Nucleus Colony Versus Beekeeping Package
Honey bee queen inside cage.
When beekeepers, both new and experienced, are making plans for starting new colonies, one of
the key decisions is whether to use a Nucleus Colony (NUC) or a Package of bees.
A Nucleus Colony has long predominated as the most popular way to get bees among hobbyists
for their ease of installation and quick build-up. Since you are adding frames of brood
and food upon installation, it is true that nucs provide a head start on the season.
There are, however, some downsides to introducing brood into your hive. Read on to learn the
advantages and disadvantages of both Nucs and Packages.
A nucleus colony is just a very small colony of
a few thousand bees and a queen. A beekeeper can find many ways to use a nuc.
A nucleus colony, more commonly known as a “NUC” is one of the easiest ways for novice beekeepers
to start a colony in a new hive.
NUC boxes, the structures that hold a nucleus colony, come in all shapes and sizes. Usually
you see five-frame deep boxes, but they also come designed to hold medium frames. The
width varies too. I have seen two-, four-, five-, and seven-frame nucs, both single story and
double story. One of my favorite nucs is a standard-size deep box with three dividers that
gives you four two-frame sections, each with its own entrance. Or you can remove one or
more of the dividers to make bigger sections.
Honey bee nucleus colony.
Recommended for novice beekeepers. You are able to get your bee colony up and
running more quickly with a Nuc.
If one of your hives goes queen-less, you have another queen ready to go. If you wait
for your colony to re-queen itself, the population will drop such that you won’t get any
surplus honey for that year.
You can re-queen at times of the year when queens are unavailable to purchase.
You can use the bees in a NUC to boost populations of a weak hive. If you don’t want to
re-queen, you can just transfer some of the frames from your NUC into the weak hive.
Having an empty NUC box on hand is useful for catching swarms or removing extra
bees from an overcrowded colony.
If you are a first-time beekeeper, evaluating a NUC upon installation can be confusing.
Evaluating NUC quality is a practiced skill, and you’ll need to make sure your hive is
queen right and of a quality that won’t shoot you in the foot later in the season (healthy
brood pattern, decent population, no signs of mite activity, etc.).
It is significantly easier to evaluate the quality of a bee package; a caged queen is easy
to locate to make sure she is alive and well, and the weight/number of workers in the
package is a much simpler signifier of quality.
More importantly, it is an unfortunate reality that we are now beekeeping in the age of
varroa mites. These sneaky little parasites will be concealed (and actively reproducing)
within brood cells. And yes, if you’re getting a NUC from a large-scale bee producer, it will
have a measurable mite population present. On top of that, treating mites in their reproductive
phase is a major challenge in the early spring, as it needs to be warmer to use treatments
that are effective at killing mites in their reproductive phase.
Honey Bee 3-pound package.
A bee package is a wooden frame box with screen on two sides. It is used to transport bees
to a new hive. Packages are sold by the pound. There are roughly 3,500 bees per pound so
a three pound package contains around 10,000 bees.
In the age of varroa mites, packages are recommended over nucs because they are easier
to evaluate for beginners, and they can alleviate varroa mite pressures which is the leading
cause of colony death among hobbyist hives today. An added bonus - they’re often less
Starting a hive with a blank slate as far as mites makes a massive difference in our new colonies’ success rates.
Since a package is just a box of loose bees with a caged queen, there are no breeding mites
concealed within brood cells (or any other brood diseases, contaminated wax, or plastic
frames for that matter).
That doesn’t mean there are no mites present in packages, though! Phoretic mites will be
hitchhiking on the bodies of the bees too (sneakily concealed between segments on the
undersides of their abdomens). But, phoretic mites are so much easier to treat.
Free and clear of mites from the beginning, your pest management pressures will be greatly relieved
through the spring and early summer, and you won’t need to think about testing and treatments
again until mid-June.
Parasite and disease-free, your bee packages will be ready to take off, especially if you already
have comb from previous hives in there for them to use! If not, you can give them some liquid
encouragement to get building faster.
Honey Bee with varoa mite.
After being installed, packaged bees will need to get to work quickly. Since they were not shipped
with any comb, they will need to start from scratch in their new home. They will need to build comb
for honey stores and for brood, which they will need to replace the worker bees – and soon
(remember, worker bees only live about 4-6 weeks).
Another problem with packages is that the queen usually comes from a different hive. So, while she
is shipped with the workers, but in a separate cage, the workers are exposed to her pheromones,
but they have not yet accepted her. As a result, there is a chance that once they have been installed,
they will reject the queen and kill her. If she is not replaced in time, the whole hive will perish.
Since the colony was not shipped with comb, and therefore have not yet built up any food stores or
done anything to establish the hive as “home,” there is a chance that the bees may decide to abscond.
There are many factors to consider when deciding whether to order your bees in a package or a nuc.
How close are you to a supplier? What is your budget? Do you have the time to go through a queen
introduction? How late in the season will you be ordering your bees? These are just a few of the
questions that you should ask yourself before placing your bee order.