“Save the Bees!” It’s a phrase most have seen on social media, stickers, pins and t-shirts. There’s no longer any doubt that honeybee populations are decreasing, as shown by data from the United States Department of Agriculture, even though these pollinators are crucial to ecosystem survival. Compounding these concerns, beekeeping has an aging workforce less suited to the physical labor demanded by the job.
The central United States, including Nebraska’s surrounding states, has historically been lacking in a comprehensive, wide-ranging beekeeper education program, but new groups throughout Nebraska are aiming to help the situation.
The Great Plains Master Beekeeping Program (GPMB) through the University of Nebraska– Lincoln partners with 11 other beekeeping organizations throughout Nebraska and the Midwest to form a network of field learning and involvement opportunities, including shared facilities, equipment, and online learning content.
Research Project Manager Sheldon Brummel played a central role in outlining the program’s structure and content. A UNL graduate himself, Brummel became interested in conservation and beekeeping as a hobby after beginning his undergraduate career in 2016.
“I was a broke college student so I was like, ‘I don’t want to pay for these classes, so I’m going to find someone at UNL who can teach me,’” Brummel said.
However, he was unable to find a current UNL faculty member able to teach beekeeping to students. Brummel was referred to Marion Ellis, a retired UNL professor who then began teaching Brummel about beekeeping at his personal apiary, a collection of beehives.
Due to his expressed interest, the UNL Entomology Department hired Brummel to clean off and maintain unused beekeeping equipment that had been previously used by Ellis. After gaining more hands-on experience with Ellis, Brummel was able to take the reins and help establish a new beekeeping education program.
“The coasts are a very different ecoregion, and they also have a lot of master beekeeping programs already, but there’s really nothing in the central U.S.,” Brummel said.
The Great Plains Master Beekeeping Program operates on what Brummel refers to as a “competency hierarchy.” He modeled much of the program’s structure after military-style exams in which rigid checkpoint tests are utilized to measure learning. This was done to bring discipline to the program and ensure that students make sufficient progress in the most necessary skills.
“A competency hierarchy is the same thing colleges do, that a doctorate degree does, the same thing any certification process does, which is that it superimposes competencies onto what people are doing. It gives credibility,” Brummel said.
The program’s content is broken up into three skill levels: apprentice, journeyman and master. A student at the apprentice level will likely have zero to two years of beekeeping experience, a journeyman will probably have about 2-5 years, and a master beekeeper will have five or more years of practice.
According to Brummel, bees only fly between the months of April to October, and seasons shift every year. A crucial part of beekeeping is learning to ensure a hive’s survival through changing winter months and unpredictable weather patterns, which is why most pupils need about five years to achieve the highest competency.
“Even if someone thinks they know everything and they’ve passed all the tests, you still need that time limit to gain the notches on your belt and understand working with bees,” Brummel said.
A common struggle for beekeepers is how to prevent colony loss over the winter months when bees are more vulnerable. The Omaha Bee Club, with 300 members, is another state organization that hosts many educational opportunities aimed at providing more informed beekeeping knowledge, especially when dealing with winter losses. “We really try to push for education to make beekeepers more successful and help bees survive over winter to come back next spring with a bee colony that’s ready to go,” said Brad Sumter, president of the Omaha Bee Club. “I think that keeps people a little more excited about it, and I think it’s helped our numbers to grow.”
Participants in the Great Plains Master Beekeeping Program engage in a variety of learning activities, consisting of online lectures, in-person lectures, volunteering in one’s local beekeeping community, and field learning at open apiaries.
Video and in-person lessons cover a wide range of topics, beginning with the history and biology of the honeybee itself to understand how bees’ physical functions and caste systems operate. Land stewardship is another large focus. Because honeybees cannot be fenced in like other animals, it is essential to provide enough food and pollination material for bees in areas surrounding a hive.
There are also lessons within the program’s higher ranks about making beekeeping a profitable business and how to inform others about beekeeping while combating misinformation.
Participants must also work at open apiaries to gain hands-on experience handling honeybee colonies. Field learning is an important step because students can ask any questions to more experienced beekeepers, touch and handle bees, and practice using tools of the trade such as smokers. There is no cost required to attend open apiary sessions, and apiary locations span the central United States with partnering facilities in Michigan, Wyoming, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska.
“You can be an apprentice and take everything online for free. You don’t even need to purchase your own bees to go do field learning in an open apiary, so there is no cost requirement for participating in the program,” Brummel said.
The Omaha Bee Club operates its own apiary on land owned by the Omaha Bohemian Cemetery and partners with the GPMB program for open apiary times.
“We want to provide science-based beekeeping practices to our membership, and that’s really the importance of our relationship,” Sumter said. “Partnering with the university just makes sense to provide the latest information. They also provide a lot of great opportunities for us to improve our local apiary.”
The Great Plains Master Beekeeping Program has about 1800 participants currently, at various levels throughout the program. It is self-paced, so there is no set requirement on how quickly participants must move through learning materials. However, to move up through the competency levels, all participants must engage in a field skill check test with a beekeeper who has already achieved their master rank.
Ultimately, the program’s goal is to provide a reliable, comprehensive framework to develop proper beekeeping knowledge and skill that is relevant to the Midwest environment.
“This is actually curated by the university, by scientists, and by beekeeping professionals who have been in the industry for decades,” Brummel said. “There is a lot of info on YouTube, but it may be misinformation, or it may not be relevant to the Central US ecosystem.”
While new beekeepers are developing their skills, they can interact with a multitude of other localized groups to explore a wider variety of beekeeping tactics and form a tight-knit community with fellow beekeepers.
One such organization is the Omaha Bee Club. Sumter, as club president, enjoys providing social opportunities for beekeepers to develop a sense of community. He believes in the club’s mission to make beekeepers more successful through education, training, mentorship and fellowship.
The club hosts an annual holiday party and picnic, as well as monthly coffee meetups for a chance to socialize and bond across shared interests. A mentorship program pairs experienced beekeepers with newcomers to help them gain confidence. In Omaha on Oct. 15, 2022, the club hosted its annual conference with 16 speakers from across the nation tailored to different interests, including groundbreaking bee research, habitat preservation and industry practices.
“Getting people connected on that personal level helps improve the mentorship side of things as well,” Sumter said.
The club’s membership has increased over 50% annually during the last couple of years. Sumter attributes part of this increase to a spike in news coverage about bee population loss and habitat loss. Many members joined after the COVID-19 pandemic because they were looking to help suffering bees and wanted to try something new.
Sumter said he doesn’t see a lot of young people interested in beekeeping but that a lot of outreach begins in schools. The Omaha Bee Club recently purchased an observation hive to bring to local classrooms so children can watch bees move around within the hive.
He also mentioned that the Nebraska Beekeeping Association provides a scholarship program, which allows a young student to receive a hive and bees to get their start in the industry.
Sumter is glad to partner with the Great Plains Master Beekeeping Program to continue building bridges across beekeeping organizations.
“I think the GPMB program is really good because it’s connecting the other beekeeping clubs not just in Nebraska but in the wider region, and it gives us a chance to share with each other,” Sumter said.