By George Hebard
As the hobbyist beekeeper population has exploded over the past ten years, so have the methods of instruction for the beekeeper. Books, websites, blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos and more, all provide valuable information for new and prospective beekeepers. Yet, as anyone who has asked two or more beekeepers the same question will attest, getting a definitive answer can be difficult at times and what looks simple in an instructional video can be quite daunting when you are in the bee yard trying to do it yourself.
For these reasons, I would recommend new beekeepers seek out a mentor or mentors to help gain the knowledge and experience to become successful beekeepers. Additionally, having someone more experienced with you in your bee yard is a great way to gain confidence and pick up on practical details, such as where to stand when doing an inspection or how to move bees on a crowded frame. Being able to ask “is this what I think it is?” in real time when looking at a frame can cement information in a way that watching a video cannot. Also, having an experienced beekeeper who has seen your bees helps when you find conflicting answers to your questions online or in books. And just hearing your mentor say “everything looks fine” goes a long way in calming the stress new beekeepers can often feel about how they are doing.
I would also encourage current beekeepers to consider mentoring as a way to give back to the community and sharpen your own skills. Working with your mentee’s hives will also add to your own “hive hours”, furthering your experience. Even if you do not feel that you are experienced enough to be called an “expert”, the knowledge and skills that you have gained so far can help a newer bee keeper gain a good foundation.
Mentoring is a very personal endeavor for both the mentor and mentee, so having the right fit with regards to personality and beekeeping philosophy is important. Here are some tips for both the mentor and mentee to consider.
Align Your Goals
Why are you a beekeeper (or potential beekeeper)? Are you keeping a few colonies for fun to help pollinator populations and to have a bit of extra honey (hobbyists)? Or are you thinking about growing your operation to sell honey and other bee products for a side income (sideliners)? Or perhaps beekeeping on a large scale to make a living (commercial)? Finding someone with similar goals can be a plus. A sideliner or commercial beekeeper will have a lot of useful knowledge for the hobbyist, but some of the techniques they use to maximize honey or nuc production may not be easy to duplicate if you just want to have a couple of hives in your backyard. Nor will they be very realistic for your own goals. So, it helps to be aware of both your and your mentor’s goals as you enter the relationship. Also, the use of treatments for mites and diseases should be discussed. As a new beekeeper, you may not have decided what to do in this regard. Discussing your mentor’s philosophy, approach, and experiences may help you decide what will be best to do with your own hives. If you have decided on an approach that differs from your mentor, make sure that she/he is still comfortable working with you.
Ask “What’s Your Style?”
Are you a precise “recipe follower” looking for specific step-by-step instruction, or are you more of a “wing it” type (no pun intended) who is comfortable with a general direction. A mismatch might not necessarily be a bad thing. Beekeeping is both an art and a science, so blending the two styles can be a benefit to both. But if you are looking for a formula to tell you when to add another super, you might be frustrated with an answer of “when it feels right”.
Discuss an Expected Time Commitment
This is a very important expectation to discuss at the start of your relationship as a mismatch here could derail everything. In addition to the amount of time each is willing to commit, what will be the expected response time to phone calls, emails and texts. Do you expect on-site visits? If so how often? Will you be meeting in your mentor’s apiary, or will he or she be coming to yours? The mentor should take the lead in outlining what he or she is willing to commit to and how the communications will be handled. The mentee should resist the urge to get a quick and easy answer, which leads me to my next tip.
Be a Self-Learner
There are always more questions than answers, even for an experienced beekeeper. Having a mentor can greatly accelerate your beekeeping skills, but unless agreed upon, a mentor should not be your only resource. Be respectful of your mentor’s time by researching your questions first, “I am thinking of doing this for these reasons, does that sound right?” instead of “What should I do?”.
Finding a mentor/mentors
The bee keeping community is very generous and enthusiastic. It may be harder to not get advice from a beekeeper than to get it. You may also find yourself as I have, with more than one mentor at a time, or progressing from one to another as your needs and skills change.
The first place to look is your local bee club. There are over 30 clubs in New York, and their location and contact information can be found on the Cornell Pollinator Network website: https://pollinator.cals.cornell.edu/resources/beekeeping-clubs-nys/. Most bee clubs have some form of mentorship program, either formal or informal. Even if your club doesn’t offer a formal program, you may make friends with other beekeepers at your association that are willing to mentor you. Attending a few meetings should let you know who you might want to approach on your own.
Bee Buddies or Mentor “lite”
Several bee clubs, such as mine in Columbia County, NY (Colombia County Bee Club) have set up a mentoring approach that does not rely on “expert” mentors but rather beekeepers who have had enough experience with specific activities to be able to help newer “buddies” with those tasks. For example, most beekeepers have installed a package or nuc as their first activity, therefore even a second-year beekeeper can help guide a first-year beekeeper through that task.
Connecting with other experts
You will also find that people in the industry can help out with advice to specific questions. I have learned a lot and owe a debt of gratitude to Megan Denver and Jorik Phillips at Hudson Valley Bee Supply for all of their help and guidance over the years. Your local bee supply provider may also be able to help you with advice or contacts. Also, the Dyce Lab for Honey Bee Studies at Cornell University has a helpdesk you can email with any beekeeping questions you may have (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Finding a mentor organically
You can also look locally. I found my first mentor when I drove by his property and noticed dozens of bee hives in his yard during my first year of beekeeping. Eight years later, it was my turn to get a knock on the door when my neighbor, who was thinking about becoming a beekeeper, noticed my hives. She is now a second-year beekeeper and has become another advocate for our favorite flying friends.
However you find your mentor or mentee, engaging with another beekeeper to share ideas, information, and experiences about something you are both passionate about is sure to be a rewarding, enjoyable experience. And your bees will thank you.
I would like to thank my wife: Cynthia for her editing of this article and her help and support in beekeeping and everything else in life.