A Nuc of Bees

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Understanding all the different aspects of beekeeping introduces some strange terms – such as “nuc” or “bee nuc”. You may wonder what exactly this is? Despite the sound -it is not some secret honey bee nuclear device. But, you do need to know about this valuable asset to any beekeeping program.

Bees at entrance of a nuc hive.

Nucs are small mini-sized bee families (including the frames they live on). These small hive boxes are useful pieces of beekeeping equipment. The bees and the nuc boxes can very beneficial in your apiary.

What is a Bee Nuc?

You will hear the word “nuc” thrown around a lot at beekeeping association meetings. It is actually a simple shortened version of the word “nucleus’ – meaning the “heart of the hive”.

As with many aspects of this engaging hobby, beekeeping terms can mean one thing to one person – yet make perfect sense to someone else when used in a different way. So, let’s get this out of the way at the beginning.

It is spelled and pronounced in several different ways: “nuc” “nuke” “nook”. Of course, this adds to the confusion when purchasing bees or equipment.

Sometimes a bee nuc means:

  • a small wooden (or other) deep hive that holds bees – nuc box
  • only the frames and bees (queen, workers, drones) that someone puts in a box you provide
  • both the box and the bees and frames inside
5 frame bee nuc with bees image.

How Beekeeping Nucs are Different Than Packages

When a beekeeper buys a package of bees, he/she receives about 10,000 bees in a transportation box. Workers, drones and a mated queen are included inside the package.

In this case, you are receiving only live bees – no honeycomb and no frames or equipment. They arrive in a transportation box and you put them in your hive box.

When purchasing a bee nuc, you receive several frames of bees on drawn out comb with with developing brood and a laying queen that is already accepted.

Most commonly, a nucleus hive consists of 3-5 frames (instead of a full hive size of 8-10 frames). They are usually deep sized frames that fit a standard Langstroth hive bodies. Though you can find them in medium sizes on occasion.

Full frames of drawn (pulled) comb with frames of honey and some pollen are included. Some bee brood frames (eggs, bee larvae etc) are present in various stages of development.

There should be enough bees to cover the frames completely in our mini colony. This small start should have everything needed to grow into a productive hive.

Shopping for a Nuc of Bees

If you think a nuc is right for you – shop around for availability and price. They are a good way to start beekeeping. But, be sure you understand the advantages and disadvantages of buy bee nucs.

And, make sure you understand exactly what you are paying for and the terms for delivery etc. Each method of buying honey bees has pros and cons.

When ordering bees, ask questions until you clearly understand what is included in your purchase. Remember that bee nucs are 5 frames most often, but can be 4 or even 3 frames.

These starters colony are a good alternative for beginning beekeepers, especially where package bees are not available.

Bee colonies do well when they are in a box size that is proportionate to the bee population. The nucleus hive can become over crowded just like a regular sized hive. Yes, your nuc hive can throw a bee swarm.

Beekeeper Charlotte with bee nuc box image.

Nuc-Sized Boxes are a Resource

Bee nuc sized boxes (usually 5 frame Langstroth size) are valuable to beekeepers in several ways. Use them (during the warm season) to set up mini colonies as a resource for your production hives.

They are a great way to put extra queen cells to use. A strong colony may be split into two hives – with left over queen cells to spare.

Having a nuc box on hand – means you can put a queen cell or two in the smaller box with some frames of food, brood and nurse bees. Add some more workers to the hive to help defend and support it.

Perhaps, they can raise a new queen for you to use in another colony. This is very handy when you want to keep an extra queen on hand.

I have used a nuc-sized box to make a mini split. Perhaps my production colony is wanting to swarm but the honey flow time is upon us.

I don’t want to make a large split and hurt my production. I may try to make a mini-split and reduce some congestion in the hive.

Other uses:

  • catching small swarms
  • lightweight method for moving frames of brood to another bee yard

Every beekeeper should have a couple of bee nuc boxes on hand. They are very handy for a variety of beekeeping tasks. Let the colony grow – eventually it will be time to move the nuc bees into a larger full hive.

Dimensions for a Nuc Box

If you are one of those folks who enjoy the idea of building your own beehives, you can certainly put together a few nuc boxes for later use. They are usually built in two sizes – either to hold standard deep Langstroth frames or medium frames.

Outside dimensions:

  • 19-7/8″ long by 9-1/8″ wide by 9-1/2″ tall – deep nuc box
  • 19-7/8″ long by 9-1/8″ wide by 6-5/8″ tall – medium nuc box


What is a nucleus hive?

A nucleus hive is a small colony of bees – often housed in a small box that contains enough bees to cover the comb and a queen. It usually contains 3-5 frames.

What is the difference between a hive and a nuc?

The only real difference between a hive and a nuc is size. Both contain frames of honeycomb and a complete bee family (workers and queen) with food and developing young. In most cases, nucs are only used temporarily for starter colonies, small splits or queen rearing.

How many bees are in a nuc colony?

The number of honey bees included in a nuc will be around 10,000 to 15,000 bees. However, this number can vary greatly depending on the quality of the nucleus hive.

Can you stack two nuc boxes on top of each other?

Yes, you can use 2 deep nuc boxes stacked on top of each other as the colony grows. And of course, you can buy nuc sized equipment in shallow and medium sizes as well. In general – giving the colony more room to spread out is a better option.

A Final Word

If you are in a hurry to grow your apiary, a nuc gives you a head start. They do cost more but you do not have to deal with the release of your queen from her queen cage – the bees already know her.

They also have that head start on comb construction and population. And, keep a couple of those empty nuc bee boxes to use in your apiary – they come in handy.