Nucs vs. Packages: Choosing the best way to kickstart your colony this spring
Spring isn’t far away, and whether you’re a novice or veteran in the beekeeping trade, you might be thinking about starting up a(nother) colony of your own. There are a lot of things to consider – from where you’re going to situate the hive, to what protective gear you’re going to need. The host of decisions can be daunting, but once you’ve got a colony up and buzzing (and several pots of scrumptious honey on the shelves), you’ll find there’s nothing more rewarding than this age-old hobby.
How you begin to build your colony is one of the more significant decisions you’re going to make. After all, even if you get everything else just right, the success of your harvest will inevitably hinge upon the animals themselves. Beekeepers have two choices in this regard: they can start with a nuc, or a package.
What’s the difference? Which is better? Well.
Nucs are short for ‘nucleus colonies’. Available from mid-spring, these are colonies that are already well on their way to becoming fully-functioning hives. Typically bought direct from a local supplier, they come with all the essential components – an egg-laying queen (marked with a special dot for easy identification), a host of attendants, four or five brood boxes, pollen in the cells, and honey being made – only on a smaller and less busy scale. This head-start furnishes beekeepers with a considerable edge, and you’ll be surprised at how swiftly the colony expands. Indeed, by the time harvest has swung round, those who start with a nuc may find themselves the caretaker of over 50,000 bees.
Aside from being more efficient, nucs are also more likely to safeguard beekeepers against the risks that come with starting from scratch. You don’t have to worry if your queen will be fertile, as you’ll have the proof right before you in her multiplying eggs. There’ll be no fretting about the productivity of the hive ‘factory’ either, with comb already being drawn and cells already established. In other words, having more ‘intel’ on the state of your colony, you can have more confidence in its prospects and its fate.
There is one downside worth mentioning, though it’s a sentimental one – with a nuc, you won’t get to experience your colony from its origins. Doing so is an undeniably magical experience – sometimes described as the difference between transferring an apple tree sapling to your garden and watching one grow from seed.
Packages do come with this advantage – but not many more.
Packages are simply bundles of bees. Ferried home from your local apiary or ordered online (yes – you can get bees in the mail), they will arrive not as a colony fit to thrive, but more as orphans relying upon your diligent care. You will need to transfer them from their box into new hive frames, introduce a queen via a queen cage, and make sure to regularly feed them. This last point is important. As you will get package bees early in the season to allow them time to flourish for the ‘spring flow’ period, it will often be quite cold for them at first, and with nectar sources scarce. To both build up a hive and attend to their own wellbeing, your packaged bees are going to need an energy boost.
It’s also often true that packaged bees might not be locals, but ‘immigrants’ from across county or state borders. Subsequently, there’s a risk they may be ill-adapted to the climate and ecology of your own locale, and hence more vulnerable to disease.
The plus side to packages is that they’re available a lot earlier – and those that are too impatient too wait for nucs to hit the market often find themselves tempted by the alternative. Packages are also cheaper, by anywhere between $85-$100 – but once you factor in the cost of feeding and providing for your new bees, the difference in cost begins to slide the other way.
There are advantages to both nucs and packages, and the bee community has its preferences both ways. By the broad consensus of beekeepers however, it is the first that comes out champion – particularly when it comes as a recommendation for newcomers. Our advice? For a shortcut to beekeeper success: go nuc.
By Kate Prendergast