Introduction: How to Make a Nucleus Honeybee Colony (and Prevent Established Hives From Swarming)
If you're reading this, then chances are you've had a hive survive the winter. Congratulations, now you must work even harder than the first year, because that established hive will now do what hives do in the spring- swarm! Its your job as a beekeeper, especially if you live in an urban or suburban environment, to prevent those bees from freaking out your entire neighborhood by swarming.
This tutorial will show you the basics of how to make nucleus splits to prevent swarming and to increase your hives for use in emergencies or for growing your apiary.
I've done my best to lay out simple steps that anyone can follow. For those who need more information or who love to fill their brains with stuff, I've included explanations and extras in italics at the bottom of some pages. At the end of this tutorial I'll have a one page synopsis for those who need a page to print out as a reminder while they're working.
Let's get started!
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Step 1: Timing the Splitting of Hives
The first step before you split is to get a feel for the strength and health of your established hive.
A hive is ready for splitting when you have all or a combination of any two of the following characteristics:
-All hive bodies are filled with bees
-Signs of a strong nectar flow, ie- bees are building comb between frames, filling top brood box with nectar
-Drone brood and larvae are present
-Queen cups and queen cells are present (Once you see queen cups with eggs then you must split or they will most likely swarm)
-Hives have 10+ frames of brood and eggs
Queen cells drawn and having an egg or larvae inside is the surest sign that the hive will swarm in a matter of days if not hours.
Next let's assemble the parts necessary to make a split.
The urge to swarm in the spring is a response to the amount of room the hive has in its brood chamber. When a queen has begun to fill all the brood comb, she will be moving more rapidly from frame to frame in search of open comb to lay. At this point she will begin to lay eggs in the queen cups, or specialized cells that the workers have made along the bottoms of frames and along damaged or jagged comb.
Making splits is the best way to prevent swarming, since you're removing filled frames and making more room (and work) for the bees and the queen.
Step 2: Setting Up Your Nucleus Equipment
Its a good idea before beginning your split to have all the necessary equipment assembled.
There are two ways to house nucleus (referred to from now on as 'Nuc') colonies. One involves a single 5-frame box called a nuc box, and the other is by housing two 5-frame nucs in a 10-frame hive body, called a double nuc. Regardless of the type, for each nuc you'll need five empty frames, the hive box, cover, bottom board and entrance reducer all ready to go. Its very important to make sure you don't get ants, as they can take out a nuc in a single day. Ant traps, oil cups around hive feet, and diatomaceous earth sprinkled around the hives are all ways to eliminate or reduce ant problems, and I highly recommend taking steps to keep them out.
Back to the two methods- I'll explain both types here for you, but if you've already decided and have your nuc box ready then skip this step and go to step 2.
Single nuc box
A single nuc, or 5 frame nuc box, is similar to a full sized hive assembly except that the box is skinnier, holding five frames rather than the full ten. These nuc boxes can be purchased from most beekeeping suppliers, and can come with all the variety that regular Langstroth hives have. They can have screened or solid bottom boards, telescoping or migratory tops, and little tiny robbing screens to prevent neighbors from wreaking havoc on these baby hives.
Double nuc box
The other method of housing nucs is to double them up in standard ten frame hive bodies. Once again, the types of bottom boards and covers can vary, but what makes the double nuc special is that you're modifying existing equipment to put two small hives into one large box. You can do this by building a wall that divides the two halves of a ten frame box in two, being sure there are no gaps around the wall.
Comparing the two
There are plus and minus for both methods, which is why I've put both methods here. First, a single nuc is easy to carry, and you'll no doubt be carrying it from one place to another as time goes on. Double nucs are heavier, around 25+ pounds, and so are a pain to move. Sometimes the bees will drift from one nuc to the other if the entrances are side by side instead of staggered on either end. The advantage of a double nuc is that these can be overwintered because the wall in common helps the baby hives stay warmer should you be overwintering them. Plus, having two boxes in one saves room in your apiary.
How does one come by a double nuc box? You make one, of course! See my Instructables on how to make a double nuc box, Called "Making a Double Nuc Box". Coming soon...
Step 3: Choosing Frames for the Split
Next, you'll want to be sure to choose the right frames to make your split.
First, find your queen in the hive. You'll want to note where she is so that she doesn't accidentally end up in with your nuc.
Once you've located your queen, look in your brood frames to find two that are filled with pollen and nectar or honey. And I mean, filled to overflowing. Your bees are going to need a lot of food to keep their queen larvae fat and happy, and the more food they get the more queens they can make. Nectar and honey are usually more readily available in a hive than pollen, so if you're short on pollen then you can just take 2 frames of honey and feed a pollen supplement.
Those two frames go on either side on the outer edge inside the nuc.
Different frames for different methods
Next, you'll look for the right frames to make your new population of bees for the nuc. This may vary depending on how your nuc will get its new queen. The main methods for getting a new queen are to let the nuc build their own queen cells from existing eggs and comb, to place a queen cell that is already made in the nuc, or to buy a queen and introduce her with a cage. I explain the three methods in the following steps.
Step 4: Method A: Let the Nuc Make Their Own Queen Cells
The quickest way to make a split is to let the nuc make its own new queens. You'll want to do this if you like the genetics of the mother hive and want to propagate more hives with those characteristics.
The advantage of this system is that it takes a few weeks before the queen goes from larvae to laying. This break in the breeding cycle reduces the hive's varroa mites, which use the reproductive cycles of bees to make their own young. The disadvantage is that sometimes it takes a few tries to get the nuc to make a queen cell, therefore making more work for you.
So how does it work?
Simple concept. Start with your two frames of honey and pollen as the outer frames. From the mother hive you'll then take three frames of mixed capped brood, open brood and eggs, and put them in the hive. these frames you'll have lots of nurse bees who are tending the open brood and eggs. As the capped brood emerges, you'll have even more nurse bees, since this is the first task of a baby bee how is newly hatched. All these nurse bees will take on the task of feeding and caring for the queen larvae.
The nuc will sense within hours that they are missing the queen. They'll choose the best 4 day old or younger larvae to begin building a special cell to house their new queen. If you're lucky, and you have many bees on the task, your nuc may make half a dozen or more queen cells. Its survival of the fittest, so you want lots of chances to get the best with lots of queen cells.
You may also have a swarm cell already built out and ready to go from the mother hive. If so, then you're a bit further along on your task. Carefully place the frame or frames with those queen cells to the center of the box so they have the most warmth and attention.
On step #7, I'll tell you how to finish up all three of the different methods for queening a nuc.
Step 5: Method B: Bring in an Existing Queen Cell
Another method to queening a nuc is to place a queen cell (or two) in the nuc box.
Its a little different than letting the bees make their own queen cells. But first, you'll want to place your two frames of honey and pollen as the outside frames in the nuc, just like you would for all methods.
Then you'll choose frames with capped brood only. Ideally those frames will have pollen and honey ringing the brood towards the outside of each frame. Frames completely filled with brood are fine too. Choosing frames without eggs gives a greater break in the brood cycle, and gives an even better chance that the mite population will drop in the hive while your new queen is out cavorting with her suitors.
You'll wait a few days before you place the new queen cell in the hive. This will ensure that the hive is ready to accept another queen, since they'll have figured out by now that they have no queen without any special pheromones. Its a good idea to wrap that new queen cell in aluminum foil before you place it in the hive. This helps block the smell from the mother hive and keeps worker bees from chewing through the queen cell and killing the queen before she has a chance to hatch. Be sure to inspect each frame to make sure you didn't miss any eggs and that the nuc hasn't built queen cells of their own.
If you're placing an entire frame with a queen cell attached, then make sure to give that frame a good shake to remove all the flying workers. This keeps bees from the two different hives form battling one another. The bees who remain clinging to the frame after you shake it will be nurse bees, and they won't care what hive they're in so long as they can do their jobs. Gently place that queen cell frame in the center of the hive so it stays warm and well tended.
If you're placing a queen cell that have been grafted into a plastic cell cup, you'll choose a brood frame that has some empty space and simply push the plastic edge into the comb without damaging the queen cell. Place that frame as you would the natural queen cell frame, in the center of the brood frames.
On step #7, I'll tell you how to finish up all three of the different methods for queening a nuc.
Step 6: Method C: Introducing a Young Mated Queen
This last method I'll tell you about is how you would build a new nuc that you'd use to increase your hive count rapidly.
You'll want to have your nuc ready before your queen arrives. Give the nuc a few days of being queenless before you try and introduce a new queen. As the pheromones wear off from their old mother queen, the nuc will be eager to accept a new queen, which lowers your risk of placing an new one. Of course, you'll want the nuc ready and waiting so that the minute you receive your queen she can be placed in her new home.
To set up the nuc, you'll start with your two frames of honey and pollen placed to the outer edges inside the nuc box. Then, as with introducing a queen cell, you'll choose three frames from the source hive with capped brood only. Ideally those frames will have pollen and honey ringing the brood towards the outside of each frame. Frames completely filled with brood are fine too. Choosing frames without eggs gives a greater break in the brood cycle, and gives an even better chance that the mite population will drop in the hive while your new queen is out cavorting with her suitors.
The minute that queen arrives at your doorstep, you simply hang the queen cage inside the nuc between center frames. Face the cage so that the mesh is facing out so she gets plenty of air. Be sure to inspect the nuc to make sure you don't have a queen or any queen cells, or your new queen may not win the battle that will surely ensue if you end up with two queens in one nuc.
Next we'll finish up all three of the different methods for queening a nuc.
Queen suppliers can be found in all states, and some, like Hawaii, have queens available for purchase all times of the year. Where I am in California the queen rearing season can begin as early as March. Queens will come in a specially designed queen cage that will house the queen and a few of her workers. You'll order your queens and they'll be shipped in the US postal service, as required by law that all post offices accept live queens. No lie.
Be sure to save the brightly colored warning stickers from the packaging, and post images of them on your social media sites, especially the ones that say "LIVE QUEENS".
If you're buying queens, consider doing a little research and finding genetic stock that will do well in your area or that have been specially bred for varroa mite resistance. Queens are expensive to buy, and if you can improve your hive stock, then you'll make it worth the investment.
Step 7: Finishing a Split: Big Time Bees
Now that you've set up your nuc colonies, you'll want to be sure they are jam packed with adult foraging bees to ensure it thrives.
The very best way to finish making a split into a nuc box is to place that nuc in the location of the mother hive. This isn't always easy or possible, but it makes a huge difference. All those foraging workers out in the field will return to the same location, and they won't care that instead of landing in a full sized hive, they're crammed into a tiny nuc. This will greatly boost the population of the nuc, ensuring that there will be plenty of pollen, nectar, and bees to make a new queen. Plus, the mother hive will suddenly have a drop in their population, making is less crowded. This method will definitely reduce the urge to swarm, and you can sit back for a few weeks and not even think about swarms. Heck, you can spend all your spring swarm season catching other people's swarms if you can pull off this method!
The next best way is to take a few frames from the mother hive and shake them into your nuc. Close the lid quickly, jam steel wool or a fine weave hardware cloth in the entrance to keep everyone inside. If you can move the nuc a few miles away then the bees will reorient themselves and not return to the mother hive. If you have to keep the nuc in your apiary, then keep that jam in place and trap the bees inside for a day before letting them out. (If you do this, be sure and shade your nuc if that day will be hot, since they won't be able to cool themselves!) It doesn't always work well, so I also hang a towel over the entrance so that they really have to work to get out, and this will help to encourage them to reorient as well.
Step 8: Verify That You Have a New Queen
You'll want to check back regularly to determine whether you have a new queen, assess whether they'll need supplemental feeding, and check if they are building up their population.
If you introduced a new queen, check back in a day to see if the bees have accepted her. If they look calm and are feeding her, then let her out. If they are aggressive towards the queen, then wait a few more days. Check back in a few more days to verify that the new queen is laying.
If you chose to have a nuc make their own queen from larvae, it will take four to five days before the queen cells are capped, and another eight days for her to hatch. It takes a total of 27 days for a queen to morph from a tiny egg to a laying adult, so you'll need a little bit of patience. Checking on a hive while a queen cell is no yet capped can be risky, as the cells are very delicate and can be easily crushed. Once the dells are capped on day 6, then the risk is much lower for damage to the pupating queen.
Its a good idea if you let the nuc make their own queen to take this time to check on their resources. Make sure they have at least one frame of pollen and honey, or consider feeding.
If you chose to insert a capped queen cell, then you'll have up to eight days before the queen hatches. Once the queen hatches, she will battle any other newly hatching or pupating queens she finds in the nuc. Then she will take her mating flights, going out for up to seven days, before she settles down to begin laying. During this time its best not to disturb the new queen and her nuc if you can help it.
When enough time has gone by that you should have a queen. You'll verify the queen's presence by looking for eggs. If there are no eggs, then give it a few more days and check again. Just this week I was was surprised to find the nuc I'd written off had a young queen after all.
Now, for the synopsis on the next page...
A tip: take notes directly on the lid of your nucs so you don't even have to worry about losing them.
If you should fail the first time, consider trying again with more eggs and/or another queen cell. Just shake off the flying bees from brood and egg frames and replace the old empty frames with these. If all went well, you'll already have plenty of foragers, so no need to move the nuc or trap anyone in.
Step 9: Synopsis
Step 1: Is my hive ready to split? Look for two or more of the following signs:
Comb building and honey flow
Queen cups and queen cells
Boxes full of bees
10+ frames of brood and eggs
Step 2: Assemble your nuc box
Step 3: Select two frames of honey and pollen
Step 4 Method A: Let them make their own queen. Select three frames of mixed brood and eggs. Let the hive make a new queen from those frame. Check back for queen cells in a couple of days, eggs in four weeks.
Step 5 Method B: Bring in a queen cell. Select three frames of capped brood. Place queen cell so its positioned in or near the center. Check back for eggs in two to three weeks.
Step 6 Method C: Bring in a queen. Select three frames of capped brood. In 2-3 days, place new queen in queen cage between frames. Return in one to two days to free the queen.
Step 7: Shake shake shake the bees from the mother hive into your nuc. Fill that nuc with forager bees any way possible.
Step 8: Follow up to monitor hive health, resources, and queen success.
Now that you've read this Instructables Project, get to it and good luck!
Step 10: Resources and Extras
photo credit: Paolo Salvagione
Mann Lake : Free shipping Nation-wide on all orders over $100, full selection
Dadant: If they offered free shipping they'd be as good as Mann Lake, Nation-wide
Kelley Bees: fellow beekeeper Robert MacKimmie recommended them and their catalogue is enticing
Beekind in California: Expensive for most supplies, but they sell follower boards and robbing screens
Beekeepers who know more than me:
Randy Oliver has published extensively on the hows and whys of beekeeping
Extras: This was my second Instructables project.
Additional projects I've written:
How to Make a Nucleus Honeybee Colony