Nucs vs. Packages – Rates of Success

Summary

Nucs are almost always better than packages for beginning beekeepers. Nucs are better because they have a substantially higher winter survival rate than packages (70-80% survival rate for nucs vs. 20-35% survival rate for packages). This is especially important for new beekeepers, who may be discouraged if their first hives die within a year and do not have others to fall back on. The few advantages going for packages are that they have a lower price and there is a larger supply. In the case of top bar beekeepers, top bar nucs are especially difficult to find. Top bar beekeepers can always buy Langstroth nucs, but that would require removal of the side and bottom bars and cutting comb to fit the dimensions of the top bar hive. I have done this many times before, but it does take extra time and can get messy.

First off, here’s a quick overview of a nuc and a package:

Winter-surviving, chemical free top bar hive bee nucs for sale in Virginia
A nuc will have 5 frames or top bars full of bees, brood (open and capped), honey, and pollen.

Nuc – It is a “mini-colony” with drawn-out comb containing a young mated queen that is usually less than one year old, brood (open and capped), pollen, and honey. Usually the nuc consists of 5 Langstroth frames or 5 top bars. The nuc can have a queen that was raised by the bees themselves or it could have had a foreign mated queen introduced and accepted by the bees. The best option is a nuc that was overwintered together (e.g. the queen survived the winter together with the colony). This overwintered nuc increases the chances that they can survive another winter together.

Packaged bees on truck ready for delivery
Packaged bees on a truck ready for delivery

Package – It is a box that usually has 3 pounds of bees in it. 3 pounds of bees equals roughly 9,000-12,000 bees. The package also comes with a mated queen that is in a separate cage. To make a package, producers go around shaking bees from their colonies into the box until it reaches their weight requirement. Sometimes bees from multiple hives will be in one package. The producer then puts a mated queen into the queen cage and sticks her into the box. The queen cage keeps the bees from killing the queen because she is a stranger to them. During shipping (1-3 days), the bees will come to accept the queen. Once the package arrives to the beekeeper, the beekeeper will put a plug of sugar candy over the exit hole of the queen cage so that over 1-2 days, the bees can chew through it and release the queen.  To be safe, sometimes beekeepers will keep the queen in her cage for a few more days before they will put in the sugar candy plug to make sure she is accepted.

Winter Survival

  • A study done by the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) looked at 50 packages bought from a “reputable” supplier from Georgia in May (the majority of packages are made in Southern States). In the study, 25 packages were left with the queen that came with the package and 25 packages were re-queened after 5 weeks with more local Northern queens (the study was done in Maine). The study found that of the 20 packages that were NOT requeened 65% had died by next spring. 5 out of the 25 swarmed and were not counted in the final percentage. Of the 23 packages that were requeened, only 13% had died by spring. 2 out of the 25 of the requeened group swarmed and were not counted in the final percentage.
  • The Beekeepers Association of Northern Virginia did a survey of its members in 2011 and here were the survival rates for each group of colonies:
    • Locally produced nucs with local or hygienic queens – 87%
    • Locally produced queens with hygienic queens – 70%
    • Bee raised queens (emergency, supercedure, and swarm) – 60%
    • Queens from Southern package producer (35%)
    • Locall produced nucs with Southern package producer queens (25%)
    • Packages from Southern package producer (23%)

From the study and survey, it’s easy to see that colonies started from nucs have a better chance of surviving the winter than a package. The best option is to get a local nuc. The second best option is to get a package and then requeen with a local or hygienic queen. Although, this second option does increase your cost as mated queens go for $20-$40 and there is a chance that your newly bought queen will be rejected and killed by the colony. The third best option is to get a package and hope for the best.

Costs

  • Nucs will cost anywhere between $160-$205. Generally, a local nuc that came from a colony that has survived several winters and that has a queen they themselves raised will cost around $180. Then there are nucs that have a foreign mated queen introduced and accepted by the bees. This price can vary depending on if the queen was local, hygienic, or random. At the higher end, nucs with a queen that were overwintered together can cost over $200. In the end, you really have to ask your nuc producer what kind of queen you are getting.
  • Packages will cost anywhere between $75-$135 and can come from many suppliers across the country.
  • Requeening a package with a mated queen will cost $20-$40. Generally, hygienic queens will be around $30. Hygienic queens that are artificially inseminated with the best genetics can sometimes cost over $100.

Availability

The majority of beekeepers get their bees from packages. This is because packages are easier and faster to make, which means there is a larger supply. Shake in 3 pounds of bees and put in a mated queen and you have a package. Nuc producers have to provide the 5 frames or top bars with comb full of brood, honey, and pollen. They also have to do regular inspections over a few weeks to see if the queen is laying and appears healthy before they can sell the nuc.

Honey production and build up

Generally, beekeepers do not harvest any honey from a first year hive so honey production should not be a concern. If any colony does not look like they have enough honey stores, you will most likely have to feed the hive with sugar syrup through the summer and fall.

For top bar beekeepers, giving the bees enough time and food to build out comb is of primary importance. Top bar beekeepers do not have the luxury of wax foundation like what you get in Langstroth frames. Top bar bees have to spend more time and energy to build out enough wax comb to have enough space for brood, pollen, and honey to survive the winter.

Usually, you can get a package of bees 2-4 weeks earlier than a nuc so the bees can get a head start on foraging for food if your nectar flow has already started. If the timing is right, your package bees can draw out 5-10 frames of comb pretty quickly in 4-6 weeks. However, you will most likely have to do some light feeding even during the nectar flow to help them out. On the other hand, nucs will be available later in the Spring because it takes producers more time to ensure that the queen in the nuc is properly mated and laying. Cold spring weather can delay queens from going out and mating. However, once received, you will have a colony that already has 5 top bars of comb and brood ready to emerge. In conclusion, the building out of comb will roughly be equal in a nuc and package and in both cases you will have to do supplemental feeding through the summer and into fall to make sure that they have between 13-20 top bars of comb going into the winter.

Conclusion

Spend the extra money and buy a local nuc from a reputable producer. It ensures you a better chance of winter survival and keeps you area’s gene pool strong. Additionally, you will be supporting your local economy and you may be able to get good beekeeping tips from your local nuc producer and eventually producer your own nucs. In terms of packaged bees, in my experience they will look strong and healthy through much of the nectar flow, but during the tail end of summer and into fall, the bee population starts to dwindle or they will even swarm, which is very bad timing since there is less time to fix the problem before winter. Plus, if you have other colonies in your apiary, the drones from the weaker, suspect package bees could possibly mate with your virgin queens producing inferior workers and drones. Requeening a package is definitely an option, but make no illusions about it, requeening is not fool-proof. Sometimes the colony will reject and kill the mated queen you are trying to introduce. In the end, you may end up spending more money and time dealing with a package than with a local nuc.

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