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Nuc or package: how to buy honey bees

One of the first problems a new beekeeper confronts is how to get a colony of bees. If catching a swarm is not in the cards, or if an entire established colony is not for sale in your area, you are left with two choices: you must buy either a nuc or a package.

While this is often a polarizing topic in beekeeping circles, I tend to be pragmatic about the whole subject. Good arguments exist for either option and sometimes you simply must take what is available. At other times, the new beekeeper has unwittingly made the decision by his choice of equipment.

What is the difference between a nuc and a package?

Before I get into the pros and cons of each, I want to define these two very different options.

What is a nuc?

A nuc(leus) colony is the central core, or heart, of a larger colony. In essence, a nuc is a small colony living on 4 to 5 frames. It has all the components of a fully-grown colony, including brood in all stages of development, workers in all stages of development, most likely some drones, and a laying queen. In addition, it usually has some stored honey and pollen.

Because there are no standards, nucs vary tremendously between sellers. Some sellers specify exactly how many frames of brood are guaranteed. Some say how many frames of adult bees to expect. Some offer a frame of honey and pollen. Some only specify the number of frames in the box, such as 4-frame nucs or 5-frame nucs. Also, some may be on deep frames and some may be on medium frames. Because of all the differences, prices are all over the map. It is up to the buyer to ask questions and learn what he is buying.

Another major difference between nucs is their age. In my opinion, the very best are over-wintered nucs. In other words, the small colony is a cohesive unit that spent the winter together with their queen. Healthy overwintered nucs are likely to explode in the spring, giving you a vibrant, populous colony in no time.

Other nucs are made up immediately before the sale. The colonies may have been in pollination service, for example. After pollination, the colonies are divided, given queens, and sold as nucs. Sometimes this type of nuc doesn’t do as well simply because it is not yet a cohesive whole. The bees may supersede their queen, or they may get off to a slower start. Although most of these nucs do fine, the buyer should ask whether the nuc was overwintered or newly established.

What is a package?

Bees can also be purchased in a wooden shipping box that includes a can of feed and a newly-mated queen. These boxes are usually sold by weight and come with 2- or 3-pounds of bees. Like the bees in newly-established nucs, the bees in the packages may have recently come from commercial pollination service. Frames of bees are dumped through a queen excluder into a funnel. From the funnel the bees are measured into a shipping box until the right weight is reached. Then a newly-mated queen in a shipping cage is added to the package along with a can of syrup.

Some of the bees in a package may be related to each other, but most probably are not. Certainly the queen is not related, which is why the beekeeper most introduce the queen slowly to the newly installed package. Some of this depends on how long the bees were in transit. For example, if the package is put together, shipped overnight, and delivered the next day, the queen should be introduced slowly. If the package is in transit for a week, queen introduction should be simple.

Quality issues

Both nucs and packages pose quality issues which may be difficult for a new beekeepers to sort out. A nuc, for example, should be checked to see that it contains what the seller advertised. In addition, it never hurts to do a cursory inspection for brood diseases and parasites. This, by itself, is almost impossible for a new beekeeper. You may want to seek the help of a mentor, especially the first time.

Likewise, package bees may arrive in bad shape. Before accepting delivery, the beekeeper should be sure the queen is alive and looking healthy. You should also gauge the number of dead bees on the bottom of the cage. For an in-depth discussion of what experienced beekeepers believe is an acceptable number of dead bees, see this post: Dead bees in a package: how many is okay?

Logistical issues

For nuc buyers, a number of different options exist. Some sellers merely transfer their bees into your box. Some will want to trade new, unused frames for the frames containing the bees. Some will sell you the frames that contain the bees and put them in a cardboard nuc box which you needn’t return. Some transport them in a wooden brood box which you must return. Again, read the terms of the sale so you know how to prepare.

For package buyers, there is often a deposit on shipping boxes, so you need to learn how to get your refund. Usually, there is a time limit and a damage deduction. Make sure you know the terms of your purchase.

Nucs vs packages, pros and cons

This next section is divided by issues that new beekeepers may experience. The issues that matter to an individual beekeeper will vary depending on experience, resources, region, and personal taste. Only you can decide which option works for you.

Type of beekeeping equipment you have

This may seem obvious, but I’ve helped a number of beekeepers wield hacksaws and wirecutters to make their nuc frames fit into their top-bar hives. This is not only a pain, but it’s not good for the colony. So please note that most nucs come on frames that fit into a deep Langstroth hive. If you have something other than a deep Langstroth, check with the seller. Some may have medium Langstroths available. Most will not have anything that fits into a top-bar hive. If you have non-standard equipment, you most likely need to buy a package.

Availability

In the US, packages seem to me more widely available than nucs. Nucs tend to be pre-ordered and are often not available on the spur-of-the-moment. Packages are also ordered in advance, but sometimes you can place a last-minute order with a bee club that is making a large purchase.

That said, you may be able to find a late season nuc in your area long after all the packages are gone. In short, sometimes the decision of what to get is dictated by what is available.

Time of year

Packages are usually available before nucs, especially in the northern parts of the country. So if getting started as soon as possible is important, you may want to buy a package. Be aware, however, that even though the package comes earlier, the bees will have to work hard to catch up with an established nuc. You may do better by waiting for the nuc if that works with your schedule.

Expense

Nucs are generally more expensive than packages. The difference may be insignificant if you are buying one or two, but may be prohibitive if you are buying 20 or 30. This is necessarily a personal decision.

Watching the colony start from scratch

Many new beekeepers have enjoyed watching their colony start from a package. Like a swarm, the packaged bees have nothing to begin with, yet they soon manage to build a complete and viable colony. Watching the progression is a rich learning experience. Other beekeepers prefer to start with an established colony, especially when they are unsure of their skills. Either preference is fine.

Feeding

Almost without exception, packages must be fed to get them started. Nucs may not need to be fed at all, or only fed for a short time.

Absconding

A certain number of newly installed packages will abscond in search of other living quarters. This seems to occur most frequently when the hive is brand new and contains no attractive odors. For a more in-depth review of this, see “My bees left: how to prevent absconding.” Beekeepers can reduce the chance of absconding by keeping the queen caged until comb building begins, providing plenty of feed, or using a queen excluder under the brood box. The chance of a nuc absconding is much, much less.

Supersedure

As with absconding, the chance of supersedure is less with a nuc than a package. First, the queen in a nuc is already laying. But the queen in a package must first be accepted by the bees. Then she must begin laying. If she is found to be lacking as a queen, the colony may decide to replace her. The supersedure may succeed, but it certainly slows the entire process down and could result in loss of the colony.

Local conditions

If you buy a nuc from a local supplier, the queen is more apt to be bred locally and so be adapted to local conditions. The queens included with a package are usually from the southeastern states or northern California and are adapted to those conditions.

Intimidation factor

A number of people have told me they preferred a nuc because they were afraid of shaking a package of bees into the hive. For a new beekeeper, I can see where that may be scary. But if nothing else, beekeeping is rich with alternatives. If you don’t want to shake bees out of a package, you don’t have to. See this post for an alternative method: Easiest package installation ever.

Multiple queens

Several people have complained to me about multiple queens in their packages. The first sign of this may be eggs before the queen is released, or the presence of both a dead queen and a live one. Multiple queens in a package occur when a small queen somehow passes through the queen excluder when bees are shaken into the funnel from their frames. It is just something that happens and it usually irons itself out. If you discover it when they are both still alive, you probably should remove the extra.

Africanized honey bees

You have a greater chance of picking up some Africanized honey bee genetics if your queen was open-mated in the southern states. If this is something you are worried about, a local nuc with a local queen will make you more comfortable. If you live in AHB territory, you may want to know more about your queen’s genetics as well as her mating history, but remember there are few guarantees in beekeeping.

Brood breaks

One of the nice things about a package is the brood break. For a while, that new colony has no capped brood, a situation that can greatly reduce the Varroa mite population. For this reason alone, some beekeepers prefer packages.

Other diseases

It seems that nucs can carry brood diseases, parasites, and pests more effectively than packages. Because packages start out with nothing and build their new home from the ground up, they generally have less of a pathogen load to begin with.

I’m not saying they are free of problems. They are not. Packages can and do have mites, viruses, and other diseases that they carry with them. But in my experience, I’ve seen more transmission of brood disease with nucs than packages.

This can occur when the seller routinely treats his bees for diseases like American foulbrood or European foulbrood. If the treatment suppresses disease but the buyer doesn’t know about it, the colonies may develop symptoms once the treatments stop. The key here is to buy from a reputable seller who is proud of the nucs he sells and will stand by them.

Diseased nucs are unusual, but they do happen from time to time. Be especially on guard if the frames appear old, black, or moldy. A seller who appears to be unloading old or sub-par equipment should be avoided. Frames don’t have to be brand new, but they should be structurally sound and the combs should be in good condition.

And the winner is . . .

Personally, I never recommend one system over the other unless the beekeeper has particular concerns that can be addressed by one or the other. Both methods work, but they both have upsides and downsides. Decide which of the factors are most important to you and then make your decision based on that. Just remember, you can succeed easily with either option.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

A package of bees can be intimidating to a new beekeeper. © Rusty Burlew.

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Comments

Craig
Reply

One thing to consider is local laws. Here in Alabama, we’re prohibited from bringing bees into the state on the comb. At least last time I checked.

This means if you’re going to be getting bees from someone in another state, nucs aren’t an option.

I’d bet there are other states that have similar restrictions.

As for installing packages… I’ve heard of using a large push in cage, just as with a queen introduction, to cut down on the odds of absconding. Sounds reasonable, unless there’s something I’m missing. Seems to me that once the queen starts laying, everything should settle down and the girls will find a nice, comfortable rut to fall into.

Rusty
Reply

Craig,

I agree, once the queen starts laying, colony life falls neatly into place.

Katherine White
Reply

Excellent, as usual, Rusty! I’ll be posting this on our club’s FB page. Thanks!

Jason
Reply

Common advice says that an installed package should be inspected after 1 week. With a nuc, how long should one wait before the first inspection? Subsequent inspections?

Rusty
Reply

Jason,

I try to learn as much as possible from watching the entrance. If a nuc looks lively and busy, I might do a quick inspection at two weeks, just to make sure the brood looks good and to see if they need more space. After that, I would probably inspect once every two or three weeks unless something looked amiss.

Mary
Reply

Starting with a package has the advantage that you can treat for mites upon installation. Is there a downside to doing that?

Rusty
Reply

Mary,

No downside that I know of. Lots of beekeepers do it.

donna
Reply

Rusty, I am totally new to beekeeping and haven’t raised them yet but am planning to get some this spring. I was planning on nucs from someone who raised the bees on small cell comb. I am curious of you purchase a package of bees, can you shake them into a box that has frames with small cell foundation starting strips? Will they just transition to larger cell sizes if they were used to that size previously or would they build the smaller cell size like the starting strips I plan on putting into the frames?

Rusty
Reply

Donna,

Honey bee build cells that fit their bodies, so if you put large bees on foundation strips of any size, they will build a cell size that is natural for them. To get bees to build on small cell foundation takes a few generations of a process called “regression.” It doesn’t happen instantly. But there is nothing wrong with letting them build so-called “natural-size” cells, which is just a matter of using starting strips and letting them build the size of cell they want. It has the advantage of not forcing them to fit the cell, but allowing them to make the decision.

James
Reply

I am going into my third year keeping bees, and going to order two 3 lb packages. I should really say I am going into my third year killing bees.

The first year I had two colonies. One died because of wax moth before winter. The second one lasted until Feb, I think it starved, even though it had almost a super of honey. I did not monitor mite count.

The second year (2016) I had 3 colonies, two packages and one a neighbor beekeeper gave me. I treated for mites in late August. All three colonies seemed to be strong going into Dec. I left all the honey on and gave two of the colonies sugar cakes. Jan 12 we had a 67 degree day. I opened all the hives and did not see 1 live bee and only a few dead bees.

I am going to try one more year with two 3 lb packages. I am going to monitor mites closer and try to protect hives from wind and rain better this year. I did insulate top of hives this winter, but I am also going to make moisture boards next winter.

Would you want to take a guess at why all three colonies died? They all have honey that I am going to harvest. HoneyBeeSuite is my go to site and I respect and appreciate all your work and time.

One finale question. What is the best way to maintain two colonies? I am trying to keep bees because I like having them and I would like to have honey, especially some comb honey, for me and my family. But I don’t want to just keep killing bees.

Thanks again for all your hard work.

James

Rusty
Reply

James,

I can’t tell what killed them without knowing more. It sounds like mites, but I would want to know how you treated the hives and what your mite counts were like. Going back to the previous year, wax moths didn’t kill your bees. A healthy colony can easily control wax moths. They are basically scavengers that move in after a colony is in decline. Wax moths came in to pilfer what was left over. They are a result, not a cause.

I still go back to mites, especially since there was honey left in the hive. But if you treated in August according to package directions, that should have held you at least into mid winter when you could do a second treatment. But like I said, I don’t have enough information.

James
Reply

Rusty

Thanks for the reply.

I fell really dumb not knowing wax moth don’t kill bees. But, I’m glad to hear a healthy colony may eliminate that problem.

I treated all three hives with MAQ strips this year. I hate to admit, I do not know what the mite count in these hives was. I will definitely monitor this, if I decide to buy new bees in the spring. How often should I do a mite count? Will I possibly have to treat for mites more then once a year?

I always look at the tray under the screeed bottom when I visit the hives. A week after I treated, I noticed one of the hives had quite a few dead hive beatles, maybe two dozen.

James

Rusty
Reply

James,

You should never feel dumb about not knowing something. In the case of wax moths, it sure looks like the moths kill the bees, so it’s natural to think they did.

The trend these days is to treat more than once a year for mites. I’ve read that when mites first invaded this country, the amount and types of viruses they carried was less than it is now. Now they carry so many viruses that twice-a-year treatment is almost necessary. Mites take a lot of the fun out of beekeeping, but we have no choice but to deal with them, at least for now.

I recommend counting mites with a sugar roll or alcohol wash to know if you should treat and, afterward, to know if the treatment worked. Otherwise, you’re kind of in the dark about what is going on in your hive, and being in the dark is no fun either.

I wouldn’t worry too much about the hive beetles. As with moths, a healthy colony can usually control them. The healthier the colony, the fewer the problems, so that’s the first thing to concentrate on.

James

Rusty, you are right about mites taking the fun out of beekeeping. It has not taken me long to figure that out.

I have always wanted to keep bees, but like a lot of people I just talked about it. We recently moved into Chester county, PA. A neighbor beekeeper convinced me to finally do it. I should have been more serious about my research.

I enjoy the physical part of beekeeping, building hives, inspections, the smoker etc. I even enjoy the biology of the honey bee. But when it comes to dealing with the mites, there are too many variables, at least for me.

My main reason for keeping bees was to have my own supply of comb honey for my family and me. But now I personally think it is not practical for me to try and maintain two hives, without figuring I’ll probably have to buy new bees on a regular basis.

Beekeeping is a great hobby. But, it is not like other hobbies. My other hobbies are pretty specific, as far as what needs to be done. To go into beekeeping with that attitude would not be fair to the bees.

I still think your are the best when it comes to beekeeping. Your knowledge of biology and your practical advice is unmatched by anyone. I especially like your, “keep it simple approach.” Someone considering beekeeping could go to Honey Bee Suite and by reading the archive section, make a decision if beekeeping is for them.

Keep up the good work.

James

Rusty

Thanks, James. I hope you end up doing what’s right for you.

Rich
Reply

“Nucs many not need to be fed…” needs to be corrected under Feeding section, second sentence.

Rusty
Reply

Rich,

Thank you.

Mark
Reply

Hi Rusty

I had two nucs last year at the end of March and they were exploding with bees. A couple of things from my experiences. The first is that one of them was so full I think it was starting the swarming process in the nuc – a month after I had installed it in an 8 frame hive it swarmed. I caught the swarm (which was fun) but I would recommend going through a nuc carefully with an experienced beekeeper to assess its quality. The second thing was that the same nuc had a lot of drone cells – I guess for the same reason (a mature colony). In hindsight, I think it would have destroyed a number of the empty drone cells.

As ever a great article. Thanks!

Griffin
Reply

Sorry if this is in the wrong place but I tried to find the most applicable without scrolling through everything. I’ll try to keep this short.

I’m just south of D.C. It’s late Feb and just now warm enough to open my hives to see how they’ve fared. In short they’ve come though fine with tons of extra syrup-honey remaining. The queen has begun laying in force in the bottom box but with so much remaining syrup-honey, she’s only able to lay in roughly half of each frame. The rest of the frame is full of pollen and uncapped honey in addition to the standard ring around the brood area. It seems she’s limited in laying real estate. I’ve put an empty box above of drawn comb to give plenty of space for laying and free movement upward. A week later that box is 85%+ full of uncapped “honey” and some pollen.

So my question is are they moving the syrup-honey up from the bottom box? Does not seem possible to have any flow going this early. In addition to everything above, I’ve also pulled an entire additional super of syrup-honey off as well. I originally thought they would eat the honey to make more room but is it possible that they are moving it instead? I don’t have unlimited equipment or drawn comb to spare and want to save what little I have for the flow in 2 months. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks so much for your advice!!!

Rusty
Reply

Griffin,

If the queen does, in fact, run out of space to lay, the colony will want to swarm once the weather turns warmer. Of course, now that brood is being raised, the entire colony will require more food and so they will go through it faster.

Ideally, I would say to put some frames of drawn comb on either side of the brood nest and maybe just above it, but if you don’t have drawn comb, you don’t have that option. If you think they have plenty of food, you can try shaking out a couple frames of uncapped sugar syrup. If it’s close to being capped, you can’t shake it out, but if it’s still watery it will shake out easily.

Just pull a couple frames, turn them upside down and shake hard. Alternatively, you can rap them against something like a stone to get the syrup to fly out. Don’t hit too hard or you will break the comb. If it works, this will give you a few frames of empty drawn comb you can put close to the brood area.

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