Choosing Between Package Bees and Nucs (Nucleus Colony) thumbnail image

Choosing Between Package Bees and Nucs (Nucleus Colony)

When ordering bees to add to a hive, beekeepers generally have two choices; a package of bees or a nucleus colonly, usually referred to as a “nuc”. As a new beekeeper, you may find yourself asking, “What is the difference between package bees and nucs, and which one is right for me?”

Details about Package Bees and Nucs

Both options have pros and cons, so in this article we will delve into detail on each to help you decide which might be best for you.

Package Bees: Commercial beekeepers make packages of bees in the spring for sale to supplement their income. Typically, when they move their bees off almond pollination in March the hives are ‘boiling over’ with a huge population of bees. While these hives were pollinating almonds, the beekeepers were busy grafting and mating queens back home at their queen rearing apiaries. These activities are timed so that as the hives come back from pollination the queens have been grafted, raised, and mated. The beekeepers then go from hive-to-hive shaking bees from the frames into the package boxes. Once there are three pounds of bees in the package, they add a caged & mated queen. She must be caged to keep the bees in the package from killing her as she isn’t recognized as their queen (not yet, anyway). When you purchase a package of bees, Mann Lake installs it into a single hive, hangs the caged queen between frames, and feeds the bees sugar syrup. Over a period of five days, the bees will accept the new queen and then she can be released. At this point, she will then start laying eggs, and our hive can grow into a full-blown colony over the next two months.

What’s the Difference Between Package bees and Nucs?

“The simplest answer is that a package is just a box that contains several pounds of bees (usually three pounds) and a caged & mated queen. A nuc (or nucleus) is a mini colony – frames of drawn comb (usually five) with a laying queen, all three stages of brood (eggs, larvae, and capped pupae), stored nectar, and pollen.”

Nucs: Nucleus colonies are also created by beekeepers. The process is similar to package creation, except that the beekeeper will pull frames of eggs, larvae, and capped pupae from a donor colony and will add a ‘ripe’ (capped & near the time of hatching) queen cell. When that cell hatches the queen will emerge and go out on her mating flights. She will then return to the hive and start laying eggs. For a beekeeper, this is an almost foolproof way to create a new hive. By the time you receive your nuc, it is well established and is within a few weeks of a population explosion where bee numbers increase dramatically. All you’ll need to do to install a nuc into a full-sized hive is move the nuc frames into the center of the box and add the appropriate number of additional frames to the outside to fill your 10 or 8 frame box and your hive should succeed.

So - which do you want? As stated above, both have pros and cons.

For packages the first pro is price. Typically, a package is half to two-thirds the price of a nuc, something to consider if you are more budget conscious. Another pro of packaged bees is that you are putting the bees on new frames and aren’t inheriting old comb, as you are with a nuc. A final pro is that packages are typically available a month or more before nucs are.

There are also several drawbacks to a package as well. Many times, you are installing a package on new foundation rather than drawn comb. The bees then need to quickly draw out comb to have a place to store syrup, have a place to cluster in cold weather, and provide the queen with space to lay eggs. This requires them to have syrup available to them 24/7. It’s important that you feed, feed, feed! This can be time consuming, but can be made easier with a quality feeder, like a Mann Lake Pro Feeder. A second drawback of package bees could be the queen. If you are not careful when releasing her from the cage she could be injured or even fly away. She could be poorly mated and will quickly fail to produce sufficient brood. Often times, new beekeepers miss steps or fail to do everything required for their package to thrive. While not a guarantee, your familiarity and experience in handling package bees and a queen may be a consideration in picking between package bees and a nuc.

The pros and cons of a nuc are fewer. The pros of a nuc are that they are extremely easy to install and get the new hive going, making them easier for those getting into beekeeping or those looking to avoid the time and knowledge commitment required with starting package bees. Nucs also grow quickly and the failure rate is generally very low. The two main cons to nucs are cost and availability. The cost can be double that of a package. Additionally, nucs may not be available until later in the spring, usually May, when the nectar flow is already well underway in many areas. Another con is the frames the nuc comes with in many cases may consist of older comb that the beekeeper is rotating out of their operation.

Package Bees vs. Nucs Summary

No matter which you choose, the more education you have the better chance of success you’ll experience. There is no reason you can’t produce honey from either, if you give the bees what they need – sugar syrup and in some cases a pollen substitute to help supplement the hive’s health and nutrition. I often hear people say that you don’t get a honey crop your first year, and nothing could be further from the truth! I have kept bees for over 20 years and have installed hundreds of packages and nucs. They all made honey their first year (except my first year – I didn’t have enough knowledge then). Continue gathering information and learning and you’ll be on your way to successful beekeeping. Good luck and most of all – HAVE FUN!

Check out these related resources

Installing a Bee Package: With Wood Bus

Installing a Bee Package: With Plastic Bee Bus

Beekeeping Essentials: Queen Cages