How to keep bees like a scientist
As scientific thinkers, we need to re-examine our beliefs constantly and question what we “know” to be true. As we learn, our cumulative knowledge increases, often giving us a better perspective. For example, I recently had a wake-up call that forced me to re-evaluate the idea of the windshield effect.
The windshield effect is a phenomenon that people have noticed the world over. In decades past, car travel from town to town often entailed a good bit of windshield cleaning as the glass became laden with squashed bugs that blocked the driver’s view. In those days, gas station attendants often did this for us as they filled the tank, and many travelers kept a supply of cleaners, rags, and scrapers in the car.
When I was young I couldn’t reach the windshield, so I was given headlight duty. The lenses would get so burdened with dead insects that light barely passed through, and the slop needed to be removed frequently in order to see the road. I can still smell those ammonia-soaked rags and the wormy odor of bug goop that permeated my clothes.
For the most part, we no longer clean car parts between stops, which most of us see as a good thing. But environmentalists around the world are horrified by clean windshields and blame pesticides, urbanization, climate change, and habitat loss for the missing bugs. So last year, when an entomologist told me the windshield effect was nonsense, I was taken aback. Then I decided he was simply too young to remember.
A different view
But several months later, when I was interviewing Dr. John Ascher of the National University of Singapore, I asked him about the windshield effect, and his answer stopped me short. He explained that the relative number of bugs on windshields then and now doesn’t mean much because we have no idea what was in the mix. Did it contain a great diversity of critically important insects or did it comprise several species in huge out-of-control numbers like a plague of locusts? In short, are we mistaking insect “blooms” for healthy and diverse ecosystems? Are we confusing biodiversity with sheer volume?
The truth is we will never know. No one back then thought the bugs were of any long-term consequence, so no one saved the windshield scrapings for posterity. We’ll never know if those legions of road bugs were a good thing or a bad thing because we don’t know what species they were or their relative abundance in those ecosystems.
And other variables can enter the picture, too. In the past, busy roads often traversed agricultural land, but now much of our cropland is set back from heavy traffic. Also, cities and towns frequently spray herbicides along roadways, which suppresses insect populations along long stretches of pavement.
In truth, we probably do have fewer insects than we used to and less biodiversity, too. But the windshield effect doesn’t prove that theory because it’s merely anecdotal evidence.
What is anecdotal evidence?
An anecdote is a story, so anecdotal evidence is story evidence. Right now, I’ll tell you a story about swarms. This spring I had three swarms in the trees in my backyard, and all three swarms selected my one and only top-bar hive as their preferred home and nixed my baited Langstroths. True tale. From this observation, I could easily conclude that honey bees are attracted to top-bar hives, or perhaps they are repelled by Langstroth hives. The evidence for such a conclusion is story evidence and it is useless. Countless factors could have swayed the bees’ decision, so the story is merely a red herring.
You scoff and say, “No one would come to that conclusion from just three swarms.” Maybe not, so let’s take another, one that regularly arises on my website. Someone writes, “I had a colony that was strong and doing great when I checked on it four months ago. But last week when I opened the hive to harvest the honey, there was nothing left but wax moths. Wax moths totally destroyed my colony.”
My turn to scoff. You had a strong colony, didn’t check on it for months, and now the hive is full of moths? Sounds normal. Moths love a weak or dying colony and somehow you provided one. But you can’t conclude moths killed the colony because you have nothing but anecdotal evidence — a story about what you observed. Oftentimes, anecdotal evidence illustrates a truth, but a story by itself cannot prove it.
What about that red herring?
A red herring is a distraction that throws someone off course. The phrase comes from a fictional story, written in the 1800s by William Cobbett, about a boy who saves a hare from the hounds by diverting the dogs with a dead fish, which just happened to be a red herring. Red herrings are common literary devices, often used in mystery novels, to divert the readers’ attention from the true villain, but the term is also commonly used to describe logical fallacies.
In the wax moth example, the presence of so many moths and larvae fouling the interior of the hive diverts you from the true cause of the colony’s demise. We follow the deceptive trail which leads us away from the answer.
Both of these stories ignore the many possible variables that could have produced the outcome you saw. A variable is an element, feature, or condition that can easily change. Going back to my swarms, perhaps it wasn’t the architecture of the top-bar hive that attracted the swarms, but maybe it was the amount of sunlight. Maybe it was the odor of the comb or the recently deceased colony that used to live there. Maybe it was the size of the entrance hole, the height off the ground, or the internal volume of the hive that attracted the bees
Sometimes conditions exist that we don’t account for, simply because we had no idea they were important or because we forget about them. In science, variables that are outside the scope of the experiment, but still affect the outcome, are called extraneous variables or confounding variables.
I knew an entomologist who did extensive controlled testing to learn how much of a certain pesticide caused harm to bumble bees. All the colonies received carefully measured doses, and she had an ample number of control colonies. However, in the course of the experimentation, she forgot to account for ambient levels of pesticide that drifted in from nearby fields, a situation that botched the results.
Tapping the scientific literature
Most of us backyard beekeepers are not in a positon to perform detailed scientific experiments on our bees. We usually don’t have enough colonies for statistical rigor, or we don’t have the manpower to make timely changes, take quality notes, and keep detailed records. Furthermore, do we even want to? Science done right is complex and time-consuming and often doesn’t work as a hobby.
Still, it helps to think like a scientist when you are observing your bees and trying to discover what is right or wrong with them. One important skill is the ability to read peer-reviewed scientific papers.
When I was working on a master’s degree in environmental studies, I was surprised at the amount of time that was accorded to reading and evaluating scientific literature. We spent months and months reading papers that were deemed poor, okay, and excellent by the professors. We would pick them apart, line by line, searching for errors in experimental design or implementation, and shortcomings in logical reasoning and statistical analysis. At first, I saw little wrong with these papers and, because they were peer-reviewed, I didn’t expect to see egregious errors.
But as time passed and we learned what to look for and how to find it, the errors became glaring. We began to wonder how any of it got published. Years later, when I took a master beekeeping course, we were given similar assignments: read and evaluate. Both of these institutions understood that scientific thinking begins with reading and understanding the literature. It requires a thorough appreciation of the scientific method and knowledge of its shortfalls. If a beekeeper cannot evaluate the stuff that’s published, he will be pulled asunder as each succeeding paper claims a different outcome.
You can find papers to support any thought. Neonics are killing bees or they’re not. Corn syrup is bad for bees or it isn’t. Varroa must be micromanaged, maybe.
To understand these papers, the beekeeper needs to evaluate the science for himself and decide if the conclusions are valid based on the experiment. Letting someone else do the thinking is a crapshoot. Oftentimes, two people can evaluate a paper and think it means categorically different things. Members of the press and Facebook can be dangerous, too, often determining a paper’s validity based on the title alone or maybe the abstract.
I’m not saying the scientists are at fault. Far from it. Science done well is extremely difficult. Every single step, from stating the hypothesis, to designing the experimental protocol, to implementing the plan, gathering data, and ultimately analyzing the statistics, is fraught with potholes. Scientists must be diligent, but because research is so exacting, those reading science must be just as scrupulous.
Two types of reasoning
Discussions of scientific thinking often center on the differences between the two major types of reasoning. The first type, called inductive or bottom-up reasoning, reaches generalized conclusions from specific instances. The opposite type, called deductive or top-down reasoning, reaches specific conclusions based on proven facts. If that pan-fries your brain, you’re not alone.
Inductive reasoning is often considered unscientific because it’s not based on facts. Instead, it starts with an observation followed by a search for the explanation. Day-to-day human thinking is mostly of the inductive type. In fact, we’re more-or-less hard-wired to think inductively. While that’s not always a bad thing, if we don’t realize its limitations, it can easily lead us astray.
On the other hand, deductive reasoning is associated with the scientific method, and it is used extensively in scientific research. It often begins with a pair of proven facts, and draws a conclusion based on those facts.
When done properly, deductive reasoning will lead to sound conclusions. The trouble is the “when done properly” part. Unknowns lurk everywhere, and we often don’t see them or even know they exist, which means the statements of fact may be inaccurate. If the facts are not accurate, the conclusion won’t be accurate either.
Let’s look at a typical example of beekeeper inductive reasoning. Let’s say you kept bees successfully for five years until someone erected a cell tower a mile from your apiary. During the following winter, all your bees died. Since you didn’t change your management protocol or anything else, you conclude that cell towers kill bees.
In this case, you came to a generalized conclusion (cell towers kill bees) based on a specific observation (a cell tower was built near your apiary and your bees died). This type of reasoning is conclusory and fails to take any other circumstances into account. Isn’t it possible your bees died of pesticide poisoning, disease, or parasites? Or perhaps cold weather, starvation, or something you haven’t thought of? Come now! You simply took a wild guess.
Inductive reasoning is faulty when it takes a problem and assigns a cause without any experimentation. Worse, we often blame the first thing that comes to mind, or sometimes the thing that bugs us the most, like that ugly tower.
Deductive reasoning is more nuanced, and starts with facts. For example, if you say honey bees belong to the order Hymenoptera (true) and all Hymenopterans go through complete metamorphosis (true), you can conclude that honey bees go through complete metamorphosis (true). It’s mathematical. If A equals B, and B equals C, then A equals C.
However, if you say John is a beekeeper (true) and all beekeepers get stung (most likely, but we don’t know for sure), then you cannot conclude that John will be stung. Even if we see John acting like an idiot around his bees, we can’t deduce he will get stung because we don’t know if the second statement is always true.
I’m not saying backyard beekeepers need to sit down and plot their logical thinking strategies. That’s nearly inhuman. But when we are trying to figure out what went wrong or understand how we can improve our beekeeping skills, it doesn’t hurt to be aware of some of the more common logical fallacies.
You can find lists of logical fallacies online, sometimes 15 or 20 per article or, in one case, 229. Logical fallacies are most often variations on inductive reasoning, traps that are easy to fall into. And fall we do. All of us.
I’ve picked out a few common logical fallacies, just to give you an idea of how irrelevant thoughts can interfere with logic. Be aware that many of these fallacies overlap in such a way that one circumstance can fall under several categories at once.
Confusion between correlation and causation is all around us. Remember those wax moths in the dying colony? Wax moths are opportunists, adept at finding and exploiting weak colonies. But just because wax moths and failing colonies often occur simultaneously doesn’t mean one caused the other. Something caused the colony to weaken, and the moths took full advantage of the situation. Did the moths cause a strong colony to weaken? Not likely.
A hasty generalization is easy to make, especially when it provides an easy answer and eliminates future work. The new beekeeper who says, “Based on my very first mite count, I can see my bees are immune,” is bound for trouble.
An ad hominem fallacy finds fault with the person rather than his ideas. “Joe is an electrician, so what can he possibly know about beekeeping?” If you don’t like what Joe says, it’s easy to roll your eyes and say, “Consider the source.”
A beekeeper makes an appeal to authority when he says, “A master beekeeper taught me, so it must be right.” This type of fallacy invokes a person’s title, education, position, or fame as proof that he is an authority and, therefore, correct.
We often like to set up a false dilemma by arguing there are only two positions and nothing in between. A statement like “You’re either a natural beekeeper or you’re not” does not allow for any flexibility or creativity in thinking.
Beekeepers aren’t the only ones to use the alphabet soup fallacy, but they are particularly skilled at it. You simply convince people you are right by using so many abbreviations they can’t possibly follow your (lack of) logic. “Last year my TBH had DWV, BQCV, and PMS all at once. So I decided to use an SBB, a QX, and a UE. Then I treated with OA and FGMO mixed with HFCS. That worked until they picked up AFB, or maybe EFB, not sure, while foraging in OSR.” Sure, whatever you say.
The slippery slope assumes one wrong choice will lead to a cascade of undesirable consequences. “If we keep treating for mites, pretty soon no genetic resistance will remain, and before you know it, we’ll be treating monthly, weekly, and daily until no bees are left, no plants, and we all starve to death.”
Another time-honored favorite among beekeepers is the appeal to tradition. “My grandfather kept bees in skeps for fifty years. If it was good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.” This thinking disregards changes that occurred during those 50 years, including the addition of varroa mites, tracheal mites, small hive beetles, deformed wing virus, Nosema ceranae, neonics, and climate change.
In a non sequitur fallacy, the conclusion does not have any logical connection to the argument. “My bees died because my boss made me work every second Saturday in February.”
Although it’s fun to use anthropomorphism to illustrate a point, it should not be taken too seriously. Anthropomorphism assigns human traits to non-humans, as in “My bees were angry at me for mowing the lawn.” It sounds logical but anger is a human construct, not an insect one. More likely, the noise was alarming to them.
Scientific thinking is better for bees
The list of potential fallacies is endless and often entertaining. Logical fallacies are a good reminder that our thinking can quickly get mired in information, ideas, biases, and emotions that have nothing to do with rational thinking.
When you feel yourself getting pulled into a less-than-logical argument, step back, and see if you can find the false reasoning. And remember, your bees will be better off and your skills as a beekeeper will improve when you think like a scientist.
Honey Bee Suite
Thinking Like a Scientist Makes Beekeeping Easier