A nucleus hive, customarily called a “nuc” is just a little hive. I have heard it pronounced “nuke” and “nook” and I imagine non-beekeepers wonder what weapons of mass destruction have to do with bees. Many nucs are about half the size of a standard brood box, but there are all sorts.
Some of them are tiny and have half or quarter-sized frames, like a dolls house version of the real thing. They are mating nucs. A virgin queen or a queen cell goes into this tiny box with its baby colony of workers, and two weeks later she’s mated and laying eggs, at which point she is transferred to a bigger hive or caged and sold. That whole “mating nuc” thing is a specialist area that I will put aside for now; I want to focus on nucs which have the same frame size as full-sized beehives.
As each season rushes by and as I gain experience, either lived or imbibed from books and conversations, I am increasingly aware of just how powerful nucs are. I can’t imagine beekeeping without them. However, nucs are just another tool to be used or misused by the beekeeper. Conditions vary so much from area to area that beekeeping itself must vary too so that our bees thrive. Each beekeeper must ask himself/herself what they want from their bees; what is their desired outcome? If we tailor our actions and timings towards our goals, then we will hopefully prosper.
Here are some possible beekeeping goals:
– make lots of honey
– expand my operation and have more hives
– sell bees
– raise queens
– reduce swarming from my hives
– catch swarms
– recover from losing colonies that died over the winter
– move bees to a new apiary
Nucs can help with all of the above. The important thing is getting the actions and timings right, and these depend on your goals and local conditions.
Timing is everything
When to make nucs?
It depends! In California, when hives come back from almond pollination in March/April, they are very strong and ready to swarm. This is the perfect time to make “splits” (nucs) and packages of bees for sale. At the same time here in the UK many people are only just inspecting their hives for the first time since winter! Beekeepers must know their local conditions and take actions based on the state of their colonies rather than the date on a calendar.
Speaking of booming colonies and swarming, nucs are a great help in two ways. Firstly, if you remove a frame or two of brood from a hive, it is “set back” by two weeks or so, and this may persuade the bees to postpone swarming. The removed frames can either boost another colony, be part of a cell builder or start a nucleus colony (add some other combs, bees and a queen or queen cell). Secondly, if you make up a nuc from the strong hive and take away their queen, they cannot swarm, which is the so-called “nucleus method” of swarm control.
A nuc is a tool that allows the beekeeper to manipulate the strength of their hives. You can weaken big colonies to prevent swarming, but if you are waiting on a nectar flow, you may not wish to overdo it. If honey is the goal, you need your colonies to be big and strong in time to catch the nectar flows. This is what makes timing so important, and knowledge of local conditions and flows. As your nuc grows stronger, you then face the potential issue of the nuc itself swarming. One option is to add more space (another nuc box on top), and another option is to split that nuc further, to make more nucs!
It all depends on what you want. In general, if honey crops are the goal, hives must be powerful at the start of each nectar flow. The trick is to keep them full of bees without letting them swarm. If you want more bees, then the best time to make nucs is when there is a lot of brood in the hive, and the nectar flow is on. To raise queens with a cell builder, you will need a box bursting with nurse bees and no queen. Nucs can be used to supply frames of sealed brood for cell builders; it serves the double purpose of providing nurse bees as well as preventing the nuc from swarming. Mike Palmer calls his nucs “brood factories”.
The way to make comb honey is to put a super of thin foundation on top of a hive that is desperate for more space when a flow is on. The bees will very quickly draw out the foundation and store honey in that top super. One way to help create the right conditions is to add bees/brood from nucs.
As a reasonably small beekeeper*, I don’t have a pick-up truck for moving hives around. When I find a new apiary, I get started with nucleus hives. I use polystyrene (EPS) nucs which are easy to transport in my Land Rover, and easy to carry to new stands. I’d struggle to move full-sized hives in the same way. I have followed other successful UK beekeepers by choosing EPS for nucs because they do so well over the winter. In my opinion, in my area, smaller colonies do best with insulated hives, whereas for larger colonies the jury is still out.
Long Live the Queen
Here’s another fantastic thing about nucs: a breeder queen will live a very long time in them. Many people who raise queens by grafting from a treasured breeder queen keep her majesty in a nuc. The age of a queen is determined not by time but by how many eggs she has laid. In the relatively limited space of a nuc, her egg-laying is curtailed so she can live longer. I wrote previously about a breeder queen that lived seven years!
Swarm traps are nucleus hives which beekeepers strategically position in the countryside in the hope of catching a swarm of bees. It so happens that five frame nucs are the right size for this. Most people have a mix of old black comb and foundation in the swarm traps, which are placed a few hundred yards from the apiary.
Queens in Spring
In the UK the weather can sometimes be very wet and gloomy at queen rearing time. It can be challenging to get hold of queens in the spring, which leads to a vast number of them being imported from areas with a more stable climate. The issue of imports is very emotive,
with arguments on either side, but as a general rule, I think that beekeepers should at least try to raise some of their own. Nucs are ideal places for queens to be kept over the winter. If you take some queens through winter in nucs, then you have them ready to go the following spring. They can be used to replace winter losses or to grow into production colonies or sold to other beekeepers. Is that what they call a win/win?
*I’m referring to hive numbers rather than bodyweight!