Several years ago, at the 2013 South Carolina Beekeepers Conference, I attended a presentation given by Florida Agricultural’s “Hall of Fame,” 3rd generation beekeeper, and recently passed away (February, 2022) Chief Apiary Inspector Lawrence Cutts.
The audience literally groaned as he described at length, one by one, all the negative aspects of beekeeping: the viruses, mites, increased costs, and various diseases. After each lengthy, gruesome description of a malady he raised his voice and proclaimed,
“Never before, in all my years, have I been so excited to be a beekeeper.”
Finally, after much more deliberation, he gave up the punchline: “Why be excited? Because never before in all my life has beekeeping enjoyed the attention it is getting today in the media and public eye.”
The point being, beekeepers are enjoying the attention and support as never before. Beekeeping organizations on all levels are being gifted with a wonderful resource of an ever increasing number of enthusiastic beginners eager to take on the tasks of learning both the science and the art of beekeeping. It is, indeed, an exciting time to be a beekeeper. Clubs and associations have won the lottery with the influx of excited newcomers and the many talents they bring to our organizations.
Can we as local and state organizations meet the needs of these beginning beekeepers and move them towards success in their new interest? Talking with some of our older association members, I’ve learned that at one time interest in local beekeeping was much less than seen today. Meetings were small enough they could be held in any small group room, and sometimes a beginner came. In those days a mentor usually coupled with a beginner and taught them the basics. I looked into this mentoring model of teaching and discovered that it wasn’t uncommon for a new beekeeper to visit the mentor’s bee yard for a season before getting their own bees. And once the mentee received their bees, either through a spring split or swarm the next year, they may have left them at the mentor’s bee yard over the mentee’s second year to work in the presence of the mentor with appropriate guidance.
Times change and nowadays we find ourselves needing ever more mentors to serve our new members. Ironically, as pointed out by Lawrence Cutts, the new beekeeper today has been drawn to a hobby that has increased in difficulty due to an increase in pests, chemicals, lack of forage areas, and increased costs.
Simply stated, the job of mentoring is getting bigger and bigger, beekeeping is ever more complex, and new beekeepers are joining and needing our support more than ever before. All the while, the need for mentors is far outpacing an ever dwindling supply.
To complicate matters, not only has there been in increase in beginning beekeepers, most new beekeepers wish to start their own hives the first year at their homes. I do find the occasional member that started by visiting a mentor’s bee yard for their first year, or spent a year attending club meetings and activities but that seems to be the exception to the rule.
This mentee/mentor dilemma needs solutions to help the new beekeeper become successful. While there are things mentors and clubs can do to help new beekeepers be successful, here I will focus my attention on the new beekeeper and their role in getting themselves through that first year and beyond.
Surfing the web, and various discussion boards, the prospective beekeeper looking for advice is repeatedly told, 1) join a club and 2) get a mentor. That’s good advice but it falls far short. Joining a club is great but sending in your $10 won’t get you any closer to becoming a better beekeeper. And just finding a mentor won’t either unless he’s a good friend or neighbor that’s willing to swap lessons for apple pies. First of all, the number of experienced beekeepers is far fewer than the number of new beekeepers. Add to that that most experienced beekeepers have bees to take care of themselves, limited free time like most, and finding one that is close enough and willing to teach a new beekeeper may be a challenge – finding one that has the heart and willingness to make home visits is like finding gold!
I’m going to suggest a new angle towards getting the new, prospective beekeeper everything they need to find success in this challenging mix of science and art we call beekeeping.
- The new beekeeper should find a local club or association and start attending meetings. Local clubs provide opportunities to learn. See if your local club is a fit for you. Are meetings educational? Is time made at each meeting to allow you to network to find a bee buddy or mentor? If you don’t feel it’s a good fit then look elsewhere for a club that fits or join multiple local clubs.
- Start your search for a good beginning beekeeper class. Half-day or single day classes are good for determining if beekeeping is something you’d like to learn. Better introductory beekeeping classes span multiple evenings or weekends and offer or encourage Master Beekeeping Program Certified testing. If you’re more advanced look for a club that provides intermediate level topics at meetings or pushes their members towards Journeyman level material and courses. If your local club minimizes education, look for a class at the next closest club and attend their meetings too. The drive may be worthwhile.
- Sign up and take the next beginning beekeeper class offered. Read the handouts; read the book. Don’t be satisfied to be spoon fed the information and don’t limit yourself to only the information in the class. Consider this class your toe in the door, your introduction, the beginning of your adventure. Beekeeping is challenging with a steep and expensive learning curve; challenge yourself to learn this craft.
- Visit your local library and check out books on beekeeping. You will find some entertaining, some are scientific, and some histories. Read all that you find helpful.
- Decide right now that coming to monthly meetings is an important part of your continuing beekeeping education. Monthly meetings are opportunities to learn. Miss one at your own risk. Many club meeting topics follow the bee’s annual cycle through the seasons. Important things to do and observe are discussed at meetings. The meeting you miss may be the one that offers the information you needed to hear that month.
- Volunteer for club activities. Club activities are opportunities to learn. If your club offers community outreach at festivals and events talk to your club’s event coordinator. Volunteer to work with someone else “talking bees” with the public. If you took the beginning beekeeper class you know 100% more than the general population. Listen to the experienced volunteer you are paired with and learn from them. Talk with them during breaks. If you enjoy speaking to children there is real need to visit with elementary classes. Senior centers also appreciate visits and often contact clubs to schedule brief talks.
- Watch your bees. Even if you aren’t going inside the hive. Get a chair and sit and watch them coming and going. Soak it in. At first you’ll not have anything to compare their coming and going with. As the seasons progress, nectar flows begin and end, temperatures change, their behavior will change as well. Soon you will notice subtle changes in their behavior on the landing board. With time you’ll know when something’s wrong and needs further inspection – just by watching them.
- If your club has social events like pre meeting dinners, occasional social events, or days in the bee yard, attend them. Club social events are opportunities to learn and meet other beekeepers. Beekeepers tend to want to talk about bees – exhaustively. Only other beekeepers want to talk about bees as much as you. You will learn a lot talking with others at these events. Bee social. Network.
- Find a bee buddy. A bee buddy may be another first year beekeeper in your neighborhood or a second year beekeeper that lives close by. Your bee buddy is the one you call when your hive swarms and you need to borrow a box. A bee buddy is someone to visit and look at their hives; they come over and look at yours too. Bee buddies show you how to do new things with your bees. Find a bee buddy at meetings, events, or during meeting fellowship time.
- Enter your hives as often as is prudent. During some seasons the bees are docile and tolerant of your intrusions. In the spring visit them often – even every week. When you enter the hive go in with an idea of what you wish to accomplish in mind. What do you want to observe? The first few times you will be so filled with excitement you’ll forget to look for those things you set as your goal. That’s okay, look on your next visit. There are other seasons when the bees are best left alone such as when they are arranging and securing their winter home or during colder months. Take every opportunity to observe them.
- Join your club’s online discussion group if it has one. You’ll find quick answers to questions you have. Often a photo and description to the group will result in helpful responses or allay your anxiety about something you’ve never seen before. If you do have an emergency often a club member can swing by after work and take a look. Both girls and guys participate in forums and sometimes you find that you’re neighbors!
- Read your club’s newsletter. Local happenings are listed. Important dates too. Sale ads and articles of interest as well as your club’s minutes, scheduled speakers and topics keep you informed. Often the club will have an article or beekeeping calendar directly related to seasonal beekeeping letting you know what to observe and do in your hives that month.
- Attend local educational offerings. Local educational offerings are opportunities to learn. Some clubs bring in out-of-town speakers for special topics of interest. Other times clubs or local beekeepers offer day classes on specific topics of interest: Queen rearing, Moving hives, Making Splits, Africanized bees, oh my!
- Attend state conferences. Conferences are opportunities to learn. Even if you can’t stay for two and a half days, at least go for a single day. The information you hear will be from seasoned beekeepers and scholars in bee research from around the country. They have a knack for breaking it down for us simple beekeepers though so it all works out. Have lunch with fellow beekeepers. If you overnight, find out where your club or neighboring club will be having dinner and socialize. Carpool with your bee buddy. Hang out in the hotel lobby and talk bees until late.
- You may never need if you’re doing all of the above, but if you do: Email your club’s Secretary to see if a bee buddy or mentor lives close to you. Preferably one that also attends meetings. Sit with them, or watch and listen to them teach at the front of the room. If you don’t understand something ask after the meeting. Offer to help do hard work like pulling supers, rotating boxes, or extracting honey. Tell them you’ll gladly help with their next swarm retrieval. Ask them tough questions that show your enthusiasm and that you’re making every effort to learn. If they know you’re dedicated to learning, attending, and making an effort it makes all the difference in the world.
- Set high goals for yourself; going from mentee to mentor. Take on the challenge of the Master Beekeeping Program which will guide you to becoming a better beekeeper. After your beginning course, take the Certified level testing. After a period of time you will feel more comfortable with your beekeeping and should take the next step towards Journeyman Certification. Become a mentor by volunteering as a club officer, presenting at a club event, or taking on a mentee yourself. Teaching and serving is an educational opportunity for you as well as for others. It’s also your opportunity to give back and grow from mentee to mentor in whatever job role you feel comfortable.
In the end it’s all about learning about bees, their biology, behavior, and management. Along with that come the seasons, foliage, the bees’ cousins, and foes. Beekeeping is both fun and challenging. It’s learning the biology of animal husbandry along with the age old craft of keeping bees. The new beekeeper that wants to succeed should throw themselves into learning this craft by taking advantage of every opportunity that presents itself rather than assume it will come as a result of passive learning. Today’s prospective beekeeper has more resources that ever before: monthly meetings, progressive educational offerings, club outreach opportunities, fellowship, books, YouTube videos, discussion groups, conferences, and more. Take advantage of every offering available and you will succeed. Now, get to a meeting!