Building Up a Honey Bee Colony From a Nuc (in Newfoundland)

The following was completely rewritten in March 2019.

To build up a honey bee colony in Newfoundland from 4-frame nuc in July (nucleus hives usually become available around mid-July), I feed it sugar syrup and I don’t stop feeding it until the end of October when it’s too cold for the bees to take down any more syrup. I just keep feeding sugar syrup until the bees fill all the frames of the first deep. Then I add a second deep and continue to feed until they’ve filled all the frames of the second deep. It’s unlikely that all the frames will be fully drawn out even at the end of October. But the key is to feed them sugar syrup and never let the feeders run dry. That’s basically it.

Here’s video I made in 2016 that shows exactly what a typical nuc from Newfoundland looks like and how I install a nuc into a standard deep.



The usual ratio for sugar syrup in the spring and summer is 1 part sugar mixed with 2 parts water, often spiked with anise extract or lemongrass oil as an attractant. Plain old white highly processed granulated sugar is best. Thicker syrup mixed at a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio (2 parts sugar, 1 part water) is usually used in the fall as a final top-up before winter. Personally, I don’t worry about exact measurements. Sometimes my syrup is thin. Most of the time it’s thick.

I give my nucs pollen patties for the first month, just so the bees have one less thing to do. But it’s not necessary and often the bees will ignore pollen patties (or pollen substitute) once they start bringing in natural pollen.

The reason for feeding the bees, though, is to build up the population as quick as possible — because in Newfoundland, the colony needs to go from living on 4 frames to 20 frames in about two months. That’s not much time. So if I give them sugar syrup and pollen, the bees that would normally have to forage for those goodies can switch to nursing duties instead — to making baby bees. It saves a lot of time when 30% of a small colony’s population doesn’t have to forage like it normally would. So feed, feed and feed. That’s pretty much all I did during my first summer of beekeeping.

I like using frame feeders to feed sugar syrup to the bees, but as long as insert feeders aren’t used, most large-volume feeders seem to do the trick. Boardman feeders or entrance feeders are good for providing water for the bees, but I don’t use them for building up nucs because the bees just can’t get enough syrup out of them. Many people use hive top feeders — feeders that sit on top of the hive. Dealer’s choice.

I insert an empty frame on the edge of the brood nest every 8 or 10 days to help expand the brood nest. Honey bees are compelled to fill in empty space, so by inserting an empty frame between fully drawn frames (frames with comb on them), the bees will build on the empty frame faster… or so the story goes. When the colony is strong and full of bees, I sometimes insert the empty frame directly into the brood nest, though many people would argue against doing anything that disrupts the integrity of the brood nest. And by “empty” I mean a frame with plastic or wax foundation, or a frame with nothing in it — a foundationless frame.

I add a second deep (or box) once the bees have filled most of the frames on the first deep, usually around the second week of August. 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). Then I keep feeding.

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.

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 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. Newfoundland beekeepers who use The D.E. Hive sold by Gerard Smith probably don’t have to worry too much about ventilation. 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. And that’s about it.

Frame of honey from one of our nucs. (August 28, 2011.)

Frame of honey from one of our nucs. (August 28, 2011.)

That’s how it plays out during the first year. It’s much easier to build a colony up from a nuc when I have other colonies around that I can steal from. And by colonies I mean hives. But technically it’s a colony of honey bees that lives in a hive. A hive = a house. The bees are a colony. They’re not a hive. So anyway, Part 2: Building Up a Nuc by Stealing From Other Hives.

And that pretty much explains it. Adding a frame of brood (nurse bees and all) can provide a huge boost to a nuc-colony. Considering that most nucs in Newfoundland come with a piddly single frame of brood, two if you’re lucky, that extra frame of brood virtually doubles the size of the small colony as soon as those bees hatch out. It’s a very big deal. It puts a regular nuc way ahead of the game. Whenever I can add a frame of brood to a nuc, I do it.

But almost as good as a frame of brood is drawn comb. Again, that’s a frame from another colony that bees have already built comb on. So instead of adding empty frames, if I throw in frames of drawn comb, then the queen automatically has room to lay eggs and expand the brood nest — which is the whole name of this game. In a first-year nuc (when you can’t still from an established colony), the worker bees first have to build comb for the queen to lay eggs in, and often the queen has to wait (and waste time) for the comb to get built. It also takes a huge amount of resources (honey and nectar) for worker bees to produce the wax they need to build the comb. So drawn comb in a win-win situation no matter how you look at it.

The next best thing to steal from another colony and add to a nuc is a frame of pollen, because pollen is food for baby bees. Pollen patties, or more accurately pollen substitute patties, are fine, but real pollen is even better. An extra frame of honey doesn’t hurt either.

Not every single frame added to the nuc-colony needs to be stolen from another colony. It’s good to let the bees build some of their own comb. They’re making wax. They might as well do something with it. Freshly drawn comb is better for raising brood anyway.

With added brood frames and drawn comb, a nuc-colony is usually in much better shape in October than it would be otherwise. It’s a whole other ballgame.

Some quick notes about the video: In the video, I use plastic foundation with a hole drilled in the middle so that the bees can move between frames in the winter without having to break cluster. The bees build comb on the foundation, filling in most of the hole while they’re at it. But they leave enough room to walk through the hole (“enough room” is often referred to as “bee space”). At the time of the video, drilling holes in my foundation was an experiment, but I now know it’s an experiment that worked. I don’t think anybody else does this. It’s my own thing, but it’s a good thing.

At one point in the video I do something that’s embarrassing: I splatter syrup all over the plastic foundation. Normally I would just spray the foundation with syrup. The syrup, especially if it has anise in it, attracts the bees to the foundation and encourages them to build on it. Many beekeepers in Newfoundland also brush the plastic foundation with clean melted beeswax from their own hives. Some bees are reluctant to build off plastic foundation. The brushed-on wax gets them working on it right away, or so I’m told.

I also think black plastic foundation is better than white foundation because it’s much easier to spot the brood on a black background than on a white one. Some foundation has deeper cells imprinted on it, sometimes called “3/4 depth” foundation, but it’s not worth the extra cost. It’s harder to install on the frames, it’s usually white and it doesn’t save the bees much time anyway. Which makes for a general rule that says: If it’s white foundation, skip it.

Of course, this is just what I do. Some people do less. Some people do more. Some people take a completely different approach. But it’s worked for me since 2010 and even though this is a long rambling post, the final message is simple: Just keep feeding the bees sugar syrup until they won’t take it anymore. There’s not a whole lot else to do during the first summer of beekeeping in Newfoundland.

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