Feb. 9, 2023

Spring Bees: Are Nucs A Good Deal? (112)

Spring Bees: Are Nucs A Good Deal? (112)

There are a lot of good reasons to start a new colony in your beeyard using a nucleus (nuc) colony, consisting of a mated queen, brood and drawn comb rather than buying a package of bees. But there are some issues to pay particular attention to also....

There are a lot of good reasons to start a new colony in your beeyard using a nucleus (nuc) colony, consisting of a mated queen, brood and drawn comb rather than buying a package of bees. But there are some issues to pay particular attention to also.

How old is the queen? How much of all kinds of brood are already there? What condition is the beeswax comb in? Does it come in it’s own box, what about frame exchange and how are you going to get it home?

If you’re just starting out it really pays to have an experienced beekeeper with you when you go and get the nuc to ask the right questions and if possible evaluate what’s inside.

Check out how Jim and Kim handle these issues, and point out the how’s and why’s of Starting with a Nucleus Colony this spring.

We hope you enjoyed today's episode. Please follow today and leave a comment. We'd love to hear from you!


Thanks to Betterbee for sponsoring today's episode. Betterbee’s mission is to support every beekeeper with excellent customer BetterBeeservice, continued education and quality equipment. From their colorful and informative catalog to their support of beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast series, Betterbee truly is Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers. See for yourself at www.betterbee.com


Honey Bee Obscura is brought to you by Growing Planet Media, LLC, the home of Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, All We Know by Midway Music, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

Copyright © 2023 by Growing Planet Media, LLC


Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 112 – Spring Bees: Are Nucs A Good Deal?


Kim Flottum: Jim, I'm thinking of getting some nucs this year instead of packages, or maybe none at all, but I'm looking at nucs. You got much experience with buying nucs?

Jim Tew: I'd have had experiences. When you say much experience, let me get back to you on that. I have bought nucs multiple times in the past. It's the same as buying packages, but different from buying packages.

Kim: Yes, I think I’d like to know a little bit more before I spend a lot of money on this. Hi, I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: I'm Jim Tew.

Kim: Today, we're going to talk about buying nucs. The good, the bad and the ugly.

Introduction: You are listening to Honey Bee Obscura, brought to you by Growing Planet Media, the folks behind Beekeeping Today Podcast. Each week on Honey Bee Obscura, hosts Kim Flottum, and Jim Tew, explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honeybees in today's world. Get ready for an engaging discussion to delight and inform all beekeepers. If you're a long timer or just starting out, sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honeybees.

Kim: Well, here's a question, and I looked into this a little bit, how much does a nuc cost. What I found out is that people sell three-frame, four frame, and five frame nucs, and of course, there's going to be a price difference. If I'm looking to get this nuc established to do something this year, I probably want a five frame nuc. That make sense?

Jim: It does make sense. It's going to cost you the most, but you're actually buying a small bee colony, at least most of it.

Kim: I got this box with five frames in it and I go to the place where I'm going to pick it up. Now, there's several places you can buy nucs around here, you can buy them from a dealer, a bee supply dealer who gets them somewhere. Or you can buy them from a local beekeeper who splits every spring and has a bunch of them sitting in his backyard. Or you can drive someplace down south and get them from the people down there that are selling them and bring them back. I'm guessing that the first choice would be to go to somebody you know.

Jim: That would certainly be my first choice. Someone who's kind of doing you a favor but doesn't want to do that favor for free. Oftentimes, I don't think they're making a lot of money if you count their work and their energy and the setback that it causes their own bees. It's a significant cost for them to sell me that five-frame nuc out of their producing colony. They're not going back a honey crop nearly as much of a honey crop on that. It is a cost for the producer too.

Kim: My thought was, well, I actually had two thoughts. One of them I thought I'd bring you along and have you look with me so I could tell what I was looking at.


Jim: No, I know what's happening there, Kim, you just want somebody to blame it on when this thing goes south. "Well, Jim told me to buy it and here it is. I got 38 bees and a bad queen."


No, I could ride along some time, but basically you started off on the right foot. I like to buy splits or nucs from someone that you know, and someone who's not going to leave town. Now I don't mind driving all the way to Georgia, to the south, you said, but I need to be hauling back a truckload of nucs to justify that. If I'm just buying two or three, that really needs to be somewhere nearby me.

Kim: Yes, but I'll take a half step back and if you can have somebody go with you that knows more than you do or has experience with buying or maybe making nucs so that you've got some extra insight into what the condition of this box is right now as I'm saying what is going to happen in two weeks or two months, but at least today. That make sense?

Jim: Right. It makes perfect sense. There are all kinds of good things about having somebody else there with you. It's the heat of the moment, there are bees flying all over, you're talking to someone you don't know, it's going to affect your wallet. It's just a good time to have a second set of eyes say, "Now hold on here, what's the deal with whatever," that they bring up. No, I agree. If you're new to beekeeping or maybe newish to beekeeping, take someone along who's a little bit further along than you are.

Kim: Yes. Okay. I drive over to this guy's house on Saturday morning, and you've already talked to him and he's expecting you and you and your friend head out to the bee yard wherever these nucs are being stored, and you take a look, and here's the question, and there's really two questions here. What are you looking for that's good and what are you looking for that's less than good? What's the less than good stuff I should be looking for?

Jim: Less than good is that you bought a five frame nuc and you feel like that it's lightly populated with adult bees. You don't really know, in my opinion, Kim, you don't really know much about the queen. A queen comes with a nuc and you have to wonder where did this guy get these extra queens? Is it late enough in the season that he raised his own queens? You can do that in the South, or did he buy queens from somewhere already? Then the big question is, are these old queens that's in the nuc?

Those kinds of things you just need to ask point blank, "Where did you get these queens? Are they fully established in this nuc?" The one thing I'm looking for is the adult population and some kind of legacy of where the queen came from in there. I sound like an authority. I bought nucs maybe 10, 15 times in my life. Every time, Kim, was different. There never was exactly the same technique. Right down to the box they're in.

Do I take my own equipment? Does the guy want a frame exchange? Are they in cardboard boxes? Why would that matter? Because you just about can't keep those cardboard lids on an open pickup going home. Even duct tape failed me on that. The one thing I'd be looking for there too is what are the bees physically in that I will be transferring them 25, 30, 50 miles back to my bee yard?

Kim: That's a good point. I hadn't thought about the box that they're in. You're right about asking the person who produced the nuc, "Where are the queens from? How old is she?" A way to back that up might be take a qui-- if you can, if the guy isn't in a hurry and you got some time - just roughly estimate the amount of surface of the frames that bees are covering and then brood and eggs and larva and sealed and-- to condition of the frame I guess, but starting with how many bees are in that box, how many should there be?

Jim: How would you want that measurement estimated? The number of bees covering the brood, or the number of bees running all over the box. There's just no easy way to do that, Kim. If you look inside that box and you estimate about a softball-sized cluster of bees, that's really, really minimal. If that guy has got enough bees, I keep saying that guy, it can be either man or woman beekeeper. That person has that box so full of bees that they're just boiling out, then you're good to go, but if I pull a frame out to see how many bees are on it, then I have to ask myself how many bees just flew away that were going to be mine until I opened that box and pulled that frame out.

How many nucs am I buying, Kim? If I'm buying 10, I may open one. If I'm buying 10 and in some deals you show up and the guy says there's about two pounds of bees in each one of these, two frames of brood, two frames of honey, one empty frame, and tells me what's in it and they're closed up and taped up and ready to go, I may not open the box at all. When you get home, now they're yours and you can't load them back up and take them back to the guy and say, "Wow, you didn't come close to what you said was in here," all I can do is just never buy nucs from that person again.

I'm trying to tell you that I don't really know the best way to physically say how many bees are in that box without opening it. I want to hammer that point again. It makes my skin crawl to see those bees flying away that I think I just paid for and I'm going to leave them there. Part of me wants all the bees that are stuck to the screen on the front or on the transportation screen on top, "Those are all my bees, I bought them, I want them," kind of attitude.

This is not like packages at all, Kim, when you buy part of somebody else's colony. This is an individually negotiated deal based on how far you drove, how much of that person's beehive you want to buy, how much you're willing to pay, where he got the queens. It sounds complicated, and I think it is.

Why do this, Kim? Why would you even buy a nuc instead of buying a package for those who've not done either one before.

Kim: I'm beginning to ask myself that question. You brought up a good point though, that I want to just mention here is getting them home. How are you getting them home? If you got a truck, that's one thing. You can put them in the back. If you don't have a truck and you got to put them in the back seat. Also, when you go to pick them up, go prepared a mesh bag, something that you can enclose that nuc in and seal so that if the cover slips or the front door bounces open and bees are getting out, they're getting out into the bag, not into the windshield of your car.

Jim: That's an excellent point. I cannot get off the subject, Kim, but when I sit in my truck cab, occasionally in my car with bees, either a swarm or packages usually, I begin to have some kind of allergic reaction around my eyes. I get itchy, my eyes get watery. Something about me and what? Bee hair? I don't know what it is. How are you getting them home? I usually put mine in the back of the truck up next to the cab, lightly strap them down, take off, and go. It depends on everything.

Did the guy staple them down? Is it a wooden lid? Is it a cardboard lid? Is it some kind of concoction? Did I take my own equipment and him just transfer the bees to it? In that case then I will nail down my own lid or whatever. You are precisely right. You're going to probably have bees in your car with you. Be prepared for that. Don't do something erratic if a bee gets down your collar while you're driving.

Kim: Well, that brings up another point. The last meeting that I went to, the speaker was talking about how often to replace combs in your beehives. How long should they be in there before you start thinking about getting them out of there and getting rid of the wax that's on them? Because of all the stuff that's going on with what's polluting wax. If like you, I drive up there, they're all nailed together and strapped and ready to. Do I get a chance to look at, am I buying somebody else's problem when I buy old comb?

Jim: You're changing the subject to a good subject. Let's take a break, hear from our sponsor.

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Jim: It's been my experience, Kim, that most of the time you're buying somebody else's old comb. I just need to put that out there. Now, how old is it? The devil is always in the details. Is it ten years old or is it two years old? All I could do is ask the person to tell me the truth. How old is this? What's your methods for controlling varroa and other pests inside the hive?

Even if he gives you the answer you want to hear, you still don't know about the environmental toxins. Old comb brings a stigma with it, probably depending on how fast they build up, how good the nectar flow is, how quickly they draw out in new comb, I'll be phasing those frames out - probably fairly quickly.

That's in this perfect world where everything results in new comb being built and a declining need for the old combs that are there. The bees are really going to favor those old combs. They're going to put their brood nest there. They're going to make it really difficult for you just to whimsically take those frames out. You're going to have to work at it to get them out of there.

Kim: Well, then, of course, no matter what, if they're really older or last years, you're going to probably start replacing some of them as fast as you can. When you take them a five-frame nuc and put it into an eight or ten-frame box, at least you can get some new comb in there and then gradually get rid of that older stuff. By the end of the first year, all those older combs should be gone, I think. If you work it right.

Jim: I would agree. If you give me to the end of the first year, I will agree with that. I didn't want the listeners who have not done this before to think you can go home and just take those frames out. That's where the bulk of your brood nest is going to be on those old combs. While you're waiting for that brood to emerge, she's going to be putting new eggs in there. You're going to have to keep working with it to move those frames more and more toward the side and then put those new combs that they're drawing out in the center and encourage them to build that.

Kim: In your experience, has there ever been any kind of guarantee that this is going to work from the seller?

Jim: No. In my life, I have had some interesting experiences with the seller. One seller that maintained the privilege of dropping by unannounced for spot inspections to be certain that I was maintaining those bees in the proper way. I felt kind of childlike. I bought the bees, they're my bees. You want to come by, what, two times just to be sure I didn't abuse them. There is that. Some sellers work the other way, but I have never had - what did you call it, Kim? You said it was a tail light guarantee. How'd you word that?

Kim: The guarantee on the queen and either a package or a nuc lasts as long as I can see your tail lights when you're leaving.

Jim: Yes. Okay, so the tail light guarantee. That's been most of my experience. You've had a gentle person's agreement. Money has changed hands. A product has changed hands that had specific characteristics promised, and there's really no way to back up when you get home. You can call and complain, and I guess if you complain loudly enough, maybe the guy would just send you two more frames of bees or something, or you got to drive back and get them. All of that, Kim, is just in the details. This is not a specific event that's clearly delineated. Every one of these transactions is individual.

Kim: In a minute here or maybe next time I want to get to, okay, I got this box home, and what's next? I think we need to look at that really carefully because you can screw things up day one.

Jim: Absolutely. If you buy a five-frame nuc, and you leave it in that box, then you might as well have bought a two-frame nuc and put it in a five-frame box. You don't gain anything having that nuc max itself out and not giving it the space that it should be rapidly growing to.

Kim: If that's your goal. I want to get to this a little bit later, but a lot of beekeepers I know keep a nuc, a five-frame, maybe even a three or four-frame nuc in every bee yard they have. I kind of gave it a name. A nuc is a bee store in your bee yard because it's got everything any of your colonies are going to need later in the season. It's going to have a queen, it's going to have brood, it's going to have frames that are drawn.

Anything and everything you need in a beehive is going to be in that nuc. You just keep plundering that nuc all season long, of course, replenishing it with new comb or bees and brood. Before you get to that point and I'm getting out to the bee yard, I'm ready to put this thing in. What am I looking for that's good and what am I looking for that's bad? How much brood, how many bees? What's your experience with that?

Jim: I'm going to answer a question you didn't ask. When I get that five-frame nuc to my yard, I'm going to put it, in my case, in a deep box. In your case, an eight-frame box. I'll put it in a ten-frame box. I'll do that immediately because probably I've already missed most of fruit bloom because the producer needed fruit bloom to make bees enough to get his colonies, her colonies, strong enough to make the split. The season is already probably a third of the way over. I want to go ahead and get that five-frame nuc into at least a ten-frame box.

Kim, I would even consider feeding it if it's not much of a nectar flow, and the season has not been great. I wouldn't bat an eye at putting a feeder on that small colony and feeding heavy syrup to that colony if the natural resources aren't there. I don't want to leave them in that five-frame nuc. Now, you've mentioned an excellent point. What if that's just a store for your colony and you bought a nuc because you thought you might need two frames of brood to go someplace else and you want an extra queen?

That's a totally different scenario than buying a nuc for colony number increase. When I get it there and I open it up and it's finally in my yard, I think most of the bees that came in that box are going to stay in the general vicinity. Now that's when I finally say, whoa, there's not many bees here, adult bees, or there's more brood than I expected or whatever. That's when I finally get to truly look at what I've bought compared to what the producer promised.

At that point, my only real recourse is to say I will or I will not go back to this person in the future and I will or I will not recommend this person to other people buying nucleus colonies. I make the decision then. If it's just a horrific case and I've never had one, then I would call the person up and say, "This thing was so poor as to you didn't come close to what you promised," and then see if anything can be done.

Kim: There's the advantage of having an experienced beekeeper looking over your shoulder because then a, you've got another set of eyes to evaluate the box that you brought and you got a witness.

Jim: That's true.

Kim: If this is your first time getting a nuc or this is the first bees you've bought bees and you're buying a nuc instead of a package, boy, really look for somebody who can, like I said, be there looking over your shoulder. They'll point out all of the things that we're just talking about, good or bad. Then if it's good then you can move in the direction. I think that's what we need to pick up next time, Jim, is once I got this home and I've opened up the top of that nuc and we're starting to make it into a colony you think.

Jim: I'm happy with that. I do want to finish on one note, we're over time, but the reason we're doing this, Kim, instead of buying a package or trying to get a swarm is that number one, swarms are completely erratic. We have no idea when we'll get them. Number two, packages are generally cheaper but it takes a package longer to build up. You and I have been talking about nucs because by buying a nuc, that colony doesn't suffer the population slump that a package suffers. In general, if everything goes well, a nucleus colony builds up much faster than a package colony. That's why we've had this discussion.

Kim: You got about a three-week jump on a package because you've got a laying queen and you've got sealed brood and in theory, a good nuc will have a laying queen sealed and open brooded and eggs. You got a three-week jump. All right next time let's take a look at this again and start with opening the top of that box and see what we find.

Jim: I would love to do that. It makes me think spring is here.

Kim: There you go. All right

Jim: All right, till then, Kim.

Kim: Okay.

[00:23:02] [END OF AUDIO]