A lively discussion was had today on one of the many Facebook beekeeping groups. I try to limit my time with those rabbit holes, but it is fun and worth it to help newer beekeepers when I can. The discussion this afternoon revolved around a topic posted by the moderator: "Explain the difference between Nucs, Swarms, and Packages and which is better."
First, some definitions are in order to ensure we're talking about the same thing. The following definitions are good and taken from Michael Bush:
Swarm ― A temporary collection of bees, containing at least one queen that split apart from the mother colony to establish a new one; a natural method of propagation of honey bee colonies.
Nucleus ("Nuc") ― A small colony of bees often used in queen rearing or the box in which the small colony of bees resides. The term refers to the fact that the essentials, bees, brood, food, a queen or the means to make one, are there for it to grow into a colony, but it is not a full sized colony.
Package Bees ― A quantity of adult bees (2 to 5 pounds), with or without a queen, contained in a screened shipping cage.
For purposes of this blog post, I'm going to focus on nucleus vs. package as swarms are not typically the beginning point for a new beekeeper. That said, new beekeeper, if you can get your hands on a swarm in spring, don't pass it up! Free bees are great gift in Spring or early Summer.
The reality is that most beekeepers start out their journey with package bees, some even unaware of what a nucleus colony ("nuc") is and what it offers. As a side note: This is a great item to cover with beginners in winter and early spring during bee club meetings before purchasing of hives and bees begin. A good club should be helping their new initiates clearly understand the pros and cons of both nucs and packages.
Following is a brief comparison (not definitive by any stretch) of both.
Package Bees ― Pros and Cons
- Package bees are significantly cheaper than nucleus colonies
- They can be shipped long distances and still survive; in fact, this really is the only way you can ship a colony of bees via mail/postal services
- Package bees come with a young queen, hopefully laying for at least a week or two to determine they are a quality layer
- Purchasing packages is the most common method so you are more likely to find and purchase them (if you don't wait too long) and find help installing them
- Bees in a package are mostly unrelated to each other and the queen ― they are pulled from many hives, pooled together and sorted into packages, with a new queen added into the box inside a cage
- This method puts stress on the bees due to shipping, handling and absence of a colony environment
- It is a well-known fact now that queens will fail more often than not and are superseded with a new queen, further weakening the outlook of the colony
- Poor weather and delayed shipping time can play a significant factor
Nucleus Colonies ― Pros and Cons
- A nuc is an actual small functioning colony with a laying queen, ready to grow quickly with a good nectar flow
- A nuc colony will contain some brood in various stages, nurse bees and foragers ― there will be little-to-no delay in brood rearing
- A solid nuc will consist of at least one frame of honey and pollen stores to sustain the colony as it adjusts to its new surroundings
- 4-5 frames of comb will be included with a nucleus colony
- A nuc, in a normal year, will likely grow fast enough to allow an average harvest honey that same season
- Nucleus bees are related genetically, with offspring hatching from the laying queen
- Typically, there will be little stress to a nucleus colony being moved (carefully) from one location to another
- A nucleus colony assuredly has a higher chance of success of establishing itself the first season and surviving through winter
- Nucs are more expensive
- Not all nucs "are created equally" ― there isn't necessarily a defined qualitative standard for a Nuc from region to region
- Its possible to see adverse variables with regard to the frames provided for the nuc and their quality/age
- It is possible disease can be carried with a nuc to your apiary
- Nucs can't be shipped ― one usually must travel to pick the colony up or have frames transferred to your box
So Which Is Better For The Beginner?
So, what's the verdict? ― It might be more costly and possibly inconvenient, but I would highly recommend buying a nucleus colony as a new beekeeper. The pros simply outweigh the cons in this case. To ensure success, find a mentor who's experienced with setting up a nuc (and keeping bees alive) and bring them along. Ask lots of questions and don't be intimidated. The art of keeping bees will take several years to begin to fully grasp. Read books (lots of them) about nucs such as "Increase Essentials" by Larry Connor and watch videos online about nucs such as Mike Palmer's here.
Now that I think about it, don't just buy one nuc ― buy two! You will have much better chance of success with multiple colonies than you will with one. You will be able to contrast and compare two hives, see differences in behavior and laying ability of your queens, spot differences in behavior and problems that will arise. If one hive dies, you have more resources with which to continue on, recoup your losses, and protect your initial investment. Bees aren't cheap!
Well... that is unless you raise your own bees... but that's for another day and another blog post. :)