Buying a nuc colony is one way that beekeepers get bees for their hive. Nuc installation is a bit different than starting bees with a package. But, a nuc colony does have a head start over hives starting from scratch. Installing a nucleus colony is no more difficult than conducting a regular hive inspection. Careful handling and respect for the bees should allow you to get the job completed quickly.
How to Install a Nuc of Bees
Once you decide that you want to become a beekeeper, you have a lot of work to do. Beyond getting necessary equipment and hive parts together, you also need to buy bees.
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The most common way to buy bees is in a honey bee package. They are readily available for order in early Spring and easy to transport. But, there is another way to obtain a family of honey bees.
Some beekeepers prefer to purchase a nucleus colony. We often pronounce this as “nuke” or a bee nuc.
What is a Nuc?
A nuc is “the heart of a hive. Inside should be a mated queen that is already acquainted with the colony and enough worker bees to maintain the hive.
Though they are available in different sizes, the 5-frame is most common. Also, most nuc bees are on deep frames – though you might find some for sale with medium frames. Be sure to ask when you order.
The most common size is a 5 frame nuc with deep sized frames. You should receive 5 frames of drawn comb with honey, pollen and brood. Most good quality nucs will have at least 3 frames of brood or baby bees.
Most nucs are pre-ordered in late Winter or very early Spring. Suppliers will required that you pay a deposit or full purchase price in advance.
Take care and research the seller before paying in advance. Make sure you understand any refund or cancel policies.
Your nuc will be delivered or available for pickup in Spring. In my area, late April or May is the most common time to receive nucs. They are traditionally available a little later than package bees.
Bringing Your Nucleus Colony Home
Some suppliers will ask you to bring them a hive with 5 frames. They will having the task of installing a nuc colony into your equipment. Then you return, very early in the morning or after dark to pick it up.
Today, it is more common to receive the nuc of bees in a box or container. The most popular type of nuc box is a white waxed box designed to hold 5 frames and contain the bees for a while. It should be sturdy enough for transport and can often be reused to transfer a swarm.
Plastic nuc boxes are also used. They have ventilation holes to prevent over-heating and an easy close entrance.
Plan to pick up your nuc very early in the day. The sooner you get the bees home and into a regular hive- the better. Treat your nuc carefully. Protect it from temperature extremes.
If you are not traveling a very long distance, placing the secured nuc in the bed of your truck (but up against the cab to deter wind) is fine. We don’t want the nuc box to turn over or get too hot.
Plan to drive straight home or keep the box in the car with the air conditioning running. The bees do not have a natural way to cool themselves inside this transportation box.
Normally, NO bees will escape from the box. However, if one does that is not a reason to freak out. If this concerns you, take some type of large mesh bag to put your nuc inside.
Picking up bees is fun but taking the whole family along with the family dog to bee pickup is not always a good idea.
Whew.. you made it home with little or no bees getting out of the box.
What is the Best Time of Day to Install a Nucleus Colony?
There is debate about what is the best time of day for installing a nuc. A late day install is favored by some beekeepers. But, I think any time of day is fine if the weather is warm (60° F).
The bees will be eager to get out and experience their new home. However, we are going to be opening the box and transferring frames of brood – you don’t want to chill the bees.
But what if the weather or your schedule prevents immediate installation? No problem, your bees can live in the nuc box for a day or so if necessary. But, we do want them to be able to fly.
If you need to delay putting the nuc bees in a hive, place the container right beside your permanent hive. Open the little access door on the front so the bees can come and go. As soon as possible, install the nucleus colony into the hive.
As long as the bees can come and go, you are not in a rush to make the transfer. A few days is okay. However, a good nuc box is full of bees – almost to the point of overcrowding. We don’t want them to swarm!
Transfer a Nuc to a Full Size Hive
- Prepare yourself by putting on your beekeeper’s hat/veil or suit. A nuc colony may be more defensive than a package of bees. They have young to protect and frames of food.
- Light your smoker. Unlike the more docile package, smoke is helping in a nuc installation. Puff a little cool white smoke near the nuc entrance. This does not harm the bees but it helps reduce any alarm response.
- Have 5 additional frames ready for your empty hive. Assuming you are using a standard Langstroth hive-you will need a total of 10 frames. Put 4 of the frames in the hive – 2 on each side. This leaves a large opening in the middle.
- Open your nuc box. Start with one of the frames on the outside and carefully remove them from the nuc box. We don’t know which frame the queen will be on. Do not “roll” or squish your queen!!
- Once you have all the frames (including the one with the queen) in the new hive. You can place the last empty frame in the hive to complete your 10 frame setup. Shake any bees remaining in the transport container into the new hive.
- You are ready to close up the hive and put your feeder in place. It is important to feed your nuc. Even though they begin with 5 frames of drawn comb, they still have a lot of work to do.
- While your bees are ready to grow, they are still a small bee family. Help them protect their hive by installing an entrance reducer.
A 2-3 inch opening should be fine for now. We want the entrance to be a bit small until the population builds up in a couple of weeks.
When installing a nuc colony, you do not have to worry about a queen cage. The queen is known to the bees and loose in the box. However, you do need to be very careful because you don’t know where she is.
It is important to continue feeding your new colony to promote growth. The bees will work to build comb on the empty frames. The timing of adding a second box depends on many factors.
When 7 or 8 of the 10 frames are drawn out (full of honeycomb) -you will be ready to add another box. Don’t give them too much space too soon or Small Hive Beetles may cause trouble.
Installing bee nucs is a great way to grow your apiary. They have advantages and disadvantages as a way to get bees. But, they have a head start towards becoming a productive colony.