It’s Not Hard Being A Mentor

But You Need Guidelines

Ann Harman

Experienced beekeepers know that each colony has its own ‘personality.’ And it’s ever-changing (remember all those drones that found that queen). The more colonies you see, the more you can learn about bees and their behavior. Therefore when your local association asks for mentors to assist the current newbees, volunteer to be a mentor. You will learn more about bees and make new friends (OK, maybe one or two exceptions). What? Your local association does not have a mentoring program? Now is the time to start one.

The East Cupcake Beekeepers Association has just finished their spring classes and I have volunteered to mentor three newbees. Just two would be better but some members cannot because of work and family responsibilities and some feel they do not know enough about beekeeping. Well, even if you have been keeping bees for one or two years you do know more than the newbee who has never had any experience. Try being an apprentice mentor this year. Next year you will be a more experienced mentor and ready to help and, of course, to learn more about bees and their behavior.

I gave my three newbees my contact information along with some ‘do not call times.’ I am not interested in listening to any questions, even about bees, at 6:00 PM while my supper potatoes are boiling over onto the stove. I also reinforced the information given to newbees during one of the classes: it is better to make one phone call with 10 questions than 10 phone calls with one question each.

Who are my newbees and what do I know about them? Not much, really. Since their bees have not arrived yet perhaps a short visit to each would be sensible – to check on their apiary site and that their equipment is all ready. We all live in bear country so the installation of a bear fence prior to bee arrival had been emphasized. Site choice, ready-to-use equipment and bear fence will certainly give the newbees a good start as well as a good chance to make their first year a success. So let’s visit each newbee.

The first is a recently retired man and his wife in a fairly rural area. Both attended the classes and asked sensible questions. As I pulled up to the house I noticed immaculate large flower gardens. They also have a huge vegetable garden and are planning to have a small greenhouse. Good signs? Well, I better ask about their use of pesticides on both the flowers and vegetables. If they are using various organic controls then all is well.

I just need to make a mental note – will these two beekeepers be the sort that needs to inspect every side of every frame from top to bottom of hive every week during bee season? I did not see a single weed in the lawn or flowerbed or vegetable garden. Attention to detail can be good but not if it interferes with the bees’ life style. Will their bees suffer from constant disruption? A bit of over-inspection is fine for a newbee during the first year. Newbees are learning and we don’t have Superman’s X-ray vision to see through the wooden walls of the hive.

Their bear fence was elegant and useful. I found no fault with their site or equipment. I asked about pesticides and found they did not use any nor did they use fungicides or herbicides. In addition they did know their farmer neighbors who had cattle, not crops. So all in all (except possible overzealous inspection) these newbees seem to be on the road to success.

My next stop was a somewhat suburban area, pleasant with lots around eight to ten acres. While driving down the road I saw trees and gardens and thought it seemed a very nice area for bees. The newbee is a woman with two half-interested early-teen-age children. The children came to a very few classes but their mother attended all. The husband thought bees were just fine but he was too busy with work and the children’s sports on weekends.

This visit was going to be a bit longer than I had initially thought. The next-door neighbor had a swimming pool. But supplying water for the bees will not be a problem. The former owner had made a small pond at the bottom of a gentle slope. However the newbee has chosen a poor site. The two hives had been placed next to the pond ‘because they look so pretty there.’ Our newbee must have slept through the part where the instructor had said a damp area was unsuitable.

The two children who had been assigned the bear ence construction had put it only about two feet away from the hives. Not only would any eager bear have been able to reach the hives but also there was absolutely no room between fence and hives to work. So moving the site actually meant bear fence improvement also. The equipment was ready. The children had obviously found partly empty cans of paint because the hives were an assortment of colors – green, yellow, pink, orange, blue. No bees would ever get confused about their home hive until someone swapped hive bodies.

Inquiries about surrounding farmland and possible use of pesticides not only there but also in the immediate suburban area were unsuccessful. The newbee only had a few flowerbeds and haphazardly raised a few tomato plants each year and so did not bother to use any pest control. We will just have to wait and see. Emphasis on recognizing pesticide kill during the summer months will be important.

I spent so much time there that I will have to visit the third newbee on another day. Our third newbee lives in a much more urban environment. However, he had read about the problems honey bees were having and decided to keep just two hives ‘to help the bees.’ His co-workers in his office think it will be loads of fun and plan to help on weekends when they are not busy with something else. Several of them helped him set up his beeyard and bear fence. I need to keep in mind that these bees just might survive with what promises to be minimal help from the newbee. I think I will need to focus on swarm prevention if the two colonies survive their first year.

Since the East Cupcake Beekeepers Association sells four-frame nucs they can be picked up and installed on different days. I have arranged days and times of installation with the three newbees on three different days so nobody will be rushed. Each newbee has been told to have protective gear on, hive tool in hand and smoker lit when I arrive. They also know that they will be doing all the work and that I am only standing by in case of disaster. I do plan to coach them a bit if they seem a bit hesitant.

All three installations were successful. Nobody dropped a frame of bees. I reminded them to read their book and review their notes taken in class. We made appointments, weather permitting, for my next visit. At that time the hives will be opened to see the progress of the nuc. I encouraged the newbees to watch the entrance to see bees coming and going and see if any were carrying pollen. The nucs were strong and healthy so I did not expect any problems. I asked them to check the syrup feeders several days after installation. They all could do that easily by looking under the top cover without disturbing the bees.

The second visit went very well with all three newbees. The urban man’s smoker went out but at least he got it started again. Fortunately all the bees were quiet and busy. All the newbees were initially very cautious but became more comfortable as they became fascinated with the bees. Yes, a marked queen was seen by all – great excitement. The two children, who did have veils on, were really interested and had dozens of questions. They might turn out to be beekeepers after all. Well, real bees are much more interesting than going to class.

At each place we reviewed their next major step – putting on a second hive body. In order to find out if they knew when, I had them tell me what to look for in the first hive body. All their answers were good, showing that they may have reviewed their notes. Because the urban area may have somewhat limited nectar coming in I encouraged our urban newbee to be sure the bees had plenty of syrup.

At this point I told all of them they were basically on their own. I was happy to answer questions over the phone or by email. I emphasized that I would be available for a beeyard visit if anyone suspected or found a problem or was having difficulty in ‘what to do next.’ They were all encouraged to attend the Association’s meetings and field days. Since they are automatically members for a year (as class members) they receive the newsletter with meeting topics and dates. If I don’t hear anything from them in the next six weeks I think I will contact them for a progress report and perhaps schedule a visit. I certainly hope their bees all survive the first year. That really is the best encouragement for continuing beekeeping.

My predictions for newbee survival at the end of five years: The retired man and his wife will have acquired three more hives and will be participating in the East Cupcake Beekeepers Association activities. (Officers? Most probably.) They will be in their second year of mentoring the association’s newbees. The suburban family, with two colonies still, will have lost some colonies for various reasons, not disease, but replaced them during the five years. One of the children will still have some interest and will help out from time to time. On the whole they will seem to be doing well but still have questions from time to time. A bit difficult to predict their future. The office man—well the colonies will make it through the first year; one either will die or leave the second year (minimal information on when and exactly what happened). The second, and only colony left, will fizzle out after casting several swarms the third year. That newbee will be asked to donate his equipment (yes, if it is disease free) to the Association for a newbee to use. I believe he will take tennis lessons in place of beekeeping. He did mention tennis looked like fun.

Mentoring is only as successful as the new beekeepers are capable of becoming beekeepers. Mentors can help. Mentors will learn. We have to accept that not all people will become real beekeepers.