BBKA History - Making of experts is an article in three parts by BBKA Past President David Charles. This covers the history of the examination and assessments of the BBKA.

Article 1: The BBKA and the Making of Experts


By David Charles, BBKA Past President


The British Beekeepers’ Association was instituted in 1874. At this time beekeeping was generally part of the rural domestic economy for cottagers as was poultry, pigs and growing vegetables, rather than being the hobby that it is for most today.


Bees were generally kept in straw skeps or in boxes. Sons learnt from their fathers and were content to continue keeping bees in much the same way as had their forebears. Swarming was uncontrolled. Most still harvested honey by killing colonies over a pit of burning sulphur, which was not only cruel, but wasteful and inefficient. There was no public instruction, little knowledge of bee diseases and a general disregard of the value of bees as pollinators. Despite Langstroth’s discovery of the significance of bee space twenty years earlier only a few enlightened persons, mainly among the gentry and clergy, were using movable frame hives.

A corner in the bee garden of a typical cottager's apiary of this time. Photograph courtesy of Tickner-Edwarsds, "The Bee-Master of Warrilow". All other photos are courtesy of the British Bee Journal.

The British Beekeepers’ Association was born

The object of the newly formed association was to be: ‘the encouragement, improvement and advancement of bee-culture in the United Kingdom, particularly as a means of bettering the condition of cottagers and the agricultural labouring classes as well as the advocacy of humanity to that industrious labourer, the honey bee’. In short, the task was to effect a general change from the use of the straw skep to the management of the wooden movable frame hive.

Above: It was a common practice to drive bees from a skep. This is being demonstrated here by a young William Herrod.

Thus, the practice of driving a colony of bees from its established home in a skep or box into an empty one and subsequent re-establishment in a wooden hive of combs in movable frames became an essential operation in bringing about this transition. The committee decided upon the purchase of a screen for safe manipulation of bees at local shows and for the employment of a man to work on behalf of the association for the purpose of giving practical demonstrations in bee management of which driving was to be a central part. This was the origin of ‘experts’ who later, subjected to examination, became a valuable asset in promulgating knowledge of beekeeping throughout the land. The first expert to be appointed was Mr SJ Baldwin.

Bees were demonstrated at RHS shows

A specially designed tent for the purpose of manipulating bees at shows was designed and purchased. This tent had an enclosure of twenty feet in diameter and was later modified. It was first used at the BBKA show of 1878 held in the Royal Horticultural Society’s gardens adjacent to the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington, London. A bee-driving competition was held, the winner being determined by speed, agility, and the ability to observe or capture the queen during her ascent and to secure the combs into frames. It was won by CN Abbott, founder of the British Bee Journal, in the space of 14 minutes and 35 seconds.

Bee-driving demonstration at the 1878 show at Kensington, London.

A ‘make or break’ moment

By 1878 a total of five associations were affiliated to the BBKA. However, the association had been weakened by internal strife and its numbers were few. A meeting was called at which the association may well have been wound up, but was, by a stroke of good fortune, attended by the Rev’d HR Peel. Peel offered to undertake the secretaryship.


The newly appointed secretary, a nephew of the great statesman, Sir Robert Peel, breathed fresh life into the association. He promoted vigorously the formation of affiliated associations throughout the country. As a result of this Baldwin was soon traversing the length and breadth of the land, complete with the bee tent, demonstrating at agricultural shows using locally supplied stocks of bees. The demand for the services of an expert became so great that two more experts, Mr TB Blow and Mr R Green, with two additional tents, were placed at the service of affiliated associations.


It was recommended that each affiliated association appoint its own expert and that one privilege of membership would be an entitlement to the services of a visiting expert once or twice a year.

'Buttery's apiary' of wooden hives with bees on movable frames.

A growing BBKA

By 1882 the committee was able to report with satisfaction the great progress that had attended their efforts in the extension of the association’s work, more especially in the formation of affiliated associations, by now numbering no less than thirty. The committee felt that a form of quality control was necessary to ensure that the experts appointed were up to the mark and suitable persons for fulfilling this role. It was decided that to ensure this a system of examination be established and that the successful candidates would be officially known as ‘Experts of the British Bee-keepers’ Association’ and be awarded a certificate acknowledging this. The certificates for successful candidates would be at three levels: first class, second class and third class.


The examinations were advertised in the British Bee Journal early in 1882. It was quite daunting for many competent beekeepers of the time, not only to submit the application, but to travel to London in order to be undergo examination. The examination entrance guidance stated:


‘Candidates desirous of obtaining certificates shall enter their names with the Assistant Secretary and pay five shillings [25 pence in today’s currency] entrance fee. At the same time they shall supply a statement of their age and previous experience in bee-keeping, together with satisfactory testimonial of character, especially on the following points – viz, honesty, sobriety, good temper, orderly conduct, cleanliness, industry and attention to details of duty.’

Parchment certificate of the type issued between 1882 and 1913

The first examinations were held at the Gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society, South Kensington on 7 and 8 August 1882 during the show. The three examiners appointed were Thomas William Cowan, Esq., The Hon. and Rev’d Henry Bligh, and the Rev’d George Raynor. There were twenty candidates, several of whom were schoolmasters and members of the clergy. All twenty candidates were successful, eight being awarded first-class certificates, nine second-class and three the third-class. The list was published in the British Bee Journal.

TW Cowan, Esq.

Rev. George Raynor

Hon and Rev'd H Bligh

Whether so many bees on the loose in the gardens at Kensington proved undesirable is not known, but for the following year, 1883, a new venue was negotiated. This was a piece of waste land adjacent to the second Duke of Wellington’s riding school at Knightsbridge. The number of candidates this time was fewer, being just ten, but only seven presented themselves for examination. This reduced number may have been accounted for by the subjects being more extensive and difficult. “It was gratifying”, it was remarked “to find among the candidates one clergyman and several schoolmasters”. The most prominent one was the Rev’d William Burkitt, Hon. Secretary of the Wiltshire Bee-keepers’ Association; he gained a first-class certificate.

Holders of a first-class certificate were expected to travel beyond their own county in promoting the craft. Burkitt visited Somerset for a short tour on two occasions in 1883 and again in 1884. In an article by John Morland in the Street Village Album, Volume 35, no. 4 of 1883 entitled ‘Four Pages on Bees’, he refers to a lecture given in Street by Burkitt. ‘Burkitt’, he states ‘having the charge of a Wiltshire Parish of 180 souls naturally finds he has time to spare, and this year is touring in Somerset to press forward a Bee-Keepers’ Association.’


A board of examiners is established

The first two years were very much a learning experience for those involved in the arrangements. On 5 March 1884 an examinations sub-committee was appointed and a scheme for conducting the examinations was drawn up. It was presented to and adopted by the BBKA Council on 14 May 1884. By June, the sub-committee was being referred to as the Board of Examiners. As the number of affiliated associations grew it soon became apparent that it was essential for both written and practical examinations to be held in various parts of the country. The practical examinations could be held at suitable agricultural shows, where there were competitive classes for honey, bees, hives and appliances. The usual pattern would be that the examiner or examiners would be the judges of the show. After the judging was completed there was doubtless a good lunch to be had and the examinations would take place in the afternoon and through into the evening if necessary.


The new scheme of requirements for the three levels of certificates approved on 14 May was clearly set out in the British Bee Journal dated 1 June, 1884. It stated, as follows:


First, Second and Third-class Expert Certificates will be granted by the British Bee-keepers’ Association to those only who are successful in passing examinations under the following scheme:


For Third-class Certificates.

An oral and practical examination (that is to say, an examination in which candidates will be examined by word of mouth, and will also be required to show their skill in driving, manipulating, etc.) will be held at the request of any secretary of a County Affiliated Association at a suitable centre named by him and approved by the Board of Examiners of the B.B.K.A. The Examiner or Examiners will be appointed by the board. The candidates will not be required to give a lecture, or to answer questions in writing. One month’s notice at least of the proposed examination should be given to the Secretary of the B.B.K.A. The railway and personal expenses of the Examiners, as well as all local expenses connected with the examination, must be paid by the County Association.


Annual County Shows are suggested as the most suitable opportunities for holding these examinations, when the judge or judges acting at shows may be appointed by the B.B.K.A. to act as Examiners.


For Second-class Certificates.

An examination open to all holders of third-class certificates will be held annually on a day to be fixed by the Examining Board, and announced in the BBJ, at various centres throughout the country. A centre shall be any place approved by the Secretary of a County Association affiliated to the B.B.K.A., where a superintendent, a gentleman of integrity, will, on the recommendation of the said Secretary be approved by the Board of Examiners. Such centre may be appointed where only one candidate presents himself for an examination. This examination will be entirely by paper, which will be sent down by the Examining Board, and must be considered, together with the answers, as strictly private and confidential, and must be returned to them immediately after the close of the examination.


For First-class Certificates.

An examination, open to all holders of second-class certificates, will be held annually in London, or elsewhere. Candidates will be required to give a lecture, either in public or before the Examiners only, on any subject connected with the theory or practice of bee-keeping that the Examiners may select. They will also be required to pass an oral, and, if the Examiners think fit, a written examination on the natural history of bees and the science of bee-keeping.


The conduct of the examinations for a third-class certificate did not pass without inevitable criticism. Writing in the BBJ under the name of PERSEVERE, he replied to a letter from a Mr Webster, published in the previous issue, writing: ‘Notwithstanding the instructions, permit me to say, though the point is of little consequence, the oral examination began before 11 o’clock, whilst the practical tests did not commence till a few minutes to 3 pm. One of the candidates drove his bees in the open, the light in the tent being too bad; another, objecting to such publicity, drove subsequently in the tent with such light as there was. Mr Webster’s admission that he had to be orally examined after the late hour at which the practical tests concluded, places contention in a clearer light, viz, that one examiner for six candidates is insufficient to avoid needless inconvenience. With regards to the admission of the public within the net, I heard a stranger inside call out to one of the candidates who was driving, “There she goes!” pointing at the queen: thereupon he was asked to withdraw.’


The British Bee Journal of 18 February 1886 has an interesting editorial entitled ‘Examining Examiners’ which addresses the approach to examining. In one instance a ridiculous question was asked of a candidate, who replied that he did not know, and that, moreover, he did not much care. The co-examiner thought this a most sensible answer and gave him full marks. Many flaws came to light during the seven years following establishment of this examination system, which have since been rectified. The written examinations, particularly were tightly controlled and procedures were followed to the letter. A sound system for examination, invigilation and assessment of the results was set up that would continue to be reviewed, modified and improved in future years.


Article 2: BBKA Experts: Dealing with Disease

The Technical Education Act of 1889 enabled the BBKA and county associations to gain recognition and obtain grants from the newly formed education authorities for its educational work. This included the funding of visiting experts. A survey conducted in 1894 by the BBKA revealed that 34 out of 51 English, 2 out of 12 Welsh and 4 out of 33 Scottish counties were making grants to beekeeping associations.


The reader may presume that those days of beekeeping were free from disease, but this was not so. The following are extracts from the minutes and reports of the Bristol, Somersetshire and South Gloucestershire Association:


2 March 1893: ‘it was proposed that naphthaline should be supplied to each expert free of cost for the purpose of suppressing foul brood.’ ‘The Association deplores the fact that in spite of preventative measures such as the free use of naphthaline, etc., foul brood is devastating many of our members’ apiaries’. One member wrote: ‘unless we get legislation shortly it will stop beekeeping in this parish as every hive is more or less affected.’ Can we get legislative aid for the purpose of dealing with foul brood? (report, 1896). Expenditure on naphthaline and carbolic was 11/6d (57½p) for the year.


Fortunately, the BBKA was ahead of the game. In 1891 the syllabus for expert (third class) was amended to include a section on foul brood diseases, together with a minimum number of marks to be obtained in that section for a pass. In addition, previous successful candidates were required to be examined in the new part of the syllabus in order to retain their Expert certificates. It is doubtful that this was fully implemented. In visiting up to a dozen beekeepers’ apiaries in one day they themselves may have been vectors in the spread of disease.  


Many beekeepers who had gained the first or second class certificates were able to accept seasonal employment working as visiting experts. From Bridgwater in Somerset, William Withycombe was obliged to travel by train to the Royal Show at Reading to take his third class expert examination. His surname, commencing with W, meant that because candidates were examined in alphabetical order, he was the last. He was successful, but missed the last train home. The indomitable spirit of this young man was such that he set off lightheartedly on foot arriving back in Bridgwater two days later. He was successful in the second class examination later the same season, but said that he was not prepared to attempt the first class expert examination, as he was not sufficiently confident to stand before an audience to deliver a lecture. Early in the next year the examiner came to see him at Bridgwater and asked him if he would go as expert for Kent and persuaded his father to let him go. While in Kent he was appointed as instructor at Swanley College and at Wye College, taking the place of the renowned Frank R Cheshire who had recently died. After his period in Kent, Withycombe served as visiting expert in Sussex, Essex, south Lancashire, Cheshire, Gloucestershire and finally back in his native county of Somerset. He became a Vice-President of the BBKA and his portrait, painted in oils in the late 1940s, hangs at the BBKA Headquarters at Stoneleigh.


In the same year, another expert, young William Herrod was allocated to Lancashire for a seasonal appointment of eight weeks duration. His salary was £3 per week together with certain emoluments for enrolling new members and collecting subscriptions. His diary for 1896 gives details of his working days. For example, he wrote: April 10th, Started at 7 am and finished at 9.30 pm. Cycled 40 miles and visited ten bee-keepers. Examined 29 colonies in movable comb hives and one skep. Found foul brood present in four apiaries. Got two new members. Tea, bed and breakfast, 2s. 6d.


William Herrod was beginning to make a name for himself in the world of beekeeping and came to the notice of William Broughton-Carr, deputy editor of the BBJ. In 1903, an exception was made for him in that he was allowed to sit the first class certificate examination in his home village instead of travelling to London. The questions were set and the papers marked by TW Cowan. With this exception no alterations were made regarding examination centres for the first class certificate until 1908. At this time Council resolved: ‘that future examinations for the first-class certificates be conducted in two distinct sections upon different dates, viz the first section to consist of the paper-work, in various centres to suit the convenience of intending candidates, as in the second-class examination, and secondly and finally, the lecturing test before the Council by those candidates only who succeed in passing the first section.’


William Herrod, garden boy made good, was by now an acknowledged expert and very well known. In 1909 he became secretary of the BBKA, a post he held until it passed to his brother, Joseph, in 1930. In 1915 the brothers adopted by deed poll the name of Herrod-Hempsall. William Herrod-Hempsall (W H-H) travelled the country promoting the craft and was frequently an examiner.  


Exam structure revisions

In 1913 there were major revisions to the examinations structure. The third class expert examination became known as the Preliminary (Junior Craftsman). The second class expert examination was designated as the Intermediate (Craftsman) and the certificate was awarded for Proficiency in Modern Bee-keeping. The final examination, carried a certificate of Proficiency as Expert in Modern Bee-keeping. A new examination was made available: the much-coveted Honours Certificate in Lecturing. William Herrod-Hempsall was the first holder and remained the only holder for a period of six years. Only those passing this additional examination could now describe themselves as Expert.



Since their inception until 1913, only one form of certificate was issued to successful candidates. It was plainly printed on parchment. With the recent changes in examination structure new certificates were required. Two of these were designed by a member of the BBKA Council, Mr FW Harper, who, in the words of W H-H, showed artistic genius; one is shown below.



For the Honours certificate design the BBKA held a competition, offering a prize of £5. The winning entry was by Mr E Welch. His design was adopted and, with slight modifications to make it compatible with today’s paper sizes and dimensions, it is in use today, 100 years after its introduction.

The photo below, left illustrates Harper’s design of certificate, this one being awarded to HR Cousins, in 1915. Welch’s winning design of certificate (below, right) awarded to FR Cyphus, was originally intended only for holders of the Honours certificate in Lecturing, but later it was awarded to successful candidates in all of the examinations and for recognition of honorary membership. The latter is supplied for publication by courtesy of Neil Painter, a grandson of FR Cyphus.

Not much documentation has surfaced regarding the conduct of examinations in the inter-war years. It is fortunate, however, that W Herrod-Hempsall was not only a prolific writer, but also a photographer, and what is more, he liked to appear in photographs. In his two-volume ‘Magnum opus’ volume II of Bee-keeping, New and Old: Described with Pen and Camera, there is reliable information along with some photographs. The photographs do not reproduce very well, but I was fortunate recently to have had access to archives of the North Devon Beekeepers’ who have an album with not only original prints but more precise captions. For instance, in the picture below we see Sir Arthur Watson, one-time president of the North Devon branch being examined by William Herrod-Hempsall for his Junior Craftsman certificate. “It shows” says William Herrod-Hempsall, “that our certificates are prized equally by titled people as by the ordinary bee-keeper”.


The structure and administration of the examinations remained largely unaltered for a very long period of time. A document published in 1933 which I have to hand shows only amendments to certain procedures, fees, etc. A few interesting observations are worth relating:

n          The candidate no longer had to supply a satisfactory testimonial of character.

n          The examinations were still usually held at shows and candidates may be asked to provide their own bees but for those living at a distance bees could usually be provided.

n          For candidates taking written examinations, held in March and November, the question papers, in a sealed envelope, and the instructions, are sent to the supervisor so as to arrive on the morning of the examination. This speaks volumes for the reliability of the postal service at this time.    

n          Fees: Preliminary (Junior Craftsman), 5 shillings; Intermediate examination (Craftsman), 21 shillings (a guinea); Final examination (Expert), 42 shillings (2 guineas); Examination for Honours Certificate in lecturing, £3, 3 shillings (3 guineas). Non-members will be charged double the above fees.

n          From 1933 candidates taking the Intermediate and Expert examinations and pass in only one paper, but obtain a total of 100 marks for both papers shall be exempt from taking that paper if they sit for the next examination.  80 marks is the minimum to obtain a pass.

n          Candidates in the practical examinations are no longer required to drive bees.


School beekeeping and the junior certificate

The inter-war years saw a growth of interest in beekeeping in elementary schools in particular; this was largely, but not entirely, in boys. This accelerated during WW2 in tandem with the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. It was not unnatural that participants wished to put their knowledge to the test. Certificates have always been a goal with schoolchildren and the BBKA came up with an examination to test the knowledge of children. Successful candidates were awarded the BBKA Junior certificate. The Somerset record book shows that many schools participated and a great number of pupils sat the written test. Nearly all were successful. In my early days of beekeeping I met a great number of older beekeepers whose interest in the craft was ignited by joining a school bee club and then becoming beekeepers themselves.  Some pupils had the confidence to take the preliminary examination as well. At Bedminster Down School, Bristol, in 1960, R Sayer of class 4F wrote in the school magazine as follows:  

‘This has been a good year for beekeeping and we extracted about one hundred pounds of honey from our hives. We also divided one colony to form two nuclei so increasing our colonies to four. This year the following boys gained the Junior Certificate of the British Beekeepers’ Association: P Jackson, R Sayer, W Willcox and A Williams. This year, for the first time, we staged a beekeeping display at the Bristol Horticultural Show which attracted a good deal of attention and one of our members came away hoarse from answering questions which came at him thick and fast for three hours ...’


BBKA show judges’ exam

There is no mention of an examination for becoming a show judge in my syllabuses of examinations for 1933, but I am fairly certain that one was introduced at about or soon after this date. I found a reference saying that in 1931 Somerset Beekeepers’ Association wrote to the BBKA suggesting an examination certificate for judging and this would be taken up. The requirements for becoming a show judge appear to have been similar for a great many years, but in the 1990s it was split into two levels: those who had passed the Associate Judges’ certificate and those who had passed the Judges’ certificate. The former was intended for beekeepers wishing to judge at small and regional shows. The latter aims to identify and reward beekeepers who have comprehensive knowledge of all aspects of showing honey and honey products. It was designed for those who wish to judge at large, national and international honey shows. In 1997 these were renamed Intermediate Honey Judges Examination and the Senior Honey Judges Examination.

BBKA Honey judges are required to be competent not only in judging honey but also beeswax, candles, mead, honey cookery and anything related to beekeeping and honey that might be a class in a honey show.