Marginal Gains

Running Shoes 2014-01-09
A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step

I run 38 marathons a year. Not all at once, nor even one at a time. Just to the office and back, 4 miles/day, every working day. With a few weekend runs thrown in for fun, it works out at around 1,000 miles a year. OK, so what’s my lycra-suited commute on the tarmac treadmill got to do with beekeeping ?

Well, consider the miniscule quantity of nectar (around 40mg) which each honeybee forager brings back to the hive (which is then evaporated down by the bees to provide just 17mg of honey). It is estimated that a single forager will provide just half a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, having flown over 500 miles. But it all adds up, with a productive urban hive yielding 30-5olbs of surplus every honey harvest.

So in beekeeping, as well as in personal fitness, the name of the game is: “marginal gains”. It’s not easy (the danger is that you pick the easy stuff and dodge the hard stuff – believe me, I know!) and you have to think clearly and critically about your habits and be prepared to change.

The concept of “marginal gains” is simple. Step forward, Dave Brailsford, the Team UK Olympic Cycling performance director who was responsible for a remakable medals haul at the London Olympics, to explain: “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by one per cent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.” By definition, though, “marginal gains” of 1% do not deliver dramatic outcomes immediately. Perseverance over the longer term is key to the amelioration of performance. Or honey yields.

Although the theory of “marginal gains” is attributed to Wilhelm Steinitz, a 19th-century chess world champion, I like to think that the precursor was Lao-tzu (c 604-c 531 bc), the founder of Taoism, who observed that: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step“. Incrementalism is at the core of “marginal gains” philosophy.

So, as ever, the beekeeper has much to learn from the bees. They practice the gradual accumulation of advantages, which are not decisive individually, but collectively make a great difference. For example, here is my Integrated Pest Management (IPM) box-of-tricks for suppression of the parasitic varroa mite. I’ve selected a series of therapies and apply them at the appropriate season to obtain the optimal outcome (yet each and every action is subject to the prevailing conditions in each individual hive).


                                                IPM Action                                                                                Season

  •                              Open mesh floor in hive                                                                 All Year Round
  •                              Varroa drop monitoring                                                                 All Year Round
  •                            Brood comb replacement                                                                       Spring
  •                               Drone brood removal                                                                      Late Spring
  •                                       Icing Sugar                                                                                 Late Spring
  •                                          MAQS                                                                                          Summer
  •                    Apistan (if varroa infestation high)                                  Before Supers On / After Supers Off
  •                                 Oxalic Acid Trickle                                                                           Christmas


The use of icing sugar from Spring into Summer surprises some people (and some beekeepers, too!). The icing sugar is lightly puffed onto the bees to encourage intensive grooming – which helps them shed a few more varroa mites. It’s not a core strategy, but in terms of my IPM plan, it’s incremental…and that is what “marginal gains” are all about.

I can’t help thinking that Dave Brailsford would approve. And possibly Lao-tzu. Is that the time?…must run!

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