Nuc Boxes at Heathcote Community

By Roger Williams, President of the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association

On Feb. 1, 2014 Central Maryland Beekeepers Association (CMBA) held its first nuc box construction event at Heathcote in partnership with several organizations. Oberon Associates, Inc secured funding for this project through the generous support of the Koinonia Foundation. Heathcote Community and School of Living provided work space and meals, and were essential in their active support of the event.  At the end of the day we had 62 nuc boxes and 300 frames to go in them.  This event corresponded with Heathcote's visitor day, and we had a great turn out, with over 20 volunteers participating.  The CMBA has now taken possession of the nuc boxes, and will use these in an on-going project to spin off new bee colonies, using locally developed genetics.

What's a nuc box? Ask a beekeeper.

As a beekeeper, I'll let you know why Heathcote Community opened its doors to the project of building nuc (short for nucleus) boxes recently, and why it matters to all of us.

First, a quick synopsis of what goes on in the super-organism that is a honeybee colony. Think of this colony as a single creature, with each bee similar in effect to each of your cells. They have different jobs, and the loss of one doesn't affect the whole. The whole super-organism reproduces by splitting off about half its population in what is a magnificent (for beekeepers) or terrifying (for outsiders) process called swarming, in which the sky is filled with tens of thousands of bees as half the old colony moves to a new location. The secret of what is happening is this: The group leaving departs with the colony's only queen, the ovaries of the hive. But they leave behind a number of ripe queen cells, potential queens ready to take over the job of producing offspring in the old colony's space. This is a process as old as honeybees. There are bees in amber over 100 million years old. They have worked this out.

Now, in steps man, as a keeper of bees. In general, we don't want to loose bees by letting them swarm, but we can harness this atavistic drive in the hive to reproduce more bees. If attentive, the beekeeper will see developing queen cells in the original hive. She can remove whole frames (the internal hardware inside the white boxes you've seen), bees and all along with the queen cells, stick them in a nuc box, and, with luck, the queens will hatch, mate, and start in the age-old process again. I say “queens”. This sisterly coterie will hatch, yes, and showing the love they were imbued with, will kill any sister queen they find. Hey, life's tough... Aren't you glad your sister didn't kill you?  All is not perfect yet, however, as that last remaining queen must take mating flights, flying in some cases some miles to a what is called a drone congregation area. Assuming she is well mated and not eaten by a dragonfly or a bird in the process, she returns to the hive, never to leave again – unless involved in a later swarm. In this process, the beekeeper has started a new colony. And the management tool is a nuc box. It is important to keep bees in a space they can control, and a box that is half the size of a regular box is the tool of choice. There are many variants in this process, but the tool is the nuc box.

We could stop there and most would go away saying, “I get it”. But there is a bigger picture to understand. Since WWII there has been an industry that has grown up primarily in Georgia, but also across the south and into California. This industry – and industry it is – is that of producing “packaged bees” to supply the need for replacement bees. In this process, 3-4lbs of bees will be put in a screened box, along with a caged queen and a can of sugar syrup, and shipped by the US Post Office anywhere in the US. Yes, this is something that, by law, the USPS must handle – regardless of what the local postmaster might think of the box of 10,000 angry stinging insects he has gingerly put on a shelf well away from everything and is hoping you will retrieve soon!

The problem here is three-fold: Genetics, the Africanized bee, and commercial pressures due to bee losses nationwide. The GA producers are shipping tens of thousands of packages yearly all based on a very thin genetic pool. Sometimes they have a hard time getting their queens well bred, partly due to commercial pressures to ship product. Remember what I mentioned above: The queens fly to the drone congregation area and find willing drones (who die in the process) to mate with. If the breeding areas are deficient in drones, or if the drones come from the same genetic stock as the queens, the outcome is not good overall. Moreover, since the Africanized bee (aka killer bee) got to California in 1985 and has spread across the south, much of the good package producing areas have become areas in which a beekeeping industry can no longer be sure of produce the gentle honeybee of yore. Georgia is right in the path of the expanding Africanized bee, and free-flight mating there will always have the possibility of including these genes in the mix. Lastly, due to the high colony losses nationwide (31% in 2013), the packaged bee industry is working on overload. With bad spring weather, many commercial producers either can't keep up, or poorly mated queens get shipped to meet schedules. No matter how we look at it, the ability to control our own genetics and replacement stock will be of major local benefit. Hence, nuc boxes.


The CMBA Nuc Project is looking to both train club members in nuc colony management and to produce nucs for sale to club members. With luck, it will be reproducible by any club or by motivated individuals, and could lead to a whole new industry, helping the honeybee. And to help the creature that is responsible for 1/3 of what you eat, this has some meaning for a School of Living.

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