2010 MBA Member Survey – Part 1: Meet an MBA Member
By Stephen E. Tilmann
When you attended the 2010 spring meeting of the MBA last March, you probably remember being asked to complete a membership survey. This survey, the first in recent memory for the MBA, will help guide future directions as MBA continues to focus on improving member communications both through its web site and the newsletter. We want to report back to the membership the results of the survey and what MBA’s leadership has learned. This is the first in a series of articles discussing the survey results.
Approximately 355 surveys were handed out and 107 were returned, for a return rate of just over 30%. This is a very high response for surveys of this kind which goes to show the interest MBA members have in their organization.
The survey focused on three areas: basic member profile, the MBA web site and the MBA newsletter. This article will discuss the first area: the typical MBA member.
Number of Hives
Nationally, the face of the American beekeeper has been changing dramatically over the past decade or two. After a steep decline in the number of beekeepers, particularly since the introduction of the varroa mite, beekeeping in general has witnessed a strong recovery in the number of people keeping bees, particularly in the small scale category. These trends are certainly reflected in the MBA membership.
Seventy five percent (75%) of MBA members report that they have 25 or less hives (see Figure 1). Twenty five hives or less is the cutoff for what the US Department of Agriculture considers as small scale beekeeping in the national agricultural census. More importantly, over 40% of MBA members report managing between 3 and 10 hives. And 1 out of 5 (20%) members only have one or two hives. With over 60% of MBA members having less than 10 hives, it is clear that “small scale” beekeeping has taken hold in Michigan. Interestingly, over 10% of those attending the spring meeting did not have any hives at all! We interpret this group as folks who are seriously interested in beekeeping and want to learn more about this hobby before they “take the plunge”. This is one reason why the program at the annual MBA meeting has shifted over the years to provide relevant and focused information for the beginning beekeeper.
Number of Years Keeping Bees
The changing nature to “small scale” beekeeping in Michigan is reflected in the next question that asked how long the respondent has been keeping bees (Figure 2). The distribution was a relatively even 20% in each of the five brackets covered in the survey. Sixty percent (60%) of the respondents report that they have been beekeepers less than 6 years and nearly two-thirds of these folks (40% of total) have been beekeepers for under two years or are just starting out.
Clearly, there has been a large recent recruitment in new beekeepers. Perhaps this is because of the extensive media coverage that bees have been receiving of late. Whatever the reason, this trend represents a huge opportunity for both the local bee clubs and MBA. These new beekeepers appear eager to obtain knowledge and information regarding their new venture into beekeeping. A partnership between MBA and the local bee clubs would appear to make sense. The local bee clubs can provide frontline support and networking for new beekeepers within their local areas. MBA can backstop these efforts by sponsoring state-wide conferences that gather a wide range of experienced beekeepers for instructional classes and bring in national speakers who otherwise would be outside the scope (and perhaps budget) of the local club’s venue.
Another interesting observation of Michigan beekeepers is that the distribution is about the same among the tenure brackets of the survey. One would expect that there would be a skew toward the newer beekeepers and then the number would drop off as people lose interest and stop beekeeping. Apparently, this is not the case – at least among MBA members. It looks like once you are a beekeeper, you stay a beekeeper. The challenge this observation presents is the need for MBA and local clubs to provide a progressive level of advanced beekeeping skills and information that members will be seeking as they gain experience over the years.
Selling Hive Products
It was a surprise to learn (at least to this beekeeper) that 60% of the MBA membership do not sell hive products at this time (see Figure 3). In hindsight, this number makes sense since 75% of MBA members have 10 hives or less. Most beekeepers who do sell hive products (probably mostly honey) know that you take care of family and friends first, and then sell what is left over. Also, it takes a critical number of hives to harvest enough honey to have a surplus to sell; apparently a majority of MBA members have not reached ” and may never reach” this number.
For MBA, the take home message in these data may be twofold. First, the need may exist to provide basic “how to” marketing information for those beekeepers transitioning from the 60% who do not sell honey to the 40% who do. Second, there may be a need to provide “how to” information for using hive products other than honey. For example, information on making personal care items, such as lip balms, lotions and sunscreens, may very well find a receptive audience in those members who do not sell honey or other hive products. Indeed, it may well be the case that many of these small scale beekeepers do not even realize that hive products can be used to home manufacture wholesome, healthy and effective lotions, potions and poultices.
Membership in a Local Club
Sixty four percent (64%) of MBA members are also members of a local club, but a third (33%) of the respondents are not (Figure 4). For the local clubs, the message is clear: there are beekeepers out there that can be recruited for membership. MBA can help by “spreading the word” regarding the advantages and benefits of not only being an MBA member but also a member of a local bee club. In this respect, MBA and local bee clubs are partners with the same goal of promoting beekeeping and helping the beekeeper be successful.
Member Age Distribution
Another surprise (to this beekeeper) was the age distribution of the MBA members (Figure 5). Eighty eight percent (88%) – almost 4 out of 5 members – are over the age of 40. Ten percent (10%) are between the ages of 26 to 40 years and only 1% are under the age of 26. In retrospect, we wish we would have had more fidelity in the “over 40” group by providing a few more age brackets on the survey (perhaps next time).
An argument could be made that the future of beekeeping in Michigan – and the future of both the local clubs and MBA – lie in that 10% between the ages of 26 and 40. Indeed, a better argument could be made that the future lies in the 1% under the age of 26!
If the purpose of MBA (and the local bee clubs) is to promote beekeeping, then it would seem clear that attention should be paid to those two groups under age 40. That is the future; the over 40 group, to put it bluntly, is the past. These younger generations of beekeepers think differently – and are motivated by a different set of values – than perhaps are the “old timers”. These younger beekeepers – particularly the under 26 cohort – communicate differently and seek their information from different sources. They grew up in the age of computers, the internet and instant messaging. Email is what “old folks” use and social networking and texting is where it is at.
Reaching out to these younger beekeepers is perhaps that hardest task ahead of MBA and the local clubs. How can this be done? Many beekeepers and bee clubs provide a “beekeeping experience” for grade school science classes. All well and good but perhaps an additional focus on high school age students – those who are old enough to actually take up beekeeping – would be appropriate. Beekeeping clubs need to be creative and explore activities that engage young adults beyond the traditional venues such as Future Farmers of America (FFA) nature centers and young adult organizations. (Did you know that the Boy Scouts cancelled the beekeeping merit badge? Would activism by local beekeepers be enough for the Boy Scouts to reverse this decision?)
This author certainly does not have the answers, but we do recognize the problem…and that is the first step toward seeking the solutions (and we emphasize the use of the plural). Without data it is impossible to measure progress toward a goal. And the age distribution revealed by the 2010 MBA membership survey provides a first glimpse of useful data.� Perhaps MBA, in partnership with the local clubs, can set a goal to shift the over 40 age distribution from 88% to 80% in a span of 5 years? That certainly seems modest and monitoring the age profile of members can serve as a useful measure of progress towards the goal of maintaining a long lasting community of Michigan beekeepers.
So there you have it…this is what a typical MBA member looks like in the spring of 2010. In future articles we will explore in depth the other two subject areas of the survey: member attitudes toward the MBA web site and the newsletter. The complete survey results can be found on the current MBA web site http://www.michiganbees.org under the “About” menu option. It makes for an interesting read.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily express those of MBA or the MBA Board.