Beginning Beekeeping - Starting with a Nuc

A “Nuc” (short for Nucleus Colony) is a fully functional miniature size bee colony.  Nucs are used for many purposes in beekeeping.  They are growing in popularity for use as a small starter colony for the beginning beekeeper.  Nucs may range from 3 frames to 10 frames in size but are most commonly 5 frames when purposed as a starter colony. 

Nucs have several advantages as a starter colony for new beekeepers.  First and foremost, the Nuc comes as a fully functioning colony with (typically) 5 frames of drawn comb, a laying queen, 2 or 3 frames of brood in various stages of development, stored honey, stored pollen and a small quantity of bees at an appropriate age to support rapid colony growth.  By comparison, a package of bees comes with no drawn comb.  Beginners often start a package on foundation so the queen will have to wait until the bees draw out foundation before she can begin to lay eggs.  It then takes another 3 weeks from the time she lays the eggs for the first juvenile bees to emerge.  Meanwhile the package was shipped with bees across a wide range of ages.  The older bees will expire before the new wave of juvenile bees will emerge (perhaps 4 to 6 weeks after package installation).  The population of bees will dwindle and it may take up to an additional brood cycle (3 weeks) for the colony the repopulate loss from this dwindling stage.  Aging bees that should be out foraging will be pressed to continue feeding and caring for brood and drawing wax foundation.  While the bees can force their bodies to continue to make brood food and secrete wax, they are much less efficient at it than juvenile bees.  Nucs should not experience this population dwindling as the sealed brood emerges to feed the younger brood, nurse bees transition to wax secretion and other adult house bee duties and house bees transition naturally to foraging.  For the true beginner, the starter Nuc likely has a 6 to 8 week total advantage over a package started on foundation.  
Beginning Beekeepers in most parts of the US are in a race with the calendar with the top priority in year 1 of getting the colony prepared for and through their first winter.  If installed at the same time, the Nuc should have time to develop a much larger cluster, store more honey and pollen, and be better prepared for overwintering.  Many beekeepers believe it is still an advantage even if you need to wait 6 to 8 weeks on Nuc availability vs. taking a package earlier in the spring.  If the queens are first year queens, the conditions for successful and ample queen mating are much better in the late spring than in the early spring.  A well mated queen will lay more eggs, create more bees, which will bring in more honey and pollen for winter than a poorly mated queen.  In Northern states, many beekeepers offer Nucs with overwintered queens that were raised and bred the prior May, June or July when queen rearing and mating conditions were optimal.  Most believe that the queen is in her peak performance during her second season (first spring) providing even greater advantage.  While Nucs may cost a bit more for the beginner and be harder to locate, there are significant advantages to staring with Nucs.
When your Nuc arrives it will likely come in a 5 frame deep “Nuc” super (body / box).  The first thing you should do is provide food.  From a super-organism perspective, this colony is like a child.  Because they are a fully functioning they can feed themselves a bit, but will benefit and grow stronger, faster with help from a the beekeeper.  A 1:1 ratio of sugar syrup should be fed, preferably in an in-hive feeder like an inverted quart mason jar (over the inner cover hole) with small nail holes in the lid.  The syrup can be made simply from filling the mason jar half full of granulated sugar, filling the remainder with water, and shaking until mixed.  The colony can also benefit from protein provided in the form of a protein / pollen patty placed on the top bars.  The nurse bees can easily access this protein to feed brood if foraging conditions limit the amount of pollen coming into the hive.  
After your bees have settled in for about two weeks you will want to inspect them to make sure that there are eggs and larva in the colony.  Worker bees spend the first 3 days of life as an egg then they hatch and spend another 6 days as growing larva, before spinning a cocoon and pupating in the cell.  The cells of pupa are capped over by the adult sister bees.  The pupa will emerge as young juvenile ‘adult’ bees after another 12 days.  Eggs may be hard for the beginner to see or identify, but most can identify medium to large larva in the cells.  You don’t need to see the queen to ensure she is OK, look for the eggs or larva to let you know she is in there and doing her job (laying eggs) well.  
As your Nuc grows, you will eventually need to provide them with more space or they will swarm.  Once you have 3 frames of bees (adult bees sitting on the frames) and 3 frames of brood, add a second 5 frame Nuc super with 5 frames of foundation on top of the original super of bees.  You can also transfer the bees into a standard 8 or 10 frame box, however our experience is that the bees will expand faster and draw out the foundation quicker if they are in a two story 5 frame hive than in a single story 10 frame hive.  The young bees and soon to emerge bees (when old enough) will begin drawing out the foundation on those frames.  Continue feeding sugar syrup and protein / pollen patties during this stage.  Ready access to the syrup will continue to stimulate the young wax makers to secrete wax and draw foundation even when weather and foraging condition limit the inflow of nectar into the colony.  You are also likely to have many more young bees than older field foraging bees at this stage so it helps stimulate wax secretion even when the field bees can fly.  You should keep the bees fed as needed and inspect the colony for progress on drawing out foundation, egg / larva production and population every 10 to 14 days.
Once your colony has 10 frames of drawn comb, you can choose to transfer it to a standard 10 frame equipment.  Some beekeepers opt to keep the colony in the 5 frame equipment and add a 3rd 5 frame Nuc super to the hive.  Anecdotally, bees seem to draw out foundation faster in narrow 5 frame equipment than in wider 8 or 10 frame setups.  Then they transfer these 15 frames of foundation to a double story 8 or 10 frame colony by adding frames of foundation to fill out the space.  
Congratulations, your Nuc has now become a full size colony!  After this point your focus should be on managing your bees to get prepared for the winter.  

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