A View From French Hill

By: Adam Foster Collins

Meeting Mike Palmer, Part 1

Vermont is my childhood home and bees have been in my family for generations. I read Dadant’s First Lessons and Enoch Tompkins’ Practical Beekeeping when I was still in elementary school. I worked bees with my Grandfather every summer while growing up through the 80s. However, I never had bees of my own until 2009, when I had finished university and was living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. By then, Colony Collapse Disorder, the Varroa mite and the Internet had combined to make bees a hot topic in public discourse. Interest in beekeeping was about to take off like never before, and I was swept up with it.

While fear of doomsday for the bee was stoked through viral news, the internet also provided a platform for an international exchange of ideas, opinions and information. Through conversations online, anyone could access and take part in a living microcosm of the entire subject of apiculture and its major schools of thought. The debate at that time was lively to say the least.

There was a rapid influx of new beekeepers who were under the impression that the mismanagement and greed of commercial beekeepers were largely to blame for the decline of the honey bee. This meant that the long-held traditions and methodologies of modern beekeeping were now in question. There was a perception that the entire subject of apiculture required a reevaluation and this proved highly attractive to people. In essence, bees and beekeeping needed to be saved.

The wave of new beekeepers with so little trust in experienced beekeepers created a real and pressing need for mentors and teachers. Who could they look to for practical information? For the most part, it turned out to be the new beekeepers themselves. Almost overnight, websites and blogs dedicated to beekeeping appeared to fill the void. Well-meaning and enthusiastic people with less than five full seasons of experience were publishing books and DVD’s, giving talks and teaching classes on how to keep bees.

To their credit, many of the experienced beekeepers did not turn away from this potentially insulting and frustrating situation. Perhaps because of their deep love of the bee, they stuck it out. They swallowed their pride, pulled in their horns (well, most of the time) and stayed in the discussion. Truthfully, I think most would now admit to having benefitted from the forced reexamination of their work and the heated debate at every step.

I was certainly attracted to the idea of making a difference and ‘saving’ the bees, which had been so important to my growing up. So I tried a lot of ideas and enjoyed these efforts with genuinely good intentions. As I tried, I learned. And as I learned, I found myself wanting to share what I’d learned and did so. But a common saying emerged online:

“If you want to know the answer to everything, just ask a second year beekeeper.” It hurt, but I had to admit that it rang true.

It was at around this time that I began to notice the posts of Mike Palmer in discussion forums on the internet. Through all of the combative posturing between competing philosophies, Mike was making an impression by meeting each with clear logic and a respectful demand for reasons and results. Over time, I read along as Mike challenged one apparent guru after another; taking them to task on their theories and methods. Whatever the position, Mike was always ready to challenge it with hard-won experience. In doing so, he helped people like me to make better choices with our bees.

I learned that Mike was an old-school commercial beekeeper from Vermont. He started a discussion thread online in January of 2007 called Wintering Nucs, in which he outlined his method of using resources from non-productive colonies to make nucleus colonies. These nucs were overwintered and sold or used to make up for losses in the Spring. That thread continued there with 271 replies and countless views over an 11 year period. Its content has resulted in scores of new conversations and the experimentations of thousands of other beekeepers.

In that early post, Mike credited Kirk Webster, a longtime friend and ‘sometimes mentor’ with encouraging him to experiment with nucleus colonies. Mike took the whole thing to another level and deserves credit for that, but the fact that he gave a nod to a beekeeper that shared his knowledge, resonated with me and added to my respect for both of them. I was particularly pleased to know that this sharing of information between respected beekeepers was happening in my home state and it made me feel a bit homesick.

Mike and queen cells

While I admired Mike Palmer, I must admit that he scared me. He seemed so sharp and methodical in his analysis and criticism. As I read along, I witnessed his dissection of many arguments with clarity and efficiency that could only come from years of actually doing it. It became clear to me that such experience and understanding was exceedingly rare – even in discussion groups with contributors numbering in the tens of thousands. I tried to find out more about Mike, but he did not have a website and there wasn’t a lot of information out there.

In the Spring of 2011, the first video of Mike Palmer’s presentation The Sustainable Apiary, was posted by the Prince William Regional Beekeepers Association (PWRBA). They had invited Mike to Virginia to speak to their club and got his permission to record and share the talk online. I must have watched it 10 times. There was so much practical information in that one presentation, that each time I listened to it, I learned something new.

In the video, PWRBA club member Karla Eisen does the introduction. Years later, I asked Karla about that time and how she came to know Mike.

“In 2008, our club had received a SARE grant to compare the performance of packages with that of nucleus colonies. We were in the planning stages when we saw Mike give a presentation to the Virginia State Beekeepers meeting, and right away, we were like, ‘This is the guy’. He had so much experience and a practical plan for how to manage nucs. So I went right up to him after that meeting, introduced myself and we really hit it off. When he visited our club in 2011, we got his permission and hired someone to do a proper recording.”

For several years, the Prince William Regional Beekeepers’ video was really the only Mike Palmer presentation available online, but in 2013, the dam broke.

In October of that year, Mike was invited to speak at the 82nd annual National Honey Show in the UK and he did three presentations. First was a revised version of The Sustainable Apiary, then Queen Rearing in the Sustainable Apiary, and Comb Honey Production in the Northern Champlain Valley. Each of these talks are like precious gems in terms of practical information for the modern beekeeper. Thankfully, the organizers decided to share these high-quality recordings on the internet. Word quickly spread of their existence and info-starved beekeepers like myself rabidly gobbled them up. The last time I checked, the three talks had been viewed a combined total of almost half a million times.

This exposure snowballed as more clubs invited Mike Palmer to speak and published their videos online. People visited Mike’s apiary and interviewed him in the field with iPhones and more videos appeared.

Mike checking the breeders

Mike’s refinement of wintering nucleus colonies was core to his teaching, and turned into something that people took up at all levels. Hobbyists and commercial beekeepers alike employed aspects of Mike’s ideas and it wasn’t long before many of them were making videos of their own. The equipment manufacturers capitalized on the trend by offering ‘palmer-style nucs’ and ‘resource hives.’

Through his sharing of practical information, Mike Palmer became one of the most widely respected beekeepers in the world. By 2014, it was hard to find a beekeeper who didn’t know his name.

In my own life about a year later, my father broke his back in a work accident, and it really highlighted how far from home I was. I decided to leave Canada and return to Vermont to be near my family. I sold my bees in Nova Scotia, landed a great corporate job in Middlebury and bought a dozen colonies to start my beekeeping there. I was still keeping bees treatment free after six years.

In April of 2016, Mike posted a video of himself opening a hive in the early Spring and adding pollen substitute. There’s still snow on the ground in the video, but when he opens the hive, it is just teeming with bees. You can’t even see the top bars. It blew me away. None of my hives looked like that in the Spring.

Interestingly, I still had not met Mike. We lived about an hour and a half south of his place, but I think I was somehow still timid about meeting him. Although Mike was critical of the treatment free approach, I was convinced that breeding from survivor queens was the only way to beat the mite, and was committed to seeing it through. I hoped to reach some point of success before imposing myself on Mike’s valuable time. Unfortunately, it would be just the opposite.

In late July, my bees began to collapse from mite damage and a drought compounded the problem. I broke down and treated with formic acid, but it was too late. Between August and November, I went from 72 colonies down to 50. By Christmas, there were only fourteen left. I decided it was time to meet Mike Palmer and contacted him about a visit.

On the 28th of January, I drove to snowy St. Albans and then up the winding French Hill Road to Mike’s place. A big, white dog appeared in front of me in the drive, barking. Mike had told me to look for a yellow jeep and there it was, parked between two large, board and batten barns. I pulled in and shut off the Subaru, leaving only the sound of the dog.

I could see footprints in the snow leading to a side door in the larger barn. I knocked. Nothing. I tried the door and it creaked open. I recognized the two big extractors from a video I’d seen online. Mike Palmer’s honey house. I stepped inside. I could hear a radio in the distance and noticed light coming from another door inside. BAP! BAP! BAP! It was the sound of a pneumatic stapler.

“Hello?” I called out in the direction of the door.

“HEL-LO!.” It was Mike. I made my way to the door and looked into his wood shop. He had his back to me and was still holding the staple gun. “Just a sec, this glue is wet.” BAP-BAP-BAP! I leaned on the door frame. “Shouldn’t you be on vacation this time of year?” I asked over the sound of the gun. He set it aside, turned and reached out to shake my hand. “This is my vacation,” he replied. “I don’t have to be out in those friggin’ beeyards for a while.”

Mike appeared to be pure energy. He almost seemed to vibrate and never really stopped moving. His keen intellect and inquisitive nature was immediately apparent in conversation and he seemed to know a little about a lot. We shared thoughts about people and conversations we were both aware of online. We talked about ‘internet experts’ and how rampant misinformation can lead many well-meaning beekeepers down some pretty misguided paths. I told him about my treatment free effort and about my recent losses and was struck by the fact that he was not in the least bit condescending and showed no sense of an “I told you so” attitude.

“Drought late Summer, followed by a spike in mite numbers. I’ve seen it before in 2011. Don’t worry,” he said, “we’ll get you fixed up.” I had no idea what he meant exactly but I must admit, at that moment I felt a lot better. I was actually talking bees one-on-one with Mike Palmer in his Vermont wood shop. It was pretty great.

Like Edward O. Wilson or Tom Seeley, Mike has an almost childlike enthusiasm for bees and for nature as a whole. While certainly critical, Mike is also warm-hearted and light. He loves to tell stories and laugh. Unravelling the mysteries and chasing the elusive next big honey season gets him up in the morning and likely fills his dreams at night.

In that conversation, I revealed that I had been soul-searching regarding my career and my interests as well as my hesitations about beekeeping as a vocation. He told me about his crew and about how things work in his operation and said that I was welcome to join the team for the coming season. I knew that learning from someone like him directly could make all the difference in reaching my goals. He said that they would begin early inspections of hives in late March or early April and suggested that I come along sometime on a weekend to get my feet wet. I agreed that I would.

After five hours of conversation, I returned to my car and made the drive south to my place. I called my Dad on the way home to tell him about the meeting and about how much I enjoyed it.

About two months later, on April fools Day, I got this email from Mike:

We’re planning on working tomorrow. Weather report keeps changing.

Hoping to go to NY. If we can only get a few hours of good weather, we’ll work in Vermont nuc yards.

We usually meet at my shop at 8-8:15.

I was there the next morning. There was six inches of fresh snow on French Hill, but it was forecast to become sunny and warmer through the day. I arrived to find Mike loading his truck for the day’s work. The white dog was there, barking.

“It’s okay, Wilson. You’ve met Adam before.”

You know how pet people each have their own, strangely high-pitched baby talk for animals? Mike has that. Wilson stopped barking but kept his distance.

We loaded 30 pound blocks of fondant and buckets of pre-mixed pollen substitute for feeding bees. We would go to some of his New York yards and check for colony strength, food stores and add pollen sub. We put our smokers in old metal sap buckets, Mike’s preferred method of transport, and one small connection to his prior work in maple before he got into bees.

As we rolled out in Mike’s flatbed truck, he talked excitedly. The new season and interested company had him energized. He pointed out everything as we drove; the alder flowers in the marsh along French Hill Road, tree types that will give nectar and pollen later in the season, historic sites, places he used to have bees, and places other people once had bees. He filled me in on the histories of lands and farms and people here and long gone. His having lived in the area for 40 years gives him a connection and a storyline for everything around us.

Mike was born into a classic American childhood; playing out his early years in the post-war 50s in Garden City, New York on Long Island. He played baseball and stick ball with his school friends growing up. His father was an accountant with American Home Products. As a kid, Mike caddied at the Garden City Golf Club, where his father was a member. Mike attended the University of Vermont in the 70s and intended to become a veterinarian, but became frustrated with what he felt were unnecessary courses and dropped out. He and his wife, Leslie, were part of a commune in St Albans, Vermont, for several years. When the group parted ways, Mike and Leslie got a share of the land on French Hill, where they still reside today.

The conversation absorbed me, and the hour and a half drive to the other side of Lake Champlain seemed like no time at all.

Mike slowed the truck and we drove along the edge of a nondescript field and into the brush. Before long, we came to a small clearing where another, smaller truck was parked next to a group of tar paper-clad hives in the snow. A man got out of the truck. He had long, grey hair and a handlebar mustache, complete with a carefully waxed curl at each end. It was Kork, Mike’s friend and long-time helper and, as I would later come to know, a great beekeeper in his own right.

Mike in the beeyard

Kork is ex-military and quickly gave me the rundown on the day’s operation. The plan was to open each hive, check the cluster size and food stores. If they were light, we would add a chunk of fondant and a pollen patty; if they were heavy, just the pollen sub. Each hive would get marked weak, medium or strong and a deadout would be broken down, diagnosed and loaded on the truck to bring back to the honey house.

The very first hive I opened was incredible. I couldn’t even see the top bars under all the bees. Not only that, the hives were two deeps and a medium, and there were bees coming out the bottom entrance as well.

By day’s end, we’d checked more than 200 hives and found only a handful dead. Mike was feeling upbeat and I was deeply impressed. After six years treatment free, and becoming accustomed to a certain norm for spring bees, the bar for ‘good wintering’ was now set at a new height. The video I saw a year earlier was no fluke; it was the real deal. When it comes to keeping healthy bees, Mike Palmer knows what he’s talking about.

I returned home feeling very fortunate to have the experience of working with Mike. I was even more excited about bees and about my own prospects as a beekeeper.

Conversely, back at my little corner of corporate America, things were getting worse. Our exciting littleengine- that-could company in Vermont was taken over by a giant corporation from another state and I was laid off with thirty other people in May. While many were in tears and exchanging bitter dialogue that day, I quickly left the office and was back in my bees within the hour. I’ve since decided that the corporate environment really isn’t the place for me. There are no bees there.

Later that season, I got a text from Mike.

“We’re catching queens Tuesday if you’d like to come along.”

He didn’t need to ask me twice. I was there at 8 am that Tuesday, and I’ve pretty much been there ever since.

Mike’s nuc.

Mike talks about measuring beekeeping experience in “bee years”. Taking care of one hive for a year is equal to one bee year. Ten hives is 10 bee years. I’m now entering my third season at French Hill and we care for around a thousand hives, so the bee years have been adding up for me. But perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is how very little any of us know for sure. The miracle of the bee and our inability to completely understand her is much of what captures us and holds us.

The other day, as Mike and I rode along through the Vermont farmland, he told me the story of how he used to drive an aging beekeeper around on his route. He said the old guy would tell him tales of days gone by, and that he’d never realize that he’d told Mike these things a million times. It’s a good story and he apparently has no idea that he’s told it to me before, but I don’t mind. I feel blessed to be riding along, hearing it again.