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How to Buy a Bee Nuc

If you want to begin beekeeping, you need some bees. One popular method of acquiring is to buy a nuc of bees. Also known as a “nucleus colony”, this is not the cheapest way to get a hive started. But, it is a quick way to grow a colony. But, not all bee nucs are created equal. Educate yourself to ensure your best chances of getting off to a good start.

Buying a Nuc of Bees

Nucleus colony of bees with numbered frames, bee nuc 5 frame image.

The word nuc (pronounced “nuke”) is used in the industry as a short form of “nucleus”.  A bee nuc, nuc of bees or nucleus colony are all the same thing.

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These words refer to a small bee family. The nucleus or center of the colony includes: the queen, workers, and drones. Each member of the hive is represented inside the small colony. Unlike buying a package bees, a nuc includes frames of honeycomb including brood and stores of food.

Beekeepers Value Nucs for Fast Growth

From a nucleus, a honey bee colony can grow to be large and productive given the right conditions.  The only thing needed is time and space to grow.

In general, colony growth with a nuc will happen more quickly than package honey bees. This is because much of the honeycomb has already been built. Honey bees do a great job of building comb but it takes a lot of effort.

A nuc with brood has new bees developing that will soon join the work force. Some bees die naturally every day. With new brood coming along, colony population is set to grow.

However, this assumes that the nucleus colony is healthy. A healthy package may out perform a bee nuc that is not healthy.

Common Sizes of Nucs Sold

Most of the nucs sold in the US are 5 frames in size. This is usually 5 deep frames that fit in a standard Langstroth hive body.

But, some suppliers offer smaller colonies for sale. Buying a 3 or 4 frame nuc is also a good idea but it will take longer for your new colony to grow. Location and weather is also a consideration.

Most of these small colonies are started in early Spring. You want to ensure that the nuc box has enough population to maintain warmth in the hive on cold nights. In Northern regions, a colony that is too small may freeze out in very early Spring.

Though deep frames have been the standard, some suppliers offer bees in medium sized frames too. Be sure to discuss this with your supplier so you will have the right equipment on hand.

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Advantages of Buying Bees in a Nuc

  • comb is drawn out
  • food stores are present
  • brood is developing
  • the bees already know the queen

Purchasing a bee nuc does have some obvious advantages.   A lot of work has already been done with drawn out comb and new bees emerging every day. This small colony will grow fast.

Honeycomb has been constructed so the colony does not have to start from scratch building thousands of beeswax cells. A frame or two of honey and pollen should be in place inside the hive.

Of course the work force will begin to collect nectar right away but stored honey is very beneficial to the nurse bees feeding young. And, the foragers will not be able to fly on rainy days so stored food is a bonus for the new colony.

Deep frame from a nuc hive with bee brood image.

Several frames of bee brood should be present. From fresh eggs to capped brood, the next generation of workers is in the works.

With a nuc, the population increases steadily – unlike packages that have a temporary decline in population until eggs are laid and new brood emerges (usually about 3 weeks).

The nuc colony contains a queen bee that is already accepted by the workers. This queen has been in the hive laying for a while. This is one of the biggest advantages of buying a nuc.

There is no need to worry about a queen being accepted. She is already in place and known by the colony. Hopefully, the supplier verified her brood pattern so you can be assured that she is doing her job. Of course if you do not like the performance of your queen, you can always buy another queen later.

Upon arriving back home with your nuc, it is best to take it straight to the bee yard. A good nuc should be ready to size up into a regular 8 or 10 frame hive.  Quality nucs should be “busting at the seams” with bees – a good population. Installing the bee nuc quickly into a full size hive allows the bee family to get to work.

image of a bee nucleus hive in a white box

Disadvantages of Buying Nuc Colonies

It would seem that buying a bee nuc is the absolute best way to get started in beekeeping. However, they are not without a few disadvantages. 

  • limited availability
  • delivered later in the Spring
  • more expensive
  • risk of disease
  • not all are good quality

The best time to order bee nucs is late Winter or very early Spring. This is when bee suppliers begin to take orders. There are many more bee packages available for sale than nucs. You may not be able to purchase one – especially if you fail to order early.

Suppliers want to ensure that each nuc has a good brood pattern before they are sold. Therefore, nucs are often not available for delivery until late Spring.

If you live in an area that has an early honey flow, the majority of the bloom time may be past before your nuc arrives. That’s okay-but it means that you may have to spend on effort on feeding your bees.

The biggest concern with nucs is the increased possibility of transmitting pests and disease.  Honeycomb can contain a multitude of bacteria and pathogens. The biggest concern is getting bees or equipment containing American Foulbrood Spores.

The bacteria that causes EFB or European Foulbrood may be present too. But, it is not as dangerous as AFB and the colony can recover. Especially in early Spring, weak nucs may be fighting an intestinal parasite.

There is also a bigger risk of obtaining pests in any hive with comb. It is not uncommon to receive a colony that has Small Hive Beetles or other pests. With thousands of bees busy on the comb, it is often difficult to check before arriving home.

White cardboard nuc box of bees image.

Ordering Your Bees

Nucs are almost always ordered in advance. Most orders are taken in late December or early January until they are sold out. Delivery happens in April, May or June.

Expect to pay a deposit or even the entire cost of the nuc when you order. Expect to be flexible on delivery dates. Beekeepers can not control the weather and bee deliveries can be a few weeks early or late.

If you decide to try a nuc, be sure to purchase from a reputable beekeeper who will stand behind the sale in case of disease or other problems.

Not all nucs sold are of equal quality – get a clear idea of exactly what you are buying. Of course, this is true whenever you are buying bees in any manner.

Purchasing a nucleus colony is a great way to get started in beekeeping. The challenges involved in are different than that of package bees.  However, every method of getting started has ups and downs.

Getting a jump start on growth may outweigh the possibilities of disease and pests. A good quality nuc will be bursting with bees. 

Be sure that you have your equipment ready to put your nuc into a larger box as soon as they arrive. If the nuc is not full of bees – you may not have received your money’s worth.

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