October 25, 2014

Beginner Teacher Teaching Beginning Beekeepers

Last fall, Megan Gaven casually mentioned that she would like to see Phil and I teach beekeeping. Why? Who knows, but I agreed.

It has been said by wiser people than I that to teach a subject, you must truly master it. If that is the criteria, I have no business teaching. But Phil assured me that I didn’t need to know everything about beekeeping to teach beginners, just more than they know. He likened it to the old joke about the two campers who encounter a bear… you don’t have to outrun the bear, just the other guy. We also used that approach in planning lessons for our first class…we only needed to stay one class ahead.

Peter Richardson, Phil Gaven, and Ian Munger representing Maine at EAS

Peter Richardson, Phil Gaven, and Ian Munger representing Maine at EAS

To prepare for my first venture into beekeeping instruction, I went back to the books. Perhaps the biggest benefit to me from my teaching experience is that it forced me to review lots of material, some of which was familiar, some of which was not. I memorized bee math (days from egg to worker, drone and queen), researched the pros and cons of all the available mite treatments, and read Tom Seeley’s Honey Bee Democracy. My biggest fear was that I would teach something that was just plain wrong. As we all know, while there are some universal truths about beekeeping, there is much to it that is individual and subjective. To wit:

– 8 frame or 10 frame?

– 2 deeps or 3 mediums?

– Reverse in the spring or not?

– Treat for mites and diseases prophylactically or only when the problem manifests itself?

The only choice here was to talk about pros and cons of each approach and share personal experiences. But, it helped me reassess my own beekeeping practices and reaffirm that I was doing things right (or at least well). And, it helped me identify where I had gotten a little sloppy in my own work, and I have since tightened things up. Examples include more frequent mite-count sampling using sugar shakes, and great vigilance in spotting and reacting to early signs of swarming.

As we prepared lessons, we found that one of our biggest challenges was reducing the huge volume of knowledge about beekeeping into five coherent lessons that would impart necessary knowledge but not overwhelm. We had to keep asking ourselves “when we were beginners, what do we wish we had known?” Since Phil and I had little prior education before launching into the world of bees (Phil learned from books, I took a course that was not well taught), we could really begin with a blank slate. While this created more work, I believe it ultimately led to a better product. For source material, we used almost everything and stole liberally from the internet, particularly images of various beekeeping issues. In the future, I plan to develop my own library of photographs to be able to both control quality and create images that are specific to my teaching points.

On the whole, our students were good learners. Most of them were serious about becoming beekeepers. A few decided not to start this year, but I consider that a good thing in that they learned enough to know that they weren’t ready. As I reflect on the classes, particularly the questions students asked and the areas which perplexed them the most, I conclude that attention to detail, gentleness and commitment are the traits that contribute the most to success in beekeeping. That said, students should recognize that it is very difficult to become successful beekeepers by simply reading a book or taking a course. While we stressed the need to team up with a mentor, some of our students did not take this advice and have had difficulty. All of us can likely remember our first seasons of beekeeping when we opened the hive, saw something that looked strange, but could not diagnose it. In my mind, it is essential to have a more experienced partner to help beginners through these times. While the CCBA Google group is very helpful, many questions can’t be answered without a look into the hive.

I very much enjoyed my first foray into teaching beginners and plan to continue. It is rewarding to help eager students learn something I am passionate about. And it helps me become a better beekeeper.

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