The State of Beekeeper Education in Texas

In November, 2017, the Texas Beekeepers Association passed two resolutions concerning beekeeper education in Texas. First, in Resolution #8 the group pledged continued support to those involved in the Texas Master Beekeeper Program. It’s no secret that TBA considers the Master Beekeeper Program, a project initiated by our past Chief Apiary Inspector Mark Dykes, a valuable source of beekeeper education. Second, in Resolution #9, the TBA renewed a less commonly known desire, to add an Apiary Extension Agent to the AgriLife Extension Service.

Generally, colony loss rates directly reflect the education of the category of beekeepers. Commercial beekeepers, professionals who keep thousands of colonies, consistently report the lowest colony losses. Sideliner beekeepers, though who keep substantial numbers of bees as a side business to their regular jobs, experience higher colony losses. And backyard beekeepers, generally newer beekeepers and those with modest investments in their bees, report the highest colony losses. This is a general, nation-wide trend as described in the management survey data by the Bee Informed Partnership, and it presumes that each level of beekeeping represents progressively higher education exposure and longer experience times in the business (https://bip2.beeinformed.org/survey/). So it’s easy to see why the Texas Master Beekeeper Program is valuable to Texas beekeepers.

All beekeepers, in all states combined data

 

Let us take a stroll through the beekeeper education currently available in our great state. We’ll look first at the in-person education that happens around the state, which consists of local club sponsored, day-long concurrent seminar events. Next, we’ll examine the bulk of beekeeper education in the state that takes place at regularly scheduled monthly club meetings. Most, if not all, of these educational activities focus on introductory material for beginner beekeepers. A small but growing number of private businesses have entered the market of intermediate and advanced beekeeper education, and we’ll take a close look at offerings and opportunities. Finally, we’ll crunch these numbers and attempt to quantify each category of education in Texas, and then take a look at what the future might hold.

Significantly, the Master Beekeeper Program does not conduct any actual education itself. This is consistent with other “master” programs around the state. Instead, the program defines a framework of curriculum that candidates pursue through existing education infrastructure, and through the use of online resources for self-study. Most candidates seek opportunities in the state, but a few have reached outside Texas for special opportunities. Texas Master Beekeeper Program candidates are required to deliver a certain amount of training content, but that delivery is represented here by the various training venues we address below.

The Big Events

We enjoy five day-long, concurrent seminar formats in Texas. Texas Beekeepers Association provides its annual conference and a “Summer Clinic” that follow this model, with the conference offering additional lecture series prior to the seminar day. These events each draw approximately 350 and 600 attendees respectively and offer 30 or so 1-hour seminars. For ten years now, Central Texas Beekeepers Association (Brenham) produces the biggest show and draws more than 600 people from around the state. Brazos Valley Beekeepers Association (College Station) puts on a smaller event in the fall with approximately the 400 attendees. In January, Austin Area Beekeepers Association attracts about 400.

The day-long concurrent seminar event is obviously popular across the state, but it’s not without drawbacks. With formats that limit lectures to 50 minutes, these seminars eliminate the possibility of delivering intermediate or advanced training. Brazos Valley Beekeepers has taken steps to abate this limitation by extending the time allotment to 90 minutes for a few lectures, and building in “extra time” between lectures which allows a speaker to “run long.” This is a significant improvement over the rigorous 50 minute lecture-10 minute room set up that is always a scramble.

The format notwithstanding, some “intermediate topics” are always listed on the schedules. Consider, however, queen rearing. Raising top quality queens is no joke, and it takes time to learn. The state bee lab spends an entire day (in May) on just this very topic. If you’ve ever sat in on a 50 minute queen rearing workshop, you know it is necessarily limited. The topic is so important, and so varied and complicated, that it’s often a train wreck to compress it into just 50 minutes. IPM techniques, Nutrition, Pest Management, and other topics suffer the same trouble. The topics are breezed through, questions are cast aside, and the schedule pushed hard and fast – indeed, the next class starts as a speaker is sometimes wrapping up. The result of the format is that an “intermediate” topic like queen rearing, becomes an introductory or survey lecture on a far deeper subject than could ever be covered in the time allotted.

It goes without saying that this format provides almost no hands-on experience. The Brazos Valley school offers some field experience at their school, and recently partnered with the bee lab to expand upon that experiential learning opportunity.

Despite these criticisms, these events are wildly successful and very highly regarded by beekeepers, as they should be. The vast majority of attendees at these events are beginners, sent by their local club leaders. And the events are ideally suited to these learners. Each seminar does an excellent job of catering to the beekeeper who is just beginning on a long journey. Short topics from colony organization, basic biology and behavior, basic skills, and installing a colony provide exactly the guidance needed at this critical stage in beekeeping.

We must not overlook that these events are primary fund raising efforts too. Together they generate tens of thousands of dollars in income, and this income in turn goes to support further programming. Most events provide funding to other groups, ranging from the Honey Queen to the Texas A&M Honey Bee Lab. We’ll consider this important funding more in the next section.

Some Small Events

The state bee lab, as mentioned already, offers a single, day-long seminar, “The Art of Queen Rearing”. Invited guest Sue Cobey, certainly an expert in production of the best queens, visits to help with this important workshop. Still, attendees have said that the presentations made at the workshop are often repeats of those made at the seminars, or are not about queen rearing at all (e.g. “Queen Introduction”). Obviously exposure to Cobey is a special treat for beekeepers, and the seminar is an incredible bargain at it’s current price. The day-long seminar is conducted at a comfortable pace and includes a small amount of hands-on activities out in the apiary.

In addition, the state bee lab provides speakers to events around the state. Their staff appear on the seminar schedules on a great variety of topics, including updating on the activity of the lab itself. Beginning in 2017, the lab also served as co-organizers of the Brazos Valley Beekeepers fall seminar.

As mentioned above, some regional events donate a portion of their proceeds to the bee lab. These range from $500 to a reported $8,000. These funds enable the lab to offer university courses that serve a few dozen students each year (TBA Journal, 18-1, p. 10) and support graduate studies.

2018 promises an influx of collaborative events and to further expand beekeeper education. In March, Texas will see the first Northeast Texas Beekeepers Conference in Longview. This event is a collaboration between six local clubs and the Gregg County AgriLife Extension Service. The costs of putting together an event such as this are high, estimated at $5000. Such a significant commitment from small local clubs is courageous indeed.

In October, a collaboration between Trinity Valley Beekeepers (Dallas) and Metro Beekeepers (Fort Worth) will add another seminar event to the roster of education. The event, to be held in Southlake, already has a venue reserved and is starting to lay out the plan for speakers and programs.

Each of these two new events faces the challenges of financing the plans. Most local clubs move less than $5000 through their club in a whole year. This may be an area where another group could step in to assist in the initial start up of such projects. Rather than fund the projects outright, another group could back a start-up event with the promise of a loan. We already know these events generate surplus revenue, so the offering of a loan carries little risk, while delivering to the sponsored groups the financial surety to pull off a big event. In the end, the “lending group” would be repaid if indeed the loan was used. It’s likely that the loan would not ever be tapped because of the revenue generated. It would provide only initial funding for expenses that must be paid in advance of registration, and because it’s a loan and not a gift, the sponsored group(s) are encouraged to remain thrifty.

Private Business Offerings

Private industry conducts significant education delivery in Texas. All, or nearly all, beekeeping supply houses in the state provide regular training, usually weekly or monthly. The great benefit of these, usually brief, trainings is their ability to reflect exactly what is happening in local apiaries, and provide quick answers by local beekeepers. It’s difficult to quantify this training, because it’s generally advertised to local beekeepers only. However, it is usually also limited to relatively soft-ball topics in beekeeping.

Bee Weaver is an exception to this rule. Their apiary offers a two day seminar on queen rearing that provides large portions of their curriculum as hands-on training. The queen rearing staff at Bee Weaver is legendary, and the quality of the course speaks for itself.

Gretchen Bee Ranch is preparing to offer up to three intermediate level training courses, including a familiarization with Instrumental Insemination. They expect these courses to be four or five hours each and provide the majority of the time as hands-on experience. Details are not yet released for these exciting additions.

Bluebonnet Beekeeping Supplies also delivers more advanced training by offering a series of courses. They recently rolled out a program series on Queen Grafting and Rearing. The program currently has 3 groups of 6-7 beekeepers looking forward to the 4 week hands on course. Course study covers all aspects from creating a Drone yard to perfecting mating Nucs. Students will be able to perform and supervise their grafts all the way to emergence and mating then gain ownership of the queens they made to use in their own apiaries.

As already stated, firm data on privately offered education is not generally available. We will not venture even a guess about attendance and performance of these offerings, but it’s significant that most or all advanced beekeeper education is offered privately.

The Numbers

The data in this section is reported by club leaders in general, but some of the data is estimates based on experience. For example, seminar attendance numbers are fairly firm, but we estimate here the number of hours each club spends delivering training. Some clubs meet for an hour a month, but many provide much more. For example, some clubs offer two programs, youth programs, etc. The data is clear however. Clubs are a powerful tool for providing education to beekeepers, and they must not be ignored as critical links in this important mission.

You may disagree with these estimates, and we encourage you to copy this table into Excel and play with the numbers. You will simply not be able to make estimates that tell a different story, even by wildly overestimating the seminars, and underestimating the club programs. Nevertheless, you can learn much from examining the data as you see fit, and we encourage you to examine it closely.

 

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Table Notes

1. Attendance data provided by clubs. CTBA is the average of five years. AABA and TBA events are general estimates provided by organizers. BVBA is an average.

2. “Seminars” means the total number of offerings. “Max pp Contact” means the greatest number of seminars a single attendee could possibly attend and is derived from published seminar schedules.

3. Local bee club data is estimated. Attendance varies widely as does club size and meeting duration. Meeting formats include youth programs, field days, etc. We believe the estimates in the table are conservative.

4. In this table we use TBA-reported total of 51 local clubs. We know this to be untrue, but use it as a guide because active club operation is difficult to track or verify. A few new clubs pop up occasionally and a few drop into inactivity too.

Quality and Efficiency

We have already considered the fact that quality is important in curriculum format, however, we must also take a sober look at the type of training we deliver too. At least some of the seminars and no doubt many local meetings might be considered “fluff” by experienced beekeepers. While encaustic painting is interesting, it does little for “keeping bees alive.” We make no effort here to differentiate this judgement and leave it to the reader.

There exists a clear benefit to seminars in that beekeepers make a selection of which “track” to follow across the day’s offerings. This is enormously beneficial to attendees who do not live near robust local clubs, and provides the chance to experience a wider array of training than can be delivered by a single club across the course of a year. Further, it provides a beginner with the chance to partake in several important seminars at one time, rather than waiting on the delivery of individual topics at the local club. At the same time, local clubs deliver a staggering 3 times the total training.

The format at the local level is also problematic. A club’s mission must be to support all local beekeepers, and so the mix of training offered must reflect the several levels of member abilities. At the Coastal Bend Beekeepers, for example, four meetings are devoted to beginning beekeeping, with four devoted to more advanced beekeeping. At least one is aimed at the general public, and the other three fall somewhere in between beginner and expert. For a beginner, it’s a risk that they will miss a key meeting, or that some skill will be delivered after it is needed.

It must not be overlooked that the seminar events are largely fundraising events. Each collects large sums to fund its own programming, and each sends sizable portions to support other programs ranging from TBA to the state lab. The events are extremely successful in each of their intended purposes: education, social opportunity, and fundraising. And of course, fundraising empowers the sponsoring group to provide that much more education in the following year or operation.

Conclusion

The data above suggest that local beekeeper clubs provide the most opportunity for new and growing beekeepers to learn the craft. We must consider the opportunities to deliver critical training “at home.” Local club leaders bear a great responsibility to manage programming as a priority. Too often, club leaders beg the membership to provide programming suggestions. While member input is certainly important, this approach neglects the idea that beginners may simply not know the right questions to ask. So the task falls to us to step up and provide the leadership for which we were elected. Let the club guide intermediate and advanced topics, but never forget the basics that enable beginners to keep up and grow.

Our deficiencies are few. Texas does an excellent job of offering training to new beekeepers. The Master Beekeeper Program encourages a track of learning for beginners that they can follow for their critical first few years. The annual seminar events are popular for good reasons. Our local club meetings provide a powerful state-wide force to foster fellowship among beekeepers who live nearby. They connect those beekeepers who share a common experience in the local climate.

Though we did not examine it directly, you must conclude from this too that each of these educational programs build relationships that are incredibly valuable, perhaps more valuable than the training itself. New beekeepers can meet experienced folks and forge learning connections that last many years. We also did not directly examine the powerful social media tools that allow beekeepers to share questions for experience in near real-time. The connection of people might be our highest achievement in beekeeper education. It is what local club leaders use to drive their own program choices and it greatly expands the pool of talent available to inject outside influences into local groups.

The greatest conclusion from this is simply that Texas enjoys excellent beekeeper education. Together, we deliver a combined 72,000 training “person-hours” to beekeepers of all levels. That is a Texas sized number for sure!

The Future

The popularity of beekeeping in Texas has risen dramatically in the last few years. Although each club must ultimately make their way into the world on their own, beekeepers across Texas should support the efforts of other groups where possible. Already, TBA offers a speakers list from which local clubs can draw for program additions. TBA also offers a small handful of ready-made programs that clubs can download, study, and deliver at meetings. Club leaders are usually willing to chat with other groups about their success and struggles.

But running a club is sometimes tough. The skills that make a successful club leader are beyond what makes a successful beekeeper. Managing a club’s business is critically important. Issues such as banking, state and federal filings, arranging venues, programming, and financing are real challenges for many club leaders. Leadership development is conspicuously absent in Texas beekeeping.

Even established clubs face challenges. The new seminar event in Southlake is a prime example of a program that could potentially benefit from financial backing. Beekeeper education in Texas has now reached a maturity that demands better organization and support of local efforts, regional collaborations, and new events.

Indeed, the numbers suggest that the reach of local clubs is greater than one might expect. Contributing to this is the fact that three of the major regional beekeeping education events, soon to be five, are run by local clubs. Those local clubs send money out of their events to various causes: the Honey Queen Program, the state lab, etc., but there’s a real question of whether the local clubs might put those funds to better use themselves, or apply them to jump starting a neighboring club or event.

We aren’t talking about small amounts of money. These events produce many thousands of dollars for education. Texas beekeepers should carefully consider the effectiveness of the programs they support and consider what the numbers say about reach.

The Texas Honey Bee Education Association (THBEA) is a recent development from TBA. According to Roger Farr, Chairman of the group, “THBEA was founded to solicit funds, pool them, and then distribute them in support of beekeeper education, informing the general public about honey bees, and supporting honey bee research, among other [projects].” THBEA is currently involved with just one project, distributing a $7,000 grant to Texas beekeepers for hurricane Harvey relief. (For details refer to http://texasbeekeepers.org/thbea/apply-for-a-grant/.) THBEA is ready to receive donations by check or Pay Pal and is actively seeking suggested projects. It’s important to note that THBEA has been formalized just a short time now, so their impact will be in the future of beekeeper education in Texas. We are hopeful for their success and encourage beekeepers to contact THBEA directly to lend support or offer suggestions.

One thing is certain. Beekeeper education is firmly rooted in Texas and must continue. While the survey data suggest that beekeepers are making progress in colony losses, that progress appears painfully slow. We must continue to work at providing quality training to new and intermediate beekeepers. We must focus our efforts on improving the quality of training and continue to devote resources to this important mission.