WAS Gets Meta

Since the 2014 Western Apicultural Society (WAS) conference in Missoula, Montana, I have hosted nine “Next Generation Beekeeper Breakout Sessions” in every corner of the US.  These meetings have been part of an initiative to start a dialog with the next generation of leaders in the beekeeping industry, identify problems that plague us, and create action-oriented solutions for beekeepers and their communities to take part in.   I usually recruit a co-host, or two (past names include Zac Browning, Noah Wilson-Rich, Liz Frost, and Katie Lee), and we listen to beekeepers who have a lot to say, but don't usually take to the podium to express their ideas.  

Think it as a town hall meeting for beekeepers and researchers in their 20’s and 30’s.   This initiative has also been aiming to bringing more young beekeepers to national and regional conferences, by giving them a designated space.  The networking, learning, and leadership opportunities are endless, and we want the “next generation” to feel welcome and to take the floor to brainstorm positive solutions for real issues.

Our sessions usually tackle issues such as the public’s fear of bees, lack of communication between commercial and backyard beekeepers (in California), loss of bee habitat, Varroa control, and pesticides.  At WAS 2017 in Davis, CA, however, the theme took on a different tone.  The diverse group turned the looking glass inward, and we inspected WAS itself.  Our three main topics were:

  1. Lack of Next Gen Beekeepers at WAS,

  2. Lack of Next Gen Beekeepers in positions of leadership in WAS and other similar organizations, and

  3. Can WAS remain relevant?

After voting on top topics to discuss (I gave the option of getting into habitat, Varroa, or any of the other usual suspects), I ask the group to define the problem.  With issue number one, lack of Next Gen Beekeepers at WAS, the definition was simple.  Looking around the room in the main session, there were less than a handful of beeks under 60. 

Next, I asked for attendees to brainstorm potential solutions and action items for the problem.  The answers were:

  • Better promotion.  Give young beekeepers the message/invite the way they want it delivered.  E.g. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Email, YouTube, local university radio station adds, campus-wide emails, postering on campuses, postering at hangouts like coffee shops, etc., partner with university biology (or other relevant) clubs and associations, partner with organizations that employ young beekeepers like the Bee Informed Partnership, GloryBee, etc.

  • Offer grants specifically for next gen beekeepers (encouraging them to do their own research) and award the grants, only to those present, at the banquet.

  • Offer scholarships to reduce the price of admission for students or young beginning beekeepers.

  • Offer work-trade to students to help advertise (see point number one), set up the conference, check in attendees, etc. in exchange for a reduced, or free, admission.

The next topic we tackled was lack of Next Generation Beekeeping in positions of leadership, both within WAS and in similar organizations.  The definition to the problem was shouted out, “Because old white guys with red necks rule the roost!”  I feel I need to mention that the one who owns this comment is “an old white guy” with a “red neck.”  But let’s not get stuck too much on that, and move to solutions!

  • Cultivate leadership.  Assign mentors to younger members of the association to coach them into a leadership position.

  • Empower the next generation.  Establish a “Next-Gen” committee for the board of directors, and have this committee retain a degree of authority. 

  • Equip young leaders with the best tools to help you.  Offer a leadership training program, series, or workshop.  Perhaps partner with your local university extension, nearest National Young Farmers Coalition branch, or Farmers Union chapter to pull this off.

  • Invite them.  If there are no young beekeepers in the organization to promote to leadership, then think about what you are [not] doing to invite them in, and make them feel wanted. 

  • Make an example.  If you have a next gen beekeeper in your midst, celebrate them!  Take a chance and promote them into a position of leadership.  Make a new position if you have to - social media, outreach, etc.  What skills do they have that you lack?  If other next gen beeks see one of their peers in power, they are more likely to show up and grow your membership!        

The last topic was what we spent the most time on, we really dug down into the nitty gritty of WAS, and asked the very real question, “Can WAS remain relevant?”  I’ll do my best to summarize the lengthy, meta, and sometimes painful, conversation that we had.

  • Who is WAS?Beekeeping has changed a lot since the organization was founded over 40 years ago.This begs the question, who exactly are we?Is our aim at small, medium, or large beekeeping outfits?WAS is run by volunteers, and there is only so much we can do, so we need to pick one, and do it right.The group felt passionately that WAS could best be a niche for western beekeepers that have fewer than 1,200 hives, i.e. backyard and small, sustainable beekeeping operations.Many attendees said that they that this conference is smaller than the large national and regional conferences.They loved getting face time with their beekeeper icons, and felt more comfortable in a more intimate crowd.

  • It’s time to redefine the mission.The current mission reads, “The Western Apicultural Society is a non-profit, educational beekeeping organization founded in 1978 for the benefit and enjoyment of all beekeepers in western North America.”Our group felt this should be more pointed at our target group of beekeepers we wish to serve.

  • There needs to be an investment in outreach, speakers, and programming.WAS gets low attendance year after year, because a) no one knows that it’s happening, and b) often the speakers are the same speakers, talking on the same topics, that locals have at their beekeeping meeting during the same year.

  • Innovative breakouts.Since our conferences tend to be smaller, take advantage by offering new, different, cutting edge breakout sessions.

  • Go beyond the basics.The “sage on the stage” routine is tired.Speaker after speaker presenting slide after slide of their research findings, as the sole offering of the conference, needs to go.

  • Highlight networking opportunities.Also because our conference is smaller, set up a space for, and advertise the ability to, meet new friends and rub elbows with the stars of beekeeping.

  • Hands on workshops.This is a huge hit at other conferences, let’s get sticky!In hives, with wax, with honey… let’s dig in!

  • Openness and inclusivity.Because WAS is smaller, and doesn’t attract the titans of the beekeeping world, we have the ability to highlight our specialty of being an open and inclusive group (just look at the number of states and Canadian provinces we represent), that hosts the best open and inclusive conference.

After the 2018 WAS Conference in Boise, I’m officially retiring from my post as national “Next Gen Beekeeper Breakout Session” facilitator.  I’ve got my hands full with little kids’ programs, acres and acres of habitat research, and the 2019 WAS conference to plan!!  If anyone would like to pick this “facilitator” position up, in any region of the world, I’m more than happy to share my “formula” with you!  Just ask (sarah@beegirl.org)!  This was an intense night to facilitate.  I’m so thankful for Amina Harris and the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute for hosting us, and for keeping mead in my cup, to Steve Sweet and Jaylene Naylor for the snacks, the transporting of beer and ice, and for bringing their “A” game to the discussion, and for all that showed up and gave their ideas openly and respectfully!   

Sarah Red-LairdComment