Friday, January 10, 2014

The Sustainable Apiary by Mike Palmer

Recently Mr. Palmer was invited to do a series of talks at the National Honey Show in England. Graciously for us these presentations were filmed and made available to everyone. Previously, there was an earlier video for the sustainable apiary which is also worth the watch. Here and there you might find a small clip of Michael Palmer discussing a technique, or giving a short explanation about how he does something. It is not long till you figure out “this man knows what he is talking about”

I had a great deal of questions about his system that I scoured Internet forums for answers to, even asking Palmer himself –which he was more than happy to answer. His operation is big, it’s involved, and during the season it is running. This can make it a little difficult for the novice beekeeper to catch on to. I had watched all these videos a multitude of times, and it was not until I sat down with a notebook, constantly rewinding I started to be able to piece it all together.

To understand how this works, you must understand the ‘why’. Today beekeepers experience winter losses, that in the spring they replace by making splits, and ordering packages/queens. The demands of pollination has significantly increased the price of these packages, as well as lowered the quality. Consequently this means that if you are buying these packages to replace your stock you are probably just scraping by financially.

Now what if we could make our own nucleus colonies, our own queens, which are adapted to your climate, and of better quality to replace our stocks or use for increases for FREE (ok not free, but close). All of a sudden you aren’t buying early packages and queens from stocks that are not adapted to your climate, that are more likely to overwinter. Get off the package treadmill! Bees’ dying does not make for fun beekeeping, its heart breaking, and its costly –no one wins!

Here comes Michael Palmer, showing us the way. He’s the first to admit this is not his idea. Kirk Webster introduced him to the idea of overwintering nucs. Once he started digging a little deeper, low and behold Brother Adam, and a host of old-timers were doing it as well. This is not a new idea!

This can appeal to me! In Ontario, we can’t order packages. The only way to replace your bees is to split them, or buy nucleus colonies. With all the bees dying in Ontario this has driven the prices of nucleus colonies up to almost $200. In northern Vermont (where Michael Palmers apiary is,) they experience the same harsh winters we do. I can’t afford to replace 50% of my bees each year at $200 bucks a nuc; but I can afford to try and follow in the footstep of someone who just frankly know better (and more).

Sustainability is about having a system that sustains itself, and the parts of that system are interconnected and sustain other parts in that system. Recognizing this Palmer has broken this down into three parts:


The nucleus colonies can become your production colonies, they can boost your production colonies, they can make new nucleus colonies, they are “…nothing more than a queen with support staff,” for requeening. The production colonies are there to make honey, isn’t beekeeping all about making honey? Queen Rearing colonies supply the queens to your nucleus colonies, or can be sold.

OVERWINTERED NUCLEUS COLONIES – the foundation of sustainable beekeeping.

·         What can you do with an overwinter nucleus colony?
  •          Replace winter losses
  •          Use the queens from those colonies to requeen your weak colonies, or failing queens
  •          Increase the amount of colonies you have
  •          Sell them for extra income
  •          Use the extra frames of brood from those colonies to boost production colonies, or set up cell builders.
  •          Use them to make the nucs that you plan to over winter next year

I have never run into an experienced beekeeper that will tell you not to bother having a nuc box laying around. Find a swarm? You have a swarm box. Find a swarm cell? Make a new nuc. Everyone should have a nuc box. Smart people will have more!

There are many nuc boxes on the market made out of any conceivable material. Traditionally there are five frame wooden nuc boxes, they are the norm. Palmer uses one 10 frame deep divided into half, with separate inner covers. When they get bigger he puts a little four frame super on top of that. The benefits of this are that in the winter although divided the bees form one cluster in the middle (clinging to the dividing board). In a forum post when asked “why not five frame nuc boxes,” I remember he replied “think tippy”. Fair enough.
The important part is the concept of the nucleus colony, not the box you put it in.


Traditionally in spring, beekeepers will make early splits to counter their winter losses. It’s more than common, I never questioned it. Palmer questioned it. His argument is that those hives are your production colonies by splitting; they never build up to where they could have been. Don’t split, use your overwintered nucs to replaces your losses, or increases.

In his presentations he stresses, do not weaken the prosperous colonies that are doing well. Make your nucleus colonies from non-productive colonies.

  •          Identify the weak non-productive colony
  •         Put: 2 frames of brood, 1 frame of honey, 1 empty frame in each nuc box
  •          Move to new location
  •          Add Queen or Queen Cell
  •          Check 10 days later

Lets do the math, we lose one weak colony $300 replacement value, and we gain four nucleus colonies $760. If we have to buy four queens those nucs costs us $120, or $48 in queen cells. We could let them raise their own queens, could be risky, and we lose out on one month of production. This is why queen rearing is an important concept in this system. These nucleus colonies can go on to make more nucs as well.


There are a few issues with managing nucleus colonies. They have a reputation for building up fast, which can cause them to swarm or abscond. The important concept here is that you need to give them room to expand you can counter this by:

  •          Removing a frame of brood to start a new nucleus colony, or boost a colony (BROOD  FACTORY).
  •          In his double nuc system, you could put a queen excluder on, and a honey super above they can fill.
  •          Expand to single colony
  •          Put in foundation for them to draw out (FOUNDATION FACTORY).

He has several resourceful uses for nucleus colonies. One such concept is the bee bomb. Using the nucleus colonies as a brood factory, he inspects the nuc yard removing 1-2 frames of sealed brood from each nuc until he has a box worth. He then takes this box of sealed brood and places it on a production colony that he feels could use the extra work force. In 1-12 days that colony will be overflowing with nurse bees. When building cell builders he uses a similar concept which will be addressed later.


     May 9 – Jun 19 – Harvests 245 frames of brood, to populated 35 Cell Builders
·        June 16 – July 20 – Harvests enough brood to make 330 Nucleus Colonies to Overwinter
o   Harvests 900 frames of brood in total from 50 overwintered nucs

For overwintering he simply feeds them 1-2 gallons of sugar syrup. See you next spring. You will notice the astonishing amount of productivity he can get from 50 nucleus colonies. Palmer does produce 330 nucs to overwinter, and withholds sale of 50 for use in the sustainable apiary model. Understanding the importance of the nucs is one part of the cyclical equation.

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