It’s November 2018 as I rewrite this post from 2010. Again, I’m struck by how I talked like I knew what I was talking about even though I had no experience as a beekeeper. Luckily installing a nuc is pretty straightforward and doesn’t require a great deal of experience to grasp. Most of what I wrote, even with no experience, seems accurate.
Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster the wait is over. I just got a call confirming that I can pick up my honey bees in 2 weeks. It will cost $400 for two nuc packages and I’ll have to drive eight hours to get them, but at least I know I’m going to have honey bees for two hives this year. Nuff said.
Okay, so what’s a nuc package and how does it work?
This is a nuc package. To reduce confusion, let’s call it a nuc box, because that’s what it is: a small box that contains the nucleus of a honey bee colony. A nuc box typically holds 4 deep frames, several thousands bees and a mated queen. Three frames will contain a combination of honey, pollen and eggs, everything a colony needs to stay alive. One frame is usually left empty so the worker bees have something to work on while they’re stuck in the box during shipment to their new hive.
The installation of the honey bees from a nuc box to their new hive is a relatively straightforward procedure. The four frames from the nuc box, along with all the bees and the queen, are placed inside a hive body and left alone.
More precisely, it works like this: Six deep frames with foundation are sprayed down with a sugar-water solution (1 part water, 1 part sugar) and placed into an empty hive body (or deep). The sugar water compels the bees to begin working on the frames right away. Some foundations already have a coating of beeswax that’s attractive to the bees and reduces the likelihood of them flying away and never coming back again.
The hive body is placed on a bottom board, which is usually on some sort of stand that keeps the hive off the ground, away from morning dew and moisture. The bottom board provides a landing pad for the bees to enter the hive through a big slit on the bottom of the hive. The hive entrance usually faces the rising sun so the bees warm up and get to work as soon as possible. A piece of wood called an entrance reducer is placed in front of the entrance so the bees, whose numbers are low at the beginning, only have to defend a small entrance to their hive. A feeder is sometimes attached to the hive body as well so the bees have some food to hold them over while they’re getting used to their new surroundings.
Then the nuc box is opened and the bees are either lightly smoked or sprayed down with sugar water to make them more docile (apparently smoke isn’t usually necessary for a such a small number of bees). Each frame is then carefully removed from the box and placed in the new hive body, usually in the middle, not on the sides. Any bees left in the box can be dumped into hive body or the box can be left open close to the entrance and the left over bees will fly into the hive themselves. And that’s it. An inner cover and a top cover are placed over the hive body and the bees are left alone. The hive is inspected four of five days later. If everything is going well, some of the empty frames that were sprayed with sugar water should have the beginnings of new comb drawn out on them and the queen should have begun laying new eggs. Another hive body and eventually honey supers are added to the hive as the bees work through each level of frames in the hive.
Check out my Installing a Nuc post to view a detailed video on installing a nuc.
A nuc box is more expensive than a regular package of bees, but it’s usually worth it because the bees are less likely to abscond — that’s a polite beekeeper way of saying they gather outside the hive in a swarm and fly away. Bye-bye bees.
This is a typical package of honey bees. It’s a cage that holds about 10,000 bees and a queen who is in a separate smaller cage inside the big cage. Some people install bee packages simply by placing the open cage inside a hive body with some frames and leaving it alone for a few days. Then they just remove the cage once the bees have moved onto the frames inside the hive. More commonly, the bees in the cage are sprayed with sugar water and then dumped into a hive body with new frames. There’s more to it than what I’m describing, but watch this video to see how it’s done.
I’ve heard more than a few stories of bees absconding and flying away a few days after a package is installed. The queen emerges from her little queen cage, finds a hive full of empty frames and nowhere to lay her eggs, so she gets up and flies away and takes the rest of the bees with her. An easy way to prevent that from happening is to place a queen excluder on the bottom of the first hive body. A queen excluder is a screen-type device that’s usually placed between the hive bodies and the honey supers to prevent the queen, who is larger than the other bees, from laying eggs in the honey supers. But when placed on the bottom of the hive, the excluder prevents the queen from leaving the hive and absconding with the rest of the bees. Placing drawn comb in the hive body helps too, but the excluder-on-the-bottom method guarantees she isn’t going anywhere.
I may use queen excluders until I know the colonies are staying put, but with nuc boxes, absconding isn’t much of an issue. I guess I’ll find out for sure in about two weeks.
2018 Postscript: I didn’t know it at the time, but packages are not sold on the island of Newfoundland. While it’s legal, with the right permits, to import packages from Western Australia, judging from the reaction most beekeepers had to the 2016 importation of 130 packages by an operation in Grand Falls and another farm in St. John’s, it may not bee the best way to make friends.