Field Guide to Beekeeping

April 2015

Installing Packages and Hiving Nucs

by Jamie Ellis


One of the greatest joys of beekeeping is acquiring one’s first hive. I dedicated an entire article to discussing how to acquire bees and queens (see Ellis, J.D. 2015. Acquiring bees and queens. American Bee Journal, 155(1): 29-33). In the current article, I discuss the next step in becoming a beekeeper: initiating your new colonies. Given that most beekeepers acquire their hives as packages or nucs, I feel that it is appropriate to share how to install both colonies of bees into a full size hive.

A package of bees, quite literally, is a cage of bees that one can purchase to install into existing hive equipment. They can be purchased from a number of sources. Usually, packages can be picked up directly from the producer or the producer may ship the package via the U.S. Postal Service or other carrier service. The physical package typically is constructed of a wooden top, bottom, and sides while the faces of the package are screen mesh. There are new, fully plastic packages available on the market. I suspect these will become more common in the future.

Packages are sized and sold by the weight of the bees they carry. This usually ranges from 2 – 5 lbs of bees. Furthermore, packages can be purchased with/without queens, though it is most common to purchase packages with queens.

Nucs, short for “nucleus colony,” are small versions of full size colonies. They are composed of full depth and length hive bodies and supers. However, the nuc hive bodies and supers are narrower and accommodate fewer frames. Nucs are functioning colonies, complete with a queen, brood, worker bees, honey, pollen, and wax. In essence, a nuc is a small colony, ready to grow into a big one.

Nucs are sized and sold by the number of frames they contain. Nucs usually contain three to five frames, with the most common size being the five-frame nuc. Typically speaking, nuc producers sell only the frames/bees and charge more money to beekeepers wanting to purchase the accompanying nuc lids, bottoms, and hive bodies. Many nuc producers will require a deposit for the nuc lid, bottom, and hive body. That way, they make money on this equipment if the beekeeper purchasing the nuc fails to return the equipment. The beekeeper is given his/her deposit back if he/she returns the nuc hive parts to the nuc producer.

Every beekeeper has his/her preference regarding nucs and packages. To be sure, there are advantages and disadvantages to starting with nucs and packages. To help you decide between nucs and packages, I developed a table (Table 1) in which I compare various aspects associated with nucs and packages directly. Furthermore, I provide below step-by-step instructions for installing packages and nucs, with many photographs that illustrate what I discuss. Finally, I provide additional pointers regarding nuc and package bee installation that I hope are of some use to you. At the end of the day, every beekeeper should install a package and a nuc, just to experience the work associated with doing both.

Step-by-step instructions for installing packages

Step 1 – Acquire your packages (Figure 1).

Step 2 – Know the parts of your package (Figure 2). Packages typically have wooden tops, bottoms, and end walls. The faces of the packages are made of screen wire. There is a wooden lid on top of the package. The lid covers a large hole that accommodates a metal feeder can that extends about 3/5 of the distance into the package from the top. The feeder contains sugar water or corn syrup and has holes in its bottom surface. The caged bees feed from these holes while the package is in transit. The feeder rests on a small piece of wood that runs between the two screen faces of the package. The package also contains a small queen cage that houses the queen and sometimes attendants, the latter depending on queen breeder habit (i.e. some queen breeders add attendants, worker bees who “attend” the queen, to the cage while others do not). The queen cages usually are made of wood or plastic.

Step 3 – Get your hive components together and make them ready to receive the packages (Figure 3). In Figure 3, the hives are composed of single deep hive bodies and contain wooden frames outfitted with plastic foundation. If is, of course, OK to start colonies on pulled combs as long as the combs are pest and disease free.

Step 4 – Take the packages to the hives in which they will be installed (Figure 4).

Step 5 – Spray the packages with water (Figure 5). Bees lightly misted with water cannot fly, making package installation significantly easier. Many people use sugar water for this purpose. However, sugar water makes the package and bees sticky, attracts robbing bees, and is not necessary. Regular tap water will do just fine. First, mist the bees with water through both screen faces of the package. Next, lightly bounce the bees down to the bottom of the package by giving package a firm tap on the ground. Spray the bees as they cluster on the bottom of the package. Next, firmly tap the package on one end. This causes the bees to fall to one end of the package and allows one to mist bees that were in the center of the cluster originally and, consequently, were not sprayed earlier. Then, firmly tap the package on the opposite wooden end, causing the cluster of bees to slide to the opposite side of the package. Repeat this procedure 2-4 times, misting the bees every time. This should be done until all of the bees in the package are misted. Do not over mist the bees. You do not want them to drown or chill if daytime temperatures are cool.

Step 6 – Remove the wooden lid from the top of the package using a hive tool (Figure 6). Bees cannot escape the package with the lid removed since the feeder blocks the opening.

Step 7 – Remove the feeder from the package using a hive tool (Figure 7) and place the wooden lid loosely over the package opening. The sugar water in the feeder can be added to a hive feeder to feed a colony. Thus, it is useful to have a can opener on hand.

Step 8 – Remove the queen cage from the package. Often, the queen cage will have a metal tab or something similar affixed to it so that it can hang on the frame beside which it is installed. If this metal or similar tab is not present, staple a piece string (about 6 inches or 15 cm) to the back of the cage (Figure 8). Make sure the staples are not long enough to go through the cage walls and into the space where the queen and workers are. This could damage the bees within. Also, the string should be stapled to the end of the cage containing the “candy” so that this side of the cage will be facing up when hung between frames.

Step 9 – Remove four frames from the hive (Figure 9). I usually remove the frames from one side of the hive if I am going to install the bees by placing the entire package into the hive. I remove the frames from the middle if I am going to install the bees by shaking the bees from the package and into the hive. Both methods of package installation are discussed below.

Step 10 – Suspend the queen cage between two frames before the bees are added to the colony (Figure 10). The frames in the colony in Figure 10 only have foundation. There are no frames with pulled combs. Thus, the queen cage must be secured between the two frames using the string stapled to the cage.

Step 11 – Staple the string affixed to the queen cage to the top bar of a frame (Figure 11). This will suspend the queen cage close to the top of the frame. This step is not necessary if the frames between which the cage is installed contain pulled combs. Cages can be secured between two frames containing pulled combs simply by squeezing the frames together and allowing the queen cage to sink into the wax of both combs. Figure 12 shows the correct placement of ...