“Wikipedia and the Beekeeper”
Bee Culture (November 2006) Vol. 134 (11): 17-19.
Malcolm T. Sanford
Perhaps one of the major reasons many humans are fascinated by honey bees is the many ways they communicate. These include sound (the piping of young queens about to emerge from their cells), sight (the basis for what many call the “dance” language), and odor (the attraction of the queen’s pheromonal complex to drones and her ability to reproductively control her daughters). It is this communication that makes a honey bee colony the “social animal” it is, and allows these insects to cooperatively go about their business efficiently and effectively from one generation to the next.
Humans, too, have this social drive, although sometimes we don’t admit it and may even go to great lengths to deny or even destroy it. Social insects have “matured” their communication to a high degree over millennia, whereas humans appear to be only “maturing” in this arena. This phenomenon is now evolving in a different realm outside the human body, that of the personal computer. Once a stand-alone unit with the ability to crunch numbers far more quickly and efficiently than any human brain, the technology has become more powerful linked together first in offices through “intranets” and then through out the world via the “Internet,” delivered to the user via the World Wide Web. This so-called “information revolution” continues today with almost frightening speed. It promises to totally revamp much of what many of us have come to hold as sacred cultural icons. Among the most time-honored are the traditional way we receive information through paper-based documents such as newspapers, magazines and encyclopedias.
Who does not have a set of encyclopedias at their disposal, often in their home and/or certainly in the public library? These handy books may also be sold as part of supermarket or other commercial appeals. As great a resource as they are, however, there are limitations. They are by necessity voluminous and not particularly portable. In addition, they are set in stone (on paper) and not easily changed, a fact that is more and more problematic in our modern information environment. Finally, they are expensive in time and money to reproduce.
With the personal computer, it became a “no-brainer” that sooner or later the encyclopedia would migrate off paper and become available on magnetic media, first tape, then hard disks, and now compact disks (CDs). And it was similarly inevitable that it would also become an important part of the World Wide Web.1
An encyclopedia is often superior to other information because of its organization. It is costly, however, and often generalized. Those looking for more in-depth information invariably have to search for other resources. For example, if one wanted to find information on honey bees, a broad brush approach would be to consult an encyclopedia, but then one would have to look at beekeeping books and magazines, and increasingly the World Wide Web with its cacophony of sites, some good, some not so good, and increasingly filled with advertisements and personal opinions (all too often couched as facts).
We all have to wade into this messy sea of information as we
get increasingly educated on any topic.
Some of us are better than others at assembling what we see as the
“golden nugget” of information delivery, the age-old calling of the writer. I was drawn to the Cooperative Extension
Service for which I worked over 20 years because of this.2
I continue to do so today,
writing my Apis
newsletter and penning this column from my room in a house in a Northwest
No matter how much I read, muse or write, however, it is never enough. The information changes so quickly in the modern electronic environment that I find myself consistently behind. The World Wide Web has been a Godsend to me, providing a community of folks who give me information access, no matter where I might be. But we authors and web developers are still often isolated spirits, working alone ironically amidst incredible information richness. What if I could rely less on myself, and more on my community as the honey bee does? Where is my centralized encyclopedia of knowledge similar to that enjoyed by Apis mellifera itself, and how can I get to it fast, or as a Hawaiian might say “wiki wiki,” usually reduced to the single word “wiki.”
Due to an experience in the Honolulu airport when he needed a cab fast, “wiki” became the word software designer Ward Cunningham used to develop the first site on the World Wide Web that allows visitors themselves to easily add, remove and otherwise edit and change content. The word is also sometimes interpreted as "What I Know Is," which describes the knowledge contribution, storage and exchange function of the wiki; it is a classic “backronhm.”4
There are now a great many wikis found on the World Wide Web. But clearly the most visible and perhaps better called the “mother of all wikis,” is the one that is also billed as “Wikipedia -The Free Encyclopedia.”5 I found it quite by accident one day not long ago and as is my wont entered “beekeeping” in the search box. The main page for the honey bee contains links to nine different Apis species and says, “there are only six to eleven species (depending on the authority) within the tribe Apini, all in the genus Apis, and all of which produce and store liquified sugar ("honey") to some degree.” The contents of the page includes the following:
Using the above tree as a guide, one is off and running exploring the collective mind of current and presumably potential information contributors. Most of the topics above would be common on many web pages, but perhaps those states with the honey bee designated as state insect might not (17 are listed). If your state is one, you could be the one to add to the list. This list might also be used to make a case that this insect should be the official one for your state.
At the bottom of the page are several other links, including one to the “Wiki Media Commons,” where a number of high quality photos of honey bees, plants and apiaries are found. According to the Commons philosophy, “ All these efforts, and more, are done to counter the effects of what Creative Commons considers to be, in the words of chairman of the board Lawrence Lessig, a dominant and increasingly restrictive permission culture, ‘a culture in which creators get to create only with the permission of the powerful, or of creators from the past’. Lessig maintains that modern culture is dominated by traditional content distributors in order to maintain and strengthen their monopolies on cultural products such as popular music and popular cinema, and that Creative Commons can provide alternatives to these restrictions.”6
Another class of information is found off the beekeeping main
page at a link called “Wikibooks.” This open-content text book, according to its
introduction, “is being designed as an all-purpose broad scope reference book
pertaining to apiculture, including information regarding bees, beekeeping and
associated practices. Although Beekeeping is being written with the
initial intent in aiding hobbyist, it is a growing resource that could also aid
commercial beekeepers similarly. This Wiki book
however, is not being written in a completely linear manner. Because
of the writing style of this book, through the act of simply reading it
chapter-by-chapter content will be lost.
A look at contributors reveals that a Robert Engelhardt (Username: Artic) began the project, and hopes to see it through to its success. Robert is a first-year beekeeper. Following the link to a description of Mr. Englehardt’s activities, we find he, “has been interested in bees and beekeeping for a while but has not yet had the ability to actually keep bees until this year (2005). Right now his intentions are to remain a hobbyist, but he would like to introduce the world to such an entreating and possibly even profitable hobby by beginning a Beekeeping Wiki Book and adding to other such Wikis.” He also has worked on a wiki cook book, “tends to (or wants to) post recipes in regards to honey; after all it is a spectacular substance that he believes is quite underrated. One recipe Robert enjoys particular is Honey Taffy, why not give it a try.”8 This reveals a dynamic missing in many information resources, the voice of the regular person, someone who is not necessarily an expert, and candidly admits it, yet still has something to offer the larger human community.
And then there’s Wikiversity. Learners and teachers are invited to join this community as editors of this website where anyone can edit the pages. It is a community for the creation and use of free learning materials and activities; a multidimensional social organization dedicated to learning, teaching, research and service. Its primary goals are to: 1) Create and host free content, multimedia learning materials, resources, and curricula for all age groups in all languages. 2) Develop collaborative learning projects and communities around these materials.9 Traditional universities had better watch out. Some are apparently opting to join the wiki movement rather than fight it.
So what is Wikipedia? Perhaps a better question to ask is what is it not?10
And what the wiki community is not?
Is Wikipedia perfect? Of course not. There are a great many questions about this new kind of technology. The open nature of it can materially suffer from vandalism, egotism, commercialism, human error, or just downright stupidity. Nature, one of science’s most prestigious journals, however, recently found that Wikipedia came close to the Encyclopedia Britannica in the accuracy of its scientific entries.11 Britannica took offense, and issued a response calling the results “Fatally Flawed.”12 Nature, however, demurred, declaring it would not print a retraction.13
Contributors and consumers it seems are left to make their own decisions about the value of this technology. I have consulted many web sites over my career, and so far have seen nothing to compare with the depth and accuracy I find in the Wikipedia pages that relate to honey bees and beekeeping. I’m betting this resource will get better and better. Ignore it at your peril.