Recently I have taken some time off from blogging. In fact about three weeks now. Except for the occasional scheduled posts of famous beekeepers, I have taken a bit of time for a diversion – an experience that I want to share with you here.
Last year I attended the Eastern Apicultural Society’s conference in Newark, Delaware. To say the least, I was taken by the scope and quality of the conference. At every turn I was impressed with the event. The lectures were outstanding, the speakers personable and approachable, and the venue perfect in many ways. I was literally up at 6:30am every morning, having breakfast with many of today’s notable beekeepers by 7:00am, and attending lectures and events until 8:30pm. But although I was trying my best to eke out every morsel of beekeeping goodness, I found it impossible to do it all. There was the microscopy track which was running concurrent with multiple lecture sessions, the honey show marched on in the background, the bee yard events, and the local excursions passing me by. I vowed to return this year to accomplish more.
This year, in Hampton, Virginia, I would take a bigger bite and try my hand with one of the other tracks taking place at the conference. But before I spill the beans, let me tell you a bit of my history. You see, I’m a beginner at this avocation called beekeeping. A mere seven years although my wife and children will attest I have been diligent in my studies. During those seven years I have purposefully tried to explore as many niches in beekeeping as possible. Some things, like honey bee removals from structures, were one and done events. I’ve entered honey shows and won blue ribbons and while somewhat rewarding I found it wasn’t my calling. I’ve kept some outyards on farms and gardens for the sole purpose of learning how to anticipate needs and scheduled visits. A couple of magazine articles were satisfying and added some financial assistance as I grew my apiary and purchased queen rearing equipment. Two years as the local association’s Secretary probably grew my knowledge base the most as I took part in responding to swarm calls, emails from beginning beekeepers, cold calling problem bee colonies, teaching classes, and surrounding myself with more knowledgeable beekeepers.
Along the path described above I checked off the boxes towards becoming a master beekeeper. And I found myself well on my way by the time I was at EAS 2017. But last year, at EAS, I saw what I wanted more than the microscopy classes or a honey show. I wanted the challenge of the EAS master beekeeping exam. Four tests – written, verbal, lab, and field. You get a pin and a certificate if you pass all four. The carrot on the stick for me was simply attempting and completing the challenge. I wanted to somehow put together my seven years of exploring and turn it into confirmation that I was well-rounded in the knowledge and skills of beekeeping. Not perfect, as my knowledge is far from complete; just a well rounded generalist.
So, this year I would give up many of the lectures and events to subject myself to mental exhaustion. Preparation started three years prior but in earnest after last year’s EAS conference. As this year’s testing approached I upped my study time and pressed my long since unpracticed study skills. Isn’t there some sort of saying about the difficulties in teaching old dogs? Well, I’m an old dog and things don’t stick as readily as they used to. Put another way, my mental hard drive has been filled for some time now with the events of life.
The EAS Master Beekeeping testing started with a meet and greet on Monday afternoon. There were about twenty-seven beekeepers there, some younger and some older, who would be taking some or all of the tests. Some were returning from a previous unsuccessful attempt. There you learn that there is no shame in re-attempting the test – in fact it’s the norm. The remainder of the room was filled with current EAS Master Beekeepers both sitting and lining the walls. The beekeepers testing were invited to tell their stories about what brought them there. The master beekeepers shared their stories as well and encouraged us to try our best, and to not be discouraged no matter the outcome. At some point the message comes through that this testing is not solely about spilling forth what we have learned but is also about the ability to persevere, to stand and deliver to our best ability, and to be open to learning during the testing. The meet and greet works to dispel the idea that one has to pass to be successful. What one should also be doing is learning from what is before them. Oh, I still wanted to pass the exams, but now I also had the goal to let this opportunity mentor me which took some of the pressure off.
The next two days and nights were filled with last-minute, self-imposed test preparation and rehearsing my one known oral test question (one verbal exam test question of four is known to the testee). At some point during this crunch time in the testing process it begins to become apparent that I am learning more about beekeeping and about myself.
The written test was difficult. But too often I simply looked at the obvious yet still called it wrong. True/false, multiple choice, short answer all reasonable if only my brain would tell me whether it was White, Wilson, Watson, or Woodley. The essay questions were a delight. Time to sit down, apply structured writing, and explain what I know without rushing an answer. I walked out giving myself even odds.
The oral exam was my weakest exam performance. I had spent too much time preparing for the known question and none preparing for the unknown questions. Well, how exactly does one prepare for the unknown? Yeah, there are ways. Any response can be structured just as any good essay can be outlined. Or frame your reply as a story-teller or perhaps present your monologue along a timeline. Start rehearsing at the farmer’s market and state fair booth. I knew this and have spoken with hundreds at markets and fairs so why did I stumble and miss the mark? The testers were kind but I know I fell short.
Day two, on to the lab/practical testing. I had prepared for this by looking at pictures. I can read but thought a last-minute night of looking at pictures would be more beneficial and less stressful. Being a catalog nerd, I had the beekeeping merchandise down cold already – no need to study there. (Still I got stumped on one item that was used in candle making.) Onward… I had reviewed the diseases, especially the photos in the MAAREC book, Honey Bees and Their Maladies which proved beneficial. The microscopes proved to be easy enough except for my over thinking the specimens. Simma’ down now and relax. Afterwards, I gave myself less than stellar but better than even odds.
The last exam is the field test. Veils required; gloves shunned. No worries right? Let me say that although I am a beekeeper I do not enjoy being stung. But the thinking is a master beekeeper works his bees in a manner that minimizes stings. Hello? Does anyone here realize that it’s August? Dearth most likely? At home, 400 miles to the south, we are well into nectar dearth and the bees are cranky. Yeah, I do go gloveless sometimes, but usually I tend to rush things and know this about myself so I use white nitrile gloves – or leather if the bees are especially defensive. None for today though. So I wait for my time to go forth into the hive with an EAS Master Beekeeper. Then I see Landi Simone walk into to the bee yard and she and Paul are assigned to me.
Now, I really like Landi’s presentations. I’ve listened to her lecture titled, ‘Reading the Frames’ multiple times. I heard her lecture at EAS 2017 as well. In my mind she wrote the book on reading the frames. But now it’s time for her to role play the part of a newbee beekeeper and I’m to play the role of the experienced beekeeper. I’m going to read the frames to Landi Simone. Like they say at Disney, “On Stage!”
We stand at the hive and I do my external assessment. Paul stands in front of the hive. Yeah, he’s testing to see what I’ll say. I tell him to move out of the path of the bees. He wants to know why. I mutter something about UPS planes on landing approach to an airport runway. Landi offers a comment to my comment which depending in whether she is in character or out of character could be good or not so good. We proceed with the exam and I open the hive after applying just the right amount of smoke. Casually I say, “In South Carolina we always inspect the underside of the inner cover to assess the presence of small hive beetles and to smash them.” I glance down and instead of SHB the queen is running across the inner cover. Really? Now, this has happened to me only twice before in seven years but there she is in all her glory. I manage to get her to run down between the frames while silently praising Priestess Melissae. I mutter again, this time something about extra credit for finding the queen on the inner cover.
We proceed in dismantling the hive and all the while Paul is simulating the chattering of an excited first timer in the hives. I am trying to be patient but he’s eating up valuable hive time and I’m thinking his every question needs a complete answer or I’ll lose credit. At some point I’m explaining varroa mites and a different voice from somewhere booms out, “Tell me what a varroa mite IS?” Am I hallucinating or is someone calling out from the building’s roof? I turn to my right and yet another master beekeeper in an orange suit has appeared out of nowhere. I’m now completely derailed from my monolog and before I can shift gears and gather my thoughts he says, “What classification?” I tell him it’s not an insect so I would venture it’s an arthropod but from there I don’t know the taxonomy. He answers his own question, “It’s a parasite!” I take up his lead and start in with Apis cerana adapting to varroa which has not happened with Apis mellifera. Everyone seems somewhat pleased and the orange suit disappears.
Down, down, down we go into the bottom hive body, well past my typical time in a hive, and I still don’t have a definitive diagnosis for this troubled hive. Then a brief interruption from Paul who, continuing the role of the new beekeeper, is now complaining of a bee sting to his arm, I scrape out the stinger with my hive tool (he really does have a sting) and minimize the event although he wants more. Another question and I mutter something about too many questions – the bees are getting restless and have issued their warning and Landi is quick to ask, “Why are they making that noise?” I tell her, “They are telling us, it’s time to leave,” as I start to close up. After closing, I finally repeat some of what I have been saying all along: spotty capped brood pattern, too few capped cells for the amount of open brood, queen has filled open cells with brood (appear well fed and healthy) as the spotty capped brood emerges which presents as mixed larval ages on the frame. Oh yeah, and backfilling. All of which is accurate but I’m only talking symptoms and have not given a diagnosis nor a prescription. Finally, I offer up a closing statement: “Possible mites causing the spotty brood due to hygienic behavior but I can not rule out inbred queen. Check the mite count immediately and treat if indicated. Re-inspect in two weeks to see if the copious open brood pattern turns into a good capped brood pattern in which case the colony has re-queened already. If not then re-queen. And cut back on the feeding before they swarm.” As we walk away I have no idea if I have satisfied their questions or correctly read the hive. I didn’t do myself any favors getting cranky towards the end. Crap shoot on this one.
As I’m walking back to my car to put everything away I realize I’m exhausted. But I have a good feeling that it’s done – all done. I survived the exams. Not that I thought there would be torture if I didn’t do well. I was simply happy to have put myself out there and given it a try.
I had to return home the next day to fulfill a family obligation. I wouldn’t be at EAS to see those in my testing class who passed receive their pins and certificates at the Friday night awards ceremony. I wish I could have. A connection is established between the test takers even though most of us had only just met two days prior – stories between us about how our families thought we were a bit off our rockers for constantly reading about bees – actually a lot about that. Also possible divorces if the books didn’t get put away, wanting to prove to the spouse we could pass, and worry that we’d have the books out for another year.
I explored my strengths and weaknesses on the drive home. I would be happy with passing two of the four exams. That would leave only two for next year. I felt like I did poorly on the orals although they were giving me praise on the way out the door. Nice guys but I knew better. By the time I passed through the middle of North Carolina I had developed a better presentation. Next year I’d make every oral presentation a story. “Let me tell you the story of almond pollination and the beekeepers that ‘got er’ done.” Yeah, that’s the model I’ll use next year.
And what was I thinking on the field exam? I jumped out of character several times. And worse of all I implied they were asking too many questions. Definitely not a good mentor tactic. I’d get dinged on that one. In fact, I thought, that’s probably an automatic fail. Next year I’ll start with coaching my mentees on how we have limited time and if they have non inspection related questions, or wanted to ask about their grandmother’s allergic reaction, we need to do that before or after the hive inspection. And next year, afterwards I’ll hold a debriefing and tell them they need to do their homework before our next session. No more sandbagging on the homework and asking questions already covered in their beginning beekeeper class. I’d suggest they review their book before we start our next hive inspection. By the time I arrived in the Midlands of South Carolina I had my game plan in order for next year.
But most importantly by the time I arrived home I realized what I had gained from the experience. I learned what a better beekeeper would have done and said, both in the oral and field exams. The tests were a time for me to both deliver my knowledge and to take some knowledge away. “Trust in the system,” I remembered one master beekeeper saying during the meet and greet session. He was right. I was satisfied with what the system taught me and recognizing my blunders. I could fix those next year.
Friday morning my phone rings and it’s my friend and mentor Dave. He’s still at EAS and the test results packets have been given out. He wants to know if I want him to pick up mine. I tell him, “sure” and after a brief verbal consent to a lady at the front desk, he opens up the packet and begins to read the results to me. When he comes to the last one his voice lights up, “Larry, you’re a master beekeeper!” Now I know Dave and he’s not a prankster, but we all make mistakes so I ask him to be sure. He re-reads the scores and says it again.
- Dave and me at EAS 2018, Hampton, VA
In retrospect, I ask myself if I indeed passed. I’m sure I did not perform at my best. As with many things, some days things just flow, and on other days Murphy’s Law is in full effect. But I came through it displaying the ability to persevere, to stand and deliver to the best of my ability, and to be open to learning during the testing. That’s what they wanted even if I didn’t hit the high notes. So, in the end, I’m not really sure how they knew I learned as well as ‘spilled forth,’ but I have to trust the system.
How fortunate I am. My results came as I was driving my son to school – his first year in a dorm room. How fortunate I was to have him see how study results in a positive outcome. And how fortunate I am to have a wife that supported my effort despite months of my preoccupation with bee books scattered about the house from the dining room to the nightstand. And how fortunate I am to have been tested by Dr. Delaney and Dr. Caron. Some years from now when I’m old and gray someone might ask me about the testing and I’ll be able to say I took the test under these distinguished entomologists. And how fortunate I am to have been able to read the frames to Landi Simone even if I didn’t do it as efficiently or accurately as she. And how fortunate I am to have (with)stood and delivered on the oral exams to three great guys, Larry, Jim, and Bill, cheering me on through a tough half hour. I am indeed a fortunate beekeeper.