A Bee Nuc or Bee Package? Primer for New Beekeepers

Nucs ready to be picked up and placed in a beekeepers hive body
Nucs ready to be picked up and placed in a beekeepers hive body

Spring Start-Up

After a hiatus of having no bees in my yard, this spring I will end up with three hives- 2 nucs and 1 package. For beginning beekeepers, there are different ways of starting your own hive and here are three options: Packages, nucs, or buy an existing live hive. To get an overview of Beekeeping, it’s costs, benefits, and problems, go to my post, Beekeeping Start-Up, Jump into the World of Beekeeping. To see how to hive a package, go to Bee Packages Are Here!

2 packages of bees in the back of my car
2 packages of bees in the back of my car

 

Options for Starting Your Own Hive

  1. Live Hive- This is probably the most difficult to purchase. Never buy a live hive until it has been thoroughly inspected by a state apiary inspector and given a clean bill of health. This might be a good approach, but you have to find a beekeeper willing to sell a complete working hive and it is unlikely to find one unless the beekeeper is retiring or has passed. Very few beekeepers want to sell a good, live hive and there must be a compelling reason to do this. However, when you purchase a live hive, you are also purchasing all the existing problems such as small hive beetles, tracheal mite, varroa mites, wax moths or diseases such as nosema, American Foul Brood or European Foul Brood, etc. For small hive beetle controls, go to Small Hive Beetles to see how to combat these pests.
Great frame with lots of brood (capped larvae)
Great frame with lots of brood (capped larvae)

2.  Packages- Packages have been the way beekeepers in the North have received bees from the South for over 100 years.  By shaking bees out of three different hives, a package is formed which is housed in a screened cage for transport. Sometimes it may take shaking bees out of three different hives to equal three pounds of bees (about 10,000), the standard. Then, a new queen not related to the worker bees

Queen cage with attendants
Queen cage with attendants

is placed among the bees in a separate cage, along with a can of either hard candy or sugar syrup. Some considerations which might cause a problem with this method are:

  •  Will the queen be healthy and properly mated? 
  • Since they are from the south, could there be a chance of Africanized genetics, making a more aggressive hive?
  • Shipping stresses, such as too much time in the package and excessive temperatures can weaken both the bees and the queen.
Hiving a package of bees
Spraying sugar water on a package of bees to calm them

 So, while this is the “industry standard” and has been for a century, it is not risk free or fail safe. I can attest to this as a good percentage of my packages have failed.

Transferring 5 frames from a Nuc hive into my hive body
Transferring 5 frames from a Nuc hive into my hive body

 

3.  NUC- A nuc is a short expression referring to the nucleus of a live hive. The nucleus, or nuc, usually contains four or five frames from a complete hive. The frames include brood in various stages and frames mixed with honey, pollen and brood. The queen has already been accepted and is the mother of all the bees including the brood in the frames. This is a bee hive in miniature – a working and laying queen is included along with her daughter worker bees, brood, pollen, and eggs. 

A swarm of bees from my apiary
A swarm of bees from my apiary

 Advantages of a nuc:

  • The frames are from a proven, successful existing hive
  •  The queen is up and running and has been laying eggs in cells for some time, enough to have quantities of capped brood
  • You receive the existing frames of comb, honey, pollen and brood. You do not have to wait for the bees to draw comb(this is labor intensive)
  •  It is easy to transfer the frames into your own equipment
My nuc is set up in a deep hive body with an empty super on top which contains a feeder
My nuc is set up in a deep hive body with an empty super on top which contains a feeder, as well as entrance feeders

Disadvantages of a nuc:

  • Are not usually available until June (I got 2 recently in early April because of my Beekeepers Association who ordered them from a breeder last year)
  • You receive comb from another beekeeper that could contain pests or diseases
  • More expensive- For example, I paid $145 a piece for 2 nucs and a package costs about $115 a piece

Here is a video of my bee club installing nucs into nuc boxes with feeders and queen excluders. It is really important to remove and install the frames in the exact order that they are in the original box. When you remove the frames, it gives you the opportunity to look for brood, honey storage, and the queen.  A chilly wind was blowing, so the frames were quickly put in without inspecting. Later, in about a week, the frames will be inspected carefully, and the queen will be located along with an assessment of the health of the colony.

Feeder full of sugar water on top of hive
Feeder full of sugar water on top of hive

Feeding

Sugar water is fed to the bees for the first couple of weeks until they can easily find nectar sources. Supplementary feeding is critical to the success of your colony. There are sparse nectar sources in early April, and I like to feed until I see plenty of flowers out there, probably in about 3 weeks.

Helleborus flower with bee, an early source of nectar
Helleborus flower with bee, an early source of nectar

 

Any of these options should work for you, but for me I much prefer a nuc as the queen has been laying eggs for a while and you are ahead of the game because you aren’t starting from ground zero.  With a package, your queen might not be accepted by the bees and you could be left queenless with 10,000 bees.

My package is being shipped in a couple of weeks and this is my opportunity to compare the two- nucs and packages side by side. Stay tuned for my post on the package.

 

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