Keep It Simple Stupid
October 29, 2012
One of the most distinct impressions I'm left with after the trip to Yakima is the role smart phones have taken in the lives of people, beekeepers included. I'm old enough to remember when you picked up a telephone and a female voice on the other end said "number please." Dial phones began to appear when I was about 10.
I'm probably still in the dark ages when it comes to cell phones, I don't use mine for anything but phone calls, and those I have to keep to a bare minimum because I have the cheapest possible service, I get 75 free weekday minutes for the month and if I go over that I really get whacked, to the tune of about 45 cents a minute. Obviously I do my best to stay within that limit.
The four of us who were brought to Yakima for the showing of "The Vanishing of the Bees" were all put up in the Yakima Hilton and it was obvious from the first morning that we were all early risers because when they started serving breakfast at 6:00 a.m. we all were the first ones there. We weren't five minutes into introductions and breakfast though before first one and then another slid their chair back or drifted off to another table, left hand to their left ear, talking to an unseen friend or associate.
This went on throughout the day Friday. At every opportunity one or more of them would be on the phone making or taking a call. By the end of the day Friday I told them all that I was tempted to call five or six friends and tell them to call me so I wouldn't look so left out.
Tracy made me get a cell phone about 12 years ago because she was concerned that I spent so much time alone, out in the beeyards, and she thought I should have some way to connect with the world in case there was some sort of emergency. She was right of course, and there have been a few times when the cell phone has gotten me out of a tight spot. Mostly though it has just been a convenience and to some degree has been used as a business tool.
The cell phone has become not only an essential tool for many people, but is a symbol of the complexity of our lives. Maybe it's the reverse for me, I've tried to keep my life relatively simple and have been fairly successful, but it isn't as simple as it may appear. I still have lots of things going on, mostly by way of the internet and my home phone. So far I've kept the cell phone private, and silent, and not too many people have the number. It's a lot more peaceful that way.
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Even a simple life isn't all that simple because it takes some fairly intense management skill to keep things simple. When I was at IBM there was a term occasionally referred to in conversation, KISS. It may still be used today, I don't know. It stands for Keep It Simple Stupid. Another IBMism from those years was "Talk Net." Even though IBM was a pretty high powered business the message was don't overcomplicate things, pare it down, focus.
It was enlightening for me to spend a few days with two big operators. The phone calls in and out reflected the flow of their businesses, their lives, and they weren't hesitant to share what was going on. Dave Mendes was negotiating for delivery of a semi-load of frames, he tries to rotate comb out of his colonies on a regular schedule as a disease control and with 20,000 colonies the scale is incredible. A beekeeper my size, on the very low end of commercial beekeeping, might order a few boxes a year, Dave gets frames by the semi-load.
Hackenberg was dealing with discouraging calls from both his people and other beekeepers. Dave Mendes says they call it The Hackenberg Hotline. They may kid him about being a hobbyist with only 3,000 colonies, but he is a central figure to many commercial beekeepers and everybody knows if you want to know what's going on you ask Hack. Dave was getting calls telling him of collapsing operations. Beekeepers have finished the harvest and are getting their bees together, sorting and checking as they ready them for California. What too many beekeepers were finding was that their bees are suddenly going downhill in large numbers.
Friday night I had a unique opportunity, and it alone probably made the whole trip worthwhile for me. Eric Olson is the largest beekeeper in the state of Washington and he and the two Daves are old friends. They called him because they were in town and Eric invited us over for a steak dinner Friday evening.
Eric is a classic case of the ups and downs of commercial beekeeping. He lost almost 70 percent of his 13,000 colonies recently and faced the decision of whether to close down his operation or take out a huge loan and try to resurrect it. If it didn't work he would lose everything. Eric chose to go on, he is now back up to 16,000 colonies and having what he calls "A Cinderella Year," not just a good year he emphasized several times through the course of the evening, "A Cinderella Year, it doesn't get any better." He was having a bumper crop and was elated and it was refreshing and encouraging to see someone having a good year when there is so much gloom and doom elsewhere in the beekeeping industry.
We had a wonderful meal, it was obvious that Eric's wife is no novice to these big impromptu dinners and it was like a big get together at a farm or ranch. We had steaks done to perfection, two salads, baked potatoes, vegetables, fruit, all the fixin's. The best item on the menu though was the conversation. By commercial standards I'm a nit and here I was at the table with some of the big boys. I decided my best course was to be a mouse in the corner, keep my mouth shut and just listen.
It was the right choice. I was privy to inside information, war stories among friends, the wrecks and rodeos of beekeeping. What do you do, for example, when you roll a semi-load of bees, 400 or 500 colonies? I heard several recipes. The first rule is you get there first; before Joe Blow Towing tries to cable the load upright and drops it two or three times because the load of bees lifts the wrecker, before the fire department starts hosing things down, before the exterminators arrive. If it is salvageable, get a wrecking company that uses air bags and right the load that way, if it is a jumbled mess stretched down the highway, burn it. Tough decisions, more colonies than I've ever owned, up in flames, a cost of doing business.
As I said, the scale of large commercial beekeeping operations is incredible, Dave Mendes has over 40 employees, two mechanics who work full time just keeping his fleet of over 20 vehicles running. I need to put new shocks on my lone pickup. In their hearts they are still beekeepers though, just like me, and I was privileged to sit at their table.
Toward the end of the evening Eric turned to me and said "You've been awfully quiet Tom, what do you think?" My response was, "I've been a beekeeper for 37 years so I'm no novice, but I decided in the beginning that I wanted to be a community beekeeper, working within 15 miles of home, serving a local market. I feel like a junior high school football player sitting at an NFL training table. It is indeed a privilege to sit with all of you and hear what I've heard, but after hearing all the things that can go wrong in a big outfit I'm convinced once again that I probably made the right decision 37 years ago."
I've kept a small commercial operation alive for nearly four decades and hope to stretch that out for another few years. I don't think I will ever roll a semi-load of bees, I don't think I'll ever have a semi-load of bees, but if I do I'll have some idea of how to deal with it. No, I'm content, working close to home, in familiar places, sleeping in my own bed every night. Red called the other day. He had run out of gas on the edge of town. I was there in minutes with a gas can. That's the life I want, a rescue no more than a phone call or two away in a dilemma. The next time I may be calling Red. KISS. ❖