Why every beekeeper should have a nuc
The term “nuc” is short for nucleus colony. A nucleus colony is just a very small colony of a few thousand bees and a queen.
Nuc boxes—the structures that hold a nucleus colony—come in all shapes and sizes. Usually you see five-frame deep boxes, but they also come designed to hold medium frames. The width varies too. I have seen two-, four-, five-, and seven-frame nucs, both single story and double story. One of my favorite nucs is a standard-size deep box with three dividers that gives you four two-frame sections, each with its own entrance. Or you can remove one or more of the dividers to make bigger sections. It all depends on what you want.
Reasons for maintaining a nuc:
- If one of your hives goes queenless, you have another queen ready to go. If you wait for your colony to re-queen itself, the population will drop such that you won’t get any surplus honey for that year.
- You can re-queen at times of the year when queens are unavailable to purchase.
- You can use the bees in a nuc to boost populations of a weak hive. If you don’t want to re-queen, you can just transfer some of the frames from your nuc into the weak hive.
In addition, having an empty nuc box on hand is useful for catching swarms or removing extra bees from an overcrowded colony.
So how do you raise queens in a nuc? The simplest way is to take a frame of brood with a swarm cell from a populous hive and put it in a nuc. The frame should have lots of nurse bees covering the brood to keep them warm. Put a frame of honey or an internal feeder next to the brood. Fill any extra space with drawn comb or empty frames, then close the lid, add an entrance reducer, and let the bees do their thing.
This works fairly quickly. You can do the same thing without a swarm cell if there are plenty of eggs or very young larvae on the brood frame. This takes a long time, however, and after a week or two you may not have enough nurse bees left to raise a good queen.
Here’s an example from my own apiary on how I use a nuc.
- Last spring I had one hive that built up early and looked like it was ready to swarm. I didn’t want it to swarm, so I took out four frames of brood. Each frame had at least one swarm cell on the bottom and lots of nurse bees covering the brood.
- I put each frame in a separate two-frame nuc and gave each one a frame of honey reserved from the year before.
- After about four weeks, I checked the nucs and found three had produced laying queens. I combined the queenless one with one of the others, so now I had three nucs.
- After a few more weeks I transferred the two-frame nucs into five-frame equipment so the colony would continue to expand.
- I kept entrance reducers in the small colonies to protect them from robbing bees and yellow jackets.
- At the end of the fall, I transferred each five-frame nuc into ten-frame equipment.
- I stacked the three nucs, one atop the other. I put the strongest on the bottom, and put double-screen boards between each nuc so the warm air from the largest colony would help to keep the smaller ones warm.
- In December, I found a dead queen on the landing board of one of my regular hives. Using a piece of newspaper, I combined one of the queenright nucs with the queenless hive. This left me with two nucs.
- As of today, the hive to which I added the queen and the remaining two nucs are all thriving.
- We still have a number of weeks to go, but if the two remaining nucs are not needed before the first honey flow, I will set each of them up as a separate hive.
As you can see, having a nuc available gives you many management options that you wouldn’t normally have. You can think of a good nuc as an insurance policy against the loss of a queen.