Overwintering Nuclei Colonies

By: Larry Connor

Larry Connor

Some northern beekeepers have success overwintering nuclei-sized colonies. This may be based on a particular stock or genetic trait, and should be tested carefully. More beekeepers are able to overwinter a single, deep hive body by packing the hive out with honey or sugar syrup in the Fall. In addition to food reserves, make sure such colonies are protected from the harsh winds of Winter.

 Late Summer and Fall nectar flows. In many northern locations, there are important nectar flows that will make the Summer increase colonies strong in stores and perhaps produce a surplus, depending upon how you have made them up. Look for flows from purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), sweet pepper bush (Clethra), Japanese bamboo (Polygonum), goldenrod (Solidago) and asters. Failing that, a good feeding program is essential.

 Evaluating colonies. When you evaluate new queens established in increase colonies, there are several characteristics to consider:

Brood pattern – Look for a compact brood pattern with few missed cells.

Hygienic behavior – Test for hygienic behavior using the frozen brood or liquid nitrogen method for definite results. Lacking that, look for rapid cell cleaning if infected with chalkbrood.

Comb building/propolis – Excessive brace and burr comb, as well as excessive use of propolis, are no excuse to send a queen packing.

Temper – How defensive are these bees? Are you getting too many stings? Remove ‘hot’ colonies from your apiary and requeen.

 Temperament – Are the bees quiet on the comb or running away as you work the hive. Quieter bees are easier to work and their queen is easier to find.

Food gathering – Are the bees adding to the stored food in the hive? If one group of colonies needs feeding while another is producing honey, that should tell you what to do.

Pollen storage – A band of pollen between the brood and the honey on a brood frame tells you a great deal about the pollen foraging of a colony. You want colonies with good pollen foraging behavior and reserves.

The queen is the wrong color for your tastes. Having said that, I try to ignore queen color, knowing some beekeepers want darker bees because they believe they are more Varroa-tolerant and work better at low temperatures and low light conditions. Other beekeepers want only bright yellow queens because they are easier to spot on the comb.

Incorporating key concepts from Brother Adam and G.M. Doolittle, beekeepers can successfully overwinter nuclei colonies. They mate and evaluate queens in Summer nuclei and overwinter the best for Spring increase or replacement hives. Two commercial beekeepers from Vermont, Kirk Webster and Mike Palmer, have developed similar and successful programs, both of which influence many beekeepers throughout the continent.

Webster and Palmer use double nucleus hives, an adaptation of the four-way nucleus used by Brother Adam. The colony uses a solid half-inch bottom board and a three-eighths inch rim. The bottom board is divided by a shim or divider down the middle to keep the two colonies separate when a special feeder is put in place. A deep hive body is fastened with a double division board feeder that sits on the center rim and divides the hive to create two separate nuclei. The feeder allows the worker bees to enter from one side only. The double nucleus provides room for four standard deep Langstroth frames for each nuclei. The feeder may be moved to be used as an eight-frame nucleus. Five-frame nuclei are possible when a MasoniteTM or thin plywood divider is used.

Kirk Webster

Using double nuclei, Kirk Webster (Middlebury, VT) has successfully incorporated a high level of Varroa-mite tolerant survivor stock in his own operation. The spread of Varroa destructor in North America prompted him to obtain long-term survivor stock from the USDA bee-breeding program using daughters of Russian queens from Russia’s Pacific coast, an area called the Primorsky Territory where Apis mellifera and Apis cerana are both exposed to Varroa destructor. There, surviving A. mellifera colonies gradually developed adaptations helping them to the tolerate the mites and increase honey bee survival.

The Russian bees differ from most stocks found in North America which are largely Italian in origin. The pressure of the Varroa mite population favored Russian bees that maintain a very small brood nest until the primary spring flow begins (May in Vermont) at which point the colony populations explode. Russian bees produce queen cells throughout the season and have an increased likelihood to swarm. After introducing these genes, Webster’s bees are gentle and require minimal stored food for Winter survival.

Webster sets up his colonies as mating nuclei and produces the first queen cells in late May. As the season progresses, he runs five or more cycles of queens through the mating nuclei to meet queen orders and his own needs. At the end of the season he establishes queens that overwinter in the nuclei. His bee-breeding program incorporates 15 different genetic families so he must produce queens from each of the 15 families as well as any new genetic stock he is trying.

Queens are open mated in a semi-remote valley, an area where mating nuclei are somewhat isolated from other colonies and target drones are provided for saturation and mating, thus maintaining a larger percentage of the Russian characteristics.

Webster Winters colonies in four packs of eight nuclei. The colonies are positioned so four double nucleus colonies are shoved together. Empty grain feed bags are used as inner covers to wick out moisture and two-inch insulation is used as a top. No upper entrance is provided. These colonies are then wrapped with roofing paper and the entire arrangement is tied down with cord. Using this combination of genetic control and management manipulation, Webster has been able to run his operation miticide free since 2002.

Mike Palmer

The Brood Factory Apiary wrapped for Winter.
(photo by Mike Palmer)

Less focused on developing a mite-tolerant northern stock than Webster, Mike Palmer (St. Albans, VT) seeks to develop a stock that is productive in Vermont. He treats colonies for mites as necessary and makes up and overwinters double nuclei as a means of keeping his operation filled with productive honey-making colonies. He makes up nuclei during the Summer, at least ten weeks before the end of the main brood rearing cycle in northern Vermont. As they enter Winter, he provides young, newly mated queens with three and a half frames of honey in the lower chamber and four frames of honey in a second box.

Palmer identifies the least productive colonies in his operation and eliminates them to create nuclei. None of the original colony remains. From the middle divider, each colony gets an empty frame, a frame filled with brood, a partial frame with brood, and a frame of honey. They are given a queen cell the following day.

Overly strong nucleus colonies are cut in strength by removing a frame of brood. In September, both sides of the double nuclei are fed sugar syrup so three and a half frames are filled with honey or syrup, leaving half a frame for late brood to emerge and provide a cluster space for the bees. A second box of honey is added as an additional, divided box. The Winter cluster is very small and is given just 20-25 pounds of stored food. Most of the consumption of Winter reserves does not take place until April.

The double nucleus may be wintered by itself on an empty hive body as shown in the photos or on the inner cover of a strong production hive. On top of the double nucleus, Palmer adds a two-inch piece of insulation under the telescoping cover. The lower hive is wrapped with roofing paper, and the double nuc is given its own Winter wrap.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *