Bee Things Are Changing, Really Changing

By: Jim Tew

… and beekeepers are changing, too.

This is a terrible time to write an article

I am still in shock, but it is now that time when an article is due, so against my better judgment, I will “write while rattled.” (If things don’t pan out, you will never see this piece.)  The reason follows.

We expected around 600 participants

At the twentieth annual Alabama Cooperative Extension System Beekeeping Symposium that was conducted on February 7, 2015, we expected about 600 participants.   That underestimated 600 number alone is amazing. For those of you new to beekeeping, just a few decades ago, 75-80 participants at a bee meeting was an astounding crowd.  Now, having 1000 participants show up is not particularly surprising.

As near as our Alabama meeting organizers can estimate (based on pre-registration and walk-in registration numbers, a completely full parking lot, and no handout packets remaining) there were ≈750 participants from Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and one from Kansas.  It was a terrifyingly pleasant surprise. Every part of the meeting organizational infrastructure bulged, strained, and creaked, but we hung on – though not without some glitches. (If you were at this meeting, please know that these shortages will be addressed next year.)

This meeting-size-discussion is not a boast about attendee numbers, but rather a realization that many beekeeping organizations are crossing the Rubicon of meeting size and organizational structure.  Procedures that one time worked to design a meeting structure have increasingly becoming passé and outdated.  Organizers have no choice but to change. Large meetings simply cannot be run the way earlier smaller meetings were run.

Meeting expectations have changed

I don’t mean for this to be an article on how to run a bee meeting, but rather a piece on, “What in the world is going on with these huge crowds, and how much larger will they grow?” How should meetings adapt to meet greatly enlarged expectations, and still stay affordable?  

Just a few years ago, the procedure was for a few dedicated people to bake a few plates of cookies – ideally with some honey in them, but even that was not required. In reality, any cookie type would do.  To wash the free cookies down, a few gallons of watery red punch would be offered. Get a speaker, be sure you have an extension cord and a slide projector, and all is good to go. It’s a
bee meeting.

Don’t count on that procedure for most state groups today.  For instance, at somewhere around 400-500 participants, this food thing will usually require a professional caterer.   So here is one of the many changes that are coming to the front – how does a member of the beekeeping group become familiar with the catering business and then bear the responsibility for selecting one? That specialized member resource will vary wildly from group to group. Some hit the mark while others don’t….and then, there’s the increased cost for the catering service.

I didn’t come to this bee meeting to be taught computer stuff!

Presently, beekeepers are in two worlds – those who use electronics and those who don’t.  Those who don’t use electronics all that much did not come to bee meetings to be taught to use a QR code or to be given a URL instead of paper handouts.  They will readily tell the organizers this fact.  They came to talk about bees and learn about bees.  

Those who do use electronics – such as email – seem to change their email addresses about once per year, but they are literally blotters for electronic information.   They soak up everything digitally virtual. A dedicated club member must devote significant time to maintaining mail lists of both types –surface and electronic.  The electronic address list is constantly, constantly changing. Make no mistake, this is a tedious task that someone must do if the beekeeping organization is to promote itself.

But really, it’s always been this way, just not with so many people. During decades past, we sent postcards/letters or we made individual phone calls using phone-call-trees. (During those years, people actually answered their phones when someone called them.)  

In the future, there will be those who will criticize me “because he still only uses email” instead of whatever new communication system is out there. It would, therefore, be wrong to label beekeepers who do not use the latest communication procedure as being out-of-date. Members who have not yet changed will always be among us because communication techniques and procedures will always be changing.

Sorry.  Our meeting room does not  have Wi-Fi connectivity.

Very politely, let me say that you are probably meeting in the wrong place.  No doubt just a few years ago, a Wi-Fi-less room was not a problem, but increasingly, it will be now. It greatly limits what can be done at the meeting. Young beekeepers or technology-literate people will note this shortage. 

Surprisingly, the room may be highly equipped for Wi-Fi, but no one knows the log-on information. Now, that’s truly frustrating. You can see all of the equipment that is required around the room, but you can’t start it up. Honestly, many times, the owners of the Wi-Fi equipment do not want extraneous users to use their equipment. Strange things can happen when strange people begin to tinker with this specialized equipment. If there is an acceptable phone signal at the meeting site, a mobile phone can be used as a “hot spot” for accessing the Internet, but someone must bear the expense of this specialized service.    

Then be totally prepared for the Wi-Fi system to fail

So, all systems are a “go” and the electronically subsidized meeting gets under way and for whatever reason – the Internet or some aspect of the system is down and does not work.   It happens all the time, but I love to think that the system will continue to get better as time passes. Until then, have an electronic media deck (i.e. PowerPoint) ready or have a DVD of the presentation in reserve.  

Indeed, if possible (and it usually is not), the live, offsite speaker, who was going to be live-streamed to the meeting, will have burned his/her presentation to a DVD beforehand and submitted it to the meeting organizers. If the streaming process does not work, run the emergency DVD and have the remote speaker on the phone for discussion after the recorded show. This emergency procedure greatly reduces organizational embarrassment.  

One of the strange tasks the list manager performs is removing deceased member names from the membership list.  To me, it is a meaningful series of keystrokes to remove one from the list — forever.  When I was responsible for list maintenance, I would always think about the finality of the situation before I struck “delete”.

If I keep going this way, this will really become a tedious piece for you to read. As I move away from the modern meeting topic, I need to say that I have not covered audio systems and their challenges. Nor have I mentioned multiple, marginally interchangeable computers – each with its own quirky operating systems and varying levels of software updates. Some thumb drives work and some don’t. Are all the facilities handicapped accessible? Is there a plan for assistance when someone falls on the stairs? Whose insurance is responsible? How about all the bee club volunteers? The ones who move chairs and put out supply catalogs.  The ones you could not get along without their help. How are they acknowledged? But this is enough on this subject for now. 

Then there are the program topics . . .

Experienced beekeepers all know the routine topic selections:  good queens, mite control, hive design, pollination needs, and honey production are some of the general topics that have been discussed thousands and thousands of times at meetings everywhere. To flavor these traditional topics, secondary topics such as bee trip travelogues, honey marketing techniques, and possibly a discussion on what plants should be selected to provide nectar and pollen for bees, are frequent meeting topics.  Honestly, bee-meeting programs are predictable events presenting predictable topics. A good reason for this frequent repeat of a common topic is that there are so many new people.  But at this point, I would like to focus on the nectar and pollen source topic that I mentioned. 

Respect the nectar and pollen source topic 

Flowering plants at an arboretum. It was too cool for bees.

In my opinion, selecting nectar and pollen plants for bees has always been an informative “filler topic.” Generally, this type of talk provides useful information that most people don’t get around to implementing.  It’s much like the topics of making comb honey or producing your own queens. Most beekeepers will never do those two either, but they still want to hear about them. But, I now contend that the nectar and pollen topic should be bumped up to varsity topic status.  Its time has come.

As beekeeping changes, more and more beekeepers live in towns or cities. The answer would seem to be brain dead – put in flower gardens having plants that your bees will work. In fact, I did that very thing. I bought native flowering plant seeds, tilled up a bit of my back yard and planted these seeds. For the next few weeks, I had open soil as the seeds germinated – not ugly but not attractive either. (The birds enjoyed it.) Then I had growing green plants that progressed nicely. Then I had weeks of beautiful flowers. 

Then the decline started.  Japanese beetles became more common than bees. The garden became increasingly scruffy and finally became outright unkempt.  My neighbors with their perfect lawns and mulched landscape plants noticed my situation. Bottom line here – I simply don’t know what I am doing with this flower garden thing and beehive requirements take most of my time. Remember the hypothetical guy that I referred to above – I didn’t come to this bee meeting to be taught computer stuff!  I’m more than a lot like him – only I didn’t come to this meeting to be taught all this garden stuff.  

Gardeners, I need help here – actually, I need a lot of help. I know there must be some form of “sequential” flower gardening that lets me have various plots of various plant species and ages so that something is always in bloom or will soon be blooming. Additionally, how can I efficiently manage the declining plots without sacrificing my bee time?  

I have a typical life including family, grandkids, and friends. I have a bee program to run, and I need to continually learn computer software.  I harvest and split firewood. I have a small vegetable garden that the deer and rabbits LOVE. I have a house and yard to maintain, and I do all this as a soon-to-be 67-year-old man. So, yeah, I want to do something with flower planting, but I will never be able to devote the time and energy required to be truly good at it. (The Master Gardeners of the world are cringing right now.) 

Time and again, I have found British beekeepers to be models for many U.S. beekeepers. It is not uncommon to see photos of classy British apiaries with stone walk paths, beautiful flowering plants, and tastefully painted beehives. In fact, Bee Culture’s Catch the Buzz cited recent research work showing that urban gardens were significant food resources for pollinating insects.  This flower gardening thing is clearly a meaningful topic, but if I am not careful, I will be gently coerced into becoming a flower gardener at the expense of my bee colonies (that are already ignored too much). I would love to see your photos and get your gardening suggestions.  

Here’s the oddity . . .

The bees are the same now and forever.  Other than evolutionary adaptation, they are solidly the same.  Rather, it’s the beekeepers and our supportive industry that are radically changing at this time.  How we conduct our meetings, how we distribute information, where people are increasingly keeping bees, the number of new companies that are committing to beekeeping, the way we acquire our bees, and the greatly increased awareness of the importance of bees are some of the factors that are stunningly different compared to just a few decades ago. You must be an old beekeeper to see these changes.  For those of us who can see them, the changes are stunning and invigorating. 

Dr. James E. Tew, State Specialist, Beekeeping, The Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Auburn University;;; One Tew Bee RSS Feed (;; @onetewbee

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