Friday, February 7, 2020

Honey Bee Nucs vs Packages




     There are few hard, set in concrete rules in beekeeping despite what some will tell you. Whether to buy a bee nuc or package depends like a lot of things on your location and your needs.
     A nuc (nucleus of a colony) consists of 4-5 frames of bees in a half sized Langstroth deep box which should include a laying queen, 2 frames of brood and 2 frames of honey and/or pollen. A typical package consists of 3 pounds of bees, and a queen. Normally the package bees are from production hives where they shake out bees into the package box. A mated queen is then placed in the package, protected in a queen cage.  These are usually production queens that are caged as soon as eggs are verified so performance evaluation is impossible.  There is usually a container of syrup in the package to feed the bees for the days before they are transferred to a hive. A package is usually put together a few days before sold and in the case of cold weather beekeepers in spring comes from a warmer location to the south. In our case because of government restrictions (No U.S. Bees to Canada) this means thousands of miles south from New Zealand, Australia or Chile. The video below shows the process of creating a package of bees.



      The main advantage of the package is that in cold weather areas they are available (March) a few months before local nucs (May) which allows beekeepers to take advantage of spring fruit blossoms.  Fortunately for us "overwintered nucs" are often available.  However, in British Columbia the supply does not meet the demand as over 3,000 packages of bees will be imported this March from New Zealand to help pollinate the Fraser Valley blueberries.  In l985 biologist and author Mark Winston wrote "it is estimated that, at present colony densities, BC has the potential to produce 75,520 spring packages each year, and increased colony density and a higher level of commercial beekeeping could elevate this figure. Continued and increased package and nucleus production, coupled with increased wintering and queen production, could result in a high degree of Canadian self-sufficiency within the next few years (l989 Study on package and nuc production in B.C.)."  That self-sufficiency was never realized.  Large scale package and nuc production was never developed and with current 30% winter colony losses our dependence on imported packages will continue.
      Packages are a necessity in some areas because of the lack of nucs available.  They are usually cheaper, have less pests and diseases (no comb) and can be installed into any type of hive.  In most areas the packages come from a warmer climate so winter survival is less likely as proven in a good, small scale study carried out in New England by master beekeeper Erin MacGregor-Forbes (Comparison of colony strength and survivability between nucs and packages) and a study by the Prince William Regional Beekeepers Association (Promoting Sustainable Beekeeping Practices).    Erin found a significant difference in winter survival between the southern package and nucleus (the nucs had twice the survival rate) but also found that a southern package with a replaced local queen performed as well as the nucleus.



      Erin also found in her study that the packages outperformed the nucs in terms of honey production which she attributed to a high rate of swarming by the nucleus colonies. I don't know if she took measures to prevent swarming but this has not been my experience .  I've not had exceptional problems with nucs swarming but have used swarm prevention methods like checkerboarding and splits (Check out "Swarms" section of our library).



     A Pan European Genotype Environment Interactions experiment found a higher survival rate of local bees over imported bees (Coloss Report  and Journal of Apicultural Research).
     In our situation bee packages come from a similar climate but the opposite hemisphere so they leave New Zealand in late summer and arrive in Canada a few days later in early spring where it can be freezing and snowing (I have experienced this).  This obviously can be hard on the bees.  In the package the queen is released within 2-5 days and eggs take 21 days to hatch so with die off the population of the package after one month will be 60-80 % of the original.  The nuc population will expand from day 1 and obviously the queen's performance can be observed.



       The benefits of using a nucleus over a package are that the queen is established, she is laying, you can see the brood pattern and there are usually at least 2 frames of brood.

Good brood pattern
     The worker bees in a nucleus colony know their roles so there are nurse bees and foragers and the foundation is set (drawn comb) which will put them at least a few weeks ahead of an imported package. 

Bees with a sense of humour drawing out a frame
     Many backyard beekeepers will not have drawn frames to install their packages on to so a lot of energy and feeding will be required to produce the wax to draw out the frames.  Because there are foragers and at least one frame of honey and pollen the nucleus may not require feeding (depending on spring weather conditions).

Frame of honey


     A survey by the Beekeepers Assocition of North Virginia to determine if the source of queens effected colony winter survival found significant differences between southern packages (23%) and local nucs (87%).  While this is an extreme example I thinks it supports the theory of the benefits of local nucs over imported southern packages.     
     While the package may be a necessity for the commercial beekeeper, in my humble opinion if available the nuc from local, survivor stock is a better option even two months after the package particularly for the new beekeeper.  With the nuc, because you have an established colony (Queen) with drawn comb and stores there is less likelihood of problems like absconding or queen failure that can occur with packages.  Biologist and author Mark Winston (Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive) suggests we need to wean ourselves off of this dependence on imported bees.  The solution lies in the lowering of the winter loss rate possibly through the development of a strong local, survivor stock with hygienic behavior.  The increasing popularity of overwintering nucs may also be helpful.

  

     In the video below Michael Palmer describes some of the difficulties associated with starting a bee hive from scratch using package bees including the lack of nurse bees for the new brood.



     For more information on nucs and packages check out "Splits, Nucs and Packages" in the Basic Beekeeping section of the Beekeepers' Library.  Be sure to check out the articles on overwintering nucs by Kirk Webster, Mel Disselkoen and others in the "Winter Management" section of our library.  In Vancouver Urban Bee, B.C. Beekeeping, West Coast Bee Supplies and Dancing Bee Apiary will be selling packages in March - April and B.C. Beekeeping will be selling local, overwintered nucs in May (Vancouver Bees for Sale).  Just a note of caution.  It's best to know the bee breeder you are buying your nucs from.  Some commercial beekeepers will sell nucs after pollination which may be weakened from agrichemical exposure.
     Spring is just around the corner which means for some of us time to buy some bees.

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