Bigging up nucs

The phrase bigging up [somebody or something] means saying they are very good, usually in public 1. It is slang and used informally and usage has increased significantly in the last couple of decades.

The term bigging in bigging up meaning promotion, is relatively new. However, the same word can be traced back to Middle English and (a bit more more recently) obsolete Scottish, when it meant build.

Two days work bigging a brick wall in the Braidfoots house 2.

Anyone who has used nucs, for queen mating or swarm control for example, is likely to big them up … as in sing their praises. Small enough to need only limited resources to start them, large enough to function as a self-contained and resilient colony etc.

However, in this post I’m going to discuss bigging up nucs in the older meaning of the phrase … building them up from a nuc to a full colony.

Which could also, of course, be considered as promoting them 😉

Problems with history and latitude

One of the perils of writing about beekeeping in the UK is the variation in the season between the south and the north of the country.

Just as you can’t be prescriptive in any one location about when certain events in a particular beekeeping year occur – e.g. swarming, winter bee production, broodlessness – it’s also pretty obvious that the season is longer 3 at lower latitudes.

It’s therefore not possible to say ‘in late May’ or ‘by mid-June’ nucs will start to be overcrowded 4. Not only does this depend upon the local climate, but it is also significantly influenced by how the nucs were prepared.

If the nuc was established for swarm control, started with the old queen and 1-2 frames of brood, it is likely to have built up rapidly and will quickly overrun the box if not dealt with promptly.

Alternatively, if the nuc was used for queen mating, started with a sealed cell (or virgin queen) and a frame of emerging brood, it will build up less fast as the queen has to get out and mate and then start laying.

Overcrowding

Whatever the history (or the latitude), at some point the colony will grow to be too large for the box. Then, but ideally earlier (so you are prepared), you need to decide what you are going to do with them.

With experience you can judge overcrowding by gently popping the lid up and peering through the thin plastic or polycarbonate crownboard. 

I use Thorne’s Everynucs which have an integral feeder at one end of the box. When they start building brace comb in the feeder they need to be given more space.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

The colony above is overwintered and very clearly overcrowded. The photo was taken in the third week of April (in Scotland). By mid-season, a colony that crowded would have probably swarmed.

Comb in feeder

The photo immediately above was taken in late June this year. The nuc was set up in mid-May for swarm control with the queen and just one frame of emerging brood.

However, in the intervening six weeks I had already removed two or three frames of sealed brood (but not adhering bees) to boost other colonies, replacing the frames with a mix of drawn comb and foundation, all of which had been drawn and filled again.

Nucs can build up very fast … be warned.

Decision time

Nucs are really versatile. Your choice includes (but isn’t restricted to):

  1. Overwintering the nuc
  2. Expanding the nuc into a full hive
  3. Uniting the nuc with a queenless colony
  4. Removing the queen and uniting the nuc with a queenright colony
  5. Leaving it too late and letting them swarm 🙁

I’m not going to discuss the last option, but it is an inevitability if the colony is healthy and there’s a reasonable amount of forage in the area. 

One more week’ for a nuc is usually not worth risking.

Overwintering nucs deserves a post of its own (and has been covered some time ago 5). It’s worth noting that nucs started in May for swarm control or for queen mating require a lot of maintenance if they are not to outgrow their accommodation by the end of the season. You need to regularly remove bees and brood or the colony will swarm.

It is much better to start nucs later in the season for overwintering.

Before doing anything with the nuc it is worth confirming that the queen appears well mated and is laying well 6. She should be producing frame after frame packed with brood. In new(ish) comb you can easily tell her quality based upon the presence of even sheets of brood, with relatively few missed cells.

Good laying pattern from queen in 5 frame nucleus

The frame above is from a nuc this spring. The majority of the missed cells, at least at the top of the frame, are due to the wires in the foundation.

Returning a marked and clipped queen to a nuc

And, while you’re at it, use this opportunity of the last inspection of the nuc to mark and clip the queen (if she isn’t already). It’s always easier to find a queen in a nuc – fewer bees, less frames to hide on the other side of etc.

From nuc to a full brood box

This is about as easy as it gets and should take no more than 5 minutes if you have everything to hand.

  1. Move the nuc a metre or so away from its original location.
  2. Place a new floor and a brood box on the original site.
  3. The brood box should contain a couple of frames of drawn comb if you have them, or frames with fresh foundation. Place one next to each side wall (see note below for comment on warm and cold way).
  4. If the floor has open mesh I slide in the Varroa tray. I do not want the bees to be distracted by smells from other ‘potential’ routes into the hive.
  5. Open the nuc using a very small amount of smoke 7.
  6. Remove the dummy board from the nuc and gently separate the frames if they’re propolised together.
  7. Transfer each frame to the new brood box maintaining their position and orientation relative to the neighbouring frames. Arrange the frames from the nuc close to the new hive entrance (see below).
  8. Ideally , make sure the queen is seen … just to give you confidence 🙂
  9. Move the second new frame of drawn comb or foundation to ‘sandwich’ the frames from the nuc.
  10. Fill the rest of the box with frames containing drawn comb or new foundation.
  11. Replace the dummy board removed in #6 above.
  12. Add syrup if needed – see below.
  13. Replace the crownboard and roof.
  14. Reduce the entrance to help the colony defend their new, much larger, residence.

Feeding

If there is a good nectar flow you may not need to feed the colony. If you’ve used new foundation rather than drawn comb then they probably will need feeding. It’s important they draw new comb so the queen can continue laying uninterrupted. This ensures they build up rapidly.

Use thin syrup (1:1 by weight of sugar and water) in a contact feeder. 

I usually give nucs a gallon or so of syrup to help them draw comb. They use this surprisingly fast. Check them every 48 hours. 

Welcome to your new home … nuc ‘promoted’ to hive with contact feeder in place

My crownboards lack holes, so I place the contact feeder directly above the top bars, separated by a couple of spare frame bottom bars. I add a super to ‘house’ the contact feed and then close the hive up.

Defending the hive

All of my full-sized hives are arranged warm way. This means the frames are parallel with the entrance of the hive. The alternative, cold way, has the frames perpendicular to the entrance.

To help the small colony defend the new large box they are in, the nucleus frames should be located close to the hive entrance.

The hive entrance is on the left with the frames arranged ‘warm way’.

Initially, these are the frames that are covered in bees, so providing a deterrent to any potential robbers.

It may also help to reduce the size of the hive entrance so the bees only need to defend an inch wide hole, rather than the full width of the box.

If your hives are organised cold way’ the same requirements apply – arrange the bees near to the entrance and reduce the entrance width. For example, place the frames in the centre of the hive, flanked on each side by three new frames, and leave a narrow central entrance open.

Finally, do not slop syrup around all over the place when feeding them. It’s a near-certain way to encourage robbing (particularly if there’s a shortage of nectar).

Uniting the nuc with a queenright or queenless colony

I can deal these two together because the only difference is where the queen is in the stacked boxes at the end of the procedure.

Collect together the things you will need:

  • A new brood box
  • Two sheets of newspaper
  • Six frames of drawn comb or foundation

Queens

If the hive and the nuc are both queenright you must remove the unwanted queen 8.

Typically this is when you have used the nucleus method of swarm control. The colony has reared a good new queen and the old queen in the nuc is now surplus to requirements.

Alternatively, the colony might have generated a sub-standard or poorly mated queen and you want a single united colony headed again by the original queen.

If the old(er), unwanted queen is still laying OK consider offering her to someone else in your association. Remove the queen, does not necessarily mean sacrifice her. 

Caged queen with attendants

Place the queen in a introduction cage with some attendant workers and some candy. Put her somewhere safe (the breast pocket works for me) and give her to someone who needs her more than you do … perhaps in exchange for a nice bottle of merlot 9 😉

Don’t risk leaving two queens in the same box and hoping the ‘better’ one (i.e. the one you want) will survive the ruckus that will happen. 

Sod’s Law dictates that the queen you want will not make it … particularly if it’s late in the season, she’s particularly good or she’s otherwise precious.

Uniting

I generally move the nuc to the hive it is being united with. Waft some smoke at the hive entrance, remove the roof and gently lift the corner of the crownboard. Add a second gentle puff of smoke into the gap and let the bees move down.

Remove the crownboard and gently lay two intact sheets of newspaper flat over the tops of the frames. It helps to remove brace comb from the top bars as it can puncture the newspaper and lead to premature mixing and a bit of a melee.

In the good old days a single page from a broadsheet 10 newspaper was sufficient. These days I think you have to read the Financial Times to achieve this

Assuming you’re not Gordon Gekko, a hedge fund manager or derivatives trader you will probably need two slightly overlapping sheets. Don’t bother about moving all the bees off the top bars – they’ll move down soon enough once you put the newspaper on.

If it’s windy use your initiative, recruit a helper or evolve at least one additional limb to hold the newspaper in place.

Add a second empty brood box on top.

Make a small hole (about the size of the o in hole) in the sheet using your hive tool, somewhere near the middle, above a gap between two frames. You can just see the hole above the curve of the hive tool here …

Newspaper, second brood box and a very small hole

Add two or three frames of drawn comb or foundation. Transfer all the frames from the nuc to the new brood box, as before, maintaining their order and orientation. Fill the rest of the box with frames, shake in the last bees from the nuc box and close the hive up.

Just checking!

As before, if you are uniting a queenright nuc with a queenless hive, it’s always good to be certain the queen was on one of the frames transferred to the new box.

Have patience

Hives usually have sufficient stores at this time of the season. If both boxes are light you might have to feed them syrup (to help them draw comb) or fondant (just to tide them over until the nectar flow starts).

Leave them to it. There’s nothing to be gained by ‘having a peek’. The bees will chew their way through the newspaper in 24-48 hours.

Successful uniting ...

Successful uniting …

Look out for a pile of shredded newspaper falling through the open mesh floor and, after a week, continue inspections as normal.

Miscellaneous final thoughts

If the recipient hive is broodless it will end up with lots of space and empty frames. Under those circumstances I usually unite them down to a single box. Rather than adding additional frames to the top box I use a fat dummy to fill the space.

Uniting a nuc with a full colony

Uniting a nuc with a full colony …

A block of polystyrene tightly wrapped in a bin bag works just as well 11.

A week after uniting them rearrange the brood-containing frames with pollen and stores into a single box and remove the empty frames and unwanted second brood box.

Lost bees

How will the bees reorientate to the new location?

Don’t worry. The bees from the nuc will discover that everything is changed when they have to muscle their way through the lower brood box to reach the hive entrance. They will quickly reorientate to the new hive.

Some of the workers from the nuc will have been out foraging when you rudely removed their home. They will, in time, move to a nearby hive and blag their way in 12

Where has the house gone?

You can speed this process up by removing the hive stand the nuc was on. With nowhere to land they quickly find an adjacent hive. If I unite colonies in poor weather (or just before rain starts 13) I’ll try and minimise the number of stranded bees by doing this.

For the same reason I prefer not to unite late in the afternoon to give the bees time to relocate. 

Supers

When I was younger and much better organised I’d clear the supers in advance on the recipient hive. I’d visit the apiary 24 hours before I intended to unite them and add a clearer board. When preparing the recipient colony I’d put the (now emptied) supers aside, unite the colonies and then add the supers back on top (all on the same visit). 

These days I’m definitely older and usually less well organised 🙁

Newspaper and queen excluder

If I’ve forgotten to clear the supers I’ll also unite the bees in the supers over the nuc. I separate them with newspaper as before and add a queen excluder to stop the queen moving up into the supers.

All that then remains to do is tidy up the apiary and go home for a cup of tea.

Time to tidy up and go home


 

Footnotes

  1. The phrase Big it up for X is often used to encourage an audience to show their appreciation.
  2. Originally 1743, quoted by H. Fraser in Powis papers (1951).
  3. Starting earlier and ending later.
  4. Of course, it is possible to say it … it’s just not possible to be correct all the time (and usually results in me being corrected!).
  5. But that post really needs updating.
  6. If the nuc was started with a cell or a virgin this is particularly important. If the nuc was started with an older laying queen it confirms she is still performing well.
  7. Nucs are almost always docile and you want the bees to be calm and untroubled by the entire process. You may be able to complete the transfer without using any smoke, but have it ready ‘just in case’.
  8. David Cushman suggests this is not necessary and that the ‘bees know best’. They might, but I’m uniting for a reason after judging the quality of the queens … and I want the outcome to be as certain as possible.
  9. Which you need more than they do.
  10. The ones without scantily-clad soap stars on the front page.
  11. Or nothing at all … but I prefer to discourage them from filling voids with brace comb.
  12. They come bearing gifts – pollen, water, nectar – so will be welcome
  13. Sometimes these things happen.

14 thoughts on “Bigging up nucs

  1. Elaine Robinson

    Thanks David, a good reminder about uniting. I’ve united 3 queenless colonies to queen right hives with good success this season. I’m planning later this week to unite 2 small queenright Nucs (part of swarm control) back to their parent colonies. In these 2 cases I didn’t want increase and was happy with the existing queens which are this year’s. Along the way, I’ve removed swarm cells from the parent colonies and then let them build emergency cells and taken them down again, to hopefully switch their mindset from swarming to being hopelessly queenless. However the 2 nucs are still quite small with two or three frames of young brood, compared to their parent hives which have lots of older foragers and will soon be broodless. So, I’m wondering if I need to take extra precautions when uniting? I’m planning on placing each queenright nuc on top of the large parent queenless brood box and papering the supers on top of the nuc.
    -Should I cage the queen in the nuc, to slow the uniting process down? I have a couple of press in cages that I could place each queen into, onto brood and fill the escape route with a plug of fondant, so they can chew her out slowly. Or is this not necessary?
    -Also I’m wondering having read your article, whether to skip using a queen excluder between the 2 brood boxes (I usually use to hold the paper down)? I’m wondering if this could be a hindrance or a good thing re keeping the queen in the top box or giving her free reign of both boxes?

    Finally , sorry for all the questions but your article often prompts these! 🙂 One of the hives that I’m reuniting with their queen threw up swarm cells when I uniting them after a vertical split. In this case I kept the queen in the top box and as they were even in size, it was easier at the time, to unite this way. I’m wondering if this supports the point re not using queen excluders when uniting 2 good sized hives, as could this have perhaps contributed to congestion? Is this likely, or maybe I was just unlucky and they would have raised swarm cells anyway…

    Appreciate your thoughts!
    Elaine

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Elaine

      The only time I ever use a QE when uniting is if I suspect there’s a queen in the “queenless” box but can’t find her and I’m in a real rush … or if it’s blowin’ a gale and it’s the only way to hold the newspaper in place 😉

      If you want to slow down the rate the two boxes mix at you can double the newspaper thickness. I think Dave Cushman/Roger Paterson recommends doing that anyway, but I’ve never bothered. I can only remember one failed attempt at uniting in the hundreds, well certainly dozens, I’ve done. I think I’ve done about 20 this season already.

      All the bees in the boxes you intend to unite are from the same queen (if I’ve understood the question properly). They should all “smell” the same and should unite without any problems. Perhaps the only thing I’d be concerned about is why the Q in the nuc hasn’t built up more strongly … it’s approaching 3 week since she was moved to the nuc and she’s only laid up 2-3 frames of brood? If she’s a 2020 queen she should be firing on all cylinders by now. Of course, if there’s been a dearth of nectar and the bees were on foundation alone they may have struggled to draw comb for her to lay. For comparison … the nuc in the second photo had 5 frames of brood on the 25th of June. It was made up with a single frame of brood and stores on or about the 15th of May. In the intervening period I’d already removed two or three (can’t remember which and don’t have my notes to hand) frames of brood to boost another colony. However, wherever possible I was adding drawn comb rather than foundation to help them along.

      I’m not sure I understand the question in the final paragraph. You’ve attempted to unite them already, they produced queen cells and you then abandoned the uniting and re-separated the hives? Digital diagnosis is often nearly impossible 🙁

      Regards
      David

      Reply
  2. Dorothie

    Thanks David
    I have done this several times before (queenright nuc over queenless hive). Sadly in one this year I forgot the qe between the supers and guess where she went! Took me ages to locate her and get her back down again. A lot of very fed up bees! Lesson learnt don’t be in such a hurry!
    I have also noticed with this method that the queen is often reluctant to move down into the bottom box away from ‘her’ brood. So I usually have to put the frame with her on downstairs myself.
    Sometimes leave as double brood for a bit if there are too many good frames to fit in one box.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      That’s pretty much my experience as well in terms of rearranging the frames, and relocating the queen if she is reluctant to move down.

      It’s worse still getting the queen in the supers if you use drone foundation 🙁

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  3. Duncan Philps-Tate

    Thanks for a timely article – at least for me and my well-filled nuc!

    It does prompt me to ask a couple of questions that’ve nagged at me for a while:
    1/ Just how “dirty” can old brood frames be before re-use is a bad idea? Or to put it another way, should one always aim to use fresh brood frames when promoting a nuc to a full-sized box?

    2/ How realistic are the diagrams showing a laying area shaped like a rugby ball surrounded by stores? The queen in my full colony seems to lay virtually entire frames and fill in gaps with larvae between sealed brood. That’s in a 14×12 and I admit there are masses of bees present, though no signs of swarming (I suspect & a local mentor suggested they may have superseded relatively earlier in the year and surged ahead). I know bees don’t read the text books but I worry that I’m mis-understanding what I’m seeing.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Duncan

      Nucs draw fresh comb really well if there’s a good nectar flow, so you can start with foundation or foundationless frames. Due to lockdown my beekeeping has been far from normal this year, so some of the comb I’m using (like the frame 3 pics from the end of the article) is probably darker than it would ideally be. If I remember I date my brood frames and rotate them out of the hive on or before 3 years. By that time they’re pretty dark usually. Fresh comb is better all round – less pathogen build up, larger cells etc. Next season I’m going to have to replace a lot of frames that should have been moved on this year.

      The shape of the brood patch is dependent upon the bees and the box. The third pic is a typical frame from my bees. These usually cope fine in a single brood box, have significant amounts of dark/native-type genetics (often grafted from stock from Scottish islands … some time ago) and usually manage to have stores and brood on the same frame (as shown). Other bees I’ve had (and some I currently have) are far more prolific … they fill the frames with slabs of brood and often leave an arch of empty cells above the QE for the queen, rather than filling it with stores. I prefer bees in single brood boxes that are relatively frugal, others prefer bees that are good at making bees. If any bees have too little space in the brood box they are likely to fill the frames with brood, and swarm if you’re unlucky (or inattentive!).

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  4. Elaine Robinson

    Hi David
    Thanks, think I am being over cautious about using a cage having read your reply. It was just over a week ago, since I separated the queens from their colonies, so will be just over 2 weeks when I reunite. Both were doing well in their hives but the weather has been poor since and nectar flow non existent. Hence why one colony had only laid up 1 frame of brood but the other has laid 3 frames. The balsam is now in flower, hurrah, so should help!
    Apologies for the lack of clarity on the last question. The swarm cells came about with one of the queens during a prior uniting of 2 colonies I’d split earlier in the season. I’d wondered whether using the queen excluder during the uniting, had helped trigger this. I.e the queen didn’t have access to both brood boxes, perhaps contributing to congestion and swarm cells!? I’ll adopt your practise of not using a queen excluder when joining 2 hives together in future, especially if the queen is in the top box
    Best wishes
    Elaine

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Elaine

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen QC’s when using a queen excluder. However, during ‘Ben Harden’ queenright queen rearing, you separate grafted larvae from a brood box with the queen and they usually draw the cells perfectly well, so it’s quite possible your explanation is correct.

      Something (else) to look out for next season when swarming starts all over again … 🙂

      Best Wishes
      David

      Reply
  5. Fred

    i was thinking of making up a nuc from strong hive with a 3 year old queen whose traits i am very keen on. i had planned to take her out into a nuc for fingers crossed survive the winter and let original hive go about rearing a new queen from her eggs. how many frames can i remove from hive to 1. have old queen nuc strong enough and 2. without leaving original hive too weak to rear a good queen? climate similar to yours and have (almost) given up on weather

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Fred

      Without understanding your definition of a strong hive that’s impossible to answer. My definition of a strong hive would probably have 12-16 frames of brood. They wouldn’t miss three frames of brood plus bees to make the nuc, though there’s always the danger that the nuc will outgrow the box before autumn. It also depends upon the strain of bees … some brood late into the autumn, producing ample numbers of winter bees through October. Others shut down in mid/late September and sulk as the weather deteriorates.

      Queens do get mated in mid/late August in Scotland, but I’m not sure I’d want to rely on it happening. However, you have time to unite the nuc back if you fail to get a mated queen in time, so it’s probably not too risky. I’d make the nuc with a couple of frames of brood at least, and then keep a close eye on both the nuc and the colony – the former to ensure they don’t outgrow the box, and the latter to make sure they get a mated queen. Be prepared to get the newspaper out and unite them in mid-September though 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  6. Jane

    Thanks for another useful posting. I “bigged up” the nuc I created as swarm control some time ago, and am now looking to unite with another colony to reduce the number of hives I overwinter. I have been wondering the best time to do this in relation to Apiguard treatment, production of winter bees (by one or two queens depending on when I unite) and autumn feeding.
    I intend to put in the Apiguard mid-August based on last year’s bad experience doing it in late August with a cool period after. Do you suggest I should unite before that and potentially treat as a double brood, or after each has been treated separately?
    Best wishes,
    Jane

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Jane

      I’d unite sooner rather than later, simply to save the miticide costs 😉

      However, in your circumstances I might move the less desirable queen to a nuc, and overwinter her as a spare, uniting the remainder of the colony. Depending where you are there’s sufficient time to get a nuc strong enough to overwinter successfully. If you don’t need it in the Spring you’ll find lots of new beekeepers looking for overwintered nucs from late March onwards (which is too early!). Overwintering nucs is more difficult than a full colony, so it will also be a useful learning experience.

      Half dose of Apiguard for a nuc …

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  7. Luke Thomson

    Hi David,

    This is quite specific, but I have a colony that I am planning on overwintering in a Thorne Everynuc and I was wondering what your experience was of feeding fondant during the winter with the integral feeder – if you feed them fondant over winter do you find that the bees are able to access it reliably via the feeder or would you recommend the usual directly laying fondant on the cluster in an eke?

    Cheers,
    Luke

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Luke

      I’ve overwintered them just using the integral feeder without a problem. Strong colonies do better. A small colony can get ‘stuck’ at the wrong end of the box in which case you might want to add a block of fondant directly over the cluster. I’ve got a few of there syrup feeders as well. You can add a block of fondant to the deeper well and the bees can easily access it. There’s also a report in a BIBBA newsletter by Peter Edwards of converting one of these types of Miller/Ashforth feeders to feed fondant … I’ve not got round to this yet.

      Here’s an overwintered nuc of mine in an Everynuc …

      Mid-April overwintered nuc

      … bursting at the seams.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply

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