Honey bee management

Bees bringing back pollen

Last year I decided that to have a better understanding of my honey bees, it would be useful to sit the British Beekeepers' Association exams and undertook a correspondence course with two of my beekeeper friends in preparation of taking Module 1: Honey Bee Management later in the year. Cathy and Imogen have been keeping bees longer than me, so I had a steeper learning curve having only two beekeeping seasons under my belt. So how did it go?

Each week we got together for a couple of hours on an evening to study and go through the syllabus to prepare ourselves for the exam in November. Throughout that time, we sent our tutor the answers to the questions as well as set homework for ourselves to do so that when we next met, we could discuss and formulate our answers to the next set of questions. This module required us to know:

  • The types of hives and frames used by beekeepers in the UK, including comparative knowledge of the following hives, National, WBC, Smith, National Deep, Commercial, Langstroth and Dadant (details of exact frame sizes will not be required).
  • The principles which govern the design of hives and frames, including the concept of bee space, and the main features of their construction.
  • The use of wax foundation.
  • Methods of fitting frames with wired and unwired wax foundation.
  • Ways of getting wax foundation fully drawn.
  • The methods of spacing frames in hives, the usual measurements used and the advantages and disadvantages of varying the spacing.
  • The need for regular comb replacement in the hive and how this can be effectively carried out.
  • How to begin beekeeping, including the acquisition of bees, sources and type of personal and other equipment, the approximate costs of equipment and bees and any precautions necessary
  • The criteria used in the selection of apiaries.
  • The factors to be considered in the siting of colonies in home and in out-apiaries.
  • Good apiary hygiene.
  • The variable temperament of bees in relation to management and public relations.
  • The actions which can be taken to avoid bad-tempered bees causing a nuisance to members of the public.
  • The year's work in the apiary and how this is dependent upon the annual colony cycle and the timing of local bee forage.
  • The drifting of honey bees, the dangers caused and techniques used to minimise the problem.
  • The principles involved in feeding honey bees, including types of feeder, amounts of food, types of food and timing of feeding.
  • The value of honey, pollen, water and propolis to the honey bee colony.
  • The prevention, detection and control of swarming.
  • The use, and types, of queen excluder used in the UK.
  • Methods of swarm control used in small-scale beekeeping enterprises.
  • Methods of marking and clipping queens.
  • The methods of making nuclei and the uses to which nuclei can be put.
  • How swarms and nuclei can be turned into productive colonies.
  • Methods of taking and hiving a swarm of honey bees.
  • The methods used to unite colonies of honey bees, the underlying principles of these methods and any precautions that should be taken.
  • Robbing by honey bees and wasps and the associated dangers, including prevention and curtailment.
  • Spring management of honey bee colonies.
  • Management of honey bee colonies for honey production from oil seed rape and other specialist crops such as heather.
  • Summer management of honey bee colonies.
  • Moving colonies and the difficulties and dangers involved.
  • Different methods of 'clearing' bees from supers.
  • How colonies are prepared for the winter period and the principles underlying this preparation.
  • The effect of honey bee stings and recommended first aid treatment.
  • Laying workers and drone laying queens and the conditions leading to their development.
  • The signs of queenlessness and a method of confirming the condition.

That's a pretty detailed list and I must confess that it required a significant number of hours of study in the evenings as I have a full-time job, as well as studying just about every weekend. The three of us found the summer very difficult because it's a busy time for beekeepers taking off the honey and extracting into jars. It wasn't doing our weekly sessions any favours, so we allowed ourselves a month off so we could concentrate on our bees as well as have a normal life for a few weeks. We probably needed that break and it did us a world of good as we came back and took the plunge to sit the exam in November.

Saturday 11th November 2017 - the day of the exam. Buckfast Abbey was the location, a beautiful setting with a history of beekeeping (that's for another day). I haven't sat an exam since leaving school over 30 years ago. That just made me feel very old! I had spent months practising past papers, not just to jog the memory, but also to get used to writing essay style again. With just one and a half hours for the exam, I had to learn the right length to answer questions so that I didn't overrun.

How did I feel when I turned over the exam paper on that day? Terrified to be honest. It was a big thing for me to be doing. I couldn't remember a thing. I started to panic having read through the questions and really didn't know which questions to choose. I remember looking around and seeing others writing and there was me not writing anything. I stared out of the window for what seemed like ages and pulled myself together. Having chosen the questions I felt I could answer, I drew out a plan on a sheet of blank paper with rough notes of what to write.

I wasn't confident at all after sitting the exam. The three of us went for a coffee afterwards with other beekeepers to dissect the paper and I was surprised to hear the others found the questions quite a challenge - and this was from beekeepers who have been keeping bees for a lot longer than me. Perhaps there was a glimmer of hope that I would pass the exam... two months of waiting to find out the result.

And here I am, with that result!

11/11/2017 Module 1 - Honey Bee Management - Pass

All that hard work has paid off and I am now the proud owner (or will be) of another beekeeping certificate.

I would say to anyone contemplating sitting the BBKA exam modules to go for it. Even if you decide not to sit the exam themselves, you will have gained so much knowledge and that will make you even a better beekeeper than you already are.