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.