Nucs: How We Raised ‘Em Well

PREFACE – SEPTEMBER 21, 2015: I originally wrote this post after only a year of beekeeping with less than four hives. That’s not much experience. If I rewrote this post today, it would go something like this: To build up a honey bee colony in Newfoundland from 4-frame nuc in July, I usually feed it sugar syrup and don’t stop feeding it until the end of October when it’s too cold for the bees to take down any more syrup. Even then it’s unlikely that all the frames will be fully drawn out. I don’t think it makes any difference how the sugar syrup is mixed. I always use thick syrup, but many people use a thin syrup early in the year and a thicker syrup near the fall. I use frame feeders, but as long as insert feeders aren’t used, most feeders will do the trick. I insert an empty frame between frames of brood every 8 or 10 days to help expand the brood nest. I add a second deep box once the bees have filled 7 or 8 frames (it takes about 4 weeks). I move a frame or two of brood from the middle of the brood nest to the top box at the same time (some call this pyramiding). A single-deep colony doesn’t need much ventilation except for an upper entrance. Too much ventilation while the brood nest is small can chill the brood. I’ll put a ventilation rim over the inner cover after the second deep is added, but I don’t think it’s a huge concern unless I see excessive fanning. Ventilation is more crucial in the winter and with fully established colonies packed with bees. I continue to feed and insert empty frames until the end of October (usually). If the bees fill all the frames in the top box with honey / syrup, I’ll pull a capped frame and insert an empty frame into the middle. Capped frames of honey / syrup can be added back to the hive later. Some people don’t feed a nuc pollen patties. Some people do. I feed pollen patties for the first couple weeks when the small colony doesn’t have many foragers, and whenever the bees are hive-bound because of bad weather. I keep the bottom entrance reduced to a couple of inches until I see the bees crowding the entrance, usually sometime in August. I’ll reduce the entrance again if I see too many wasps or robbing bees trying to get in. That’s about it. I’ll write a more details post sometime in the future. Now onto my original post…

I mentioned in a previous post that this year’s nucs are way ahead of the nucs we had last year. (I call them nucs even though they’re living in full sized hives. They’re young colonies that aren’t yet strong enough to make it through the winter. Until they get over that hump, for me, they’re still nucs.) Each of them had a frame feeder installed in the top box until a few days ago. We had to remove the feeders because there is so much honey in the top boxes of each hive that we’re concerned the queens could become honey bound. We even had to remove a frame of honey from one of them.

We filled in the remaining space with a couple of empty frames with plastic foundation. Hive #4 now has a full 20 frames. Hive #3 has 18 frames — nine frames along with two dummy boards in each box. Hopefully the empty frames we added will provide the queens with more laying room once the bees have drawn comb on them. We’re still giving the hives pollen patties, but we may not need to feed them syrup again while the weather is still warm. At the rate they’re expanding, we might even be able to add honey supers to them. Last year’s nucs didn’t even have all their frames drawn out by October, and if we hadn’t fed them candy cakes over the winter, they would have died from starvation. Why are this year’s nucs doing so well?

● Last year’s nucs arrived on July 18th.
     This year we got them a week earlier on July 10th. I doubt that’s much of an advantage, though, especially considering the cold wet weather we had until the past few weeks.

● Last year we only fed the bees sugar syrup.
     This year we fed them sugar syrup and pollen patties (food for the baby bees).

● Last year we used a plain sugar mixture.
     This year we spiked the syrup with anise extract — they go nuts for it.

● Last year we used boardman feeders for the first month and a half.
     This year we used frame feeders from the start. Also known as division board feeders, the bees can take up more syrup from them and it’s easier for the bees to get at the syrup when it’s inside the hive.

● Last year the nucs were on their own.
     This year we gave each nuc an extra frame of honey and brood from last year’s hives when we added the second box. This put them over the top.

● Last year we installed foundationless frames when we added the second box, which produced more drones that subsequently ate up much of the honey stores in the hive.
     This year we used conventional frames with plastic foundation. Minimal drone comb.

● Last year’s nucs didn’t have dummy boards (a.k.a. follower boards).
     One of this year’s nucs, Hive #3, had dummy boards installed when the second box was added. The dummy boards help the bees regulate the humidity and temperature of the hive. (How they do next year as an established hive will be the final test.)

● Last year we used standard hive components.
     This year we eventually added ventilator rims to cut down on the humidity inside the hives. The extra ventilation aids in brood rearing and the honey curing process. We plan to add screened bottom boards and screened inner covers in a day or two. I’m convinced that ventilation is key to a healthy hive.

● Last year we had entrance reducers on the hives most of the time to prevent robbing from wasps and other bees.
     This year we did exactly the same thing.

● Last year we found an excuse to mess around with the hives at least once a week, if not more. I don’t regret it because we learned a lot just from watching the bees.
     But this year we left the hives alone as much as possible. We’re gradually becoming low-impact beekeepers. Most of the time we can lift the top off the hive, look down through the frames and see the queen has plenty of space to lay, and that’s it. When we pull out frames during an inspection, we usually only need to pull out two or three per box at the most.

Based on my massive 409 days of beekeeping experience, if I had to give advice to new beekeepers in Newfoundland starting up some hives from nucs like we have, I would say:

● Constantly feed the bees sugar syrup (2 parts sugar, 1 part water) with anise extract until just about every frame in the hive is full. Last year we had to feed our bees until it was too cold for them to take down any syrup. (Dec. 12/12 Update: This applies to nucs that are started sometime in July. Nucs started in April or May probably wouldn’t need constant feeding and would likely produce a honey harvest by September.)

● Use a frame feeder until you run out of room for it. Then switched to a hive top feeder or a jar feeder.

● Constantly give them pollen patties too. Why not? It’s what they use to make “bee bread” (food for the baby bees).

● Keep the entrance reduced, at least until the colony population is high.

● Add as many ventilation aids to the hive as you can manage.

Then you’ll wrap them up for winter sometime in November and say goodnight.

DECEMBER 22/12: The dummy boards worked great. It could just be coincidence, but the colony with the dummy boards did well and the bees in that hive were the most well behaved all of our colonies. If it wasn’t such a hassle to make them, I’d add dummy boards to all our hives.

JANUARY 15/14: Top hive feeders aren’t necessary. It’s entirely possible to raise a nuc up to a full sized two-deep colony using only a frame feeder. Exhibit A: Topping Up a Hive With a Frame Feeder.

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