• ABAVisitors

Newbattle Bees

Newbattle Bees Members Neil Rutherford and Malcolm Evans were presented with Affiliated Beekeeper Association award medals at the Scottish Beekeepers Association AGM.  The Wax Chandlers Charitable Trust made a donation to the Newbattle Bees to help them develop their education and training programme and on Past Master Arthur Davey’s outing to Edinburgh we had the opportunity to visit the group. Read on for Liveryman Neil Rutherford’s full report which makes exciting reading.  

The Newbattle Beekeepers Association (NBA), based in the grounds of Newbattle Abbey College in Midlothian, is possibly the youngest affiliated to the SBA.  In November 2012, a small group of Beekeepers, led by Joyce and Peter Jack, formed the Association after they lost the use of a site at Lamancha near Peebles.  The association was offered the use of the existing apiary within the Newbattle Abbey College grounds, a mutually beneficial arrangement as the College ran evening classes on Bee Keeping twice a year.

These were, of course, theory-based but they provided a six-week long introduction to the basics, excellent at providing students with sufficient knowledge to spark further interest in Beekeeping.  This is undeniably where my own initial interest started to grow, resulting in a near obsession.  The night classes provided an ideal recruiting ground for the NBA to sign up new members.  The reason they did so, very effectively, was that they created a different type of learning experience focussing over a full bee season equally on theory learning and gaining practical skills.  Joyce explained that this approach was developed to appeal to all types of learners, those who learned by reading and those who learned by doing. This proved to be a successful and effective formula and is quite different to most Associations beginner courses.

The NBA Beginner Beekeepers Course was the original offering in Education from NBA.  Those signing up for the course are referred to as ‘Foster Parents’ (FP) because for one year they are allocated an NBA colony of bees in our apiary as well as access to facilities and use of all equipment necessary.  A Mentor is allotted to each FP for the year, who helps to teach the handling skills and theory required for them to pass the Basic Beekeeper Certificate (BBC) at the end of the course.

This is quite different to other Associations, some of whom taught by theory and observation and others that might teach in groups over a short part of the season.  The NBA course gives the FP’s the opportunity to fully experience every part of beekeeping: the joys of spring, the build-up and harvesting of the honey and the drudgery of cleaning equipment or counting varroa mite drops.  The course is complimented by a series of group talks and demonstrations, key books are provided, and the success rate is always extremely good.  When I joined this course in the summer of 2014, I had just completed the six-week night class course and couldn’t wait to get started.

The NBA had a membership of just over 20 people, that year a further nineteen FP’s including two juniors joined the association.  As some were from the same family, they were jointly mentored, but at the time there were only eleven mentors so most FP’s shared a mentor with another. I found the NBA course to be exceptionally good and I believe that all FP’s achieved Distinctions in the BBC exam.  If they hadn’t, they would probably have been chased around the college grounds by Joyce!

The NBA Beginner Beekeeper Course was a great starting point for the association and over the next few years it continued to attract a dozen or so new FP’s every year, but the NBA was struggling as numbers of members grew.  Along with the Newbattle Apiary they had the use of a small uninhabitable cottage, which was great for storage and cleaning equipment but was quickly becoming too small to hold meetings, demonstrations or talks in, as none of the three rooms could provide sufficient space.  In winter it was also colder inside than outside.  Newbattle Abbey College were extremely helpful, and we occasionally could use one of their fabulous rooms or the library.  NBA were given permission to use student huts and at one point we were given the former Resident Tutor’s flat to use.  This made a huge difference as it had some larger rooms, a kitchen and bathroom, allowing for all members to attend meetings.  This was, I believe, a turning point for Education at NBA.

The NBA Beginner Beekeeper Course was extremely successful, but there was nothing yet to support it and allow Beekeepers to further their learning in a structured way.  The new facilities allowed for more activity; I was part of a group of about a dozen who decided that we would like to start on the SBA Modular Exams.  I volunteered to lead the study group for our first module (Module 1), not because I thought I knew more than everyone else but because I felt it would suit my own methods of learning.  So, the Module Study Group was added to our offering.  We held a weekly meeting in the run up to an exam diet, using previous past papers to discuss the detail required to answer future questions.  Not all of the group sat the exams, but all seemed to find the sessions enjoyable and thought provoking.

The former Resident Tutor’s flat base also allowed for a more permanent location for our microscopes and some members attended an SBA Introduction to Microscopy course, and started their own preparations towards sitting that exam in the future.

All was progressing well at NBA until the bombshell news was received that the College needed more space and decided to convert the flat we had been using to classrooms.  We needed to vacate the Resident Tutor’s flat.  By this time though the number of members in the NBA were about 50 and a very strong Committee was in place. Newbattle Abbey College offered NBA the lease on an alternative building, one of the ’Kings Line Barracks’ used for army accommodation post the second World War, this was a large wooden shed that was currently full, from floor to ceiling, with junk (and also a rabbit or two).

Plans were quickly put in place with the aim to raise funds and renovate the building. NBA Treasurer, Malcolm Evans, did an outstanding job of organising the necessary fundraising to the extent that our target was exceeded.  A special thanks to the Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers, of which I am fortunate to have been a Liveryman since 2003, for their huge contribution and for taking the time to visit and become involved with the Association.

The NBA Membership were magnificent, pulling all their individual skills and a huge group effort which allowed the project to be completed in less than six months.  When completed, it had one large meeting space containing a kitchen area, alongside a lavatory and a store room in a separate location.  We called it the Bee Academy and it was to be the next big step in advancing education at NBA.

Our super new facilities alongside the feeling of stability now allowed NBA to focus on our strategy.  This began with the Association’s constitution being rewritten and approved by the membership.  Our number one objective was ‘To advance education by providing training in the practice of beekeeping and production and distribution of educational information in the practice of beekeeping’.  For the first time an Education Sub Committee was formed and led by our very own Maurice Gallagher, Professor of Microbial Science and Education at Edinburgh University.

I was delighted to be part of that first committee as we set about adding skills workshops and Beekeeping Taster Days to our offering which became more structured.  We settled on twelve FP’s being the ideal size for our beginner course, as we could provide individual, focused mentoring and regular Mentors meetings were held to ensure we had a consistent approach.  We engaged with Dalkeith High School (DHS) to include one of their Teachers, Mr McGlade (Ross to us) in our Beginner Course as an FP but on a shorter, fast track programme to enable him to pass his BBC in June 2020 and launch their Nat5 Beekeeping certificate from August.

In February 2020 the NBA membership attended a Special Members Meeting to adopt a revised constitution as the NBA moved to Charitable status.  What we didn’t realise is that this was one of the last things to be done as a group in person for some time.  Our plans, like those of most individuals and organisations, were about to be forced to change as a result of the emergence of the Covid 19 virus.  The start of the virus and the restrictions placed on us by Government required the following responses:

  • Suspend the practical beekeeping part of the current beginner course;
  • Introduce a system of “Bee Minding” where experienced beekeepers paired up on a rota following strict protocols to look after all NBA colonies;
  • Closing of the Bee Academy;
  • Move all meetings online to Zoom.

It also led to the resignation of our Education Sub-Group Chair as Maurice Gallagher was required to spend more time adapting to the situation at the University.  I was asked to become the new Chair and I was delighted to try to continue the great work.

We already had our Education Sub-Group of eleven members from across an extremely wide spectrum. Some very experienced beekeepers some beginners including FP’s.  All members were absolutely aligned to our key objective.  We started using zoom meetings to create our new action plan formulated from some agreed priorities.  Our Action Plan was split into four main areas:

  • The FP’s/Mentors and the beginners course;
  • Modules and Certificates;
  • Schools and Further Education.

Each area was allocated a leader to focus on the agreed actions and ensure their timely completion.  Meetings by zoom were held approximately every six weeks and were short and structured.  The focus and effort made by this group was outstanding and allowed us to continue to move forward despite the restrictions.  Some of the actions taken included:

To continue to support the FP’s learning we developed a monthly FP Forum by zoom.  Following the well-known Ian Craigs ‘My Beekeeping Year’ document, each month an experienced beekeeper would lead a session covering those activities using presentations, discussions and break out rooms. Crucially there was ample opportunity for questions.

  • Plan ahead in the expectation that the current FP’s will not be able to complete the examinations in 2020, alongside this the next intake of FP’s had already bared the expense for their intake in August 2020 ;
  • Move the Module Study Group onto Zoom and start a second one aimed at starting with Module 1 again so we have two Module Study Groups at all times;
  • Support Dalkeith HS in the set up of their Apiary and ensure they are still able to start Nat5 on time;
  • Link with other SBA affiliated associations to share their/our zoom presentations.

As the restrictions continued, the action plan provided us with the ability to actively engage with our members and proceed with our education commitment.  We did manage to bring in our next set of FP’s in August 2020 as intended and as a result of magnificent contributions from our membership we eventually got twenty one FP’s from two years of intakes examined in June 2021.  All passed with distinction. 2 FPs deferred their exam until 2022 due to personal circumstances, including the arrival of a new baby.

The NBA Beginner Beekeeper Course remains the centre of our educational offering but we continue to develop our educational options.  In 2021, we recognised that we had produced twenty-one new beekeepers and we now had a membership of over one hundred.  While we were providing ad-hoc opportunities for our Beekeepers to get involved in wax making, queen rearing and other activities we were in danger of these members drifting away because there was nothing regularly on offer for them.  Our solution was to introduce a new activity group.  We call this BIG, the Beekeeping Improvement Group.  It is open to all qualified beekeepers and is a structured programme of activities aimed at going deeper and further with beekeeping skills and knowledge.  BIG is led by one of our experienced beekeepers, Ewan Mealyou, who is assisted brilliantly by other experienced beekeepers.  BIG immediately attracted twenty-seven members who signed up to be involved. It leads beekeepers towards the Intermediate practical exam but only if they wish to do this.

With the retirement of the Newbattle Abbey College Vice Principal in 2017, NBA’s Helen Nelson took over the running of the College six-week night classes running these twice a year in Spring and Autumn.  As a result of increasing demand Helen is now running two sets of these twice a year, doubling the availability.

The initiative with Dalkeith High School and their teacher Mr McGlade continues to excel. In its first year six pupils passed their Nat5.  This year, there are more than thirty pupils currently looking forward to being assessed.  DHS also have an afterschool club for younger pupils with an interest in bees.  One of the original students is now participating in the Beekeeping Apprentice Scheme in Scotland supported by the Wax Chandlers.  We have now agreed to replicate the assistance provided to DHS with arrangements being put in place to start with Musselburgh Grammar School on their similar journey.  This is particularly pleasing as we all know that the younger we can introduce beekeeping to the population the more success we are likely to have.

In support of this and in conjunction with DHS, the NBA have started a Junior Bee Club which runs weekly in the warmer months and biweekly/monthly over the colder times.  We have attracted a steady seven youngsters aged 12/13 who are becoming more engaged with beekeeping.  Following their induction they have now handled bees on a number of occasions, built frames, made wax products, extracted and bottled honey.  They were also very fortunate that Ann Chilcott was visiting the Bee Academy on a day they were meeting.  Armed with two photographs of bees taken outside the BA only an hour or so before Ann shared her vast experience and knowledge with a small but interested group.  By the end of her session, they were following Ann around like puppies, hanging on her every word.  It was a joy to watch.  Of course, the Junior Bee Club also needs a lot of support to run but when I asked our membership for volunteers, I received so many offers I haven’t managed to involve everyone yet.

I believe this is the reason why Education at NBA continues to go from strength to strength.  We may be a young Association, and in a short span of time, through their own commitment to learning and NBA’s support, several NBA members have now achieved multiple SBA Modules certificates, the SBA Intermediate Modules Certificate (passed 5 Modules), the SBA Advanced Modules Certificate (all 8 modules), the SBA Intermediate Practical Certificate and the SBA Beekeeper Trainer Certificate.

Despite our young age, we have a growing number of committed and skilled members who are full of enthusiasm, ever hungry to learn and improve their expertise and enjoying the results of their efforts as they achieve SBA certification and support young and mature beginner beekeepers alike. Just like our blessed little bees.

Neil Rutherford
Chair Education Sub-Group and Liveryman
Newbattle Beekeepers Association