Beekeeping: an art and science that for millennia has only improved due to the use of the scientific method. Every significant improvement in keeping bees has come from this process, yet, for some reason, there are a large number of beekeepers who refuse to accept science, research, and even the basic principles of the scientific method as a way to help improve their success in beekeeping.
I’m not interested in getting into the argument about why those beekeepers have chosen to refute the science and data available to them to make small changes in their beekeeping philosophies and tools. This is all about how someone who is looking to find a way to improve their beekeeping success can use some simple processes to ensure growth in their skill set and ability, as well as new information to improve their chance of successful beekeeping.
Basic scientific principles
One of the most famous examples of the use of the scientific method is the story of Gregor Mendel and his pea plants. In the mid-19th century, Mendel, a monk in what is now the Czech Republic, was curious to learn why offspring inherit certain traits from their parents, but not others. He experimented on mice and honey bees before finally settling on pea plants as his preferred test subject.
Mendel experimented with pea plant genetics for over a decade, using the scientific method all along. He had made an observation: offspring inherit traits from their parents. He asked why those offspring inherit certain traits and not others. He made a guess — that certain traits are more heritable than others. He tested his hypothesis and took thorough notes. Then, he analyzed his results and was able to conclude which traits occur at what rates, which led him to conclude that some traits are dominant, and will appear more often, while others are recessive, and require a certain combination of genes in order to be expressed.
Through the years, this experiment has been the basis for countless other experiments. Many people have made their own observations and used Mendel’s hypothesis to form their own hypotheses and experiments. The scientific method is a cycle: each experiment will lead to another.
In order to best understand how to make changes, we first need to understand the basics behind the scientific method and problem-based learning. Nothing in beekeeping is a cookie cutter recipe quite yet, but often, as beekeepers, that’s what we do. We follow blindly based on what others are doing. Instead, we need to learn techniques and skills from other beekeepers, but also learn how to apply these correctly by leveraging the information and observations we are collecting. This is the only way we can solve the issues of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) on a small scale ourselves.
I am by no means saying that what experienced beekeepers are telling you to do is incorrect or wrong, but it is your job as student and a steward of your colonies to take a critical approach to applying the knowledge that is being passed on to you.
As you check on your bees, it is important to follow the steps of the scientific method:
- Observe – make a note of something that you observe your bees doing that you are curious about. This could be anything from which bars of comb your bees are using for different purposes to the pitch of their buzzing.
- Ask a question – ask why they may be acting the way they are. This may be the most important step in the entire process. You may observe something, but you won’t get anywhere if you don’t ask why what you are observing is happening. Where would we be, after all, if the aforementioned Mendel had not been curious about heritability?
- Do some research – read what others have said about your question. Try to find as many different sources as you can, and at least a couple of opposing arguments so that you can be as informed as possible.
- Make a guess – using the knowledge you gained from your research, make an informed hypothesis as to why you think your bees are behaving this way.
- Test it and track it – continue to pay close attention to their behavior over time, and determine whether it supports your hypothesis. Keep careful notes so that you can compare each inspection.
- Analyze – look through your notes and see how they compare from inspection to inspection. Do you notice any key patterns? How do your observations support or refute your hypothesis?
- Discuss and adjust – discuss your findings with other beekeepers and see what they think. Perhaps they will have some ideas as to how to improve your experiment, or will begin to replicate it with their own bees. Adjust your hypothesis as necessary.
- Observe – continue to observe your bees and taking notes. The more data you can collect, the better!
The aggregate application of all of these small problem solving endeavors will help to build a geographic map filled with analytics that will help the entire beekeeping community identify patterns and issues on a local level.
Why the scientific method is important
- Wisconsin alone has 5 different ecoregions that can contain anywhere from a single biome to 12 biomes (all of which have a different ecosystem, weather, human density, farming density, etc). So, if you have a friend who keeps bees in one area of the state, and you are located in another, something that works for them might be completely wrong for your bees. It is important to make your own observations and see what works for you.
- By building a data-driven baseline, we can begin to adjust beekeeping practices in each of these biomes specifically for what is available. We can bring in more nutrition and plant diversity. We can understand if pesticides are doing anything. We can understand if the bee genetics are making a difference or not. Eventually, this can turn into a tool to drive policy or research to help the overall health of domestic and native pollinators alike.
- Multiply this effect across 50 states, 7 continents, etc.
- Now see the impact it has on other disciplines and sustainability endeavors when beekeepers set the standard.
How to record your data
You may be thinking that this all sounds like an awful lot of work, and a lot of time organizing and re-reading notes. It doesn’t necessarily have to be! Using a pre-made hive inspection form or software keeps your notes organized and consistent — both key players in practicing the scientific method effectively.
To help make hiveside data recording even simpler, Beepods will soon be launching a Hive Inspection App that will have easy-to-navigate inspection forms! We are hoping to launch the app within a few weeks, so be sure to check our blog for updates!