In the UK, we have something called a Master Beekeeper. It’s a qualification in apiculture that requires years of studying, passing exams and practical beekeeping assessments. There are divergent views on the merits of holding the Master Beekeeper title. For some, it’s for people who would rather read about bees than do actual beekeeping. For others, it’s a prerequisite to teaching or speaking about our noble craft. We even have a still higher accolade; the National Diploma in Beekeeping (NDB), the summit – the eight Dan Black Belt in beekeeping. I was lucky enough to attend my first evening classes taught by Graham Royle NDB back in 2011, and very good they were too.
I’ve met some incredible beekeepers – we all have our favourites. A common thread seems to be that they keep up with the latest information and research on honey bees. Some will be Master Beekeepers, and a few even NDBs, but I suspect the majority have an aversion to exams akin to snails and salt. I don’t mean eating snails with salt; I mean snails don’t enjoy slithering over a patch of salt. Gosh, how did I end up going down this side road?
There is no denying that studying bees is a valuable way to educate oneself. In my opinion, it is wise for people who want to keep bees to get some basic education before they get their livestock. I did evening classes through one winter, followed by visiting the tutor’s apiary in spring to experience handling bees. It worked for me, but I didn’t grow up around bees. If I were part of a bee farming family, I would probably not need such an introduction. I even took the BBKA Module One examination and just about scraped a pass. I hated it and resolved to spend my time learning about bees any other way than that.
The trouble is, a bit like with professions, you are either in the club or not. Doctors, teachers, accountants and lawyers (I could go on) go through all kinds of hell to earn their stripes and become accepted into their professional fold. It makes sense; a test of both knowledge and character – when the going gets tough etc. I must confess to a character flaw – one of many, I’m sure – I’m not very academic. Often I focus intensely on something I’m passionate about and ignore everything and everyone else, much to the despair of Mrs Walrus. I was often one of the top students at school, but it was just luck that my interests coincided with the syllabus. By the time I reached University, I knew that academia was not for me.
So, there you have it, cards on the table – I will never be a master beekeeper. Probably. I look at the BBKA Modules and think that maybe I’ll give them a go, but then my character flaw kicks in, and I get distracted by something. Luckily, it’s possible to learn by experience and by listening to those with lots of experience, so hopefully, I won’t pay a heavy price for my defects. Full respect to all MBs and NDBs out there; it’s on a similar level to graduating from higher education.
Whether a beginner or master, there’s always more to learn, or in some cases unlearn, as time marches on. After glancing through the various modules and reading lists, I have realised that I need to ‘up my game’ in certain beekeeping areas. As I seem to be in a confessional mood, I reckon I’m not as tidy as I should be – I’m a messy beekeeper. I also think I might clip the wings of my queens to help cut down swarm losses. I can’t remember the exact numbers, but I think last year nearly half of my colonies ‘thought about’ swarming, and maybe 20% succeeded. If I can cut that down to 10%, I’ll get a lot more honey.
I have a new book project bubbling away. It’s not definitely happening, but I’m optimistic. The plan is to extract detailed and enlightening pearls of wisdom from a highly successful beekeeper in the UK and pass them on. I’m like the Oprah of beekeeping. If you can’t be a Master, be an Oprah! Except she’s a master of what she does, too…so maybe I’m an Oprah understudy. Labels, eh?
I was asked about my book and my travels on the Beekeeping Today Podcast a while ago, and recently I listened to it again. It brought back happy memories, so here it is for those who haven’t heard it (I’m on from about 12.5 mins):