Time to Move Bees from Nuc to Full-Sized Hive

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A nuc is a small starter colony used by many beekeepers to start a new hive. So, how do you know when it is time to move bees from a nuc to a full-sized hive? As with many beekeeping questions, the answer is not always carved in stone – it depends on several factors. In this guide I am going to explain how I decide it is time to move my nuc to a 10 frame Langstroth hive.

Nuc full of bees and a base full sized beehive on stand.

Every beekeeper has their own way of doing things. Whatever works for you and your bees is the right thing. I love keeping a few bee nuc hives in my apiary. But, they do require management.

Signs It is Time to Move Your Nuc to A Full Hive

Beekeepers learn early on that colonies do not remain the same size. Depending on resources and seasonality, the bee population is either growing or declining.

When working with nucs, the goal is usually to grow that small start into a full productive beehive. So, what do we look for?

  • population growth
  • brood nest congestion
  • seeing queen cells
Three examples of nuc hive needing to move to a large hive, crowded frames, crowded brood nest and queen cells.

Crowded Bees

If you find that 80% to 90% of the frames are covered with busy bees – they need more space. When the bees have drawn out all the frames of comb, and have a large enough population to look crowded in there – it is time to size up!

Closed Brood Nest

A healthy brood nest should have a mix of eggs, bee larvae, and capped brood with some empty cells for the queen to fulfill her role -lay new eggs. Otherwise, she has no room to expand the nest. The colony becomes stressed and more subject to disease in crowded conditions.

In a 5-frame nucleus hive (the most common size), if you have 3 or 4 full frames of bee brood – it is time to move that bee nuc to a full-sized hive.

Queen Cells

Seeing queen cells in a crowded nuc colony might mean that the bees are replacing their queen (supersedure cells). But, they are often swarm cells indicating that the bees are out of space and are preparing to swarm.

Info graphic of honey bee colony spring population buildup and fall decline.

Factors to Consider

Anytime I am making plans for my bees, I must remember that they have their own plans and we don’t always agree. So, before moving my nuc to a full hive, it is important to look at the outside factors that will affect any hive manipulations I want to make.

Seasonality or Time of Year

My beginning beekeepers buy nuc hives for late Spring delivery. Warmer temperatures have arrived and the weeks of abundant nectar and pollen are before us.

If you received a good quality nuc with frames of drawn comb, bee brood, and a productive queen – you should move the bee nuc right into a full hive. This provides ample space for the colony to grow during the time of ample food.

However, a nuc hive in late Fall – might be better suited to overwinter in the nuc box (if your climate allows). In this situation, I usually add a nuc-sized super box on top and feed them to ensure they fill it with honey for Winter.

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Because cold weather and scarce nectar is on the horizon, it is not advisable to place this small colony in a large box. This is especially true because it is the time of year when the bees are reducing the size of the colony – not expanding it.

Weather Conditions

There are many factors that affect how fast your nuc will grow in population. You really cannot put a time table on it. Colony health, queen productivity etc all play a role – as does weather conditions.

Bees do not fly well in rain – or at all. If your nuc still has a bit of space to use inside their box, don’t expect them to expand quickly over a period of weeks with heavy rain, wind or cold.

Likewise, during the hot dry season – a nectar dearth causes colony growth to slow. While it is important to feed bees during times of need, it is not as affective as good natural conditions.

Risks of Making the Wrong Move

All types of beehive management involve risks. After many years, I still make the wrong decision sometimes- you will too. Here are some risks of moving a nuc into a full hive too late or too soon.

Small swarm from overcrowded nuc colony in a bush.

Waiting too Late

If you delay upsizing your nuc to a full hive for too long, you will likely have to deal with swarming. Queen cells will be built as the brood nest becomes congested and a primary or prime swarm will follow.

Swarms are not bad but if your goal is to grow a strong colony…. Well that dream just flew off over the tree tops – unless you can catch it.

Even if the nuc does not swarm, colony growth and production is affected. With little room to expand, brood rearing and food collection will slow down or stall completely.

Moving too Soon

I feel there are less risks of moving a nuc to a full hive in Spring, if the nuc is strong and the temperatures are moderate.

You are giving the colony more room to expand as they need it. If you are providing sugar water for your bees, this helps them grow into their space.

As the season progresses, you must consider the size of your nuc colony (not frames but bee population). I always tell students in my online beekeeping class – don’t give the colony more space than they can patrol and protect.

Wax moth larvae and small hive beetles doing damage in a underpopulated hive.

Various honey bee pests will enter the hive and destroy unprotected comb. Wax moths are a common problem in hives with too much comb and too few bees.

Small Hive Beetles are a real threat for colonies here in the south. During the warm season, I would be a bit slower to move to a 10 frame box unless the population of the nuc is strong.

Moving Bees to the Regular Hive

In some ways, installing a nuc into a hive is easier than installing a package. I use standard 10-frame Langstroth sized hives. With a 5 frame nuc, I will need 5 more frames to fill the box.

  • Set the new hive up right beside where the nuc is sitting
  • Put on your protective beekeeping clothing
  • Light your bee smoker and gently smoke the nuc entrance ( wait a minute or so)
  • Remove the outer and inner cover of your standard hive
  • Leave plenty of space to work – keep 2 empty frames out for now
  • Carefully move the nuc frames to the new hive (usually keeping them in the same order as they were)
  • Place the rest of the frames in the new box and gently press them together. Any left over space can be divided on the two sides
  • Gently dump any bees remaining in the nuc box on top of the bars in the new hive. And close it up. (I usually set the nuc box on the ground near the full size hive for a few hours.)

After the Move Care

It is a good idea to leave the bees in peace for a bit. If you are feeding, be sure your bee feeder is in place.

As your bees get used to their new home, I always use an entrance reducer on the hive – open to the 2-3 inch opening. This helps them defend their home as they grow in population.

Watch over the next few days for any strange behavior but this process if normally very routine with no problems.

FAQs

When should you move a new nuc of bees to a hive?

Many beekeepers move a new nuc into a full sized hive right away. However, the bees may be stressed by traveling. Therefore, it is a good practice to set the nuc box beside the new hive and wait 24 hours before installing.

How long can you leave the bees in the nuc box?

If the nuc box is not overcrowded, you could open the entrance to allow foraging and leave the bees housed in the box for a week or so. But, the sooner they are in their permanent home – the better.

What is the best time of day to put nuc bees in a full hive?

Anytime of day is fine to put your nuc bees in the full hive. Beekeepers often set the hive beside or on top of the permanent hive on the day before. This helps the bees know where home is.

A Final Thought

As a beekeeper, I am much quicker to move my bee nucs to a 10 frame hive in the Spring. It is a time of natural growth for honey bees. Given the right care, they should grow into productive colonies. However, you can not use a calendar to decide when to upsize their accommodations – it must be a combination of colony condition and outside forces.

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