Beekeeping is best learned through hands-on experience under the guidance of a knowledgeable mentor. In an ideal world, an aspiring beekeeper would purchase only one piece of equipment their first year: a veil. They would then spend a season working with an experienced, local beekeeper, learning a system of management in real time — adding supers in response to honey flows, making splits when the weather was just right. The next spring, they would start their own apiary with bees from their mentor’s splits. The new beekeeper and the mentor would continue to work together until the new beekeeper had a comfortable grasp of the timing and tasks of an appropriate management system, calling their mentor for troubleshooting or to discuss new gadgets or changes from year to year. Eventually, the “new” beekeeper would have enough experience to tweak the system of their mentor to fit their individual needs and to take on mentees of their own. I was lucky enough to learn beekeeping through this system, and the hours working with experienced beekeepers made a huge difference in my ability to care for my bees. However, most aspiring beekeepers are not so lucky.
In order for this system to work, a new beekeeper needs two things: a flexible schedule and access to a mentor. Many people have to work jobs or have family responsibilities with strict hours that make working around a mentor’s schedule impossible. They can’t take the day off to make splits when the weather is right, or to be immediately available to help pull honey. Even if a new beekeeper has the time, however, it is often impossible to find an experienced beekeeper to work with. With the huge surge in interest in beekeeping, new beekeepers heavily outnumber experienced mentors. In some clubs, the ratio of beginners to experienced beekeepers can be about 100:1. How does a new beekeeper get the knowledge and experience that they need if they don’t have the privilege of working one on one with a good mentor? In this article I’ll outline three ways to make sure we can maximize learning opportunities from beekeepers in the absence of an individual mentor:
1) How we can best learn from our peers,
2) How we can best learn from our experts, and
3) How we can best learn from ourselves.
How to best learn from our peers
With thousands of people getting into beekeeping every year, there is a whole massive group of beekeepers with 1-10 years of experience that you can learn from (even if it is learning what not to do!). You can form an informal team, or you can work with your local bee club to set up a more formal program like the one outlined below. (Remember, you don’t have to be a good beekeeper to set up a mentorship program — just a good communicator.) When I was president of my local club, we had a huge issue finding mentors for beginners. Most of the over 200 beekeepers in the club were pretty new. The system for answering questions was that everyone would just automatically ask the 2 -3 most experienced beekeepers for advice. Not only did this system risk burnout for these experts, but more importantly, it also took away teaching opportunities from the other beekeepers. We therefore decided to set up a peer-based learning system. Dan Barry and Kay Wilson of the Ann Arbor Backyard Beekeepers club in Michigan ran a team-based mentorship program for about four years, and felt that it helped many people get started while answering questions for mid-level beekeepers. They wrote out the process, and I’ve used info from them to describe the program below. They estimate their effort in running the program took about 2-3 hours/month, with one larger effort each year to review the list and update contact info (for a mentorship program for about 110 people).
The mentorship program is set up around teams. The Ann Arbor club had about eight teams, and it seemed to work well with about 10 people on a team, but you could do fewer or more. Interested club members would sign up through a Google form on the club website. This form took general contact info (which the beekeeper agreed to share), and people had to self-select as a beginner, mid-level, or expert beekeeper. Strict definitions were used to classify level of expertise, using actual beekeeping skills. (Can you independently make splits? Can you rear queens?) Google forms allows for notifications for new submissions, and each new person was added to a team based on 1) geographic location; 2) type of hive — Langstroth, top bar, Warre; 3) level of experience; and 4) attention to the size of each group, trying to keep the teams roughly even. The newcomer received a few introductory documents including a Program Summary, a doc called “How to be a good Mentor/Mentee,” and a team roster. Each time we added someone we notified the entire team by email, issued an updated roster for the team, and asked team members to greet the newcomer. For convenience, we usually updated the team rosters (with new members) a few days before our club monthly meeting. We did this in an effort to promote the regular club meeting and to remind folks that the mentorship team was only a small part of what it takes to be successful. With every email or contact, we tried to promote the club meetings, classes, and personal reading. Each spring we sent an email including team roster and description of skill levels to each member of every team. We asked the member to review their contact into, skill level, etc. We asked those with changes to get back with us. Mostly people replied only if they were no longer keeping bees or felt that they considered themselves mid-level or expert keepers.
The idea behind the teams is that beginners and mid-level beekeepers could confer with each other first, and would only go to the experts for confirmation of an idea or to troubleshoot a tougher problem. In our club, the experts were “shared” by all of the teams. This took some of the pressure off the expert beekeepers, who were no longer the first in line for every basic question, and it also gave mid-level and beginner beekeepers the opportunity to gain experience through teaching and talking out issues.
From Dan and Kay: “The differences between the teams were pretty stark. Some groups got together to visit each other’s hives or worked together to extract honey. Other groups checked in and did Q&A via email with regularity, and some groups seemed to do little or nothing at all. We noticed that often times, a mid-level keeper in each group would send out a message to say something like ‘It’s time to do a mite test,’ or ‘We lost 2 hives. How is everyone else doing?’ Because we sent out the emails and rosters, we felt that we got a window into what each group was doing as folk typically were ….