Making Splits: Nucleus Colony
Reading Time: 5 minutes
If you keep bees for more than a minute, you’ll likely find yourself needing to make a split for one reason or another. Maybe you lost a hive and need to replace it. Maybe a friend wants to get into bees and you want to help them get started. Or maybe you just want to experiment with making splits. Regardless of the reason, creating a small mini-colony called a nucleus — or nuc for short — is an excellent way to make an increase and requires little more than a single strong colony to get started.
To get started, a basic understanding of colony makeup is in order. Every healthy colony consists of food stores of both honey/nectar and pollen, open and capped brood, several frames of bees, and queenright colonies containing a laying queen. When making splits, the goal is to select a portion of each of these components to be placed into the nuc box. A queen in some state of readiness is then added. Queens may be open queen cells, capped queen cells, virgin queens, or laying queens. Each variation of queens offers its own advantages and disadvantages with laying queens being the primary selection for most beekeepers when available.
Most beekeepers begin by first selecting the container into which their nucleus colony will go. Most use a small five-frame box called a nuc box. These nuc boxes come in a variety of forms from a factory-made wooden nuc box to the Jesters and Pro Nuc boxes most commonly used in commercial nuc production. Some handy beekeepers even DIY their own nuc boxes using nucleus hive plans found online.
Ask around your local bee club and you’ll hear more than one or two variations on their versions of nuc boxes, so don’t be afraid to experiment with different options. The overall purpose of these small mini-boxes is to contain a small number of bees within a small space so they can readily protect the growing colony from robbers and pests while also allowing for better heat retention, especially when splitting during cooler weather.
To grow the best nucleus colony possible, you want a sufficient number of bees and brood ready to accept a new queen. To allow for this, select a strong, healthy queen right colony with several frames of both open and capped brood and plenty of honey/nectar and pollen. This colony should be strong enough that when the bees and frames for the nuc are removed, the remaining colony still contains enough stores of food and plenty of bees and brood to continue thriving after the split is made.
While selecting frames of food and bees to build the nuc, carefully search each frame for the queen to avoid accidentally placing her within the nuc, thus rendering the donor colony queen less. When the queen is found, carefully set her aside in a queen clip or other manner of protection while continuing to search each frame for a second queen as some colonies contain two queens on occasion.
To build the nuc, select a frame of food containing honey/nectar and pollen. The addition of this food frame during set up prevents the beekeeper from having to supply supplemental feed for a time, especially during a nectar flow, allowing for less disturbance of the nuc. However, many beekeepers do choose to include either an internal feeder or an external version at the time of nuc set up to allow for quick supplemental feeding should the need arise somewhere down the road of growth from nucleus colony to transfer size.
After you select a food frame, search for a frame of capped brood and another frame of open brood. The goal, again, is to have all life stages present within the nuc to allow for a continuous supply of bees capable of functioning in all of the roles needed within a healthy colony to make it thrive — an ample supply of both house bees and field bees. Move all bees attached to these frames into the nuc box.
Once you have a food frame and these two brood frames with attached bees, your nuc will consist of three frames of bees. At this point, some beekeepers choose to add a fourth frame of empty comb to allow a newly added laying queen room to immediately begin laying, another frame of brood and bees, or a frame of foundation to allow for comb building. All of these options work and should be experimented with to determine your own preferred nuc strength for your management style. Do note that if including an internal feeder, you will only have a total of four frames inside the nuc, which is fine. As with all things beekeeping related, no two beekeepers will build their nucs the same.
To help control population size, many folks relocate the nuc three miles or further from the donor colony. This prevents field bees from flying back home and reduces the overall size of the nucleus colony. However, relocation is not always necessary provided the beekeeper is attentive to population size. If the population diminishes below three frames of bees, shake a frame or two of nurse bees in front of the nuc entrance. The open brood inside the nuc will draw the nurse bees in, with the guard bees happily allowing them to join the colony.
Add a queen
A queen at any stage ranging from a queen cell to a virgin to a laying queen may be added once the nuc has been queenless for a short time. Some prefer to allow the nuc to sit overnight before adding the queen while others prefer to wait only a short time.
Once the queen is installed, sit back and allow the bees to do their thing, keeping a close watch on food and bee population. When the bees are close to filling out the nuc and there is a laying queen, carefully transfer the nuc into your preferred hive configuration and watch it continue to grow into a full-sized colony.
Making a nucleus colony is a simple skill that any beekeeper at any stage can readily accomplish when keeping a few basics in mind, so don’t be afraid to get in your bee yard and try your hand at making a few nucs. You may just find you have a knack for splits, making growth an easy option for your apiary.
KRISTI COOK lives in Arkansas where every year brings something new to her family’s journey for a more sustainable lifestyle. She keeps a flock of laying hens, dairy goats, a rapidly growing apiary, a large garden, and more. When she’s not busy with the critters and veggies, you can find her sharing sustainable living skills through her workshops, articles, and blog at tenderheartshomestead.com.