Beekeeper Learning Circles

Progress report for ONC23-127

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2023: $29,741.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2024
Grant Recipient: Julia McGuire
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Julia McGuire
Julia McGuire
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Project Information


Local bee clubs can never accommodate all the topics its members want, especially the ones that require time- and resource-intensive topics such as queen rearing, splits, and cut outs and swarms. Monthly meetings are constrained with time of day, length of meeting, indoor settings and attendance by mixed levels of prior connections and experience. By producing Learning Circle field days and monthly maintenance calls, Iowa beekeepers will get the learning they want and the partners will get to efficiently teach their special skills without the worry of administrative tasks that organizing a field day requires.

Field day topics were chosen to increase the sustainability of beekeeping: splits prevent lost swarms while continuing genetic preferences, queen rearing combats the high cost of time-sensitive requeening while also continuing genetic preferences or introducing diversity, cut outs and swarms fight chemical bee removals and improve community safety while increasing genetic diversity. Field days and Zoom calls will increase social sustainability, too.

Lastly, learning circles can include the many learners who do not have club memberships.

Project Objectives:

The learning circle model will span one year with 12 monthly Zoom meetings, three in-person field days, a culminating event, and storytelling to promote the learning circle model in the future and cement the experience for participants. This project is for beekeepers interested in learning about topics that require more time than a monthly club meeting, but not so much time that a person couldn’t travel there and back in a day.


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Materials and methods:

The learning circle method was delivered in two forms: online and in-person. Both methods required registration. Both were assigned topics that had been recorded by survey over the ten prior Januarys of my local bee club’s “kick off the year” meeting.

Registration for both types of learning circles were done digitally. This took two main forms: a QR code displayed on-site at in-person learning circles and as a hyperlink everywhere else – promoted on Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram with my personal accounts as well as my own monthly email newsletter to area beekeepers (about 350 people). Both forms took users to a landing page. The landing page gave an event description and contained an additional hyperlink for registration.

Out of respect for the in-person presenters' heavy investment of time and resources, registrations for in-person learning circles required a $20 deposit that would be returned upon participation as a way to ensure attendance. The amount of $20 was chosen to be significant enough to encourage someone to honor their registration yet insignificant enough to give up should someone need to cancel. I also accepted checks for the very few beekeepers who did not use PayPal.

Seven online (total of 9 offered) and 6 in-person learning circles were delivered as shown in the table below.



Delivery method

First hive inspections



In person

Spring hive inspections


Legal considerations for businesses



In person


In person




In person 

Nontraditional hives


Late hive inspections


Swarms and cutouts


Feedback session (was culminating)

In person

Accountability and leadership





In person

The online learning circles were offered once a month from April 2023 - January 2024. In-person learning circles were scheduled according to the availability of the presenter, related resources, and seasonal appropriateness.

Three deviations from the project proposal occurred. First, the Extraction Learning Circle with Mike was something I had planned for this project but couldn’t get a commitment before submitting. He ended up committing a month and a half before the event, which I promoted the same as the other learning circles and took a $20 non-refundable fee from everyone. The fee was used as rent for the space since it was not included in the grant budget. Because no grant funds were used for Mike, he and the participants were not surveyed.

The second deviation was the Culminating event in November. My Partner Beth was injured and unable to make the event and it was close enough to the date of the learning circle that I was unable to cancel the food and room reservation. Therefore, I treated that time as an open house to get feedback from attendees about past and future learning circles.

I rescheduled with Beth for Feb. 2024, and decided to assemble a marketing panel around her storytelling for the last in-person learning circle. This learning circle incorporated storytelling at one station (with the Partner), tasting at another, DIY branding at a third station, and selling at markets as a fourth station.

The third deviation was the lack of an administrative assistant. The Iowa Farmers Union thought I could use their staff, and it did not work out. I took on those duties at the budgeted rate as needed.


Research results and discussion:

Every learning circle had a paper or online survey given immediately after the event. Learning circles were seen as a way to potentially improve Economic Sustainability, Production and Production Efficiency, and Social Sustainability, pointing back to the objectives:

  • Increase sustainability of beekeeping operations
  • Increase social connections
  • Increase sustainability of financial operation

I will include the culminating event in the category for in-person field days (for a total of 4 in-person field days) to show delivered results against the objective.


Type of event



In-person learning circle



Online learning circle



Registration by QR code and hyperlinked text was successful. Overall, time was not spent on optimizing social media platforms and conversion rates of getting someone from a promotion to a registration. I would say that word of mouth will only get a person ‘so far,’ and that registrations came from people I did not personally know and from people residing outside of a one hour radius from the in-person sites.

Learning circles were delivered online and in person.


Type of learning circle



% attended














A total of 153 unique participants were counted, showing that people signed up for multiple events. The audio recordings taken during the Feb. event show that awareness of prior events was very low among some participants and they liked the format enough to wish they had attended past learning circles. One goal of the project was to reach “lone ranger” beekeepers, but I did not include club membership on my surveys, so I was unable to track this in an organized way. 

With no registrants or attendees at the Dec. 2023 and Jan. 2024 online learning circles, I stopped offering online sessions for the remaining months of 2024. The topics of Dec. and Jan. were receiving participant feedback, determining future steps. Without people attending, I used those scheduled times to compare them against the zoom calls with guest speakers and concluded that participants prefer that “someone” (me) choose topics that are presented by guest speakers. 

This conclusion matched what I found with a Farmer-Rancher grant (FNC21-1289) that I held in 2021-22. One objective of the grant was to distribute planners for beekeepers to complete themselves. What I learned was that the majority of beekeepers wanted “someone” (me) to record dates and species rather than learn to identify species and track them on their own.

I also considered that Dec. and Jan.’s learning circles were promoted by email and social media only – no preceding in-person learning circle. Additionally, I widened my view of the community landscape and noticed that very few bee club meetings occur in this time period, so perhaps community preferences are to have no gatherings between the state honey producers convention and the end of beginning beekeeping classes.

Choosing to use deposits of $20 for in-person learning circles seemed like an acceptable amount for not showing up. I received no complaints about the fee, only regrets that they couldn’t be there. To increase the attendance rate of the virtual learning circles, I have considered adding a refundable $5 deposit and sending more short-term notices about the meeting in 2024.

People will drive the distance for the right topic! See the red pins on the map below.


learning circle participant pins

Topics attracted a wide variety of beekeepers for a wide variety of reasons.

Hands-on learning had high attendance and participants from over an hour away from the event site tells me that the topics and format were appropriate. 

I had partners involved in in-person learning circles. These partners used considerable resources above and beyond that of the 7 speakers I hosted for online learning circles. Partners Randall Cass, Tyler Lane, and Ben Hoksch and the three presenters from the Marketing Learning Circle including Partner Beth Hoffman, Sara Todd Holton and Brandon Glenn were surveyed in February 2024, after all in-person learning circles were finished.

Lastly, I had budgeted for an administrative assistant. The Iowa Farmers Union thought I could use their staff, and we were unable to work out arrangements. I took on those duties at the budgeted rate as needed or completely ignored the separation to simply get the tasks finished. Having this role filled would be extremely helpful, and I wonder if a paid learning circle, rather than grant-funded learning circle, might yield someone for this role in exchange for free tuition

Participation Summary
153 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

7 Online trainings
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
6 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

153 Farmers participated
14 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Iowa Specialty Crop Producers Convention, Jan 2024

Southwest Iowa Beekeepers Club, Mar 2024

Iowa Farmers Union, forthcoming

Learning Outcomes

153 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • grafting

  • cutouts and swarms

  • queening

  • extraction

  • nontraditional hives

  • first, spring, and last of the season hive inspections

  • splits

  • marketing

  • legal considerations

Project Outcomes

5 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Economic sustainability: Tyler, Ben, Brandon, Beth, Sara - four of these people began offering the same workshops on their own or with me after this project; three of them were presenting past or passion work with this project and reported a “reactivation” from the project. 

Environmental sustainability: does not apply

Social sustainability: most participants gave me spoken word comments about wanting more time to visit among themselves at some point during our in-person time. Not that they didn’t appreciate the scheduled programming, but they felt very comfortable and free to talk in a small group as opposed to large groups.

Success stories:

Surveys were administered according to the learning circle delivery. 

this presentation increased your knowledge about the topic

this presentation changed your attitude about the topic for the better

this presentation changed your awareness about the topic for the better

this presentation will increase your economic benefits (leading to a more sustainable business or increased sales)

this presentation  will improve the environmental benefits of your apiary, such as increasing soil, water, or air quality

this presentation will change your social benefits, such as gaining larger support network and potentially helpful connections







Partner Comments:

  • Thanks for the opportunity to put this together! I hope to spend some time developing these into separate and more in depth talks that I might offer to bee clubs for a fee. Maybe take it on the road! (see image of Cody and Ben at the barn)
    cody and ben at the cutout learning circle
    cody and ben at the cutout learning circle
  • Loved participating and connecting with other beekeepers
  • I had a nice time with the Learning Circle group and I would be happy to collaborate again.
  • I found the work interesting and engaging.
  • I would like to go further in depth [on my topic]. 
tyler helping jamie with grafting
Tyler helping Jamie with grafting

Participant Survey Comments 

  • This was time well spent.
  • I think this program is amazing and valuable! I appreciated this learning circle very much and excited to participate in more in the future
  • The video with a speaker talking us through the video really works.
  • I just wish that I had had this experience when I first started beekeeping and finding no support for assessing my hives. Beekeeping is one of those life-long learning experiences.
  • Thank you, this was great to try it. I wanted to focus and learn grafting this year. I tried once but failed because I didn't manipulate the hive appropriately. This class was great and I'm excited to go home and give it a proper go. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise!
  • Oh my gosh! This was such a great learning experience. A huge thank you to the grant people for offering the grant, and to Julia and Taylor [sic] for their hard work of putting all of this together. Thank you !!!
  • Great class. Makes grafting much more approachable.
  • [G]reat learning circle. walked away with alot more confidence in my cutout abilities
  • Ben was a Fantastic Presenter on the Procedure of doing a Cut Out. I Learned Soo much and got a much better Idea of what is involved in the Process. I Feel much more prepared and appreciate the Hands-on experience!
  • I hope to be able to do a cutout or 2 next Summer and I really appreciate all the Tips and Tricks Ben has Shared. I feel like maybe I'll be able to start with a leg up!
  • I appreciate the quality level of expertise available, friendly and inviting - not intimidating
  • I enjoyed today! Very informative! Thank you!

A small circle of peers was successful in increasing engaged participation as evidenced by the audio recordings taken during the storytelling component of the Marketing Learning Circle. Here is a transcription from one participant’s audio. He had been to multiple online and in-person learning circles:

Yeah, well, it’s not lecture. Yeah, I sit back in a lecture in a big group. And of course, for lectures or like our conferences, they’re a lot bigger groups.

It can be a little intimidating sometimes to ask the questions you want to, because maybe everybody else in the room knows this. And maybe I'll pick it up somewhere else. And I don't ask.

And I've never had in any of the groups with any of the beekeepers, anybody go, “Oh, wow. Everybody knows that.” Everyone's always very gentle. Beekeepers are a great group. But for the learning circles, like today, we've just got, you know, 15 people maybe, and it's all very intimate and you can ask anything and everybody's very comfortable with each other in that smaller group. I don't know if it's a thing with beekeepers that we might be a little more introverted, but we sure seem to be more comfortable in smaller groups and just one on one with folks or alone with our bees.

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Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.