ST. ALBANS TOWN — Among the buzzing, crawling and flying bees in a hot, sunny field behind a farm on Lower Newton Road earlier this week, Mike Palmer spoke about his passion.
The 65-year-old St. Albans resident, owner of French Hill Apiaries, has been working with honeybees for some 40 years now, and is considered an expert in the field.
Palmer keeps 700 production hives and many more mating hives, producing 30 tons of honey per year. He also mates and sells his own queens, tours internationally to give presentations on beekeeping, and has no shortage of YouTube videos he’s made on the subject.
“It’s all I do. They’ve captivated me,” said Palmer of bees and his work with them.
An industrious worker
To start, Palmer was a novice like most other beekeepers when he first began in 1974. He is originally from Long Island, N.Y., but stayed in Vermont after attending an agriculture program at the University of Vermont. Upon graduating, Palmer quickly found that a sugarbush was too expensive for him to buy, so he decided to work with bees. His beekeeping skills are self-taught.
“You can do anything for 40 years and learn it,” Palmer said.
Palmer builds most of his own boxes and frames on which the bees produce his honey. His apiaries, or bee-yards, are spread around the area, divided between honey production and mating hives.
As part of a philosophy he calls “the sustainable apiary,” Palmer breeds his own queens each spring instead of buying them from southern state producers such as those in Georgia.
“They just don’t seem to work here,” he said. Palmer then added, “We should be able to grow our own bees. Raising bees is no different from raising corn, raising sheep.”
The breeding process begins in late spring in “nucs,” or smaller “nucleus” hives, where queens are grown and caught in the summer, and are caged and sold or used in Palmer’s production hives for the remaining warmer months.
The queens die in the winter, though not before leaving behind queen cells that stay viable in winter and grow once spring returns. Palmer overwinters his nucs in order to allow this to happen.
Palmer shares his success with others, giving instructional presentations on sustainable apiaries once a month or so. He travels around Vermont, to other states, and even to other countries, such as England, for these talks. He was in the United Kingdom last fall, and will be traveling there again during the winter.
Palmer is also involved with the Vermont Beekeepers Association and the Franklin County Beekeepers Club.
A sweet connection
It’s clear that, in addition to enjoying the honey and income his bees bring him, Palmer really likes the bees themselves.
“They’re fascinating,” he said. When selecting queens or other bees, he chooses those that are good tempered, since they are the type of bees he’ll then get down the line.
“It’s all genetic,” said Palmer.
Just because he picks out friendly bees doesn’t mean they don’t sting when irritated. As to be expected from a man who picks up the creatures by their wings all the time and is constantly in their presence, Palmer’s no stranger to bee stings. “I’ve gotten stung I don’t know how many times,” he said as he showed his fingers, which are lined with tiny black sting spots.
Palmer made the point, though, that people shouldn’t fear honeybees. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” he said. “They do all that work for us,” he added, referring to both honey making and pollination for much of our agriculture.
“Some people call them the angels of agriculture,” Palmer added.
Without bees and other pollinators, agriculture would be in trouble. Bees are highly efficient at transferring pollen from male to female plants so they can reproduce and create much of the food we eat.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, many beekeepers in this country saw a 30 to 90 percent decline in their honeybees in 2006, an event that has since been labeled as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Little explanation has been found for CCD, and it appears to have happened at other intervals over the 19th and 20th centuries.
Over time, CCD has reduced the bee population by a significant amount, and only about 2.5 million bee colonies are in existence today compared to the 5 million in the 1940s.
Palmer acknowledged that CCD was a problem nationwide, but also pointed out that there are other issues making honeybee populations vulnerable. He added that more and more bees are lost during Vermont winters and fewer pounds of honey are produced during the warm months.
According to Palmer, lack of forage material, such as clover, wildflowers, and other food for pollinators has created an issue in Vermont, and also corresponds to the loss of 150,000 acres of hay over the last decade.
“There’s no pastures anymore,” Palmer said. “The Champlain Valley is turning into a cornfield.”
He added, “There’s no honey in corn.”
Palmer said he is not against farmers or anything approaching that, but pointed out that a better system needs to be found.
“There’s got to be some kind of balance,” he said. “Right now, it’s really out of balance.”
In addition, Palmer pointed out that pesticides, such as Round-Up, kill a lot of bees and other critters, and that honeybees are also battling various fungal diseases and mites coming from abroad and sourcing in the U.S. One such disease, American Foulbrood, can only be eradicated by burning the infected hives.
Hobby beekeepers are susceptible to diseases especially, buying used and potentially infected equipment and lacking the proper knowledge of what difference diseases look like. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture only has one, part-time inspector who can respond to reports of honeybee disease, and according to Palmer, that inspector can only reach 30 percent of the state.
“It’s just a struggle,” Palmer said.
A sweeter future?
Despite the numerous obstacles, Palmer is optimistic that, somehow, some way, honeybees and beekeepers will keep going onward.
“I think we’re always going to have bees,” he said. “[Beekeepers are] ingenious – they’ll always find a way to keep going.”
Hobby beekeepers in general are on the rise in Vermont, with more than 2,000 in the state. Palmer sees an increase in sustainable apiaries – using homegrown queens – as a way to help ensure the future of the state’s honeybees.
“That’s the answer,” he said. “It’s very easy to do.”
Palmer has other ideas as well. “I think we have to somehow try to increase the forage,” he said, indicating that any new green space in Vermont can include pollinator food, like clover, wildflowers, and other plants. “I think that’d be a good plan,” he said.
Palmer also indicated that the state needs a more viable bee health inspection program in order to protect good honeybees from disease. Increasing the fee a beekeeper pays to register his or her hives in Vermont to help pay for a three-month, summertime inspector was Palmer’s suggestion.
As for his personal future, Palmer said he’ll keep doing what he’s been doing for as long as he can.
“I’ll always keep bees,” he said.