Beekeeping Basics: Installing a Nuc

Most new beekeepers on the island of Newfoundland (and many other places on the planet) will start up their first colonies with what is often referred to as a nuc, or a nucleus colony, or a starter hive that contains a laying queen, at least one frame of brood, a frame or two of pollen and honey, and usually a blank or empty frame to give the worker bees something to work on while they’re stuck in a 4-frame nuc box for up to a week. The frames from the nuc are usually placed inside a single hive body (in Newfoundland, it’s usually a deep) with empty frames to fill in the rest of the box. A feeder of some sort is installed. And that’s it. The following 24-minute video demonstrates the entire process.

I’ll post a condensed version of this video at a later date if I can, but for now it’s probably more helpful to show how it plays out in real time (more or less) so that anyone new to all this, or anyone thinking about starting up a few honey bee colonies next year, will have a realistic idea of what to expect when it comes time to install their first nuc. I plan to post follow-up videos to track the progress of this colony right into next spring, again so that anyone hoping to start up their own hives in the future will have a non-idealized take on what to expect.

It was well over 30°C (86°F) by the time I finished installing all of my nucs. The sweat was pouring off my face and stinging my eyes. Expect that too.

Here’s a breakdown of the video for people who don’t have time to watch it all at once:

00:00 — The video begins with me yakking on about nucs in general.

00:53 — The difference between drawn comb and bare foundation (using bare foundation for this demonstration nuc).

02:25 — Reviewing a few things about frames and feeders and Langstroth hives.

03:40 — Filling my modified 7-litre frame feeder, explaining why I like it.

04:55 — Explaining my imprecise method of mixing sugar syrup and why it works for me (because it’s easy).

06:16 — “Spraying” the bare foundation with sugar syrup to attract to the bees to the foundation. (Brushing the foundation with clean beeswax is even better, but most new beekeeper in NL won’t have access to wax, so a spray down with sugar syrup is the next best thing.)

07:28 — Why I use standard dishwashing gloves instead of leather gloves.

07:48 — Using a spray bottle instead of a smoker.

08:33 — Opening the nuc box.

09:00 — Removing the first frame from the nuc box with my frame gripper, a frame of pollen and nectar and some honey. Placing the frame in the hive body.

10:00 — Removing second frame from nuc box, the empty frame of foundation. Spraying the bees a little more, explaining what I use in my sprayer and how I use it. Placing frame in hive body, maintaining the same frame arrangement as the nuc box (for now).

10:51 — Removing the third frame, a frame of capped brood, placing it in the hive body.

12:12 — Removing the 4th (and last) frame from the nuc box and spotting the queen.

13:00 — Problems installing the last frame because of honey bugling out. Sliding the frames closer together so they all fit in, despite the bulging honeycomb.

14:56 — A summary of what I’ve just done, explaining how I’ll expand the colony by inserting blank frames between frames of brood, etc.

16:00 — Adding my improvised top cover (a piece of plywood), shaking some bees out of the cardboard nuc box. I should note that I quickly removed the cardboard nuc box from the area because many of the bees were still attracted to the queen’s pheromones inside the box (that’s not in the video).

16:58 — Adding my no-frills entrance reducer (a block of wood), explaining how it works. I decided afterwards to remove the entrance reducer until after the bees were oriented to the hive. I am so overheated by this point, I can barely speak coherently.

18:30 — Summarizing how I plan to feed the bees throughout the summer, etc.

19:18 — Close-up of bulging honeycomb in another nuc, showing how it prevents me from spacing the frames properly, which can cause problems down the road. Noticing, too, that the nuc only contains a single frame of brood, which isn’t much. I plan to add frames of brood from other colonies to boost up some of my nucs.

21:55 — A look at one of my other nucs, me yaking about how the bees are orientating, and a suggestion to take this opporunity, while there aren’t many bees in the hive, to look for the queen.

POSTSCRIPT (Sept. 28/16): Some of the things I demonstrate in this video will undoubtedly raise the ire of many so-called natural beekeepers. I don’t want to beat up on these alleged natural beekeepers, but I will, because too many of them don’t hesitate to beat up on me.

The first inevitable point of ire: Frames with plastic foundation. Yeah, I know plastic is one of the great evils of the world and foundationless frames that allow the bees to build comb on their own work too. I used foundationless frames when I began beekeeping but switched to plastic foundation after I had some problems with excessive drones and low honey stores going into winter. Adding foundation made a difference and possibly saved my bees from starving over the winter. But that doesn’t necessarily mean plastic foundation is better. It just means it worked well for me in my particular climate and circumstance. While plastic may not be ideal, it’s not as nefarious as some sanctimonious and professed natural beekeepers make it out to be. At the end of the day, a beekeeper does what works best for them and their bees, and whether that’s to go with plastic foundation or without it, I can’t and won’t presume to claim which is best.

The second inevitable point of ire: Feeding the bees sugar syrup. I don’t like feeding sugar syrup because it’s essentially empty carbohydrates, junk food for honey bees. But it’s better than letting them go hungry. I feed the bees their own honey when I can and only feed sugar when to do otherwise could result in the death of my bees. Many arguments I hear against feeding sugar syrup are based on idealized versions of beekeeping that are so far removed from the reality of what honey bees need to survive in a cold climate that they essentially amount to bad beekeeping practices.

Most of the worst, half baked, out to lunch beekeepers I’ve ever met claim to follow natural beekeeping practices that include never feeding sugar syrup. The inevitable argument is that honey bees did fine for millions of years without eating syrup made from processed sugar. True, but honey bees don’t naturally live on the island of Newfoundland either. Processes of evolution would never have brought honey bees to such a cold, wet, inhospitable climate, especially on such a geographically isolated island. Therefore, as a matter of fact, it’s unnatural for honey bees to live in Newfoundland. For millions of years, honey bees did fine without consuming sugar syrup, but not in Newfoundland — in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean — where it so cold and wet most of the time that the nectary resources necessary to build a 4-frame nuc into a fully established colony before winter sets in are often inaccessible due to inclement weather or simply do not exist.

I’ve seen what happens to most Langstroth and Top Bar nuc colonies that are never fed sugar syrup. They’re slow to build up in the summer and the populations are so small going into winter that they either freeze or starve to death before spring, even with emergency feedings. While that’s not always the case, feeding sugar syrup greatly reduces the likelihood. I’ve seen too many first-year beekeepers in Newfoundland follow the “let the bees be bees” approach — the ultimate approach in natural beekeeping — by not feeding their nucleus colonies, and it’s an especially painful blow when they lose their colonies during the first winter, not understanding why their bees froze to death.

While feeding sugar syrup may not be ideal, it’s better than allowing a first-year colony to die over the winter. That is why I strongly argue that a 4-frame nuc started in July in Newfoundland should be fed sugar syrup at least until the first deep is full and more bees are available to forage. Randy Oliver said it like this: “Immediately, and consistently start feeding sugar syrup to the new colony [the nuc] until all the frames in the lower box are fully drawn. Feeding sugar syrup to the small colony frees the bees from the need to forage for nectar, and they can use their efforts instead to collect pollen, rear brood, produce beeswax, and draw out comb.”

I understand the appeal of being all-natural with one’s beekeeping practices. It’s an ideal that I embraced when I began beekeeping too. But there’s a point where the idealism of natural beekeeping diverts completely from the reality of responsible beekeeping. And not feeding a nucleus colony on the island of Newfoundland is just bad beekeeping.

I don’t mean to cast all natural beekeepers in a bad light, just the annoying, sanctimonious ones I wish would go away.