The How’s and Whys of Beekeeping by Caroline McDonald

The How’s and Why’s of Beekeeping

By Caroline McDonald, IBA clg Education Officer.

I can start by quoting one of the best – Albert Einstein- who said “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.”

In the IBA a beginner’s course is organised each year where newcomers can learn the how’s and whys of beekeeping. I remember that before involving myself with bees I believed that all I needed was a hive, some bees and hey presto, I have honey in the jar for the cereal every morning. The beginners’ course which I followed quickly dispelled that notion. 

It is not a matter of surveying the beautiful hive at the bottom of the garden but rather the need to put work into it and to know a few things. This is where education joins the equation. Bees are livestock and just like any other farmed or domestic animals must be monitored, maintained, kept healthy and productive. Knowledge is king.

Beekeeping – The more you learn, the more you find out you don’t know!!

When I finished the introductory course, I felt that maybe I could purchase a hive and a colony of bees. It was fairly tentative but I took support from the association as I went to meetings, apiary visits and spoke to people. Every day was a school day as [again] Einstein would say “Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.” Indeed, it is a sad day if I don’t learn something new.

Monthly talks introduced us to new topics and kept the learning process going. I applied for the Preliminary Exam and completed both parts of it. Following from that was the presentation of certificates at the AGM. In my mind the preparation for the exam and certification consolidated my knowledge of beekeeping and confidence to start as a beekeeper. Some people use their certificate when they wish to sell the fruits of the bees’ labour, honey.

To have a certificate does not mean that I know more but it is a sign that I do know something. The Good Book says that “people perish from lack of knowledge” well maybe in this case it would be bees which perish due to ignorance on behalf of the keeper. Preparing for exams improves our knowledge base and indicates that we have reached a certain degree of competence.

I’m naturally curious and wanted to know why some tasks are performed rather than blindly doing said task. If I understand why then the how becomes easier. We are told to check the hive/colony every week and never leave it for more than nine days…yes…but why. We know the reason for that but one can still be successful without knowing why by blithely following instructions.

If I know the reason why something should be then it is easier to remember when or how to do any task.

Advancing on the Educational route.

From the preliminary one can progress to Intermediate Scientific and Husbandry exams and then further to Senior. In following the course of certifying for these exams one delves deeper into the life of the honeybee and the management of the hive. As we learn, we become more mindful of every move we make in the apiary and honey shed. If something that the beekeeper does proves unsuccessful then another way can be considered.
Knowledge can help this thought process. We are not mindless beekeepers following a formula but considered ones. As any experienced beekeeper will tell you, the bees don’t read the books!!!

Know your bees, know your beekeeping.

In this subheading I paraphrase Tom Seely when I advocate the beekeeper to know the bees. Tom is a much-published author and worldwide bee expert working at Cornell University, NY. I use his sentiments by way of advocating continuous study into the habits, life and biology of these wonderful animals. The more one learns the better the beekeeper and the better our practise of beekeeping becomes.

Apiculture – An evolving science and knowledge.

We have attended webinars or read books by people who work in beekeeping in an academic setting. There are studies being done into the biology of bees which can have an impact on human health. Bees are important in our food production which has economic and social significance as everybody knows.

New things about bees are being discovered which was hitherto unknown. A few years ago people thought that Varroa fed on haemolymph in the bee but now it has been found to be the fat bodies which are targeted. Dr. Samuel Ramsey, who works at the University of Maryland, investigated that. Dr. Samuel presented a captivating webinar to IBA members two years ago. Hopefully some of our members will proceed to pursue academic careers in apiculture and the science of bees. It all starts with the Introduction to Beekeeping Exam.

Vigilance comes with knowledge.

For treatment of diseases it is important to follow the instructions on the packet but if one knows WHY then the beekeeper will be more vigilant in following the instructions. Being a thoughtful and considered beekeeper benefits all beekeepers and this is part of being educated in the craft of bee husbandry.

With new developments on disease transmission, effects, causes and treatments the beekeeper needs to know the why and the how; why these diseases occur and how to prevent them must be at the back of the beekeeper’s mind. Again, having sound knowledge dispels any myth.

Bees are still being imported and exported. Knowledge allows us to ask how safe a practice is. While imported bees probably originate from a certified producer how sure can we be that they are disease free? We can see with the current pandemic that people can carry a virus and spread a virus whilst being asymptomatic, (not show any symptoms). The same can apply to bees. We need to be armed with knowledge and sound thinking to check on the protocols of testing imported bee-stock. An imported queen may look healthy but she may be shedding viruses for her tenure in your colony and apiary (which could be four years).

In the IBA CLG beekeeping courses, a study is made of diseases and matters pertaining to that [it’s not exhaustive of course] which alerts the beekeeper to the danger and equips her/him to ask certain questions. With knowledge we can use suitable treatments against disease as it relates to the weather conditions and other considerations each year. We may not know the exact answer but we do know how to ask a question which informs an answer.

Then we can follow an educated course of action in the hive with the colony. “Without knowledge people perish”! In studying for exams, methods used in breeding and Instrumental Insemination are explored which may/may not be useful for us living in unpredictable climatic and weather conditions. Many are looking for mated queens …even in October. 

Well the drones are fair weather fliers so the lady is not likely to meet a male/s on a chilly autumn evening. I.I. may be an option but with knowledge one can consider the options and make an educated decision of course of action. There is more to education than exams and certificates. In studying and preparing for exams the learner consolidates his/her knowledge and keeps it in a useful and usable way in his/her mind. In the light of this our associations run workshops and field days where skills are transferred. In my case I have done a queen- rearing course where the skills have been demonstrated to us.

Now I need to rear some queens to demonstrate what I have learned. I may also appreciate a certificate upon completion of the workshops with possible a test of knowledge. Queen rearing is a very valuable skill if we as a group wish to improve bee stock in the country. It will develop a stronger beekeeping community in the country and benefit the national honey bee stock. Education removes the mystique, and sometimes fear of doing something. Essentially education builds confidence.

The academic in me wants to see the results of my time and attendance with a certificate. I would consider doing an exam/test to measure how much I understood and retained the required skills.

Again, when preparing for an exam/test, one consolidates the process and reasons for doing the skills which in turn reinforces the procedures. I’m a believer in the exam process but now I like little and often rather than some big long terminal exam. We hope to introduce this soon.

It can be of benefit to someone wishing to pursue academic studies or to work in beekeeping on a professional basis to have certificates of having completed exams.

IBA CLG Exams and Education

In the light of current health and safety restrictions in this country, the IBA has produced an Introduction to Beekeeping exam which can be completed electronically. There is a practical aspect which is completed at an apiary while adhering to social distance and all current health protocols. I would urge all newcomers who did the introduction course early in 2020 to participate in this exam process and get certification.


“Wanting to”
. NOT“Having to”!!!

Exam procedures have changed in all areas of study in recent years where the long terminal exam has been separated into modules. IBA is considering a new format for Intermediate and Senior exams in the future. This will come to pass. People, these days, are busy with other life matters and studying many topics for a long terminal exam demands too much time which some cannot commit. We will have a leaner more agile system in place in the near future which hopefully will satisfy our members who wish to have certification and move onto more serious study.

It will also satisfy the curious among you, who study just for the love of it. Lastly, I hope that in education, a curiosity and passion is developed in the beekeeper. It will be a matter of ‘wanting to’ learn and improve knowledge rather than ‘having to’ learn.

As we prepare for exams we collaborate with other beekeepers, which builds a network of support and friends. This benefits the individual in so many ways. To have a cohort of educated beekeepers enables argue and lobby in environmental and national campaigns. With a sound knowledge base, we can make our case for the benefit of the honey bee and in turn other species.

Having certification may lead to an opening of giving talks or workshops. In many cases organisers of such workshops look for accreditation. So, there may be a fortune to me made as a speaker on the circuit (if the honey harvest does not yield)!

Who knew!
Finally, these are only my ideas. Accept or reject!

You decide.

Caroline McDonald
IBA clg Education Officer.