Making nucleus hives or “nucs” is a good way to expand your apiary without spending a lot of money and without the worry of introducing Africanized genetics from packaged bees. (Now that Africanized bees inhabit our more southern states, this is a concern.) You also will be creating queens that are best acclimated to your geographic area. To be successful in making nucs, timing is important.
The absolute best time to start a new hive is at the beginning of the spring nectar flow, just about now in Middle Tennessee. Healthy hives naturally cast off swarms at this time, because it takes a lot of nectar to build the wax necessary to establish a new hive. Honeybees will only make new wax when they have an abundance of nectar. In my area, the nectar flow occurs roughly from mid-April to mid-June. I pushed the season a bit by making my nucs this first week of April, but the 10-day forecast was great, the Redbuds were blooming, and I had a few frames of honey left in the freezer for starter feed.
In making a nuc, essentially you are creating a controlled swarm--but without the queen. So along with taking bees for the new hive, you must ensure that you take newly laid eggs, less than 3-days old. In the new hive, the bees will discover that they have no queen and will go to work making one. To do this, they will choose one, or more, of these eggs, create a queen cell around it, and when it hatches feed it only royal jelly. Waiting for the nectar flow is important not only because the bees will have access to lots of nectar and pollen for food and wax building, but because plenty of drones will be available this time of year for the newly hatched queens to mate with. This timing is also important because bees from your bigger, more established hives will be busy gathering nectar and pollen from nature’s abundance and less likely to rob out the smaller nucs.
How to Make a Nucleus Beehive
You can see in the picture that my nuc hardware is about one-half the size of a normal deep hive body. In fact, it is a normal deep hive body that I’ve cut in half, nailing on a board to create the side. (I'll admit that with the duct tape and crude carpentry they aren't pretty, but they work!)
You can make your own, or you can order them from your favorite beekeeping supply company. For those of you using hive configurations with all medium boxes, you could simply use a whole medium box. I have topped mine with a shallow super, also cut in half, so that I can put the starter feed (chunks of honeycomb) on top of inner cover inside that box.
The hive I take the nuc from must be healthy with lots of bees and a good laying queen. A healthy hive will have a good solid brood pattern, and by this time, should have lots of eggs, larvae, capped brood, and newly hatched bees. Drones should also be present by this time of year.
I choose 3 frames, one with the less than 3-day old eggs that have not yet hatched into larvae, one with pollen and honey, and the other with lots of capped and uncapped brood. This is the one time during a hive inspection that I make sure I actually see the queen and not just evidence that she is present. I don’t want to accidentally take her away from the original hive on one of the frames.
The frame with the eggs goes in the middle of the nuc box. The honey and pollen frame for feed goes on the outside. The frame with brood at various stages goes on the other side and should have lots of bees crawling over it to keep the brood warm. The bees tend to want to stay with, feed, and protect the brood. These are house bees, but with a lack of foragers in the new hive, some of them will soon learn to take on that responsibility. If you still have empty space in your box after putting these 3 frames go in the center, fill it with drawn comb or with frames ready for the bees to draw out.
Ideally the rule is to move the nucleus hives at least 2 miles from the original hives so that the bees do not return to their old hives. I’ll admit I don’t always do this. This year 3 of my nucs came from a distant apiary, but the others came from hives on my own farm. I moved them as far as I could from the original hives and left them screened up for a day. I find that since the new bees are mostly house bees and have the brood to look after, they don’t return to the original hives.
The day after creating and screening them up, I partially removed the screens. This allows the bees to come and go but makes it harder for bees from stronger hives to rob them.
For those who follow my blog at PersimmonRidgeHoneyFarm.com, you know I don’t feed my bees anything but honey. Since I’ve been doing this for a number of years, I’ve learned to freeze frames of honey for making nucs or for emergency winter food. You may not have that luxury if you are just starting out. In this case, you may have to make some sugar syrup as starter feed. However, by waiting for the nectar flow to create your nucs, you should only have to feed them once. You want them to learn to gather their own nutritious nectar and pollen, not be dependent on you for "candy." I have had nucs do very well during the nectar flow with no feeding at all, and this is an option for you too.
If you do make sugar syrup, mix one-half sugar and one-half water, boil to kill any pathogens, and then let it cool before feeding. Do not just pour the syrup into a container, because the bees will drown in it. You can use a small jar. Choose one that will fit inside your top feeder box. Fill it, punch a few small holes in the lid, and place it upside down over the hole in the inner cover, inside your feeder box. Test it first to make sure your holes aren’t too big and the syrup doesn’t pour out.
Now you wait - and hope! As long as you see bees coming and going, stay out of the boxes for a month! It will take 14 days for the queen to hatch and up to another week for her to mate. In the last week, she will have begun laying eggs. If you check too soon, you may accidentally destroy a queen cell or you may not see her because she may be hidden among the bees (an unmated queen is easy to miss) or she may be out on her mating flight.
When you see new eggs and larvae, you’ll know things have worked out. If things didn’t work out, you still have another month of the nectar flow to try again.
I had hoped to make a nuc from every hive this spring. Although I hadn’t lost anymore than the 3 hives I reported in February, some hives were not strong enough to take nucs from. One hive was full of bees and still had lots of honey but had absolutely no eggs, brood, or larvae--nor could I find a queen. I gave this hive a frame with unhatched eggs on it, hoping the bees make a new queen for themselves.
Stay tuned--I’ll let you know in four weeks how it went!
This illustrates a well-populated "donor" hive.