To support myself during the summers of graduate school I worked as a research assistant to my adviser. He had made quite a name for himself by applying economic models to biological systems. The summer’s question: to risk or not to risk.
We were studying the foraging behavior of bumblebees. We had enclosed a wild bumblebee colony in a cage (this small feat performed by a more courageous assistant) and presented the bees with artificial flowers.
Drop the notion of colorful silk inflorescences—or plastic for that matter. On top of a wood board painted green, we affixed blue and yellow plastic squares. Above our colorful square flowers we aligned a Plexiglas sheet into which we had drilled small depressions. We supplied these “flowers” with precise quantities of honey solution pipetted into the depressions. In this way we could manipulate the honey rewards. One flower color was constant in its reward—that is, all the flowers received the same quantity of honey; the other color was variable—that is, some flowers had no honey whereas others received quantities far greater than that of our constant-reward flowers. By varying the constant reward and variable reward, we were to determine at what point the bees would prefer the variable flower color. They would risk receiving no honey because, on average, the variable flower yielded more honey—not unlike varying investment strategies. It was all very neat, in the cage.
Outside the cage was another story. The North Carolina summer days were long and hot. We became reckless, swatting yellow jackets that came to drink our honey solutions. Pulling ticks off became recreational sport. We soon discovered the bees had the sense to take a midday siesta. Being a distance from campus and home, we followed suit. Well, at least the other assistant, Jim, and I did; our advisor soon realized that there was no real reason for him to stay most afternoons. Our summer’s work was a success and resulted in a coauthored publication with some nice graphs demonstrating the bees’ switching from risk-adverse to risk-prone behavior as the average reward of the variable flower increased.
I was taken with the rationality of foraging behavior, the underlying predictability given one could identify all the proximate parameters. I developed my own behavioral ecology research based on a body of optimization theory.
The following summer we returned to the bee board, this time to ascertain whether individual bees demonstrated different switching behaviors—that is, whether individuals learned differently. Our advisor had learned that his intellectual powers were better spent elsewhere than at the bee board; that summer he pursued the Zen of pottery. We called him Master Buddha, and he often came at the end of the day to pick up the data. Jim had obtained funding to conduct his own bee experiments, so we called him Master Beta. Because I was still on my way to scientific research enlightenment, my appellation was Grasshopper. Liz, the undergraduate hired to work with me, needed no supplemental name. She was a force akin to entropy.
At the end of that summer came the end of our joint bumblebee era. Jim, the creative scientist he was, went on to pursue his doctorate with another mentor apparent. Liz, the passionate fool she was, decided to become a graduate student of the Master Buddha. Our advisor, risk adverse as he was, was convinced by us that the data set was insufficient to support his hypothesis and therefore did not publish that summer’s work. And I, risk prone as I was, realized I was more interested in the scientists than the organisms, the abstractions than the data. I embarked on a future of highly unpredictable and variable rewards.