A Comparison of Honey Bee Colony Strength and Survivability between Nucleus and Package Started Colonies

Final Report for FNE09-665

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2009: $9,993.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Erin MacGregor-Forbes
Overland Apiaries
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Project Information

A Comparison of Package Started and Nucleus Colony Started Honey Bee Colonies Summary

Honey Bee “die offs” have been front-page news in the United States and across Europe for several years. Maine beekeepers have also been experiencing high mortality levels in their wintering colonies. These colonies are generally replaced ( at significant financial expense to the beekeeper) with packaged bees produced in commercial bee breeding operations of the Southern or Western US, or with split nucleus colonies (with a commercially raised queen produced in the South or West). Honey Bee nucleus colonies headed by queen bees that are raised in the north are very difficult obtain and packages headed by northern raised queens are not commercially available at all. In addition, recent increased interest in beekeeping by the public has created a significant demand for new colonies by beginning beekeepers.

The project proposed to demonstrate that alternative replacement/starting colonies that come from local sources have a higher survival rate than commercially raised package bees, and that such colonies can be obtained in the north. The project started twenty four new honey bee colonies consisting of eight traditional commercially purchased package colonies, eight commercial packages in which the queen is removed and replaced with a New England raised queen, and eight New England raised overwintered nucleus colonies. These twenty four colonies were split into two “bee yards” of twelve, and each set of twelve was managed by an experienced Beekeeper and assessed multiple times over the season for health, strength and winter survival.

Results of the project were extremely positive in demonstrating the superiority of the colonies headed by local queens to the commercially purchased package bees in both health and productivity. The Northern raised nucleus colonies had higher overwintering success (with 75% of colonies coming out of winter “Average or Strong”) than the packages. Honey production (among those colonies that did make surplus honey) was split between the three groups and overall instance of disease and parasite load was highest in the commercial packages.

Outreach was ongoing throughout the project from grant acceptance to final report, with a series of semi-monthly articles published in the newsletter of the Maine State Beekeepers Association describing the project progress. In addition, the project coordinator created a power point presentation given at the Maine State Beekeepers Association Annual Meeting in March, 2010, and at several other regional and national beekeeping meetings in 2010.

The project was funded for a second year to further expand upon the initial results and to improve the reliability of the data, as the weather in the initial project year was extraordinary and was believed to have impacted the project results.


Starting New Honey Bee Colonies

In nature, and in bee farming, new honey bee colonies can only be started by dividing an existing colony. In nature, this is generally done through reproductive swarming. In the spring when nectar is plentiful, the colony raises a new queen from an egg laid by the mother queen, and just as the new queen is about to hatch, the old queen and a portion of the worker honey bees fly out of the hive and begin their own separate colony.

In commercial beekeeping operations in the Southern United States, honey bee colonies are fed heavily to simulate a nectar flow in early spring, and then once the colony is building in size, worker bees are shaken out of their hives into a cage and an unrelated queen (raised by a different honey bee colony) is added. This “Package” colony is then sold to the beekeeper (in mid-April) to replace a dead colony or begin a new hive.

Alternatively, northern raised nucleus colonies (“nucs”) are made up of several frames of bees and brood (immature unhatched baby bees in honey combs) and a newly hatched northern raised queen in the previous summer. This new colony grows through the summer into a five frame “nucleus” colony which in the following spring will be comprised of honey combs with food, the queen, and her offspring, ready to be installed into a full sized hive. Unfortunately, the demand for northern raised nucleus colonies is much greater than the supply, so many beekeepers have no alternative othern than to buy a package to populate their colony.

The third alternative: in this project, one third of the colonies were started with traditional commercial packages, but once northern raised queens became available in the north in mid-June (queen production is much later in the north due to climate conditions), the package queens were removed and replaced with a northern raised queen. Worker honey bees only live for approximately 45 days in the summer, so replacing the queen in a colony changes the entire genetic make-up of the colony within approximately six weeks.

This project looked to demonstrate whether northern raised nucleus colonies actually perform and survive better than package colonies, and whether the third group of requeened packages might also exhibit some increased survival traits.

Project Objectives:
What we are trying to accomplish.

Beekeeping in Maine is largely a sideline endeavor. Most beekeepers are self-taught or book taught, and lack the advantage of a local, experienced mentor. Experienced beekeepers are often too busy to mentor on any large scale, and while the courses in beekeeping address regional issues, the texts for the most part are written to accommodate the largest beekeeping populations in the southern states and can provide mixed messages with regard to regional differences in beekeeping practices.

Regional issues certainly exist in beekeeping, and educating Northern beekeepers to understand the significance of queen adaptation to the local environment is a primary goal of this project. It is difficult, however to convincingly demonstrate this difference anecdotally. Each beekeeper is engaged and excited about his/her own beekeeping style and practice. New beekeepers are justified in their skepticism about a management practice that is not widely adopted. Adding additional costs to the startup outlay of populating a honeybee colony can further complicate an already hard sell.

This project strives to objectively compare new honey bee colonies started in one of three different ways as clearly as possible. We want new beekeepers to learn from our project and to believe in our results. To this end, we employed a number of techniques reduce bias, subjectivity, and outright advantage between the colonies. All brand new equipment was used throughout the project hives to eliminate the possibility of 1- advantage to the colony from propolization of the hive by prior year’s colony and 2- possibility of disease spread through use of previously populated equipment. Each hive was painted with identical paint colors, ensuring equal solar gain between the colonies. Colonies were managed regularly and consistently, so no one colony was experiencing more or less hive inspections/intrustions than the others. Colonies were assessed throughout the project using a common hive assessment tool with the goal of making each colonies’ evaluation as objective as possible. The project itself was split into two bee yards (different geographical locations within southern Maine) and managed by different beekeepers. Outside expert beekeepers were also asked to make colony assessments on both groups of colonies several times through the year to reduce the possibility of bias and to add objective perspective to the hive assessments. Feeding was started and stopped consistently for all colonies, and honey harvest was performed in the same manner on the same day with all colonies. The ultimate hive assessments in the following spring were performed consistently using the hive assessment tool and were all performed on the same day.

The focus of this project is to clearly show the impact of colony start choice on ultimate colony strength and survival in a way that beekeepers can understand and implement in their own beekeeping operations. Outreach work was done throughout the project to illustrate actual colony progress through the year and to increase audience engagement as the project progressed. Presentations about the project were designed to be engaging and informative. We want our audience to not just think of the results of this project in an abstract manner, we want them thinking of how to bring our management practices into their home apiaries.


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  • Anthony Jadczak


Materials and methods:
Methods Used

The project involved starting 24 new honey bee colonies in the spring of 2009 and monitoring and evaluating their health and colony strength through their entire first season, until April of 2010.

Each colony was started on identical hive equipment set-ups. Colonies were installed in deep hive bodies with screened bottom boards. Wood frames with wired beeswax foundation was used in all hive bodies and supers. All hive boxes were painted the same color (dark green to facilitate solar gain) with unique colored markings painted on the fronts to aid the bees in orienting to their own hives. All colonies were fed one ½ lb pollen patty upon installation (to promote brood rearing in the packages, which were hived just before pollen became available due to weather) and continually fed sugar syrup until the bees had drawn 80% of two-deep hive bodies of comb.

The focus of beekeeper management was to treat the hives “as a new beekeeper would”, meaning that each hive was managed individually, with no transfer of combs or brood from other hives allowed, and all feed and medication was done consistently throughout the project. Each hive inspection was recorded on the “hive assessment tool” created for the project to promote consistency in evaluation and ease of data collection and organization.

Only one medication was used in the project, Apilife VAR was administered to all hives in September, 2009 to reduce parasitic Varroa mite loads in the colonies. While it was within the project scope to use Fumagillin for nosema treatment, it was determined through sampling (performed by the State Apiarist) that nosema levels were below treatment threshold so no treatment was administered.

Honey was harvested in September prior to mite treatment and honey yields were measured and recorded for each colony. At the time of mite treatment, screened bottom board inserts were installed (to promote efficacy of the mite treatment Apilife VAR which is an essential –oil based fumigant) and the inserts were left installed until final evaluation in spring. Homasote insulation boards were installed in October to reduce moisture buildup in the hives over winter. Entrance reducers were installed at the smallest groove and 1/8” hardware cloth was used as mouse protection. No additional wrapping or winter protection was installed on the hives.

Research results and discussion:

The ultimate measures of colony success for this project were survival and honey production.

Survival Data are as follows:
(Note: Four colonies were disqualified from the project due to queen issues that could not be resolved within the grant paramaters. eg: Swarmed or superceding colonies that did not successfully requeen.)


NUC AVERAGE 2 25.0% Strong to Average 75.0%
DEAD 1 12.5% Weak 12.5%
STRONG 4 50.0% Dead 12.5%
WEAK 1 12.5%
NUC Total 8
PACKAGE AVERAGE 3 42.9% Strong to Average 71.4%
DEAD 1 14.3% Weak 14.3%
STRONG 2 28.6% Dead 14.3%
WEAK 1 14.3%
REQUEENED AVERAGE 1 20.0% Strong to Average 100.0%
STRONG 4 80.0% Weak 0.0%
REQUEENED Total 5 Dead 0.0%
Grand Total 20

In the nucleus colony group, 87.5% of the colonies survived and 75% were rated strong-average in the spring of 2010.

In the commercial package group, 85.7% of the colonies survived and 71.4% rated strong-average in the spring of 2010.

In the requeened packages, 100% of the colonies were rated strong-average in the spring 2010.

Note that in the package colonies, the majority of the surviving colonies rated average, and fewer of the surviving colonies were rated strong. In the nucs and the requeened packages, the majority of the surviving packages were rated strong with the minority rating average.

Honey Data for the project are as follows:

Group Honey? Data Total % of Honey Producers
NUC No # of Hives 6 75%
Yes # of Hives 2 25%
Total of Honey Production 168
Average of Honey Production 84
Total # of Nucs 8
PACKAGE No # of Hives 5 71%
Yes # of Hives 2 29%
Total of Honey Production 273
Average of Honey Production 136.5
Total # of Packages 7
REQUEENED No # of Hives 2 40%
Yes # of Hives 3 60%
Total of Honey Production 227
Average of Honey Production 75.7
Total # of Requeened 5

As can be observed in the above tables, the results of our project were mixed but promising.

Honey Production
In beekeeping, it is not generally expected that a first year colony will produce surplus honey. This is due the the extreme amount of work performed by first year colonies in nest building activites. These nest building activities essentially convert a majority of nectar collected into wax to build combs for the bees to live in. However approximately 7 of our original 24 colonies did produce surplus honey.

Not surprisingly, average honey production per colony in the packages (those that produced honey) was significantly higher than the requeened packages or the nucs. We expected this as Italian race honey bees (traditional commercially raised bees) are particularly good hoarders of honey (hence their use in commercial bee operations.) Unfortunately this trait can be a trade-off for survival and responsiveness to weather conditions. Additionally, numerically more of the requeened packages actually produced surplus honey than both the straight packages and the nucs (also probably due to the race of worker bees still being Italian type bees during the main honey flows of the season. )

With a the small sample size of colonies, however, it should be noted there is no statistical difference between the number of colonies producing colonies. (in all groups, approximately ¼ of the colonies produced surplus honey in year one.)

Research conclusions:
What we learned

From the outset, this project had two goals: 1) to successfully perform the tasks promised and to collect and report the data, and 2) to raise awareness of the options available to beekeepers and to empower beekeepers to make choices about their colony origins.

The actual work of managing the colonies was a learning process. The data summarized above shows what happened to the colonies. However, there is much more that was learned as a result of this project. The project participants had to work hard to maintain objectivity in the project, and it was an adjustment to have to watch the failing colonies fail without helping them artificially. “Research”, even informal demonstrative work such as our project requires significant discipline. Record keeping was more work than expected and compiling data and writing interim articles for The Bee Line also took more time than we anticipated. All of these were extremely valuable lessons learned, and have helped the project participants become better beekeepers and better mentors.

Equally important, however was the outreach performed and the awareness raised by this project. From the outset, our local beekeeping club (The Cumberland County Maine Beekeepers Association) was extremely supportive of the project, including providing volunteer labor in painting all of the hive bodies. Each project participant also took on one “apprentice” for the season to assist in record keeping during hive inspections and to help with general support tasks such as preparing syrup, refilling feeders, loading and unloading equipment. This apprentice had the opportunity to gain valuable insight into the management of a mid sized bee yard, and to watch as the colonies progressed throughout the seasons. Erin’s “apprentice” has gone on to pass three of the four tests to become an EAS Certified Master Beekeeper with the final test anticipated in 2012. The SARE project certainly provided the fundamentals for his learning and growth as a beekeeper.

Interest in the project from outside individuals and groups has also been incredibly positive. Interim presentations on the progress of the grant have been given to: Cumberland County Beekeepers Association, Maine State Beekeepers Association, New Hampshire Beekeepers Association, Prince William Sound VA Beekeepers Association, the American Beekeeping Federation, and the Eastern Apicultural Society. Final project presentations are scheuled for Eastern Apicultural Society, Maine State Beekeepers Association and Eastern Missouri Beekeepers Association. In all, over 1000 beekeepers have been reached by this project to date, with many more intended in the future, as the final results become available on the SARE website and through other farming groups, including Maine Cooperative Extension.

Our project was featured on the local television show Bill Green’s Maine http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FhU98rbHTsA and has been included in local newspaper articles and farming publications throughout New England.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:


See outreach links above.

Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

Where to go from here

Our work was extremely promising, but due to seasonal weather conditions and small sample size, we feel that additional data would be helpful in further demonstrating the potential of our project methods. We applied for a second year of this same grant project, and were funded. Results can be found on the SARE website for our second year grant, FNE10-694.

Future Recommendations

As of writing this report, we are waiting to hear about funding for a third year of this project. In year three we will not include northern raised nucleus colonies, and only compare commercial packages as bought, and requeened packages. To provide really valid, statistically significant data, we need larger sample sizes and splitting the number of colonies into just two adds to our group numbers. We hope that Northern Beekeepers will consider queen origin (and their ability to control that) when making plans to order new or replacement colonies, and we further hope that our work might become the springboard for a larger level study of this type, of perhaps several hundred colonies performed in a University setting, which would hopefully be worthy of scientific journal publication, and further promote outreach to beekeepers all over North America.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.