The International Meeting of Young Beekeepers is now in it’s 12th year and 2023 marked our return to the event after a 3-year gap due to Covid and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

This year was particularly exciting as we were hosted by Slovenia, the home of the Carniolan Honeybee.  It’s a tiny country about the size of Wales with a population of only 2 million and is an extremely rural, alpine-like country of mountains, forests and lakes.  It also hosts the highest proportion of beekeepers per head of population in the world!

                                                                                                                                         Our first experience of a Slovenian bee house with a mere 10 hives!

The Selection Process
Before the selection day, we asked each candidate to prepare a 3-minute talk about Slovenia without mentioning bees.  We, therefore, got a fascinating insight into the country from the 10 candidates who attended the selection day. Our approach to picking our three teen beeks for the IMYB is quite different from many other countries that hold regional and national heats from hundreds of candidates to choose the most accomplished beekeepers. Instead, although we look for a high level of beekeeping knowledge and competence, our real focus is to choose the three best candidates that we feel will get the best out of attending the IMYB going forwards.

With commercial beekeeping being such a small industry in England, it's not easy to select potential bee farmers at 14-16 years old! We like to take those from disadvantaged backgrounds who may not have travelled outside the UK before and where the IMYB could make a huge difference in their lives.  This is borne out where two previous IMYB attendees have subsequently been offered places at Russell Group Universities doing biology and veterinary studies, partly being inspired by the IMYB and partly by their personal statements stating how they represented England at Beekeeping being the single point of focus at their interviews!

We spend every minute of the selection day studying the individual candidates in the way they act as individuals and in a group to look for their attitude towards the others and their general level of real confidence and not bravado. We know that it takes a certain type of personality to get the best out of the IMYB where the teens are immediately placed into an international mixed team where most of the others don’t speak English and must rapidly learn to work together.

Our three candidates attending the IMYB were a difficult pick from a really great bunch of candidates and we have asked all of them who were not fortunate this time to come forward again next year.

The Competition
As in former years, the event consists of a mixture of cultural presentations and competitions at three levels;

  • Best international team
  • Top-scoring country (combining scores of the three team members)
  • Best young beekeeper (highest individual score)

Individuals and teams are judged on aptitude, attitude and general beekeeping skills across a wide range of areas including frame/hive assembly, bee-handling skills, anatomy, honey tasting, and botany for bees along with a written paper.

                                                                                                                                               The unique AZ beehives proved tricky for many of the participants

In addition to the various tests and exercises, there are several cultural events including a 5-minute team presentation on any aspect of their home country culture they choose.  Powerpoint and videos are discouraged and the most successful tend to be non-verbal songs, dances, and short dramas or mimes that anyone can understand and enjoy. In previous years, the most popular of these have been bhangra dancing from India, yodelling from Austria and folk dances from Georgia.

This year we were treated to lots of songs and dances involving the entire audience as well as a full-on coronation ceremony from the English team dressed as the Royal family selecting our Queen bee and consort! The clear winners of this event had to be the French who did a completely bonkers sketch involving a chase around the theatre of two flowers being chased by a bee and then the beekeeper and then a hunter followed by the “duck song”!

The English BBKA team
The three we took to Slovenia were a great bunch that did us all proud and were a joy to be with.

                                                                                                                                                                      Cullen, Joanna and Jacob

Cullen Brown is 16 works on a dairy farm near Great Yarmouth. He has seven of his own hives and manages 16 others from which he sells the honey at a local farm shop. He learnt his craft with the support of a local mentor from the Norfolk Beekeepers Association.  He has developed his own brand CJ Bees and has an extremely professional approach to his beekeeping.  He made a real impression on everyone with his calm, measured approach and was always the centre of attention in those rare downtimes. He is keen to become a bee farmer and within hours of arrival, I introduced him to Anita Long from Tasmania who is keen to create an exchange programme for young beekeepers between the UK and Australia. She was extremely impressed and after talks between Anita and his family, he could well be one of the first candidates!

Joanna Oddie aged 15, from Bingley in West Yorkshire, has been keeping bees close to the nearby moors for three years producing both wildflower and heather honey with the help of a retired beekeeping mentor from her local association, Airedale Beekeepers. She has a great no-nonsense personality and is determined to become a vet. Joanna made a great contribution to her international team and helped them to win 3rd place in the competition.

Jacob Pons is also aged 15 and only started keeping bees 18 months ago after persuading his mum to learn alongside him, before she later developed an allergy to bee stings, leaving Jacob to work with a mentor from Evesham Beekeepers. Having started with a donated swarm, he now has two colonies and several chickens. Initially quite shy, he soon got into the spirit of the event and made a number of good friends that he is still in contact with.

Cultural Visits
Whilst the teen beeks were being tested in the various exercises, the adults were taken out to several bee-related venues. The Slovenians are passionate beekeepers and at the opening ceremony, we were addressed by the President of Slovenia by video and also had speeches from the local mayor, the Minister for Beekeeping, the president of the Slovenian Beekeepers Association and several others. This was all covered in the national media with several TV crews videoing the event. We also met the UK’s Deputy Ambassador who was very pleased to see all the home nations represented. Slovenia is the home of the Carniolan Bee and has more beekeepers per head than any other country in the world. Beekeepers are held in high regard and have their own formal uniform, anthem, and male voice choir!

                                                                                                                                       The leaders of each Beekeeping region in their official uniforms

We visited both a nearby local association apiary as well as the Slovenian National Beekeeping Centre.  The local apiary was stunningly professional set in grounds of flowering fields specially planted for a full season of forage-providing plants and was centred around a large bee house containing 56 uniquely Slovenian AZ hives set together in four rows with each hive having two sets of ten large frames in a pine box accessed through a kitchen-cupboard like door in the rear.

                                                                                                                                                                     A typical Slovenian beehive hosting 56 AZ hives!

On one trip, we were mystified to be dropped off outside an average-looking Slovenian house in the middle of a nearby village. Walking up to the house, we were greeted by the owner with trays of his own mead and honey liqueur and shown around his house which had become a shrine to vintage beekeeping.  Outside there were rows of vintage Slovenian hives complete with beautifully painted front panels showing several local fables including images of the devil sharpening a women's tongue intimating the impact of gossiping and others showing beekeepers being chased by bears!  It’s said that these panels help the bees identify their home hive amongst all the others located in the same bee house, but it’s doubtful if the bees understand the stories!

The Vintage Bee Museum

Inside the house was an amazing array of vintage beekeeping equipment, books, paintings and other paraphernalia that seemed to fill the entire house, leaving us wondering where the owner and his family actually lived!

Later that afternoon, the whole group was invited to the Slovenian National Beekeeping Centre at Brdo pri Lukovici where we were welcomed by Boštjan Noč, President of the Slovenian Beekeepers Association and Olga Vrankar, the Mayor of Lukovica Municipality before sitting down together for lunch. This is an amazing facility set on its own grounds with extensive teaching facilities and a well-equipped laboratory where the SBA tests samples of honey for their members producing reports on water content and HMF levels as well as DNA analysis of the pollen content. There is also a wonderful bee trail around the grounds for members of the public to learn more about bees of all kinds and the importance of pollination.

Encouraging Young Beekeepers
A key part of the IMYB is a multi-day conference about teaching young people about bees and their importance to the environment as well as encouraging more young people to become beekeepers. Each country gave a short presentation on what they were doing to encourage young beekeepers and there was a lot of learning from each other.

There is a big shortage of bee farmers in many parts of the world and by bringing young people into beekeeping it is hoped that some may become professionals. Unlike the UK, many countries teach bee farming techniques at agricultural colleges alongside farming and animal husbandry and many of the participants were expected to become the 3rd or more generation bee farmers in their family.

I gave a short presentation on the BBKA’s continuing programme to encourage young beekeepers and the importance of pollinators generally, highlighting, in particular, the Bees in the Curriculum project that got a lot of positive attention.

We also played our part in this process by discussing the creation of an exchange programme between the UK and Australia (and possibly later Canada), that would allow suitable young beekeepers from the UK to become apprentice bee farmers in Australia, learning from their very large-scale professional operators and then potentially spending six months in the spring/summer here before working the same seasons in Australia during our autumn and winter. We have a strong candidate in Cullen and it looks like he might be our first Australian exchange.

Competition Results
There were awards for the top three multi-national teams which included Tom Barclay of Wales who was a member of the second-placed team and Joanna Oddie from England and Harry Hose from Scotland who were in the third-placed team.  Bron from Scotland also won the best honey award at the IMYB for her Phacelia honey!

Our team with Joanna’s award for 3rd place international team

Overall, the winning country at the 2024 IMYB was the team from the Czech Republic, followed by Slovakia and then Austria. The overall winner was Jakob Zöchbauer of Austria.  However, given the fact that many of the European countries had the choice of hundreds and in some cases over a thousand applicants to choose from including 2nd and 3rd generation bee farming families, our home teams did extremely well, and we were extremely proud of them.  Joanna, Jacob and Cullen were a credit to themselves, and their mentors and we are sure that this event will have a positive impact on their lives.

We know that the IMYB changes young lives, giving teen beekeepers from the UK an eye-opening view of the global reach of beekeeping and making friends for life with fellow beeks.  To that end, we view our mission to choose the candidates for the IMYB we think would get the most out of such an event and who might consider working with bees as a future career. 

The Future of IMYB
During the event, the UAE expressed a serious interest in hosting the IMYB in Dubai for 2024 which is extremely exciting as the first potential venue outside of Europe, hopefully, this all comes good! Susie from Northern Island also expressed a serious interest in hosting the IMYB in 2025 and in both cases, we offered any help we could from our experience as previous hosts.

We know that the IMYB changes young lives, giving teen beekeepers from the UK an eye-opening view of the global reach of beekeeping and making friends for life with fellow beeks.  To that end, we view our mission to choose the candidates for the IMYB we think would get the most out of such an event and who might consider working with bees as a future career.  My final word is to say thanks to the BBKA Executive for their continuing support in investing in young people and the IMYB.  I would be very pleased to promote the IMYB at any BBKA event or to present to local BKA’s on the BBKA’s efforts to support young beekeepers and the IMYB to generate more interest in bringing forward more potential candidates for the next IMYB.

Report by Simon Cavill  ([email protected])

Photos by Simon Cavill