Honey Bee Nucs vs Packages

     Whether to buy a bee nuc or package depends like a lot of things on your location and 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, 2 frames of honey and/or pollen and possibly a fifth frame of drawn comb.  Local nucs for us are usually available starting in mid May.  The reason for this is the queen requires temperatures 15-20 C. (60-70 F.) to mate and the formation of drone congregation zones.  In some locations there is a supply of overwintered nucs which are made in August.  The benefits of using a nucleus over a package are that you have a fully functioning colony with a laying queen and brood pattern you can see.  You also have bees in all stages of development from egg to forager.  
Good brood pattern

     Unless it is an overwintered nuc produced in the late summer the queen should be a new queen (born this spring). The queen is established (brood pattern visible) and 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.  Because there are foragers and at least 2 frames of honey and pollen the nucleus will not require as much feeding.  Also, with local nucs there is no climatic and forage stress. A negative aspect of nucs is they are available for us l.5-2 months later than packages and may come on old, dark colored frames and nuc boxes that may contain diseases.   

Honey frame


     A typical package consists of 2-3 pounds of bees, a can of syrup and a queen. A 3 lb package is optimum for most as a 2 lb will be underpopulated and a 4 lb may experience some die off with less accessibility to the syrup can. Normally the package bees are from production hives where they shake out bees into the package box til the required weight is reached. A mated queen is then placed in the package, protected in a queen cage.  There is usually a container of syrup in the package to feed the bees for the few days of travel before they are transferred to a hive. The bees generally fair well for up to a week in a package. 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. 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. With a package close attention needs to spent on the survival and performance of the new queen.

A lot of energy and feeding is required to draw out the comb

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 a few months before local nucs which allows beekeepers to take advantage of spring fruit blossoms and to lengthen the beekeeping season. 
      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.  Unlike the nuc you don't have bees in all stages of development and if queen acceptance and performance goes well it will take 3 weeks for new brood to be born and several weeks for the population to reach that of a 5 frame nuc.  Despite the added challenges most beekeepers have some success with packages. 

     In most areas the packages come from a warmer climate so winter survival may be 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).  This single study is certainly not conclusive evidence but suggests a problem with imported warm weather packages and a need for more projects like this.  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. 

      In our situation bee packages come from a similar climate but the opposite hemisphere so they leave the southern hemisphere in late summer and arrive in Canada a few days later in early Spring where it can be freezing temperatures and snowing (I have experienced this).  This obviously can be hard on the bees.  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 the "Swarms" section in our Beekeepers' Library).

     The Prince William Regional Beekeepers Association in Virginia carried out a study which compared hives started from packages to those started from nucs which found a higher survival rate in nuc started hives, particularly evident in the second year (Promoting Sustainable Beekeeping Practices Through Local Production of Nucs and Local Honeybee Queens).  One aspect of their study was the importation of Africanized bee genetics and small hive beetles.  Importation of diseases and pests is perhaps the biggest challenge for beekeepers presently.  
     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 imported queens (23%) and local queens (87%).  While this is an extreme example I thinks it supports the theory of the benefits of local nucs over imported southern 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.   In l985 he 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 25-30% winter colony losses our dependence on imported packages will continue. The solution may be in the lowering of the winter loss rate through the development of a strong local, survivor stock with hygienic behavior and supporting the development of a large scale, local bee colony production industry.  Government initiative, leadership and support may be essential for this to be realized.


     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.

       Here are some questions you may want to ask your nuc supplier and some questions for queen purchasers as suggested by the BC Honey Producers Association.    For more information on nucs and packages check out "Splits, Nucs and Packages" in the Basic Beekeeping section of the Beekeepers' Library.  Also 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 and Dancing Bee Apiary will be selling packages in April (Vancouver Bees for Sale).  Good luck.