First Year Care For Your Nuc
1) Congratulations, you’ve just purchased a quality nucleus colony with a newly-mated queen from selected stock! You are now likely overwhelmed with advice as to how you “should” keep bees. May I suggest that you read my Rules for Successful Beekeeping articles.
2) Some nucs may have the queen caged—I will let you know. If so, remove the candy cap when you get home to allow the bees to chew through the candy and release the queen.
3) Install the nuc in the center of a brood box with additional frames to fill the box. Feed the nuc 1:1 sugar syrup until all the frames in the box are fully drawn. Feeding sugar syrup to the small colony frees the bees from the need to forage for nectar, and they can use their efforts instead to collect pollen, rear brood, produce beeswax, and draw out comb. We recommend making a dedicated feeder lid—make it from a 16¼” x 20” piece of plywood, with an approx. 1½” hole in the center. Use this lid temporarily in place of your regular lid(s). Make a feeder bottle from any wide-mouthed quart jar, with about three small holes punched closely together in the center of the lid. To use the feeder, fill the jar half full of white granulated sugar (feed no other sugars), then add hot tap water until nearly full. Place your finger over the holes, and shake ‘til the sugar’s dissolved. Invert the jar, centered over the hole in the feeder lid. Generally, feed a quart a day.
4) For best queen survival, you should not disturb the nuc for a few days (other than feeding). Inspect the colony after a week. Use little smoke and minimal disturbance. If all’s well, the bees should have started drawing out fresh comb, there should be brood of all ages, including white larvae and eggs. Note that eggs are very difficult for the beginner to see, especially against new comb. The presence of any eggs, or young larvae in royal jelly, means that you have a queen, and all’s well—you need not actually see the queen!
5) You may check the colony weekly (but be aware that smoke and chilling disrupt a colony for at least a day). This is your chance to watch a colony grow! Be aware, though, that clumsy handling by beginners often results in queen loss, so it’s a trade off between observing the bees, and the chance of killing the queen—you make the decision. As the population grows, and the colony can cover more frames, the bees will draw combs of foundation from the center out, and the queen will start laying in those combs.
6) In general, place the combs back into the same arrangement that the bees had. Always keep brood (and frames of eggs) together, honey to the outside, and pollen at the edge of the brood nest.
a) Exception: It’s hard for the bees to draw out the outermost combs. Once the bees draw out the inner side of the second combs in, reverse those combs, and move them to the outside (only if they contain no eggs–see illustration).
7) Feed continuously, but not to the extent that the queen is unable to expand the brood nest due to excess stored syrup and nectar. If the bees store syrup in the center of the brood area (see illustration), cut back feeding.
a) Note that there is often a large colony-to-colony variation in buildup and honey production.
b) Make sure you have a queen—indicated by eggs and brood of all ages. Note that it is common for beginners to inadvertently kill the queen by inexpert handling of the frames!
c) Check to see that the queen is laying a regular pattern of brood in concentric rings by age. If brood pattern is spotty or uneven, the queen may have a problem.
d) If there are multiple eggs in a cell, or you see bullet-shaped cappings in worker brood cells, you may have laying workers or a drone-laying queen.
e) If brood has “salt and pepper” pattern of sealed brood, look for signs of brood disease—chalkbrood (white & tan “mummies”), EFB (twisted white & yellow larvae), or AFB (sunken perforated cappings, melted brown larvae that “rope”)
f) If there are queen cells being formed, the colony may have lost their queen, may be superseding the queen, or be preparing to swarm.
9) About a month after you get your nuc, you should test it for mite level, using a sticky board or other method (I strongly recommend the “alcohol wash” or “sugar shake”). Assume that all nucs have varroa mite. You must monitor mite level, and treat if the mite level exceeds the seasonal “treatment threshold” (1 mite/100 bees prior to July 1, 2/100 July 1 through late fall). We are having great success with mite-tolerant queens, biotechnical methods, and “natural” treatments.
I recommend mite testing in early spring, before supering, again in early August, and in late September (Northern Calif). The best test is an alcohol or detergent wash of 300 bees (level 1/2 cup), or the “sugar shake.” We have very good success with Apiguard gel or MAQS (temperature dependent). I also recommend a 3.5% oxalic acid dribble (applied accurately) before Christmas (Northern Calif). I’ve detailed your seasonal choices for mite treatments below.
Our typical mite management regime in Grass Valley is as below:
For further information, I suggest the following articles:
10) Once the bees have drawn out all the combs in the first brood box, you can add the second brood box (you may wish to add a drone frame for mite trapping). Keep feeding the colony until all the combs are drawn out. At this point, the brood chamber is complete (assuming a double deep brood chamber), and you should discontinue feeding.
a) If the colony fails to move up onto foundation in an added box:
Lack of honeyflow or syrup feeding.
Colony weak due to disease or queen problem, or not enough time to build up population.
11) If the timing’s right for a honeyflow (mid May through June in Grass Valley), you can now add a queen excluder and honey supers.
a) If you’re adding a super of foundation above a queen excluder, the colony needs to be very strong, and there should not be a band of honey directly below the excluder. If there is one, reverse the brood chambers, top to bottom.
12) Honey crop—your colony may not build up enough the first season to make a surplus honey crop, especially if you got a late start. Be content to have a heavy, strong colony by July, ready to overwinter successfully.
a) OK, an exception: let’s say that the first brood box is full, and now the honeyflow is starting, and you’d really like to get a little honey the first year. Just put on the second brood box, and stop feeding syrup. Let the bees work up and fill the box with brood and honey. Once the honeyflow’s over (usually once blackberry stops blooming at the end of June), you can pull out frames of honey and do a “scrape extraction.” Use a tablespoon to scrape the honey off the foundation into a nylon stocking hung in a gallon jar, then return the scraped frame to the hive, and resume feeding until the bees draw it out again. They will winter just fine on honey made from sugar syrup.
13) Preparation for winter: your colony will generally reach its maximum size around July 1, and get somewhat smaller during the late summer and fall. Colonies winter best (in the foothills) in two deep brood chambers or equivalent, with a total weight (mainly due to honey) of about 130 lbs (you need at least two fingers to tip the hive). If the hive is not heavy by the end of September, feed heavy sugar syrup until it is.
If your apiary is located in a dry area of the foothills, there may not be enough pollen to sustain late summer broodrearing–colonies in these areas greatly benefit from late summer feeding with pollen supplement. Any of the top-tier pollen supplements work–if you don’t see pollen beebread in an arc above the brood, the colony is likely hurting for protein. We typically feed each colony several pounds of pollen supplement during August through October. This may not be necessary if you live in town or in an irrigated area.
Winter prep consists of having the hives off the ground and in a well-drained sunny location. It helps to reduce the entrance. A well-prepared colony (well fed, and low mite level) should need no care during the winter, and will begin to rebuild its population in January.
14) The combs I am selling you are generally at least two years old. I recommend rotating old combs out of the brood nest and discarding them when they get dark brown and rubbery hard.
15) Read all about beekeeping, but remember that there is no substitute for hands-on experience in the beeyard with an seasoned beekeeper. Find a mentor in your area.
16) Getting a colony of bees is not like getting a puppy–you expect the puppy to live to old age; this may not be the case with bees. In nature, many colonies die each year. Even the best beekeepers may have a third of their colonies die in some years. It helps to keep more than one colony, so that you can split it in spring to make up for losses.
17) Good luck with your new colony—I hope you have great success this year! If you have suggestions as to how I can improve these instructions, please let me know!