It is good beekeeping practice to make up a number of nucleus colonies each year. Important reasons for doing so include, raising replacement queens, swarm prevention, swarm control, making increase, queen introduction and selling nuclei. Here we take a look at how to make up a nucleus colony.
Making up a nucleus will require a nucleus box and bees from at least 3 different colonies. As a general rule, bees from 2 colonies will fight but bees from 3 or more colonies will be confused enough not to fight when placed together.
This method makes use of queen cells that have either been raised naturally by a colony about to swarm or queen cells which have been forced using a vertical swarm management method like demaree or snelgrove.
Select the best queen cell from the colony about to swarm or top box of a vertically swarm managed colony.
Transfer the frame (with brood) with the selected queen cell to the nucleus box. Ensure there are no other queen cells (or queen if from a colony about to swam) on this frame.
Add a second frame of brood and a frame of stores – taken from this and/or other hives. Ensure no queens or queen cells are on any of these frames.
Shake 3 frames of bees into each nucleus box from frames containing brood. These should be from at least 3 different colonies including the original colony. In each case ensure there is no queen or useful queen cells [that can be used] on the frames being shaken. If there is a useful queen cell on such a frame, brush the bees into the nucleus box using a bee brush.
Use spare frames of foundation to make up the gaps in the nucleus box and original colony. Close up the nucleus box and leave alone for 4 weeks.
For those who only have 1 colony, that colony can be used to make a nucleus.
Have prepared a nucleus box with frames of foundation.
Inspect the mother colony and find the queen. Isolate her using a marking cage so she isn’t accidentally transferred to the nucleus box.
Select a nice, large queen cell and transfer this to the nucleus box. Destroy all other queen cells. Add a second frame of brood and a frame of stores. Make up the space with a frame of foundation. Ensure no other queen cells are present on these frames.
Take 3 frames from the mother brood box and shake the bees into the nucleus box. Close up the nucleus box.
Release the queen in the mother colony, close up the gaps and add frames of foundation to the edges. Rebuild the mother hive with, queen excluder, supers, etc.
If taken from a colony about to swarm, with either method this will now have extra space and, having had its other queen cells removed, will give up any urge to swarm. The flying bees that ended up in the nucleus boxes will return to the mother colony. However, there should be enough nurse bees to look after the 2 frames of brood within each nucleus colony. A new queen will emerge in around a week and will hopefully become mated and start laying in the following couple of weeks. A sign of a laying queen will be when the workers start returning with lots of pollen.
- Are there enough bees? – It is important that there enough bees in each nucleus to look after the 2 frames of brood. Therefore enough nurse bees must be transferred to the nucleus. This is why bees should be shaken from brood frames and not from other areas of a hive such as supers of frames with stores.
- One “trick of the trade” is, following the assembly of the nucleus, to roll up some grass and stuff it in the entrance. The bees will have pushed out of the entrance within 2 or 3 days, some of the flying bees (which would otherwise return to their parent colony) will have decided to stay to look after the brood.
- Another trick of the trade is, if a second apiary site is available, close up the entrance to the nucleus straight after assembling it and take it away to the other site (more than 3 miles away). Any flying bees will now return to the nucleus.
- Does the nucleus have enough food? – Being a small colony, a nucleus is likely to run out of food quite quickly. The nurse bees will be occupied with looking after the brood. Some nurse bees will be rapidly promoted to being foraging bees, but there may not be enough to bring sufficient food in. Therefore, be prepared to feed the nucleus with light syrup in its first few weeks.
- Space – The nucleus will eventually run out of space. If made up late in the season, it will be okay during the winter until it can be transferred to a full box the following April. If made up early in the season, it will probably need transferring to a full sized brood box after a month or two. Inspect the nucleus from time-to-time to judge when the bees are ready to go into a brood box.
Making up a two-frame nuc is another great way to make increase with your bees. Roger Patterson has written extensively about the Two-Frame Nuc method (Dave Cushman Site | Book by Roger) and there are some great videos on the BIBBA YouTube Channel.
Want to use more of the queen cells?
If using a method such as snelgrove or demaree, there may be as many as 15 or 20 queen cells produced. If there is enough capacity to make up, say, a dozen nuclei, then it is possible to use most of these queen cells. Nucleus boxes can be made up with 2 frames of brood, 1 of stores and bees shaken from 3 or more colonies as described above, but without any of the frames having queen cells. Taking great care, a suitable queen cell can be gently prized from the surface of the honey comb, taking part of the honey comb with it. This can then be gently slotted at the top between the two brood frames – being held in place as the frames are gently pushed together. Any damage to the queen cell (including squashing, distorting or tearing) will probably render it useless.
Need to introduce a new queen?
Although it is quite possible to introduce a new queen to a full colony, it is safer to to introduce a new queen to a nucleus. The smaller size of the nucleus (and largely down to its high proportion of nurse bees) increases the likelihood of acceptance.
Make up a nucleus as described above, but without any queen cell being present. Introduce the new queen in the usual way using a queen introduction cage.
These methods are given as guidance only. After trying one or more key methods of swarm control, the beekeeper should go on to experiment and develop their own variations to suit their own preferences.