A Book About Nucleus Colonies (or Nucs)

Another book I read while stricken with the flu is Increase Essentials by Lawrence John Connor, a short and easy read that some consider to be the definitive book about nucs — it’s comprehensive. It’s mainly about increasing hives by creating splits and nucleus colonies from established hives.

I don’t think beginner beekeepers or backyard beekeepers who are happy with two or three hives need to concern themselves with it. Laidback beekeepers who want to create nucs for themselves but don’t feel the need to earn a PhD while they’re at it can simply read Why every beekeeper should have a nuc at Honey Bee Suite. I didn’t read every single word of the book (I did some skimming), because I don’t need to know everything it covers just yet. But I do plan to expand my four hives to eight this summer and continually expand every summer after that as I secure more land for my hives. That means I eventually need to learn the basics of creating nucs and rearing mated queens for the nucs. I’ll take on queen rearing next year. This year I’ll start with making my own nucs.

Most of the following notes (and there aren’t too many) address swarming and queen mating issues. To delve into the main details of the book would take too long. Suffice it to say there is a huge amount of information in this small book, and it all seems sound. I will likely constantly reference Increase Essentials when I decide to create mating nucs and expand my hives further next year.

Page 16. “…drones and virgins [i.e., virgin queens] from the same colony go to different drone congregation areas (DCAs) that develop naturally near apiaries.” Connor explains how queens will fly a mile or more in search of drones, but drones will only fly a fraction of that distance from the hive. This is nature’s way of reducing the likelihood of inbreeding. So if you need to get your queens mated with greater genetic diversity, you might have better luck if the drones aren’t hived in the same bee yard as the queens.

Page 22. The queen’s pheromones can become diluted in colonies with a large population — a trigger for swarming. The workers respond to the reduced level of queen pheromone in the usual manner by not feeding the queen and chasing her around the hive, thus preparing her to fly away with a swarm. Poor ventilation and a lack of empty cells for egg laying will also trigger a swarm. Adding honey supers before the nectar flow helps to prevent swarming.

Page 82-83. However, once queen cells are sealed, it’s game over. Connor describes swarming conditions like this: “When the colony is large, when there are no cells for eggs or nectar, when the hive is congested with bees underfoot everywhere, when the wax makers let their wax scales drop to the bottom board, and large numbers of drones are present in the hive; this is when the level of queen substance falls to a certain level… the queen leaves the normal brood area to find prepared queen cups and lays eggs into them… when eggs are found in queen cups… it should be clear that the colony is on the road toward swarming.”

Page 23. After the old queen has swarmed and established a new colony in a different location, she’s usually “replaced through supercedure during the honey flow.”

Page 39. Connor describes several methods for creating and caring for nucs, mating virgin queens, etc. I won’t get into it, but it covers the basics and much more. The basics being: Pull a frame of brood, honey and pollen from a hive to start a nuc. The nuc can be queened with a swarm cell, a virgin queen, a mated queen, or it can be allowed to create its own queen. Personally, in Newfoundland, I’d go with a mated queen. It all depends on your circumstance and what you want to do with your bees. It’s also good to know that foragers always return to the original hive location and nurse bees will never abandon the brood. They can usually be added to new hives without getting attacked. (There’s a lot more to it than this. I may add some of that information to the comments for this post.)

Page 84. “Queens that have not been through a season are less likely to swarm…” That’s why some beekeepers prefer to requeen near the end of the summer.

Page 111. Pollen substitute contains no pollen. Pollen supplement does, but it should be treated to kill foulbrood and chalkbrood spores.

Page 121. Connor explains how a two-queen system works. Two hives are separated by a double screen (I think some people call it a cloak board). The heat in the bottom hive helps the colony in the top hive. The colonies quickly expand in the spring. Then the screen along with the weakest queen is removed just before the first honey flow. The resulting megahive produces a huge amount of honey. That’s a simplified overview.

Page 122. Bees respond to the odour of empty drawn comb as a stimulus, “providing them incentive to get out and forage for nectar and fill those drawn cells with honey (this stimulus is not observed when foundation is used).” The moral of the story: Add the supers full of drawn comb before the flow if you want the most honey from your bees. And don’t be late because: “Once the flow is underway, the empty comb works against the hoarding instinct.”

Note: I’m only repeating what I read in the book. I can’t confirm or argue with any of the above statements because I have no experience with swarms or in creating nucs and rearing queens. Not yet anyway.

The next book on my list is Hive Management by Richard E. Bonney. I hear it’s excellent.

April 2019 Postscript: I read Increase Essentials once and then forgot that I had the book until now. At any rate, it seems that most of what I read in the book has stayed with me because I’m aware of everything mentioned in this post, possibly from what I read in the book, but most likely from my experience with my bees.

I should re-read about what he said about 2-queen hives. I’ve already experimented with 2-queen hives, not following any directions from anyone. I didn’t double-queen the hive to make more honey but to boost up a weak colony — and it worked. So I’m one for one so far.

I admit, though, that I forgot about this one: “Once the flow is underway, the empty comb works against the hoarding instinct.” I wonder why that’s the case. The answer is probably obvious but it’s not coming to me at the moment.

All the notes I made about swarming triggers and swarming signs — that’s good information. Most of it seems obvious to me now, but I forgot about the wax scales falling to the floor of the hive. I definitely saw that during the spring of my first swarm — a spring when most of my colonies swarmed because I overfed them. I don’t see much fallen wax scales these days because whenever I see the bees making wax or building new comb, that’s when I add an empty frame with no drawn comb on it to give them something to work on.

I don’t give a great deal of thought to swarming or swarm prevention. I guess it’s one of those things I just sort of deal with as it comes. Most of my beekeeping practices inherently prevent swarming anyway. I always make sure the hives are well-ventilated and I’m always making room for the queen to lay. That statement — “making room for the queen to lay” — is the foundation of pretty much everything I do in my beekeeping. If I know the queen has room to lay, then I know I can relax. I would likely be a better beekeeper if I paid closer attention to other potential swarming signs, but when I know the queen has room to lay, I don’t bother snooping around for swarm signs other than the obvious ones such as eggs in the queen cups.

The only downside to the book is its price. It ain’t cheap. But if you type in “Larry Connor beekeeping” in YouTube, you’ll find enough videos that are probably just as good. I have watched many hours of his videos online. He knows his stuff.

But I also like his attitude. I won’t name names, but I know some well-known beekeepers who sound irritated every time they explain something to someone. Maybe they’re not irritated, but sounding irritated turns me off. Knowledge is important. Experience is more important. But neither mean anything if you can’t check your ego at the door and talk to people empathetically.

It also helps that Larry Connor isn’t trying to show off or prove himself when he speaks. I know people who every time they open their mouths can’t help but mention their credentials or name-drop the latest beekeeping scholar they’ve spoken to. Good teachers don’t need to do that. Good teachers know that nobody cares about any of that. Good teachers don’t use their teaching opportunity to elevate themselves or prove their authority to anyone. They share their experiences and knowledge with honesty, without ego, without pretense. Why am I going on about all this? Because the best teaching and learning happens through humility, for both the teacher and the learner. That’s how I’ve learned to be a good beekeeper (I hope). What I’m saying is, it’s important.

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