By Laura Tyler – Mentoring is a traditional way for beekeepers to teach people starting beekeeping about tending bees. However, finding a mentor, someone who is both knowledgeable about hive management and interested in teaching you, can feel difficult, especially if you don’t know anyone who keeps bees in your area. Beekeeping organizations partially meet the demand for education by offering classes and other events to people interested in starting beekeeping. While these are terrific opportunities that work out well for most, they don’t always fulfill the needs of those seeking a more personal, ongoing connection with an experienced beekeeper.
Sometimes you just want someone you can call when things go sideways in the hive. What happens when the queen bee dies? Should I feed syrup, bee fondant, or pollen patties this time of year? How will I know when I have given them enough food? Or you may want a relationship that goes beyond the transmission of how-to; helps you meet your potential as a beekeeper, and helps you become a part of a larger beekeeping community. Close mentoring relationships do exist in beekeeping and can evolve into friendships that span decades. However, they can take some time to find and cultivate. Here are a few ideas for people just starting beekeeping who would like to find a beekeeping mentor.
Say Yes to Quiet Invitations
One of my biggest regrets in beekeeping is not getting to see a dear friend and mentor one last time before she passed. One day, not long after moving from her condo to an assisted living facility, she invited me for a visit. While I was, of course, delighted to receive the invitation, I didn’t fully understand its importance. So rather than jumping up right away to attend, I fiddled around on email in an attempt to organize a group visit with mutual friends. Days passed. Alas, to my sadness and regret, she died before I got that last visit in, and I lost my one last chance to be with her, sit near her, and hear what she was thinking.
The most rewarding mentoring relationships in beekeeping have a personal quality. Sometimes special invitations to participate in life arrive quietly, so quietly that you may not recognize them for what they are. If someone you admire, someone you like or are interested in getting to know better invites you in, do say yes. Because you never know if and when you may receive that unique opportunity again.
Do Some Research
Videos, online forums, books, and articles offer a range of perspectives from the instructional to the more personal. Use these resources to get a feel for whether starting beekeeping and attending to its seasonal tasks is a good fit for you. You can make yourself more appealing to a potential mentor by acquiring a baseline of beekeeping knowledge and vocabulary. This will give you a better understanding of what you are asking more experienced beekeepers to do for you when you reach out to them for support.
Join a Beekeeping Organization
A first step toward finding a beekeeping mentor is to check out your local beekeeping organization. If your area doesn’t have a local club, find a state or regional beekeeping organization to connect with. Most beekeeping groups offer some kind of organized mentoring for people starting beekeeping whether it is a workshop, conference, social media site, or online forum where you can ask questions and get answers. These organized, group opportunities are not only terrific sources of information, but they are also the places where you get to meet the people who may eventually become your mentors. Get out, attend events, ask questions and volunteer to get the most out of these meet-and-greet opportunities. And while you are there, pay attention to the more experienced beekeepers who respond to your questions. People who respond helpfully to your inquiries in a group setting are already mentoring you.
Invite a Beekeeper to Visit You
In places where interest in beekeeping is on the rise, the demand for instruction by people just starting beekeeping can overwhelm experienced beekeepers whose main concern may be carving out time to care for their own bees. We receive numerous requests at our apiary each season from people interested in “helping out,” in exchange for us teaching them about beekeeping. Or sometimes people will ask me to set them up with someone who “knows how to start a honey bee farm.” While these requests are understandable (who wouldn’t want free beekeeping lessons scheduled at their convenience?) they are difficult to say yes to because they lack specifics and sound time-consuming. Extra hands in the bee-yard aren’t necessarily helpful hands unless they are trained. Also, training sessions can be hard to schedule with looky-loo newcomers because so much of beekeeping — new package installation, swarm collection, making splits, and so on — has to happen on the bees’ timetable with humans serving in a responsive role and adapting accordingly.
Rather than inviting yourself to a potential mentor’s apiary for free lessons, consider inviting him or her over to visit you to help you troubleshoot a specific problem in one of your hives. Some beekeepers offer hive visits and mentoring as a paid service. Others offer them for free. I am often delighted to visit other beekeepers’ bee-yards to see where they keep their bees. It is interesting to observe different setups. And while I don’t presume expert status, I do enjoy offering diagnoses and help as I can. For me, defined tasks, as opposed to an open-ended shadowing session, are easier to schedule. Other beekeepers may feel differently. Respect the time of the person who is mentoring you.
Raising Honeybees: Find a Peer Group to Help
In the absence of experienced mentors, a peer group can provide an excellent source of support for people just starting beekeeping. Consider starting a beekeeping book club with an eye toward building a mutual support community where nearby beekeepers can get to know each other over time. Seeking hands-on advice? Try organizing a local hive tour or series of roving inspections where a small group of beekeepers visits each others’ apiaries to observe different setups and hive handling techniques. Events like these provide invaluable opportunities to observe a range of situations, see who is thriving, who is struggling, and with the help of others, try to determine why. While expert advice from experienced beekeepers is often the most valuable input you can receive, when that is not available, try putting heads together with your peers to brainstorm solutions to your beekeeping problems. As your group matures and gains in experience, each individual participant has the potential to become a mentor moving forward, providing beekeeping guidance and support to those who come up after. Also, working side by side with other beekeepers to solve mutually interesting problems is a rewarding way to build relationships that can serve you over time.
Keep an Open Mind
Beekeeping mentors come in many forms and most of us will have the good fortune to have more than one throughout our beekeeping careers. Some may be older than you, others younger. You will meet some in person. Others you may encounter online. Some may move in and out of your life like a breeze with a single anecdote or piece of advice that changes beekeeping for you. Others have the potential to become a reliable part of your network of friends over time. All have value to new and experienced beekeepers able to keep an open mind.
Are you starting beekeeping and looking for a mentor? Have you had success. If so, how? Let us know in the comments below.