Taking the Basic

Taking the BBKA Basic Assessment is a right of passage for many beekeepers. Read about my experience of the assessment.

Photos on the day by Ian Campbell.

First published in BBKA News Incorporating The British Bee Journal, November 2021.

The BBKA Basic Assessment is a great foundation for building beekeeping knowledge upon, as Stephen Douglas found out

A BBKA assessor making an assessment

I took up beekeeping in 2017. A friend I have known since school, and I decided to look after hives together. The first thing I did was to join the local association and then fell further down the rabbit hole watching videos, reading blogs, and scrolling through forums. I was rather lucky in my first year, I joined the chair of the Newcastle and District BKA helping to manage the teaching apiary and helped a commercial beekeeper. I made loads of mistakes but, more importantly, I learned from the mistakes and listened to my experienced mentors.

Following in the footsteps of many other beekeepers, one hive became two, then up to four and a few splits and collected swarms later, I am managing twenty colonies across three apiaries. I have teamed up with a local pest controller to carry out ‘cut outs’, rescuing feral bee colonies in the community; the messiest, yet rewarding, day out.

I felt I was getting a good grasp of the management of my hives and fancied myself as a beekeeper. I am now mentoring new beekeepers and running a community beekeeping project but, unlike in my working career, I did not have any certificates or qualifications to back up my experience.

Decision Made!

I always knew the BBKA Basic Assessment was an option and the year I thought I should go for it, the pandemic hit. Once lockdowns were eased, my local association announced that it would be running the BBKA Basic Assessment so I signed up immediately. I emailed the exams secretary and used the link to pay for the assessment on the BBKA website. The association offered an online preparation course, using Zoom, and this was the first step in beginning to understand how much I had learned so far in regard to theory and how far I had strayed from the practical husbandry that I was first shown. I could not attend the practical session which the association ran, although I heard from fellow beekeepers that it was helpful.

a beekeeper showing a frame of bees to a BBKA assessor

The Assessment Day

The day arrived, I had read the syllabus, memorized the ratios of syrup in both metric and imperial and reminded myself to place the queen excluder up against the hive! That morning, the sky was grey, I kept checking my phone to see if my assessment might be postponed but by midday the sun broke through. Arriving at my association apiary with a hive tool in a bucket of soda water, a clean bee suit and a brood frame to assemble, I felt confident. The confidence came from preparation. You have probably heard about the five P’s; proper preparation prevents poor performance. My association prepared me not only through the basic assessment Zoom session or offers of a practical session but through the monthly meetings with varied topics, the open apiary sessions, and a group of members always up for a discussion and skill-sharing.

I knew my assessor from his visits to association meetings. George is clearly well versed in beekeeping and his expertise was made clear when he occasionally corrected the evening’s guest speaker, ensuring what was being shared was in fact correct.

The first task was to light my cleaned smoker, I had had plenty of practice and with it lit, we entered the apiary. The nerves began to hit around this point, but George’s friendly demeanour helped me to calm down. I reminded myself that although this is an assessment, it is also an opportunity to go through a hive with an expert. I enjoy being corrected when needed so I can learn from mistakes. George pointed to the hive I did not want to choose: brood and a half. I do not run a brood and a half and had not used that configuration for some time. Going through the hive as calmly as I could I began announcing what I could see: “Here is some pollen.” “Show me then, don’t just say it,” George asked of me. And then it was the eggs; I announced that I had found eggs and I maintain that I do to this day. George asked me many times if I was sure, I almost became unsure if I had seen an egg or was it the joining of cells on the other side of the brood foundation; no, it was an egg so I held my ground and became more assertive. I wonder if George was ensuring that I did in fact see eggs and not just taking my chances, that he needed a better prescription, or if he was just doing his job as an assessor and ensuring I was confident with my observations. We moved on from the eggs and George asked me to take a sample of bees. A recent visit from the Seasonal Bee Inspector was a good opportunity for me to see this carried out using a match box. I took my sample and closed the box. George asked me how many bees were in there, I told him that I hoped there were thirty bees, trying to show my understanding of the sample. We opened the box slowly to find four bees in the matchbox. More importantly than my failure of taking a suitable sample of bees was that George showed me a better method, the correct method, and then of course we opened the box to find it bursting with bees. I have practised the method since. My nerves really began to take hold when we talked about tests for foulbrood, I tried to describe the symptom we observe when pulling out a pupa: “It looks like when you pull a slice of pizza and the cheese strings out.” George offered that I was trying to describe roping of American foulbrood, with a smile. I laughed it off and continued to demonstrate my husbandry. I fumbled when putting the hive back together, forgetting the brood and a half configuration and becoming puzzled as to why I the queen excluder had multiplied.

After the practical session we moved away from the apiary and I began showing my woodwork skills. I brought a magnet with me in case I dropped all my nails. Thankfully, I did not need the magnet today. I have assembled hundreds of frames, but was it the desired way? The questions started and I tried my very best to demonstrate my knowledge to George. I explained the Pagden split as a method of swarm control; something I had gone over and over to ensure I could communicate it effectively. When talking about foulbroods I was again pleased to hear George explain aspects of the brood disease to me to help my understanding. We laughed at times which helped with waves of nerves, especially with my attempt to pronounce Tropilaelaps mites when discussing notifiable pests and disease. I had practised this, but word finding had become a challenge.

I found the assessment valuable; I was able to demonstrate my knowledge, both my practical beekeeping and the theory behind honey bees. I revised my knowledge and studied parts of the syllabus before the day but better still I was learning during the assessment. I believe that the best way to progress within any craft is to observe and listen to the experts, the masters of the craft of which you are an apprentice. Make the mistakes and try to learn from them.

Relief at last and future plans

Fortunately, this article has a happy ending and a few days after the assessment I received an email telling me I had passed the Basic Assessment. I am proud of this, although I feel it is only the beginning of trying to understand more about my cherished hobby. Now I have access to the Modules, I can study apiculture further while following a syllabus set out by the BBKA. I think I will try Module three which is Honey Bee Pests, Diseases and Poisoning first, which I believe is a popular choice. Who knew when starting beekeeping I would be sitting assessments and exams, although it is a great way to first demonstrate our competence and knowledge and then to start studying the world of these amazing insects.

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