Saturday, December 27, 2014

Musings about Beekeeping Development Projects: Training New Beekeepers

To say what is the best way to train new beekeepers to the point that they are self-sufficient is a complicated subject, just as many of the other poster have mentioned. There are lots of variables with which you need to deal. You need to consider, among other things, the type of beekeeping being taught (Langstroth vs. top bar hives), the background of the trainees, and the funding available (or not available).

Teaching Jamaican beekeepers of the St. Mary Bee Farmers Association how to make simple pollen traps that can be used with top bar hives. Top bar hives are just as good as Langstroth hives for pollen collection but require a trap with a slightly different design and dimensions.

I’ve been keeping bees for just about 25 years now. My experiences have ranged from running my own top bar hive apiaries in Honduras to working with commercial beekeepers doing honey production and almond pollination in the United States. Throughout all of this I have also been involved in beekeeping training, beginning with Peace Corps in Honduras and most recently in Jamaica through Partners of the America’s Farmer to Farmer program.

Based on my experiences, these are some of my thoughts. 

The Trainees

It may be hard to know at the beginning of the project who the really motivated people will be, but you need to try to identify them as well as possible. Good profits can be made from the sale of honey which motivates everyone. After initial first hand experiences, however, not everyone will be willing to actually work with stinging insects and put in the necessary time to manage them correctly. 

Unfortunately you may not even know this until after the project has gone on for a while and considerable money has been spent on giving the persons training, equipment, and hives that they decide they no longer want to deal with bees.

Students in the agricultural section of the local high school during the apiary visit of a workshop on the basics of beekeeping. Beekeeping was just one aspect of a more complete agricultural program. The first day was spent in a classroom talking about the bees themselves, hive products and an overview of what beekeeping involves. All of this was put more into perspective the second day with the apiary visit.

I am not of the belief of just handing out things for free. There needs to be some sort of responsibility on the part of the trainees. They need to put a type of personal investment into the project. Maybe they need to earn the right to the equipment and hives by attending all the training sessions. Maybe they need to put in a certain amount of work days with the training apiary. Maybe they themselves will make all of their equipment.

You also need to consider carefully whether it is better to run the project as a group or as individuals. I’ve heard about and seen projects here in Honduras that eventually failed because of personality problems between members or discontent with unequal workloads. Beekeeping isn´t like planting corn where you can get everyone in there to plant it, than weed it and finally harvest it. There are things to be done but you probably don’t necessarily need all 10 members to do it.

On the other hand, in a group some members will be able to stimulate the others. There are people that need that extra push that comes from being responsible to the other group members. Not everyone is completely self-motivated.

Should it be a very tight group where all work and profits are shared? Or maybe it should be a looser organization where trainings and honey sales are done as a group, but everyone manages their own hives? Or is it a group just for training purposes and that’s it? This will influence what the beekeepers need to learn. Serious thought needs to be put into this including conversations directly with the recipients of the project/training.

The Trainer

Take great care in choosing the trainer. A trainer doesn’t just need to know the material, but also how to teach it.

There are lots of people who know beekeeping but that doesn’t mean they can train others, especially in a group situation. There are also good trainers but they may not have a wide enough beekeeping experience to really teach what is necessary.

The content participants of a workshop in Hanover, Jamaica, on how to build a simple cement mold to make sheets of wax foundation. This is a way for a beekeeper to be self-sufficient and not have to depend on the bigger beekeepers that have foundation mills. This is also a way to make sure your own wax stays in your beekeeping operation and to not have to buy foundation whose wax comes from unknown sources (and possible impregnated with chemical pesticides or miticides).

The trainer needs to be able to relate to the situation of the trainees (culturally and economically) and give them the alternatives necessary. It makes no sense to talk about and promote queen excluders if they aren’t available or the price is beyond the reach of the beekeepers.

The trainer should have an open mind and be able to embrace all types of beekeeping. Each has their advantages and disadvantages. The trainer should be able to give the trainees options during each facet of the training, in both management of bees and equipment. There is no one right way to keep bees. It’s more about what works for each person according to their personal situation.

The Trainings

There needs to be a balance between giving the theory and putting it into practice. I always see training as a mixture of being in a class room and in the field to accomplish this. Both have their places.

Actual hands-on beekeeping is the best way—and this is obtained in the apiary with the bees themselves. This also could mean getting a hammer in your hand and pounding some nails. If you actually do it, you understand it and remember it. 

A training of new beekeepers from several communities in the Intibuc√° area of Honduras. Their project was financed by a local NGO and I was invited to give them a two-day workshop. It was only an introduction but not enough for them to be called “beekeepers.”

But being suited up and in the sun isn’t always very conducive to learning. If the bees also happen to get ornery it is even harder to concentrate and elaborate on something, especially with new beekeepers. All they or you may be thinking about is getting the hive closed as soon as possible or finding some shade. This is where the classroom with fans or even air conditioning is useful. People can be more comfortable to discuss and toss around ideas. 

But training in a classroom setting also requires the proper technics. You may not be able to have an actual beehive but it can still be hands-on. For example, when I give beekeeping workshops, I will bring an actual hive box but set up with real-sized false combs (photo copies mounted on cardboard) that  cover everything from small new combs to old black combs, from eggs to capped brood, worker cells and drone cells, even queen cells. You can get the participants out of their seats to manipulate things and demonstrate the techniques that were being taught and discussed.

When in a classroom I also like to use Power Point presentations and a projector. Learning is much more effective when you have photos and drawings to illustrate what you are talking about. It is not just hearing it, but also seeing it. But this also means having electricity which is not always possible. If there is time, the same presentations can be set up on large pieces of flip chart paper, even using enlarged photocopies of the pictures one wants to use.

As a trainer, don’t talk down to the people. Don’t demean them. Use what they already may know as a way of easing into the alternatives you want to present. Don’t just talk to them but let them talk to you.

Follow up training/visits

Most of the basics can probably be covered in a workshop anywhere from two to five days. It depends on how intensive you can get with the participants. Just when thinking about the basics you need to cover things like how to set up an apiary, equipment, basic bee biology, getting bees, management techniques (during the buildup, honey flow and dearth), feeding options, honey harvest, honey extraction/processing, and wax rendering. Can they properly absorb and understand everything necessary to begin beekeeping in that amount of time? Maybe, maybe not.

Showing Jamaican beekeepers how simple frames can be used with a top bar hive for easily  transferring comb from a colony cut out.

So follow up is absolutely necessary in my opinion. After the participants start to put into practice the workshop materials and have their own personal experiences with bee hives, lots of questions will probably start to come up. 

One option is to establish a mentor system with an experienced local beekeeper—if there is one who meets the criteria and is willing. If possible, bring the mentors to the training also so everyone is on the same level with what is being taught and goals of the project. No beekeeper knows everything, all need to continually learn. The advantage of the experienced beekeeper is that they can quickly put into context any new technique or information being offered because of their own experiences with bees. 

Another option is for the trainer or other trainers to schedule periodic visits with the beekeeper or the group—ideally maybe every other month at least. One goal would be to elaborate on certain aspects of beekeeping. For example, if harvest season is approaching, the trainer reviews what will need to be done and go more in depth than the initial training.

I would have these follow-up visits for both dealing with the issues that the beekeepers had been seeing or experiencing with their hives and teaching/giving them more knowledge. Beekeeping can be a very in-depth subject. Just think about books like the ABC and XYZ of Beekeeping which runs just about 1000 pages. 

Think also about actual visits to the hives of the participants to do first-hand inspections for giving advice.


You get what you fund. Time needs to be invested in teaching the new beekeepers properly so the project is successful. Money also can’t be misspent, whether it is government funds or private donations to a NGO. There needs to be results and accountability.

Workshops on how to make top bar hives with beekeepers from the St. Mary and St. Catherine Bee Farmers Associations in Jamaica.

For me the project can’t be underfunded. I’ve seen and heard of projects in Honduras where beekeeping groups were set up that later failed because funding for it didn’t go far enough. Lots of money was spent on the equipment and the hives but not enough on the training to manage them. The training wasn’t extensive enough or what the people actually needed. Follow up wasn’t included. Passing on the knowledge is what makes the project successful. Just giving the bees isn’t. 

Take some of that money and invest it to make sure the new beekeepers learn how to make their own equipment and how to catch swarms or remove wild colonies. In most of these types of projects the persons will have more time than money. You don’t really need to start thinking about buying equipment until you get to the point where the time building the boxes is more valuable for actual hive management because you have that many hives now.

The project also has to think about just how self-sufficient they want the beekeepers to be—buying equipment or building their own equipment. Buying equipment means having the financial resources. I often see development agencies providing the initial equipment but not enough thought is put into what happens when the beekeepers want to expand. Will there be enough earnings to actually buy more equipment or will those earning be needed for basics like better food for the table and education for the children? Just because the hives are producing honey doesn’t mean it is easy to just invest much of that back into the project. 

I’m always of the belief that it’s best to teach the beekeepers how to make their own equipment. It’s a teaching tool in itself because they understand why the measurements of a Langstroth box are such as they are so it works properly. And then if they need to cut costs in order to expand, they can.


I recently posted this blog entry on the TECA site of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. TECA is an information platform of technologies and practices for small agricultural producers where there has been a discussion about “how people learn skills to become effective and profitable keepers of bees.” Go to this discussion board:

1 comment:

  1. Hi Tom-
    I'm a RPCV from Senegal and read your post on discussion on training. I'm very interested in the picture from your latest post "The content participants of a workshop in Hanover, Jamaica, on how to build a simple cement mold to make sheets of wax foundation. This is a way for a beekeeper to be self-sufficient and not have to depend on the bigger beekeepers that have foundation mills. This is also a way to make sure your own wax stays in your beekeeping operation and to not have to buy foundation whose wax comes from unknown sources (and possible impregnated with chemical pesticides or miticides)."

    I'm very interested if you have any plans on how to make the cement mold for making wax sheets. I have heard this being done with plaster, but I don't know if it's as easily found as cement in most places in the world. I would love to be able to make regular wax sheets and another mold for drone comb to teach it for IPM for mites that I've used in the states.

    Thank you in advance. I can be contacted at m.wannarka at gmail