The sustainable apiary─brood factories & bee bombs

For years now Mike Palmer of French Hill Apiaries in St. Albans, Vermont, has been working to convince beekeepers that they can raise their own bees. He proposes beekeepers use the brood and bee-resources in non-productive hives to make mid-summer nuclei, to overwinter for replacement bees. According to the statistics beekeepers are losing 42% over the course of the winter. At the recent annual meeting of the Maine State Beekeepers Association where Mike spoke, he asked the assembly:  “Are you satisfied with your bees in the spring? Are they alive or are they dead?”the sustainable apiary


Why are they dead?

In some cases its merely the result of starvation; perhaps the beekeeper did not leave enough honey on the hive, or possibly it was a warm fall season that caused the bees to be more active and they ate through all of their stores. Other times dead-outs are the product of the Nosema fungal disease, but these days the majority of winter dead-outs are largely due to varroa and the varroa viral complex associated with severe infestations.

How do you replace the bees?

Swarms, packages, and nucs are the usual methods of restocking dead-out colonies. However swarms are becoming far and few between, package bees are not sustainable─and Mike pointed out that four different studies all found the same result: that 80% of all package bees are dead within a year. He attributes this largely to the fact that the bulk of package bees and their Queens are coming from the south and those bees are not bred for the long harsh winters that northern bees face.

Nucleus colonies are expensive to buy in for bee-replacements, but when Queens are raised locally and overwintered, the results are hives that possess longevity, as well as a more sustainable apiary.

Whose idea was it?

Mike explained how he began keeping bees in 1974 with just 2 packages of bees, took all the honey off and both hives promptly starved to death. He then took a job managing 500 hives for a local orchard. Mike fully admits that he BSed his way into the position and that he got a lot of “on the job training”. In 1986 he bought the orchards’ hives, began renting them for pollination services and then he began loosing colonies to tracheal and varroa mites. He talked about how he began buying packaged bees and nucs to replace his dead-outs, but found it unsustainable for the long-term viability of his apiary.

Then in 1997 Kirk Webster invited Mike to his apiary. When he saw all of Kirk’s nucs sitting there with beards of bees hanging off the front of them Mike said that was all he needed to see, he told Kirk to “Show me more!”

Then Mike wanted to know more about the concept of overwintering nucs and who had first come up with the idea. He began researching the topic and realized that Kirk was copying the work of Brother Adam, the world renown monk and beekeeper. Kirk had read Brother Adams’ books and had modeled his beekeeping methods after the monk’s work, which included wintering Queens.

But Mike was still curious to learn more. In 2012 at the annual conference of the Eastern Apicultural Society, Mike bought a collection of books in the silent auction, and in that collection was a book called “For the Love of Bees”, which was written by a British woman named Leslie Phil who accompanied Brother Adam to Africa on an expedition to find the Monticola honeybee. According to Mike, in her book Leslie Phil gives a little history of Buckfast Abbey, she explained how in the 1530s Henry the 8th had devastated the monastic communities, killing abbots, knocking down all the abbeys and confiscating lands and monies. So in the late 1800s Britain was in the process of rebuilding the abbeys using child labor and Brother Adam was one of those children. Brother Columbin was the head mason at Buckfast Abbey, and also the beekeeper; Columbin to a shine to Brother Adam and taught him to tend the bees.

Through their expedition and talks with the monk, Leslie Phil learned how Brother Columbin had invented a beehive where he could overwinter nucleus colonies and in the spring he could use the excess brood from those overwintered nucleus colonies to boost his production hives.

Setting up your Nucs

Nucleus Colonies
Many beekeepers buy in nucs every spring to replace dead colonies.

This is not a spring split, Mike clarifies. These nucleus colonies are put together in the middle of the main honey flow, between mid-June and mid-July. They’re tiny colonies with a little bit of brood, a little bit of honey and a small amount of pollen, a few nurse bees and workers, and of course the all important Queen.

Mike says the strategy is to sacrifice non-productive hives to makes your nucs for overwintering. These are not sick or diseased hives─they’re healthy bees that have stagnated for whatever reason.

According to Mike, the brood in that hive is the most valuable resource you have in your apiary, and you can make 4 nucs out of just 1 non-productive hive. He recommends dividing the resources up into your 4 nuc boxes and then introducing a laying Queen. He cautions against simply providing a Queen-cell because it is less successful.

Using this method, the production colonies support the nucleus colonies, and the nucleus colonies will in turn support the production colonies.

Managing your Nucs

To establish your own nucleus colonies set them up with 1 to 1.5 frames of brood, a frame of honey, a frame of pollen, and a frame of empty comb. The introduced Queen should begin laying within 10-12 days and will start building up a population. These nuc boxes are small and require a lot of management and dedication, and Mike says the beekeeper needs to watch for swarming and always be ahead of the bees.

Once the nucleus colony has expanded to fill the box, Mike stacks another nuc-box on top of it, building a 2-story double nuc-box. He says you can even super your nucs and let them make honey.

Brood Factories & Bee-Bombs

You can use these full nucs to supply your production hives with fresh comb, a boost in brood, to make Queens, or even to make more nucs. Mike explained how Brother Columbin would harvest brood from his nucs to put into productions hives.

He says if you have a “slow” hive, but you also have 10 nucs, you can take 1-frame of brood from each of your nucleus colonies and put the 10 frames into a box, and then place that box of brood under the brood nest (so it would go on the bottom) of your slow production hive. Then when the brood emerges it will provide a huge boost in population and spur greater honey production.

Mike laughingly calls these “bee-bombs” because the explosion of population that happens is something akin to a bomb going off within the hive.


What’s more, Mike says you should look at nucleus colonies not just as a means to make increases, but as a Queen with a support-staff. He urges beekeepers to grow their own Queens from stock that’s been overwintered here in the northeast.

By maximizing the number of nurse bees in a hive, beekeepers can maximize the amount of royal jelly each larvae is fed, and you can then graft an egg into a Queen-cup to raise your very own Queens.

You can do it too!

“We all lose bees in the winter, and replacing those dead colonies can be expensive. Expensive in dollars, if we have to go to the package bee and nuc dealers for our new bees, or expensive in bee resources and/or lost honey production if we have to divide our best colonies in the spring.”

Using the available brood and bee resources in our own apiaries, Mike is confident that any beekeeper can raise their own replacement bees and have a more productive and sustainable apiary.

Keeping Honeybees in Frozen North America

mike palmer
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!