Many beekeepers use nuc production as a method of swarm control. By removing brood and bees from strong hives in the spring, before they begin swarm behavior, beekeepers can often keep the bees they have while simultaneously either increasing the number of their hives or producing nucs for sale. I also use them as a method of storing queens for later use, both for short term storage of multiple queens in a single nuc (a queen bank), and for individual queens in nucs which may be combined later with existing hives for queen replacement. In reality, I set up nucs from spring through mid-summer, as I have time, available queens, and strong hives to serve as a source of brood and bees, without a firm plan for how any individual nuc will be used in the future. By May or June I may have set up one nuc for every four or so hives in my apiary. Some of these will become full sized colonies, but others will be used for different purposes.
If I should discover that one of my hives has become queenless, I can have a new queen in that hive in ten minutes by combining an established nuc with the queenless hive. I also use the nucs as a source of replacements for aged and failing queens, and for queens producing offspring with undesirable genetic characteristics.
An advantage of re-queening from nucs in this manner, in addition to not having to order and wait for a queen to be delivered, is the success rate of this method. The acceptance of new queens in existing hives – be it hives that we find queenless or hives from which we remove the queens in order to replace them – is not a sure thing. It is not unusual for bees in existing hives, especially strong, over wintered colonies and those that have been queenless for an extended period of time, to reject and kill a queen newly installed by the beekeeper. However, combining a queenless hive with a queenright hive is almost a 100 percent successful. (A queenright hive is any hive containing a queen, so a healthy nuc falls into this catagory.) It works because the bees from the nuc protect their queen while her pheromones spread through the hive, convincing the bees from the formerly queenless hive that she is “their queen” too. (I’ll do a future post, accompanied with photos, on how to combine two hives.)
There are some hives for which combination with a queenright hive is the only effective method. In colonies that have been without a queen for so long (typically more than three weeks) that all the brood has emerged, some of the workers may begin to lay eggs. Because workers are incapable of mating, the eggs will be unfertilized and will produce only drones, dooming the colony, but the bees will resist the introduction of a new queen. The only way to save such a colony is to combine it with a nuc or other queenright hive.
In the last post in this series I talked about the advantages of receiving queens in a battery shipment and about the better health of queens stored in batteries (as opposed to individual cages with attendants) for any length of time. Queens, inside sealed cages, can be stored in a similar manner for an extended period in a nuc or hive which does not contain a queen on the comb. Such a hive is called a queen bank. If I do not anticipate using all of the queens in a shipment within a few days, especially if I will be away from home for a while in the early spring, I will quickly transfer delivered queens into a queen bank. Just as a battery is healthier for the queens than individual cages, a queen bank has advantages over a battery. A queen bank has better food resources (stored honey and large numbers of foraging bees) to feed the queens, and they are kept warmer during cold weather by the larger number of bees.
I maintain nucs in five frame nuc boxes. If I keep a nuc in my apiary for more than a few weeks, I must remove frames of bees and brood to prevent them from becoming crowded and swarming. (Yes, bees will swarm even from nucs.) I can use this excess of bees and brood to boost a weak hive or to build up a nuc that I have decided to develop into a full sized hive. Occasionally, I also remove excess bees and brood from multiple nuc boxes in order to establish an additional nuc.
As you see, nucs are far more than just starter hives. I encourage beekeepers, even those with just one or two hives, to make nucs a part of their apiary management plan.