What is a Mentor?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a mentor is “an experienced person in an organisation who trains and advises new employees or students”. It’s from ancient Greece. When Odysseus the Greek king of Ithaca went off to fight the Trojan wars he left his kingdom, and the education of his son Telemachus, to a knowledgeable and greatly trusted man called Mentor. The latter’s name lives on as a wise, experienced and trusted individual in any setting.
So, in beekeeping, if we are lucky, there is someone with whom we have a special relationship involving support, trust, knowledge sharing, advising and counselling. Improving performance is one of the key wanted outcomes because we are caring for livestock that require the same respect and good animal husbandry as do prize sheep or cattle.
In the UK, mentoring is usually undertaken on a voluntary basis by both parties outside the formal employment setting. Coaching on the other hand is usually carried out for profit such as in fitness or life-skills training. I’ve been mentoring beekeepers for many years now and I started logging phone calls, emails and apiary visits in 2012 as part of the required and growing CV for the National Diploma in Beekeeping exam that I’ve yet to sit. 2016 was busy with 61 hours spent mentoring, and in this year of Covid-19 and lockdown the hours are ratcheting up as well.
What’s in it For Me?
You’d be surprised at just how much I’ve learned from other beekeepers and the different settings and situations in apiaries and individual colonies that I visit. I’m passionate about improving survival rates for honey bees, and helping others care for them efficiently and safely. Supporting beekeepers seems like the best way for me to contribute. It also feels good to do something valuable once one’s professional working life comes to an end. If you really want to learn something then teach it for the preparation involved cements that knowledge and makes it stick. I’ve made many new friends and visited beautiful parts of Scotland and it’s a privilege to be asked to mentor someone.
How Mentoring Works.
David Clutterbuck https://instituteofcoaching.org/author/clutterbuck-david identifies the key elements of mentoring as: managing the relationship, encouragement, nurturing, teaching, offering mutual respect and responding to learner needs.
Managing the relationship.
Most beekeeping associations should have, or be developing, a mentoring system whereby people are matched up in a supporting apprentice-like situation. Initially this may be influenced by geography for convenience where a lot of mileage is clocked up. However, not everyone is well matched by personality or style so that may be tweaked later and mentors chosen by mutual agreement.
Defining a time limit is advisable. How long will you mentor a new beekeeper for? One year with regular visits, or two years? Will you visit the mentee’s apiary or will they come to yours? How many visits are manageable? Phone-calls? Set times that suit you for calls. Decide on the ground rules and make a contract if necessary. If you’ve sold bees to the beginner beekeeper then perhaps part of the cost will include a number of hours mentoring.
I don’t currently charge for my time but I ask for mileage reimbursement as I might travel a fair distance over a season and I live in a rural area.
Who doesn’t need this in beekeeping? I didn’t have a named mentor when I started in 2004 but I did get support when I asked for it. However, back in the day it was seen as a negative thing, by some of the senior club beekeepers, to have swarms leave your hives. Before I really understood bee biology, and that swarming is a natural reproductive strategy, I thought that I must be a very bad beekeeper because my Carniolan bees swarmed every year. I seriously wondered if I should carry on with it or just give up after 2 years.
Once I held a committee meeting at my house and as everyone was arriving a noisy swarm darkened the sky and I cringed with embarrassment The new club secretary rushed round to my apiary with an excited gleam in her eyes. She found the queen on the ground and saved the day by turning the experience into an informative teaching session. I will never forget her saying that the association was letting beekeepers down if they were not teaching swarm management and what to do about preventing casts or after-swarms. From then on I resolved to understand how swarming worked and to help others as Brenda had supported me.
Being honest and sharing with others your mistakes is encouraging and it saves them repeating them. How many times has someone told you that they’ve seen starving bees, deformed wing virus, chronic bee paralysis virus, or the queen above the excluder in the super before– but of course, never in their own apiaries! Yes, sure: pull the other leg, it plays “jingle bells”.
A good mentor or bee-buddy doesn’t boast about their own successes with honey harvests or spew out advice ad lib. Rather, they help you plan your beekeeping journey and reach your own goals without providing the detailed map.
Everyone needs a bit of this so give some time to the relationship by listening to any worries however trivial they may seem. People generally want to do the best for their bees and some people need more reassurance than others.
If you’re going to teach you need to be credible with some experience under your belt, and ideally at least some basic recognised training to back you up.
Recently I worked with astute but relatively new beekeepers who recognised that their 2 year old queen might not do well enough to get the colony through the winter. They liked the queen and wanted to keep her in a nucleus box over winter. However, finding the queen was a challenge and they wanted help with that and making a nuc to over-winter. The colony certainly did need a new queen as the brood and bees were covering only around 6-7 frames in a single 11-framed National brood box in July.
We discussed how we would physically carry out the procedures so that there was a basic plan in place to be adapted as required. Ensuring that the smoker was well lit was key just in case we needed to control the bees at any point. I used very little smoke when searching for the queen. We concentrated on finding the unmarked queen by looking on the dark side of the frames first. This is the side closest to the next frame of brood. I explained the use of the j hive tool as a lever to remove the first frame only. From there on in I used only the curved ended tool working from left to right to break the propolis seal without jarring bees before lifting out the frames. It is also a great lever for pushing frames back together all at once against the hive wall when closing up the frames at the end of the inspection.
Hot Summer Day.
You’ll notice that I’m scantily clad for Scottish beekeeping but the day is hot and above 20 degrees Celsius. I need to keep cool to concentrate on the job in hand. I do have a full kit and caboodle in my bag just in case it all goes pear-shaped but the bees are relaxed. So, for now I’m in my light mesh jacket by MillerBees, https://beetlejail.com/ allowing the refreshing breeze to reach me. This was a birthday present to myself and well chosen I’ve decided.
There are many different ways to keep bees, and in all sort of hives too. There are few absolute rights or wrongs set in stone in beekeeping. This is worth remembering when faced with seemingly whacky ideas that a new beekeeper might want to try out. A good mentor is present and focused taking a sincere interest in the other person and using listening skills to the full. Likewise, the mentee needs to be mindful of mentor commitments and workloads and take responsibility for their own learning. Learning is about a change in behaviour as a result of gaining knowledge, and this is what the mentee must be able to do to keep bees safely
Responding to mentee needs.
Usually a learner asks lots of questions, but rather than answering them all try helping the learner to think through the situations and answering their own questions under your guidance. Help the learner make their own colony management decisions but don’t take over otherwise you will never free the mentee from the relationship with you.
Becoming a Mentor.
Don’t be shy about stepping forward and volunteering your services to your local beekeeping association. Likewise, If you need to find a mentor then ask the local beekeeping association secretary to direct you.
The Dr John Anderson Award.
I received a wonderful surprise this year when the Scottish Beekeepers Association awarded me with the Dr John Anderson award for contributions to education in Scotland. Due to Covid-19, it could not be presented at the AGM but instead this great honour was bestowed upon me after a recent teaching weekend at Newbattle Abbey south of Edinburgh. I’m a bit overwhelmed due to not expecting this to be presented then. One of the SBA Trustees, Gino Abdul-Jabbar, does the honours in true social distancing style, with none of the usual hugging and hand shaking. I try to contain my emotions at receiving such significant recognition.