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.

Rusty

Comments

Jeff
Reply

Nice post. I really enjoyed this topic. Being a new beekeeper and short on hives I feel I would need a larger population as there are no other honey bees in the local area so the number of drones would be quite low and would only come from existing hive(s).

Good topic though.

Rusty
Reply

Jeff,

Are you sure there are no other honey bees in your area? A drone congregation area (DCA) may be several miles from your hive. I don’t know where you live, but many people keep their hives hidden from view so the neighbors don’t complain. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are drones closer than you think!

Phillip
Reply

I still have the boxes my nucs came in from last year, but they’re made of a stiff cardboard. I’d have to shelter them from the rain (or make my own). I also have a very small back yard that will be maxed out pretty soon. I plan to make my own nucs if I can secure more land, though probably not until next year. But who knows, if one of my colonies looks ready to explode, I might start one up. I’d love to try it.

Rusty
Reply

Phillip,

Hang onto those boxes, you never know when you might need something like that in a hurry. They would get you by until you had time to make something more substantial.

Jeff
Reply

Both Phil and I live in the same province but live 200 km away from each other. I assume Phil is the next closest person to me with honey bees. That being said I am working on some nuc boxes and once I have 5+ hives I’ll try to make my own nucs from a couple of the full size colonies with drone comb. Beekeeping is new to our area. That being said I intend to make some splits this year but I will be buying some fertilized queens from the same source as where we get our nucs.

Next year I intend to make my own splits and let the girls make their own queen.

Rusty
Reply

Jeff,

Okay, I didn’t know you were one of those beekeepers from the frozen north! You are right, buying a fertilized queen is your best bet, at least until you develop more colonies.

I am very interested in how you guys do up there because my favorite beekeeping topic is “overwintering.” I can probably learn a lot from your successes and your failures, because if anyone has winter, it is you. Keep in touch.

Phillip
Reply

Next year I intend to make my own splits and let the girls make their own queen.

Ditto. Except I have don’t have any girls, just a bunch of honey bees. [Insert smiley face emoticon here.] And by next year I mean 2012. I need to get a full year under my belt before I do anything fancy. On the other hand, if I need to make a nuc from a one of my hives that is currently half buried in icy snow, I think I can pull it off.

Between now and September, it’ll be a season of firsts for Jeff and me. This time, though, I feel more prepared. The freakiest thing I experienced last year was the expulsion of drone pupae. After that shock to my system, I can pretty much take anything (I hope).

Rusty
Reply

Phillip,

I’ve never seen dead drone pupae quite like that. I’ve seen them in ones and twos, but never in piles. Does your winter come on really fast with no warning? It’s interesting.

Phillip
Reply

I can’t say for sure why the expulsion of the drone pupae happened. But from what I can gather from various forums and bee books, it’s not abnormal behaviour for some cold-climate bees to shut down fast and dramatically as soon as the weather begins to turn cold (this was in September). The workers will chew out remaining drone cells and discard the pupae in preparation for winter. It’s a more grotesque extension of kicking out the drones in the fall.

There may have been more drones than normal because I introduced 5 or 6 foundationless frames about a month earlier as an experiment when I added the second brood box. I was told that when given the chance to build comb their own way, a colony will usually make drones first, and lots of them (I didn’t know this at the time).

Then I read an essay (not a scientifically researched article) that claimed drones will take the hit for the colony when any kind of fungus, virus or invasive organism attacks the hive. Apparently signs of sickness will show up in drones first. The bees notice this and don’t just clear out the sickly drones, but all of them, just to be safe. Which kind of makes sense seeing how the drones aren’t vital to the immediate survival of the colony.

These are all just semi-educated guesses.

I had a local experienced beekeeper look over the drone pupae carefully, and he couldn’t find any disease. The hive slowed down big time afterwards (I thought the queen was dead), but the colony seems to doing just as well as the other one now. So whatever was going on, I guess the bees knew what they were doing.

Rusty
Reply

Phillip,

I am not familiar with the essay you mentioned, but it seems to me that since drones are haploid (they have one set of chromosomes) and the females are diploid, the females may be more able to fend off disease. Since a “bad” gene is not usually expressed in individuals with two sets of chromosomes, it may be that weaknesses show up in the males more frequently than the the females. There could be evolutionary advantages to this because, as you say, the females can rid the hive of any disease the moment it first appears. In that scenario, the individuals with a single set of chromosomes take the fall for the rest of the colony–a type of early warning system.

Phillip
Reply

I’ll see if I can find the essay online. I’m not sure where I read it now, but I’ll look. It was probably just the ranting of some half-baked beekeeper, but who knows.

Marley
Reply

Rusty, your take on nucs is very good. The only suggestion (constructive of course) is that I raise a queen in a nuc box from day-old eggs in a frame taken from my mother queen hive which I consider is the richest in quality, hygienic behavior strong, and the eggs have been produced during a high-energy top-quality honey flow from a protein-rich pollen and nectar source.

Epigenic studies suggest bees raised during dearth and poor protein phases gives us weakling queens and worker bees susceptible to diseases and more vigorous attack by Varroa destructor. They also like to swarm ad hoc and are often grumpy. I do not wait for a “swarm cell” from a stressed, in-swarm-mode hive, rather I take the day-old eggs from a calm, assertive, balanced environment where lots of human intervention has kept the queen civilized and her staff are never grumpy, because these bees are strong and have good aspects. A single sting is still highly potent if and when required.

Result: a calm new queen bred in a quiet, balanced nuc attended regularly by a human where the worker bees are given every opportunity to seek and play and go about their bee business with good manners connected to a predictable, regular, clean, controlled, organised, option-filled, balanced and fulfilled closet of fulfilled bees.

Animal behaviorist Temple Grandin (Animals Make Us Human): “. . . all animals and people have the same core emotion systems in the brain. Everyone who is responsible for animals needs a set of simple reliable guidelines for creating good mental welfare. Don’t stimulate rage, fear and panic; do satisfy the play and seeking aspects of behaviour.”

Nucs are just a brilliant way to connect with queen bees.

Marley

makuru billy
Reply

I would like to know all the techniques of queen production so I can be able to have a lot of nucs.

Paul Guernsey Player
Reply

I knew the word “nuc” came from nucleus, but I just realized there may be a connection with cell division. “Nuc” has always bothered me for some reason, but with this realization, it makes a little more sense. I may be a little slow on the uptake here, and I know I have not finished my required reading, but I do not remember reading this anywhere.

Also, I don’t think you’ve added “nuc” to our word file, yet, just in case you have more to say on this.

Also, when I typed “nuc” into the search box and clicked on the “submit bee” image link [http://www.honeybeesuite.com/?s=nuc&submit.x=23&submit.y=14], I got an http 500 internal server error.

Rusty
Reply

Okay, now you’ve got me upset. I recently changed internal search engines from one that gives most weight to the most recent post, to one that gives the most weight to the most relevant post. Just now I tried a number of searches: “honey”, “swarm trap”, and “hypopharyngeal” worked. “Queen” and “nuc” did not. Go figure. But thanks for letting me know. I hate spending time on the techie stuff.

As far as I know, nuc is short for nucleus, but I will see if I can dig up anything else. I, too, do not like the word.

colleen corson
Reply

My brother and a friend of mine both have beehives. Neither one had any honey this year. What would make that happen? What can you do to encourage more honey production next year? Both hives had plenty of bees. Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Hi Colleen,

There could be a couple of things happening. For starters, first year colonies sometimes don’t store a lot of honey simply because they spend so much energy building comb and raising young. In subsequent years, much of the comb is already built, so more energy can go into storing honey. You don’t say if these are first year colonies, so this may apply or not.

When you say “no honey” do you mean no honey all, or no harvestable honey? Many times, the weather doesn’t cooperate and the bees manage to put away enough for themselves but not enough for the beekeeper. If they don’t have enough for overwintering themselves, you will have to make sure they have enough feed for winter. At this late date, that will probably mean candy boards or dry sugar.

The lack of a honey crop doesn’t mean the beekeeper did anything wrong. Sometimes the weather can be too wet, too dry, too cold, too hot–whatever–and the flowers either don’t bloom, or they bloom but can’t produce much nectar. Other years everything falls into place and you get loads of honey. I don’t know where you are writing from, but I’ve heard of severe nectar shortages in parts of Texas this year, and also parts of Massachusetts. I’m sure there are plenty of other places as well.

colleen corson
Reply

Hello Rusty,

Thank you so much for answering my question—the hives are several years old and are in
Mass. Maybe it was the weather. My dad raised bees for years when we were kids and we always had loads of honey so we were surprised or I should say disappointed when there wasn’t much honey. We will just have to wait until next year. Thanks again.

Colleen

Jeff
Reply

Rusty,

It was unseasonably warm today where I live hitting 20°C (~72°F) and is suppose to stay in the mid teens (high 50°s, low 60°s) for most of the week. So I went and completed a quick inspection of the colonies. The bees were a little defensive but I didn’t use any smoke.

From an external standpoint the bees were bringing in a good amount of pollen today, orange, white and beige/light olive color. Would the queens still be laying this late in the year or would it be going for reserves in the spring?

So I proceeded to look in some of the colonies and noticed that there is still a good amount of frames only partially capped. These frames are pretty much full, but only partially capped.

Ideally we would prefer to have all framed capped but I assume that is still acceptable. It’s not like I can remove these frames and place something else in. I had been topping up the bees a couple weeks ago with 2:1 sugar syrup.

Also roughly each colony has one frame only partially drawn out so I moved those frames to the 1 or 10 position and moved the fully capped frames to the center.

I was amazed over the number of bees still present in the colonies. Even the 10 frame nuc was covering all 10 frames on the top. I placed my screened bottom board below the 10 frame box today so when I am ready I can move it and place it on top of the 20 frame box for winter.

Any other suggestions before going into winter?

Rusty
Reply

Hi Jeff,

Queens lay eggs pretty much all year, but the rate changes drastically. The bees just maintain a small brood nest in the winter, but it’s there nevertheless. She may stop laying on occasion, but not for long.

Read today’s post regarding the capping of sugar syrup. It explains why it takes so long in the fall.

It’s sounds like you’ve done well getting ready for winter. Are you wrapping, ventilating, or quilting? Those are just some other possibilities.

Tom Nolan
Reply

Hi Rusty,
How do you keep or store frames of honey to use the following year?
I am a new beekeeper going into my third year. I really enjoy your blog.
Regards
Tom Nolan

Rusty
Reply

Tom,

Wrap each frame in plastic wrap. Freeze overnight. Take the frames out of the freezer and, without removing the plastic wrap, put them back in the super. Store the entire super in a cool place away from rodents, birds, bugs, etc. It’s important to keep them wrapped so ants, beetles, moths, or whatever don’t lay eggs in them. Of course, you can keep them in a freezer, but most people I know don’t have that kind of space.

I’ve keep frames like this for three years, and when I unwrapped them, they were fine. If the honey crystallizes, it is not an issue for your bees. It just makes the honey a little like fondant, but bees have bee dealing with crystallized honey for millions of years.

Hope that answers.

Paul Kreider
Reply

I kept bees for years in sunny Bay Area, California, but now I am in far northwest Washington, in Anacortes, and I expect some new experiences as I start up again. It would be helpful if you included the LOCATION of the poster to give us some sense of how the posted issue applies to our climate.
Thanks, still learning.

Rusty
Reply

Paul,

I have asked, cajoled, begged, repeated, and threatened but I cannot get folks to say where they are writing from. I sometimes look up an i.p. address to help me answer a question, but I can’t print that info if it’s not volunteered. Also, it’s not always reliable. Sorry, can’t help you with that one.

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