This is a massive subject so I’m addressing just a few topics today. I want to explore some of the problems associated with a lack of knowledge in beekeeping, and how we might make things better.
What is Beekeeping Education?
Education and training are inextricably linked but yet subtly different. Education is traditionally associated with classroom learning whereby the subject is wide ranging and teaching aims to deliver knowledge about facts, principles and general concepts. Its purpose is to develop a sense of understanding that enables the individual to assimilate information, reason and make judgements leading to good decision making. In beekeeping, these decisions are mostly informed by researched based evidence and sound best practice management techniques.
It could be said that training on the other hand is about learning by doing, and the individual learns how to do a specific task such as inspecting a honey bee colony for disease. The perspective is narrow and based on practical application involving a particular job, but it cannot be meaningful and effective without education. Practical beekeeping is training focussed, and this “know how” is pivotal to the art and craft of successful beekeeping
The need for every beekeeper to have access to reliable education and training has never been more important than it is today and the reasons become clear when viewed against the backdrop of recent history and research.
Are Honey Bees Really Disappearing?
The world’s attention is dramatically drawn to honey bees by the media following the mysterious exodus of bees from hives in the US during 2006 in what was dubbed “colony collapse disorder” (CCD). It first manifested in the colonies of large- scale commercial beekeepers fulfilling pollination contracts in California’s Central Valley almond orchards. Thousands of colonies disappeared and died leaving a void in the workforce required for trucking north to pollinate crops as far away as the Maine blueberry bogs.
Around the world at this time, colonies losses caused great concern which prompted a torrent of research into honey bee health resulting in a better understanding of the problems now facing beekeeping. Coordinated global research, funded by the EU COST Action FA0803, led to the formation of the COLOSS1 (Prevention of honey bee Colony LOSSes) Network of scientists from 24 countries. Working dynamically in four groups, the scientists continue to study and explain colony losses in order to prevent further massive losses, and to improve future monitoring and management.
It is now understood that the cause of large-scale colony losses was multi-factorial. They were not caused by pesticides alone, or other single factors; rather a combination of conditions such as; changes in agriculture and land use, climate change, reduction in nutritious bee forage, pesticides, parasitic varroa mite and associated viruses, gut parasites, and beekeeper management including migratory beekeeping.
Importation of honey bees from across the world has also led to dangerous new emerging diseases, pests and viruses which threaten beekeeping and drives the need for education and training in breeding and rearing home-grown bees.
The value of honey bees to the UK economy is worth around £200 million annually as estimated by the National Audit Officein 2017, with the retail value of pollinated products being closer to £1 billion which reflect the findings of research published in 1998. Although “managed” honey bee numbers are currently being sustained, free-living honey bees and other pollinators are in decline due, it is claimed, to habitat loss through intensive modern agriculture, pesticide use, and climate change.
The demand for honey in the UK has increased but remains unmet by UK production so the rest is imported from the UK and further afield. Around 14% is produced annually in the UK compared with 60% in Europe. Honey is the third most adulterated food product globally, and fake honey can be found on our supermarket shelves because it is very expensive to test samples, greed drives the market, and because not enough honey is produced at home.
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 in beekeeping, especially in urban areas has led to competition for forage, the increase and spread of foulbrood diseases, (especially European foulbrood (EFB)) and public nuisance issues with uncontrolled swarming among poorly educated beekeepers.
Keeping Bees to Save the Bees is Like Keeping Hens to Save the Birds.
We’ve all seen the slogans and photos on social media, and the tee shirts bearing “save the honey bee” messages. There’s the picture doing the rounds of a child enveloping a giant honey bee in its arms beseeching us to save the bees. Actually, honey bee hive numbers are increasing globally and, according to Ron Miksha2, they are up from 50,000000 in 1961 to 90,000000 in 2019. There are many more beekeepers in my area than when I started beekeeping. The local beekeeping association has grown in membership from 20 to around 90 beekeepers over 16 years with 87 apiaries in a 10 km radius of our home apiary.
Other key pollinators, especially native bees, are in decline and this is the real message that the public needs to hear.
It is challenging for some beekeeping associations to cope with the influx of new beekeepers and supply the training and support required by the steadily increasing numbers. Private companies have set themselves up to teach beekeeping classes but the level of experience and qualification of the educators vary and it is hard for the public to assess the quality of training. The Scottish Beekeeper’s Association have organised train the trainers classes and issues certificates in an attempt to address this dichotomy and set a standard for teaching.
Beekeepers Kill More Bees Than Disease Does in Scotland.
“Beekeepers kill more bees than disease does in Scotland”, Steve Sunderland3, 2021. This is a chilling statement, but, as former Lead Bee Inspector for Scottish Government, Steve knows what he is talking about from his experience with beekeepers and observations in the field. However, I suggest that this statment might apply to every country where beekeeping takes place.
Colony losses are higher yearly in the UK compared with other European countries according to research conducted over 2 years from 2012-2014 which highlights lack of beekeeper education as part of the problem. The study carried out by the EPILOBEE4 consortium found that hobbyist beekeepers with small apiaries and little experience had double the mortality rates of professional beekeepers. Those losing the highest number of colonies over winter were; over 65 years of age, didn’t attend training or belong to a local association. Also, they didn’t maintain colony records or control varroa and had been beekeeping for less than 5 years. Work by Sunderland et al5, 2019, shows that across Europe, beekeepers, both hobbyist and commercial beekeepers, often struggle and lose colonies in their first year. They suggest that regulating beekeeping and providing accreditation for beekeepers who follow a training programme might be a solution. Accreditation would also address honey fraud and satisfy retailers and customers as to the quality and purity of the honey purchased.
Why Do You Want To Keep Bees?
Perhaps we should ask this question of everyone who makes an equiry about beekeeping and obtaining bees. Maybe we need to be more realistic about what is involved in the true cost of looking after bees in a responsible way in terms of time, money and effort. We need to produce more honey in the UK to go even a little way further towards reaching the level of demand and it seems obvious that we need more commercial bee farmers, or hobbyists contributing to the market. Managing colonies for honey production requires skill, and we all know beekeepers who never get a honey harvest because “the weather is bad” or “the winter was too long”. Their bees just didn’t build up to be strong enough because there was some underlying disease, management or queen issue that was beyond their level of knowledge.
Why Did You Start Beekeeping?
I know one reader out there who would probably tell you that she started beekeeping 13 years ago because her new colleague, Ann Chilcott, couldn’t stop talking about bees at tea break, and it sounded fun.
I own up to actively encouraging people to keep bees back then. I’m really glad that I “recruited”Cynthia May though because she has become my bee buddy and we help each other with lifting and are continually bouncing ideas off one another. She keeps me right when I forget to do something in the apiary, and I know that she will probably forget the matches sometimes when we visit the distillery out apiary bees so I keep a spare packet in my pocket.
However, I’m now more mindful of the reasons why some people are best suited to providing a great foraging environment rather than beekeeping, and I more often promote that as an alternative to caring for challenging livestock.
I admit that I started out in 2004 to exploit the bees. I was fascinated watching throngs of honey bees working the cotoneaster one summer and thought, “Hey little bees, you could be living here and working hard for me producing honey”.
Little did I know that the tables would quickly turn and it would be me who would be working just as hard for them in order to keep them alive and healthy. Now I want to promote their welfare and help other beekeepers better care for them. I had no idea of what was involved either when I first started, or about the challenges of managing varroa and swarming, bad weather, lack of forage, overwintering……..
Beekeeping wasn’t popular then and I was one of only a few women in a small local association with a membership of around 20. Between 8-10 members attended meetings. Within the first month of joining, I was signed up as a committee member. This felt like a big responsibility and I knew absolutely nothing about how a colony functioned, let alone a committee. So, this was why I fast tracked myself onto the education trail and took every exam that the Scottish Beekeeper’s Association offered: apart from the Honey Judge Certificate because I never want to be asked to judge at honey shows. They are an important part of showcasing our wonderful products and educating the public, but there are others better suited to this pastime than myself.
For a while, I thought that I knew a lot about bees. I talked about them at every opportunity and the thing was everybody seemed keen to listen, so on I went amazing them with astounding facts. I’ve been trained to “read” people and would have recognise the “glazed- eye” expression and stopped. But that stage was rarely reached, apart from a close family member who’d heard it all before. People wanted to hear about bees. I gave talks to local groups such as The Women’s Rural Institute and on I went spreading the word.
Back then, I thought that everyone should keep bees and not miss out on the wonders of watching a hive or two in the back garden. It was rather like the approach to network marketing, and anyone who has ever been involved with Amway, or the likes, will know what I mean: it’s like it’s your duty to offer everyone this wonderful opportunity.
I started studying bees more deeply and attending conferences where I met beekeepers from all over the world. I subscribed to more magazines including the top American journals; American Bee Journal and Bee Culture and then the penny dropped. Whoops! I don’t know very much about bees after all. This is humbling and the point at which real learning and understanding start to shape up.
I remember the moment when this happened; it was when I was reading Honeybee Democracy for the first time. Suddenly the mysteries of swarming were opened up like Pandora’s box and there was no going back. I wanted to learn more about how a colony really functions and not just a list of amazing facts that might win me a prize in a pub quiz.
Although honey bees are the most studied and written about animals there is still so much to be uncovered that it provides a life-long interest and a dynamic search for new information.
I’m not alone in thinking that I knew a lot about bees in my early years, and there’s one like this lurking around every beekeeping corner. Worryingly, sometimes they are the leaders of beekeeping clubs where committees rarely change. They don’t keep up to date and are not aware of what they don’t know but they can influence a lot of people.
Psychologists have actually studied this phenomenon. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect after David Dunning and Justin Kruger from Cornell University who published a paper in 19996. Their research involved studying people who were unskilled at particular tasks they were asked to perform. When assessed on their perception of their performances it was found that they markedly overestimated their own ability, and, what’s more, they were unable to recognise competence in others. Only when they achieved a level of competence did they become aware of their previous lack of knowledge and skills.
Rusty Burlew7 covers this topic in an enlightening and amusing way in her latest American Bee Journal article. She shows a graph depicting the high level of confidence of the beekeeper who knows nothing. She calls this he peak of Mount Know-it-All. There’s a sharp drop down into the Valley of Despair following some mishap and that’s when the individual realises that they need to learn more. They take lessons, take advice, read books/magazines, and maybe sit exams before proceeding to a level of competence whereby they can work back up the Slope of Enlightenment to the Plateau of Sustainability which may lead on to guru status.
What’s clear is that it can take a couple of years for a beekeeper to fall from the peak of Mount Know-it-All and a lot of collateral damage can occur in the meantime, negatively affecting the bees. During the pre- enlightenment era, the “expert” has already taken on newer beekeepers to mentor, released more than a few swarms into urban areas giving other beekeepers more work collecting them, and annoying home owners who find bees in their chimneys etc.
These experts know the answers to everything, and invent questionable new peices of beekeeping equipment that nobody has yet been smart enough to consider so far in a beekeeping history that goes back beyond Roman times.
We mustn’t forget either that these beekeepers often give away bees to other people who cannot look after them, but nevertheless swan off leaving them to get on with it. Sometimes, another busy beekeeper may pick up the pieces for the sake of the bees. However, often these bees become neglected and overwhelmed by varroa and other diseases which they spread around the neighbourhood.
We can better identify and understand the keekeepers who have not yet discovered how little they really know: but how do we engage with them and encourage them to develop skills and gain knowledge?
Next week, I’m going to explore this topic a little more, so any insights and suggestions will be welcomed in the meantime.
Notice I haven’t mentioned the weather yet this week! It’s been nothing to write home about as they say. The length of this blog says it all: cold rain all week and the desk beckoned.
More importantly though, I want to thank everyone who donated to the running, maintenance and site security of Beelistener. A big welcome all new subcribers and readers. People from Nepal, Uganda, Finland, Zambia, El Salvador, Malaysia, Trinidad & Tobago and Chile tuned in this month bringing the number of countries reached to 76.
2 Miksha, R, Keeping Honey Bees for the Wrong Reasons. American Bee Journal, April 2021.
3 Personal Communication with Steve Sunderland, Master Beefarmer and retired Scottish Government Lead Bee Inspector.
4 Jacques, A, Laurent M; EPILOBEE Consortium, Ribière-Chabert M, Saussac M, Bougeard S, Budge GE, Hendrikx P, Chauzat MP. A pan-European epidemiological study reveals honey bee colony survival depends on beekeeper education and disease control. PLoS One. 2017 Mar 9;12(3):e0172591. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0172591. PMID: 28278255; PMCID: PMC5344352.
5 Sutherland, S, Ruiz, J, Gregorc, A, Nubulsi, Z. 2020. Information and Training for Beekeepers. EIP-AGRI Focus Group Bee Health and Sustainable Beekeeping, European Commission.
6 Kruger,J, & Dunning, D. 2009. Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognising One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self Assessments. Journal of personality and Social Psychology, 77 (6): 1121-1134.
7 Burlew, R, 2021, Beekeepers and the Dunning-Kruger Effect: Unskilled and Unaware. American Bee Journal, Volume 161 No 4, April 2021:381-383.