A Tale of Two Nucs: Post 3 – Setting up the nucs

As I mentioned in post one of this series, the queens have arrived and I’m ready to set up nucs. Usually, I establish nucs with purchased queens or, occasionally, from an extra queen I have found in an existing hive. (Yes, we sometimes find more than one queen in a hive.) I have also been known to use swarm or supersedure cells found in existing hives to provide queens in my nucs. I do not advocate setting up queenless nucs and allowing the bees to produce queens from eggs or young larvae. One reason is that this method sometimes produces poor quality queens, and sometimes none at all. Another is that the time required for the nuc to produce a laying queen from eggs or young larvae is over three weeks, compared to a few days with a purchased queen, and about a week and a half with capped queen cells. I want to see the population of the nuc grow quickly, not to wait weeks for the numbers to increase. If you add the three weeks it takes to rear a new queen from an egg and to get her laying, to three weeks for the new eggs to mature into young bees, you are waiting six weeks.

To set up nucs we need a nuc box or a hive. A nuc box is just a small hive used for the convenience of the beekeeper; the bees do not care about the size of the box. Five frame boxes are most common, since five frames are about right for nuc construction, but the size can vary. Some nuc boxes have a separate bottom board; others have a bottom board attached to the nuc box. Mine also have a plastic dial type opening (see pictures at bottom), which makes them easy to close for moving. Easy transport is a plus for nuc boxes, whether you are taking them to the other side of the bee yard, or moving them across the state. Materials also vary, wood being most common, but these days plastic and corrugated cardboard construction are also seen. Many beekeepers selling nucs will use inexpensive corrugated nuc boxes and include the cost of the box in the price. You do not need a nuc box to start a nuc. When I began making them, I just used a one story deep hive. There is actually an advantage in doing that, in that you are not restricted to five frames in your nuc set-up, and you do not have to move the nuc into a larger box later.

Setting up the nuc – it’s easy! My recipe for a nuc is as follows:

  • 2 frames of capped brood with bees still on the frame.
  • 1 frame of capped honey or open cells of nectar
    (You also want stored pollen on some of those frames. I always look for pollen on my honey frame, but some on the brood frames works as well.)
  • 3 frames with drawn comb or foundation to replace the ones removed from the mother hive.
  • 1 frame with drawn comb or foundation for the nuc.
  • A 2nd frame of drawn comb or with foundation to be added after the queen cage is removed.
  • A purchased queen in her cage or least 2 to 3 queen cells on the brood frames. (Why more than one? Bees make multiples for a reason. Failures happen, and several cells increase the odds of success.)


We need a strong “mother” hive full of bees and with at least 4 to 5 frames of capped brood. I don’t like to remove more than half the frames of capped brood from the mother hive.

I open the mother hive, which I have chosen earlier, and start looking for likely frames. I prefer frames with lots of capped brood. I remove two, and my frame of honey.

As I remove the frames of capped brood, I’m looking for the queen in the mother hive. I want to find her to protect her, and to ensure that I do not accidently move her to the nuc on a brood frame.

If I find her, I could place her to the side of the brood box with an empty spot from a removed frame in between the frame she is on and the rest of the ones in the box (to prevent her crawling to a different frame while I am working.)  I could, instead, stop removing frames from the box she is in, and only take frames from the second brood box. My actual preference is to place her, and the frame she is on, in a separate nuc box until I’m done.

At this point, I shake extra bees from a brood frame or two into the nuc. I do this because I want to ensure a good, strong nuc. I also know that any forager bees in my nuc will return to the mother hive when they fly out to collect nectar, reducing the number in the nuc. Some beekeepers will seal nucs after setting them up, and move them to a location more than two miles away in order to prevent the foragers from returning to the mother hive. I leave them in the same bee yard and just shake in extra bees. If I shake in so many that I think I have over done it, I find the next day that the numbers are about right.  After placing the two frames of bees and brood in their new home,  I add a frame of honey and one with new foundation. My nuc is now almost complete.

I put a second, empty nuc box on top of the first to contain a feeder jar of sugar syrup, and I’m done.

You notice that I have not yet installed a queen. I could, but I like to wait a while to let the new colony be queenless for a period of time. This allows the pheromone from the old queen in the mother hive to fade, making the bees more ready to accept a new one. It is not absolutely necessary, but any delay, from half an hour to overnight, may help.

On the other hand, if I do not find the queen in the mother hive while I am setting up the nuc, I will definitely postpone installing a queen in the nuc.

In that case, I go through the rest of the mother hive searching for her, then through the nuc again. If I cannot find her, I continue to delay the installation of the new queen. (If I am using queen cells this is not an issue, but it is vital that I not end up with two queens in one hive and none in the other. The best way to prevent that situation is to know where the old queen is.) The next morning I’ll look through the nuc again. She will be easier to see there once the bees have spread out on all the frames. If I still do not see her, I will go ahead and install the queen, but will watch the next day or so to make sure that the bees are trying to free her. If they are not, I’ll look again in the nuc for the queen.

I speak from experience. I have missed seeing queens when setting up nucs and have accidentally moved them, but I have always found them at some point. In a later post, I’ll show you how to make a nuc without worrying about finding the queen.

When I am ready to install the queen, I do so according to the instructions in my post from A Tale of Two Hives and as pictured here.

If you are using a full sized brood box instead of a five frame nuc box, you can use more frames of brood and bees to make a stronger nuc. (You can also use frames from different hives, but if you do, you must keep track of all the queens from the mother hives. If you pull frames from more than one hive and accidentally move a queen, it will be hard to know which hive she came from if you find her later.) Using a full sized box and more frames, you can make very strong nucs that will quickly grow into full sized hives. Let’s say you have 3 or 4 hives and only want one more. You could remove two frames of brood from each hive and make up a nuc that fills, or almost fills, a full deep. A second box can be added soon after. A new hive made in this manner will easily make honey the first year.

Why capped brood? You could use uncapped brood, but I prefer capped. With capped brood, the bees will not have to feed larvae and can concentrate on other tasks, like drawing comb. The population of the nuc will also grow more quickly because the brood will emerge sooner.

The next steps for my new two new nucs will be for them to draw additional comb, start rearing brood from eggs the new queen has laid, and increase in population. Follow their progress in new posts in this series. I’ll also discuss when these new nucs would be ready to sell, if that were my intention, and what you should look for when purchasing a nuc.

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