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What is a nuc of bees?

Updated: Apr 9, 2023

Nucs are an ideal way for new beekeepers to get started. My comprehensive guide explains what a nuc of bees is and what to look for when you're buying one.

A nuc or nucleus of bees is the way most beekeepers get the honeybees to start their first hive. I raise my own bees and I also have bee nucs for sale. Every hobby has it's own jargon - so what is a nuc of bees?

A new beekeeper needs two basic things - some honeybees and a hive for them to live in.

But that is not all there is to it - there are some essentials that any colony must have to survive.


WHAT IS THE MINIMUM FOR A HONEYBEE COLONY?

Essential to every colony is the queen. She is the only bee that can lay female eggs. Egg laying is her only job. Female eggs develop into worker bees.


Without a queen you don't really have a colony at all - certainly not one that will grow. Although the queen lays the eggs, the colony also needs the efforts of the worker bees.


They care for the eggs the queen lays and do all the other jobs in and around the hive. These jobs include cleaning the hive and gathering all the nectar/pollen needed to feed the honeybee colony.


A nucleus consists of a queen plus enough workers to look after her and her brood.


HOW DOES A NUC COMPARE TO A FULL SIZED COLONY?

At its peak, a full sized colony may hold as many as 60,000 honeybees. It is possible to buy a full sized hive. A hive of this size takes time to produce and so they are expensive to buy. They are also awkward to move from one location to another.


A full sized hive can also be daunting for a beginner - it is a lot of bees!. What a beginner beekeeper really needs is a kind of subset of this huge number - one queen plus enough worker bees to make a viable colony.


A nucleus is more than this though. It includes some other things to help get the queen/workers off to a good start. A nucleus also contains what is known as "brood in all stages". This is beekeeper shorthand for eggs, larvae and sealed brood.


Sealed brood means that honeybee larvae will soon emerge as new worker bees - raring to go and ready to work within the hive.


WHAT ELSE MAKES UP A NUC, APART FROM BEES?

The other thing that makes up a nucleus is "stores". Stores are frames of pollen and nectar/honey. This is the honeybee's food. If the weather is bad, the colony's growth will not be threatened.


Honeycomb is what the bees live on and in. It's where they store their food and where they raise their young. A hive has moveable "frames" of honeycomb. A nucleus, being a subset of a bigger thing, simply has fewer frames.


All of the bees and stores are held on 6 frames rather than the 11/12 you would find in a typical full sized hive.

These 6 frames will be be housed in a temporary plastic or polystyrene "nuc" box. When you buy a nuc of bees, the aim is to transfer the populated frames from the nuc box to your new but empty beehive.


With good weather and some care, the colony will rapidly expand to fill their new home.


It is worth considering the kind of nuc box your bees will come in. Simple plastic (often Correx) boxes are cost effective. They can be reused, to a degree. They are durable enough to catch a swarm in but not for the longer term job of raising a nuc of your own.


Polystyrene (or poly) nuc boxes are more expensive but can be used over and over again for making splits or housing swarms. The bees I sell are available in both Correx and poly nucs.


WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF STARTING WITH A NUC OF BEES?

There many benefits to starting with a nuc. Compared to a full sized hive a nuc is easier to handle, less daunting and very much cheaper. Very few full sized colonies come up for sale. For most people most of the time it is not really an option.


You can start beekeeping by buying a package of bees. A package of bees is a queen plus several thousand workers, in a parcel that comes through the post. There are no frames and no stores so there is more for the bees to do when you put them in their new home.


They have to build honeycomb before the queen can start laying. As a new beekeeper the package itself may be difficult to deal with and the colony needs careful monitoring to make sure they have enough food. Packages are cheaper than nucs but require more care and attention than a new beekeeper may be able to give.


Capturing a swarm may seem like an option but unless you know an experienced beekeeper to help you handle them and spot any diseases they may carry, it is best avoided.


ARE THERE DIFFERENT SIZES OF NUC?

There are different sizes. The measurements for frames and boxes depend on the hive choice. I use British Nationals (the "standard" size and 14x12). This is the hive system used by most "backyard" beekeepers in the UK. It is used widely so it's easy to buy new kit.


It's not the only system though. Each system has pros/cons for the beekeeper. It doesn't matter to the bees. Hive choice is something I cover in the bee keeping courses we run.


WHAT NUC TO BUY FOR A FLOW HIVE?

Having talked about British Nationals as the hive system I and most UK beekeepers use - a word on Flow hives. Flow hives are really popular right now. They are based on different dimensions to British Nationals.


The brood box (this is what beekeepers call the main part of a beehive where the honeybees live and raise their young) is based on Langstroth measurements. Langstroths are much bigger all round than British Nationals. A flow hive brood box is wider than a British National box.


This means that if you buy a nuc with National frames they will be too small for their new home.


The UK site for Flow does say that British National frames can work. If you are buying a nuc to go into a Flow hive make sure you know the dimensions of both the nuc (which will almost certainly be British National) and the measurements of the Flow hive.


Check out the dimensions they give and read their site carefully to see how the different systems might work together. A bit of jiggery pokery is likely to be required unless you are able to buy a nuc with Langstroth frames. It's good to know this beforehand rather than discovering it when your nuc arrives.

A green Correx nuc box with the lid open showing the frames of bees inside
A Correx nuc box with the lid open showing the frames of bees inside

WHEN ARE NUCS AVAILABLE?

The availability of nucs depends on the time of year. If you look to buy bees in the spring, it's the time when colonies are actively growing and beekeepers can easily split them to make nucs for sale. Because they are made up in the spring, they are called "spring nucs".


Depending on the weather, they will be delivered from June onwards. If this is your first year of beekeeping it means you won't get hands on until June.


The nuc will have time to grow big enough to survive the winter. It has spent energy in growing so it will not produce any surplus honey in the year.


If you look online in the autumn/winter you will see "overwintered nucs for pre-order". Overwintered nucs are nucs made up in late summer and set aside for delivery in the following year. This means that these nucs will have a strong queen who has survived the previous winter.


Depending on the weather, they can be delivered as early as March. You will be able get beekeeping several months earlier than if you had bought a spring nuc. The colony will be growing very rapidly. It will grow big enough for winter and there may be some surplus honey.


Bear in mind that overwintered nucs often sell out. Beginner beekeepers want them because they can get an early start. Experienced beekeepers want them too to replace any winter loses. There is a lot of demand and a limited supply.


WHAT SHOULD YOU LOOK FOR WHEN BUYING A NUC?

Once you have decided to buy a nuc, look for the following:

  • A nuc should have a good, young laying queen because a queen's productivity reduces as she gets older. Depending on when you buy your nuc, the queen may be marked and/or clipped. This depends on the beekeeper’s own preferences. I’m happy to explain what I do.

  • It should have all stages of brood i.e. eggs, larvae, and sealed brood. There should be at least 3 frames with brood

  • There should be the equivalent of at least1 full comb of honey and half a frame of pollen. These are the stores that will help the colony develop in its first weeks.

  • 4 frames or more should be fully covered with honeybees – enough bees to look after young and gather food

  • All the combs should be in a good and clean condition – ideally less than one season old

  • There should be no signs of disease


CONCLUSION

So, returning to the original question - what is a nuc of bees? A nuc is a mini bee colony.


It's a laying queen plus workers on 5 or 6 moveable frames with honeybee brood and some food, all in good condition - in a box.


Nucs are a great way for new beekeepers to get beekeeping. They provide a ready to go colony of bees in a manageable form at a reasonable price.


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