I noticed that Vermont beekeeper Mike Palmer has now got a website, so here are some notes from my visit to meet him 18 months ago:
The Journey to America
I stayed with Mike and Lesley Palmer for a few days in July 2017. My daughter Clíona, who is also my beekeeping assistant, was happy to tag along for my trans Atlantic adventure, and I was grateful to have her company. Long distance travel is not my favourite thing, particularly the endless waiting around at airports, so I always try to bring somebody along. We flew from Manchester (UK) to Atlanta and then on to Burlington in Vermont.
Atlanta is a huge airport. The soft Southern voice over the tannoy was matched by the friendly smiles and the Georgia accents of the shop assistants and waiters. “I love your accent, are you British?” Clíona was asked as she purchased a rather fetching garment with “Atlanta” emblazoned across the front. We managed to resist the huge bags of Reese’s peanut butter cups, tempting though they were, and headed to a Chinese restaurant called P.F.Changs for a delicious chicken fried rice meal. The service was friendly, helpful and prompt, and the food was great. It felt right to be in America.
I had never met Mike Palmer but as we came through the arrivals lounge at Burlington he was easy to spot with his ponytail and spectacles, which I recognised from pictures and videos on the internet. Just think about how incredibly generous he was being; he had not only agreed to be interviewed in the middle of the busy beekeeping season, but he drove for an hour to meet us at Burlington airport on a Sunday night and insisted that we stayed with him at his family home. I had warned him that he might regret that decision because there are rumours that I snore. Loudly, apparently. He rather typically replied, “I said you can stay at my house, not sleep with me!”
Summer in St Albans
Mike’s house is at French Hill Apiary on the edge of St Albans in a beautiful forest area. There are cedar tiles on the sides of the house with a slate tiled roof and a red brick chimney pointing skywards from the centre. We were welcomed by a large white wolf like creature which turned out to be his pet Maremma sheepdog, called Wilson. It took a few days for Wilson to get used to the strange invaders from the UK, helped by our realisation that the couch was strictly for use by dogs, not humans. There were cats too, and they were none to pleased at being moved to the floor from their cosy chairs, but they clearly have a comfortable life and accepted the inconvenience as a small price to pay for the warmth and shelter on offer.
One thing I noticed very quickly, as an avid tea drinker, was the absence of an electric kettle. They did have tea but clearly coffee is the drink of choice in the Palmer home and there is usually a jug of hot coffee on hand. There was a very large mason jar of Mike’s honey to the side of the coffee machine which I quickly sampled. It was good honey as expected; proper honey from proper beekeepers is always good. I placed the tea bags, which I had brought with me from England as is my custom wherever I travel, next to the honey. As the song says, “wherever I lay my tea bags, that’s my home,” or some such thing.
Sleep came easily whilst I stayed in Vermont. Mike, in common with all farmers, is an early riser and, weather permitting, he likes to be out working by 6:30am. I tried to keep up but I am a night owl so could usually only manage about 8am. It was two or three days before I actually sat down to formerly interview Mike, because a combination of jet lag and disorientation meant that I did not trust myself to ask questions coherently. As it turned out, like every other beekeeper I have ever met, Mike could talk for hours about bees with very little prompting from me.
Queens on the coffee table
Upon waking and staggering downstairs to munch on some muesli and gulp down some tea I was amazed to see how many queen cages were lined up on the coffee table, each emitting loud buzzing sounds periodically. These were queens with attendant workers that were waiting to head colonies. As the days passed the number of buzzing boxes decreased, until on the day I departed for home I think just a couple remained.
That first morning Mike drove us to his cell builder apiary in his enormous RAM 3500 pick up truck. Everybody in the area seems to have a pick up truck and Mike’s is a particularly fine example. The top of the tyres are at about waist level. The apiary is next to a corn field hidden amongst trees. There are a lot of trees in Vermont. It is home to several giant cell builder colonies, seven or eight boxes tall, plus a great many nucleus colonies stacked up in their colourfully painted four frame pine boxes. The nucleus colonies were five boxes tall and in groups of two, so two colonies were side by side with a shared roof and entrances pointing opposite ways. They thrive in this configuration, each colony’s warmth being shared with its neighbour.
Out in the Nuc yard
The mission for the day was re-queening the nucs. Actually, my mission was to take photographs and ask lots of questions, but Mike’s was re-queening. He raises his own exceedingly good queens, nice big fat beauties, generally quite dark in colour, and at this time of year he will carry out regicide in the woods of Vermont, but only where necessary. Any queen that is not performing will be killed and replaced. He checks the amount of brood and the brood pattern as part of the process of determining whether Her Majesty will be granted a stay of execution.
Mike uses shorthand notes written on duct tape which is stuck on each hive’s roof. It’s yet another use of duct tape in beekeeping (there are so many). I soon got the hang of his notes and was able to read the history of the colony by reading them. “WDQ” is short for “White Dot Queen” which in this case meant a queen raised in 2015, so the note ”KWDQ” meant “killed White Dot Queen”. Generally the notes show whether brood or honey frames were added or removed, for example “-2FB” (minus two frames of brood), when new boxes or frames of foundation were added, changes to the queen and, rarely, comments on temper. A comment is not needed for good temper!