Honeybee Nuc 101

 A miniature honey bee colony or what beekeepers call a Nuc, is a living organism that needs to be cared for properly for it to survive and thrive in your bee yard. A “beehive in a box” is the best way to give your beehives the quickest start right from the gate to start producing honey as they already have a laying queen who is mated, producing eggs, and ready to go.

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

For beginning beekeepers, there are three different ways of starting your own hive: Packages, Nucs, or a 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 for instant beekeeping, but you have to find a beekeeper willing to sell a complete working hive and you are 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 are able to 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. Before committing, inspect the combs to see how healthy the colony is with plenty of brood and bee bread present on the frames.

Orange and yellow pollen is deposited into cells, mixed with nectar to make bee bread that is fed to growing honeybee young
Orange and yellow pollen is deposited into cells, mixed with nectar to make bee bread that is fed to growing honeybee young
Close up of pollen
Close up of pollen

Bee bread is pollen brought back to the hive that is mixed with nectar and deposited into cells to feed the developing brood.

Great frame with lots of brood (capped larvae)
Great frame with lots of brood (capped larvae) and pollen or bee bread

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 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 is caged to travel with the new bees.

 Queen bee in cage

Queen bee in cage

Some considerations of 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.

Carrying 2 Nucs out that have been taped shut
Carrying 2 Nucs out that have been taped shut

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. I have gotten honey the same year form my Nucs, so I ordered 2 this year. 

Checking in to pick up bee nucs
Checking in to pick up bee nucs

The best way to acquire a Nuc is to join a Bee Club. Mine is the Central MD Beekeepers Association and they order Bee Nucs every spring from a supplier and transport the Nucs to our Maryland Agricultural Center for pickup for $165 each.

Two college students picking up Nucs for their campus
Two college students picking up Nucs for their Goucher College campus

Nucs are the way to go for me, as it is a hive that is ready to go and is already working to bring in nectar during the honey flow. Honey flow is a term used by beekeepers indicating that one or more major nectar sources are in bloom and the weather is favorable for bees to fly and collect the nectar in abundance. For me in the mid-Atlantic, this happens in early to mid-May and can last for a couple of weeks and is always heralded by the blooming of Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia. An unassuming tree that spends most of the year in the fringe woods on the side of the road and one late Spring day it throws out a hanging truss of stunning white blossoms. But not just blossoms! The intense fragrance wafts in the breeze and finds you if you are walking down the road and will drift far from the tree.

Springtime time is also the critical time for swarms- May is swarm month for me! Go to Swarming of the Bees  to see how to capture swarms.

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 $165 a piece for 2 nucs and a package costs about $115 a piece

It is really important to remove and install the frames in the exact order that they are in the original box. And the weather should be at least 5o degrees or higher. Today, I was working in sunny 65 degree temperatures which is picture perfect. When you remove the frames, it gives you the opportunity to look for brood, honey storage, and the queen.  Here is a video on installing a nuc into your own hives.

 

Handling Tips on Installing a Nuc

Whenever you work with bees, move smoothly-like you’re doing Tai Chi! Bees will only sting if they feel like you are threatening your hive, and fast and jerky movements will put them into attack mode. Use your smoke sparingly as the only bees that will sting are the guard bees on the periphery at the entrance and at the top of the frames. If bees come at you and give you a “bump” on the face veil, this is their warning prior to trying to sting and it is best to back off before continuing. Move slowly but surely, not clumsily as this can lead to losing your queen and thus your hive.

Lay the Nuc box on its side in front of the hive so the stragglers can enter the hive
Lay the empty Nuc box on its side in front of the hive so the stragglers can enter the hive

Once you move over all your frames to your equipment, there will be stragglers, so I place the Nuc box on its side in front of the hive and by dusk, everyone is tucked up for the night.

Feeding

I feed my hives with sugar water in entrance feeders
I feed my hives with sugar water in entrance feeders

Sugar water, 1 part table sugar to 1 part 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.

A honeybee with plenty of pollen already collected entering a Hyacinth flower for nectar
A honeybee with plenty of pollen already collected entering a Hyacinth flower for nectar

I continue to feed with sugar water and will inspect the entrance to the hives every day to make sure that there is a good traffic flow, both in and out. That tells me that everything is working well. If there isn’t the normal flow, I will inspect the hive to see if there is a laying queen. In about a week, I will open the hive and check the brood pattern and see if the bees are drawing new wax comb. If everything seems OK, I will continue to feed the hive for several more weeks while they are drawing the wax comb and then taper off the feeding. I believe in minimal handling of the hive. Leave it to the bees! And harvest the honey!

Inspecting a frame when transferring it from the Nuc blox to my hive body
Inspecting a frame when transferring it from the Nuc box to my hive body

 

Bee Swarm Videos

I captured some incredible bee swarm videos this week! The first is a video of the swarm booking out of the hive. Turn the volume up to hear how loud they are. I could hear them from the other side of my property about 100 yards away and came running.

 

 

The bees have made landing on a nearby tree branch and are forming their swarm formation. It takes about 20 minutes for them to pour out of the hive to form their trademark tear drop formation.

Unfortunately, by the time I gathered my equipment to capture them, they decided to leave and I lost them. For more info on swarming, look at my post Swarming of the Bees. 

The last video is of the complete swarm which is pretty big!

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.

 

Swarming of the Bees – It is That Time of Year Again!

Honey Flow

With the coming of spring a couple of weeks early this spring, I am getting a little nervous about my bees. The honey flow which is the frantic bee activity of bees collecting nectar from spring flowers will be here very soon. I have a strong hive that made it through the winter and I am on the lookout for swarms! 2012 marks my tenth year anniversary as a beekeeper and I have had my share of swarms from my own hives as well as from the wild.  I hate it when my bees swarm!  If you ask any beekeeper how to prevent swarming, you will get 10 different answers and opinions. Other non-beekeeper friends who don’t understand will ask me, ” Why don’t you want your bees to swarm?  You can increase your hives !”  The answer is really simple.  Say goodbye to any honey production for that year! And there is no guarantee that you will catch the bee swarm.  The bees have a mind of their own.

Swarm Production

As a beekeeper, I am sometimes called by a panicked home owner when a huge ball of noisy bees appears in their backyard. They are afraid of them stinging and just want the bees to go away or be killed. In fact, swarming bees are loaded up with honey and are very unlikely to sting. They are not dangerous and are just looking for a new home.

A swarm of s or European honey bees (Apis mell...
A swarm of s or European honey bees (Apis mellifera). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Swarming is a natural duplication process for honey bees to form a new colony.  When a colony is bursting at the seams in their home with little room to grow, the bees will raise a new queen. The old queen will take off with up to 10,000 to 15,000 bees from the home colony and fly a short distance and cluster on a tree branch, shrub or other object to form a large ball or cone shaped mass which can weigh 10 pounds or more.  The queen is usually centered in the cluster and scout bees leave looking for a suitable new home such as a hollow tree or the walls of your house! The swarms can stay in their temporary location for several days as the scout bees do their job and find a new home.

Queen bee 1
Queen bee 1 (Photo credit: quisnovus)
A swarm starting to form

The Big Event

I have observed a swarm in progress from my hives several times and it is very impressive and exciting.  One of the signs that precedes a swarm is the sound! The tone of the hive increases greatly in volume and the bees start to exit in a huge undulating wave from the hive box and head for some nearby structure, usually a tree, to land. The bees seem to have a unified purpose and know exactly what to do.

The new queen that the hive produced in preparation for swarming, will remain with the original colony and the remainder of the worker bees and start building up a viable hive once again. Beekeepers try to avoid a swarm because it splits their population and reduces the likelihood of producing honey to harvest that season. The advantage to swarming is that now you have two hives instead of one but again you have to put off harvesting any honey because both colonies will need honey stores to get through the winter.

Capturing the Swarm

If the swarm is from a beekeepers own colony the beekeeper will try to capture it and put it in a new hive. But if it is a wild colony that swarms it can land in a unsuspecting homeowners yard and they start calling 911 in a panic. If a beekeeper gets the call, and the swarm is not that far off the ground, they can knock the swarm with a firm yank into an empty hive box and take it away. As bees can be expensive, about $125 for a laying queen and brood, beekeepers are usually delighted to take them off your hands. Sometimes beekeepers will charge the homeowner a fee, especially if the swarm is located in a difficult to access place.

On top of a ladder trying to capture a swarm at the top of a tree
Bees swarming
Bees swarming (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have heard of swarms under picnic tables, on grills, on the bumpers of cars, and in the walls of houses.  If they are in your walls, the bees are almost impossible to extricate and should be euthanized. April through June is prime swarming season when the hive is at it’s strongest. If you discover a swarm in your yard, the best thing to do is call a local beekeeper by looking on the internet for the CMBA, the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association which keeps a database of beekeepers interested in capturing swarms. If you are not in MD, just look up Beekeepers in your area and someone will take them off your hands.

Also, a pheremone called Swarm Commander  has been reported to work by spraying it around where you want the swarm to be captured, like an empty hive body with some drawn comb. I have yet to try this, and it is on my list to try next season. According to GloryBee;

“Swarm Commander mimics “Nasanov” which is the natural pheromone of the worker honey bee. Nasonov pheromone is released by worker bees to orient returning forager bees back to the colony.  To broadcast this scent, bees raise their abdomens, which contain the Nasonov glands, and fan their wings vigorously.”

Preventative Steps

Here are my pointers on avoiding this catastrophe:

Ventilation

I like to give the bees plenty of ventilation by not only having the entrance unimpeded with reducers but also by shimming my upper boxes open slightly to give the bees more openings for air flow.

Plenty of Room

 I have already added supers (extra honey boxes) on top of my brood boxes to make sure that the queen has plenty of room to lay eggs. I have stopped using a queen excluder to the horror of many beekeeper friends. I feel that this keeps the queen from going where she needs to go and if she feels restricted, swarm production will start.  When I harvest my honey, if there is brood in the supers, I just move it down to the brood boxes.

Young Queens 

Requeen when your queen is a couple of seasons old.  Some beekeepers say every year, but there is so much supersedure going on (bees making their own queen) that sometimes this isn’t necessary.

Splits

Split up your hive early in the season if it is going strong.  This simply means take a few frames of brood with some nurse bees and place them in a new hive.  You can add a new queen or let them make their own.  This can be a gamble because it takes time to make a new queen but by separating the hive you reduce the urge to swarm.

Removing Swarm Cells-Forget it!

An empty peanut shaped swarm cell
Two queen cells that I removed, the larva is still there

Beekeepers recommend to go through your boxes frequently and remove the queen swarm cells that are ready to hatch out new queens.  I think at that point, it is too late. Bees are programmed to swarm and you are swimming against the tide by trying to stop the process. I have tried this and it hasn’t worked for me. Also, I don’t think it is a good practice to open up your hives too frequently.  Leave them alone!

A swarm easy to get to
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