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.
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.
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.
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.’
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’.
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.
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… ‘
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!
That done, back to catching up with the blogosphere!