Try A Nuc Next Year But Order Early

By: Ralph Harlan

During our beeschool, there is always discussion about the differences and benefits of packages and nucleus hives, both of which frequently contain approximately the same number of bees. While there is a pretty clear expectation of what comes in a package of bees, it seems that little is discussed of what defines a “nuc”. Since there is some variation in the size of what can be considered as a nuc, let’s first review the concept.

A nucleus hive is a fully operational colony of honey bees that contains frames of drawn comb, a laying queen, some supply of food, and an area on the frame or frames that contains brood. The argument is often made that a nuc will outperform a package based on the facts that there is brood and food with drawn comb and the queen is related to the brood (new work force) in the nuc. That is why a nuc costs more than a package.

The size of a nuc can vary, and is usually determined by the number of frames occupied by the colony inhabiting it. Mating nucs can be considerably smaller than what is typically offered for sale and may contain only two or three frames that are half the size of the standard Langstroth frame, really only one or perhaps one and a half Langstroth frames. The nucleus hives usually found in “queen castles” are either two or three Langstroth frames, and typically are deep frames but medium frames are recently becoming more common. The nucs most often offered for sale contain either four or five deep or medium Langstroth frames although occasionally a six frame nuc comes available.

This variability in size by the number of frames directly affects the survivability of this colony. It is not the question of whether the colony can survive and thrive on its own, but how readily it will be able to do so without frequent intervention by a beekeeper. The smaller the colony is the less the number of bees in it, which directly limits the number of foraging bees available as well as the ability of the adult bees to cover the brood in order to properly keep it warm and feed it. Since brood is a critical factor the more brood of varying ages from eggs to capped brood then the better the chance of the colony survival. As five frames is half of the usual 10 frame colony and since that seems to be the most prevalent nuc available for sale, for the purpose of this discussion we will primarily be referring to a nucleus hive as being five frames. Keep in mind that whether you are buying a three, four, five, or even a six frame hive the “coverage” proportions of adult bees, brood, and food on the drawn comb should be consistent with the number of frames in the box. In the event you are offered a “full hive” of honey bees, you should expect the coverage should still be within the proportions we are discussing. Keep in mind that a five frame nucleus hive can be placed into an eight or a 10 frame box and still be considered a “hive” of honey bees.

Again, let’s consider that the colony being offered is a five frame nuc. This should imply that it contains five frames of drawn comb with enough bees to cover them! Drawn comb is an expensive commodity for the bees considering the resources it takes to make it. With a limited number of bees available to procure the resources and to actually draw the wax, one frame of drawn comb amounts to a lot of effort by a nuc or a package; more than is implied by the 20% a frame of drawn comb physically occupies in a nuc. Each of those frames of drawn comb should contain food, pollen, or brood. I have heard the argument that a nuc can contain one frame of foundation, supposedly for “expansion” or growth room of the colony. Otherwise, a frame of foundation would only fill space in what would otherwise be a four frame nucleus, it certainly does not hold a food supply that will be provision for the colony or contain brood that is the growth of that colony. It seems there is an ethical question here. If a five frame nuc sells for more than a four frame nuc, then by adding a frame of foundation the cost would go up without providing the benefits of that added frame of food or brood?

Considering that this is a nucleus hive, it is intended to be either moved into a full sized box or sold when it fills the five frames so why should there be “expansion” room? There is no doubt that a nucleus colony can and will swarm, or that it will swarm more quickly than a colony in a larger container simply because if the queen is doing her job well the bees will soon become crowded in such a small space. So, producers of large quantities of nucs, have a problem with the delivery time to the customer, especially if they are marketing through a bee supply company. They are locked into being able to provide a strong nuc with a certain number of frames through a middleman to the customer by a set deadline on the calendar, and if a nuc is getting too crowded one remedy is to pull a frame and replace it with one of foundation. The reasoning also is that if a nuc is growing well and the flow has started then the bees will draw the comb on the foundation and put nectar or brood in it by the time it is delivered to the individual purchasing it through the supplier. But if that does not happen, it is still a four frame nuc with an extra frame of foundation. If, by the time you receive the nuc and the frame of foundation is partially drawn and contains eggs and/or brood, food, or pollen, then we are entering a “grey area” in deciding between four and five frames that begs the question of how much of that frame is actually in use.

In our five frame nuc the queen is perhaps marked in order not only for the beekeeper to more readily see her but also for the ability to verify that she is not a “replacement” queen in the colony since the last time the beekeeper saw her. Supercedure of a queen can and does occur in nucleus colonies, and usurpation of a queen is becoming more common. As we know, replacement of a queen can and frequently will affect the temperament and productivity of the colony. While the adult bees in the nuc may or may not be related to the queen in that colony, the queen being offered for sale with a nuc should be the queen that produced the brood you see in the frames. While there is the benefit of having five frames of drawn comb for the storage of food and for the queen to lay, having the laying queen with her brood and workers that all interact is the major difference between a nucleus colony and a package of bees and is the primary reason for the difference in cost. As we pointed out before, a nucleus hive is a fully functional colony. If a package of bees with a queen is placed in a five frame box of drawn comb with brood and food from another source, it should not be considered a nucleus hive since it lacks the working relationship between the workers as well as their working relationship with the queen that has been placed in the box with them. Only once a queen has been accepted by the workers (whether she was introduced as a queen cell, a virgin queen, or a mature queen) long enough for that queen to produce a good pattern of brood then the working relationship of that colony has been established. To some degree you must accept the integrity of the person or establishment selling you the nuc in trying to determine whether the brood was produced by that queen, but you can ask the question and you look at the pattern to see if it has a continuity in the pattern and from frame to frame.

In a five frame nuc that is offered for sale the brood is a progression of ages from eggs to capped pupa or emerging adults should cover three or more of the frames. By looking at capped brood in these frames of brood you are able to determine that the queen is producing:

  1. worker brood,
  2. in a consistent pattern even if she is also producing some drone brood,
  3. The pattern should not have the “shotgun” appearance that might indicate a severe mite/viral problem.

Bearing in mind that this is a small and usually a young colony, often there is no drone brood present. A large quantity of drone brood in a nucleus hive should be considered when purchasing that colony as it could be an indicator that the queen was not sufficiently mated or has been injured.

Occasionally queen cells will turn up in a nuc and should be assessed as either supercedure cells or as swarm cells. Queen cells in a nuc you are being offered should not cause an automatic rejection of that nuc because you are being presented with options that can be beneficial to you. You have the ability to remove either the queen or the cells to create another colony using a frame of nurse bees and food and keep the remaining four frames as the colony you are purchasing. Keep in mind that by doing so you may end up with another colony as the cells mature, emerge and get mated. Wow, two for the price of one! But (particularly if the cells are supercedure cells) you may lose the queen you received with the nuc, in which case you only have to combine the now queenless nuc back to the one with the new queen.

Along with the three + frames of brood you should also find one or more frames of food, some of which may be capped. There may or may not be pollen stored in the frames depending on the time the nuc has been in shipping. Altogether each of the five frames should have drawn comb with brood, food, or pollen.

When buying a nuc, you will find that some sellers will expect the number of frames with foundation that is equal to the number of frames in the nuc in exchange for the frames and drawn comb in that nuc. Some sellers will have you bring your equipment to them for them to place the colony into for you to take to your yard, while others will provide the frames without exchange and the box the nuc is in for you to take with you (although there may be a “deposit” required for the return of the box). It seems that if the seller is exchanging frames that there is a slight price difference to you while those installing your nuc into your equipment for you to take is a service that can be to your benefit.

In some states, the apiaries producing nucleus colonies (as well as queens for sale – with or without a package) will be inspected by the state apiary inspectors for indications of disease and other problems.

Buying a nuc that is produced locally has many benefits to you as the beekeeper compared to the nucs and packages that are produced elsewhere and shipped in, but that is a topic for other discussions.

So in review, we find that a five frame nucleus colony should have:

  1. Five frames of drawn comb
  2. Enough adult bees to cover those five frames adequately
  3. A queen that is perhaps marked
  4. Three or more frames of brood of various ages from eggs to emerging adults from that queen
  5. One or more frames of food which may contain capped as well as open cells of honey/nectar/sugar syrup and pollen
  6. No indication of disease

Remember, a three pound package has approximately 9,000 bees and a queen in a cage that must be introduced. A five frame nuc contains approximately the same number of bees and the additional resources of having the valuable five frames of drawn comb as well as the food and pollen that is stored there. A nuc has an established working relationship between the queen and the workers which reduces the likelihood of supercedure. A nuc also contains the coming next generation of workers which can put it weeks ahead of a package in terms of growth. And the brood pattern that is in the nuc can offer clues to the health of the queen and the colony.


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