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

Choosing Between Package Bees and Nucs (Nucleus Colony)

For beekeepers looking to expand their hives, the decision often comes down to selecting between a package of bees and a nucleus colony, commonly known as a “nuc.” This choice is crucial in setting the foundation for a thriving colony.

Knowing the differences between these two matters, whether you're just starting out or you've been at it for a while. It's all about choosing what's best for your beekeeping journey and your hives' needs.

Package Bees and Nucs

Each option has its upsides and downsides. Let's dive into the details of both to figure out which one might be the perfect fit for you.

Package Bees

beekeeper inspecting honeybee hive

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 honey 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, they add a caged and mated queen. She must be caged to keep the honey 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 your hive can grow into a full-blown colony over the next two months.

Package Bee Boost: Almond pollination enriches the health and adaptability of bees in package operations, ensuring a strong start for new colonies.


beekeeper inspecting honeycomb frames

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 and 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’s well established, and within a few weeks of a population explosion where bee numbers increase dramatically. All you 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 complete your 8 or 10-frame setup. This should set your hive up for success.

What’s the Difference?

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

Fun Fact: A package of bees typically holds 10,000 to 15,000 worker bees. Meanwhile, a nucleus hive packs in up to 20,000 worker bees.

Choosing Your Bee Type: Pros and Cons

Choosing between packaged bees and a nucleus hive involves weighing their advantages and disadvantages. Here's a clearer breakdown to help you decide:

Package Bees Pros

  • Cost-effective: Packages are generally less expensive, typically costing half to two-thirds the price of a nuc, making them a good choice for budget-conscious beekeepers.
  • New equipment: You start with new frames, avoiding old comb, which can be a benefit in terms of hive health.
  • Early availability: Packages are usually available a month or more before nucs, allowing for an earlier start to the season.

Package Bees Cons

  • Comb building: Bees from a package need to draw out comb on new foundations, which is essential for storage, clustering in cold, and providing space for the queen to lay eggs.

This requires constant feeding, which can be time-consuming but is manageable with quality equipment like the Mann Lake Pro Feeder.

  • Queen concerns: The queen's successful introduction is crucial. If not released carefully, she might be harmed or escape.

There's also a risk of her being poorly mated, leading to inadequate brood production. New beekeepers might find this aspect challenging, impacting the package's success rate.

Nuc Pros

  • Ease of installation: Nucs are straightforward to install, ideal for newcomers or those seeking a less time-intensive start. Their pre-established colonies mean less initial work is required to get your hive thriving.
  • Rapid growth: Nucs stand out for their quick growth pace, swiftly moving from a nascent state to a fully productive hive. This accelerated development is an advantage for beekeepers aiming for early-season productivity.
  • Lower failure rate: The established nature of nucs means they come with built-in resilience, leading to a significantly lower failure rate compared to initiating colonies with packaged bees.

Nuc Cons

  • Higher cost: Nucs can cost up to twice as much as packaged bees. This increased expense is due to the advanced development and stability of the colony.
  • Later availability: Nucleus hives are typically not available until May. This delay means missing out on the early spring nectar flow.
  • Older comb: Nucs often include frames with an older comb. This can raise concerns about diseases or pests but also represents a normal aspect of beekeeping maintenance.

Financial Breakdown

Explore the financial implications of choosing between a nuc and a package of bees for your beekeeping venture. The following table provides a clear understanding of what to expect financially and operationally from each option.

Aspect Nuc Package Bees
Initial Cost Higher Lower
Colony Establishment Faster Slower
Long-term Investment Lower Higher
Equipment Needs Minimal (comes with comb) More (requires comb building)
Queen Success Rate Higher (already accepted) Lower (needs introduction)
Productivity Timeline Immediate Delayed

Frequently Asked Questions

The following are some of the most common questions about starting with nucs or package bees:

What are the benefits of starting with a nucleus hive for a new beekeeper?

A nucleus hive offers a small colony that's easier to manage, making it an ideal choice for a new beekeeper. Most nucs come with an established queen, baby bees, and adult bees already forming a cohesive brood nest, which accelerates the growth of new colonies.

How does a newly mated queen in a package compare to an established queen in a nuc?

A newly mated queen in a package needs time to establish herself and start laying eggs, which can delay the development of the colony. In contrast, an established queen in a nucleus hive has already started laying, ensuring a quicker transition to a full nuc and faster colony growth.

Can worker bees from a package adapt to a top bar hive as well as they do in traditional hives?

Yes, worker bees can adapt to a top bar hive, but it might require more attention from the beekeeper to ensure they build the comb correctly. Experienced beekeepers may find this transition easier to manage than new beekeepers.

What should I consider when introducing adult bees into a new colony?

Ensure they accept the queen cage properly to avoid rejection of the queen. Monitoring the integration process is crucial for the success of the colony.

How do I know if my local nuc is a good option for starting a new beekeeping venture?

Choosing a local nuc is beneficial as it likely contains bees adapted to your area. Look for healthy brood patterns, a visibly established queen, and a strong population of worker bees and baby bees. Consulting with experienced beekeepers can also provide valuable insights.

What are the key considerations for managing a small colony in a nucleus hive?

Ensure the brood nest is well-maintained, providing adequate food sources, and protecting the colony from pests and diseases. Regular inspections will help you assess the health of the newly mated queen and the overall colony growth.

Are deep frames necessary for new colonies in most nucs?

Most nucs come equipped with deep frames that contain the brood nest and stored food. These frames are crucial for supporting the growth of baby bees into adult bees within a new colony.

beekeeper inspecting honeycomb frames

Packaged 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 honey bees what they need—sugar syrup and a pollen substitute in some cases.

Others often say that you won’t get a honey crop your first year, and nothing could be further from the truth! We’ve kept bees for over 20 years and have installed hundreds of packages and nucs. They all made honey in their first year!

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

Dive into these additional resources for deeper understanding and practical advice in beekeeping.

Installing a Bee Package: With Wood Bus

Installing a Bee Package: With Plastic Bee Bus

Beekeeping Essentials: Queen Cages