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Nucs, Early Spring

One of the overall themes of my beekeeping adventures is to increase the number of healthy, strong hives that I have. Naturally, the first place that I look is to my own hives in the Spring. After a good Winter, I like to start looking in my hives in early March and do a full breakdown of each by the third week or so (in March.) In Richmond, Virginia, healthy honey bee hives are building up at this time. By checking all of my hives, I can pretty much gauge which are the strongest and which are the weakest.

I pretty much have three categories of hives. The strongest are the ones that are most likely to swarm and they are probably going to do it early (the weather in central Virginia dictates what is early, but April 1 is a good average ‘early’ swarm.) These hives have the genetics that I want. The second type of hive is neither real strong nor weak. They have come out of Winter with a good brood nest and are building up nicely. These hives are targeted for honey production. The last kind of hive are my Weak Boys. They are unlikely to give me much honey are really just limped through the Winter. The fact that they made it through the Winter is a good sign that they have some of The Right Stuff, so I let them raise drones, but my goal for these hives is to get new genetics into them.

The first Nucs that I create are off of my strong hives. These gals are going to swarm unless I stop them. It’s a guarantee. The goal is to use their fast build-up to my advantage. I try to watch these hives as much as possible in February and March. I am breaking them down completely, trying to understand exactly where they are at any given moment. It is actually amazing to see how fast they will spread into the upper supers in one week (even if it was chock full of honey the week before.) Once the grand lady has brood in a fair number of frames (7 to 8 for Deeps, 11 to 13 for Mediums), I am at Go Time! 

With the hive now primed to go into a major expansion mode, I pull frames of brood and resources (and usually shake a frame or three of nurse bees into the Nuc) to begin my Nuc program. Ideally, I am replacing these frames with frames of empty, drawn comb. These Nuc’s become my earliest Nuc’s for beekeepers on my Nuc List and I have taken a step towards reducing the swarm mode by reducing their population. But, with their current setup, it should not have any impact on honey production.

Sometimes (some Springs, it feels more like ‘a lot of the time’), I am too late and the hive is in full swarm mode (ramping up to swarm.) This mostly  happens when I have to use frames of foundation (as replacement for the parent hive) when pulling frames for a Nuc. I have found that the strong, early builders simply ignore most of the foundation as they continue to build up. It seems to me that the bees actually lose ‘laying space’ in these circumstances (since they are not drawing out the frames yet) and they continue to move forward towards a swarm. The last trick up my sleeve at this point is to make these bees think that they swarmed (but not suffer the loss of 60% of the bees in a swarm.) The best way to do this is to go get their queen!

Basically, once I am certain they are in swarm mode (queen cells or even just eggs in queen cups), I comb the hive for the queen. I have sometimes had to go through the hive twice, as a hive in swarm mode has a ton of honey bees. Once I find the queen, I put her in a Nuc with a couple of frames of brood, 1 frame of honey, 1 frame of pollen and a frame of foundation (need to give them something to do.)

If I am really luckly, I will catch them building queen cells with larva in them (or capped queen cells.) This allows me to create multiple Nucs, depending on the number of cells (at least 2 cells per Nuc is my rule.) In this case, my only rule is to leave 2 in the parent hive. Everything else is free game for a new Nuc.

For the parent hive, the waiting game begins. After 3 to 4 weeks, I want to find the new queen (or at least evidence of her) in the parent hive. If I do not, they receive a frame of eggs from the old queen (now building up in a Nuc). Most of the time, a new queen is going strong and I just missed her or any evidence of her. In that case, they just raise the frame of eggs to join the current workforce. But, sometimes there is no queen and they use the eggs to raise a new one. The waiting game begins again.

For the Nuc (led by the old queen), a proven queen pretty much guarantees the establishment of the new spin-off colony. The added benefit is that I have a good queen (made it through the Winter and likes to raise hard working, healthy bees) in a Nuc now. I can use her eggs to create more Queens/Nucs or her brood to simply fortify an existing hive. A primary goal of this Nuc is to spread some of these genetics to some of my other apiaries and then, if strong enough, build up into another hive or become a Nuc for overwintering. In the meantime, I am able to use their resources for a variety of other good purposes (a frame of brood to fortify a struggling hive/nuc, eggs to requeen a cranky hive, or a spare queen for an emergency.)

By taking the old queen, the bees are broken out of swarm mode most of the time. They either think she has already swarmed or they simply go into survival mode (we need ourselves a new queen! The old one is gone!) But, in some cases, they continue on with the swarm mode – raising several queens and swarm a time or two with the virgins. I believe this primarily happens when you use frames of foundation to swap out the frames for your Nuc’s. In my hives, they simply ignore the frames of foundation in these early days (no main flow going, just a dribble starting in) and do not draw them out. So, removing the frames also reduces the space of the hive. So, they continue on with the swarm. I have also found that some queen lines simply are very hard to stop from swarming, no matter what you do. The only 100% way to deal with these bees is to actually split and break them down into Nuc’s. Moving the hive (3+ miles) also seems to stop these hives from swarming, for reasons that I am not sure of yet.

3 comments to Nucs, Early Spring

  • Nick


    I am an interested starting Beekeeper living in Northern Virginia, (Oakton) and am interested in a nuc in the spring, please let me know.

  • Robert

    I would like to order 2 Nucs
    How do i contact you

  • Sorry for the confusion, Robert. You make a good point. I need to make it easier and clearer – usability is poor on this page. I will resolve shortly.

    In the meantime, I have emailed you.

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