Introduction

For many years, the ready availability of packages of bees meant that they were the most common and recommended way to start as a beekeeper. In our article Installing and obtaining a package of bees, we looked at this option in some detail.

But more recently, nucleus colonies - generally shortened to "nucs" - have found favor. With the exception of price, there are many who believe they offer a better option for the beginner beekeeper Here we look at why.

What is a nuc?

One of the key characteristics of a package of bees is that the queen comes from a different line from the rest of the bees in the package. This has potential implications regarding her potentially being rejected when introduced into the hive.

Rejection happens to even the queen...
This is why the use of a queen cage is common in this scenario, with candy at one end to buy the queen time, as the colony gets used to her pheromones.

Further, the colony really hasn't established itself yet. There are no eggs, larvae or pupae. Further, the population of worker bees won't necessarily represent all the age-based based roles.

In short, a package of bees is a true starter, not just for the beekeeper but for the bees too!

A nuc is quite different. It has a small number of frames (2-5, with 5 being a typical option) and these frames are placed directly into the target hive. In a five-frame configuration, three frames contain brood, of all stages, while the outer two frames normally store honey and pollen.

The box in which the frames are transported is often just a cardboard box, though purpose-built wooden nucs are commonly and more robust.

Nuc to hive

Although technically not a requirement, most nucs come with a queen. The nuc has workers and drones usually born from the queen herself. This is an important consideratiom, since there is no need for the workers to acclimatize to her - she is their mother!

Additionally, the nuc has bees in all phases of life, including newly laid eggs (the queen will even continue laying eggs while the nuc is being transported), larvae and pupae. The adult worker bees represent all the roles, from nurse bees, cleaners, guard bees, forager and everything in between.

Quite simply, a nuc is a small version of a fully established colony.

What are the advantages over a package?

The fact that the colony is already established means:

  • The workers and drones are already familiar with the queen i.e. no "acclimatization" process is necessary.
  • The colony has bees at all stages of life, from freshly laid eggs and on
  • The nuc comes complete with honey and pollen, which is important to the colony's establishment
  • The colony is productive and can start foraging almost immediately

Are there any disadvantages?

Nuc boxNot really...but there's one area where a nuc is less flexible than a package.

With a package, the bees are placed into the hive, from the package. The new hive can be of any type - Langstroth, Warre or Top Bar, for example. Since the bees are completely removed from the package when they are placed in their hive, you have complete freedom as to the type of hive you use.

With a nuc, you use the bees and the frames that came with the nuc. As such, you take the frames and place them into a Langstroth box and you are done!

Getting from a nuc to a Warre or Top Bar is a different challenge. It can be done but is not a straightforward process. As such, the new beekeeper should realistically only consider a nuc if a Langstroth is the beehive of choice.

Where to locate a nuc

Nucs are readily available from a number of sources, including bee suppliers who will also sell packages. Another choice is a local beekeeping club, where individual members may be open to selling a nuc.

How much will a nuc cost?

Nucs are more expensive than a package, running from around $120 to $200.

Installing a nuc

When installing a nuc, you are essentially taking a mini-hive - frames included - and placing it in a full-sized hive box. So the process is rather simple and doesn't include any of the queen cage issues associated with a package.

Prepare the hive

Nuc of beesLet's assume you are installing your nuc into a 10 frame Langstroth. Nucs come with deep frames, so you will need a deep box. Remove about six of the frames from the box so you have some space for the frames you will pull from the nuc.

The frames you remove should be from the center of the box. Bees generally "work out" from the center frames to those on the outside. You will be inserting a fully established colony, so will make sure these go into the center of the box.

Even though the colony is established, it is still numerically small. So be sure to install an entrance reducer for a while, to give the colony a chance to repel robbers while it is still a young colony.

Prepare your nuc

Next, make sure your nuc is placed alongside the beehive, remove the top cover (if one exists on your particular type of nuc) and give the nuc a quick pass over with your smoker, just to calm down your bees.

Move the frames

Starting with one of the outer frames in the nuc, gently lift it up (you may have to use a hive tool if there is propolis involved). Keep it over the nuc as much as possible and gently move it over the top of the beehive. Insert the frame, adjacent to one of the empty frames left in the hive.

Making sure the frames remain in the same order, move over the remaining frames.

At the end of this process, all the frames from the nuc will be in the beehive. Add in however many frames you need to ensure the full count (8 or 10 frames). For example, if this is a 10 frame box, you have a 5 frame nuc and you had removed 6 from the box, you will need to add just one back to bring it back to 10 frames.

Feed

Although the colony is established and has some honey reserves, it may require a little help until its foragers get the production line going. Their ability to add to those honey reserves depends on many factors, such as the weather and if there is a honey flow. So, adding a feeder may well be justified.

Give the bees access to a feeder...
A feeder will help them get established in their new home, with a light sugar syrup mixture. This can be left in place for a while until the bees eventually stop taking food.

Here's a video that shows just how simple this can be (this one involves an 8 frame hive and an awesome pair of boots!).

17 thoughts on “Obtaining and installing a nucleus colony”

  1. Hi I’ve just bought a National Hive with a 12×14 brood box
    At the apiary where I have been training we have set up a nuc box from a standard sized brood box. Is it possible to transfer this to my 12×14?

  2. Do you need do do anything to prep the empty frames that will be fiilling out the rest of the hives when you place the nuc in the hive?

  3. Well…new at this…and my mentor advised me to put three frames from the nuc in the middle, and two on one of the ends. Hmm…Is this a problem? They have been in since Sunday. One hive has the most work now centered in the middle under the sugar water (actually made a bee tea). The other hive has the most work on the end so not under the food support.

    ANY and ALL relevant comments appreciated very much!

    1. The nuc frames should go into your new box in the same order and all together in the center. Remove 4 frames from your new box or as many frames come out of your new nuc , place them away and replace with the nuc frames. Reduce the entrance and leave them until your ready for hive inspection.

  4. Technically…A Nuc should have a “Laying Queen”.If not your likely to have only capped brood.The reason you pay more is for Laying Queen,not just drawn comb,capped brood and stores.If you see caged Queen -WALK AWAY !! You don’t wanna do business with them.PLEASE don’t “promote” this anymore,we as Beekeepers should set a standard,not promote get rich quick practices

    1. Agree 100%. If there’s anything in our article that implies anything other than a laying queen with a nuc then let us know. That isn’t the intent and we are in fully agreement with you, John.

  5. Tracy Yarbrough

    How common is it to lose the Queen when installing Nucs? What do I do if she’s not in the hive?

    1. Start on the outside and slowly pull the frames straight up. Since you will probably have eggs also in your nuc, the girls can make their own queen if needed. It will take three weeks though. A lot of people can’t find their queen. She may be there.

  6. After the nuc is installed, how many of the boxes do you put on top of the deep? I have two mediums as well as the deep and after I installed the nuc in the deep, I put one of the mediums on top to make sure they had enough space to grow. Now I’m realizing that when I go to do my check in I’ll have to remove the medium (presumably) to get to the brood.

    1. scott lealand

      You don’t want to add any boxes to your nuc. Let the population grow first. When 8 of your 10 frames (or 6 frames if youre using 8 frame boxes) have honey, brood, and comb, then add a second box. Follow the same process again. When 3/4 of the second box is full, add a third box, and on and on. It may help you to put a queen screen between the first and second boxes, or second and third boxes. This ensures that the queen remains in only the first boxes, so only honey and no brood gets placed in the upper boxes. Come winter, pull your honey boxes. Reduce the hive to just two boxes. The bottom should be just as you started with. Brood, bees, and a little honey. The second, only honey, so the bees don’t starve. Good luck.

  7. I had a beekeeping partner who had convinced me he knew about bees , sadly he thought my nuc was the same as package bees the nucs already have brood with them

  8. After watching this I do like the idea of a nuc better than the package of bees. I see why it is such a great start because they have brood, honey, pollen already in place which means they can start to work almost immediately.

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