With the surge in interest in beekeeping during the last eight or ten years, there are a lot of terms that get bantied about on the net, often with the writers not really knowing what they are saying. Two such terms are “nucs” and “packages”. So I am going to take a little time to explain what these are.
PACKAGE BEES; Package bees or “packages” are the most common way for beginners and small scale beekeepers to establish a colony of honey bees. Basically the package part is a wooden box with two screen sides. Inside this package is a framework that supports a can of syrup that provides a temporary food source during transport. The producers, usually down south or out in California, add three lbs of bees (about 10,000) and a mated queen who is also in a small cage inside this package. They also provide a can of sugar syrup as a temporary feeder during shipment. This is all you need to start a colony of bees and over the decades, millions of these have been shipped North during the months of April, May and June. Up until about 35 years ago, the Post Office handled most of these, shipping them with few losses and beekeepers would eagerly wait for a call from the local post office saying that the bees were in and to come get them. This started to change about the time I started keeping bees in 1980. Suddenly the quality of the delivery started to slip and often the bees would be rough shape when they arrived and beekeepers started to complain. This opened up an opportunity for specialized shippers to travel down to, say, Georgia, pick up a load of packages and drive directly home and distribute them in less than 24 hours. This has now become the preferred way to ship package bees.
Once installed into a beehive, the package bees get right to work, building comb and raising the next generation of bees. During the larval and pupae stages, beekeepers call these developing bees “brood”. Getting a good start on brood rearing is very important as during the warm months, an individual bee has an adult lifespan of less than six weeks. In addition, with package bees, the population of adult bees begins to decrease as the older workers begin to age out. We have to assume that it will take a week for the queen to be released from her shipping cage and begin to lay eggs.Then the newly laid eggs will require three weeks to hatch, grow through the larval stage, pupate and then emerge three weeks later. This means that it will be a month before any new adults are added to the colony and there has been a steady attrition in the population of bees that you purchased. This is similar to what happens when a colony is established by a natural swarm so its not really anything to worry about but it comes as a surprise to many beginners. Within 6 weeks from installation, the population in a healthy colony started from a 3 lb package will rapidly begin to expand and be on its way to becoming a robust colony by mid to late summer.
Lets step back and talk about how Mother Nature makes more colonies. After a beekeeper develops proficiency in keeping his or her bees alive throughout the winter, they will soon begin to have surplus bees come springtime. As a matter of fact, one of the most respected beekeepers in the world, Randy Oliver, has said that you aren’t truly a beekeeper until this happens. Each spring, a normal healthy colony of bees will replace the old wintered bees and then rapidly expand their population in preparation for swarming. Swarming is a process of colony division where the worker bees will stimulate the queen to lay 1200 or more eggs a day until they have 50-60,000 workers, several hundred Drones, (male bees), and between 10 and 20 special larvae that will become new queens. Usually several days before these new queens hatch out, the old queen and about half of the workers and drones will leave the hive to start a new colony of bees. Quite often, the hive will issue more than one swarm resulting in a dramatic reduction in the number of remaining bees. In nature, these parent colonies will end up with a new queen and sufficient bees to survive and rebuild into a colony that is capable of surviving till the next season. These swarms only have about a 25 percent chance of surviving till their first birthday. Nobody ever said that Mother Nature was nice! Now if the beekeeper manages to catch these swarms and properly cares for them, they will have a much better chance of surviving and the beekeeper will have more bees. (Hopefully they will visit A&Z Apiaries to purchase more hives! ) The problem is that most often these swarms issue and depart without us even seeing them or they will alight 50 feet up in a tree and we cant collect them. Then they move into a cavity somewhere and become feral hives with a very uncertain future. Meanwhile, back at our parent hive, the population has been drastically reduced to the point where they will produce little or no surplus honey for the beekeeper.
So what can we do? One way that many beekeepers will attempt to circumvent the swarming process is by preemptively dividing the colony. The resulting divisions are called Nucleus colonies, or nucs for short. What happens is this; After the colony has recovered from winter and has begun to grow rapidly, the beekeeper will remove several combs of brood and the adhering bees. These combs are installed in a new hive box along with a comb of food reserves, several empty combs to allow for future expansion, and a new queen. This queen can be a mated queen that was usually raised down South or the beekeeper could insert a fully developed queen cell that is ready to emerge in a day or so. Once the queen has been released from her shipping cage or has hatched, matured and mated, she will begin to lay eggs and we now have a new colony of bees and hopefully our overwintered hive will have lost the urge to swarm and will settle down to storing a crop of honey for the beekeeper. Now the beekeeper also has one or more new colonies of bees that can be used to replace winter losses, expand the apiary, or can be sold to another beekeeper.
Other than the benefits previously discussed, there are a few more very important things to consider. In this day of Varroa mites and their associated viruses, there is a lot of interest in selecting bees that are adapted to the seasonal conditions that we experience here in the colder climates. I raise several hundred nucs each year, some to replace winter losses, some for increase in my apiaries and many for sale to other beekeepers. My breeding program is simple. Each spring I select the best 1% of my over wintered colonies. The queens from these hives are used to provide larvae that are used to raise the queens in my nucs. My selection process starts when I remove my crop in the fall by marking the best producers. Then I start eliminating hives from the pool based on mite loads, temperament, low late fall population, excessive food consumption, and presence of disease. When spring arrives, once again I evaluate them based upon food consumption, cluster size and brood pattern. I don’t baby my potential breeders, in fact I have moved some of my best colonies to my most exposed bee yards in Upstate New York just to see how they handle it. I don’t claim to have the perfect bee nor do I claim that they are immune to the mites, but I do try to the best I can.
Let’s discuss pros and cons of packages vs nucs. Packages are significantly less expensive than nucs. Packages generally arrive earlier than when our locally raised nucs are ready. Packages are far more plentiful than local nucs. When you first start a package, you assume the risk of the queen being successfully accepted by the bees, the queens in a nuc have already been accepted by the bees and we have evaluated her egg and larvae production. When you start a package, the population will start to decrease and won’t increase for 4-5 weeks, a nuc should have emerging brood from the beginning and will expand a lot faster than a package. The queen in a package was raised in the South or California or Hawaii, the queens in our nucs are raised here in CT from our best overwintered stock. A few more things to consider, especially for beginners. Each year I get nuc orders from beginners who then become anxious to get their bees early. They see the Spring going by and they want their bees. No matter what my customers want, I won’t deliver a nuc until I am certain that it is living up to my standards. Many times, the weather will also delay the production of nucs and there is nothing that I can do about it.
I hope that this essay provides some clarification of the terms that you will read about while researching honeybees. The Eastern CT Beekeepers Assn runs beekeeping classes during the winter months and if you are considering starting some Honeybee colonies, I urge you to take the class. there is more info on the club’s site www.myecba.org .