Packages vs. Nucleus Hives, what’s the best option for me?

Every year new and experienced beekeepers are presented with several options for obtaining bees for that season. The reasons for needing bees will vary but include replacing lost colonies, growing your apiary to getting honeybees for the very first time. Regardless of the reason, the options aren’t always obvious and can be a little difficult to navigate, especially for new beekeepers.

For the sake of keeping things simple, we will focus on honeybee packages vs. nucleus hives for this post. We will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of both and while the list is far from exhaustive, it should help to give you a better understanding of your options.

Honeybee Packages

Honeybee packages are possibly the most popular way to get honeybees to beekeepers. This is because of the ease of creating a package, safely adding a queen and feed for transport to customers with very little chance for failure. Packages are created from honeybee colonies that are typically used to pollinate various crops around the US by commercial beekeepers. The packages come in a range of sizes, almost always by weight of the honeybees inside. Typical package sizes start at five pounds and go down to two pounds, all come with a mated queen inside of a small cage with a cork preventing the bees from releasing her (and possibly killing her) too early. The package is basically a screened-in box, with a round hole in the top for a can of sugar syrup with a small slot for the queen cage. When you buy a four-pound package of honeybees, you are getting approximately twelve thousand worker bees and one queen. There are no drones (or very few if any) and no brood. In this way, a package simulates what it would be like to catch a swarm of honeybees, it also makes it much easier to add the bees to the hive in just about any weather conditions. We will explore the advantages and disadvantages of packages later.

Nucleus (Nuc) Hives

A nucleus hive, also known as a “nuc”,{pronounced \u:\nook:} is basically a miniature Langstroth hive in a small box (cardboard or wooden) built for the desired number of frames. Like packages, a large majority of nucs start out as pollination colonies for crops throughout the US. The most common nuc configuration available is a single five frame “deep” box containing at least three frames of worker bees, brood (in all stages), and a laying queen. The nuc will also have a couple of frames with honey, pollen, and bee bread. The amount of emerged adult worker bees will vary but they can range from ten thousand workers to sixteen thousand workers. There are other configurations available from suppliers, they include “Western” and “Medium” sized boxes to accommodate different beekeepers needs. This would seem like the ideal way to get started with beekeeping or to grow an apiary but there are both advantages and disadvantages to nucs as well.

Advantages/Disadvantages of Packages

Price – Advantage

Honeybee packages are almost always a cheaper option than a nuc, this comes down to hardware and requirements to build, transport and reuse equipment.

Availability – Advantage 

Packages, especially in Western Washington, are almost always available nearly a month earlier than nuc hives, this is because it is easier to create packages from colonies once the honeybees have completed almond pollination in California. Nucs typically take a little longer to build up and establish enough resources to be viable for sale. The Snohomish Bee Co will almost always have packages available for pickup the second and fourth week in April with nuc hives available typically in May.

Ease of Installation – Advantage

Installing a honeybee package is arguably just as easy to install as a nuc hive and has fewer installation restrictions. Ideally, you would install a package of honeybees in the middle of a nice warm day in April, sadly, for us here in Western Washington, this isn’t always an option. More often than not, our April weather is less than ideal for installing honeybees and if I were to install a nuc hive into my Langstroth hive, I would run the risk of exposing the brood to temperatures that would kill the brood. With a package, however, you have no brood to kill, the worker bees are hardy and are able to deal with the colder temps with minimal risk to their survival.

Growth Speed – Disadvantage

Packages can take longer to grow and establish themselves, especially in a brand new hive where the bees have yet to “draw out” the wax comb for brood, pollen, and nectar (honey) storage. Weather, feed, and equipment will all have an effect on the speed in which a package grows. Packages can be slower to grow if the beekeeper does not provide an adequate amount of high-quality feed, brand new packages can consume up to forty pounds of sugar syrup before for the first nectar flow begins. If the beekeeper does not keep a steady availability of sugar syrup for the honeybees, the young workers will not have the necessary nutrients needed to produce the resources required for the hive to flourish.

Queen Introduction – Potential Disadvantage

When you buy a honeybee package, the queen that is inside of the queen cage has been placed inside by the package provider. This queen has been bred and mated for placement in a package, the workers that are placed inside of the package with the queen have no loyalty to this new queen and will quickly kill her if they are able to gain access to her. Loyalty takes time to establish with the workers as the queens mandibular pheromone works its way through the workers. Ultimately this means that introducing the new queen to her colony after a significant amount of time has passed, usually, three to five days, will reduce the potential for the workers to kill the queen. If the queen is released to the workers too quickly, they will most likely kill her, leaving the colony queen-less and without any eggs to create a new queen.

Advantages/Disadvantages of Nuc Hives

1. Ease of Installation – Advantage

Installing a nuc hive is extremely easy and quick, you simply remove the frames from the nuc box, one by one, and place them in the new hive, where you have removed the correct number of frames from the middle of the new hive, in the exact same order. The only disadvantage that you might encounter is if the weather is too cold to install the nuc, you will need to wait until a warm day to transfer the frames to the new hive to prevent killing brood. Thankfully, most nucs can survive in their nuc box for a maximum of a couple of weeks before they will outgrow their space. You will need to feed your nuc the same way that you would a package to ensure that the worker bees have the necessary nutrients to enable growth.

2. Equipment – Advantage

When you purchase a nuc hive, cardboard or wooden, you have also purchased a piece of equipment that will have multiple purposes for a beekeeper. It will also give you up to five frames of drawn comb, for a new beekeeper, the drawn wax foundation is a big boost for the season. A package will take some time to build up five frames of wax foundation, so a nuc hive can easily assist in accelerating the season and potential for the honey crop. The nuc boxes can be used a swarm trap, if they are weather resistant they can be used to over-winter your smaller colonies, they can be used to create “mating nucs” if you decide to produce your own queens. There is versatility in nuc boxes that does not exist in packages, most nuc boxes will come with a deposit cost, which can range based on the box material.

3. Growth Speed – Advantage

A nuc hive is going to contain more adult worker bees as well as a large portion of brood that has yet to emerge, this puts nuc hives at an advantage to packages, especially for brand new hives. With more adult workers and new brood emerging every day, a nuc hive will build up much quicker where a package will take time for the queen to start laying and establishing her workforce. A worker bee takes approximately 21 days to grow from egg to adult worker, in a nuc, there are already eggs, larvae, pupa and adult bees emerging the moment that you place the frames in your new colony.

4. Price – Disadvantage

With the cost of bees increasing year after year, nuc hives are becoming more and more expensive. Commercial beekeepers will do what they can to keep prices as low as possible, but that also means costs are being cut elsewhere. Nuc hives from reputable sources are typically going to be more expensive than packages due to the amount of equipment that a commercial beekeeper needs to build nucs. It is much cheaper to shake three pounds of bees into a screened package and provide a can of sugar syrup than even a cardboard box with five frames of drawn comb. For some beekeepers, the price of a nuc can be cost prohibitive making packages the only option available. If you encounter prices for nucs that seem questionably low, you should ask the provider about their materials and stock of honeybees. The nuc provider may have return requirements on the frames or the nuc box itself meaning that you might need to return the box and five new frames.

5. Availability – Potential Disadvantage

For us beekeepers out in here Western Washington, nucs do not typically become available until later in the spring, sometime around late April or May and sometimes not until June. This is a very late start for those looking to secure a strong honey crop from one of the many nectar flows that we experience in our area. There are a handful of providers who will have had a strong season in California and are able to get nucs built a little earlier but this is highly weather dependent. You also run the risk of having to deal with delays on nuc delivery if the weather doesn’t cooperate for queen mating.

* Something else that should be considered when looking at a nuc as an option. You are locked into the Langstroth system with a nuc, so if you are trying to populate a “Kenyan top bar hive” or a “Warre hive”, you should consider getting a package instead as the frames from the nuc will not work in those other hive types.

Conclusion

Making the choice regarding which option should you choose comes down to budget, scheduling and desired speed to grow. In this post, we’ve discussed just a few points that we felt were worthy enough to help make an informed decision on which is right for you. Beekeeping comes with a lot of opinions, ask three beekeepers the same question and you might get five different answers. We strive to keep the hobby simple, fun and always intellectually stimulating, we also work hard to help provide answers that help you to achieve your desired outcome, no matter what that may be.

If you have questions, you can always reach out to us, we will always do our best to provide you with honest and informed advice aimed at making you a better beekeeper.