Package Bees or Nucleus Hive?

If you are new to beekeeping and have yet to get bees you are probably wondering whether you should get a package of bees or a nucleus hive (nuc) to start with – what is the difference?

a package of bees
a package of bees

This article was previously published in January 2011, but contains seasonally relevant information.

If you are new to beekeeping and have yet to get bees you are probably wondering whether you should get a package of bees or a nucleus hive (nuc) to start with – what is the difference?

A nucleus hive is a complete hive with, comb,  eggs, open brood, capped brood, newly emerged nurse bees, foraging field bees, and a mature queen who is already busy laying eggs.

A “package” contains 2-3 pounds of field bees (shaken from a lot of different production hives) and a very young queen in her own cage, which has probably laid only a few hundred eggs – enough to prove that she can.  No comb,  eggs, brood, none of that. Oh yeah, a package contains a can of syrup to keep the bees fed for a few days.  A package is very like an artificial swarm.

Cost – nucs are about twice as expensive as a package.

Queens – When you get a nuc it comes with a queen which is already a part of the hive, and is already laying eggs.  With a package you have to “install” the queen and there is always a chance that she won’t be accepted by the hive.

Comb – a nuc comes with about 5 frames of drawn comb where a package has none to start with – unless you have some to give it.  This means that a package has no where to put stores, and the queen has no where to lay.  However a package will usually draw a few frames of comb very quickly because they’ve been confined and drinking syrup.

Build up – A nuc is a complete hive and should start building population as soon as you get it.  A package has no brood yet, and the population will actually decline for about 4-6 weeks until the first eggs that are laid emerge as adults.  So a nuc has about that much of a head start on the season when compared to a package.

Honey production – If you have drawn comb to work with and get your bees early enough either a nuc or package has potential to build up and perhaps produce a honey crop.  If you don’t have comb – and as a beginner you probably don’t – then probably neither one (IMO) is going to produce excess honey in the first year – at least not in our area.  With luck either one should be able to do so in its second year.

Either a nuc or package should build up enough during it’s first year to a sufficient size to over winter and get a good start next year.  You might even be able to split during your first season and successfully go into your first winter with twice as many hives – I did.

Winter Feeding – BeeCakes

Keeping your bees alive and healthy during the winter is a very important and sometimes challenging task.  One very effective method of feeding is putting sugar directly on the top-bars of the top box of the hive.  When the cluster is in direct contact with sugar (even solid sugar), it is very difficult for them to starve.  Below I have outlined a recipe I have found to be very useful in keeping my bees healthy and happy during the winter.  In order to make Bee Cakes, you will need the following:

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Ingredients:

  • 4lbs sucrose (while table sugar – beet or cane is fine… just needs to be white)
  • 2cups water (tap water is fine)
  • 1tsp white vinegar (acid + heat inverts the sucrose into fructose & glucose)
  • 1+1/4 cups pollen substitute (I use UltraBee from Mann Lake)

Kitchen Supplies:

  • 2x 9in. cake pans (or something similar)
  • Aluminum Foil
  • Large stock pot
  • Wooden stirring spoon
  • Candy thermometer
  • Measuring cups & spoons (1C dry, 1/4C dry, 1C wet, 1tsp)

Step 1

First,  you will need to line the 2 cake pans with a single sheet of aluminum foil each.  You’ll be pouring the hot liquid sugar mixture into them, so the aluminum foil needs to be as high-up as possible on the edges of the pan.  You’ll also want to make sure the aluminum foil is as flat & “wrinkle-free” as possible so that the cakes are easier to unwrap when you put them on the hives.

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Step 2

Mix the 4-lbs of sugar, 2-cups of water, and 1-tsp of white vinegar together in the pot, and stir until it makes a thick white liquid.img_2829

Step 3

Put in your candy thermometer & turn on the burner to start heating the sugar mixture.  Stir constantly to keep even heat distribution.  The mixture will eventually start boiling & will expand a lot.  This is why you need a large stock pot… if  you use a small pot it could overflow the top & cause major problems.

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Step 4

You’re looking for the mixture to get up to the “Soft Ball” stage… this is aprox. 238-242 degrees.  Once it reaches this point, most of the water will have boiled off, but you’re looking to get a bit more water out of it (maybe 1-2 more minutes)… just don’t let it get much over 242 degrees.  You’ll know it’s ready because a lot less steam will be coming out.  Then take it over to the sink, pull out the thermometer, and add the pollen substitute.

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Step 5

Stir in the pollen substitute making sure that you get most of the lumps out (doesn’t have to be perfect).  Then pour the mixture into your foil-lined cake pans to cool.  Note… once you take the mixture off the heat you’ll need to move pretty quickly.  You have to get the pollen substitute incorporated & the mixture poured before the sugar cools enough that it starts hardening.

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Let the Bee Cakes cool & harden, and then wrap the foil over the top of them & store until you’re ready to put them on the hive.  When you do go to put them on the hive, remove the foil & set the cake on the top bars of the hive.

Time to treat for Varroa Mites

After you have harvested honey or determined that you will not be harvesting honey – it is now time (July) to treat your bees for Varroa mites.  If you have not yet obtained your treatments you need to order them right away.

For what it is worth I personally plan to use Apiguard at this time of year – because it is hot, and Apivar works better in hot weather while some other treatments become harmful at high temps.  But any of these will work if used correctly.

One word of caution – Stinky treatments like Apiguard, and Mite-away-quick-strips produce smelly fumes.  Hives need proper amounts of ventilation and must have a strong enough population to fan and ventilate the hives.  Not enough ventilation or not enough bees to fan can result in absconding (apiguard) or queen death (Miteaway) – an interuption in brood production or some brood death is not unusual or cause for alarm.

The main thing is to do something – don’t let confusion or inability to choose keep you from acting.  If you want to go the simplest/easiest route then Apivar – synthetic amatraz – is definitely the silver bullet at this time.  If you want to use naturally occuring treatments then any of the others.

Treatment free – failing to make a choice and then not applying any treatments is not the same as treatment free beekeeping.  Being a treatment free beekeeper requires proactive action, and if anything more knowledge than treating.  If you don’t know what I am referring to then you probably need to treat.

If you don’t do anything about mites there is an excellent chance that your bees will be dead by next spring.  Mites spread viruses – viruses make your hives sick – sick bees can’t feed and care for offspring in good numbers – compromised fall buildup results in weak hives with  health issues because of malnutrition and disease – weakened hives are more subject to robbing which weakens them even more while spreading mites to other hives – normal winter/late spring stress is too much for weakened hives – dead colonies are incorrectly  blamed on winter weather.

There is a fairly extensive article on all of the options for varroa mite treatments available at this link – but at this time (mid summer) the mainstream options for mite treatment are limited to…

EPA regulated naturally occurring mite treatments

  • Miteaway Quick Strips / formic acid ***– can kill mites inside of capped brood as well as phoretic mites – Only 1 treatment required.  Requires careful application with attention to temp and hive strength to avoid bee and brood mortality – can result in queen loss if miss used. Daytime Temp of 50 – 90 F specified on day of treatment, but bee/brood mortality increases with temp. $4.70 per treatment. Miteaway Instructions
  • Apilife Var / Thymol and other EO – Very safe time release delivery.  Requires 3 treatments to be effective if brood is present – Use when average daytime temps are between 59 and 69 F.  About $3.65 per treatment. Apilife Instructions
  • Apiguard / thymol ***– Safe, low bee or brood mortality – but does cause bearding and interruption of brood rearing for a few days.  Requires 2 applications at warm to high temperatures – 60 /100° F.  Requires a spacer – About $3.60 per treatment. Apiguard Instructions
  • Hop Guard / add HopGuard® II to hives at the rate of 2 insert strips per 10 frames.  Strips should be hung between frames. HopGuard® II is most effective when used during the pre-pollination period (before sealed brood), mid-summer, and at the onset of winter brood development. HopGuard® II may be applied up to 3 times per year,

 EPA regulated Synthetic mite treatments 

  • Apivar/amitraz – currently reported to be extremely effective.  One application of 2 strips required. About $6.00 per treatment. No evidence of resistance after more than 15 years – no application temp recommended (that I know of)  Apivar Instructions and Info

Please read and educate yourself to make a choice.