Mentoring Concepts

Setting up a mentoring program requires time & effort!
By: Larry Connor

A growing number of beekeeping organizations use mentoring programs as a means to complete the training of new beekeepers as well as providing a source of bees and queens for these new individuals. In this article we will review some concepts of mentoring new beekeepers with a very specific objective – keeping the new beekeeper in the beekeeping field by creating positive training situations where they can be highly successful with their new bee colonies.

Most of us who have kept bees for any length of time can quickly name one or two individuals who were critical to our learning of the essential aspects of beekeeping. These were our mentors, teachers or instructors who took on our need to learn about bees and helped guide us through the maze of confusion that seems to grow around us when we become a new beekeeper. Bee clubs serve their membership well when they take the effort to create this close relationship between experienced and new beekeepers.

For those who started with bees and beekeeping but never had a trusted mentor, the long-term success rate is much lower – these are the folks who apparently picked beekeeping as their next life project but failed to get the right amount of help and training necessary to be successful. With the rapid increase in the number of new beekeepers we have observed over the past few years, all beekeeper organizations need to focus on developing methods to keep these new people focused on bees and the proper methods to keep their colonies alive and growing.

Mentoring is a popular concept within the business world, as evidenced by the extensive number of books and training programs available online and at the bookstore. But the concept is much older, going back to old master and apprentice relationships where a master craftsman took on a new person to train and learn a particular skill set over a period of time, often for many years. Some – but certainly not all – master beekeeper programs focus on the long-term training and development of a mentee’s skills, confidence and range of beekeeping experiences.

For local bee clubs, the challenge of setting up a mentoring program requires a great deal of time and effort, usually from a small group of highly skilled organizers. It seems logical that, to obtain the best success and results, each mentor should take on only one mentee at a time. That means if 100 new people sign up for a club’s mentoring program, the club will need 100 mentors. Fortunately, these mentors do not need to be master beekeepers but people who are a year ahead of the new students. The primary reason I suggest this is simple: Each mentor should be charged with supplying a nucleus or single hive body colony for the new beekeeper. In fact, part of the role of the mentor is to work with the mentee to help with general bee work so that the mentor has the colony strength to produce the nucleus (or full-sized colony) for the student to purchase and then continue to guide them through colony buildup and supering. Ideally, queens used in this process are produced locally or at least mated locally from queen cells or virgin queens.

This is not an act of charity by the mentor, at least not in most cases. Instead, it is a financial transaction that develops between the teacher and the student. It will require a detailed review of each person’s expectations about the relationship. If the mentor decides to include some level of compensation for time spent as teachers, this needs to be carefully spelled out at the first meeting of the mentor and mentee. Furthermore, if the mentor expects the student to provide some sweat equity in the learning process by serving as a go-fer or in some other role, this needs to be carefully spelled out. In my own experience, the chance to perform simple hive manipulations many times as a student helped to cement my knowledge and confidence in working bee colonies. When I was then expected to work colonies alone, I felt with much greater certainty that what I was doing was following my instructor’s teachings.

Clearly, I just identified two hot buttons for any relationship – spending someone else’s time and money – so there needs to be a set of clear guidelines worked out in advance. Here are a few critical items to consider for the mentor to review with the mentee before starting the process.

List your expectations of the relationship. If you expect a student to help you on six Saturday morning training sessions, that needs to be made clear well in advance. Not everyone can meet at specific times. There may be another student who can meet these needs, so the organizers should be aware of each mentor’s personal expectations. It is the mentor’s role to take the lead in these matters, being extremely clear about meeting times, dates and duration of the sessions. Make or review this list together and each party should sign it before moving forward with the process. The mentor must take the initiative on schedule, as this is the role of the instructor.

The instructor must be willing to listen carefully to the new student and establish a safe working environment based on trust and a positive relationship. The mentoring books are filled with keys to successful mentoring that includes in-depth listening, accepting and supporting special needs, creating a safe and positive atmosphere and the ability of both parties to ask powerful questions and expect clear and direct answers. Mentors are encouraged to ask fewer ‘Why’ questions but to ask more open-ended questions, such as How and What. This becomes a bit like a bonding process, and the question-response is a critical and essential part of that process.

The instructor should spend time spelling out some of the key reasons he or she feels that they will be a good mentor, including goals and expectations, concerns about meeting together in the wood shop or the apiary, and logistical issues associated with transportation and mobility.

The instructor-mentor must also set limits about time of contact, method of contact and other matters that affect their personal and professional schedule. If you need to be at a meeting somewhere, you probably do not want the student calling your cell phone during that meeting. On the other hand, other mentors are happy to have students stop by with adult liquid refreshments to talk bees. It is important to note that the student should NOT assume that this is always the case! Ask, “How do you feel if I stopped by to talk bees next Friday night after work?”

Mentoring sessions should be structured and have an agenda so both parties know what to expect.

So a clear agenda is very important for both parties. What will happen each time you get together? Work out a preliminary roadmap together, a plan of action that may change because of the weather and bee conditions. Perhaps most importantly, after two or three visits to the apiary, the mentor must make sure the mentee still wants to continue with bees. If the student is overwhelmed by the amount of work, time and money it takes to be a successful beekeeper, then they should feel free to say, “I have thought about all of this, and I really cannot see how I have the time (or money or interest) to continue with beekeeping at this time.” It is better to cut the losses before bees are involved. In fact, more want-a-bee-beekeepers should be held back a bit before they get their bees to eliminate the impulse element we sometimes see in new beekeepers.

The Role of the Bee Club
For the organizing-sponsoring-facilitating bee club, there should be some other considerations. First, all new beekeepers MUST be required to complete a basic beekeeping course to join the mentor programs. While the individual may choose to go elsewhere for training, it seems reasonable that the club should have a set of rules regarding participation in the club’s mentoring program. Having a clear standard of participation will ensure the training of the students before they enter the mentors’ apiaries, and before they burden the mentor with 10,000 questions that could have been handled quite nicely in a Fall or Winter course.

The club, too, may have the role of setting expectations of the new beekeepers regarding disease management, equipment assembly, sources of bees and other issues of local concern. For example, if club members have been experiencing pesticide damage from a specific source, such as treated corn seed, then instruction on avoiding these risks should be a requirement for the club. This helps protect the new beekeeper and their investment in bees and equipment.

Clubs may emphasize the acquisition of two or more colonies by each new beekeeper and deemphasize the need to purchase honey-processing equipment. They can do this by offering the club extractor for low-cost rental when and if a honey crop is obtained from the management of these new nucleus colonies. The mentor may use this as one of the final sessions with the student (along with mite treatment and Winter preparation).

More and more clubs have special sessions for their new beekeepers, the mentees, at their monthly club meetings. They do this by offering a meeting for mentees a full hour earlier than the rest of the club, along with selected club mentors who run a session on current activities within the students’ colonies. It also provides a chance for the new beekeepers to ask other teachers useful questions of their own without reviewing basic information in the general meeting or deflecting the speaker from the main topic.

Clubs need to suggest a minimum standard for nucleus colonies, as expressed by the number of frames of brood, frames of pollen and honey and general information about the population of bees. Because there is so much variation in what people consider an acceptable nucleus, it may be necessary to suggest a minimum standard as well as the ideal standard. For example, I like to prepare a five-frame nucleus colony with two or three frames of brood, plus two food frames, and an empty drawn comb so the bees will emerge and swell the number of bees in that nucleus. A mated queen will speed the process of establishing this nucleus, or the nucleus should be set up and managed for three to five weeks before it is transported to the student’s new apiary. That way the frames of bees and honey could be transferred into an eight or ten-frame hive body (deep or medium depth) and perhaps given a second hive body once moved because it contains so many bees.

Clubs should discourage the use of package bees as well as quick-and-dirty nucleus hives made up on the spot with two frames of brood, a frame of food, foundation and a queen cell. Most new beekeepers are not ready for that challenge when they start, although I insist they can learn how to do all of this by the end of their first season.

Our objective is to keep the new beekeeper in beekeeping for many years by having them experience success with his or her bees their first year. This success is better obtained when associated with a well-run mentoring program and strong increase nucleus colonies. This formula is being used in many states with very good results, and I recommend bee clubs find a like-minded organization that is doing this and visit them and obtain speakers from the group.

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