A nucleus hive (regularly shortened to ‘nuc’ but pronounced ‘nuke’ not ‘nuck’) is a small but completely operational hive, and an excellent way to purchase bees. The major benefit with purchasing a nucleus hive is that you can inspect all aspects of the hive’s health at the time of purchase.
There is always a risk of disease where you source your nucleus hive from a beekeeper that the beekeeping is taking the opportunity to rotate out old frames from their existing hives that may be harbouring pests or diseases.
So, empower yourself so that you and your bees get off to the best possible start and ask the seller a few important questions to risk manage your purchase much in the same way as you would when buying a car or a home.
The following is a short list of questions we have put together to ask the beekeeper/seller so you can better understand exactly what you are purchasing. If you can suggest any additional questions, please post a response to this thread and we can expand this first post with the additional answers.
Q1) Are all the frames used to create this nucleus hive new, previously unused frames?
A1) You want the answer to be YES. Where it’s not or its argued it’s a mix of new and old ask the seller why? Also what the ratio of old and new is and the age of the frames that are not new. Be cautious of anyone trying to sell their old, previously used frames to a new bee (you) for a premium price.
Q2) What type of foundation is used for the nucleus frames, wax or plastic? How many frames are in the nucleus hive?
A2) This to an extent is personal preference, but it is good to know so you aren’t surprised when installing the nucleus. We have found through many years of experience that bees much prefer bees wax foundation than wax coated plastic foundation in the brood box. Either way, make sure you are happy with the type of product that is being provided.
Nucleus hives can vary in size, generally between three and six frames. Be sure when comparing pricing of nucleus hives that you are comparing nucleus hives of the same size.
Q3) What type (race) of queen is provided with the hive and what are her traits?
A3) Your queen will either be; Caucasian, Carniolan, Italian or Ligurian, or crosses of these as hybrids. Each race has its own genetic traits (outlined in the chart below). These genetic traits are not dissimilar to the genetic traits of different dog breeds. If you receive an answer that the queen is a ‘swarm queen’ or is ‘a hybrid queen’ it generally means that the beekeeper simply doesn’t know and the provenance and characteristics of that queen can’t be determined. In this case, the queen may have positive traits, but it is difficult to determine this when purchasing.
Q4) How old is the queen being provided with the nucleus hive?
A4) The queen in the nucleus should be a matter of weeks to a maximum of a few months old. If the queen is young, there is a low likelihood that she is being rotated out of one of the beekeepers existing hives. Older queens are often sold as ‘proven queen’, which are queens the beekeeper previously managed that they are themselves replacing with new queens. ‘Proven queens’ can definitely provide good results, but the older a queen gets the more likely it is that they will reduce laying capability. If you are offered a ‘proven queen’, ask the beekeeper why they are rotating the queen out of their own operation.
Q5) Has the queen that is being provided been marked?
A5) Not all beekeepers mark their queens and you will find that many experienced beekeepers don’t see a real benefit. If you want your queen to be marked, make sure you clarify this when purchasing your nucleus hive. The beekeeper may or may not follow the marking colour scheme in accordance with the colour chart linked below (that is internationally recognised). This chart helps identify the year that the queen was marked and therefore her age. Be prepared for a queen marked with a random colour as it’s more than likely that a beekeeper will mark the queen with whatever pen they have available. Having a marked queen not only assists in locating her during inspection, it can also assist in identifying the origin of the queen if the hive swarms.
Queen marking colour chart details:
Q6) How was the nucleus colony/hive started?, was it a swarm, a package, or a hive split?
A6) Asking this question will help establish the provenance of your queen and your colony. If the queen is from a swarm or a split, be sure to ask if the colony has been re-queened from a commercial breeder or if the original queen from the swarm/split is still active. Also ask how long ago the swarm was collected or the colony was split.
Q7) What type of nucleus hive box are the bees supplied in and are you able to supply your own box?
A7) The bees will likely be supplied to you in a single use nucleus hive that you can keep after transferring them into your hive. The hive box is sold as a single use item but is definitely worth keeping as it can potentially be used to house a swarm of bees that you capture in the future. This box can also be used for collecting frames for extraction. If the nucleus hive box that the bees are being supplied in is not single use item (and needs to be returned to the beekeeper), be sure to ask the beekeeper how they maintain a disease free operation with hive equipment being moved in and out of their apiary. Another common ‘trick’ is for beekeepers to ask for a $50 deposit on the nucleus hive box hoping never to see it again, increasing the cost of your purchase.
If you want to supply your own box, you must make sure it is new, and unused. Providing used boxes/hives puts the beekeeper’s operation at risk as you may unknowingly be supplying them with diseased equipment.
During swarm season beekeepers are often provided with large quantities of hive boxes with very similar designs (eg. Flow Hives). If you are providing your own equipment, ensure that you have your details written on the box so you can confirm you are receiving the same equipment when you collect it.
Q8) How does the beekeeper/seller maintain an apiary that is disease and pest free? What testing regime do they follow?
A8) Receiving a nucleus or swarm that is diseased can have a huge impact on not only your new hive, but neighbouring colonies. When purchasing your nucleus hive, always be sure to ask the beekeeper what steps they take to actively limit the risk of introduction of disease into their apiary. You will want to confirm they limit the re-use of equipment (or radiate re-used equipment regularly). You should expect that they use new frames in hives and keep their apiary clean and free of derelict or abandoned hive boxes, scraps of wax and other honey production equipment.
The beekeeper should be confident that the bees they breed or produce queens from are from high performing colonies that are disease and pest free and that have proven themselves to be intolerant of pests such as Small Hive Beetle.
Also confirm that the beekeeper carries out preventative maintenance that checks for pests and diseases. An example of this is by using VITA field test kits (for AFB/EFB) and regularly sending samples away for testing by an independent test lab.
For more details on the VITA field test kits, see this link:
Q9) Are you able to inspect the nucleus hive prior to (or at time of) its collection?
A9) The beekeeper should agree to you inspecting the nucleus hive in the box before collection, but understand that there may be some caveats, and this is normal. Make sure to be clear that you plan to inspect the hive on pick up as the beekeeper may lock down the hive for transport to reduce your waiting time and re-opening it to inspect may cause delays.
When inspecting the nucleus hive, ensure there is good brood coverage across the frames, and the frames have a good coverage of bees. If possible locate the queen and confirm that the queen is marked, if that was what was agreed. If you aren’t confident in ‘reading the brood’ ask a local beekeeper or mentor to assist.
Q10) When is the best time to collect the nucleus hive from the beekeeper?
A10) A beekeeper insisting that you pickup your nucleus hive very early in the morning or late at night (before dawn or after dusk) is normal and completely expected. Collecting your hive at this time is encouraged as it helps ensure that all field bees are in the nucleus hive when it is locked down for transport and that they are transported before the heat of the day sets in so they don’t overheat and stress whilst locked down and on the move. You insisting that you must pick up the hive during the day (a common mistake) will result in the nucleus hive being locked down without field bees, or being locked down for an extended period of time, which unnecessarily stresses and agitates the bees.
When collecting your bees, always work around the timings provided by the beekeeper as they understand the nature and behaviour of the bee colonies. This may seem inconvenient at first, but it is for the health and wellbeing of your new nucleus hive.