Package Bees vs Nucs: Does it Matter?Beekeeping beginners frequently ask about the difference starting their honey bee colonies with Package Bees vs Nucs. Since both nucs and package bees have an equivalent number of bees and a queen, other than the purchase price, it’s not apparent why an established nucleus colony is better than package bees.
Timing and What’s Happening in the Bees’ Honey-Producing Season
Honey bee colonies ‘build’ in the spring as days grow warmer and pollen and nectar become plentiful, their inclination is to make a new colony. Packages, nucs and swarms all arrive about the same time in the south Texas (early to mid-April, unless a nuc is over-wintered, in which case they’ll be available earlier.) Each contains about 10,000 bees and a mated queen. If packages are installed in new equipment, comb must be drawn for the queen to lay. Extruding wax requires tremendous energy and warm temperatures. If the beekeeper does not provide additional feed the build up will be slow.
What is a Nuc?
A “nuc” is short for “nucleus colony”. This is a colony of honey bees that, in comparison to a larger production hive, is relatively small. Although these bees are just getting started, they are already doing
everything that a full production honey bee colony does. They have some honey, pollen, baby bees in various stages of development and a queen that is an egg laying machine ready to bring that small colony up to a full scale production colony that will ultimately contain between 50,000 – 60,000 bees. If conditions are favorable, this can be accomplished in just a few months.
What are Package Bees?
Package bees have been compared to Ellis Island. They are like a bunch of immigrants (bees) from different lands (hives) being thrown together, given a queen who’s not their mother, and told to build a city. While they will do it, it’s not the best way to start. A caged queen will take several days after she is released to resume laying. Her eggs won’t hatch for 21 days and it will be another two weeks before newly born bees mature into foragers. Do the math. This means that is will be six weeks before any new bees bring forage. By then nearly all of the original bees in the package will be dead as the average lifespan of a worker is only six weeks.
A package is made of bees shaken down a funnel. They aren’t sorted by age, but even if they were a day old when added to the package, they will be around a week-old when picked up, and it will be six weeks before the first replacement bees can ready to forage. Spring flowers will largely be missed as the package won’t be strong enough to take advantage of the season. The package will lose strength every day until at least the fourth week, as they miss this early honey flow. Worse yet, if the new colony doesn’t like their new queen, they will reject or ‘supercede’ her (replace her with one of her ‘daughters’). This will add another three week delay and seriously jeopardize the survival of the colony.
Package Bees vs Nucs – Pros & Cons
The big advantage of starting with a nuc is that your bees have a head start. Their queen is already accepted and laying eggs; she is a proven force. The queen continues to lay even as the nuc is transported and frames full of brood are transferred into the beekeeper’s equipment. Within the existing comb that comes with the nuc are stores and brood of all ages. A balance exists between older bees and an increasing number of replacement bees. Your starter colony will utilize these abundant resources and build into a fully established colony.
The drawn comb in a nuc is a huge plus for the nuc side of the package bees vs nucs argument as it takes approximately eight pounds of sugar or nectar to draw just one pound of comb. The only thing that could really be considered a downside to nucs is that you have to wait until April or May to take delivery, and they will cost more than the package bees (initially).
Comparing package bees vs nucs around May 30 (six weeks after installation), the package has been continuously fed by the beekeeper and now has mostly drawn ten deep frames of comb. The first daughters are beginning to forage and the population once again approaches where it started. Unfortunately, the spring honey flow is nearly done. If the beekeeper continues to feed, the second deep should be drawn by another 3-4 weeks.
On the other hand in the package bees vs nucs debate, the nucleus colony did not have to be fed. It expanded immediately and filled the foundation frames in less than two weeks. By the end of May the second deep is mostly drawn and the colony has reached full strength. They are in position to gather a surplus in summer and go into winter as a strong and healthy hive.
Price vs Cost
Looking at it in economic terms, the package starts out costing less than the nuc. If the colony doesn’t accept the queen, a new one will cost $25 plus shipping and another two weeks will be lost. Hopefully the colony will get it’s comb drawn (but delays mean feed cost, takes time, and is messy). In a good season it may gather summer surplus and be ready for Winter by early Fall.
On the other hand, the Nuc builds much faster (time is money, too), and may actually gather a surplus that spring. Each shallow super contains 2.5 gallons of honey. That’s 30 one pound jars of honey at minimally $10 a jar. Or the colony could be split at the end of May (using the box the nuc came in) and allowed to raise their own daughter – giving the buyer a new two-deep colony and a 5 frame nuc for the cost of a single nuc.
Do you have anything to add to the “Package Bees vs Nucs debate?
If you see anything in our Package Bees vs Nucs article that you think is incorrect or incomplete – or there are other Package Bees vs Nucs considerations that we should add, please contact us by email with that information.
Bee Wilde Bee & Honey Farm sells only the Honey Bee Nucs, not the Package Bees, so you can see what side of the argument we come down on. Take a look at the Honey Bee Nucs we offer for spring delivery.