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All About Nucs

What is a Nuc made of?

As with anything bee-related, you may get a different answer depending on whom you ask, but a Nuc (pronounced nuke) is a small hive body that holds 5 frames. Typically, they consist of deep frames but more and more folks are using an ‘all Medium’ setup, so some Nuc’s are made up of Medium frames (when ordering your Nuc, you need to be certain you are ordering the right size for your hive setup).

A ‘mature’ Nuc (one that’s ready to be purchased) should have 3 frames of bees and brood, 1 frame of honey/nectar and 1 frame of pollen, on average. In nearly all circumstances, the critical factor is the ‘frames of bees’. You should always be getting 3 or more. This is really critical and something that I was personally burned on in my early years. I purchased a couple of Nuc’s from a fellow in the Richmond area with 1 frame of capped brood (and it only took up about 30% of both frame sides.) One Nuc failed and the other required so much work and frustration and I am certain that a new beekeeper would have lost them (and possibly lost interest in the hobby.)

But, what is a Nuc really?

But, that describes just the structure/make-up of a ‘Nuc’. The real definition of a Nuc is a ‘starter colony of bees’. That’s what we’re talking about here, anyway. You have some bees doing their job and a queen that is ramping up production. Ideally, a Nuc grows into a full colony before the season ends. Basically, you are getting a mated queen that is surrounded by her daughters and already building out a hive.

Why I am not a fan of packages

On the other hand, if you purchase a package, you get a bunch of bees from random hives and a caged queen from another hive. The bees have never worked together or with the queen and occasionally reject her outright. You really have no idea if the queen is any good or not anyway. In addition, you are buying bees from another location (who knows if they are suited for our environment) and you have no idea if the bees were medicated (or what they were medicated with.) If ever there was a risk of getting a dud, it’s with a package. In my experience (gotten from other folks that I know who have purchased packages), many of them supercede within the first couple of months. Many more die in their second Winter (I believe this is related to the fact that the second year is when the mites have the best chance against them and, many times, they are not used to dealing with mites because the package supplier used medication to keep them alive.) But, many folks swear by them. I honestly think their only use is for the folks that simply need a hive for the season to pollinate crops. But, this is controversial, so beware who you talk to about it!

Why do you create Nuc’s?

So, why do I care about Nuc’s? Obviously, they create a new colony so they can be used to increase my current hive numbers. In addition, they are insurance against the loss of a colony as the year goes on. Finally, they can be used to sell to new beekeepers or trade for new genetics from other beekeepers.

How to create a Nuc

Now, how do you create a Nuc? Again, beekeeper’s have differing view on this. I sometimes create Nuc’s that some folks call ‘a poor man’s nuc‘. Basically, I take frames of bees/brood/honey/pollen from my existing hives and let them create their own queen. Some will say that this is crazy, as leaving the bees to their own devices can lead to poor queens. It is much wiser to take your frames and add a queen from a queen breeder. I think that is crazy talk and have proof that it is not necessarily true. The key with starting a Nuc in this manner is giving them enough capped brood and larva to get them through the queenless period (and raise a healthy queen in the meanwhile). I believe you need two frames of brood to make this work (and one should have some eggs to let them choose a queen from.) To these two frames, I give them a frame of pollen and honey, although they do not need much. For my March Nuc’s, I always give them a solid frame of capped honey – these Nuc’s usually need it to make it through the cold. If I am creating it early in the nectar flow (early April or later in the central Virginia area), I give them a frame of foundation. If it is a late Nuc, I give them a drawn frame (that way, they do not have to spend resources on drawing frame in the early weeks.)

The easier way to create a Nuc is to take a single frame of brood that has a queen cell on it (the parent hive was in swarm mode.) Add a frame of honey and a frame or two of drawn comb and you get a solid Nuc. The only downside to using 1 frame of brood is that the queen has to go through 2 cycles (and working on the third) before it is ready to be judged by me for sale (or increase). This effectively adds 2 to 3 weeks to the process (which means 8 to 9 weeks before it is ready). If I give them 2 frames of brood, they are ready to be judged 6 weeks later (I have found that the second round of brood is strong enough to judge on these Nuc’s.) One possible benefit to this method is that the bees in the mother hive chose this egg to be made a queen and they have already fed it the rich food for a queen. They were not building an emergency queen, which some folks say is a risk.

Perhaps getting a queen from out of the state or out of the country will work, but it does not meet my goals. For many hundreds of thousands of years, bees have been evolving and adapting to their environment and doing just fine by ‘their own devices’. True, they have not been in North America for this period of time, but all the more reason to let Mother Nature run her course. I want bees that are born and bread here in Central Virginia. So, I am happy with my poor man’s Nuc’s!

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