Back in the Pleistocene Era, when I was gainfully employed, I sold computer systems to small businesses. I worked for IBM, which was, at the time, primarily in the hardware business. Although we had our own software offering as well, we worked with a wide range of application developers who wrote software for our hardware platforms.
This was a good thing, as it enabled me to walk into a business – I worked with small manufacturers and wholesale distributors – and match their needs to a particular application that was likely to be a good fit.
Often, my competition was someone who had only one application to sell, but also sold custom programming services along with it. That was positioned as an advantage because the resulting combination fit the customer’s business exactly. Off-the-shelf software was never a perfect fit.
What I told those potential customers was what I believed then, and what I believe now. If you’re a small business – a distributor of wire mesh, say – and you have very little expertise with computers, you’re often better off making some modifications to the way you keep books or manage inventory or process orders so your business matches the software than you are changing the software so it precisely matches the way you keep books or manage inventory or process orders.
The reason is that custom code, at least back then, was usually bad. Things went wrong early and often. And, when they did, you’d have to get the vendor to fix the problem, which was expensive, time-consuming, and frustrating. While off-the-shelf software had bugs, too, it had many fewer.
The easiest thing to change is always you. You don’t need to rely on the willingness, schedule, or ability of anyone else, and there’s no charge. That doesn’t mean it’s always the best choice, but it often is.
Livestock, in this way, is a bit like software: you have to choose between accommodating it and trying to make it bend to your will. Usually, if there’s adapting to be done, you’ll be doing it. The chickens don’t like to go in before dark, and it’s twice in the last couple weeks that I’ve had to leave a dinner or a party to shut the coop door. The turkeys like to roost in the trees, and we gave up trying to get them to go in their house a long time ago.
And then there’s the bees.
It’s been six weeks now since we got our new colony of bees, and there’s some evidence that we have a strong, healthy queen. There are big patches of almost solid brood on almost all ten frames of the original hive box we put them in. This, despite the fact that there’s a perfectly good deep with ten perfectly good, and completely empty, frames of drawn-out comb right below them.
Although there’s not universal agreement about this (and bees are enigmatic enough there’s very little about which there is universal agreement), we’ve been taught to add an empty deep below the full one because the queen is much more likely to go downward than upward. When I checked the hive a week after Kevin and I added the deep, it became clear that our queen had other ideas. All the bees were crammed into the top deep, and bottom was completely empty.
I am happy to accommodate this queen’s wishes and cater to her as though she were Cleopatra. If she wants more sun, I’ll chop down the tree. If she wants more sugar syrup for her hive, I’ll brew some up. Hell, I’ll peel her a grape. All she has to do is make her wishes known.
Problem is, bees can’t talk.
So we’re guessing. We figure that, if she doesn’t want to go down, perhaps she wants to go up, and yesterday we switched the deeps. The full one is now on the bottom and the empty one on top. I’ll check it again in a few days. If they haven’t moved in, some frame scrambling might be in order – if we put a full frame in the empty deep, maybe they’ll be more comfortable. It’s a problem we need to solve soon because, if they feel too crowded, they could swarm despite having all that room.
It’s frustrating, not being able to figure out what they want.
And figuring out what animals want seems to be at the heart of a successful relationship with them, whether they’re the kind you adapt to or the kind that can, and do, adapt to you. Dogs can learn to change. Horses, I’m given to understand, can too. I don’t know about cows, sheep, and goats, but I’m sure there are people out there who do.
If you’re new to bees, or to chickens or turkeys or dogs or horses or cows or sheep or goats, you can read all about them on the Internet and get lots of useful advice from more experienced people, but you’ll find, if you’re anything like me, that your inexperience makes other people’s advice difficult to follow. The missing link is understanding what those animals want.
My all-time favorite animal writer is the late Vicki Hearne (although I will admit, under duress, to having a soft spot for James Herriot), whose maxim of animal training was that the essence of getting a dog or a horse to do what you want is to make the interest of the dog or the horse align with yours.
There’s a story in one of her books – it might be Adam’s Task, but it might not – about her method of dealing with a dog who loved to dig holes in the backyard. To get him to change his behavior, she waited until he started digging a hole. Then she went into the backyard with him, and enthusiastically helped him dig.
The dog thought this was great, and dug a hole for the ages. Then, when the hole was finished, Hearne filled it with water and dunked the dog’s head in it. This only had to happen a couple of times before the dog decided that digging a hole in the backyard wasn’t such a hot idea after all. Sure, the digging part was fun, but that dunking part was really not.
Imagine, thinking of that.
I can’t even get inside my husband’s head, and he’s the same species. To do what we’re doing with any kind of success, I have to plumb the mysterious depths of the psyches of birds and insects. It’s a tall order.
All things considered, though, I prefer it to selling software.