In my conversations with makers, we often talk about our favorite books. Frequently it’s an out-of-print book, such as How to Make and Fly Paper Airplanes by retired Navy Capt. Ralph S. Barnaby, published in 1968. Saul Griffith told me about Barnaby recently and said that his was the very best book on aerodynamics. Saul’s office, incidentally, is located in the control tower overlooking a defunct Navy airbase, where he is building high-tech kites.
At O’Reilly’s FOO Camp this year, I went to a session titled “Beekeeping, Old Houses, and the Art of Observation.” I started keeping two hives of bees this spring. Brian Fitzpatrick, an engineer with Google in Chicago, started the session by introducing his favorite book: The Art and Adventure of Beekeeping by Ormond and Harry Aebi. (Ormond, the humble son of a beekeeper, credited his father as co-author.)
Brian is not a beekeeper, but he owns an old house that needs work. This book spoke to him about patience and the power of observation. Are we too quick to think we understand something?
If it’s a problem we see, we jump in and try to fix it, but maybe we create more problems. That’s true for repairing old houses as well as writing software. We don’t observe closely for very long.
However, that’s exactly what Ormond Aebi did with his bees. Brian lent me a copy of the 1975 book, which is currently out of print. Good writing of this kind doesn’t seem to age. Aebi’s book is a fine example and belongs to a genre of instructional manual that contains a deeply personal story. We get to see bees the way Aebi sees bees, and perhaps even see him the way bees do. He is devoted to understanding their language. A beekeeper “cannot readily change his bees,” he says. “It is he who must make the required adjustments.”
Aebi’s observations and his detailed procedures are invaluable to someone like me who’s trying to learn how to work comfortably with bees, and who doesn’t have nearly enough time to sit with his bees as Aebi did. He says you can learn a lot about what bees are doing to by getting up at night and putting your ear up against the hive to listen.
I was mesmerized by Aebi’s story of how he captured a swarm high up in a tree. On an extension ladder, with his sleeves rolled up to his shoulder, our hero grabs the branch from which the swarm hangs with one hand, and with the other begins to saw. The branch dips down.
He writes: “This will cause a mass of bees to be dislodged from the lower end of the swarm and they will fall almost to the ground before taking wing. Up they will come with a tremendous buzzing — but they mean no harm.” I stop reading and contemplate the beautiful image of bees tumbling down and then rising.
Aebi continues: “This gets to be hard work, for one is standing with one foot on a ladder rung and the other leg hooked over the next higher rung to keep in balance while sawing. I lay aside (sometimes have to drop) the saw as soon as possible and grasp the sawed-off branch with both hands.”
So our hero stands atop a tall ladder trying to steady this swarm of bees before he can descend. “The end of the limb with the bees is now hanging lower than my hands. Bees always want to climb upward so in a few minutes they start to cross the few inches of bark between my hands and the swarm. Moments later they begin to cross my bare fingers and climb my bare arms. This is a bit scary.”
And I’m thinking, “Yeah.”
Aebi waits patiently for the bees to re-cluster, descends the ladder very slowly, and puts the swarm into a waiting hive box without ever being stung. I was awfully glad he shared that adventure, along with so much of his hard-won knowledge.
I’m also glad Brian shared a favorite book with me.