When I Was a Beekeeper

July 17, 2021

When I start a sentence with “When I was…” my daughters smile because they know what is coming next. As a matter of fact, they usually complete my sentence for me by saying “… a beekeeper.” It appears that my habit of beginning stories of my beekeeping days with that phrase is very predictable.

When I was a beekeeper, I worked as the foreman for an outfit with 6,000 hives. Contrary to what you might think, we sold very little honey and made most of our money from selling bees. Back in the 1970s, we sold 60,000 queens and 40,000 pounds of bees per year. Our busy season was from January to the middle of May. During that period, I worked every day and regularly had over 100 hours on my weekly timecard. The remaining 68 hours, I ate and slept at the bee farm, so I was immersed in bees 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I thought about bees so much that after a while I started thinking like one.

Yes, bees do think. According to a 2012 blog by Jon Lieff, MD, “Most scientists have …assumed that advanced behavior in creatures with very small brains, such as the bee, must be ‘hard wired’ rather than responsive and changeable.” It was thought that bees did not have enough neural capacity to think, so they must be acting instinctually. However, researchers at Queen Mary University of London have discovered that thinking, remembering, and learning “…can be easily done with the smallest of nerve cell circuits connected in the right manner…” As Chrissy Sexton explains in When it comes to bee brains, size does not matter, how the brain is organized “…is much more important than the size of the brain.”

In Expert Political Judgment, Philip Tetlock explains the situation is similar for humans, which is a relief since my hat size of 7 1/8 is smaller than the average of 7 3/8. “How you think matters more than what you think,” is how he describes it. In other words, “It’s the process, stupid.” And, Robin Hogarth points out in his groundbreaking book, Educating Intuition, the reliability of your thinking process depends on the environment in which you are operating. Bees operate in what he calls a “kind” environment, in which lessons learned from experience can be trusted. The location of hives, the smell and shape of desirable flowers, and the differences between harmless and dangerous fungi are relatively constant. So, the reliability of lessons learned from experience can be trusted.

However, psychologist Thomas Gilovich, in How We Know What Isn’t So, says, “The world does not play fair. Instead of providing us with clear information that would enable us to know better, it presents us with messy data that are random, incomplete, unrepresentative, ambiguous, inconsistent, updatable, or secondhand.” Hogarth calls such environments “wicked” and Tetlock’s research has demonstrated that financial markets are some of the most wicked environments. However, Tetlock warns that we can’t just blame a wicked environment for poor financial decisions. “A warehouse of experimental evidence now attests to our cognitive shortcomings: our willingness to jump the inferential gun, to be too quick to draw strong conclusions from ambiguous evidence, and to be too slow to change our minds as disconfirming observations trickle in.” We do this, writes Hogarth in Psychology Today, because “…we have difficulty differentiating between kind and wicked learning environments… As a result, we may think we learned the right lesson, even when we didn’t.”

When I start a sentence with “When I was,” my daughters have learned from experience what comes next. Similarly, as a beekeeper I lived in a kind learning environment that was repetitive and predictable. So, when I was a beekeeper, I though like a bee and learned like a bee, but when I became an investment advisor, I had to put away such simplistic things. I had to, because in the wicked world of investing you can’t trust what you think you know. As Mark Twain reminds us, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”