What is a Nucleus Colony?
Nucleus colony beekeeping is beekeeping with five-frame hives. Most hive bodies that you see will consist of eight or ten frames. So the five-frame nucleus boxes are going to be a smaller option, which is great for those who may be worried about dealing with the weight of the larger hive bodies. I love and prefer using the five-frame nucleus colonies. They are much easier to lift and inspect, especially when I’m going through our hives with my younger daughters.
Consider that one deep frame full of honey can weigh up to ten pounds. When you have a box of ten deep frames full of honey, then you are trying to lift a 100-pound hive box off for inspections! Not only is it heavy, but then you’re also trying to unglue the box because the bees are so good about using propolis everywhere! So for me, I’m using my hive tool to try to gently pry the two boxes apart, just to realize I can hardly lift the top box because it’s full of honey! Then my daughter and I are trying to haul it off together without disturbing or dropping the bees. It can be quite a conundrum.
Enter: the nucleus colony. I love the nucleus colony! My husband can stick to the ten frames, but I have a much easier time with these beautiful, smaller hives that are perfect for me. I’m not trying out for a muscle-building contest any time soon. And the kids love painting and decorating these smaller-sized boxes! They’ve been a great family project.
Components of a Nucleus Colony
New beekeepers are probably more familiar with eight and ten-frame hive bodies as they’re learning about beekeeping. They look great, and it seems easy enough until you’re in the middle of your first summer and you realize just how big and bulky these boxes are! As your colony quickly grows and begins to store honey, a beginner beekeeper may be surprised at how heavy these boxes become! And the propolis! Everything is glued together!
The first time you lift that ten-frame box off, you’ll see how awkward it is to try to lift it off while trying to avoid crushing any bees. Then you need to carefully set it aside so you can look through the next box. Now think of working with something that is half that size! For me, it makes beekeeping much more pleasant without the stress of moving the heavy boxes.
One thing I do prefer for my nucleus colony is to have handles on all four sides. They will typically always have handles on the long sides of the box, but I personally find it easier when there are also handles on the shorter sides. My daughter and I both find it easier to lift this way.
The smaller size makes it easier for us to reach around and lift them.
Since you only have five frames in each box, it may get a little tall! I typically will run about three to four brood boxes. When you think about it, four brood boxes will be equal to two ten-frame deeps. Then I will add a queen excluder with one or two supers.
Just be sure to keep an eye on your supers, because I’ve learned the hard way that they can fill them up fast! We had a five-frame colony hooked to a tree, which we called “tree hive,” and I checked them and was disappointed in how little honey they had. A week later, the hive fell down out of the tree because it became too top-heavy with honey. They were loaded with honey!
Of course, this was a unique situation since most people aren’t going to attach a hive to a tree. That’s for the honey bee obsessed folks! My husband likes to think they’re happier because they are in a more natural environment being “up in a tree.” To his credit, they have been a consistently strong hive through the years.
Our five-frame entrance reducers have only one option for the size entrance. So in this case, we have two options: an entrance reducer or no entrance reducer. Using the entrance reducer is a great way to help a small colony of bees to defend their hive. After they have a population boom, then you can remove the entrance reducer entirely so you don’t create a traffic jam.
When we’re expecting extremely hot weather, I will consider removing the entrance reducer to help the bees with air flow to stay cool. I’ll keep the entrance reducer close by in case I begin to see a robbing situation. Then I will replace the entrance reducer. I usually find that by the time the hot weather arrives, the nucleus colonies have experienced enough growth that they no longer need the reducer.
Don’t be surprised to find the queen on the outside frames when inspecting a five-frame nucleus colony. I have occasionally found her on an outside frame. They still tend to fill up the outside frames with resources, but I find some brood mixed in with the resources. I think honey bees like to naturally grow vertically in the wild; think of them going up a hollow tree, so I do find my five-frame colonies are often strong.
As always, hold the frames over the box just in case the queen falls off. This way, she can fall right back into her home. I once found the queen on an outside frame full of honey, just as I was telling my daughter she won’t be on this frame. And then as we were grabbing a quick video of her, she fell off and safely back into the hive.
You will still go through all the boxes as usual; the only difference is that it’s easier to lift the five-frame boxes when you need to get a look through the rest of the hive. Just be sure to have a system in place to remember the order of the boxes so you put them back in the same order!
As with any bee colony, they can quickly outgrow their hive or become honey bound, so frequent inspections in the spring are ideal. If we want to do a quick check for swarm cells, it’s easy to tilt/lift the entire box to peek at the bottom for swarm cells. After the summer solstice, the growth will slow, and you don’t need to check quite as frequently.
Bottom line, inspections and beekeeping are generally the same, you just have smaller and lighter hive boxes!
Overwintering in a 5-Frame Nucleus Colony
Many people question how well these 5-frame nucleus colonies will do through a harsh winter. You see the smaller-sized box, and somehow you think that the bees will be at a disadvantage to make it through the winter. So far for us in the upper-midwest, we’ve had a lot of success! Ideally, we are happy to go into winter with two deep boxes full of resources. You can place nucleus colonies up against each other to help them share heat. In our experience, the nucleus colony does just as well as the ten-frames.
In the ten-frame hives, I’ve seen colonies starve to death when they’ve still had resources. The problem was that the resources were on the outside frames while the cluster probably moved straight up. I think the nucleus colony is more natural for them as they move up together.
In the early spring, we’ll make sure they have enough food. By late spring, we will be watching them closely because they will grow quickly and need more space or to be split. The smaller size means they will quickly have a full hive!
I think the five-frame nucleus colony is a great option that more people should use! For the hobbyist beekeeper, it’s a great option, especially if you don’t want or can’t lift 100-pound boxes! We have a good mix of both ten-frame and five-frame colonies in our apiary, and our colonies are able to thrive no matter the size. For my daughters and myself, we feel like we’re better able to manage the five-frame colonies by ourselves.
If the huge size of beehives has ever made you hesitate about beekeeping, give this a try! And don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things–you never know what will work until you try it! Good luck, and enjoy your apiary.