It’s very important to have everything set up and ready for immediate use when you arrive home with your bees. Nucs are not "baby" colonies. They differ from mature colonies only in their reduced population, and the restricted size of their temporary home. Keeping the bees waiting in the nuc box while you get your stuff assembled and painted puts them at risk for swarming. Plan on installing them the day they arrive, or the next day if the weather is bad.
You also must think about how you will be feeding your bees after installation. Feeding is especially important early in the season when it provides calories even in bad weather when natural foraging might be reduced. You can use home-made sugar syrup or feed a commercial product such as Pro-Sweet in any type of feeder. The type of feeder controls the installation procedure and the equipment needed. So, you need to know ahead of time which feeder you plan to use. For complete information about feeders and feeding bees in spring, including whether to offer pollen patty, click here.
If you plan on using home-made sugar syrup, make it up the night before. Please read our instructions for installing nucs, for additional tips.
When you leave home to pick up your nuc, the hive should already be set up on-site with a bottom board, one brood box (usually a deep) with its frames inside, and the cover.
On Bee Pick-Up Day, arrive at the scheduled time. If buying your bees from Betterbee, your bees will be living in a plastic Pro Nuc container. Other suppliers may use different transport containers, but the same process is used to install them. Just before loading, the nuc’s entrance will be closed for the trip in your vehicle.
You can transport the nuc in the back of a pick-up truck or inside a car. If you opt for inside your car, you should bring a jacket so that you’re comfortable driving home with the A/C cranked up to keep the bees cool and quiet. Many people opt to buy a nuc bag to surround the nuc. This helps to contain any stray loose bees.
It’s very important to drive directly home with your bees to avoid any chance of overheating - and killing – the bees on the way. This is not the time to run errands or stop for lunch!
Put on your hive jacket or veil and carry the nuc box out to the hive and set it on top. (That’s why you had the hive all set up before you left!) If it’s windy, it’s OK to set it on the ground right beside the hive. The critical thing is that the nuc and the hive be next to each other so that the bees can begin orienting at the same place.
Open the door of the Pro Nuc box on the end facing the same direction as the hive's entrance. To open it, just pull the bottom edge of the colored panel out a little bit and slide it all the way up. This will make the entrance panel bow outwards at the bottom edge, creating an opening for the bees to fly out. Note: the box has identical panels on both ends, but you only want to open the one that faces the same way as the hive’s entrance. Your bees may come out and begin flying right away. You could do the install right then, but it’s best to let them settle down for an hour or so after all the jostling of the trip. You could even wait until the next day if the weather is rainy.
If using a division board or frame feeder, set the nuc to one side and open the hive. Remove a couple of frames and install the feeder along one wall of the hive. Fill it with syrup. If using a pail-type feeder or an Ultimate In-Hive feeder, fill it and have it ready to go. If using a top feeder, keep it empty until after it is installed on the hive. Carry the syrup for a top feeder out to the apiary in a closed container.
Put your jacket on and light your smoker. Lift the nuc off the hive and remove the hive’s cover, setting it aside on the ground. Remove six or seven of the frames from the middle of the box to make room for inserting the nuc’s frames. Give the nuc a little puff of smoke at the entrance. Wait a minute or two and then remove the top. If there are bees clinging to the top, just set it upside down on the hive’s cover for the moment.
With your hive tool, loosen the outermost frame on one side of the nuc. Then slide it a bit away from the others and then lift it gently straight up and out of the nuc. Place it inside the hive on one side of the space made by removing the frames. It’s OK to hold it up and look at it briefly while making the transfer – you may even spot your queen! Do your looking while holding the frame over the open hive so if any bees fall off, they will fall safely into the box and not on the ground where they might get stepped on.
One by one, remove the other frames from the nuc box in the same way, keeping them in the same order when placed in the hive to avoid breaking up the brood nest. Once all the frames are in the hive, add enough new frames to make up a full set (for a total of 8 or 10, depending on the size of your equipment and on whether you’re using a division board feeder which will take up some of the space). Keep the nuc’s frames in the middle of the group.
Use your hive tool to push the frames tightly together, so that the sidebars of the frames are touching each other. There will be some extra space in the box, which should be roughly divided so that half is on either side of the group of frames. Pushing the frames together tightly and leaving the extra space on each side is something you should do on every box, every time you remove any frames. It is a long-term investment in having a tidy hive with straight, even combs that are safer for the bees and will make it easier to do the inspection next time.
After all the frames have been transferred, there will likely still be bees remaining on the bottom and sides of the nuc. (And there may still be bees clinging to the lid, as well.) To get them in the hive, pick the nuc box up and give one of the corners a thump on the ground. This will briefly knock the bees down into that corner. Turn the box upside down over the open hive and dump the bees down on to the top of the frames. If there are a bunch of bees clinging to the nuc’s cover, turn it upside down over the open hive and give it a sharp whack to drop those bees into the hive, as well. Don’t worry if a few stray bees are still in or on the nuc. Just leave the open nuc and cover right beside the hive. Unless it is very cold or nearly dark, the bees will find their way in on their own.
Close the hive using the correct procedure, which will depend on what kind of feeder you’re using. In most cases if you plan to feed a pollen patty, you will need to add a shim. (To prevent robbing, keep the plastic plug in the shim for this use.)
Insert the entrance reducer with just the small notch open for the time being. The bees will quickly begin fanning at the entrance to signal to any stragglers where their new home is.
Don’t discard the mesh bag and the Pro Nuc box because they can be reused. You can use the nuc box all season long as a temporary holding space for frames during inspections, to catch and hold a swarm, or for making an emergency split. Store the extra frames you took out of the box to make room for the nuc indoors until you need them.
You will need to keep an eye on the rate of syrup consumption and keep it topped up, as needed. The goal is to keep supplying syrup to supplement the natural nectar flow until you have a complete set of fully-drawn frames in all the brood boxes you expect to winter on.
Depending on the weather and foraging conditions (and the size of your equipment), you may need to add a second box in as little as 10-14 days. Add another box when the bees are actively working 80% of the frames in the first box. Eight-frame equipment will need the additional box sooner because there are fewer frames in each box.
When adding a second box, move a couple of drawn frames with brood up into the center of the new box and put a couple of undrawn frames on either side of the brood nest in the lower box to replace them. Moving the brood frames upward will encourage the bees to begin working on the frames in the second box.
One thing to keep in mind when caring for a newly-installed nuc: you don’t want the bees to become crowded and swarm as a result. However, bees don’t see undrawn foundation the way we see it: plenty of room to expand. For the bees, until it’s drawn and ready for egg-laying or storage, it’s not the same as available hive space. Feeding the bees syrup provides them with the ample supply of calories needed to prompt their bodies to make wax to turn bare foundation into a full box of drawn combs. But keep an eye on the brood nest area for signs that the bees may begin storing syrup (or nectar) among the empty cells of the brood nest area as this is an early sign of swarm preparations. (This is called backfilling the brood nest.) If you see that, slack off on the feeding and let them use up that surplus by making more wax, which will, in turn, give them the needed additional room. With bees, timing is everything!
Installing a nuc is the first step to learning the core skill of beekeeping: handling frames of bees with smoothness and confidence. Don’t worry if, at first, you feel awkward and clumsy. No one is born knowing how to do this. Constant practice will improve your skills. And you have thousands of teachers in your hive to help you hone your technique.
Congratulations, you are now on your way to becoming a beekeeper.
Check out the video below for step-by-step visual instructions on installing a nuc colony: