Keeping Honeybees in Frozen North America

Keeping Honeybees in Frozen North America

mike palmer of french hill apiaries
Mike Palmer of French Hill Apiaries.

According to Mike Palmer of French Hill Apiaries in St. Albans Vermont, success in the apiary is dependent upon two things: colonies that can grow large populations, and then─intelligent management of those populations. Mike took the stage at the 2015 annual meeting of the Maine State Beekeepers’ Association and proceeded to tell the audience about his colony management plan.

Regional climate has played a key role in Mike Palmer’s beekeeping practices. He told our audience that the weather in St. Albans comes down from Canada, across the great lakes and sweeps through the Champlain Valley. Mike said that they start to get snow there in December and it doesn’t stop until March or even April, very much like our winters here in Maine; those conditions find Mike’s hives buried under the snow and his bees have no chance for cleansing flights for months on end.

“So what does it take? How do you sustainably maintain an apiary in that kind of climate?”

Mike says you need to have 3 things:

1. Good Bees

“The key is good bees.” Mike told us. Because our bees here in the northern hemisphere spend a lot of time in winter, carefully selecting Queens that have been subjected to winter will produce hardier bees better adapted to our cold climate. Mike said he looks for hives that maintain a quiet cluster throughout the winter, because his bees have to be able to withstand long periods without cleansing flights.

2. Population Management

It takes a lot of work and dedication to manage a strong population of honeybees, Mike admitted. He says you need to start early in the season, feed the bees pollen supplement to build up populations so that when the very first nectar sources become available, your colonies will have enough bees to work it. Here in Maine those very first nectar sources would be trees like maple and willow. He ignores the old adage that dictates northern beekeepers wait for the dandelion flow before supering. Mike says to super early, and super often; providing that extra space early will help to control swarming and afford the bees with a place to store early season nectars, keeping the brood nest open. And he stressed the importance of staying ahead of the bees.

Mike re-Queens weak colonies or hives that did not overwinter well, and he talked about being ruthless is your efforts to build strong colonies. He says if you have a weak hive, don’t just nurse it along because of your affinity for your Queen. Mike asked how many beekeepers in the audience named their Queens. Then he told us that he does too; but Mike names all of his Queens “Martha”, so if Martha in hive A is not laying well─it doesn’t matter to him because he has a new Martha ready to take her place! He says you have to be ruthless, don’t give them another chance. When you find something wrong─fix it right then and there.

3. Timely Winter Preparations

According to Mike, the third thing a northern beekeeper needs in order to be able to maintain his apiary sustainably is timely winter preparations. When do you start? Mike asked the group of beekeepers assembled before him. He says the bees are making preparations all season long, and he suggests that beekeepers should do the same.

Mike weighs his hives in the fall and strives to reach a target weight of at least 160 pounds per hive; but he has some hives that have managed to cram so much honey into his 2-deep and 1-medium hive configuration, that they can weigh up to 210 pounds!

He recommends beekeepers get a scale and use it to determine if their colonies have enough stores for the winter, and if they don’t, Mike suggests feeding hives. He says beekeepers can figure 10lbs per gallon of 2:1 sugar syrup. So if the goal is 160, but your hive only weighs 130lbs, you would need to feed them 3 gallons of syrup. He says feed it all and feed it fast.

Mike uses foam board insulation and has both a lower and upper entrance on all of his hives. He doesn’t use an entrance reducer because he prefers the increase in ventilation to help blow the excess moisture out through the top of his hives. And then he wraps them with tar paper.

And that’s how Mike Palmer of French Hill Apiaries in St. Albans Vermont keeps bees in frozen North America. He says that it’s our job as beekeepers to maintain each of our colonies in the strongest condition possible, so that we can have successful and sustainable apiaries. And I have to admit that much of what he’s said makes a lot of sense to this beekeeper; I’m eager to try some of Mike’s methods in my own apiary!

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Runamuk Acres Conservation Farm