Is a rainstorm the best time to take a beekeeping test?
I like the wet thump of a juicy raindrop smashing into a pane of glass. Rain is natures percussionist. An afternoon in the living room listening to a performance played on my window is time well spent, add coffee and cake it’s perfect. Rainy days, I love. Unless I’m taking the assessment for the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) Basic, which I am. Bugger.
Reading University says it’s the third wettest July since 1941. I don’t know that trudging muddy allotment path humming ‘rain rain go away’. An unlucky hive is going to be opened by me. Unlucky for the bees because bees don’t like being wet. Unlucky for me, about to put my hands in a box of 50,000 grumpy wet bees. I’m sure there are other things I could be doing on a Saturday afternoon than beekeeping the rain. I’ve been coaxed into taking the basic by my beekeeping friends. Beekeeper peer pressure is a powerful force, that’s why we lie about regular varroa checks, and it has landed me here.
But I’m in good company. The BBKA began providing formal qualifications for beekeepers shortly after it was founded in 1874. The adoption of moveable frames allowing a more standardised approach to the craft. The basic assessment I’m taking today is the very first qualification in a comprehensive system and has been taken by thousands of beekeepers before me. I’m here to prove I understand the basics of keeping bees.
The basic is gateway drug into the BBKA educational system. If I want to take another course I have to pass this assessment first, then I’m on my way to the coveted Master Beekeeper qualification; well maybe not it sounds hard work. The basic tests my knowledge and skill in the fundamentals of the beekeeping craft: equipment, handling and keeping them healthy. The assessment is practical exam – no papers – just me, bees, the assessor and his clipboard.
Tracey, my podcasting co-host and tutor hands me a cup of tea then apologises for the weather – a very British habit. We chat about the day so far and how her other students have coped with both the assessment and the conditions. She has resorted to holding a large umbrella over the hives during the assessments hoping to keep both bees and humans dry.
I’m the last candidate of the day and my assessor is standing under the gazebo erected by the association apiary team. BBKA examiners have common traits. They want you to past, are helpful, have decades of experience, but, have a steely core forged in the heat of thousands of bumbling candidates that have come before me. He suggested we complete the oral part of the test first in the hope we’ll catch a break in the rain.
The basic has both practical and oral elements. The oral test is a series of questions ranging from hive types to the diseases bees may suffer from. Confidence is important when answering the questions. I start to answer a question about swarm control by saying – some people may .. my examiner quickly interjects – no Paul I want to know what you do, not other people. If you are taking the basic next year, keep this in mind.
I breeze through the questions, the evenings spent in the study group lead by Tracey pays off. I remember the life cycle of the different casts of bee, how to spot the most common of diseases, what jobs need to be done through the beekeeping year and how to extract honey. Making a frame is one of the practical skills I needed to demonstrate and just as I hand my completed frame to my assessor the rains slow to a mild drizzle – time to crack open a hive.
When you inspect your own hives there is a certainty to what you will find after you remove the hive roof. Opening someone else’s hives is like opening a birthday present from the serious aunt when I was a kid. I hoped it would be fun, but ultimately was disappointed after tearing the corner to realise its another education book. Walking towards my nominated hive I eyed it with the same mixture of hope and suspicion.
My lucky dip hive I has two brood boxes separated by either a crown board or queen excluder. I removed the roof and placed it upside down on the floor where it would provide a handy platform to store the other hive parts. On the crown board is a simple record card. The bees are a recently hived swarm, this is good news as newly hive swarms with a laying queen – in my experience – are easy to inspect. All the time through this process I’m explaining to the assessor what I’m thinking and doing. Being very verbal seems a good idea, he asks me some questions about the parts of the hive, what I notice about the bees coming and going from the hive entrance. I crack the crown board, as I lift it there is a problem.
Fresh wild comb is beautiful, it smells lovely and has that sunset yellow colour. The top broad box has no frames and the bees dutifully built five perfect combs from the roof. I’m rather pleased with myself manoeuvring the comb and laying the crown board on the roof with no damage to the wax.
Throughout the inspection the assessor asks me questions: can you see the Queen, what’s in the cell, what is that, where are the stores. All stuff you should be thinking about when inspecting. The rain was holding off and it is going when, he points to a hole in a cell capping and asks – what’s that?
Erm … err….. erm …… that’s me bemused. I’ve seen them before and never considered the tiny holes you see at the top of the capping. Ding! My brain snaps into shape, the bees are capping the cell. And with that answer the assessment is over. After our goodbyes my examiner went home, leaving me to hang around with the association members who’d kindly given up their free time to set up the apiary for our assessments.
If you’ve been keeping bees in the UK for over a year and are a member of the BBKA I would recommend taking the basic it. Your association will run a study group and I found that it crystallised all the things I’m meant to do throughout the beekeeping and when I carry out hive checks, but, sometimes don’t.
Don’t let the practical assessment dissuade you from trying – you’ll be fine.
More information regarding BBKA educational programs can be found here: https://www.bbka.org.uk/learn/examinations__assessments