If you’re a new beekeeper, buying a nuc to get started is the perfect way to go. You’ll receive a laying queen with bees, as well as all stages of brood and food stores. But there are options that you should understand before you buy. Most marketing pieces, in the spirit of keeping things brief, don’t lay out all the information that may be important to you. That leaves it to you to make sure you ask all the questions necessary to understand exactly what you’re buying. The good news here is that people selling nucs are usually more than happy to answer all your questions, you just need to ask.
So, where to start? In no particular order, here are some issues you might want to explore:
Where did the queen come from? This question is getting more attention as beekeepers understand the benefits of local queens. Queens and bees raised in the South or California don’t always do as well when they come to our northern climate. They also have the possibility of bringing disease and other undesirable traits or genetics, though this is certainly not a given.
How long has the queen been in this nuc? Sometimes, the queen has been in a colony for several months, meaning that all the bees and brood are hers. Other times, the queen has been recently introduced to a nuc, made by adding the queen to frames of bees and brood pulled from a big hive. The advantage of having a queen that has been in the nuc for several months is that you know she has been fully accepted by the colony.
Has there been any evaluation of the nuc after the queen was added? Evaluating the quality of the queen’s brood pattern is an important step to selecting the best nucs. Queens that are not well mated, or have mated with drones that share her alleles, can have a spotty brood pattern. While this is not the only reason for spotty brood, queens with this condition are more susceptible to supersedure. Conditions such as backfilling the nest with nectar, hygienic bees that are exposed to high mite counts, and other disease conditions can all lead to spotty brood. Evaluating this over time can help ensure that you reach the right conclusion as to whether the spotty brood is a function of the queen or other hive issues.
Has this nuc gone through a winter? One of the key advantages of taking a nuc thru winter is that you can positively confirm that the queen is able to build and maintain a nest through the cycle. It also gives a real-life picture of how the queen will build up in the spring. A queen’s ability to manage the transition of the nest from winter to spring is an important part of a successful colony. Without that strong spring buildup, the population of foragers needed to take advantage of the spring honey flow will not exist and, depending on how slow it is, could cause the bees to supersede the queen at the worst possible time—just before the honey flow.
What is known about the genetics of the queen? This issue continues to raise questions and generate discussion as beekeepers work to raise colonies with a greater ability to manage mites and diseases along with other traits that are favorable. There is so much we still don’t know. Having said that, there are several traits that might be of interest. VSH and Mite Bitter are two popular traits that focus on the bees' ability to manage mites. Both can be very effective, depending on your local environment, but understanding each queen’s ability to raise a nest that can manage mites should not be assumed until you have seen specific evidence through mite washes. Please don’t assume that just because someone says their queens can manage mites that, when placed in your location, the same will be true. Bees can fly 2–4 miles, which means that they can also bring mites home from colonies within that radius that don’t manage mites. In the fall, this can overpower even the most hygienic queen. Having said this, buying queens that have been selected for their desirable traits/genetics leads to colonies with drones that support these traits. These drones, when used in mating of your splits or the splits of others, will support the local bee population and encourage better temperament, disease resistance, honey flow, and all the things we want to see in our hives as beekeepers. It is important to understand the approach your nuc supplier is taking.
Is the queen marked? This is a simple step for most nuc suppliers and, with time, something you will be able to do easily. Until then, think about buying a marked queen. As you learn, being able to easily spot the queen can be a real advantage.
Will I be able to see the queen when I pick up the nuc? Some suppliers take the extra effort to show the new owner of the nuc the queen. This gives you a chance to confirm she is marked, and to evaluate her size. Don’t hesitate to start a discussion if you thing she looks too small. Initially it may be hard to know what is too small, but the more you see, the sooner you will be able to be an informed consumer.
What do you do with underperforming nucs? The last topic will be the most uncomfortable discussion for some people, but also the most important. What happens when poor queens or nucs are spotted in the process discussed above? Is the queen pinched off, replaced with a better queen, or otherwise removed? If we don’t take the hard step to address these issues, even when it results in a lost sale, then what have we accomplished?
I hope the above will give you some things to think about as you go through the process of buying a nuc. As a nuc producer, I’m continually challenged to raise better queens and nucs, and a better product for my customers. Asking questions will only make us better, and you will have a better colony for your apiary. You deserve that.