Nucs, packages, installation. It sounded like another language to me when my husband, the original honey bee obsessed member of our family, wanted to begin beekeeping. Should we start with a “nuc” (nucleus) colony or package bees? Does it matter?
The nuc colony is the best option for buying bees. New beekeepers, especially, should begin with a nuc. This will give you the best chance for success on your new beekeeping journey.
So what is the difference between these two options?
What is Package Bees?
When you order package bees, you will receive a screened box. A package contains three pounds of bees, a can of sugar syrup to feed them during their journey, and a caged queen.
Now the queen is kept separate until you install your package. Then you must place the queen with the bees so they can eat through the candy plug to release her.
It sounds like a lot of bees for a great start, right?
How are Package Bees Made?
Bees from multiple colonies are shaken together. Then about three pounds of bees will be collected into the bee package container. So you have bees getting mixed and thrown together. A new queen will be caged and added to the package. Hopefully, this put-together package of bees will learn to like each other.
Packages are then often shipped across the United States. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many cases where bees die in transit when accidentally forgotten or left in a hot delivery vehicle.
It is common for there to be a layer of dead bees at the bottom of your package when it does arrive. The bees may die from the traveling conditions, or some may just die from age. There is no way of knowing how old the bees were when they were packaged together.
What is a Bee Nuc (Nucleus Colony?)
A nuc is a small, established nucleus colony of bees. A nuc is typically a five-frame deep box of bees. It will usually include a laying queen, three frames of brood, and two frames of resources.
One con with nucs is that they tend to come in deep frames. If you prefer medium frames, then you may have to search a little more. But you can find some beekeepers that sell nucs using medium frames.
Nucs are either early spring splits or overwintered nucs. The spring nuc is a colony that was made from a split, and it comes with a newly mated queen who has begun to lay her eggs. An overwintered nuc can be even more valuable because the colony and queen have already survived a winter season.
Nuc Colony vs Package Bees: What is Better?
A package of bees is less expensive, but it has a much higher failure rate than a nuc.
If you have package bees as a brand new beekeeper, then you will be using a brand new bee hive with new frames. Unless you’ve bought used equipment and frames that have already been drawn out by bees, your bees will be starting from scratch.
It takes bees seven pounds of honey to make one pound of wax! This is why you have to heavily feed your packaged bees sugar syrup from the beginning to help get them started. If there isn’t a good nectar flow, then they will struggle to get started.
In other words, a package of bees is like throwing a bunch of random people together who have never met before. They have yet to learn who their leader, or queen, is. You are putting them into a house that has only been framed. There are no walls, furniture, or shelves to store food. These people (bees) have absolutely nothing.
You have to feed them a lot of food so that they have the energy and supplies to first build the walls of their home. The walls are the equivalent of drawing comb.
When you have a package, you need to dump the bees into your hive. You will need to remove the cork from the queen cage to allow the bees to eat the candy plug to release her. Hopefully, the bees decide to keep her. If not, they will, unfortunately, dispatch her.
The worker bees have a lot of work to do before the queen can even begin to lay eggs to grow the colony.
Another issue with package bees is if they decide that they do not like their new home, then they could abscond. A few days after installing your package, you could find no bees in your hive!
There is a theory that bees do not like the smell of new wood. What smells great to us may not smell nice for honey bees. They may dislike the new hive smell enough to leave to find a rotting, hollowed-out tree elsewhere.
What Gives a Nuc the Winning Edge?
A nuc is much less likely to abscond. A nuc is like a family that knows each other, and the queen is already their established leader and mother. The frames of brood and resources are the equivalent of a small home.
When you install the nuc into your hive, it is like moving a family’s fully furnished and supplied home onto a bigger property with resources available to grow their home. Since they are already related and are not entirely empty-handed, they will have a better and faster start.
Nucs may not need to be fed sugar syrup because they already have some resources. They have brood, which means it is much less likely that they will abscond. They do not want to leave their young behind!
A nuc is established and ready to go. They will quickly grow. Our first two nucs grew so quickly! One of them needed to be split after two weeks otherwise they were ready to swarm! We were able to harvest honey in the first year, and they survived the winter.
We also had one package during our first year of beekeeping. The colony was consistently weaker than the others, and it struggled to build up resources. We did not take any honey from the colony as it needed to be fed a lot to build up resources for the winter. However, it did not survive the first winter.
What is the Cost Difference Between a Nuc and a Package of Bees?
The upfront cost of a package is cheaper than a nuc. However, it will quickly become more expensive if your new colony dispatches the queen or chooses to abscond. Then you will need to replace your entire colony.
Is There a Situation Where a Package Would Work Well?
If you happen to have a deadout, then you could have a situation where a package will have better odds for success. When you install the package into the hive with drawn comb and some resources, it will be much more appealing to the bees than an empty hive.
In this instance, you still have a bunch of strangers thrown together, but they will have a finished and furnished home to settle in. The queen will quickly be able to lay her eggs and begin building up the colony.
Installing a Package of Bees into a Beehive
With a package installation, you will need to install them into the hive as soon as possible since they have limited resources in the box. You have two options for installing: a slow release inside the hive, or a quick release by shaking them into the hive.
Before your bees arrive, have your hive set up and ready for them. It’d be a good idea to have heavy waxed frames to help get them started.
First, you need to install the queen. The queen cage has two possible openings: one side will immediately release her. This will not be an ideal situation because you want to give the bees time to accept her. The other side of the cage will have a candy plug. This is the side where you will remove the cork blocking the candy plug. Then the bees can gradually eat through the candy to release her.
Take some rubberbands and attach her cage to a frame. Make sure the queen cage is in the horizontal position. In the vertical position, the plug could melt and drip down onto the queen.
Once you have the queen installed, you can decide how you want to install the rest of the bees. First, it would help to lightly mist the frames with a 1:1 sugar syrup mixture in a spray bottle to entice the bees. You can also very lightly mist the bees through the screen of the package box.
If you want a quick release, you should gently tap the box on the ground to move the bees to the bottom. Then open it, turn it upside down, and shake it into the hive. The dead bees will also fall into the hive, but that is ok, the bees will clean them out.
After the majority of the honey bees are out of the package, you can gently rest the box against the front of the hive to encourage any remaining bees to enter the hive.
If you want a slow release, remove enough frames to be able to fit the package into the hive. Place the package into the hive, open the package, and then place the cover on the hive. Come back in a day or two to remove the package and replace it with the frames you had previously removed.
You will need to feed your package with 1:1 sugar syrup. You can find the feeders that I like here. Also, give them an entrance reducer set to the smallest opening.
Installing Your Nuc Colony
A nuc installation is a simple process. Before your bees arrive, have the hive prepared. Make sure you have the proper number of waxed frames in your hive.
Make sure to do the installation on a nice, warm day. If you have cold or rainy weather, the bees will be cranky. Fortunately, the bees will be fine if they’re left in the nuc for a few days. Just place the nuc box next to or on top of their future permanent hive. Make sure the nuc entrance is facing the same direction as the hive entrance.
When you install the frames of bees, be careful to always work over the hive box as you are moving the nuc frames. If the queen accidentally falls off of the frame, then you want her to land in the hive. You can also try to find the queen as you are gently installing the frames.
When you install the frames, do not separate the brood nest. These need to stay together and in the same order. You can move the resource frames out one spot toward the ends of the hive body. Then place the empty frames on either side of the brood frames.
It is unlikely that you will need to feed the colony, but it isn’t impossible as they still need to draw comb. If the nectar flow is slow, they may need some sugar syrup.
You will want to give them an entrance reducer set to the smallest opening. This will help the new colony to defend the hive. Check them in a week to see how they are doing, and enjoy watching your honey bees settle into their new home!
Honey Bee Nucs will Always Give You a Head Start!
So nuc colony vs package bees: I always encourage beekeepers to purchase nucs over packages. Look for locally produced nucs from genetics that are adapted to your environment. This is especially true if you’re located in a northern climate as you want bees that are adapted to and better able to survive a frigid winter climate. Time and again I see nucs have a much higher success rate than packages. Do yourself a favor and go with the nucs. Good luck, and enjoy your new bees!