Not for one minute do I believe that every new beekeeper needs a mentor. Furthermore, some mentors do more harm than good. The thing is, anyone can call themselves a mentor. In beekeeping, no qualifications are required.
Now, I agree that it’s nice to watch someone open a hive if you’ve never done it. It’s helpful to see someone hold a hive tool and manipulate the frames or point out brood and honey and hive beetles. But is it necessary? No.
Mentoring is communicating
Bad mentors are everywhere in this business. I’ve seen three-month beekeepers “mentoring” beginners, teaching them how to overwinter when they’ve never overwintered themselves. Conversely, I’ve known mentors who’ve been keeping bees since the last ice age but have no ability to teach. It doesn’t matter how much you know if you can’t communicate.
Mentoring is much more than a skilled beekeeper teaching an unskilled one. Since it’s a one-on-one relationship, issues of compatibility can enhance or destroy the learning process. Before I began this website, I was more open-minded about mentoring. It was common and accepted, and I thought it was okay. What changed my mind were things people wrote:
“My mentor put my bottom box on the top, but I don’t know why.”
“Why did my mentor shake my bees onto the ground? He said everyone did it.”
“When my bees died my mentor said it was a bad queen. What was wrong with her?”
“My mentor said not to worry about mites the first year. Now they’re dead.”
What I see in these comments is a mentor who didn’t know, didn’t care, or couldn’t teach. We cannot all be mentors. Take me, for example. I’m far too impatient for mentoring. I like to get in, do the job, and get out. “You missed it? How could you miss it?”
Good mentors are rare
Do good mentors exist? Absolutely. But like good teachers, they are scarce. Even now, I can recall every teacher who made a lasting impression on me: my seventh grade science teacher, my ninth grade English teacher, my tenth grade physics teacher. I remember them because they were remarkable. They inspired, motivated, and encouraged. They made me want to learn, a trait that set them apart from the others.
The beekeeping mentor needs to explain the why of everything. Why did you move that frame? How do you know they will swarm? Why do you think the queen is weak? Conversely, the newbee should ask why. Over and over. Don’t let your mentor off the hook for a second. Make him explain.
Don’t do what doesn’t make sense
I firmly believe that when a new beekeeper doesn’t understand an instruction, he shouldn’t follow it. Why would you do something you don’t understand? This applies to advice from mentors, speakers, YouTube, books, magazines, and websites including this one. Keep asking until you understand and pay attention to your misgivings. You have a built-in b.s. meter for a reason. Trust it.
To me, the idea that everyone needs a mentor is just one more in a long string of beekeeping myths and half-truths. If you can find a good mentor, you are lucky indeed. If you can’t find one that suits you, you can succeed just as well.
Common sense and respect for your bees will solve most beekeeping problems. Reading, thinking, and planning will help with the rest. Above all, never doubt that you can do this—with a mentor or without.
Honey Bee Suite