Making Experts: A Post-War Decline

From the mid-1950s, the wartime boom in beekeeping went into decline. The number of candidates attempting the Intermediate and Senior examinations was few and the pass rates were low. The system of visiting experts was phased out and county council beekeeping services declined. Full-time posts were replaced by part-time posts and eventually these disappeared. Local associations picked up responsibility for running courses of instruction and, to some extent, the preparation for written examinations, but this was variable from one county to another. More experts were needed who could construct courses and teach.


Greater support for candidates

In 1972 the Examinations Board issued a list of recommended reading for prospective candidates; it is hard to imagine there not being one previously. In 1975 the name was changed to the Examination and Education Board and this endured until 1988, but there was no noticeable improvement in the pass rate during this time. Each year the Board’s report commenced with: ‘The Examinations Board has had another successful year.’ “This” remarked a delegate, “was more than could be said for most of the candidates.” Alan Barber, from Staffordshire, was secretary to the Examination Board for many years. He was in full-time employment and although assisted by his wife, Jessie, things moved only slowly despite the Board’s acclaimed success.

Alan Barber at a BBKA Event in the 1970s. Jessie answers a question from the late Claire Wilkinson who later became well know in the craft.

The Wax Chandlers’ Prize

A great incentive for candidates attempting the Senior examination was an opportunity to be awarded a prize introduced in the late 1960s by the Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers through the good offices of Mr Archie Horton of Ilford, a liveryman of the Company. It was originally awarded, on the recommendation of the Executive of the BBKA, to the candidate gaining the highest marks in the Senior examination, part 2, providing the standard was high enough and that part 1 (practical) had been passed by July in that year.

Megan Seymour with the Master of the Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers at Wax Chandler's Hall in London, where she received her prize in January 2008.

The Robert Hammond Award

Through the initiative of Jean Purcell, a former BBKA Executive member and great disciple of Bob Hammond (big Bob), a former County Bee Adviser, the Bedfordshire BKA raised a fund shortly after Bob’s death to establish this award in his memory. The prize would be awarded by the BBKA Executive on the results of the Intermediate examination held in any one year, either in November or March. The first recipient was the well-known Margaret Thomas, NDB, then living in Essex.


Advanced examinations

It was felt that there were excellent beekeepers who either failed or would not attempt the examination papers A and B, which took a total of five hours of examination time. This was not in accord with modern methods of examination. Quite a number of people passed the Intermediate examination, but those holding the Senior certificates were rare birds. Despite criticism, the mode of examination that had stood the test of time did not prevent a really successful result in 1995 when there was an 87% pass rate overall. Eight successful candidates passed both papers A and B, and a few of these went on to pass the National Diploma in Beekeeping.


By this time the varroa mite, discovered in England in 1992, was beginning to have a serious effect. Many people ceased keeping bees as colonies died in their thousands and membership through area associations went into decline. In 1980 there were nearly 19,000 members; at the time varroa was discovered in 1992 it had fallen to 13,000. By the turn of the century as the mite took its toll it fell to a mere 9,000.


A new look at the approach to examining

In the 1990s the Examinations Board spent considerable time in producing a scheme in the form of eight modules (later reduced to seven), which could be taken over a period of time. In July 1995 the Board announced that the modular examination system was proceeding and that there would be eight modules as follows:

  1. Bee Management.
  2. Honey bee Products and Forage.
  3. Diseases, Pests and Poisoning.
  4. Intermediate Honey bee Biology.
  5. Honey bee Biology.
  6. Honey bee Behaviour.
  7. Selection and Bee Breeding.
  8. Honey bee Management and History.


A certificate would be issued for each module passed and the pass mark would be 60% for all modules; that for a Credit mark would be 70% and for Distinction, 80%. The Intermediate Theory Certificate would be awarded when Modules 1, 2, 3 and one other were passed and the Advanced Theory Certificate would be awarded when all modules were passed.


The modular system was phased in over two years. The first modules were taken in March and November 1996. During the transition, beekeepers with part of the previous Intermediate or Senior Examinations could apply for exemption from some modules.


Members influence a great change

At the Annual Delegate Meeting (ADM) in 1999 a proposition was put forward from the Avon BKA that the ‘... BBKA Executive appoints a working party comprising a member of the Examinations Board and such other as the Executive may choose, to develop a new ‘Standard’ examination aimed at the practical beekeeper to encourage better bee husbandry and to complement the existing examination structure’. It was proposed by Dr Ivor Davis of Avon BKA and seconded by Mr Malcolm Blake of Somerset BKA. A strong case was put forward, but the proposition was defeated with 21 associations for and 27 against. A membership vote was called for. The result was overturned with 4,672 members for and 4,294 against. This is a classic example of the power of the membership vote. The working party was then duly established. What emerged was not the ‘Standard’ examination sought, but a Bee Husbandry examination at two levels.


To attain a General Husbandry certificate the candidate would be required to have passed the Basic assessment and have been beekeeping for three years, but this recently increased to five years. During the assessment the candidate would be required to undertake:

  1. An inspection of his or her apiary equipment and honey handling equipment.
  2. The manipulation of one or more colonies of bees.
  3. To demonstrate a method of selective queen rearing.


With the Advanced Husbandry certificate a candidate would be expected to pass on his or her knowledge to others by giving lectures and demonstrations. It would only be open to those who have passed the General Certificate in Beekeeping Husbandry. The candidate would be expected to perform the following tasks:

  1. Manipulation of one or more colonies as required by the assessor.
  2. Make a short presentation on a practical topic to a small audience.
  3. Perform a demonstration of dissection for acarine and nosema analysis.
  4. Demonstrate grafting and discuss other queen rearing methods.
  5. Give a discussion on other aspects of beekeeping as given in the syllabus.


A successful candidate in all the modules and who had also passed the Advanced Husbandry certificate would be designated a Master Beekeeper.


These two assessments have proved very popular with the membership. In 2016 of 33 candidates for the General Husbandry certificate assessed, 21 were successful giving a pass rate of 64%. In the Advanced Husbandry certificate, 32 candidates were assessed and 18 were successful making a pass rate of 56%. In 2017, 53 people were successful in passing the Intermediate Theory Certificate and 25 in passing the Advanced Theory Certificate. Of the latter, fourteen candidates became Master Beekeepers.


A leap forward

‘What’, you may ask, ‘was the catalyst that brought an upsurge in the desire to take examinations and become qualified?’ In 2005, former BBKA President, Tim Lovett, promoted the Basic Certificate of proficiency by putting himself forward as a candidate while encouraging other experienced but unqualified beekeepers to take the assessment with him. The hope was to attain the position of having 50% of the members holding this Basic qualification. This has not yet been reached, but hundreds are taking the assessment each year now.

Membership began to increase as a result of a campaign in 2005 to stop the planned cuts in NBU inspector numbers, these cuts being necessary for Defra to save 20% following the disastrous handling of the foot and mouth disease outbreak. Much lobbying, the help of Dr Ian Gibson, MP, and a physical petition of 14,000 signatures presented to Lord Bach achieved the desired result of stopping the cuts. Alongside these activities a growing awareness by the public, politicians and the media of beekeeping and the great threat to honey bees was created.


Smokers in Whitehall

In November 2008 hundreds of beekeepers and supporters gathered at the Houses of Parliament to demonstrate concern about the loss of bees and lack of support from the Government. Beekeepers lobbied their MPs (a first for me), marched on Whitehall and our petition with 143,000 signatures was presented at 10 Downing Street. There was great media coverage.

PArt of the large Whitehall demonstration by beekeepers in November 2008. Photo by David Charles.

Dr Ian Gibson MP, BBKA President Tim Lovett, Pat Allen (Trustee), Dr Ivor Davis and others at 10 Downing Street. Photo courtesy of Tm Lovett.

In February 2009 Hilary Benn finally announced the provision of £4.3million to support honey bees, of which £2million went to the NBU and £2+million went to the Healthy Bee Plan. Then began a series of meetings with what became Fera and the implementation of the plan, primarily to cover research. Just £150,000 of the money in the grant to NBU/Fera was for education. The BBKA bid for funds from this for initiatives such as the series ‘Course in a Case’ that was produced as a set of training packs for the BBKA and its members. The Bee Farmers’ Association and the NDB Board also bid for funds for training apprentices and more advanced beekeeping education. The Wills Environmental Trust (£50,000) and Cameron Mackintosh Trust (£10,000) gave support as a result of the campaign for education of beekeepers. Consequently, the amount of training and the growth in the number of beekeepers attempting examinations has increased quite dramatically, straining the resources of the Board to its limit.


At all levels there have been a number of syllabus and procedural changes. Candidates who have a disability or other condition making it difficult to participate and those who require additional support are provided for. In the modules this could be additional time of the use of a PC or laptop. In assessments each case is considered according to needs.


The requirement to have passed the Basic Assessment before attempting modules has been removed. This is to widen access to the written modules for those who are unable to take the practical aspects for any reason, such as being allergic, infirm, abroad or even being detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.


The Junior certificate, now with practical work, was overhauled in 2017. It is much more challenging and relevant. It was a delight to see successful candidate, Rosie Boyd with the Harold Teal Cup (Wiltshire), her Junior Certificate and badge featured on the front cover of BBKA News in December 2017.

Rosie Boyd with her Junior certificate and Harold Teal Cup.

The result of this increased public awareness was an influx of new members; by 2012 it reached 25,000 and has remained at around this figure. The number of members studying for modules and other examinations is at its greatest. There are more expert beekeepers than ever who are up-to-date with their knowledge. Many of these people have been able to take up posts as Regional Beekeeping Inspectors and Seasonal Bee Inspectors. Furthermore, with the introduction of the newer examinations, such as Microscopy and Honey Bee Health, there are more experts in specialist areas of the science and craft of beekeeping. The certificate in Honey Bee Health attracted fifty applicants. In 2019 there will be another specialist certificate to be gained. This is on Bee Breeding and it will promote the use and improvement of local bees among members.

The certificate of Proficiency in Honey Bee Health awarded in 2018 to keen member Oliver St. John.

Overseas beekeepers

For some time, it has been possible for beekeepers from other countries or those living or working abroad to take BBKA examinations. At Basic level this relies on assessors holidaying abroad. Higher practical assessments prove more difficult to organise. Modules can be taken provided there is a suitable venue and invigilator, and that the examination takes place within one hour of those taken in the UK. In Africa there is a particular arrangement where there is a Basic syllabus adapted and amended by the late Pam Gregory to suit African beekeeping.

Manu Kwaki Thomas, Bees Abroad trainer Ghana, recives his basic Certificate

Keeping up with changing needs

From time to time the requirements offered by the Examinations Board are modified to suit changes in the craft. Since 2015 candidates who have been successful in the Basic assessment have been awarded a credit where their score has been 75% and above. Training and assessment for becoming a BBKA Show Judge has been greatly improved. The Associate Judge certificate was discontinued some time ago.


You will recall that in the first article of this series in December 2018, I stated that in 1882 just twenty people, all men, travelled to London to take the very first BBKA examination. Nearly 140 years later beekeeping has changed beyond measure. Beekeeping management has changed hugely; beekeepers need to manage their colonies if they are to thrive and be productive. Attitudes have changed, the law has changed and the reasons why people wish to keep bees have changed too. Encouragement to learn the craft thoroughly, to educate and encourage beekeepers to gain qualifications is embedded in the work of most local associations. The Examinations Board has moved forward during this time to meet the needs of beekeeping and beekeepers. Each year over a thousand applications are processed. This involves the Board and its secretary, assessors, examiners, invigilators, office staff as well as local secretaries, apiary managers and so on. It is a major and essential part of the BBKA’s work.


Exams information source

Those considering taking any of the BBKA’s assessments and examinations should consult the Members’ Area of the BBKA website for the latest information and details of the syllabuses. 



I acknowledge the kind assistance received from Val Francis, Tim Lovett, Trisha Marlow and Bees Abroad for this final article in the series. I am also grateful for permission to use the photographs and information in the archives of the North Devon Beekeepers Branch, the British Bee Journal and the writings of W Herrod-Hempsall, and I thank those concerned.