Into the deep

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.

17 people are having a conversation about “Into the deep

  1. Really puzzled about your information about putting the empty hive body on the bottom. Everything we have read and been told here says always put the empty on top; they ALWAYS move “upstairs”. We have found this to be true. Good luck with the bees this year 🙂 Hope ours hang in there….new colony seems to be taking off a bit slow; have had them just a month…last year’s seems to be doing well

    • There’s clearly a below contingent and an above contingent. The idea that the queen always goes down makes sense to me, because you put the honey supers above and the queen rarely ventures up there. But bees move in mysterious ways, clearly.

      I hope your new colony gets its momentum!

  2. Regarding getting chickens to go in before dark, I have the secret! Freeze dried meal worms. When I want the chickens to go into their coop, I throw a handful of meal worms in, and then stand back because there will be a stampede. Of course, once you get them locked up, you have to listen to The Frustrated Chicken Serenade. Awwwwwk awk awk awk awk awk awk awk awk awk! I always expect them to gasp at the end, but they never do.

    • Ooooh, we know the Frustrated Chicken Serenade! We get it all the time!

      There are a bunch of foods that our chickens will stampede for, including bread and pie crust dough. The problem is that we have two chickens — our two Leghorns — who will not go with the crowd. They are suspicious and stand-offish and refuse to come in the coop. They stand outside, looking longingly at the food.

      I believe we are going to eat them.

  3. That sounds a lot like raising children, too, especially that first year. Hell if I knew what they wanted and when, and I was outnumbered 3:1 so I just followed their lead as best I could.

    That’s amazing that she thought of dunking the dog’s head. Wow.

  4. I wonder if dunking his head in a hole full of water would get Steve to stop leaving water all over the counters…..if I thought it would work I might contrive to try it. Genius with the dog though.

    • I am not sure that dunking a dogs head in water is the best way to train it. Maybe with a robust dog who can shake off the “slings and arrows” of life, but I have had a long line of dogs that I wound up with because other people could not handle them, and many of those dogs would be permanently traumatized by a dunking. I try very hard to never do something that will break my dogs’ trust in me, and dunking…well, if someone shoves my head in a hole full of dirty water, I am going to make darn sure that they never lay hands on me again.

      • Laura, I’m not sure it’s the best way either, but it strikes me that something unpleasant but not harmful is a reasonable way to discipline a dog. I’ve come around to the view that dogs need to know what’s expected of them — hey, don’t we all? — and being clear, with something unpleasant but not harmful, about what’s not allowed is, I think, what’s called for.

        But dogs are individuals — hey, aren’t we all? — and what works for some won’t works for others. I remember the dog in question as being young and robust, and this clearly worked for him.

        • I totally agree that dogs need to know what is expected and have to follow the rules. All of my dogs are extensively trained and I can take them anywhere. My way of stopping digging, which generally works, is to fill their holes with poop. It solves two problems because most dogs do not like to touch their own poop, and the lawn is nicely fertiized.

          I always worry about forceful physical discipline because, among other things, it can start a dog biting. If you have a dog that is terrified because, in his mind, you are trying to drown him, then it becomes very easy for the dog to snap to defend itself. Most dogs have some resistance to biting people, but once they cross that line, biting is always on the menu as a tool for them to control people. I want my dogs to believe that human flesh is sacred, and never to be taken into their mouths.

          I have a dog, Snoopy, that I adopted when his former owner, Dorothy, passed away. Snoopy came to Dorothy because he was found by her in-home caregiver hiding in the back of a garage. He had been beaten almost to death. He had so many injuries, including a compound fracture to his front leg, that the first vet they took him to recommended putting him down. Dorothy found a vet who has a foundation for people who cannot afford surgeries on their pets, and had a rod put into Snoopy’s leg, and nursed him back to health. When he came to me after Dorothy died, Snoopy still flinched when anyone moved quickly, was extremely hand-shy, would not allow men to touch him, would not approach his food bowl while anyone was in the room and would curl up into fetal position if anyone touched him with their foot (obviously part of the beating was a good kicking). I have spent years rehabilitating this dog, and he is finally to the point where most of the time he can function normally and only occasionally relives the nightmares. If I had done something like dunking his head, he probably would still be a frightened basketcase. Although this is the extreme, it also demonstrates that once a dog is traumatized, he does not just shake it off and move on. The trauma sticks for the rest of their lives.

          • That’s a very good thing you did, giving a dog a new life.

            I don’t set up as a dog training expert, but I think one of the ways it resembles child rearing is in its scope. There are different techniques that work for different people, and for different dogs. I hope, should we get a dog, to be able to suss out the way — or *a* way — that works for us. You’ve clearly found what works for you, and for Snoopy.

  5. Marilyn Baker says:

    “Back in the day”, I also worked WITH IBM and FOR a software developer. Of course my boss always wanted me to upsell any custom touches the client wanted, and boy, did they ever! Provided an almost guaranteed income stream for the company. Boss also added a “trigger” — if the client hadn’t paid his bill within 30 days, the software “failed”. He was not a nice man.

  6. Tamar,

    I read a few horse training books. Some were guides — Training Teamsters/Training Workhorses by Lynn Miller; Starting Colts, a Western Horseman book, Breaking and Training the Driving Horse, Doris Ganton. Some were more philosophical — Lyons on Horses, John Lyons. One very interesting book was Getting in Touch: Understand and Influence Your Horse’s Personality, by Linda Tellington-Jones. This introduced “unsuspected pain” as a performance (or attitude) hurdle, and discusses ways to detect hidden issues. A part of the book is devoted to stereotypes of horses, to predict basic personalities of horses. The part I liked was a series of exercises to bond with your horse, improve the horse’s trust, agility, and thinking processes. Some seem stupid, like the leg circles and tail work, but they can be used to calm and center the horse or pony, check the attitude, and be a treat you never run out of. Um, I like this book.

    The thing is, that the TTouch approach has been translated to dogs, cats, birds (parrots and parakeets), etc.

    Another book that has helped me with animals is a book for teachers, Tools for Teaching by Fred Jones. This book focuses on keeping the kids’ attention on the material — classroom discipline. I was trying to substitute teach at the time I found the book, and it was marvelous. It would also help parents understand what is expected at school, both the positive and the negative, and how to get better behavior at home. The thing is, I was also helping my neighbor with his cows — and as I progressed through the book, I could see the cows coming around just as much as the classes I tried to teach. I recommend this for livestock and pet owners, for parents, and for teachers. Check for this and the TTouch book at the library, to evaluate them.

    • Brad, thanks for the reading list! I think there are enough ways that animals and people are alike that lessons in dealing with the one are often transferrable to the others. That’s one of the reasons I like Vicki Hearne — she posits a world that makes simple sense for all species.

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