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Overwintering Nucs

There is a well-respected beekeeper in New England (he is respected nationwide, but has his operation in New England) named Michael Palmer. He has been extremely successful raising bees and what follows is a recap of one of his methods from forum threads, articles and 3rd-party sources. I wanted to record it here (with some of my own tweaks), as I have started to utilize this strategy to good effect.

The end goals of the following approach is to breed a better bee and successfully overwinter Nuc’s. One might assume that this is aimed at the fellow who accidentally has a small hive that he has to place in a Nuc before Winter or maybe someone who has hived a small swarm late in the year. Although some of these concepts may work for those situations, the purpose of this information is not for use as a life saver. It is actually a strategy for sustainable beekeeping.

The first question should therefore be ‘Why do you want to have Nuc’s that need to be overwintered?’

1. Improve the genetic quality of your apiary – you’ll always have a hive or two (or ten) that  under-performs. It produces less honey and or possibly suffers more from natural stresses. You really do not need this hive sending its drones out to mate with your new queens and continuing this poor gene pool (plus, who wants to spend tons of time babying a hive/nuc that continues to act poorly?!)

2. Nuc’s are great resources for other hives or Nuc’s. They represent a ready pool of Queens, capped brood and/or eggs for those emergency situations. I have used mine in many a queenless hive scenario (they always seem to pop up at the wrong time - but, with a Nuc on hand 12 months out of the year, you are ready!)

3. It’s a great way to increase the number of hives in your apiary. Many Nuc’s will come out of Winter so strong that they will build up very quickly and may become your next top producer.

Again, the primary reason is culling  your genetic pool. So, the first step is to identify your weak hives. Take these hives and create Nuc’s from them. Each Nuc that you create from a single hive should include the following:

  1. At least 1.5 frames of capped brood
  2. 1 frame of pollen and honey
  3. 1 empty drawn frame or a frame of foundation

The timing for this should be after the main flow. Michael Palmer does it in mid-July. In the Central Virginia area, anytime in late June seems to work, but I continue to experiment.

You should be able to get 3 to 6 Nuc’s out of a single, mature hive (if you have the queens to fill them). Now that you have your Nuc’s, you add your new queens to the mix. The key here is new queens. You defeat the purpose if you let them raise their own, as you are only continuing the poor gene  pool. Michael Palmer goes on to say that you should be using your own queens. In a worst case scenario, you are using queens from a local supplier that is breeding from established, non-treated, strong stock. Michael Palmer is adamant that any given beekeeper with a 2 year old hive can raise better queens then he can purchase. Regardless of the truth of this statement or not, the underlying principle is logical from a biological perspective.

So, where do you put your Nuc’s? I have read where some folks in Northern Virginia use regular Nuc bodies just fine. Michael Palmer users what he calls a ‘4 frame double nuc‘ (he actually uses a lot of things, but this is his primary vehicle for overwintering Nuc’s.) This is simply a deep brood chamber with a divider down the middle. The bottom is similarly divided with a small, 3 inch wide entrance for each side (you do not need a landing board, like you see on standard bottom boards) , on opposite sides of the super. You want a tight fitting top so that neither side is able to touch the other side, period.

Once you have your Nuc prepared, it’s time to move it to a new bee yard. This is typically the hard part for most backyard beekeepers, as they only have one spot to place their hives. The problem is that these Nucs are getting created just before the flow ends (and, per usual in the Richmond, Va area, a hot, dry spell is about to begin.) It is prime season for robbing. You have to be really careful keeping Nucs near mature hives during these months (in my experience.)

As to the original hive, you can actually still gain something from the old queen if you find her. Place her in the original bottom deep (from the weak hive), along with 4 to 6 frames of honey and the rest simply empty, drawn frames. She will receive the field force (foragers out in the wilds) and has a good chance to build up to a nice, single deep chamber before Winter, when you can either requeen (early September is good) or wait until the next Spring and requeen then.

Now that you have your Nucs setup, you need to do some management. You have new, young queens with a good set of bees. There is a very good chance that, as the Fall flow comes on, they will build up so quickly that they will want to swarm. You have to watch them and remove brood frames on occasion (for the really strong queens, you may have to do this 2 or 3 times.) You can supply the weaker Nuc’s with these frames of brood, to make sure they have the best chance of getting through the Winter.

So, now we have our new, double Nuc’s in the new yard and they are building up. Fall comes to an end and we start to see the occasional drop into the low-30′s. Now it is time to take these Nuc’s and drop them onto a strong hive. You can stack them right on top of another strong hive’s inner cover. There are a couple of tricks involved with this approach. To begin with, it works best if you have a small entrance drilled into the side of the Nuc for each side. You should also have another entrance, about 3/4 of an inch wide, drilled on the opposite side, towards the top (ventilation.) Double tape the hole in the inner cover of the strong hive, as you do not want them to know about each other (and you do not want the Nuc to have to deal with all of the moisture from the larger hive.)

You can stack the Nuc’s, if you like, but it makes it harder to inspect the gals and give them food, if needed.

Oddly, Michael Palmer will occasionally put a queen excluder on top of the double Nuc and then drop a full honey super over the entire group. He claims that the bees will work up into the super and be content to return to their brood chamber without a hitch. They appear to be content to work together (I look forward to testing this one out!)

Once Spring comes along (when the Cherry Blossoms start, or probably early to mid-March for me), it is time to take them off of the strong hive and let them fend for their themselves. At this point, you should be able to judge the good ones (for expansion) from the weak ones (to use to supplement the other hives). This can also be a good source of funds, as you can sell these Nuc’s for a premium (a queen that has overwintered and is starting to build up is about the best Nuc you can ask for.)

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