Taking the BBKA basic assessment on a rainy Sunday afternoon

They say that your third year of beekeeping is when everything starts to go wrong. This is my third year as a beekeeper and things have not gone well, so I decided it was time to test my competency and take the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) basic assessment.

The BBKA basic assessment is for beekeepers who have kept a hive for a year and puts to the test your practical skills and basic knowledge about bees and beekeeping. If you have a bee brain, like me – the size of grain of sugar – the syllabus looks daunting, but as the BBKA says, ‘It merely lists the basic things which all beekeepers should know’. Luckily, I benefit from being a member of an association that runs revision classes for the BBKA basic assessment.

The beekeeping reference bookshelf on my iPad was an invaluable study tool for revising the BBKA syllabus and reading my notes on the tube to work each day.

Andy Pedley led the revision classes this year for Ealing beekeepers with five members in our group: Alan, Charles, Clare, Angela and me. We met on Monday evenings at the headquarters of the Selborne Society in Perivale Wood to talk about bees. The secret of successful examination preparation is a good study group. We stormed through the syllabus, shared advice, discovered information, and inspired each other. ‘Every bee is a loved bee,’ said Angela at class on a rainy Monday. Angela is the most delightful lady beekeeper that I have ever met and I could have listened to her talk about bees all evening.

My beekeeping equipment shiny and clean including smoker and fuel, cover cloth and frame hanger, gloves, hive tools, bee brush, wedges and matches, and a hammer and knife for making a frame.

On the day of my assessment I awoke feeling fully prepared. My suit, hive tools and equipment were cleaned and ready to go, I had a new smoker and fuel to use, and it was raining. Hoping that the assessor had brought an umbrella for the bees, I arrived at the apiary early and waited outside as Alan and Charles finished their assessments. Alan was shaking his head when he came to collect me. ‘I failed my tea-making test,’ he said glumly, which is a shocking admission from an Ealing beekeeper.

My frame-making skills are average but worsen under pressure, so I was relieved that Sheila had asked me to make a frame as Charles did his practical. ‘I’m not going to watch you, that would be horrible.’ The frame-making instructions of Mid Bucks Beekeepers Association Blog were impressed on my brain as I laid out my tools. A nail hammered into the bottom bars went awry and there were a few splits in the wood – it was the most beautiful frame that I had ever made.

Emily and me like to use herbs in our burner to calm the bees and make them pleasant. Chamomile failed to burn very well the previous week, perhaps the herb is too oily, so I had bought grass pellets for my assessment. In hindsight, I should have used egg boxes!

The rain was spitting as I lit my smoker for the practical and the ‘best smoker fuel in all the land’ refused to light. Tummy butterflies started to flutter, but Sheila was unflappable. ‘You are all very nervous and not giving the flame a chance,’ she said. ‘Let it become a fire before using the bellows, then add more fuel.’ Sheila uses egg boxes for her smoker, which I also used in my first year of beekeeping. They light easily and last for ages, why did I stop using them?

My smoker was now bellowing a strong, clean smoke and it was time to show Sheila that I could inspect bees better than I could start a fire. ‘Which hive are you going to open?’ she asked. I pointed to David’s green hive boxes. ‘I don’t like those bees,’ commented Sheila, ‘Let’s check out these nice ones instead.’ She pointed to John’s hive.

There was lots of bee traffic at the entrance in spite of the rain and it was given a few puffs of smoke. ‘Why are you doing that?’ asked Sheila, prompting a commentary. I said: ‘The smoke makes the bees think there is a risk of fire and so they eat lots of honey and then their tummies get very full and they can’t bend their tummies to sting.’ Eloquent. Adding: ‘And it makes them really calm too.’

Bees are forest insects with an instinctive fear of fire. Smoking the entrance makes the colony think there is an impending risk and triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response. They eat up honey in preparation to leave the hive but this also makes them less inclined to sting.

Wishing the smoke had the same effect on me as it did a forest insect, I opened the hive. The assessment requires that the candidate identify stored nectar, honey and pollen, and demonstrate the differences between drones, workers and the queen, which are all things that I should know from weekly inspections. I was asked to look at a frame in the super and describe what was going on: ‘The bees have drawn out the wax foundation with honeycomb and the clear liquid in cells is nectar. When it is honey they will cap the cells.’ Sheila then asked if I could inspect the brood – sounded simple enough – but the queen excluder stuck to the super as it lifted. Bother. I ran my hive tool around the super again to separate the woodwork, squinting in the dim light and rain, and placed the top box to one side, mumbling: ‘Honey is a food source… so not on the ground… covered over to stop robbing… keep bees warm’.

Bees on a crownboard. When the super is taken off the hive during an inspection, cover it with a crownboard to protect the honey from robber bees and to keep the worker bees warm.

The normally mild-mannered Italian bees were furious to be disturbed by a big bear creature on a blustery day. ‘I will help you with the smoker,’ said Sheila, because conditions were poor and the bees were unhappy. I suggested putting my cover cloth over the hive, which made the inspection slower but immediately calmed the bees and gave them shelter. After inspecting a few brood frames, I successfully identified the different types of bee, worker and drone brood cappings, larvae and eggs, food stores, and even a play cup – but no queen; she was hiding. Emily and me explain the goings on inside the hive to beginners each week, so I said: ‘The worker brood is in the middle of the frame and the drone brood is around the edges. If it gets cold the bees will cluster around the worker brood to keep it warm, but the drones are expendable.’ Poor doomed drones.

Sheila seemed satisfied that I was reasonably competent and the rain wasn’t getting any better, so we closed the hive. The practical was done and perhaps it could have gone better, but at least we didn’t get stung.

I had brought a bottle of soda water solution and tubs for collecting waste material from the hive, but there wasn’t much time to clean up wax or dead bees due to the inclement weather. The pink canister held my queen cages and markers (yellow for this year), but the queen didn’t feel like making an appearance.

The final part of the assessment was the oral examination, so we returned to the apiary benches and sat down to chat over tea. ‘I’d like you to describe the role and importance of the queen,’ said Sheila. I had nothing. The knowledge was hiding like a queen bee in the dark recesses of my mind. Taking a breath, I started at the beginning about how the queen lays eggs and constantly replenishes the hive with new bees. Sheila prompted a discussion about queen substance and we talked about the effect of pheromones on the colony.

It dawned on me that I was trying too hard to remember what the books said, rather than my own experiences of beekeeping. After that, the question-and-answer session flowed easier:

‘Why does a colony swarm?’
‘That’s how bees naturally reproduce as a species with the old queen flying away with her workers… ‘
‘Swarming is a natural way to control varroa? Why is that?’
‘Because the swarm flies away from the brood leaving the varroa behind and the swarmed hive has a break in brood… ‘
‘Interesting. Can you describe a method of swarm control?’
‘Last year we used the nuc method…’
‘Yes, it is a good idea to feed nucs. How do you feed bees?’
‘In winter we use fondant, and in spring and autumn we use syrup… ‘

I often refer to the beekeeping books on my bookshelf but there is no substitute for real experience.

It felt like a regular Saturday afternoon at the apiary, I enjoyed talking about clearing bees, honey extraction, and other bee stuff that I had done and blogged about. Varroa and bee disease were fresh in my mind after attending the London Beekeepers Association Bee Health Day, and I answered the most important question on notifiable diseases and pests: ‘American foul brood, European foul brood, small hive beetle and tropilaelaps – call the bee inspector without delay!’

It was soon over and the sun had come out. Taking the BBKA basic assessment was a really useful experience. The assessment was more than a tick-box exercise and gave me something to aim for this summer. It made me refresh everything that I have learned over the past few years and highlighted areas where I need to improve. What’s next? If I pass the basic, the BBKA offer an entire programme of education and examination from merely competent beekeeper to Master Beekeeper!

My revision notes for the BBKA basic assessment syllabus are available on my blog pages with links to other study resources. I hope that you find them useful.

That done, back to catching up with the blogosphere!

Related links

BBKA basic assessment
Mid Bucks Beekeepers Association BBKA basic assessment study notes
Bee Health Day at the London Beekeepers Association
How to extract honey

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53 thoughts on “Taking the BBKA basic assessment on a rainy Sunday afternoon

    • Thank you, Alex. It took some time to put up my revision notes, hopefully they will help next year’s beekeepers 🙂

      I was stung by a honeybee for the first time this year, so it may be that the next sting won’t be as bad. My GP and consultants that I spoke to think it was an allergic reaction (very bad swelling, redness and increasing itching), so the advice was to take an antihistamine 30 minutes before beekeeping and to not go alone or without a phone. If I have a bad reaction next time, then I’ll be tested and prescribed an epipen if needed.

      In answer to your question, I’m not qualified to say. Some beekeepers at my association say that they reacted badly to the first few stings and now hardly react at all. Others say that the reaction to stings began mild and have become worse over the years. It is difficult to say how the immune system will respond to the venom. Taking an anti-histamine is a sensible precaution because it stops the initial histamine reaction.

      Interestingly, this year the most experienced beekeepers at the apiary (those who regularly visit the hives without suits and shrug off stings) have reported very bad reactions to stings. Some have a theory that when bees are trapped in the hive for long periods and get bad tempered that the venom is more intense.

      This is all anecdotal though. My hive partner, Emily, has given me a book to read about stings by a doctor, which I shall blog about.

  1. A great post 🙂
    I don’t know anything about bees other than what I have learned from your blog, and I found this really informative. It is probably lucky that you have had trouble with your bees in recent months, you could speak from experience instead of having to remember the texts.
    You didn’t tell us if you passed the tea-making test though, or the cake selection trials 😉

    • If the assessment were marked on my tea-making skills or ability to eat cake then I would pass with flying colours, of course! 😉

      Yes, I really think that is the positive lesson when things go a bit wrong – to learn from what has happened and to use that knowledge for the future, which is really what gaining experience is all about.

  2. I’m going to ask my local beekeeping association if we have anything like this over here, because I think it’s absolutely fantastic and would love to take a proper class. Thanks for a copy of your notes!

  3. Well done Emma, I am sure you did brilliantly. Very impressed by your notes! They should go on our association website for sure, and also I think you should ask Andy to put a link to them in the next newsletter.

    Even bee inspectors don’t like David’s bees 🙂

    Did you get a chance to look at our bees yesterday or was it too cold? I was inside mostly (apart from a ride on a routemaster style wedding bus!) so wasn’t sure what the temperature was like.

    • I am developing an admiration and fondness for David’s bees! The hive has been the most enduring and resilient at the apiary since anyone seems to remember. Perhaps fierce bees are stronger bees?

      It was rainy yesterday but today’s forecast was fair so I thought I would check this afternoon. After finding emergency queen cells two weeks ago I thought to leave opening the hive fully for another week in case a new queen is settling in?

      Sounds like you had fun at your cousin’s wedding yesterday, look forward to seeing the photos 🙂

      • It could be because he lets them swarm, so helping with varroa control (as you said during your exam!). They are very appropriate bees for a feisty Welshman.

        Sorry I can’t help you this afternoon, I’m meeting up with some of my cousins for lunch as they won’t be in London again for a while. Really hope the queens have had a chance to mate!

      • Maybe bees and their keepers are like dogs and their owners – both take on each other’s characteristics! I have never met David, is he swarmy and stingy? 😉

        I’ll say hi to the bees for you, Lavender was a late July queen and she mated well when the weather was like this last year, fingers crossed!

        Have fun with the Heath clan this afternoon, see you next weekend 🙂

      • Visited our two hives this afternoon to observe the entrances and top-up feed. No sign of bees bringing home pollen, although there were some irritable guard bees. Ginger’s old hive (if it is Ginger or her usurper now in command) had hardly touched the syrup although there were quite a few bees drinking in the feeder. Neroli’s old hive has almost finished all the top comb (we can finally get rid of those old frames next week) and had drunk all the syrup so I filled it to the top again.

  4. Great post- and quite an education…I had no idea this existed. But one complaint- someone who writes as well as you do certainly has a brain larger than a grain of sugar… 😉

    • Thank you! 🙂 While their brains are about as big as a grain of sugar, bees are thought to be one of the smartest insects. For example, a very clever beekeeper, Thomas, just told me how bees precisely build worker cells to slope at different angles to honey cells. Clever stuff!

  5. I have found myself using egg boxes. Just seemed like the right material. Almost good enough to eat (I don’t know why, perhaps I am missing out on some vital nutrients in my diet)!

    This year has all been a bit rushed, I am planning to take the inner section of toilet rolls and make smoker sized cartridges over the winter. I will post my recipes and some photos when I have made them!

    • Egg boxes really are the best to get a smoker smouldering for, well, eons really. My first year beekeeping mentor Ian used these as they are always to hand. The cartons don’t seem to produce the harsh smoke of corrugated cardboard and combined with herbs is quite nice. I like your idea of homemade cartridges and look forward to a step-by-step post 🙂

  6. Fab post Emma,

    Fills me with confidence for next year (phew, hadn’t kept bees for long enough this year!)

    I love the thought of smoker sized cartridges… do share that recipe!!!

    Sara x

      • I’m just blagging it and, at the moment, the bees are falling for it!
        I think I’ve just got a fantastic original queen, who, since she swarmed, is settled into the Beehaus happily laying and her gang are bringing in pollen & storing honey…

        Haven’t seen the new queen yet, but pollen is going in there too, so, a good sign…

      • Fooling the bees? Careful, Sara 😉

        Having a good queen is perhaps 90% of successful beekeeping (in my opinion, for what it’s worth), which is why we prize her so highly. Although whether it is she or the workers who rule the hive, or a delicate dance of power, I haven’t made up my mind…

    • The bees seem to react differently to different fuels, so we have experimented. I noticed that my eyes streamed with certain types of smoke so could only imagine what it was doing to the bees! Smoke from egg cartons, sawdust, dried grass, and herbs seemed gentler, and our bees seemed to react calmly rather than frantically or in irritation to lavender smoke. Chamomile smelt gorgeous but unfortunately did not smoulder long, it may be too oily.

      The assessor told me that they use bags of dried thyme and oregano on the continent, which is interesting as both herbs claim thymol as a chemical constituent. Thymol is often used for treating bee diseases like varroa and nosema. Food for thought, although I don’t know the efficacy of burning these herbs for the hive.

      • Thanks for your reply. I am always amazed how much there is to know raising bees. Today in the garden, I have a pumpkin plant growing in my compost. The bees are wild for the flowers. There were ten bees per flower. Once I saw bee activity, I let the pumpkin overtake my small garden.

      • I would love to have my own garden one day and am equally amazed how much there is to know about gardening. Growing your own pumpkins sounds so lovely, I imagine the pumpkin flowers look beautiful with bees humming round them 🙂

  7. Your bit about the information about queens being as elusive as the queen herself had me in tears! I am bit wooss about exams and still break out in a cold sweat just reading about them. Well done you. You’ve inspired me not to be such a bit fat chicken 😉

  8. Hi Emma,
    I have been reading the The Barefoot Beekeeper recently. Have you or any of your readers read it? What do you think?
    Anyhow – rather than making, ready-made smokers over the winter I am now wondering about not using any smoke when inspecting the hive. Any experience of this anyone?
    Roger

    • Barefoot Beekeeper is on my list of reads, it sounds very interesting! I heard Bill Turnbull uses sugar dusting instead of smoke, which can work depending on the temperament of your bees. Emily and me often don’t need to smoke our bees if they are being their usual mild-mannered selves. However, when closing the hive it is good to have a few puffs of smoke, and wedges, to help bees go down and not get squashed by hive parts. As squashing bees in the hive helps spread nosema (and is not nice anyway) I’m quite conscious of using methods that help avoid this. What is the temperament of your bees?

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