Michael Palmer and The Sustainable Apiary

Happy Hollow Apiaries
Happy Hollow Apiaries

This will be a quick synopsis of Mr. Palmer’s nearly 5 hours of material. Does that sound like a very long time? Anyone who has watched his lectures on YouTube will understand how those 5 hours flew by.

Palmer has a direct, no-nonsense speaking style that gets right to the point and stays there. In the course of his decades long career in beekeeping he has listened, tested and learned…and fortunately for the rest of us is generous in passing along his field-tested findings.

It would not be possible to set down his points in detail: Palmer simply presented too much that was useful, often ground-breaking and always interesting. Hence the links, below, to his full lectures. But I will try to summarize his famous “Sustainable Apiary” approach and touch on any topic that as a beekeeper I found particularly valuable.

queenframes Alaska Bee Initiative
from Alaska Bee Initiative

In his early years as a commercial beekeeper, Michael Palmer took on a contract to pollinate a large apple orchard. It quickly became apparent that winter and transport losses could only be made up through purchases of spring packages, crushing profits and pinching cash flow. Caught on the bee-loss/bee-purchase treadmill, Palmer was desperate to find a better way.

Kirk Webster was working with nucleus colonies and urged Palmer to do the same. Old bee books (Brother Adam, Vickery, Wedmore) also provided clues, encouraging the use of nucleus colonies as winter queen banks and resource factories to cover off apiary needs. Experimentation ensued, during which Palmer discovered he could produce all the bees and queens he needed from the bees he already had.

The formula for doing so depended on two things: overwintering queens in small colonies, and the Palmer Triangle, below:

Palmer Triangle

Nucleus colonies in the apiary produce extra frames of brood. That brood is used to boost production colonies, and production colonies are managed to produce honey and/or queen cells for mating nucs, which in turn produce new, improved queens for the nuc colonies.

Palmer cites his records from 2011, when from 50 overwintered nucleus colonies, he harvested 245 frames of brood (May 9-June 19 = 3 weeks), and after June 19, enough brood to create 330 nucleus colonies, for a total of (are you sitting down?) nearly 900 frames of brood. The new nucs were made with 2 frames of brood, 1 honey, 1 empty comb, and enough bees to cover the brood and honey frames. They built up and wintered.

These numbers may elude mortal beekeepers, but any beekeeper could benefit from adopting some of Michael Palmer’s key techniques.

The cornerstone of the operation is well-cared-for nucleus colonies, headed by select queens. Queens are selected based on yard records, and are produced under the best possible rearing conditions (plenty of food, plenty of nurse bees), the best fulfilling their destiny as French Hill’s breeder queens:

“Selection gives you bees adapted to your area and management.”

bee and daisy.jpg

 Palmer also uses a variation on the typical nuc box: he splits a standard 10 frame box into two sections, divided by a thin partition such that the queens cannot cross over, under or around to get at one another. He works with 4 frames in each half, and the halves have entrances on opposite short sides of the 10 frame box. When a nuc becomes crowded, he adds a second storey in the form of another 4 frame super, each side getting their own when needed. This maintains queen separation.

French Hill

Side by side in the outer shell, the two colonies share warmth and thus can expand more efficiently than a colony in a single. They cluster against the partition, which marks the centre of the collective brood nest. This configuration is taken into winter, where again the shared warmth assists in good overwintering, and in early and rapid spring foraging and buildup.

As the individual nuc colonies approach crowding, brood is pulled and replaced by foundation (wax or waxed plastic) and the excess brood is used for:

  • replacing winter losses
  • boosting weak colonies
  • increase
  • income (selling nucs/brood)
  • brood factories
  • populating cell builders
  • creation of new nucleus colonies

These practices relieve pressure on production (honey) colonies, such that they are not weakened and can meet the flow with max forager forces (receiving brood boosts if necessary). Double nuc colonies receive a queen excluder under a honey super during nectar flows and also put up a honey crop. Note that the double nuc colonies work the upper honey super cooperatively and do not fight.

Production colonies that are healthy but exhibit sub-par performance are dequeened (the famous Hive Tool Test) and broken up into nucleus colonies, moved to another yard to prevent drifting, and are given a ripe queen cell or queen.

wvbeekeeper.jpg

Once drones are available, queen rearing begins. Palmer grafts from his best queens, ensures that hives raising queen cells are well fed (1:1 syrup and pollen frames or pollen sub) and stocked with plenty of nurse bees. Ten days after grafting, the ripe cells are placed in mating nucs. Queens are harvested 2 weeks after emergence, when they should be mated and laying, and are marked, then sold or used. The dequeened mating nucs receive another ripe queen cell, rinse and repeat. Note that drone mother hives headed by superior queens are placed to enrich local drone congregation areas.

All colonies are monitored for mite levels and when necessary are treated. Because queens who maintain hives with low mite levels are selected for (as well as for productivity, overwintering, spring buildup, health and temperament), Palmer finds he has been able to reduce his mite treatment frequency.

“Our job as beekeepers is to maintain each of our colonies in the strongest condition possible.”

population

To summarize:

  • run nucleus colonies, siphoning off brood and bees as they become crowded
  • use those siphoned-off resources to fill needs elsewhere in the apiary
  • use nucs to requeen sub-par colonies or cover off losses
  • run a queen breeding program using your finest queens and drone mothers
  • if you find better queens, add them to your program
  • support, not plunder, your production hives
  • control for Varroa mites and disease
  • ensure colonies are well fed, well housed and wrapped for winter

There is no question Palmer’s approach is practical and effective. Foremost among the many problems solved is that of having to import bee packages to replace losses, which all too often means the import of pests, diseases and inferior/unsuitable bees and bee genes.

It is worth noting that these methods, while clearly explained and easy to understand, demand a high degree of organization, scheduling, preparation and commitment: in beekeeping as in so many other worthy endeavours, aspiration is only realized via perspiration!

Michael Palmer’s lectures are available on YouTube, here are two of many available:

Many similar techniques and goals are demonstrated in the University of Guelph beekeeping videos, also on YouTube.

 Of particular interest to small queen breeders is the Billy Davis style Queen Castle video:

and the article Beginner to Beginner Queen Rearing by David LaFearney. These resources are good complements to Palmer’s practices.

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