The new normal

For many, beekeeping associations provide the bookends that bracket the practical beekeeping season. In meetings during the dark, wet, cold winter months we can at least discuss bees, reminisce about the season just gone or plan for the season ahead.

Usually with tea and biscuits ๐Ÿ™‚

Or in the more civilised associations (and a quick plug here for the Fortingall & District BKA) with fantastic homemade cakes ๐Ÿ˜‰

Elderflower lemon drizzle cake

Beekeeping associations, through the training and social events that they organise and the contacts that they enable, provide an important support framework for beekeepers, both new and old.

Training new beekeepers is one important function associations provide, but more experienced beekeepers also benefit from co-operative purchasing schemes for foundation or fondant 1 and – of course – from the winter seminar programmes.

Double whammy

The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a double whammy to many associations.

Training events, necessitating flagrant breaches of social distancing during hands-on practical beekeeping demonstrations, are a problem. Many associations delivered the theoretical coursework before lockdown was imposed, but were subsequently unable to provide the practical component of the training for beginners.

It’s difficult to spot the queen from 50 centimetres sometimes, let alone 2 metres.

Returning a marked and clipped queen – tricky to do at arm’s length

The independent first inspections for 2020 beginners are likely to have been a pretty tough challenge for many. Congratulations to those who got through them and the rest of the season with little support.

I’m hearing that some associations have cancelled or postponed all training events for the ’20/’21 winter season.

The imposition of lockdown 2 in March probably had little impact on the ’19/’20 winter seminar programmes, but they’re likely to have a significant impact going forwards.

I give quite a few talks on science and practical beekeeping in most winters. Audiences and venues vary, depending on the association. I’ve talked in drafty church halls to groups of 15, or swanky conference centres to ten times that number.

There is always a good turnout by new beekeepers, or even by those who have yet to start keeping bees.

Not your typical beekeeping audience … or church hall

However, there is generally a gender imbalance, with more men than women attending. And – and I’m afraid there’s no gentler way to write this – there’s an age imbalance as well, with the enthusiastic young ‘uns outnumbered by older, and in some cases old, beekeepers.

Statistics

This age and gender imbalance inevitably make the ’20/’21 winter seminar programmes an endangered species, at least in the format we’ve grown used to over past seasons.

If you look at the statistics for serious Covid-19 cases it is clear that there is a strong bias towards elderly males. There are other biases as well … underlying medical complications and ethnicity also have a major influence, though whether the latter is socio-economic, genetic or due to the presence of comorbidities remains unclear.

All of which means that spending an hour in a drafty church hall listening to a talk on bait hives is probably unwise … not least because the social distancing needed precludes any chance to huddle together for warmth when the one bar electric heater blows a fuse.

Zoom …

In the brave new, socially distanced, world we’re currently inhabiting, drafty church halls and excellent homemade cakes are now just a distant memory.ย 

Instead we have Teams talks, Demio demonstrations and WebEx webinars.ย 

And Zoom, but I can’t think of a suitable alliteration to go with Zoom ๐Ÿ™

For many office-based workers, lockdown resulted in the substitution of boardroom meetings with spare bedroom virtual meetings.ย 

Hastily repurposed guest bedrooms have become home offices. The combination of IKEA furniture, a reasonably recent laptop and a fast internet connection has enabled ‘business as usual’.

Almost.

All of my meetings – withย administrators, colleagues, my research team and students – have been online since late March (and in certain cases since early March).

Academics are used to collaborating globally and so were already familiar with Zoom, Teams or Skype for conference calls and job interviews. These have just continued 3, and been extended to now include all the in-person meetings that used to happen.

One or two colleagues have embraced this expanded use of the technology to have their own ‘green screens’. This allows their head and upper torso to be projected in front of a selected image – of a tropical beach, their favourite golf course or local boozer.

The Maldives … the perfect backdrop for a dull committee meeting

The really professional ones even change out of their pyjamas before calls … ๐Ÿ˜‰

But many beekeepers will be largely unfamiliar with the technology and the advantages it offers … and disadvantages it imposes.

Online beekeeping talks

I’ve both attended and delivered online beekeeping talks. Not a huge number, but enough to have a fair idea of what works and what doesn’t. In addition, I’ve taken part – as audience or presenter – in hundreds of non-beekeeping online events.

For readers who have yet to take part here’s a general guide of what to expect.

The speaker and topic are advertised in advance and those interested in listening/watching register to attend. The talk is hosted by the beekeeping association who provide a ‘chairperson’ or ‘master of ceremonies’. This person has the unenviable task of dealing with the speaker, the technology and the audience.ย 

And two of these three might do something incomprehensibly stupid … and the internet can break.

On the evening of the talk 4 you login via a website (using a username/password provided on registration) and launch the necessary software to take part in the event.

Eventbrite beekeeping talk

Sometimes this can be through the web browser, but – more usually – it involves downloading and installing software onto your computer. Which might be an issue for some people wanting to take part. Do this in advance of the start time of the talk, not in the last 2 minutes before kickoff.

After an introduction by the chairperson, control of the graphics is usually handed to the speaker who delivers the talk. To avoid awkward ‘noises off’ 5 the chairperson usually mutes all other microphones

Why unenviable?

I previously described the chairpersons role as unenviable.

While the speaker blathers away the chair is probably:

  • dealing with email enquiries about how to launch the software
  • justifying why there isn’tย a video of the speaker actually speaking (it’s turned off to save bandwidth), and
  • telling someone that they are the only person unable to hear the presenter. Therefore, it must be their audio output settings that are wrong.

And if that isn’t enough, the chair will be collecting and collating questions during and after the talk, for reasons I’ll discuss shortly.

Finally, it’s not unusual for the chair to also ensure that the talk is recorded so that those who couldn’t download the software or hear the presenter can attempt to listen to it in the future.

That’s a lot to deal with.

Questions and answers

Good talks generate questions.

As a speaker, there’s nothing worse than a talk being met by an echoing wall of silence.

Hello? Is there anybody [out] there? Just nod if you can hear me 6.

Some are points of clarification, others are after elaboration or explanation of a contrary view.

Some questions are nothing whatsoever to do with the talk ๐Ÿ˜‰

They might not even be about beekeeping.

All require an answer of some kind.

And this is where the technology gets in the way of communication.ย 

Questions from the floor, in which the audience member switches on their microphone, clearly enunciates the question, and turns off the mike returning ‘control’ to the host and speaker cause delays.

Often significant delays. However, even short breaks interrupt good communication – think back to the lag on transatlantic satellite phone calls.ย 

The speaker asks the question clearly … but omits to turn on the mike.

Or they fail to the turn off the mike, so the entire audience hears the follow up “and I hope he answers quickly as Strictly’s on in a few minutes”.

For a couple of questions this is just about acceptable. For twenty or thirty it is not.

So, the beleaguered chair takes written questions from the audience, collates them, removes duplicates … and then asks the presenter on behalf of the audience.

I refer you back to the word ‘unenviable’. If you take part, cut the chair some slack …

Disadvantages of online talks

Unfortunately a subset of beekeepers who would have attended a gathering on the second Tuesday of the month in the church hall will never attend an online beekeeping talk.

For a start, they might not even own a computer.ย 

They might – and I have considerable sympathy for this view – mainly attend talks for the craic, the opportunity to catch up with friends and the chance of some homemade lemon drizzle cake.

All of those are good reasons to attend a talk in person … and in the case of lemon drizzle cake I’d say aย compelling reason to attend ๐Ÿ˜‰

As a regular speaker at associations I’d add here that the craic and the homemade cake are the parts of the evening I enjoy the most. After all, I’ve heard the talk before. I might even have heard the questions before ๐Ÿ˜‰

None of these more social things are achievable online. Everyone listens in their own little bubble, isolated from the shared experience.

If they can’t bake it’s going to be a long evening ๐Ÿ™

For others, the technology will continue to be a problem. They can see the pictures but can’t hear the words. Or vice versa. Or worse …

No Zoom for you …

The fact that 190 others don’t have the same problems just makes it a more frustrating and unrewarding experience. Being live, there’s no real chance of resolving these ‘local’ problems without delaying the talk and irritating the rest of the audience.

Over time the numbers unable to handle the technology will reduce.

In some cases it’ll be because they have learned to master it – either by perseverance, or by the beekeeping association providing some sort of training sessions.

In other cases it’ll be because they simply gave up ๐Ÿ™

Like those who don’t have a computer in the first place, this means online talks are serving a different audience and some association members are likely to be excluded by the switch to online talks.

Advantages of online talks

But it’s not all bad news.ย I can see some benefits for both the speaker and audience from online presentations.

Associations can invite speakers from anywhere.

They don’t have to be from the same county.

Or the same country.

This broadens the topics that can be covered and provides the opportunity to discover different beekeeping practices from other areas (always remembering that this might simply confuse beginners).

There are some good speakers out there – just look through past programmes for the BBKA, SBA or WBKA Annual Conventions or the National Honey Show.

Associations can ‘share’ speakers by running joint events or inviting neighbouring association members to register.

As a speaker, this means that audiences tend to be larger.ย Bigger audiences are almost always better 7. Since everyone is logging on, rather than driving across the county to the venue, there’s less chance a spot of bad weather will put people off.

This is a huge advantage for the speaker as well … I’ve regularly talked, answered questions, drunk tea, chatted, eaten lemon drizzle cake, drunk more tea, said my goodbyes and then driven for three hours to get home 8.

The Beast from the East ...

The Beast from the East …

I’ve also had to cancel talks at relatively short notice due to ‘adverse driving conditions’ – which in Scotland means a bit more than a dusting of snow.ย 

None of that happens in our brave new digital world.

Is this the new normal?

For the foreseeable future I think it is. The national lockdown is being replaced by local restrictions where virus transmission is increasing. However, school and university students have yet to return and this will likely lead to increased transmission in some areas (in Scotland, we’re already seeing this, though transmission is usually ascribed to “unregulated house parties” rather than within the school 9 ).

A vaccine remains some way off. It’ll be even longer until we have vaccinated a large enough proportion of the population to interrupt transmission.

Or to know how long immunity lasts.

All of which means that indoor social events, like talks about bait hives or swarm control, are likely to be undesirable, unattractive or simply not allowed.

What can we do to improve things?

Delivering a talk online is a very much less rewarding experience than doing so in person.

There’s no ability to properly engage with the audience – no banter, no eye contact, no jokey comments.

You can’t tell whether the old boy in the back row has switched off or just nodded off.

Or perhaps he’s simply cheesed off because he disagrees with everything I’m saying.

You don’t necessarily know who is in the audience – you might know overall numbers, but not whether the local bee inspector or beefarmer is logged on. Knowledge of the audience can influence the way you pitch a talk.

It’s an oddly sterile undertaking. This makes judging the pacing and content of the talk very much more difficult. With a live audience it’s usually possible to tell whether they’re ‘keeping up’ or ‘tuning out’. You can’t do this online.

If the audience is present you can ask questions and get immediate answers … anyone who has heard me talk will know I ask about drifting andย ‘how many of your bees are your bees?’. There are ways of doing this online, but it requires familiarity with more software (or additional features of the current software).

Starting materials ...

Practical demonstrations and online presentations – tricky

In the meantime …

  1. Associations can help their members embrace the technology by providing limited training where it is needed.ย 
  2. Think creatively about topics that can be covered within the limitations of the technology.ย For example, some of the talks I’ve been to in person have had a practical component.ย I’ve attended excellent candle dipping and skep making workshops 10. Likewise, I talk about DIY for beekeeping which involves handing round examples of my hastily cobbled together beautifully crafted floors or roofs. These sorts of things might be achievable entirely online, perhaps with more videos. However, preparing these will certainly require a lot more work by the presenter to be effective.
  3. Provide feedback to speakers – what worked and what didn’t work?

Welcome to the new normal … I hope to “see” you online sometime ๐Ÿ™‚


Notes

The new normal meansย “a previously atypical or unfamiliar situation, behaviour, etc., which has become standard, usual, or expected” (OED). Although now associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s usage can be traced back over 200 years. The big increase in usage was in reference to the 2008 financial crisis, and – historically – it is often used in reference to economic events.ย 

The new normal – Google ngram results

Footnotes

  1. And in the best organised associations, for honey buckets, jars, beesuits and just about everything else – with a small part of the negotiated discount being held back to fund association events.
  2. too late
  3. Ad nauseam
  4. In the UK they’re usually evening events … but if you’re a speaker at an event run by a beekeeping association in Idaho then it’s the middle of the night in the UK. This is not an insignificant matter.
  5. What the hell does he think he’s talking about?
  6. With apologies to Pink Floyd … Comfortably numb from The Wall.
  7. But remember, the more associations share speakers, the range of available novel speakers and topics topics will be reduced.
  8. Usually regretting the last cup of tea.
  9. A ‘regulated’ house party sounds like an oxymoron to me … but I was a student a very long time ago, perhaps things are different now?
  10. My – frankly pathetic – single-handed attempts subsequently are all to do with myย “hands like feet”ย and nothing to do with the training I received.

20 thoughts on “The new normal

  1. Graeme Cox

    I think you missed a trick๐Ÿค”
    Where is the recipe for the cake?
    I’m sure it would be appreciated by all your audience ๐Ÿ˜€๐Ÿ˜€๐Ÿ˜€

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Graeme

      One reason I lament the absence of in person beekeeping talks is my woeful cake baking ability. I’m a rank amateur in the kitchen, but semi-professional when it comes to eating cakes baked by other people ๐Ÿ˜‰ Bread is easy … but a lemon drizzle cake is well beyond me.

      Cheers
      David

      PS Mary Berry’s lemon drizzle cake looks pretty good to me ๐Ÿ™‚

      Reply
  2. Cheryl Wright

    In Portland Oregon, and surrounding counties, we have begun Zooming our monthly member meetings. This year our state beekeeping organization, the Oregon State Beekeepers Association, will be having our annual meeting on Zoom. You are absolutely correct in your observations; there are definitely opportunities as well as significant downsides to the online platform. As the president of the Portland Urban Beekeepers, one of the most insightful things I heard, back in May after our first Zoom meeting, was how our members appreciated being able to listen to the recording at their leisure.
    Thanks for your blog, sharing your insights about our “new normal,” and confirming my experiences.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Cheryl

      I have delivered undergraduate lectures online. The software we use allows all sorts of statistics to be gathered – number of views, how many start and watch through until the end, which bits are watched repeatedly (those are the bits that didn’t make sense) etc. It can help improve future lectures. Or should ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Apparently, some students watch at 1.5 times the speed. The audio is higher pitched and a bit squeaky, but it allows them to get through it faster ๐Ÿ™‚

      I see that the WHO have announced that the world might be clear of the pandemic in a couple of years (based upon comparisons with the 1918 ‘flu pandemic that I’m not sure are necessarily valid). By then society will have changed … going back to the ‘old normal’ might not happen. A tragedy for those of us who enjoy homemade cakes, but a definite opportunity for forward-thinking associations willing to embrace the enabling features of the new technology.

      Enjoy your Zoom talks.
      David

      Reply
  3. Neil

    I’ll just go the extra effort to say that, once again, your prose brings a light to my life.
    Thanks David.

    Reply
  4. Fred

    Hi David, I do miss the craic of real, live meetings…beekeeping can be quite a solitary past -time and nothing beats face to face for beekeeping conundrums needing a solution/moaning about the weather/wasps/ q mating / whatever else the at times pesky bees are up to.

    i watched your excellent Zoominar on varroa recently given to Somerset BKA , it was so good and particularly enjoyed the chatroom feature at the end where the chair person put everyone who stayed on post lecture into 4 person chat rooms which you dipped in and out of, I’m across the water and was talking to beeks from Somerset and Wales, interesting to get their perspectives on the season (though rolled my eyes at complaints of too many too heavy supers, weather so poor here just happy to keep hives going)

    Thanks so much for weekly post for its very much part of the new normal too!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Fred

      Delighted you enjoyed the Somerset BKA Varroa management talk … it was well organised (nothing to do with me, everything to do with Lynne at the BKA!).

      Those of us based in the North (like me) or the far West (like you) have to learn to put up with complaints about never-ending nectar flows, routinely running out of supers, extracting to free supers up to be refilled etc. The shorter season and reduced honey crop is often compensated in other ways – here in Fife we have a much lower density of beekeepers and far less problems with mites as a consequence. On the North-West coast – where I spend increasing time – we have no Varroa ๐Ÿ™‚ … as well as stunning scenery and fantastic wildlife.

      Last of my honey supers come off in the next couple of days and then it’s time to prepare the colonies for winter. I hope the season ends well for you.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  5. Rick A - Warner

    Well said David, a lot to remember and gives reason to be forgiving in this age of nowness. I would never have guessed that the world would stop. Something is amiss , yes thereโ€™s many older beekeepers out there and itโ€™s changing ( glad to see ) to younger women and children in New Zealand ,Poland and neighboring countries. Hoping that it will take on in the rest of the world. Till then stay calm and have a slice of lemon cake.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Rick

      Anyone who knows me is aware I’ll never turn down a slice of lemon cake ๐Ÿ˜‰

      As a virologist I’ve always been aware of the impact a pandemic virus could have on global society – we know the history of 1918 ‘flu, appreciate the impact smallpox and measles had in South America and (at least in my case) started my career when HIV/AIDS was first identified. Nevertheless, it’s still been a weird season in a strange world. I’ve got a couple of posts ‘pending’ on lockdown beekeeping for sometime later in the year.

      The beginners this year probably missed out on their practical training. If they’ve got this far they’ve done well. Next year there may be fewer beginners … hopefully by then we’ll have worked out support networks to help them do the right thing at the right time. That way the recent upsurge in interest in beekeeping can be continued and the average age of beekeepers can continue to, incrementally, reduce.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  6. Paul Lindstrom

    In our BKA we have managed to support a small “Beginners Group” through Whatsapp, and had monthly “Beebanter” meetings with all members invited via ZOOM. Not idreal, and quite cumbersome, but sort of works. Better than shutting down completely because of Covid.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Well done Paul … it can’t be easy covering the range from digitally-fluent new beekeepers to the computer-phobic old guard … though, of course, the newcomers might be computer-phobic and the well-established beekeepers might be very IT-literate. One good thing offered by the immediacy of WhatsApp is the reminders to check your colonies when those in other apiaries start to show signs of swarming … waiting for a weekly/monthly Zoom call could be too late.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  7. Edward Hill

    I think you covered everything there also well done to all the Associations keeping in touch with members some who may be socially isolated before it became the norm, It might not be perfect but it works and does as it says on the tin. it not easy putting yourself out there, so well done all and thanks. Oh “Well done to you too appreciate these blogs. just in case you think nobody is reading the.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Edward

      I have a feeling you pressed the ‘submit’ button before ending the sentence, but I think I got the gist of it.

      I know people access the site (because I keep an eye on the access statistics), though you can never tell whether they read anything! I suspect they do going by the increasing number of ‘followers’ and the comments. I hope they do ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  8. Edward Hill

    Hi David,
    What I meant to say was dont underestimate what you are doing it is very important keeping people in touch with each other and you are playing an important role during these stressful times, Well done and keep safe.

    Reply
  9. Dorothie

    All so very true David. Made me laugh as well!
    We are managing to Zoom etc a lot of our club talks, but some of our course content cannot be delivered as some of the presenters are unwilling or unable to embrace the new technology. This is not a criticism, just the way it is.
    We have opened up our apiary, but as you say, you can’t really get up close and personal for inspections. We are hoping to do small group, socially-distanced demos of hive prep for winter, varroa treatments etc.
    The sad part is that so much of the learning and progressing in beekeeping comes not from the talk itself or even the questions but in mingling and chatting informally with others (especially but not exclusively with the addition of cake!) l
    Lots of people are wary of speaking out in a public forum in case their question seems ‘stupid,’ but prefer to sidle up to somebody who looks friendly and engage in that way.
    We wait to see what next season will bring

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Dorothie

      Your final paragraph is ‘on the money’ and one of the things that will continue to be problematic. Online talks inevitably mean online questions … if these are named i.e. “Fred Smith asks, what is a dummy board?” it could be embarrassing. But shouldn’t be as most questions are relevant and good because – presumably – the person posing the Q doesn’t know the answer. This can be avoided by the compere anonymising certain questions. Nevertheless, many will go unasked.

      And with no tea and biscuits will remain unasked.

      I get about 500-800 comments a year on this site and received about the same number of direct emails. It’s not really possible to diagnose problem colonies without detailed understanding of the beekeeper, their experience and some photographs/video of the issue. Sometimes it’s just guesswork (masquerading as inspired insight!).

      In due course I expect we’ll find ways to compensate. Trusted groups of friends or some sort of remote inspection programme perhaps. Or a vaccine … but don’t hold your breath. The recent report of reinfection, if correct, suggests that immunity may be short-lived. Similarly, the announcement today that Africa is finally free of wild poliovirus (a fantastic achievement) shows how long it can take – 60 years – with a good vaccine and a pathogen with a 1% symptomatic infection rate.

      And that’s before you even consider the anti-vaxxers and Covid deniers ๐Ÿ™

      I suspect we’ll be better prepared in the ’21/’22 winter to train beginners, but am fearful those wanting to start this winter will face an uphill task.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply

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