By Brian Chou, OD, FAAO
Oct. 26, 2016
For the past three years, I’ve dabbled with bee keeping. I started shortly before guitarist Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and actor Morgan Freeman did the same. That’s why I joke that I inspired a celebrity trend. But delusions of influence aside, I’ve found parallels between beekeeping and practicing optometry.
From Crazy Idea to Reality
Beekeeping sounded dangerous, unique, but rewarding. Most important, I wanted to learn something new. Beekeeping sprung into mind, so I embarked onto reading books, watching videos, taking hands-on classes, attending bee society meetings and talking with beekeepers. It was fascinating and immersive. I then bought a bee suit, gloves, a smoker, two hive boxes and related paraphernalia. In the spring of 2014, I purchased two starter nucleus colonies and hired a bee consultant to help me along.
Dr. Chou’s bees. Dr. Chou says beekeeping has much in common with optometry, including the need to safeguard your practice from potential “stings,” and the importance of matching your chosen specialties with the demographics of the local community.
You Will Get Stung
Every beekeeper worth their salt has gotten stung. It’s a rite of passage. What’s impressive is how a tiny volume of venom can inflict such pronounced discomfort. In the worst situations, for an estimated 3 percent of the population, a bee sting can lead to anaphylaxis. That’s why it’s a good idea to have an Epi-Pen and Benadryl laying around as a safety measure, especially for those at risk, or unaware of their risk, for anaphylaxis. The frequency of getting stung seems to decrease with experience, but too much experience can also yield complacency, which in turn, creates vulnerability to stings.
In the same way, an optometrist practicing long enough will get stung – whether by an unhappy patient, disgruntled employee, audit from a third-party payer, theft, sanctions from a regulatory group, dispute with a colleague or general business disagreements. Experience can avert future occurrences, although complacency also creates vulnerability due to carelessness.
Aside from sound business practices, and aspiring for good communication in all interactions, it’s a good idea to carry adequate insurance for professional and general liability, and employee practices liability insurance (ELPI).
The Sweet Reward Reflects the Environs
The color and flavor of honey reflects the plants visited by the bees up to four miles away. In my area, there are many eucalyptus trees, giving the honey a medium color with bold flavor and a slight medicinal hint. By comparison, bees harvesting from buckwheat produce a darker colored honey with a molasses and malty-like flavor. These honey varietals are similar to how grapes grown in different appellations yield different wines.
Each optometric practice also reflects its environment. For example, an elderly demographic is conducive to developing a thriving glaucoma practice. A practice with a large Asian patient base would support a myopia-control practice due to the high prevalence of myopia, and anxiety about myopic progression, in this population. A practice with a large number of presbyopic software engineers creates opportunity for promoting near-variable focus lenses. It’s much more difficult to create a practice niche when the local demographic doesn’t match up.
What’s Good Isn’t Cheap
If I calculate my cost for producing honey by my spending on equipment, classes, consulting, and so-on, the resulting figure is outrageously expensive, close to $80 for an eight-ounce bottle. Much of that high cost is due to the initial start-up costs along with my inefficiencies and early mistakes. By comparison, you can purchase at the supermarket eight ounces of honey for maybe $5.
Fortunately, I’m beekeeping for the experience, not to make a living. Inexpensive honey is often sourced from China where it can be diluted with high fructose corn syrup. There are also reports of heavy metal contamination due to lead-soldered drums used to transport the honey there. How is a local beekeeper that sells honey to compete? Certainly not on price alone. Quality is the differentiating factor, along with marketing the difference. There is also the strategy of specializing and creating novelty to yield greater value. One possibility is taking honey made from bees harvesting from marijuana and then fermenting it to make mead (honey wine) – call it “weed mead.” This would be analogous to how kopi luwak coffee commands a premium due to its novelty – these coffee beans are collected from the feces of the Asian palm civet, a small mammal found in Southeast Asia.
With private practice optometry, competing on low price alone with the discount warehouses is a losing proposition. Fortunately, there is genuine consumer demand for quality and value. There is also demand for creativity in private practice, particularly those with unique operating systems and those targeting niches such as low vision, vision therapy and myopia control.
Periodic hive inspections are important to make sure the bee colony is healthy. There are instances where specific findings require the beekeeper to intervene to save the hive – for example, ant and mite infestations, over-crowding, inadequate stores of honey, loss of a viable queen, outside bees robbing honey or the increasing aggressiveness of the colony. There are also instances where professional help is needed, and that’s where bee consultants are valuable.
No different, the optometric practice owner must monitor their business for its ongoing well-being. Toxic and unproductive workers require replacement. If the practice is outgrowing the facility, the owner needs to acquire more space or move to a larger facility. Worker training can help maintain the quality of services. In some cases, poor or untimely lab work necessitates changing to a new lab.
Declining profitability requires identifying problem areas and opportunities, allowing for the appropriate deployment of attention and resources to regain profitability. There are dedicated professionals (i.e. practice consultants) who can help you along.
Although each bee colony is comprised of many thousand bees, the colony behaves as if it were a single organism. Additionally, worker bees will readily sacrifice their lives to protect their colony. Standardized operating procedures and training can help make the optometric practice behave in an efficient and coordinated manner – a super-organism. However, few humans have the selflessness of bees. The tendency is for humans to put their own interests ahead of what’s best for the group – a humble reminder of how bees have got us beat.
What have you learned from a hobby, like bee keeping, in your own life, that can be applied to optometry and the optical industry? How do outside hobbies like this enrich us as people and professionals, and give us greater insight to long-term professional survival?