Swarms, Removals, Splits, and Nucs – Know the difference and don’t buy junk

New beekeepers face a myriad choices when they decide to get started. What type of hive? Screened bottoms? Which foundation? Where to locate the apiary? How many colonies? It can feel quite overwhelming.

The question of where and how to buy bees is one of those initial problems for new beekeepers. One aspect of buying bees that gives beginners trouble is the jargon we use to describe bees, and how that jargon is often misapplied to bees that should be sold for a steep discount, or not at all.

We’ve all heard the terms, and their meanings are specific. A swarm is (usually) a reproductive division of a colony, whether feral or managed. A swarm arrives with nothing other than bees. Bee sellers usually don’t sell “swarms,” but they do sell “packages,” which are man-made swarms.

A removal colony is one that has been removed from a place where the bees were a pest or nuisance. This is sometimes called a rescue colony.

A split, or divide, is a brand new colony that’s made by a beekeeper from a managed colony.

A Nucleus (a nuc) colony is the gold standard of buying bees. A nuc is a small, queen-right colony that contains the resources to begin a new production colony. The difference between a nuc and other starter methods is sometimes subtle, but a beekeeper can build a nuc from any method. A nuc for sale should contain emerging brood from the queen in the box!

Let’s examine each of these colony options in detail, and along the way, we can take a close look at what makes quality bees in each option. All specific advice in this article is aimed at beginner beekeepers who are just getting started and it may not apply equally to all beekeepers. My goal was to point new beekeepers in the direction of best practices and ensure them the greatest chance of a successful and rewarding beginning in the craft of beekeeping.

Swarms

Swarms come in three varieties: reproductive, abscond, and package.

When a colony grows beyond a critical mass, it will naturally divide itself. This division could be because the bees lack the physical space to expand further, or because the colony is simply too big (generally around 60,000 bees). When a colony divides itself, the initial, or primary swarm, leaves the colony with the mother queen. The primary swarm is usually strong and arrives with a queen that is ready to go to work. If the old colony has sufficient bees, it may issue a second, third, or more swarms. these swarms will be accompanied by one or more virgin queens. The unmated queens in these after-swarms go on mating flights after their swarm colony arrives at their new home.

Obviously, a swarm headed by a mated queen is preferable to an after swarm headed by an unmated queen. Virgin queens carry the added risk of mating failure (approximately 20% according to accepted queen rearing wisdom), and so these swarms may fail at higher rates than primary swarms. Experienced beekeepers can usually tell a virgin from a mated queen by looking.

After swarms will eventually reflect the genetic profile of feral bees in the local area. In some parts of Texas, this can be quite good, but in other parts of the state, that profile may make the bees unsuitable for beginners or for back yard beekeeping.

What makes a quality swarm? A primary swarm with a mated queen is the best bet. However, many beekeepers observe that swarm queens are often replaced within several weeks of arrival. This replacement is handled by the colony, but may pose difficulties for a new beekeeper. Handling queen cells often causes damage to the developing queens, and so a beekeeper should avoid handling frames with queen cells. The timing of queen development, hardening, mating, and final development difficult to pin down with uncontrolled queen production. For this reason, a beekeeper should be patient with the colony and intervene only after the developing queen is definitely beyond hope according to the calendar. In the alternative, the beekeeper may replace the queen before the colony decides to do so. Clearly, there’s a little beekeeper skill involved in managing swarms.

One great advantage of swarm collecting is that it can be (more or less) free. A beginner beekeeper, thus, could easily make several attempts at swarm collection per season and accumulate the experience needed to be successful at it. But understand that a swarm is the most risky of all methods of acquiring bees. Bee swarms must be convinced to stay in the hive chosen by the beekeeper, and they regularly decide otherwise. The bottom line, as a beginner beekeeper, you can collect swarms and take your chances, but you should not pay for a swarm, ever.

A common method of buying bees, however, is the 3-pound package of bees. In a package, you get worker bees (3 pounds, as the name implies), and a mated queen. A package is basically a man-made swarm, but differs from a natural swarm in important ways. First, a package is usually shipped with a mated queen (though you may also order queenless packages). This mated queen is unrelated to the workers, but the time the workers and the queen spend together in transit generally bonds them into a cohesive unit, with all the workers clustering around the only queen they’ve know for many hours.

Package bees are fraught with trouble too. Shipping is hard on bees, and so some mortality is expected. Packages ship with liquid feed (usually), but it’s common for bees to arrive with an empty feed container (especially when producers use marshmallows instead of liquid feed). Temperature is a critical factor in the movement of any colony of bees, and packages are no different. Exposure to high temperatures stresses the bees and raises the mortality rates. Nevertheless, package bees are a popular method of acquiring bees, and most packages produce success for new beekeepers. If you buy package bees, talk to your supplier for support and guidance.

Removals

When honey bees make their home where they’re a nuisance or a pest, people will sometimes call upon a live bee remover to collect the colony, their combs, and their queen. This is often difficult work, requiring skills not common to general beekeeping. A colony situated in the soffit of a home or in the cavity of a wall is ideally arranged as a cohesive unit. This is an ideal condition for bees. They are confident in their strength. They possess some food stores, perhaps. They may be defensive of their home. They may have access to vast areas in which to flee and re-establish their colony after removal.

Many beekeepers consider bee removal an entirely separate skill set and barely related to beekeeping. Some bee removers do not keep bees at all, instead selling what they remove quickly (flipping them). No matter your view on this, removing bees from structures requires a significant level of skill in construction trades and handling of bee colonies as a unit.

When a colony is removed from a structure, the brood combs are cut to fit in hive frames. The combs are temporarily held in place by rubber bands, until the colony can build the combs into the frames. This is a critical point to evaluating the quality of a removal job, and the resulting colony success (and value). We’ll return to this subject.

A bee colony that’s established in a cavity, going about its business will necessarily be greatly stressed by having their home disturbed, removed, cut to pieces, and taken away. The stress imposed upon them can not be over stated. We tend to focus on the stress placed on the adult worker bees, the most numerous and visible of the colony. We also take note of stress placed upon the all-important queen bee, but stress is also placed upon the silent members of the colony, the brood.

Brood is important to a colony because it is one of the primary missions of a colony, and it is the most delicate part of a colony. While adult bees can tolerate wide variations in temperature, brood must be maintained in a narrow temperature range, and must not dry out. These are simply not the conditions during a removal. Brood can be chilled (below about 70*F) or overheated (above about 95*F). Desiccation can occur at any temperature when the humidity falls below 80% RH. Time is critical during a removal. The brood must be protected from environmental conditions and rough handling.

Less than ideal brood conditions are a serious problem for removal colonies that are ultimately left without a queen. Let’s talk a little about the difficulties that queens pose to removal work.

According to Laidlaw and other researchers, the conditions under which a queen develops is critical. Very large numbers of bees are required. The term “boiling with bees” describes a condition in which frames are sometimes difficult to remove or replace in a hive because of the congestion of so many bees. Colonies raising queens must be well fed and provisioned. Larva selection is critical. Each of these requirements must be met in order to produce high quality queens.

A removal colony must never be asked to raise a queen. If the colony’s queen is lost for any reason, the colony should be provided a queen from another source that meets the best practices of queen rearing. A quality removal job is incomplete without a quality, mated queen in the hive at the end of the job.

Evaluating a removal colony is similar to any other colony, but care must be taken to verify the quality of the removal work. The ordinary features of a colony must be present. A laying queen that is fully accepted by the colony, whether the colony’s own queen or one provided by the remover or beekeeper. The “bee math” of the colony must be acceptable. Generally, the popular advice to “keep strong bees” applies to removal colonies. Let’s take a moment and review what it means to “keep strong bees.”

A strong colony does not necessarily mean a large colony. Generally, strong bees are able to completely cover both sides of each frame in a hive. This condition provides for sufficient defense of the colony from pests or robbing. But this is not the only measure of strong bees. A colony must also possess the strength to build, weather a dearth, forage for themselves, and raise additional brood when conditions warrant. This critical mass of bees is generally considered 2 or 3 pounds of bees (the size of a reproductive swarm or package). Each of these conditions must be present in a removal colony in order to consider it strong and viable. Colonies that do not meet these conditions should be used for purposes other than sale.

Removal colonies feature a reliable tell-tale measure of colony strength: the degree to which the cut combs have been fixed and attached to the frames. A fresh removal will have no attachments between the combs and the wooden frames at all. A strong colony may attach them completely in just a few days. A weak colony will take much longer, or may abandon some comb sections entirely. Abandoned comb sections is a sign of a poor quality removal colony, and should be removed for safety.

Regardless of a colony’s strength, combs should be attached to the frames prior to sale. Before combs are attached, a colony’s stress may still be high, and unattached frames carry the risk of damage from displacement from the frame. A good solid warning sign is the condition of the comb attachment compared to the condition of the rubber bands. If the rubber bands are chewed or broken before the combs are attached, then beware of the quality of the colony. If rubber bands are buried in wax and the combs attached to the frames, this is a sign of a quality colony that is functioning well.

A key component of a removal colony is the compete absence of queen cells. Removals should not be asked to raise queens, and so these cells should be destroyed and regarded as sub-standard for producing high quality queens, and concomitant high quality, robust colonies. Never purchase any colony that already has queen cells. This is particularly important for removal colonies for one additional reason – queen cells are delicate. Queen cells of unknown age must be treated with extreme care. The colony with these cells should not be inspected (and therefore not sold) because handling cells can damage the developing queen. The colony must not be moved for the same reason. Any queen cells of unknown age should be destroyed and a properly made queen provided by the beekeeper.

To review, consider these items as deal-breakers for purchasing removal colonies.

  1. The presence of queen cells.
  2. Insufficient numbers of bees to completely cover both sides of all frames.
  3. Combs that are not attached to the frames.
  4. The absence of a laying queen, or a queen that is sequestered in any way.

If your inspection of a removal colony discovers any of these conditions, look for a better colony. To be sure, each of these conditions may be remedied by an experienced beekeeper, but if you’re just starting out in beekeeping, avoid these troubles at all costs.

Splits

When a colony reaches the capacity of a hive (no more space) or becomes too large, it will swarm. This is bad for production colonies, and so beekeepers try to avoid swarms by splitting a colony into smaller colonies or nucleus colonies.

Beekeepers have developed many, many methods of splitting, or “dividing” colonies. Some are conservative, some are more aggressive, and some are just crazy. But whatever the method, the results should be nearly the same – a few frames of brood, a frame of food stores, a laying queen, and some room to grow.

In the next section, I will describe the nucleus colony as the gold standard of bee buying. It’s safe. The colony is established. The queen is accepted and working. Brood production is underway. The colony can forage for itself. A split is not yet like that.

When a colony is divided, there is always a question of getting the right bees in the right box. A split must be provisioned with enough nurse bees to carry on with brood rearing. It needs enough foragers to collect the resources needed for the new colony. It needs bees ready to build combs. It takes time to establish that all these needs are in balance, and so, fresh splits are not necessarily the same as an established nucleus colony.

Splits are often provided an unrelated queen, and in certain situations newly introduced queens may be “balled” by a fresh split. Exactly why this happens isn’t perfectly understood, but it can cause the loss of a new queen.

When buying nucs, you may encounter a split instead. Ask your vendor to explain the history of your nuc. When was it made? By what method? How long has the queen been laying in this colony? There’s no hard and fast answers to these questions, but the general trend is obvious. A split made last week clearly has not had time to build a cohesive colony around the new queen (none of the workers are related to her).

Observe the workers returning to the colony. They should be bringing pollen in the door. You should see at least some fresh nectar in the combs inside. You should never, ever buy any colony in which the queen is in a cage or clip (or sequestered in any other way).

Nucleus Colonies

The “nuc”, pronounced “nuke”, is the product that delivers the greatest chance of success to a beginner beekeeper. While the configuration of a nuc may vary slightly, the condition of the colony should not.

One variable is the number of brood frames. The more the merrier, right? A quality nuc will have at least three frames of brood. These frames should be covered in bees, and the brood area should cover 70-80% of the frames. Brood should be in all stages of development, not just eggs (an indication of a recent split). Encircling the brood should be pollen and nectar or honey. You may observe some nectar being stored in the brood area. This condition may be a warning that the bees are running short on space, but it also indicates good foraging behavior. If you buy a nuc like this, provide additional space as soon as you’re able.

Some suppliers provide different configurations.

NUCS
A Nuc pick-up day at a Dallas area urban farm market
NUC Box
Inside this NUC box is a small colony of honey bees. There are five deep frames of brood, honey & pollen ready to be transferred into a larger hive box.

The frames with foundation or food stores are highly variable from one supplier to the next. Other frame count configurations are offered too, and these may have a place in the apiaries of experienced beekeepers, it’s best to stick to the ordinary configurations of 4- or 5-frame nucs.

The common features of quality nucs are these:

  1. A laying queen, not a confined queen, not a recently released queen
  2. Workers that reflect the genetic profile of their queen. That is, at least some portion of the worker population should be the daughters of their queen.
  3. Enough bees to completely cover both sides of all combs in the nuc.
  4. Enough young bees to tend to brood (look for royal jelly in brand new larva cells) and build wax (look for white combs being built.
  5. Enough foragers or enough food stores to carry the colony.
  6. All combs permanently fixed in place by some mechanism (build onto the frames by the bees or on foundation/wire).

The buyer has some responsibilities too. The buyer accepts responsibility for the colony’s care when (s)he takes it from the seller. The seller should take the time to inspect the colony with the buyer if asked. This practice reduces the chance of a dispute over a viable queen or replacement(s).

Ask your seller if they will provide replacement queens if asked, or what their policy is.

The buyer MUST take care of the colony. It must be protected from heat. It must not roll over in the truck (this is a common mistake). The queen is the responsibility of the beekeeper. If the seller verified the queen at pick-up, the buyer should not expect her to be replaced afterwards.

Unfortunately, definitions vary from one supplier to another. The important thing is that the buyer and seller agree in advance on what is to be delivered. Every product described above has a market. An experienced beekeeper may readily buy rubber banded combs all day long, but that product is inappropriate for the beginner. I hope this examination of bee-starter products will help you determine the correct product for your beekeeping project, and I hope it enables you to ask the right questions and get what you expect!

Good luck, and happy beekeeping!

Invitation to Learn – Texas Beekeepers Association Summer Clinic 2018

Hey there!

I was invited to send an invitation to beekeepers about the TBA upcoming event! So, I wanted to take a moment to invite you to continue learning about beekeeping at the Texas Beekeepers Association Summer Clinic this year.

TBA Summer Clinic will be June 30th at the Lone Star Convention & Expo Center, Conroe Texas!

You’ll find curated topics for all experience levels, quality vendors, and beekeepers from around Texas to come together for this fantastic event – I hope you’ll be a part of it!

Bring your friends and family – they won’t want to miss this!

REGISTER HERE

Summer Clinic Schedule & Class Descriptions

Feel free to share, spread the word, and we’ll see you there!

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.

 

[table id=2 /]

 

[table id=3 /]

 

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.