The sustainable apiary─brood factories & bee bombs

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.

Share your thoughts, comments or questions!

Runamuk Acres Conservation Farm
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