What Is A Nuc? | Nucleus Bee Colonies & Nuc Boxes

What is a nuc? Waxed cardboard nuc box

A beginning beeper’s initial encounter with nucs is when acquiring their first bees. Buying bees, you choose to obtain them in one of two formats: a bee package or a nuc.

“Nuc'” (pronounced “newk”) is beekeeping shorthand for a small nucleus colony housed in a mini-hive or “nuc box.” With resources from an established hive, a nuc consists of a queen, a small number of other bees, and frames with food and brood in various development. Among other uses, nucs can start or expand apiaries.

Even if you acquire your first bees in packages, beginners should familiarize themselves with nucs as beneficial resources for their bee yards.

This article discusses buying nucleus colonies and using nuc boxes to expand your apiary.

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What is a nuc? Waxed cardboard nuc box

What Is A Nucleus Colony?

A nucleus colony is “a fully balanced colony in miniature.”[1]

As a complete colony, a nuc has a laying queen, a relatively small number of bees,  plus frames with capped brood in various stages of development, pollen, nectar, and possibly some honey.

What Is A Nuc Box?

A nuc box is a small hive box for housing a nucleus colony. These boxes hold fewer frames than standard 8-frame and 10-frame hive boxes.

The reduced size of the nuc box provides an excellent environment for brood rearing. The small space gives bees better control of the humidity and temperature.

Small nuc boxes transport easily, making them ideal for selling small bee colonies.

Sizes And Types Of Nuc Boxes

Nuc boxes are come in various sizes and materials to meet your particular needs.

The most common nuc box is a 5-frame deep. However, nuc boxes can be 6, 4, or even 2-frame hives.

Sellers of nuc colonies tend to use relatively inexpensive boxes.

Waxed cardboard boxes with vent holes are the least expensive nuc boxes.  Although they are inexpensive, these boxes often need to be purchased in bulk from suppliers, making them cost-effective for commercial operations. Our first few nucs came in these reusable cardboard boxes.

Bees are also available in plastic nuc boxes. These boxes have openings for ventilation and to set up bottles to feed sugar water. You can get plastic nuc boxes on BetterBee. We acquired overwintered nucs from BetterBee that came in these boxes.

Wood boxes that stand up to the elements are better to raise your own nucleus colonies. You can build a simple plywood box yourself or purchase one from Dadant. Dadant’s plywood boxes have an opening for jar feeding and migratory covers.

BetterBee sells true mini-hives (deep and medium) complete with a telescoping outer cover, inner cover, bottom board (solid or screened), and an entrance reducer.

Wood nuc boxes
Wood nuc boxes: 5-frame deeps with covers and bottom board.

Resource hives, also called double nucs, are a combination of side-by-side nucs that share a bottom board, but each has its own inner cover and entrance. Heat retention is easier with a shared common wall. However, both colonies can contribute to a honey super on top.

Resource Hive / Double Nuc / Duplex Hive - Something New!

What Is The Purpose Of A Nuc?

Nucleus colonies provide beekeepers a resource for several purposes.

Splitting a hive by transferring frames and bees to a nuc can relieve overcrowding, help prevent swarming, and produce new queens from existing stock. In addition, splitting is an inexpensive method of increasing your number of colonies.

Nucs can provide resources to colonies needing help by quickly replacing a lost queen or providing additional bees to a weak hive.

Nuc boxes can be used to house and expand a recently captured swarm. Catching swarms can become an addictive habit as you gather up free bees.

Some people use nuc boxes as bait hives to catch swarms. However, nuc boxes are small for this purpose, so we do not recommend them. Larger 8 or 10-frame deeps work better as swarm traps.

Learn more! See our article What Is A Swarm Trap? for more information about getting free bees.

The most common way for beginning beekeepers to utilize nucs is when acquiring bees. Nucs are an alternative to bee packages.

What Is The Difference Between A Nuc And A Bee Package?

Bees sell in two primary form factors: bee packages and nucs.

Package bees come in a screened box (plastic or wood) with a can of sugar syrup for temporary bee feeding. A bee package typically includes about 3 lbs. of bees (around 10,000 bees) and a caged, mated queen. The queen is caged because she is foreign to the bees and not yet accepted by the colony.

On the other hand, a nuc contains a small but established colony with a laying, accepted queen and frames containing brood and food resources. 

Installing A Nuc vs. Bee Package

Nucs are easier to install in a hive than a bee package. Simply lift the frames out of the nuc box and place them in their new home.

Bee packages require that you place the caged queen into the hive and dump the rest of the bees. After several days, the colony will accept the queen and free her from the cage by eating through a sugar plug.

With no frames of pollen and nectar, a bee package may require extended feeding to get properly established. 

If you are a brand new beekeeper with no existing frames of drawn comb, a bee package will take longer to get established.

Installing Our First Nuc
Installing our first nuc
Installing A New Bee Package
Installing a bee package

Cost Of A Nuc Vs. Bee Packages

Nucs require more work and time to assemble on the supplier’s part. As a result, nucs can be significantly more expensive than bee packages.

In addition, most suppliers only make nucs available for local pickup while packages can be shipped. (We recommend picking up packages whenever possible and avoiding shipping.)

FormatHighLowAverage
Bee package - pickup$195$120$158
Bee package - shipped$295$150$206
Bee package - all$295$120$175
Spring nuc$275$165$201
Overwintered nuc$265$225$248

Nuc vs. Package Colony Growth

As an entire colony, nucs will expand more rapidly as there is already a developing brood in the box.

On the other hand, package bees need to accept and release the queen to start laying eggs. Also, if installed without drawn-out frames, bees need to build comb for the queen to lay.

Since bee packages are often acquired earlier than spring nucs (due to the time needed to develop the nuc), you may not benefit much from the more rapid nuc growth.

However, more expensive, overwintered nucs may be available early to jump-start your apiary’s growth.

Less Risk Of Absconding

Absconding is when a colony abandons a hive en masse leaving few, if any, bees behind. Although absconding is relatively rare with new bee installations, nucleus colonies attend to brood, making them less likely to up and leave their new home.

See our article Why Do Bees Leave A Hive? (Absconding) for more information.

Spring Nucs vs. Overwintered Nucs

Spring nucs are created in early spring by dividing an existing, disease-free colony. Weather can play a crucial role in determining when a spring nuc is ready for sale.

Overwintered nucs start in the prior year. If you get an overwintered nuc from a local beekeeper, the bees indicate good genetics for winter adaptation in your area.

Primed for rapid growth, overwintered nucs tend to be available earlier than spring nucs.

When Can You Buy Bee Nucs?

Like bee packages, some suppliers start taking orders for nucs in December or January for the coming spring. Nucs are then available for pickup from early to late spring.

Splitting A Hive

Splitting a hive is a simple process of taking resources (frames with bees, brood, and food) from one or more hives and using them to start a new colony, usually as a nuc.

There are various methods for splitting a hive depending on a range of objectives, including swarm prevention, queen rearing, varroa mite mitigation, and making increase.

“Making increase” is a beekeeping term referring to the practice of expanding the number of colonies in an apiary. Thus, beekeeping newbies that install bee packages are “making increase.”

The basic steps in splitting a hive involve transferring some combination of frames with bees, brood, and food from an established, healthy hive into a nuc to create a new colony.

When splitting a colony, you need to ensure that both the nuc and the parent hive have the resources required to meet your objective.

For example, each hive needs a queen or the ability to raise one from eggs or existing queen cells if your goal is to increase the number of colonies.

A splitting method called an “artificial swarm” is considered effective in reducing varroa mite populations. Creating an artificial swarm requires particular comb types to be transferred to the new colony. Detailed step-by-step instructions for such an artificial swarm are available inUsing Artificial Swarms for Varroa Control from the National Bee Unit of the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs and Welsh Government in England & Wales.

How Long Can Bees Stay In A Nuc?

How long bees can stay in a nuc depends on various factors, including the nuc box size, the status of brood in the nuc, and how actively you are managing the nuc.

For example, an overwintered nuc acquired for installing in a new hive is likely to be at capacity when you get it. Without room for expansion, install the bees as soon as possible.

The smaller the nuc, the faster the colony will reach capacity and need expansion space. For example, Barnyard Bees (which has an informative YouTube channel) used 2-frame nucs for making increase. This size nuc is going to fill up pretty quickly. 

Manage your nucs proactively so you know when they require more space.

2 Frame Nucs And Why You Should Have Them

Conclusion

A nuc is a small honey bee colony that includes all the essential components of a fully established colony:  a queen with bees, brood, and food. Nuclei are housed in mini-hives called nuc boxes that facilitate their development.

Nucs from bee suppliers are a good but relatively expensive way for beekeepers to acquire bees to start or expand an apiary. Beekeepers can also make use of nucs for various purposes, such as making increase and rearing queens.

Developing nuclei is a good beekeeping management process worth learning.

Additional Reading

Overwintering Nucs by David MacFawn in Bee Culture magazine


[1] Increase Essentials | Nuclei • Management • Wintering by Lawrence John Cotter.

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