Help for beekeepers to learn more about the craft
Education, training, teaching, tuition.......call it what you like, they need the ability and willingness of the person being taught to learn to make them useful. I think that with too many teaching organisations there is a "push" mentality, rather than "pull". I think equal emphasis should be put on learning as teaching. This page has been placed here to help beekeepers learn more about honey bees, to understand them and develop their beekeeping techniques so they can manage their bees in a caring way.
I am well known for being forthright, but I have become very concerned and frustrated about some methods of teaching and what is taught, sometimes to the point of anger. I have been keeping bees since 1963 and started teaching about 1970. I have found out a little about bees and I know what beekeepers need to know in order to become good beekeepers.
Throughout your beekeeping life your needs will change. I can absolutely guarantee that you will never stop learning. You will also change your views too, but don't see this as a fault or a weakness, it isn't, it's simply a sign of being open to different ideas. I think there is a danger with a lot of new beekeepers to learn as much as they possibly can, when a slower approach may be better. When the "basics" are learnt, then you can progress, perhaps to the more specialised topics.
Beekeeping is best learnt in stages, starting with getting your head stuck in a beehive - not just long enough to say "wow", but so you can see what the bees are doing and have things explained to you by a good, sound experienced beekeeper. Take a camera with you and if you see something and you don't know what it is, then take a photo. You can find out inside the house.
I disagree with the view that all you have to do is produce training material, such as a video or a manual and you can teach beekeeping. This is simply daft.
I see beginners courses advertised that include all sorts of topics that won't be needed until some time after bees have been acquired. I haven't actually seen many beginners courses, but with the use of PowerPoint (don't knock it as it can be used very effectively) I can imagine volleys of facts and figures being fired at the poor attendees with a "pow, pow, pow" mentality. I think this confuses people and puts them off. What is the point of learning this before you have decided if you mind being stung or not?
Please don't think this is a rant by an old boy about what is wrong with beekeeping - it isn't. Beekeeping is a tremendous craft and in the U.K. and Ireland is largely a hobby. In my view beekeeping should be fun, not the chore that some teachers seem to want to make it. I do want people to learn, but in a sensible and structured way, so please read on and I will try to help you.
Modern culture, whether at home or in the workplace is all about "training" and "qualifications". As long as you have been told what to do and have a piece of paper saying you have been told, that gives you the knowledge and right to do something, even though there may be others without that magical bit of paper who can probably do it far better than you can. This of course covers arses and satisfies the insurance policy. What it also does of course is discourage common sense and lateral thinking, both pretty useful abilities in beekeeping that I'm afraid are becoming less common.
At one time many counties had "County Beekeeping Instructors" (CBIs) who were employed by county councils. They were paid positions, mainly full time, some having assistants. They were usually good knowledgeable beekeepers with a lot of experience and were interviewed for the position. They taught a lot of beekeeping and in some counties they were very influential, but when councils started to look at cost cutting these posts vanished. We went from professionals teaching beekeeping to amateurs, mainly volunteers who were not of the same quality or level of commitment. Although there are undoubtedly some good teachers there are also some poor ones.
I see beekeeping as a practical subject with a theoretical element, not the other way round. To be a competent beekeeper everyone has to handle bees, but they don't need to know much about the anatomy of a bee or the constituents of honey. When teaching beginners at Wisborough Green BKA I concentrate on what I call the "basics". These are the simple things that are so easy to learn and will help all beekeepers to understand what is happening in a colony. Once these are learnt it gives you the basis to progress, understand and judge the validity of what you are being taught.
I understand that beekeepers have different interests in the craft and good teachers and organisers will recognise that too. Some will stay at the practical level, others will go off in different directions. Good! There is so much in beekeeping to study, so why shouldn't we all do what we like? Whichever way you want to go, whether it is to produce honey or look down a microscope you still need to be a competent handler of bees and understand how a colony works.
When learning about bees you need to accept that every beekeeper has their own management system, whether they realise it or not. We have all heard the rather stale saying about asking X number of beekeepers a question - well the reason we get a lot of different answers is partly because they all have different systems, or they aren't particularly knowledgeable or experienced. The smarter beekeeper will be able to work out if what they are told or learn will fit in with what they are doing or not.
I believe that many beekeepers get into habits at an early stage, so it is important to have good grounding. If the tutor was good they will do well, but if the tutor was poor, then they may struggle to change tack at a later stage when they have seen methods that suit them better.
Let me look at some learning opportunities that are available to many beekeepers:-
This is where the vast majority of beekeepers will start. Tuition will be very variable, but a potentially good beekeeper will soon work out what the situation is. Try to avoid asking too many people too many questions, otherwise you may get confused. It is with your local BKA you are likely to stay and it may be you who is doing the teaching in the future.
Having been heavily involved in my local BKA I have a lot of time for them. They are all run by volunteers, often very busy people who willingly give their time to help others. As with everything else they will vary.
In the past it was usually agricultural colleges where CBIs were based and overall they provided a very good service. Some colleges are now run commercially and seem to be more interested in making money than delivering good quality tuition. From my own experience this can lead to poor quality "lecturers" who are often quite inexperienced. I have never sought this type of work, but on a couple of occasions I have been asked by agricultural colleges if I would teach beekeeping. I was turned down in favour of people with teaching qualifications, but little beekeeping experience. I suspect this meant delivering presentations "straight out of the book", rather than from years of experience. In my view students who are paying not inconsiderable sums have the right to expect high quality tuition, not information recycled from elsewhere.
All National BKAs have their own examination systems. I have to say that I am not a great exam person, but I'm happy to support others if that is what they want to do. I think there are good points, but everyone needs to realise that those with qualifications may not be better beekeepers than those who haven't. One concern I have is the failure rate at times is far higher than I would expect. I don't know the reasons, but I suspect poor preparation may be fairly high up the list, together with candidates taking exams before they are ready for them.
I know it might seem a cheek, but I think there is a good case for a beekeeper with a year or two's experience to look at the BBKA "Basic" syllabus and use it to help you study. There are a lot of topics that all beekeepers need to know and it will make a good list, but you need to make sure that your source of information is sound and you study in greater depth than the requirements to pass the assessment.
There are good and bad, but how do you know which is which? See Books page.
Government/agricultural advisory boards
There is some very good sound information on some of their websites. Have a good search, but remember that some topics may not apply to beekeepers in your location. In particular I'm thinking about climate or legislation. In general these facilities are bang up-to-date.
Conferences, Conventions and Lectures
A bit like books these can be good or bad. I have heard so many "top" speakers who have been very disappointing, yet lesser known speakers that I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to and I have got good sound information from. I am very often disappointed with foreign speakers, partly because some of their subjects haven't been tweaked to suit the audience and partly because they seem to prefer shorter presentations than we do. This results in padding or finishing early rather than adding to the content.
I thoroughly enjoy the Gormanston week and usually get something useful from it. This is a massive event and has three streams of lectures and several streams of workshops that suit all interests and abilities.
There are many beekeeping websites available, but there needs to be a word of caution. In general if it is from an "official" body it will be sound. There are many personal websites and there are a selection of good ones here, but there are far too many beekeepers who start a website and grab information from anywhere just to populate it, without too much concern for quality.
Dave Cushman's website
I have deliberately kept this website separate because I have an interest. It is probably one of the world's most respected beekeeping websites with information applicable to all beekeepers, whatever their interests or ability. Dave Cushman spent a huge amount of time compiling it, but he didn't quickly slap everything together, he took the attitude that if beekeepers were looking for information then it should be sound. I quote Dave's words "... My aim with this one is to provide a repository for information that has not been recorded elsewhere or is not very accessible.......... Inevitably there are duplications of things that are dealt with elsewhere and there may be a few mistakes, but in general you will find information that has been tested and proven (or if it is conjecture, it will have a note indicating so). Since Dave's death I have tried to continue in the same way.
If you have managed to get this far I hope I have given you what I believe to be a fair appraisal of teaching resources available to the ordinary beekeeper. I hope I haven't been too heavy on the negatives, but I have seen and heard so much twaddle that is peddled by often quite inexperienced beekeepers. They don't seem to understand their method is only one of many and beekeepers in general want to enjoy their hobby without it being a chore.
It doesn't matter how much studying you have done and how much information you have digested, there is always more to learn. I have been keeping bees for over 50 years and fairly large numbers of colonies. I am an observant beekeeper and virtually every week during the summer I see things I have never seen before. You learn far more by observing bees than you will by being "taught". Bees are the best teachers, but you need to be a good learner.