Comparing Package Bees and Nucs

When I first started out, the beekeeping terminology seemed to require its own class or at least its own dictionary.  When I first learned of a “package” of bees I imagined something gift wrapped with a bow and packed with bees wearing party hats and holding balloons.  The notion of buying a “nuc” simply sounded too explosive, dangerous and not on the up and up.  I soon learned that a “package” is simply 2 or 3 pounds of bees in a screened  box with a caged queen and a can of sugar syrup.  The term, “nuc” is short for “nucleus” as in the nucleus of a hive and is basically all of the major components of a small colony of bees.    That cleared up the semantics but it still took some time and experience to realize that the two are, if you will, two completely different animals.  Here are some characteristics of the two that may help you better decide which is the best fit for you.

First let’s discuss Package Bees.  Package bees are typically purchased from either California or the Southern states like Georgia, or even as far South as Florida.  Bee farmers either suck up or dump 3 pounds of bees into a screened box.  The bees have nothing but themselves in there; no comb, honey, pollen, nectar or brood.  They have no queen and can be a bit disoriented as you might imagine.  The farmer then puts a caged queen into that box.  Why would one cage the queen?  Well, for the first several hours and even days, the queen’s pheromones are not recognized by the colony to be familiar or friendly.  The bees need to realize that they are queenless and then they need to acclimate themselves to the new queen.  The queen would be at risk of being killed upon introduction if she wasn’t protected by the cage then gradually introduced.  A can of sugar syrup is added to nourish the bees as they are then transported to the northern states where beekeepers are anxiously awaiting their arrival.  The benefit of package bees is that they are a month or more ahead of what a colony could be if they were on the climate schedule of the Northern states.  Upon arrival they really need a lot of care and TLC as the bees are beginning from scratch to build their new home.  Just like us humans, they need food, water and shelter to function.  They will actually decline in numbers until the colony builds comb for the queen to lay eggs in.  Once she begins laying she will be adding to the colony’s numbers by about 1,500/day but the colony won’t see that growth until after about three weeks when the first bees hatch out and become part of the workforce as nurse bees.

A nucleus colony or “nuc” is made of the essential components of a full functioning colony.  A nuc comes in a small hive box called a “nuc box”.  It has five frames covered in bees.  A good nuc has around three frames of brood from the laying queen whom the bees recognize as their colony’s queen.  The other two frames are packed with honey, nectar and pollen which has been collected and stored by the colony.  The queen remains with the colony as well.  It seems like the colony wouldn’t miss a beat because the queen continues to lay eggs and grow the colony.  The working staff of nurse bees, foragers, drones and the like are all on site and ready to work.  So, one might believe that a nuc is always the way to go, right?  Not quite.  There are two very different learning curves for each option. 

Package bees are starting with almost zero resources.  Aside from the sugar syrup in their guts, they have essentially nothing to start with.  Their first few weeks are spent in a fury of foraging and building.  Without food there is no shelter.  Remember, bees make their shelter by secreting wax which they form into comb.  The colony is not made up of a bunch of lazy bees who might say, “You want me to forage?  Sorry, that’s not in my job description.  I’m a nurse bee.”  Everyone must pitch in!  However, without every job being covered, the colony is not functioning at capacity.  Therefore, the colony will struggle until it’s new waves of reinforcements arrive in a few weeks.

The greatest contribution the beekeeper can make to assist in the process is to feed, feed, feed.  Keeping a mix of 1:1 sugar : water available at all times will do wonders in a hive.  It enables the workers to secrete wax to build comb, it nourishes the colony, it stimulates the bees to forage and it strengthens the queen thus stimulating her to lay eggs for the nurse bees to nourish then cap.  (We’ll discuss the importance of protein supplements in a future article on the basics of bee nutrition.)

For a new beekeeper, starting with a nuc may seem appealing because you are getting a colony that has all of the components necessary to thrive.  However, there are other challenges that may prove to be overwhelming for a new beekeeper and may spell disaster for the colony if the beekeeper doesn’t know how to identify important signs the colony may be displaying.  The new beekeeper may not be able to stay ahead of the growth with necessary equipment.  And, being new they need to know signs of swarming before it occurs and how to prevent a loss of bees.  So much of beekeeping is learning to work with the nature of bees, knowing what mother nature has coming down the pike and understanding how the bees will respond to such changes.

Ultimately, bees are going to do what they decide is best for the health and wellbeing of the colony and even the species.  Being new to bees, one can miss an awful lot simply due to lack of knowledge and experience.  And this can manifest itself in losing the control they have.

To sum it up, starting with packages vs nucs is like drinking from a garden hose vs a fire hose.  Package bees afford the new beekeeper the opportunity to witness firsthand the wonder of honeybees.  The beekeeper can grow at the pace of the hive and truly see and appreciate every step a colony must take in order to thrive and successfully overwinter. 

A nuc ensures a stronger start but can be tricky to manage well.  However, most of the time, a nuc will yield a strong honey harvest in its first season and can even be split into two colonies mid season.  A colony raised from a package will need all of its resources to ensure winter survival. But, sometimes the beekeeper can sneak a few pounds with no harm done.

Seasoned vets purchase both packages and nucs to add to their numbers and increase genetic diversity.  There are all kinds of tricks of the trade they can employ to get the most out of their bees. And, they know very well what to expect throughout the season and to be prepared.

To the new beekeeper, if you're interested in packages, I strongly recommend purchasing two.  Why two?  Please reference next volume’s article titled, “One is the Loneliest Number That You’ll Ever Do” .  A nuc or two may be appealing as well.  Do your research and determine which is the best fit for you.

-Dave Pearce

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