Sustainable Beekeeping (Never Buy Bees Again. Part 2)

By: Meghan Milbrath

Meghan Milbrath

A few spring-like days means that beekeepers are peeking in their hives, hoping to find big clusters and heavy boxes. Inevitably, we’ll come across a hive that is cold, quiet, and still – a corpse. It always feels bad, even after decades of beekeeping. While it never gets emotionally easier to lose a colony, we can control how financially destructive it is. Last month I introduced three steps to making my operation more sustainable: 1) Accounting for (and being accountable for) my losses, 2) Making up replacement colonies from within my own apiary, and 3) Making my excess bees available to my local community. Last month I described step one. In this article, I’ll tackle the specifics of part two – how I make replacement colonies from within my own apiary.

In 2015 I was awarded a farmer rancher grant through the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research Education (SARE) program (FNC15- 1005-” Improving apiary sustainability by using an overwintered nuc system for colony replacement and expansion instead of purchased package bees”). My goal was to find a method of colony replacement that doesn’t require high labor or cost, and doesn’t cut into honey production. With this grant, I looked at methods of splitting my colonies in the late season and overwintering nucs. While my original goal was to have a few colonies on hand to replace dead outs in the Spring and allow me to expand my operation without buying bees, I found that making small colonies in the late Summer had other advantages as well. First, it was a good system for stock improvement. By the end of the main honey flow, I already had a sense of what colonies I liked, and which ones were not ideal. I could replace the queens in colonies that were hot, unhygienic, or had disease issues. I would be removing the genetics I didn’t like every year, and increasing the number of hives with good queens. Over time, I am improving the overall quality of my bees; every year, I come out of the winter with young queens of ideal stock.

Secondly, the timing of this approach is incredibly useful for Varroa control. I can make a split with a queen cell, which provides a brood break in the late Summer. If I couple this with an oxalic acid dribble, these colonies would be nearly free from Varroa right before my precious Winter bees are made.

Late-season nuc making is now part of my yearly beekeeping plan. I have only been playing with it for about five years, so I’m still working out what system works best for me. Below I’ll explain what I have learned so far. You will need to work out the timing and the equipment to fit your climate and your needs.


The goal is to find a window where you won’t be sacrificing all of your honey production from your big colonies, yet the new queen can become established before you need your winter bees. For me, in southern Michigan, this target period is usually from Mid-July through August.

  • I have a very strong honey flow early, and then it slows down in Mid-July. I can have a substantial secondary honey flow about the first week of September, but in the last few years this has become unreliable. Right now, I’m leaving my hives big to capture the early honey, I’ll extract and split, aiming to have all the queens in the splits in order before the secondary honey flow starts.
  • I don’t have a strong dearth in my area, so robbing isn’t a huge concern. If you have a strong dearth, then breaking down your colonies at this time could be devastating. I’ve talked to others who make nucs in areas with a dearth, and they try to time their splits at the end of the honey flow, when nectar is still coming in. Still others will use a screened tent or structure to make the nucs to prevent robbing.
  • Another consideration on timing is how you plan to manage mites in the Fall. If you are using queen cells for your nucs, you get a break in the brood cycle and can treat with oxalic acid. If you are using mated queens, you won’t get a brood break, so it might be good to use a treatment like formic acid on the larger hives before you break them down.


Many beekeepers think of nucs as colonies in five-frame boxes, but there isn’t a standard. A nuc is just a smaller colony; it can be in a 10-frame box, a three-frame box, etc. In the Winter of 2015/2016, I compared multiple equipment styles.

  • Double deeps: two eight-frame colonies in the same volume of a double deep hive. The bottom deep is divided into two four-frame compartments, each with a fourframe box above.
  • Full hives: prepared for winter in standard fashion.
  • Four-frame towers: similar in dimension as the double deeps, but stacked according to need – two deeps, or a deep and a medium, or three mediums.
  • Single deeps: standard 10-frame equipment, with the edges filled with foundation or drawn comb. A spacer with an upper entrance was added under the inner cover.
  • Polystyrene nucs: insulated fi veframe nuc boxes.

In year one of the SARE grant, I overwintered 86 colonies in five different styles of equipment: full size hives (n=8), single 10-frame deep boxes (n=15), double side-by-side deep boxes (n=12), four-frame towers (n=38), and Polystyrene five-frame nuc boxes (n=11). The nucs were started within two weeks from the end of July through the beginning of August, with most made the first week of August. They were made with five frames of bees, two to three brood frames and had queen cells from the same mother queen.

In year one, I had better survival in my nucs than my full hives with their old queens. The greatest survival was in the single deep hives (87%), followed closely by the Polystyrene nucs (82%). The double deeps, fourframe towers, and full sized hives had similar rates (67%, 68%, and 63%, respectively.) I felt that the equipment with lower survival was not because it was worse, but was because I wasn’t using it correctly – the differences were more of a function of using the wrong methods for that equipment rather than a fl aw in the equipment itself. In year two, and in the years since the SARE grant, I have worked to optimize each type of equipment to fi t into my operation. Some work well for replacement colonies, some provide support for queen rearing, and some provide nucs for sale. I found that a single story nuc (fiveframe Polystyrene nuc or single deep) was good for replacements, while the vertical colonies were good for small colonies that support nuc sales and queen rearing.

1. Making replacement colonies

In the beginning of July, I make my replacement ‘packages’ using fiveframe polystyrene nuc boxes. From each large colony, I pull two frames of brood and a frame of food and put into a polystyrene nuc with a frame of foundation and a frame of drawn comb. The next day I add a queen cell. I’ll check the queens, and will restart those that don’t return from mating flights. I let the nucs build the rest of the season. In the spring, I just load them into the flat bed when I do my first inspections, and can put the bees right into full size equipment if I fi nd a dead-out. If I have extra, I can sell them as five-frame overwintered nucs.

There are other ways to make up your replacement colonies. Beekeepers who purchase a package, for example, could make a small nuc with the package queen, and either let the big colony raise a queen, or introduce a local queen. That way they have a new queen in their producing hive, and a back-up for every colony, just in case! You don’t have to use any specialized equipment for these options- the Polystyrene nucs are light and easy to move, which is why I use them, but the bees would be just fi ne in a single deep or two medium boxes.

2. Splitting my big hives

If I extract at the end of July, I can break down my big colonies into multiple single story hives. After I pull honey, I go through each hive, and set up each box to have the equivalent of a nuc, with the old queen on the bottom level. When I’m ready to split, I leave the old queen in the original location, and take one or two splits, giving them queen cells/new queens and overwintering them each as a single deep box. I don’t have to do all my hives this way, (I may want to leave some if I think that I can make more honey from a later honey flow), but I found that I can usually overwinter two to three times the number of colonies. This gives me a huge buffer – if I had a bad year with over 50% loss, I won’t be that far behind in spring. If I make them up earlier, and I think there will be enough nectar, I can make them smaller. If it is later, then I’ll make them a little larger than a fi ve-frame nuc. Using 10-frame equipment rather than a five-frame nuc box allows for four big advantages:

  1. You don’t have to buy special equipment
  2. The bees have more space – good for honey in the fall and growth in the spring
  3. You don’t have to move the bees in and out of different equipment.
  4. They are easy to feed. The cluster is right on the top, so you can always access them with a winter feed patty or sugar block.


Testing different methods of overwintered nucs for the SARE grant.

3. Perpetual nuc and brood makers

The two equipment styles that have vertical brood nests (fourframe towers and double deeps) don’t work as well for replacement colonies, because they are hard to transport, and hard to move bees in and out of. However, they are great for beekeepers who raise queens, or want to make nucs for sale. I initially started them in early July with two frames of brood and a frame of food and a queen cell. They built up to the second box by winter (in some I added honey frames). In the Spring, after they have built a little, I will sell a nuc with the over wintered queen in it, and put another queen cell in the hive (May). Once she is mated, I’ll sell another fi ve-frame nuc from that hive, and put in a second queen cell (June). This queen will then be used to build up for the Winter. When this system works, I can sell two nucs from each tower of bees. I also use the vertical systems to support other nucs, act as mating nucs for queen sales, and to provide brood for the queen rearing operation. I will basically keep these as a separate, nuc-based operation, but can use them for replacements if needed.

Double deep nucs in Winter.

Like most of beekeeping, equipment choice for nucs has a lot more to do with management preference than it does biology. The choice of equipment is largely based on my end goal (nuc for sale or replacement colony that would go in full equipment), and timing (did I want to split a hive later, or make a new colony that would grow to fi ll its equipment?) The same is true for the choice of queen. You can use a cell, virgin, or mated queen for your nucs. Nucs made at the early end (July) get cells; they are much cheaper, and give me a break in the brood cycle. The downside is the inevitable loss of a few nucs to unsuccessful returns from mating, but those nucs may be easily recombined. Mated queens are utilized in later lateseason splits because I don’t want to interfere with the production of winter bees. Remember, a nuc is just a small colony with all essentials of brood, food, and bees. You can get these components by making a very small colony, and letting it grow, or breaking down existing colonies into ready-to-Winter splits. However you make them, you have to remember that they are small, and won’t produce a lot of food or a lot of bees. You may have to keep them in a more sheltered location, and really make sure they have enough food.

Step-by-step replacement colonies:
Option 1 – Improving existing queens
  1. Set up an extra ‘nuc’ hive (single hive body or nuc box).
  2. Go through your hive slowly until you fi nd the old queen.
  3. Move that old queen into the nuc hive.
  4. Fill out the nuc hive with the queen with two to three frames of brood and one or two frames of food, and at least one frame to grow. Adjust accordingly to account for the season and anticipated growth – make them larger if it is later.
  5. If you like the original hive, you can let them raise their own queen (remember, if it doesn’t work, you can put the original queen back, and you have lost nothing). If you want new genetics, add a queen cell (if it is early enough that she has enough drones to mate with and there’s time to raise young), or you add a mated queen from stock you like.
  6. Manage and monitor both colonies for Varroa.
  7. Feed them in the Fall.
  8. Make sure they are in a well sheltered or insulated location.
  9. Watch them closely in the spring to make sure they don’t go through food stores.
  10. Plan for their rapid expansion come Spring; overwintered nucs grow fast!
Option 2 – Splitting an existing hive for expansion and Varroa control
  1. Allow your colonies to grow into two or three deep boxes and whatever honey supers they need over the Summer.
  2. In late Summer, remove the honey supers for extraction.
  3. Break down the colony by distributing, rearranging or adding to each of the three boxes so each box can be a standalone colony. Put frames of food on the outside, and brood in the middle making sure all capped brood is in the top boxes. In the final arrangement, the queen will be in the bottom box with two frames of uncapped brood, some food and some space. Potential splits will be above a queen excluder.
  4. Shake all the bees from all the frames into the bottom box, putting the frames back into the new arrangement.
  5. Add a queen excluder to the top of the bottom box, and restack the colony. At this point you should have three boxes with food on the outside, and brood in the middle, with no capped brood in the bottom box. The bees will spread themselves over the brood, and the queen will be in the bottom box.
  6. Return early the next morning with two bottom boards and two lids per hive. Before the bees are flying take the top two boxes off, giving them each a bottom board and a lid, and move each to a new location.
  7. The following day, provide each of the new colonies with a queen cell, and treat the original colony with oxalic acid.
  8. Once the new colonies are queenright, treat with oxalic acid.
  9. Feed as needed and manage as appropriate for your area.
Option 3 – Making up some replacement nucs
  1. Get a five-frame nuc box (wood if you are in a not harsh Winter, or Polystyrene if you are.)
  2. In early July, put one frame of brood and one frame of food (covered with bees) into the nuc, filling out the rest with drawn comb and foundation.
  3. The following day, add a queen or queen cell.
  4. Allow to grow, feeding as needed.
  5. In spring, use to replace existing colonies.

All three options increase the number of colonies you have going into Winter, and increase the number of colonies that have young queens that you like. In all cases where I was making up nucs throughout the season, I overwintered a lot more colonies, and did not have to purchase bees to make up losses.