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Everything I Know I Learned From Hermit Crabs

I’m a university scientist reaching the end of my career, and recently calculated that I’ve had 115 co-authors on research papers over a 45-year period. Clearly partnering with students and colleagues was a signature element of my research style, but my first experience collaborating was not auspicious, almost destroying a friendship and derailing my career before it really got started.

I was living and working in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1973 after graduating from Boston University with a B.Sc. degree in which my performance was considerably less than stellar. The “Hole,” as we called it, was home to the renowned Marine Biology Laboratory (MBL) and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), both sources of the short-term research jobs that paid my bills for the next couple of years.

I worked as a research assistant investigating chemical orientation in lobsters, and then landed a summer job for the nearby U.S. Department of Agriculture Gypsy Moth Laboratory, evaluating the use of pheromones to confuse gypsy moths, a serious forest pest. I also had an opportunity to work with a professor in Mexico for two months who was studying wasp social behavior at various latitudes. I filled the in-between times with a few weeks of warehouse work here and there, and a three-week stint as a substitute teacher for high school biology classes.

Two years of this insecure work in varied underling capacities convinced me that I needed to go back to school if I was to ever rise above being someone else’s assistant. I decided to pursue a Masters degree in marine biology, and enrolled in the Boston University Marine Program, based in Woods Hole.

I soon was focusing in on a thesis topic, stimulated by conversations with a postdoctoral fellow at WHOI, Stu, to consider hermit crabs. Stu was loquacious, with an excellent moustache, a productive seaweed-fertilized garden and a young family that was exceedingly generous in inviting me over for meals.

We talked often about science, and one day he pointed out a research opportunity we could collaborate on, probing whether hermit crabs could recognize each other as individuals. This was a hot topic at the time, inhabiting the border between animal behaviour and psychology. Many researchers were convinced that even lowly invertebrates could distinguish one individual from another, a remarkable cognitive feat if true.

Stu and I designed an experiment to test whether hermit crabs recognized each other individually, or just recognized the general dominance state of the other crabs they encountered. We agreed that this would make an excellent thesis topic for me, and thought up a clever study in which we allowed crabs in small dishes to establish dominance orders, then switched individuals of equal dominance states.

We reasoned that switching crabs of the same rank would heighten aggressive behaviors in the dishes if the crabs recognized each other as individuals, but there would be no increase in aggression if they only recognized their place in the hermit crab pecking order.

Very excited, I got to work, collecting crabs in the field and spending many long days and late nights in the laboratory recording their behaviours. I forgot just about everything else, including Stu, in my fervor to get some results. Night after night I worked late, observing the crabs and recording their interactions, building up an array of data that would definitively prove or disprove our hypothesis.

One night my housemate and fellow student Mary, also a good friend of Stu, came in to the lab. She unloaded a diatribe filled with words my young daughter used to politely refer to as “swears.” Mary roundly and colorfully roasted me for how I had taken a fine collaboration and run it into the ground, cutting Stu completely out of the process.

I was devastated, seeing immediately that she was right; I hadn’t talked with Stu in weeks. While I had no evil intention, I had been carried away by enthusiasm to make the project mine, not ours, possibly destroying not only a professional relationship but a good friendship as well.

I went to see Stu the next morning, apologized profusely, and insisted on dumping out the crabs and finding some other topic for my thesis. Stu, wiser and more experienced than I, replied that the nuclear option wasn’t necessary, he just wanted me to include him in my enthusiasm, and bounce ideas about the project back and forth.

Considerably chastened but now wiser, I completed the research, sharing the results and my excitement with Stu, who had much to contribute in interpreting and analyzing what we were finding. We did eventually publish a paper in Animal Behavior together, “Dominance and effects of strange conspecifics on aggressive interactions in the hermit crab Pagurus longicarpus (Say),” indicating that hermit crabs recognized dominance but not individuality.

More significant than the publication, I had learned a valuable lesson. Collaboration is hard. There is no proper balance between individual achievement and the communal good, only choices we make as to where to position ourselves on that spectrum. I had fully intended the project to be collaborative, yet due to over-enthusiasm more than selfishness I found myself on the individualistic end of that continuum.

Perhaps it was that early experience that attracted me to the idea of collaboration, but I did move on from hermit crabs to spend the rest of my scientific career studying bees, particularly honeybees. They inhabit the most collaborative of societies, with colonies whose members are guided more by communal goals than solitary pursuits.

For me the satisfaction of collaboration has been much richer and deeper than any individual achievement, the relationships I built through working with others more meaningful than any personal accomplishment.

I’m forever grateful to hermit crabs, and then to bees, the vehicles for teaching me that “ours” is a much richer word than “mine.”

Final Report: Audacious Visions for the Future of Bees, Beekeeping and Pollination

Au·da·cious: “A willingness to take surprisingly bold risks; bold, daring, fearless, intrepid, brave, courageous, valiant, heroic, plucky.”

Very excited to announce that the final report from the Bee Audacious conference is now available.

Here’s a small bit from the report that captures its most important outcome:

Bee Audacious demonstrated that diverse perspectives can indeed come together and reach broad, effective outcomes that still respect individual and organizational interests. Sometimes the most audacious thing we can do is reach across the aisles that separate us to work collaboratively with those with whom we disagree. 

In that way Bee Audacious taught us something considerably more important than the pollinator issues that brought us together. Civility is possible, and positive collaborative outcomes likely, when we rise to respectfully listen to each other above perceived differences.

We are our finest and most effective selves when solitary becomes communal. It is through collaboration that our future prosperity and the health of pollinators will be best assured.

Valentine’s Day: The Gift of Dialogue

Valentine’s Day is similar to Christmas, Thanksgiving, and other significant holidays in raising expectations that may not be met.

We idealize the loving couple out for dinner, holding hands, eyes locked together throughout their slow, romantic evening, exchanging thoughtful gifts.

More commonly, our real-world busy couple has a quick kiss as they run out the door to work, exchange the required flowers or chocolates they quickly picked up at the market on the way home, then chit-chat through dinner while their subterranean selves run through the chores and obligations they need to attend to the next day.

The difference, of course, is intimacy, and in whether our mythical valentine’s couple has developed this simple but most difficult of skills.

In my work at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue, I’ve been impressed by how the formal and public practice of dialogue can lead to intimacy and connection outside the civic sphere, in our private relationships.

We describe dialogue as involving collaborative listening and learning to discover meaning among diverse participants, best conducted in the context of citizenship and civic engagement. Yet, in my experience the intimacy created through the art of public discourse is transferable to every aspect of our deeply personal interactions.

What are the dialogue tools that can turn a mundane conversation into a profound connection? The first is presence, being genuinely and fully engaged. Seems straightforward, yet it is the most forgotten aspect of contemporary conversation.

Try this exercise randomly in meetings at work: stop your meeting for a moment and ask everyone to write down what else was going through their minds while a colleague was talking. I do this often as I facilitate dialogues, and invariably the embarrassed participants write lists of distracting issues that were preventing them from being fully present in the discussion.

The good news is that I notice an immediate shift in the room, from distraction to attention, and a clear increase in presence and interaction, once we get the garbage thoughts out of our heads and truly listen.

Listening is a second key aspect of dialogue, whether talking about a tough issue at work, politics in the civic sphere, or in the most romantic of interactions. But we tend to listen with a judgment editor in our minds, an inner voice that weighs in to agree or disagree with the viewpoints we’re hearing.

Good communication requires that we suspend judgment of right or wrong, and accept the validity and equality of other points of view. In the end, we don’t have to agree, but true intimacy requires that we at least understand. Any opinion can be torn to shreds in debate by a skilled adversary, but arguing is not dialogue, and tolerance for nuance, ambiguity, and even inconsistency is a key element of intimate relationships, whether at work or at home.

Another aspect of dialogue is a not to do: do not suck the air out of the room by taking up too much space. Picture yourself sitting next to our valentine couple’s table in a quiet, romantic, checked-tablecloth restaurant, and eavesdropping. Yes, we’ve all listened in to our neighbours’ conversations, and too-often what we hear is one member of the couple talking on and on, while the other purports to listen but really drifts into their own thoughts.

An exercise I do with over-talkers is allow them one comment during a meeting, and one only. Once they’ve spoken, their task for the rest of the meeting is to stop themselves every time they want to speak, and write down what they learned by listening to someone else rather than monopolizing the floor. You can almost see the light bulb go on as they understand how discussions thrive and understandings grow through their own brevity and silence.

Two other aspects of dialogue are effectively transferable from the public to the private spheres. One is to ask deeper questions, which is a byproduct of strong listening. Try, for example, asking a colleague at work, or your valentine, why a particular conversation point is so important to them. Everything is personal, and uncovering the underlying history, experiences, and motivations behind perspectives will turn the most mundane discussion into intimacy.

Finally, listen not only to what is being said, but what is left unsaid. Ask yourself “What am I not saying in this conversation”? “What are we not saying to each other?” Often the most significant and connecting issues occur beneath the surface, at the place where even our own conscious minds may not be aware of what we mean.

Consider giving the gift of dialogue this Valentine’s Day. Be present, listen, provide room in conversations, ask real questions, and attend to the unsaid.

Dialogue is highly effective at work, but also promotes the closeness at home that will make this Valentine’s Day a truly intimate one.


Nonfiction Course

I’ll be teaching a new nonfiction course, “Nonfiction Series for the Weekend Student” at Simon Fraser University beginning in January. It’s six Saturdays, and is open to anyone interested in working on their nonfiction writing ability. Below is a partial description of the course; hope to see some of you there.

Non-fiction writing at its best is about storytelling, probing the deeply personal and the profoundly incomprehensible questions: who are we, why are we here, what boundaries define and limit our human activities, where do our responsibilities lie?
In this intensive course, we will explore strategies and tools to craft effective non-fiction pieces for newspapers, magazines, blogs and books.
The course will be hands-on, interactive and participatory, including reading and analysis of a broad range of non-fiction writing, exercises to expand your non-fiction toolbox, workshop opportunities to give and receive feedback and an in-depth consultation with the instructor to review an edited submission of your writing and discuss how to move towards publication.

What will I learn?

Explore a range of non-fiction genres, including:
-feature magazine articles
-personal memoir
-newspaper commentary
-full-length books
-and others
Construct and develop a compelling narrative for your work
Adopt the mantras of non-fiction writers: brevity, clarity, focus and impact
Work on first paragraphs that draw in readers
Personalize your non-fiction to include your own experience
Identify your audience
Learn how to concentrate on critical detail
Give, and receive, feedback
Develop strategies for non-fiction publication

About the instructor
Mark Winston

Mark L. Winston is the recipient of the 2015 Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction for his bestselling book Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive. His work has appeared in six books receiving diverse awards, including the 2015 Science in Society General Book Award from the Canadian Science Writers Association, a CBC Best Books Award (for Bee Time) and the Sterling Prize for Controversy. His 1998 book Nature Wars was also short-listed for the BP Natural World Book Prize. He has written for many outlets, including columns for the Vancouver Sun, The New York Times, The Sciences and Orion, among others. Mark is a fellow in the Royal Society of Canada, a professor and senior fellow in Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue, and a professor of biological sciences.

The One Room Schoolhouse

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It was a red brick former one-room schoolhouse, standing forlorn and isolated at the edge of a swatch of Midwestern prairie. I was similarly lonely, having just arrived in Lawrence, Kansas to take up graduate studies, with no place to live, very little money and no job to support myself.

That August was particularly hot and humid, even for a Kansas summer, quite a comedown from the Cape Cod sea breezes, salt marshes, sand dunes and ocean vistas I had left behind just as few days before. I had abandoned many friends, a developing career in marine biology and a classically quaint Cape-style cottage to pursue a different life, that of an entomologist studying bees.

It was a desolate moment, that arrival, but good fortune soon shifted my mood. Within hours I checked in at the Entomology Department, and a few minutes later the sympathetic Chair of the department had provided me with both a job and a free place to live. The job was bread-and-butter graduate student employment, working as a teaching assistant in a biology class, but the living arrangements were, well, unusual.

I headed out that afternoon to the edge of the city to take up my new residence, a former schoolhouse that had been taken over by the Entomology Department and nicknamed the bee house, a research facility used to study bees and wasps. All I had to do in return for a bed, a hot plate, a small refrigerator, worn wooden floors and blackboarded walls was inhabit the place to discourage vandals.

There were a few disadvantages the Chair hadn’t mentioned. For one, I couldn’t open the windows, in spite of the daily 100oF temperatures, because each window had a papery grey wasp nest hung on the outside, study colonies for a graduate student interested in how wasps organized their social behaviour.


(Photo by Bob Peterson, Creative Commons)

Lack of privacy was another tradeoff for no rent, with students coming in at all hours of the day and night, not only to record behaviors from the window nests but also to traipse around the basement, which was full of more wasp nests as well as colonies of halictid bees that nested in dirt.

The wasp-studying students were having an art contest, putting colored paper into plexiglass boxes for the wasps to use as building material, creating rainbow nests. The bee guys had taken a layer of dirt one bee width in diameter and sandwiched it between two sheets of plate glass, so that they could observe the bee behaviours.

Weekdays and many weekends I spent up the hill on campus, taking classes, reading journal articles, writing research proposals for funding, going to seminars and teaching undergraduate laboratories. Evenings I was alone, and after my hot plate dinners I often descended to the bee house basement for hymenopteran company, mesmerized watching the wasps build their nests of many colours and the bees bumping into each other as they navigated the tunnels they had carved into the dirt.

Graduate school is like that, lonely at first, an unbalanced full immersion experience with work predominant and social life suppressed. But as the bee and wasp nests died off and fall arrived, I physically and metaphorically opened the windows.

My evenings soon filled with friends, guitar playing, and student potluck dinners followed by dancing to country swing music at local clubs. Midnight often found us at the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and we met many a dawn at Jennings Daylight Donuts.

I also soon had a different job, a research assistantship spent looking through a microscope for hours and drawing bee mouthparts. The work provided the income I needed to go to South America for a year, to study killer bees in French Guiana for my doctoral degree.

Even while away I thought of the bee house as home, and felt cruelly uprooted when I returned to Lawrence a year later to find the schoolhouse no longer mine, taken over by the next impoverished graduate student who had arrived in my absence. Now I had to live like a regular person, renting an apartment with rooms and a real kitchen and no bees or wasps as co-tenants.

But perhaps my year in the bee house had primed me for a different way to thank about the meaning of home. A journalist asked me once to describe my first visit to a honeybee hive, and my responses was that “I opened the lid of that first hive, began pulling out combs of bees, and I felt like I was home.”

Living in the schoolhouse, I imprinted on the company of bees and wasps. Every new dwelling since has not become home until I connect with the local social insects. I’ve put a honeybee colony into the backyard, valued the wasp nest growing under the eaves, enjoyed the mating ants flying up from beneath the sidewalk or appreciated the neighborhood bees foraging on my lawn and garden.

Home is where the heart is, and my heart, still, is with the bees.

Comments welcome:

Sweet Deal


(photo by Kevin Payravi, Wikimedia Commons)

I recently authored a report for the Vancity Credit Union about economic opportunities with bees and pollination. There’s lots of gloom and doom out there about bees, but there also are many opportunities. Vancity is a wonderful organization, deeply imbedded in community, and publishes regular in-depth reports about economic issues in British Columbia. The full report can be found at “Sweet Deal: The value of bees to British Columbia’s economy” but here’s a few highlights:

Honeybees and wild bees are vital to B.C.’s economy, producing honey and pollinating berry, tree fruit, oilseed and vegetable crops, with a total annual current value of close to $500 million in products and pollinating services, and excellent potential to rise to $553 million annually within five years.

Pollination is the primary, and growing, economic benefit of bees, valued in B.C. at $468 million in 2014, a 67% increase since 2001.

The number of beekeepers in B.C. has risen 35% since 2009, with notable increase in beekeepers under the age of 40.

Blueberries are B.C.’s most highly valued crop, and provide a strong example of how insufficient pollination is limiting yields, increasing costs to consumers and diminishing profits for farmers. Blueberry growers are short 10,000 to 20,000 honeybee colonies each year, and fields have insufficient wild bees, resulting in $10 million to $20 million in losses.

Reducing pesticide use and enhancing habitats in and around blueberry farms would increase wild bee populations and improve pollination, boosting yields and profits for growers and reducing retail prices for consumers.

Declining bee populations are one symptom of increasingly harmful agricultural practices. Canadian pesticide use increased 25% from 87.5 million kilograms in 2008 to 109 million kilograms in 2014. Development of organic and sustainable farming practices would stimulate more diverse and abundant wild bee populations, reduce pesticide use, improve human and environmental health and create value-added options for B.C. growers.

A favourable climate in southwestern B.C. allows the production and sale of bees and small nucleus colonies across Canada and for export, with an immediate potential annual market of at least $10 to $15 million. This figure could grow to $30 million by 2021 if we begin exporting bees to the U.S. Expanding our local industry would also increase B.C. colony numbers to more closely align with blueberry pollination needs.

Consumer interest in locally produced honey has grown, giving B.C. beekeepers an opportunity to focus on retail sales of well-branded local honey. The total value of retail sales for B.C. honey doubled from $8 to $16 million between 2014 and 2015, reflecting an increase in retail prices from $4.60/lb. in 2014 to $7.45/lb. in 2015.

In 2014, we imported 573,200 pounds of honey, the equivalent of one-fifth of provincial production, so there is room and opportunity in the retail market for at least $3 million more B.C. honey production.

Government working in partnership with beekeepers and growers could stimulate province-wide branding of honey and bee-pollinated crops as local and sustainable, supported by bee-friendly practices advertising and branding. Development of appropriate labels and marketing strategies for all B.C. farm products would be powerful tools to stimulate bee conservation while adding value.

Comments welcome:



Poetry and science may seem to have little in common, but they do share one trait: building from fragments. I’m collaborating with a wonderful poet, Renee Sarojini Saklikar, on the Honey, Hives and Poetry project, in which we’ve been reading together at events from her poems and my prose, and writing some new material in response to each other’s work.

As Renee puts it: “One of my poetry obsessions is the fragment. Each time I read from my long poems I select fragments, further reducing the pieces, a reductive process that speaks to me of possibility . . .”

Scientific research is simultaneously reductive while discovering meaning by repeatedly recombining small bits of information in different ways. Experiments resemble poems trimmed down to their simplest bytes, expressing the scientist’s hope that disparate data might assemble into the fullness of story, revealing objective truth considerably more profound than its constituent parts.

So it was that words became a line and eventually a poem as we unraveled the identity and function of the honeybee queen pheromone over close to two decades of research. My chemistry colleague, the late Keith Slessor, had become interested in the retinue of ten to twelve worker bees that surround the queen, licking and touching their antennae to her furiously for one to two minutes each. Our hypothesis was that they were picking up the queen’s pheromones and transmitting them throughout the nest.

We had made extracts from dead queens to use in identifying her chemical signature, but had no way of determining whether worker bees responded. One day, in frustration, one of our students put a dab of extract onto a glass pipette and thrust it into into a cage of bees, exclaiming, “Take that, you bloody bees.” To her surprise, they formed a retinue around the glass as if it were a queen.

We had found our bioassay, but it still took tens of thousands of assays excising, macerating, extracting, eluting and observing over two decades to identify nine compounds that work in a synergistic mix, attracting worker bees to attend their monarch. Each individual pheromone we identified represented another fragment that then had to be tested in combination with the growing number of other compounds, until eventually the full poem of the complex honeybee queen pheromone grew from its nine simple words.

It’s a thing of beauty, this multi-fragment queen pheromone, an elixir of elegant function, reminiscent of the elusive perfection captured in the best poetry, where snippets of language weave together into a whole much more compelling than its individual parts.

I imagine writing poetry is like that, a mental image of Renee at work in her writing laboratory, testing combinations of words together, rejecting innumerable linguistic dead ends until the etymological data tell her the poem is done.

It’s fragments coalescing into meaning, at the junction where science and poetry intersect on common ground.

(In memory of Keith Slessor, a poet in chemistry)

Comments welcome: