Throughout the bee keeping year, events may happen that need additional bees to solve a problem. It could be that you need an additional frame of nurse bees to get your hive to start building population for a nectar flow. Possibly your queen suddenly disappeared (possibly because of a handling error on your part). Suppose you inspect your hive and can’t find any young brood and you can’t find the queen. You may want to add a frame of eggs/young larvae to see if you are still queen right. You may even find that there are too many bees and not enough room in the hive and the bees are about to swarm on you. All of these situations commonly happen and the best solutions require access to another functional hive. This is pretty tough to do if you only have one hive.
One viable answer is to have a ‘Bee Buddy.’ This would be good friend nearby who also has a hive who is cooperative and generous. It could also be a nearby mentor or bee club member who is willing to give up some resources to help you out. If you bought your hive from a local beekeeper, he/she may be willing to help you out for a reasonable fee. There ARE solutions if you only want to have one beehive.
If you want to be a self-sufficient beekeeper, you can create your own little bee factory to help out with these kinds of resource issues without having to have another complete hive. The answer for self-sufficiency is to add a nuc. You don’t have to start out with both a nuc and a hive. You can get your hive up and stable, gaining experience and confidence in your beekeeping skills. Sometime during your first summer, if your hive is doing well, you can steal a couple of frames to start your little bee factory with. You really shouldn’t have to buy another package or another nuc to get started.
While it isn’t important to start with a populated colony in the nuc, you should start collecting the woodenware and accessories (frames, feeders, etc.) early on. You want to have the hardware available and in place before you discover that you need to use it.
If the bees in your hive are doing well the odds are that you will be ready to start your bee factory by mid June (particularly if you consider starting the nuc with a purchased mated queen).
The worst case outcome from starting your own nuc is that they die and you are out the cost of a mated queen (about $30). The more likely outcome is that you will find yourself getting ready for winter with an insurance hive full of bees, doubling your odds of surviving the winter and starting your second year off ready for the Spring nectar flow.
Keep It Small
I recommend five frame nuc equipment. If your main hive’s brood boxes are mediums, your nuc should be made of mediums. If your main hive’s brood boxes are deeps you will want deep nucs. Much of the functionality that a nuc provides comes from being able to move resources (i.e., frames) back and forth between your main brood chamber and the nuc. This makes keeping the frame size consistent important. For a deep nuc you will want two boxes (and the appropriate number of frames). For a medium nuc setup you will want three boxes.
One of the hard lessons that many first and second year beekeepers learn through experience is that bees build up faster if they have ‘just enough’ space. All of us newbees find it impossible to resist throwing a bunch of empty boxes of foundation on top of the stack. This urge becomes insurmountable when the colony does not seem to be thriving. It takes a while to learn that the cluster can only grow as fast as there are nurse bees to feed/cover it.
The bees will actually build wax and expand the brood nest faster if they only have ‘just enough’ space. Adding more space will only slow them down. This is especially true when the beekeeper does not have any built comb and can only add foundation frames. It is worth the effort of using follower boards to reduce the volume of the hive to what the bees can cover. The follower should only changed for foundation once the available (try to keep it to two) foundation frames are nearly built out with comb. Bees that are more tightly crowded build more wax faster. Two foundation frames seems about right if you are able to do weekly inspections through your first year. Don’t put the second box full of foundation on top of the initial nuc brood chamber until all of the frames in the first box have a good start on built out comb.
A small nuc should be regularly fed. This makes it critically important to make the nuc defensible. Use a very small entrance to make it easier for the bees to defend it. Consider the use of an anti-robbing screen on the entrance. If fed and protected a nuc should build up to ten frames (5 over 5 deeps) easily by the time fall arrives. It is quite possible that by the time September arrives, the nuc can two (or three) boxes deep and crowded to the point that it is ready to swarm. If they are building a bit slower it isn’t a big problem. It should be possible to load them up with 2:1 syrup through September and early October to give them a good chance of overwintering.
There is a very good chance that a backyard beekeeper can get this far in their first season. Getting this far does more than just double the chances of starting the next spring with an early, viable colony. If both survive the nuc can provide real resources to supercharge the main hive during Central Maryland’s only real nectar flow early in the spring!
Making some Queens
For a stable colony, the queen in your production hive should be younger than 1 1/2 years old. One prominent Mid-Atlantic beekeeper was insistent that production queens should always be less than a year old (replaced twice per year). Replacement queens can be rather easily raised using the nuc that was set up for our mini apiary. Ignoring some of the things that we will want to do to improve our odds and queen colony:
- The nuc should be two boxes high by this point. Un-stack the upper box on a new bottom and add a top.
- Feed both boxes with 1:1 syrup and pollen patties.
- Come back in a month to collect the new queen.
OK, so this is a really simplified instruction. It is all that you need to do if conditions are perfect, the weather is cooperating, and your new queen makes it back from her nuptial flight. There are several other optional steps that can be taken to increase the probability of success and the quality of the queen produced by this process (See the sidebar page “Making a few Queens”). These optional steps are just that – optional. What happens even with these other processes is basically still what is outlined above.