Another really cold week here means no beekeeping and temperatures haven’t even reached double figures. We woke to snow on the ground this morning and the county was battered by hailstones yesterday.
Unsurprisingly, I haven’t got all the answers to the questions raised in last week’s blog but the place to start seems to be raising public awareness about native bees and other pollinators being at risk currently rather than honey bees, and increasing education and training opportunities for beekeepers.
If you’re interested to know what’s on offer in beekeeping education across the world then read on, otherwise skip to the end for the summary and discussion. I’ve chosen only a few beekeeping countries to compare with what we have here in the UK.
I’m keen to hear from anyone who wants to share experiences of best practices in beekeeping education, and tell us about courses that are recognised by their country’s Qualifications Authorities.
Scotland and New Zealand are the only countries that I know of whose Qualifications Authorities recognise beekeeping achievements, and where they count towards further education such as university degrees.
Like most countries around the world, the UK is experiencing a revival in beekeeping which declined in popularity after WW2. Media-influenced public perception may portray the honey bee as the main victim of modern agriculture, but other important pollinator insects are actually declining more rapidly. The surge of interest, especially in urban areas has led to competition for forage, and public nuisance issues with uncontrolled swarming among poorly educated beekeepers.
In the UK, there are approximately 60,000 hobbyist beekeepers, and 500 bee farmers with over 260,000 colonies of honey bees between them. 44,000 beekeepers with 260,000 colonies were registered with BeeBase in 2020-20211.
Each devolved country within the UK developed similar formal organised beekeeping education programmes with examination systems and certification. However, the availability of training programmes varies across the UK, and often depends upon the expertise among individual beekeeping associations. Most local beekeeping associations are affiliated to the main association of each country. So, in Scotland nearly every local association is under the umbrella of the Scottish Beekeeper’s Association.
The Scottish Beekeepers Association (SBA) was formed in 1912 and historically led the way in beekeeping education. However, beekeeping education was well underway prior to this, and an advertisement in Scottish Beekeeper magazine 1898 announces courses at the Glasgow & West of Scotland Technical colleges dealing with a full range of subjects including The Honey Bee & Bee Diseases.
Much later, the SBA designed the modular beekeeping examination system under the auspices of Ian Maxwell, NDB, at Auchencruive agricultural college in the 1980’s.
A modular system was also adopted by the BBKA and the two countries worked their own similar systems. There are 7 modules covering topics such as biology, bee behaviour, queen rearing etc. In 1998, the SBA adopted the BBKA modular theory exam papers and marking system, which involves purchasing the latter. Completing 7 modules and 3 practical exams, Basic Beekeeper, Intermediate, and Apiarian, leads to Scottish Expert Beemaster certificate.
Since 2012, The Junior Beekeeper, and the Intermediate exams were introduced. The Apiarian level was recently raised to include a presentation to be given to a group, similar to the rigorous Irish education model of lecture certification in terms of having to demonstrate an ability to present a lecture. The Irish model involves presenting a 40- minute lecture at Gormanston Summer School, followed by a 20- minute lecture on a prescribed subject that the candidate has 10 minutes to prepare before delivery and assessment by the guest speaker.
A Beekeeping Training Certificate, to help new beekeeper find courses run by accredited tutors, was developed in response to the plethora of courses being run by unsuitably qualified/unqualified beekeepers with little experience. New beekeepers were easily confused by the Basic Beemaster qualification of the teachers of some courses. The title implies mastery of the subject but was in fact just the entry point into the modular system. The qualification was simplified to Basic Beekeeper which avoids such confusion.
Graeme Sharpe from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) Auchencruive is our only bee advisor now though there used to be one at each of Scotland’s agricultural colleges. Graeme is employed by Scottish Government and funded by the Healthy Bees Plan. He runs practical and classroom-based courses which are popular and oversubscribed. Currently, Graeme alone cannot meet beekeeper demand for these courses.
My first formal beekeeping education involved attending all of Graeme’s courses when he travelled to Inverness to deliver them in 2006. I still have the notes and the Demaree method of swarm prevention remains indelible on my memory from those lectures.
The SBA has a robust education and examination system but falls short in training provision because of having no apiary- based practical courses, yet there exists a healthy demand for this type of teaching. However, this situation is not surprising given the tradition for volunteer lecturers giving their time free, and courses to be provided at minimal cost, or free to students. Putting on courses like this for free is a huge demand on those SBA members who already contribute a lot to Scottish beekeeping education.
The SBA are developing online education and stepped quickly up to the mark over the past year with an impressive range of speakers and topics delivered regularly via Zoom. Conditions should change as it becomes more acceptable to be paid for services. Also, when people truly value things, they willingly pay for them. If people respect themselves and value their own time and expertise, they will ask to be paid for it reflects the hours and money spent on their own learning, time taken for presentation preparation, the delivery and ability to answer questions etc.
The success of The Healthy “BEES” (Bee Education in Scotland) Project proved the willingness of students to pay for courses and the expense of travel and accommodation. It was a practical and classroom-based initiative designed, managed and carried out by Tony Harris, NDB, and assisted by Scottish expert Beemaster level tutor, Ann Chilcott. 24 weekend courses ran under the auspices of Moray Beekeepers Association from 2018-2020. 277 students benefited from 8 different weekend courses costing them £60 each. Funding came from Scotland’s Rural Development Programme (SRDP) Knowledge Transfer and Innovation Fund (KTIF) and the European Union. Eight different courses were delivered covering such topics as; swarm control, intermediate and advanced handling, queen rearing, bee behaviour etc.
The courses were often over-subscribed and I believe that the students would have been willing to have paid even more than £60. Courses were well received with positive feedback and demand for more at the end of the project. They were supported by the Bee Farmer’s Association (BFA) and the Scottish Beekeeper’s Association (SBA). Alan Riach, SBA Education officer, reports, “These courses proved invaluable for improving the knowledge and skills of Scotland’s beekeepers. Examiners for the SBA Practical examinations reported improved standards of beekeeping from candidates who had attended the 2-day workshops”
One of the courses, “Moving into Bee Farming”, encouraged 10 students to start a bee-related business, and the Bee Farmer’s Association (BFA) gained 4 new members during that period.
The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) approved a National 5 Group Award in beekeeping2 and syllabus based on the Scottish Beekeeper’s Association (SBA) basic beekeeper level qualification. This became available in schools in 2018 The whole course is worth 18 SCQF points which contribute to college and university applications. There are 3 beekeeping units worth 6 points each. Currently 9 schools are approved to teach this course and over 20 are in the application process. 19 students aged 15 years have successfully passed the course and it is hoped to design a higher level 6 award soon.
This great achievement is the brainchild of two dedicated teachers and beekeepers, Lorraine Johnston of Annan Academy, and Ray Baxter of Kelso Academy. They worked enormously hard to get it off the ground, and continue to do so as the courses roll out across the country and more teachers become involved and need training themselves.
Some of the most useful education and training is on bee health and delivered by the Scottish Government team of scientists and bee inspectors during Bee Health Days where we learn to recognise the foulbroods and keep up date with current threats to beekeeping. There are normally several of these held in different venues around Scotland. England has a similar system delivered by the National Bee Unit and they have done a remarkable job preventing the Asian hornet from becoming established, and training beekeepers in monitoring and public education.
The British Beekeepers Association3 (BBKA) was founded in 1874 by philanthropists endeavouring to make beekeeping available to everyone across the social strata. The BBKA, has its own modern purpose-built headquarters in Stoneleigh.
Education is based on the modular BBKA system of written and practical examinations culminating in “Master Beekeeper” level for those who wish to complete the syllabus. These qualifications are recognised across the UK and, although learning is mostly self-directed, affiliated local beekeeping associations generally support education by running study groups for examinations, and teaching beginner courses.
The Examination Board for The National Diploma in Beekeeping4 (NDB) was founded in 1954 to meet the needs of beekeepers seeking qualifications higher than those offered by the BBKA. Historically, it prepared County Bee Inspectors for their roles in leading bee health initiatives so focussed heavily on disease back then.
The NDB is a private organisation. This means that, unlike many other diploma pathways, such as The Higher National Diploma, there is no affiliation to a recognised body of education and no auditing of courses and examinations systems. The diploma and exams are not easily accessible to all beekeepers partly due to the cost of courses, and the time and effort required for the rigorous study involved over several years.
However, a series of short courses attracted a lot of attention and were popular. The NDB previously ran a series of Government- funded short courses (practical and classroom based) for beekeepers wishing to advance their education and training. These were well attended and, although expensive to attend from Scotland, I thought the one that I joined, Brood Diseases of the Honey Bee, was well taught with excellent course content. Learning in small groups of 12 has many advantages and you can also learn from fellow students in that environment. Funding finished in 2019 at the end of the ten-year Healthy Bees Plan 2009 but it may resume with Healthy Bee Plan 2030 launched in November 2020.
The Bee Farmer’s Association5, with sponsorship from Rowse Honey, set up an apprenticeship scheme which has already seen over 30 young bee farmers qualifying and joining the industry. However, more training is needed and it has been the BFA’s intention to set up courses to cater for others joining the industry beyond school leaving age.
Wales has 19 local associations affiliated to The Welsh Beekeeper’s Association, and one independent association and its examination system is similar to the BBKA one.
Wales will soon be gaining a smart new beekeeper; the wee bee apprentice will be moving to Colwyn Bay with her family as soon as they find a house with a garden big enough for a couple of hives. Connie (9) helped me check last week to see if a queen, introduced to a colony via the slow method, had been released from her cage. More on that next week.
There are around 7,000 beekeepers across the island of Ireland.
The Republic of Ireland (ROI) is leading the way in formalising beekeeping education in partnership with the National University of Ireland, Galway, and is currently working towards a university diploma status for apiculture exams.
Northern Ireland’s beekeeping comprises two leading groups with separate education systems. The Ulster Beekeepers Association6 has 12 local beekeeping associations under its umbrella and shares the Irish Beekeeper’s Association’s7 (IBA) examination system. This system consists of a Preliminary Certificate achieved through self-directed learning and a written and practical exam. The Intermediate Certificate is awarded on successful completion of a written scientific exam and a practical one. The Beemaster Certificate is the highest award for successful candidates of the senior scientific, husbandry written exams, practical apiary exam and microscopy exam.
Last year in response to Covid-19 restrictions, an Entry Level Certificate exam was created to encourage beginners and steer them on the education path. This consists of an open book written exam, and a skills logbook for the practical exam assessed by local association beekeeper mentors. Practical skills, such as making frames correctly, may be assessed remotely by use of video with IT support from as required.
The Institute of Northern Ireland Beekeepers was founded in 2001 and is affiliated to the BBKA and shares its education system.
Australia is a vast sparsely populated country with its inhabitants concentrated in the cities, coastal regions and fertile inland areas. It is one of the top ten honey producers of the world engaging in migratory beekeeping and producing around 20,000-30,000 tonnes of honey annually.
Registration of all beekeepers is mandatory for biosecurity reasons, and there are currently 30,000 registered beekeepers managing 668,000 colonies across the country. Only 65 have more than 50 colonies but they produce more than 80% of the honey.
Beekeeping education targets the industry with focus on preparing bee farmers and their employees, rather than hobbyists, for managing honey bees. Formal vocational education consists of a nationally recognised Certificate 111 in Beekeeping programme which is devised by The Australian Honey Bee Industry Council.
This programme can be accessed in every State at learning centres, Registered Training Organisations (RTO) which have been approved and registered to deliver this training. The programme consists of 16 units 12 of which are core and statutory, and 4 are chosen by the student. Examples are: contribute to work health and safety processes, manage pests and disease within a honey bee colony, use a bee smoker etc. Alternatively, a basic course consisting of six core modules could be attained by someone about to enter the industry.
The main RTO centre in NSW is Tocal8 to the north west of Sydney which also caters for hobbyists wanting to do a basic introductory two- day course. This costs, AU $650, and consists of two units covering how to inspect a colony, basic management and how a honey bee colony works. Certificate 111 costs AU$5,900.00.
Hobbyists may apply for higher level courses but, given the cost are more likely to attend only the short introductory course. Hobbyists generally receive little training apart from what each local association provides. Distances travelled are massive for beekeepers in rural areas attending meetings, and education naturally varies across associations without a nationally recognised beekeeping association system for hobbyists.
According to an experienced beekeeper newly emigrated from Scotland, new beekeepers often obtain bees with no prior knowledge or experience, and might learn how to take off honey at an association meeting but little else. “We have them turning up intermittently, usually when they have a problem. But most do not even know when there is a problem”.
As in Australia, all beekeepers in New Zealand have a legal obligation to register themselves as beekeepers, and also their apiaries under the Biosecurity Act 1993.
Apiculture New Zealand9 is the former New Zealand Bee Association and publishes a journal under that name. It is the main representative body for the beekeeping industry, and responsible for setting the standard for beekeeping education up to the highest level; New Zealand Certificate in Apiculture Level 4. This qualification is recognised by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority.
In June 2019 there were 9, 217 registered beekeepers including hobbyists and commercial beekeepers with a 1/3 million colonies between them. The previous year, 2,361 were commercial beekeepers. 10,000 tonnes of honey are produced with 5,000 tonnes eaten in New Zealand. There is a large manuka market and a shortage of qualified beekeepers in the country so there are job opportunities for experienced beekeepers. Self-employment is common.
Beekeeping education is geared towards the industry with short courses available for secondary school students as a lead in to entering employment in that sector. There are apprenticeship schemes that enable people to work and attend college part-time over 34 weeks with 18 face to face days teaching given during two consecutive days a month.
The government funds beekeeping education to encourage people into this sector and courses are provided free to New Zealand citizens and permanent residents. Hobbyist beekeepers may apply for these courses which are the only formally recognised form of beekeeping education. The Pacific Coast Technical Institute in the North Island10 is one of a few centres providing such training. Local beekeeping associations provide varying standards of training for beginning beekeepers but none are officially recognised.
Currently there are around 200,000 beekeepers across all states in the US11. 200, 000 are hobbyists. 10,000 are side-liners who are part time beekeepers earning part of their living from honey bees. 2,000 are commercial beekeepers managing 300 or more colonies and producing 60% of the honey extracted in the US. The average produced annually is 81,751 tons.
There is no national universal programme for education in the US but each state runs a similar Master Beekeeper Programme which is the highest level of education and a major credential in beekeeping. Otherwise, beekeeping education takes a few forms: learning from website; YouTube channel; class offered by local beekeeping association; books, mentors, and courses run by beekeeping supply companies such as Betterbee12.
Local beekeeping associations offer courses varying in content and structure without formal examinations or a universal syllabus.
Professor Roger Morse from Cornell University instigated the original Master Beekeeper Programme over 50 years ago. It is currently administered under The Eastern Apiculture Society (EAS) Master Beekeeper program13, now in its 36th year. This course is self-directed and assessed during the week long annual EAS conference. It necessitates passing 4 rigorous examinations during a 2-day testing period. This examination comprises a written exam (equivalent to a college course examination), a laboratory exam (identifying 40+ items of beekeeping equipment, bees, bee products, materials used in bee care, etc.), an oral exam (including both a prepared 5 minute and 3 additional questions typical of those media or beekeepers might pose) and a field exam (demonstrating ability to open, examine and explain what is happening in a bee hive)
Some universities, such as the University of Arkansas, offer a graduate student level entomology course on apiculture covering equally biology and honey bee colony management.
150 years ago, the Federal Government deeded individual state lands to what are now called Land Grant Universities for the purpose of teaching new scientific methods of agriculture and engineering. Today the best scientific research from these institutions is shared with farmers, the public and other beneficiaries by employed scientists called Extensionists through the Cooperative Extension Service. The honey bee specialist/extensionist carries out education and research programmes on bees and related topics for commercial beekeepers, hobbyists, gardeners, pesticide applicators, school children, the general public and anyone else with an interest in bees, beekeeping or pollination14.
Many universities have followed Cornell’s recent lead in setting up an online advanced Master Beekeeper programme for beekeepers with 3 or more years’ experience15. Students follow a guided and supported programme of study which involves completing 4 online two-week courses over 15 months, requiring 3-5 hours study every week with course material available online round the clock. Three person- to- person assessment meetings are required to assess practical and communication skills and this is normally carried out at the University apiary but during Covid-19 restrictions assessments were recorded at the student’s apiary.
Canada is immense and vast tracts of arable land produce crops requiring honey bee pollination because of a decline in native pollinators. There are around 10,000 beekeepers; 80% of whom are commercial beekeepers producing around 40,000 tonnes of honey annually16. The greatest value of honey bees lies in pollination.
There is a shortage of beekeepers in Canada and education is focussed on the commercial sector. Niagara College Ontario17 offers a 3- semester one year graduate beekeeping course for those in possession of a degree or college diploma. Another full- time commercial course is available in British Columbia.
Most local association across the provinces provide training of some sort but there is no national syllabus, and quality is equally variable according to my source. Every 2 years, a five- day course is held at the University of British Columbia for beekeepers of over 5 years’ experience. An exam is held on the last day and successful candidates are awarded a Beemaster Certificate which is the highest level achievable for hobbyists. This course costs Can$350.00.
Education and training for the commercial sector dominates over that provided for the hobbyist sector of beekeeping in nearly all the countries I looked at except perhaps, Ireland, the UK, and parts of the US, where, instead, education appears to be geared towards hobbyists. Providing more courses for potential bee farmers in the UK should address the shortfall in honey production across the UK. Recruiting more young people into this sector could be increased if all schools established beekeeping on the curriculum. This could be followed up by developing Higher National Certificates and Higher National Diplomas in beekeeping which would be recognised nationally, accessible by all beekeepers, and contribute towards a degree in apiculture which would give a sound career structure for those entering this field and moving on to management roles.
At the moment, we have voluntary registration of our apiaries on BeeBase which partly serves to increase biosecurity and inform us of any foulbrood outbreaks near us. Mandatory registration of both apiaries and beekeepers might serve to make people more aware of the responsibilities involved with beekeeping. It might be useful in helping people make the decision to get into beekeeping or not. It might reduce the abandoning of bees when the beekeeper becomes allergic, or gets fed up with the hard work involved. Registering to keep bees could be incumbent on completing a basic training that gives competence in handling bees to improve their welfare. As seen in Australia, beekeepers need only register to keep bees, they don’t have to show that they know how to look after these animals. Cost of courses could be reimbursed on successful completion. Policing registration and taking legal action in cases of neglect would be difficult I suspect, but not a reason not to try it.
Government bee advisors have played an important role in British beekeeping in the past, and I hope that as agriculture and bee health policies change, we will have a return of these educators. They could be responsible for setting the standards needed for courses and corricula across all beekeeping education at both private and beekeeping association levels. We could replicate the American model of graduate university extensionists supporting both the hobbyist and the commercial sectors in the UK, and being the middle person between research and the end user.
Beekeepers are often portrayed as being tight and not wanting to spend much money on beekeeping in the UK, so financial incentives to join local associations and do courses might bring into the fold some of the beekeepers discussed last week. We know that people don’t value things that are free, but what about local associations reimbursing the cost/part cost of some courses on successful completion? These beekeepers are often the ones who will do most of the association teaching over many years. Some associations might already subsidise training. A lot of associations already offer cheap bee feed and other goods, bought in bulk, to members, but this deal could be highlighted as part of the membership package for every association. It might just bring in those beekeepers who go it alone. Perhaps further incentives and rewards could be given to beekeepers who are contributing to the economy and producing honey or other goods/services?
One reader contributes thoughts on dispelling the myth that we need more beekeepers to save bees. Social media campaigns are a good place to start but national and local beekeeping associations should take the lead here. Collaboration with the National Farmers Union and other government organisation would strengthen the message.
On the subject of farmers, Alister suggests that they and their industry need more support. Farmers and large land owners are generally some of the most educated and environmentally friendly people in this country and manage their lands for both profit and pollinators. However, they are constantly being harmed and criticised by unbalanced media reports shared widely on social media by the largely uninformed and misinformed public. He refers to the recent furore over neonicotonoids being potentially used on sugar beet as an example, and suggests that the national beekeeping associations take a more balanced stance in support of the farmers.
Alister reports 70 potential new beekeepers on a beginner course at his local association in central Scotland. With limited resources he sees no way for these people to be trained and mentored correctly and suggests capping numbers of new members each year. “A new member is a valuable asset to both beekeeping and associations and should be “treasured” and “nurtured” for a minimum of 18 months, with real emphasis on mentoring till at least the time they pass their basic beekeeping course”.
I think that the Irish workbook tool sounds really useful and would serve as a good guide for the beginner. We could all use it in our associations to support and encourage learning at the start. Those of you who trained in nursing back in the day will remember the learning objective booklets that we carried about on shift and got signed off when we became proficient at tasks. I still have my general nursing objectives from Wagga Wagga Base Hospital, NSW, and I’m looking at my midwifery booklet from The Glasgow Royal Maternity Hospital now and notice that I never got, “State the Central Midwives Board rules relevant to prenatal care” signed off, oops!
I haven’t got all the answers but I hope that this might have stimulated some thought and action for change in beekeeping education that will impact positively on bee health and welfare.
- (1) BeeBase – Beekeeping information resource for Beekeepers (nationalbeeunit.com)
- (2) https://www.sqa.org.uk/sqa/80504.html
- (3) https://www.bbka.org.uk/
- (4) https://national-diploma-beekeeping.org/#:~:text=The%20National%20Diploma%20in%20Beekeeping%20%28NDB%29%20exists%20
- (5) https://beefarmers.co.uk/about-bee-farming/what-is-bee-farming
- (6) https://www.ubka.org/about/local-associations/
- (7) https://www.irishbeekeepersassociation.com/education.html
- (8) Bees (tocal.nsw.edu.au)
- (9) Apiculture New Zealand (apinz.org.nz)
- (10) About Us | Pacific Coast Technical Institute | PCTI NZ
- (11) Department of Agriculture (unt.edu)
- (12) Personal communication with Dr David Peck, Cornell University, New York.
- (13) Master Beekeepers (easternapiculture.org)
- (14) Personal communication with Jon Zawislak, Apicultural Specialist, University of Arkansas, Little Rock.
- (15) https://ecornell.cornell.edu/certificates/beekeeping/master-beekeeping/
- (16) honey_miel_2019-eng.pdf (agr.gc.ca)
- (17) Commercial Beekeeping Program | Niagara College