Beekeepers Come; Beekeepers Go

“Beekeepers become proficient after four years.”

Between 45% and 75% of British beekeepers are newbies – in their first four years. Only 10% have been at it for more than ten years.  I guess it’s similar in Canada, Australia, and the USA. I saw the UK numbers on Chris Slade’s bee blog and he heard them from Margaret Murdin who gave a lecture on Becoming a Proficient Beekeeper. She says that we are novices for the first couple of years, improvers for two to four years, then (hopefully) we acquire enough skill to be ‘proficient‘.

I think turnover is highest in the first year or two. Beekeeping sounded like a good idea at the time: Save the Bees™, Help the Flowers, Get Some Honey. Perhaps you were going to be a hippie farmer, but you were born forty years too late. That’s lucky. The guys in this picture apparently wanted to be farmers – that’s why they were hanging out at Yasgur’s dairy farm. After the cow, it was going to be bees. It wasn’t. They were grateful instead.

But then your bees arrived. They stung the neighbour’s dogs (all of them) and your spouse wasn’t particularly impressed with the way bees eat sugar, queens, and money. And where was all that free honey you’d promised?

Beginning beekeeping can be pretty devastating the morning after the bees arrive. Or the evening after your first attempt at extracting. Or when a mite-infested laying worker has brood infected with foulbrood. It can be grim. But beekeeping can also be addicting. Like gambling. You may grow fond of the little fuzzies and decide to soldier forward. (With all those tight upper lips, I’m surprised that 90% of English beekeepers give up within ten years.)

Your best chance at success is to find a mentor and latch on tightly. Mentors don’t come cheap – you may need to serve pie with a beer and listen to old stories of by-gone beekeeping. Old beekeepers love to talk. If you make the mistake of feigning interest during an epic swarm-capture tale, expect to hear the same story again and again. With some modifications.

But your mentor will encourage you in a few ways. You’ll learn surprising tricks that will keep your bees alive. Maybe you’ll make some honey. However, the most significant lesson will come when you eventually realize that if that old geezer who has been talking your ears off can keep bees alive, well, so can you…

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
This entry was posted in Beekeeping, Culture, or lack thereof, Humour, Outreach, Save the Bees and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Beekeepers Come; Beekeepers Go

  1. Hey, Ron—you forgot—this is 2017 and most of the mentors I know are women, not geezers (though it is a cute image!) and my early mentors, 3 of them and all men, were abysmal teachers. They banged through my hives, explaining nothing of their thought processes or decision making models. As a result, I honed my own mentoring methods (with a contract the student must sign stating my expectations and responsibilities to them and vise-versa and fee to start) with a great deal of attention to explaining why we do things and the various “tools in the brain toolbox” that need to be gathered and accessed when evaluating a situation. None of my students gets bees in the mail—the great learning opportunity of seeing a feral hive in situ, re-homing it, and starting with a typically robust colony beats the package bees by a mile. The student gets to see things in the cutout that would take months to view from a purchase of bees. And the queen is related to her workers!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Indeed mentors don’t come cheap if at all. Our local association has about 100 new beekeepers a year coming through. We have no where near that number of mentors. A 1:1 mentor is the exception not the rule and that’s even if you show up with pie and beer. 🙂 If anyone has been bitten by the beekeeping habit then, like other addictions, we strongly advise them to get themselves to a meeting and be regular attendees. No one will ask them to standup and admit to their addiction but most of the club’s mentors and “bee buddies” (2nd and 3rd year beekeepers) will be there to teach class and offer between meeting support and fellowship. As always, great article Ron. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. Erik says:

    I’m entering my third year, so I guess I’m past my prime, or something.

    Our local association takes what is perhaps a unique approach. We offer a yearly spring beekeeping course and only accept as many students as we have mentors. We also coordinate local members so that each student is able to purchase local nucs. Some still buy packages, though we discourage it if we get to them first. That way every student has a 1:1 mentor and they are able to purchase a local nuc (we encourage newbies to start with two hives). Over the hope is we build a more sustainable community with bees more adapted to our area.

    Not sure how well it works, and some of us (myself included) are perhaps not the best mentors. Still, it seems a good approach and we’ve done it for a number of years as I understand it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Year three? You are almost ‘proficient’ according to the person giving the talk in England. But I’ve been reading your posts – you are what a beekeeper should be!

      I like the idea your club has. Encouraging local bees is probably helpful. Offering mentors to each newbie is excellent. I don’t know if our club could do it. We do have a mentor system, however, and it’s well used. I help organize the teaching for our spring and fall beginner’s sessions. In November 2016, we had 40 students, in early March 2017 (a couple weeks ago) we had 60!! It was a huge group, but a really great group. Not even one of the 60 had ever kept bees before. I teach two of the sessions and three other teachers also do the presenting, plus three other skilled beekeepers help with demos, questions, and so on. The course takes place over a full weekend (all day Saturday and Sunday). Having mentors for each is a noble endeavour, but the best we can do here is get the new beekeepers into our monthly meetings and invite them into our mentoring program.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Erik says:

        I’ve seen your posts on your classes, and they look very good. The Northern Virginia associations got together and developed a common curriculum and presentation slides that they share. The class is weekly for six or eight weeks (I don’t remember which…). An advantage of this is that if you miss a week you can make it up at another association. The population is pretty dense in our area, so this seems to be a good approach. One drawback, perhaps, is that I’ve noticed some of the slides are a little dated, though the presenters generally speak to the current thinking.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. BeeNuts says:

    Good points on mentoring, but as ever, be careful with the UK statistics. Margaret Mullen is Chairman of the British Beekeepers Association, so she should have a good handle on membership profile. The membership trebled from 6,700 in 2005 to 24,000 today, which explains the relatively ‘inexperienced’ profile of members. Also recall the distinction between BBKA members (largely hobbyist) and bee farmers, who have their own association.Lots of hobbyist find that keeping bees in a suburban garden doesn’t work (me included!) and give up (not me). Survey data is notoriously unreliable because the participants self-select. For example, the BBKA’s 2015 survey of members had 689 respondents of who 218 (32%) had more than 10 years experience. You may find the National Bee Unit’s 2010 survey of interest too:


    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thanks much for the caveats and clarification. You probably gathered that this piece was meant to be (somewhat) light and statistics is not my point.

      Nevertheless, the BBKA 2015 survey results are ambiguous. It’s possible that the 218 who claimed 10 years experience are the entire roster of long-term beekeepers out of the 24,000 members – in that case, fewer than 1% of the BBKA members have been at it for ten years. (218 out of 24,000) That’s almost certainly not true, but we should expect that BBKA members who have been long-term members will be over-represented among the 689 responders to the survey and this would exaggerate the experience level. So it might be that Ms Mullen’s report (10% of BBKA members have over 10 years) which was cited by Slade’s website is accurate. Perhaps she has another source of information. (Access to membership lists with dates beekeeps joined?) Anyway, I was simply trying to encourage newbies to find mentors.

      Thanks for the link to the 2010 National Bee Unit survey. It indicates that 47% of beekeepers had been at it for fewer than 2 years in 2010. But it also says that “most” beekeepers have over 20 years experience. Those statements, appearing in the same paragraph, seem contradictory. However, I’m in Canada and things are different over here – you’ve warned me about that in the past. Slow learner here!

      One more thing from the 2010 National Bee Unit’s survey: “The overall age profile of respondents indicates a relatively mature population.” So subtle! I love it.


  7. I wonder what they mean by “relatively mature”


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