A nuc, short for “nucleus”, is essentially a smaller colony of a few thousand bees. Just like any other, a nuc colony is centered around a queen, contains workers, drones, a brood, and honey – it is just smaller.
Of course, that does not really answer the question of how these are created and what they are for, but this basic fact is essentially true and worth keeping in mind. But why?
For one thing, the obvious practical benefits of size apply here. A nuc hive, which will usually contain between three and five frames (a full sized Langstroth hive will contain around ten) is simply more manageable, takes up less space, and – once it houses a nuc colony – less hassle to deal with. Yet nucs also have more specific practical benefits that seasoned beekeepers regularly take advantage of (a nuc is far from only for novices who want to start small). A nuc will swarm just like a regular colony and therefore nuc hives are great for catching smaller swarms. Swarm cells that are built in other hives are often transferred to nuc hives in order to raise a new queen. Having a spare queen operating in a nucleus colony can be very handy for re-queening a major colony that has lost its queen. The smaller size of the nuc colony makes it easier to combine with a larger one.
Nuc colonies and nuc hives in fact have myriad uses, which are worth covering. Used by beginners and professionals alike, nuc hives are extremely popular, with most beekeepers having a few handy even when not in use. With nuc hives, however, one should avoid seeing them as a “beekeeping-lite” option. Although essentially just a scaled down version of a regular colony, bee colonies are usually bigger for a reason and in practice this smaller size comes with challenges. Nuc colonies lack the numbers to create functional winter clusters, for example, and so are not recommended for overwintering.
Nucs, then, are essentially an auxiliary item of beekeeping equipment. Simple to construct, easier to manage, and with a range of uses from catching small swarms to facilitating mating and optimizing brood rearing, most beekeepers would do well to have a few on hand.
If you are looking to buy a nuc, Amazon stocks a fantastic selection. Just click here to check them out (opens in a new tab).
It is important not to confuse a nuc with a bee package, which is a box of similar dimensions within which bees for sale are temporarily held. Bee packages are not colonies; the queen is held separately, the bees cannot get out, and all it has in the way of structure is a syrup feeder to keep the bees alive. Although nucs are frequently used for splitting colonies or transporting bees, they are proper colonies and hives in the way that bee packages are not.
How to Create a Nuc
A nuc is both a hive and its bees, and creating a nuc is broadly a two-stage process. Firstly, a nuc box needs to be constructed and then the frames from an existing hive need to be added (unless the aim is to catch a new swarm). As mentioned, a nuc box holds anywhere between three to five frames of bees and comb. These frames are not usually scaled down (there is just less of them) and this is because to create a nuc colony inside the structure, frames from another hive are usually added.
When adding the frames to the nuc box, care is taken to represent the larger colony most accurately. A nuc hive needs to contain a queen (although she is not always added at just this stage), worker bees, drones, all stages of brood, and honey stores. All of this can be provided by picking the right frames from the old colony with which the nuc is to be created. Accordingly, frames with brood comb and plenty of nurse bees clinging to them are prioritized – this workforce will form the basis of the new colony. At least two frames of honey stores will also find their way into a nuc – sustaining the bees as the colony is established.
The Queen in a Nuc
A nuc colony is not always given a queen when the bees are first moved into it. If the frames added contain eggs, and the colony is otherwise queenless, then the workers will create a new queen from one of the eggs. Otherwise, a queen must be added – in a specially designed queen cage at first – to prolong the period over which she can come to be accepted. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and, indeed, a period of queenlessness will massively increase the chances of a queen being accepted into the new colony. A positive side effect of creating a nuc is that the removal of queen cells from a larger hive will reduce that colony’s urge to swarm. Indeed, preventing swarms in larger colonies is another reason most experienced beekeepers keep some nucs around.
The 3 Main Nuc Uses
Nucs are impressively versatile, as is obvious from the impressively diverse range of applications that they have within beekeeping. These are, in my opinion, the three main ones:
When a nuc starts expanding, things move relatively fast – even for bees. Nuc bees are already socialized to one another (coming originally from the same hive) and inherit frames of honey stores and brood from the parent colony. And while the smaller population of a nuc colony might pose some challenges, it comes with benefits where brood rearing is concerned. In a smaller colony, honeybees exert less energy over temperature and humidity while also having a tighter control of it.
Being able to minutely adjust temperature and humidity is massively beneficial for brood rearing, which bees transferred into a nuc will busily get to work on. If queenless, nurse bees will develop one of the eggs into a new queen.
Hive Splitting (and Combination)
Unless they have trapped a particularly wild swarm, the population of a nuc colony will have come from an ordinary hive. Hive splitting is the removal of a proportion of a colony’s population to a new location. Although there are benefits enough to creating a nuc that make that an end in itself, many beekeepers keep nucs primarily to split up larger colonies.
There are many reasons a beekeeper may wish to do this. As mentioned above, a hive with too high a population will exhibit a greater tendency to swarm (a state of affairs indicated by the presence of significant swarm cells on the frames). Colonies are also very often split up in the spring after overwintering, simply in order to expand production – but the old adage “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” looms large here.
Colonies are always subject to diseases. Bees forage far and wide and then congregate together, in one tight and enclosed space, in almost eye watering numbers. The potential for disease to spread is enormous. Mites, particularly, are a common problem for hives and, if you are unlucky, can be catastrophic. Having more than one hive simply protects your bees and decreases the danger of an overnight wipe out.
Naturally, nuc colonies are how a beekeeper goes about this splitting business. Yet having these smaller new colonies not only offers you the chance for a little extra production and the raising of some new queens (see below), they can also be combined, in time, into brand new full-sized colonies. Naturally, this is only done once the nuc is firmly established, queened, and expanding. It is nearly always done just before winter as nuc colonies lack the numbers to create effective winter nuclei (see above).
Nuc colonies may also be combined with major colonies in the case of population decline or queen death (see below). The additional honey stores that have been transferred to the nuc (and no doubt enlarged there) can also be added back to the major colony. The addition of some new bees and new food can literally save a colony from imminent destruction.
Queen Replacement (Re-queening)
Raising a new queen in a nuc colony is simple enough. As mentioned above she can be introduced at the time of the colony’s creation, initially inside a queen cage with a few workers until she is accepted by the whole colony. A queen can also be raised in a new colony – and very effectively too.
As we know, a nuc colony’s tight control over the temperature and humidity of the hive makes it effective for brood development. With a sufficient nurse population, a new queen will even be developed from one of the eggs from the brood comb.
Doing this not only provides a queen for the new colony, it also provides a spare queen for your major colonies. Queen death can be disastrous and having a few nucs around to provide a spare queen has a real economic incentive behind it. Queens are also not available for purchase all year round, so raising queens in nucs can be thought of as an effective insurance policy.
Caring and Feeding for a Nuc
For all the impressive versatility to a nuc colony, for all the areas in which it can quite literally outperform a main hive (brood rearing for example), nucs are actually extremely vulnerable and will require care. By rights, nuc-sized colonies should die off in nature. The bees’ foraging potential is limited and, as I have already mentioned, they lack the numbers to create effective winter nuclei for overwintering. A nuc can contain just a tenth of the worker population of a main hive. In short, you will need to keep an eye on your nucs.
Owing to the lack of foraging potential, the population of a nuc colony are fed by both honey stores from the parent colony and, going forward, something like a boardman or a frame feeder providing carbohydrates for energy and protein to encourage brood. Nuc bees cannot forage as effectively because too significant a proportion of the worker population stay in the hive protecting the brood. Feeding worker bees avoids for them the difficult choice of foraging or nursing, protecting both the brood and the continued health of the colony as a whole.
Mating nucs are not just another use for nucs – they are a different kind of nuc altogether. Even smaller than regular nuc colonies, a mating nuc will not hold standard size frames and requires smaller ones.
As the name suggests, a mating nuc is used for the raising of fertile queens for use elsewhere. A mating nuc hive is not designed for the long-term residency of any colony, but instead simply to facilitate queen mating. A mating nuc will be used in a mating yard and will include a capped queen cell with a generous number of worker bees to nurse it. After the queen hatches, it instinctively flies out of the mating nuc to mate with the many drones populating the mating yard. A successfully mated queen will be caged with a number of attendant worker bees and usually sold to beekeepers in a need of queens. Mating nucs are nearly always found in numbers as this is actually a highly efficient means of raising many new queens.
Issues Starting or Maintaining Nucs
Starting and maintaining a nuc is not an endeavor without its challenges and potential snags. I have already mentioned that nuc colonies cannot be overwintered (necessitating hive combination) and also that they do not have the capacity to successfully raise brood and forage at the same time (necessitating some artificial feeding), but there are other problems besides.
The Stress of Transition
The stress of transition, as it can be known, is a serious problem in beekeeping. Bees generally don’t like being disturbed. We douse them with smoke in order to mask their alarm pheromones simply because bees are programmed to react defensively to someone so much as poking around their hive. It follows then that movement, transition, splitting and combining are not comfortable processes for bees. It might take some time before bees start interacting how they did, especially if the colony is now queenless.
Nevertheless, this is less of a factor with nucs as it is with bee packages, which are essentially cages full of unrelated bees with a feeder to keep them alive. Such bees will usually take longer before they can be wrought into a colony.
“Robbing” refers to the habit of larger, more successful colonies to rob the food stores of a weaker, smaller colony. In doing so, the invading bees will even attack and kill those in the hive. It cannot be understated how much of a disaster this can be for a nuc, having the potential to wipe it out overnight. Robbing is also a threat posed by other animals, such as yellow-jacket wasps. Rodents can be a problem for low-lying hives (as must nucs tend to be) but this is more a case of general damage as they seek out warmth than a concerted effort to steal food stores.
Photo attribution for image at the top of the page: shawn caza @ beekeeping.isgood.ca / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)