Still deciding if you should buy a “Nuc” or a “Package”?

Still deciding if you should buy a “Nuc” or a “Package”?

5 Frame nuc

Many new beekeepers ponder if a nuc is a better first-time purchase or a package.  Let me lend my expertise to help guide your decision.  I’ll define what each product is and detail the difference between both to help you weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each.  To further guide your decision, I’m available for questions.  Hit me up.

What is a NUC?

NUC, short for “Nucleus hive”, is an established hive, typically 5 frames.  Nucleus colonies are small hives.  Upon purchase, it should be already working and thriving with all frames full of drawn comb, a queen actively laying eggs, well-fed larvae, and brood on the frames.  Also, there should be food in the frames either capped or uncapped.  With that party going on in there, the NUC should have some weight to it when you pick it up to bring to your bee yard.  Simply transfer the frames to a larger box with some extra frames to let them grow the colony.

What is a Package of Bees?

Packages are 3lbs of bees with a mated queen in a cage inside the package.  The package is reminiscent of the best lightning bug container you could dream of as a kid with screens to let the bees breath easily.  A can of sugar syrup hanging in the center feeds the bees during transportation.  Their feed sometimes is in solid sugar form.  Bees are shaken in these containers off of strong frames of established colonies.  Seldom, they are sold as smaller 2 pound packages.  Package bees typically come from the south or even California as the season is well on its way when beekeepers in the Midwest want to start their hives.  You will pick up your package and take it to your bee yard to shake the bees into the hardware so they can get to work.

What questions should you ask your bee supplier about nuc or package purchases?

  • How many frames are there in the nuc? Typically they are 5 frames but sometimes you can find 3-frame or even 2-frame nucs.
  • When can I pick up the nuc?  This answer is a moving target based on weather conditions.
  • What size are the frames in the nuc?  Deeps or mediums?
  • How old is the nuc gear? Frames, foundation, box they come in etc
  • Can I view the frames before taking the nuc home?
  • When will the package of bees arrive?
  • How are the bees transported?  Packages can be shipped via the US Postal Service or more recently via other carriers. Typically, the journey is pretty hard on the bees since they are sometimes not cared for properly, not to mention handled by fearful employees.  Packages transported from southern states need to be handled with care especially managing extreme temperatures
  • What variety are the bees?  This can affect the price.
  • Are the queens marked?  Queens are typically marked using a standard color scheme to help identify the queen and her age.
  • Are the nuc’s over-wintered or are they built up in the spring?
  • Is there a guarantee that they are delivered alive and fresh?  This is critical for shipped bees.
  • What is an acceptable amount of dead bees in the package?  It’s common to have a few to a thin layer of dead bees in the package when delivered.
  • Ask other beekeepers who they purchase from and their previous experiences with various vendors.
PROS(possible) CONS
NUC– Established hive that should be strong
– With frame(s) of brood the population will explode quickly with young nurse bees which are needed to care for larvae and draw additional comb**
– Queen is laying well
– Frames should be drawn or some partially drawn depending on circumstances
– The chances of harvesting honey can be higher with a strong nucleus
– Drawn comb can be old and may have contaminants
– Larvae and brood can carry disease
– Nucs typically cost more than a package
– Capped brood could contain large amounts of mites if not managed
– Pickup times can be later in the season even sometimes after peak nectar flows
PACKAGE– Prices are typically lower than Nucs
– Without comb, larvae, and brood disease is less likely at startup
– Mite loads can be lower than caped brood frames may contain
– Bees can be older foragers not young nurse bees when shook into packages (See the note** about the bee lifecycle as to why this is important.)
– Bees can be improperly handled during transport
– Packages can occasionally abscond or leave the hive
– They will have nothing to start with when hived (no drawn wax, eggs, larvae, or brood)
– Drawn comb can be old and may have contaminants
– They can sometimes need more feed depending on circumstances when starting them out

What does Tom, the Bee Guy, advise for you?

So with ALL the definitions, information, and pros/cons, what’s the best decision? As with everything in beekeeping, it depends! Generally, a nucleus is a great decision for a new beekeeper as there are fewer risks for getting things started on the right foot because the queen is already laying eggs, and there are various stages of bees from fresh eggs to emerging brood. With brood in a hive its VERY rare to see bees abscond or leave the hive. 

Packages are a good decision if you have drawn comb from a previous colony so the bees are offered some resources to get started, can keep feed available at all times to allow them to build up strong, and can possibly add a frame of brood from another hive to give them a boost.  I didn’t mention yet that one deep frame of brood could be equivalent to two to three packages of bees!

In my opinion, either decision you make is good for you and your specific situation, but please take this next advice.  I urge every beekeeper to keep at least two colonies in your bee yard. When you’re new to beekeeping a lot is unknown. You can take classes, read books, and watch YouTube for years and it won’t be the same as hands on experience with bees. If two hives have the same things going on inside, it’s likely not a problem. If one is doing something drastically different it will likely spark a conversation with your mentor or online communities. If you have second colony, you can rescue the weak one if things go poorly. You can add a frame of brood if they are not strong. You can add some eggs if you lose your queen and they will make a new one. You can move frames between them to open space on a hive that’s honey bound or out of space. The more colonies you see at once will help you see all things that can happen. A good friend of mine said it didn’t click for him until he was able to see 6 colonies next to one another. He was able to see the good, bad, and ugly and more importantly the resources to fix the problems.

If you still have questions feel free to get in contact with me either by email, text, or call!

Your nuc or package purchase through me is greatly appreciated.  Thank you for your business!

**It’s important to understand the life cycle of a bee to know how the age of bees can impact the growth of your hive. Bees have specific tasks they do at certain ages or at least do them better at certain ages. For example, young nurse bees produce more wax and royal jelly than older bees. When starting a new colony drawing wax is a very labor-intensive task. It takes 8lbs of honey to make 1lb of wax! When the package is released into the hive they will begin to release the queen from her cage. She is held in with a small plug of sugar / fondant and can take a day or two or up to a week if things go poorly. Once she is released she will need drawn comb to lay eggs. Royal jelly is needed to feed larvae when they hatch from eggs. Consider the timelines of the whole process. The evolution of a bee is 3 days as an egg, 6 days as a larva, and 12 days pupating totaling 3 weeks / 21 days. (These days can vary +/- 1-2 days based on temps, quicker when it’s hot and slower when it’s cold) If those bees are to become foragers they will not be collecting nectar for a few weeks, let’s call it 5 or 6 weeks. This means you will not typically see your hives grow for 5-6 weeks due to comb needing to be drawn, bees to reach maturity to forage, and however long it takes the queen to be released from her cage and begin laying. Once this first cycle of bees emerges things will begin to move very quickly if they have access to feed (pollen and nectar / syrup).