Nucs and Splits

Nucs or Splits are basically the same things. Splits you make for yourself, nucs you can purchase from another source or beekeeper.
Nucs. To fully understand the term perhaps a description of what constitutes a nuc would be helpful. A nuc or nucleus to give it its full title should consist of 3 r 5 frames of bees, brood, both open and sealed, honey and pollen stores and a laying queen of the current year. Often supplied in a box, sometimes made of cardboard.

drone trap mounted on hive front
Drone Trap

A split is basically a nuc, but is taken from a full sized hive and can be made for two main reasons. It is often used as a starter for another hive, to make an increase in holdings, or can be used as a means of population control, supposedly to prevent swarming. This rarely works in practice, two small hives are not as efficient as one large one and there are better ways to prevent the hive from going ‘walkabout‘. See Swarming for further details. As nucs and splits are the same things I will just refer to nucs from here on, to avoid confusion.

Can be made at any time of the year, but more often early season to allow time for the nuc to become large enough to manage its first winter. The Book says that nucs should be moved at least 3 miles away from the parent yard to prevent loss of bees after the
make up. This has the effect of preventing the one-yard beekeeper from making up an increase in this fashion, as they haven’t the means of placing them 3 miles away. During this article ways will be discussed that will make that rule defunct. So I think a general discussion of nuc making and placement would help.

The mother hive that is selected for the nuc donation should be strong and in good health, with ample stores and bees, with a strong laying queen. In some cases if the donor hive is large enough, then 2 nucs can be made from the same donor hive. It is quite remarkable how quickly a good hive will replace its donation.

As previously stated a nuc needs at least 3 frames, one of brood, sealed, one of open brood and young larvae, and one of stores, a five frame will have two extra frames of brood and stores, one with emerging bees.

queen cage ready install
Queen cage

If a queen is to be introduced then the nuc should be made up no more than 24 hours before introduction. This is to prevent queen cells being started. There is the danger that any cells started will be allowed to proceed to completion, the emerging virgin then kills the queen you have just introduced. There is a misconception that introduced mated queens will kill any cells she finds, this is incorrect as mated queens do not make it their first job to remove rivals.

Do not be tempted by older beekeepers that give ‘advice’ on making up queenless nucs, the advice that states “the bees will make their own queen”, we refer to these as poor man’s splits. This omits the addition of a queen and forces the bees into making their own emergency queen, not recommended. The end product, because of feeding restrictions, will result in an intercaste queen of little long-term value.

Once it is determined which hive should be the donor, making up the nuc is relatively simple. Any box size will suffice, 3 or 5 frames in a 10 or 11 frame box will work provided the frames are pushed well together towards the hive entrance. The ideal addition would be a follower board. This is simply a piece of plywood that is sized to fit on the outside of the frames; it reduces the extra space left by the small amount of frames and can be moved backwards as more frames are added at a later date.

Nucs can be made up to free stand, or be mounted on top of a full sized hive, with the entrance facing in a different direction to the main hive. If the latter, then ventilation is vital and screened openings would allow heat from the hive below to permeate upwards keeping the nuc warmer. It should be noted that the screens should prevent tongue contact between both sets of bees, otherwise they will obtain queen pheromone from the queen below and the nuc bees will then consider themselves queen right and fail to perform correctly. Incidentally the hive below must be queen right otherwise the bees below will abscond into the nuc above as soon as they are queen right.

To overcome the 3-mile rule is relatively simple, a discussion for the reasons will reinforce why it is necessary. Older bees during their first flights will orientate to return to the hive they were born to and flight bees on returning from foraging are keyed to return back where they came from. So making up a nuc with the wrong aged bees will result, just after their first flight, in them returning to the site you took them from, in effect depleting the nuc of older bees. This has two effects. A general decline in population, which can be devastating to brood that without sufficient bees to keep it warm, becomes chilled and dies. Secondly, without flight bees there is no income, the queen’s egg laying will be reduced and the nuc will stagnate, waiting until sufficient bees become old enough to forage. This is why feeding a nuc is absolutely vital to its speedy growth. See Feeding.

Hive top feeder full of honey
Hive top feeder

With the above reasons in mind it then becomes obvious that small nucs with a minimum of older bees, made up in their own yard, are almost certainly doomed to failure. The answer is fairly simple; make up larger nucs to prevent small populations. Bearing in mind the return of older bees, make up the nuc with bees from the middle of the brood nest, as that is where younger bees are, these are bees which haven’t left the hive yet, and so don’t know where they live. Also where the queen is likely to be, beware, shake in one or two frames from open brood, leaving the queen behind. Even with the loss of some flight bees this should maintain the overall population and prevent it declining until the new brood starts to emerge.

Screen the entrance for 24 hours to prevent flying which will allow time for the bees to realise that they are queenless and also that they are in a different location. Finally on allowing them to fly, drop brush or grass onto the entrance to confuse the flight bees into noting they have a different entrance and location.

There are a number of reasons to make up nucs, in addition to the ones already stated; the others, which we find most useful, are mating nucs and queen introduction. In both of these cases, a young population is ideal as they will accept a different queen more readily than older bees, this can be useful when changing the strain of the hive. In practice, we have found a problem when introducing a different strain of bees to a new queen, for example, from Italian to Russian or Buckfast and vice versa, the queens are frequently rejected or superseded by older bees of full sized hives. So to achieve a population of young bees, encourage the flight bees to return home by eliminating the screen, this will allow the flight bees to fly back quickly before you introduce the cell or new queen, which will be accepted quite easily.

Any nuc made up for queen introduction should be allowed to mature until the new queen’s offspring are emerging, this will ensure on reuniting via the newspaper method, the nucs acceptance by the big hive. It should go without saying to remove the queen from the full hive first!

newspaper method of unite
Uniting two hives

Making nucs and splitting a hive is a fairly simple procedure and I would encourage all to use this method of increase, far easier than waiting for other people’s mistakes and cast offs i.e. swarms to make an increase.
In other areas of our web site I have stated that I only write up one method of control or manipulation. The rule still holds even with this subject, there are many ways of achieving the same result, but to attempt to write them all up would just add to more confusion.