It is getting close to the time to ordering bees for the upcoming bee season. The question I get asked frequently is which is better, package bees or nucs?
Nucs or nucleus hive usually comes in five frames with brood and bees. Normally nucs arrive in early May. Most nucs that come to Minnesota and Wisconsin come from Texas, Mississippi or Georgia. During the month of February, in Texas, a beekeeper will divide a colony and take one frame of brood and bees and put it in a five frame nuc box with four used frames, or a side by side four frame nuc box that was made out of a deep brood box. A sealed queen cell is added at this time. The queen will hatch and go out and get mated in the next 10 - 14 days or so. As time goes on , the queen starts laying and the population will slowly start to increase. In a perfect world, if the weather is favorable (warm), the nuc will grow to approximately 3 - 4 frames of brood by May 1st. If the weather is not favorable (cold) the population will suffer and the nuc will have less brood and bees. So someone who has purchased a nuc in January for example, will get the nuc that is coming, if has been a cool spring in Texas the nuc will not be as populated with brood and bees as if it is a warm spring. So the beekeeper in MN or WI doesn't know what they will be getting. Also, if the nucs arrive late, a beekeeper should expect a better population and more brood in the colony. Nucs that arrive in late May with only two and a partial frame of brood, will not develop in time of the nectar flow and may not even put up enough honey for their winter stores. So getting delivery dates and asking how many frames of bees and brood you can expect, is good to document. Bees coming out of the southern USA will come with hive beetle. If it is a warm spring the hive beetle levels will be higher than in cool spring. Beetles that arrive with your nucs can fly. The beetles can move into other equipment that you are not presently using and start rearing larvae, especially on unoccupied brood frames.
Package bees, usually come from California and Georgia. The package bees from Georgia will have hive beetle in the package. The package bees from California will have very little, if any, hive beetle. So know your bee supplier, I have always preferred the California bees. In my opinion, I feel the California queen producers are some of the best queen breeders in the industry. To have a good hive you need a good queen. With package bees a beekeeper always knows what they are getting. Three lbs of bees and a queen. The number never changes and the outcome is usually predictable. When the bees are trucked here non stop, the bees usually arrive in great shape. Resist the temptation to have bees shipped to you via a shipping service. When bees are shipped using a shipping service, the bees can arrive with many, sometimes over an inch deep of dead bees on the bottom of the cage. When they are trucked in on a bee truck, the numbers of dead bees is very low.
So on a head to head comparison. A package of bees installed on drawn comb around April 10th, will have about 3 to 4 frames of brood and bees in the hive on May 7th. If it has been a cold spring this may be slightly less, a warm spring slightly more. Package bees in late May should have 7 frames of bees and brood.
A nuc arriving from Texas on May 7th may have 3 - 4 frames of brood and bees. If it has been cool, this may be slightly less, a warm spring, slightly more. A nuc arriving in late May should have about 4 - 5 frames of brood and bees. If the numbers are less than this, the nuc will be a liability and will cost the beekeeper money to feed the bees for winter. The nucs arrive with used frames. Nuc producers usually outfit their nucs with frames culled out of their hives. In most case the beekeepers receiving the used frames, need to discard the frames as soon as possible. Old, black used frames can have high levels of pesticides and nosema spores. The frames sometimes can look pretty tough. Package bees go in on your own frames.
In my opinion there is not a huge advantage to nucs. Sometimes nucs look great, nice and strong, other times nucs look weak. When you get a weak nuc you just plopped down $175 on, you received a hive that may never give you honey and may turn out to be a liability. If you have to feed the nuc just to get the bees to winter, the nuc really cost you over $200.
Package bees are always the same, the bees usually come in on time. In over thirty years of keeping bees, there were three times that the package bees came in late. Every time it was weather related, and most bee suppliers were having the same issues.