bananas are cloned and very susceptible to certain diseases that live in the soil. When bananas in a plantation begin to get the disease, the growers simply flatten more rainforest to grow more bananas. So, nothing that I know of ruins more rainforest, threatens more species of both plants and animals, or decreases CO2 uptake more than banana production. I believe we already produce way too many bananas and I would hate to see it increased so we could feed them to bees as well.

  • Oh My Gosh! This was so me! My husband kept saying “you’re talking like you know – and I don’t think you know”….. Then I had an incident with an extremely aggressive hive this year – my third year and that woke me up truly – or knocked me down a lot of pegs – or I slipped down the curve or whatever. I loved reading this!! It is so true. I have a few newer beekeeper friends that probably should read this too LOL. Until they slip down the curve – I will think of your article and politely listen when they make suggestions.

    • Lorrie,

      I love this story! At least you’re ahead of your friends. You’ll be flying up while they’re crashing!

  • Ah, this explains why I feel less than enthused about my hives this year as I enter my 4th year of beekeeping. Thank you!

  • I am in my fourth year. My wife decided we, as in I, should get bees. My father killed a couple of hives when I was young. I now could tell him what the cause was. My first hive, a three lb package, winter-killed from moisture, I hadn’t found quilt boxes, and also extreme cold. I do quite a lot of research on youtube but you have to be sure the info is legit. You have given me very good pointers. I am in the northeast, so the weather is similar for many parts of the year.

  • I must be slow. Been keeping bees for four years now and I probably still come across as a second-year beek.

  • Thanks for sharing this article. I find this is true of many newer bee keepers. Also there are those who have been doing it for a while that should read this.

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