Nucs are a favorite way to start a hive in springtime, and are becoming more and more popular. Betterbee makes our own overwintered nucs, which winter here and have northern-bred queens. But the demand for nucs is much higher than we can satisfy, so we also provide customers with spring nucs from Kutik’s Nucs & Queens. Chuck and Karen Kutik of Norwich, NY have been a force in the bee community for over 15 years. Over the years, Betterbee has developed a trusted relationship with Kutik, and we now get all our spring nucs from the dependable Kutik operation. These nucs are trucked up to us in Greenwich, NY in the spring from South Carolina, where the Kutiks have their second operation to give the bees better weather for winter growth.
A few weeks ago, I was able to visit the Kutik nuc and queen operation in South Carolina and follow the Kutiks' partners, Octavio and Sonia Vasquez, for a few days, and I feel quite fortunate that they agreed to let me tag along. I was sorry to discover Chuck and his family were still up north!
When we see a tractor-trailer with tightly-strapped and netted nucs arrive at Betterbee multiple times each spring, the Betterbee gang leaps into action and spreads the nucs out on the lawn, usually before the sun rises. Over the next few days, each nuc is checked and reboxed into a plastic nuc box for the customers who eagerly arrive for bee pickups. We check for colony strength, and stores, and make sure we see the queen. If she's not marked, we mark her. Over the next week or so, customers roll in to pick up their bees.
But the story actually starts much earlier, back in Norwich, NY the summer before. The Kutik crews in New York State create nucs from hives and haul them down to South Carolina in the fall for an easier winter season. In many, many yards tucked away in the countryside of SC, they are checked, fed, and treated for mites. During the balmy early spring (mid-winter for those of us still up in NY), the Kutik colonies are growing! Each may have 14-20 deep frames, the same as a double-deep hive, but arranged vertically and only 5 frames wide. Each colony may result in three excellent, booming nucs.
The Kutiks are also queen producers, and I was impressed to learn that the only colonies judged good enough to use as queen mothers are the colonies with 100% hygienic behavior. They test this systematically by applying liquid nitrogen to a circle of capped brood. After 24 hours, only the colonies that removed 100% of the dead brood in the circle are deemed worthy.
I wondered if the queens raised here are daughters of queens that were raised in NY, and Octavio confirmed that was true. We also chatted about whether, since the area in SC where the daughter queens mate is saturated with Kutik bees, perhaps the drones are also northern stock? This sounds reasonable and pretty likely. Whether we can call these queens entirely "northern" or not, they are certainly hardy, and being of hygienic stock means they are more likely to stay healthy in various ways. Hygienic bees remove damaged, diseased, or dead brood quickly (such as brood containing Varroa destructor mites). They call this line the K9 queens.
During my visit to Kutik's southern operation, I joined a loyal crew of 5-6 helpers as we moved around the county with Octavio and Sonia as the leaders. At each yard, crews immediately get to work. Everyone knows the goals and moves efficiently to complete them. This week the tasks were removing miticide, feeding syrup and pollen patties, and adding another box (5 more frames). After we checked each yard of 600 nucs, Octavio would call out, "Piece of cake!" and we'd drive off to the next yard.
In a little over a month, I'll see some of these nucs again when they arrive at Betterbee for you folks to pick up and bring to your own bee yards. Until then, they'll continue growing in the milder South Carolina climate under the expert care of Octavio, Sonia, and the rest of the Kutik's Nucs and Queens team.