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

Final Report for FNE10-694

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2010: $14,993.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Erin MacGregor-Forbes
Overland Apiaries
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Project Information


Our project explored the differences in strength and survival between three options for starting new honeybee colonies. Over the course of two years 54 new honey bee colonies were started, managed, monitored, and evaluated by Master Beekeeper Erin MacGregor-Forbes and experienced beekeeper Larry Peiffer. The purpose of the experiment was to determine whether survival rates between the groups of colonies would be measurably different, and whether beekeeper choices in colony starts could influence winter survival probability.

The project involved three colony groups: Two thirds of our colonies were started using commercially raised southern packages of bees, 3lbs of bees and a queen bee in a cage. (Packages) Packages are the most commonly purchased colony start option available to beekeepers in the United States, comprising roughly 80% of all new colonies started in New England.

The second colony group (1/3 of our project) was comprised of northern raised overwintered nucleus colonies, a northern raised queen and her offspring, 5 frames of bees, along with honey comb, pollen, and nectar stores (Nucs). Northern raised nucleus colonies are less commonly purchased because they are less available for sale – the demand for Northern Raised Nucs vastly outstrips the supply in New England.

The third colony group we included is a compromise between the above two choices. Once the packages were established in hives in Maine, and when northern raised queens were available (approximately 60 days after package installation), we removed the queens from half of the package started colonies and replaced them with northern raised and mated queens. (Requeened Packages)

We then managed each colony independently and measured their honey production, disease and mite load, and most importantly, survival over winter to see if there were differences between the Packages, Nucs, Requeened Packages.

Our results were very promising in the survival differences. In over two years, the adjusted data for survival revealed the following: 42% of the southern commercially raised package colonies survived their fist winter strong enough to be a viable colony in the following summer. 83% of the overwintered northern raised Nucleus colonies were in viable condition, and 90% of the northern requeened packages were in viable condition the following spring.

In our project, the Nucs experienced nearly twice the survival rate of the Packages. Additionally, the Requeened Packages also experienced a survival rate nearly double the rate of the “as bought” Packages.

Although executed over two years, our sample size was small (54 colonies started total, but only 39 included in this final data due to colony disqualification) and therefore could be subject to seasonal and statistical error. We will be performing additional work narrowing the study groups to just Packages and Requeened Packages in 2013. We hope to improve the statistical significance of our results through further study, but feel strongly that the promise shown by our first two years offers New England beekeepers an attractive option for increasing the survival of new colonies.


Honey bees are crucial to successful agriculture and environmental health, and the overall decline of honey bee health has become front-page news for the past several years. In recent years, the annual mortality rate of honey bee colonies in Maine has steadily increased due primarily to the parasitic Varroa mite and associated diseases. Additionally, beekeeping costs are increasing due to the increased cost of replacement colonies, queens, specialized equipment, medications and transportation.

Currently most New England beekeepers rely on “package bees” and Southern or West Coast raised queen bees to restart their hives or establish new hives. These are generally “Italian” race honey bees and they generally come from commercial suppliers in Georgia, Alabama, Texas, or California. These colonies of honey bees are often not well suited for the New England climate and are less effective in honey production and pollination in this area than they are in milder areas. Many hives started with packaged bees do not survive the winter. Packaged bees are, by definition, stressed colonies. They are far more susceptible to downturns in spring weather conditions, disease transmission, and pest and parasite infestation. Unfortunately packaged honey bees are the most widely used and promoted method of starting new colonies across the nation, including in Maine.

Many beekeepers feel that the sustainability of beekeeping hinges on new ways of operating that depend on local bee and queen breeders to produce replacement and new starting colonies in their area. However, due to the short queen rearing season in New England, in this part of the country local colonies are often difficult to find and often not available until well after the primary honey flow and pollination seasons are over (Queens are usually not available until Mid-June, long after the Apple and other pollination seasons are over).

Hives started with a locally raised over-wintered nucleus colony, “nucs” have a greater potential to develop into a strong, sustainable colony than a colony started with a package. Over wintered nucs are made up of honey bees in all stages of development as well as food (honey and pollen), a laying locally raised queen bee that has “proven” her abilities through her first winter, and enough nurse, worker, and field bees to build up into a strong full strength colony over the course of the spring and summer. Essentially the nuc is a “micro hive” with an already established organization that allows for rapid expansion. Over-wintered nucs are nucleus colonies that are created from “parent” hives in the prior summer, when the “parent” colony can easily replace the frames of brood and bees used to create the nuc. The Queens also are raised and mated in the previous summer and “prove” their successful mating and development by heading the over-wintered nuc from creation, through winter, until the following spring when they are used as the foundation for the new production colony. Locally raised overwintered nucs are not subjected to the stresses of package bee production, they demand less antibiotic and other chemical use, and they are not subjected to the shock that can be caused by transporting bees from one climate to another. Travel time for transportation to the new location is generally only a few hours so the confinement period for the bees is short and adaptation to the new location nearly immediate.

Unfortunately, overwintered nucleus colonies both are technically difficult and expensive (in sheer dollars and in hive resources) to produce and sell. There are a very limited number of beekeepers producing overwintered nucs and current demand vastly outstrips supply. While the number of overwintered nucs available for sale is increasing, demand for these colonies is increasing at a much higher rate and the beekeepers are unable to keep up. For these reasons it is often difficult or nearly impossible for many beekeepers to utilize overwintered nucs for their replacement or starter colonies.

Our project demonstrated a compromise option between Overwintered Nucs and Packaged bee colonies. Since all honey bees in the colony with the exception of the queen live for less than two months in the summer, and all offspring of the queen are genetically determined by the queen and her mates when she is less than two weeks old, it is very simple to change the genetic make-up of a colony of honey bees. Our strategy is to re-queen purchased packages with northern raised queens as soon as such queens become available (mid-late June). Once accepted by the colony, the northern raised queens will produce offspring that are better suited to winter over in the New England climate, and by the end of August, our re-queened colonies will be comprised entirely of honey bees which are offspring of the northern raised queen. Our final survival results show that both the requeened packages and northern raised nucs had significantly higher winter survival rates than the commercial packages.

Our project therefore offers two potential alternatives to the traditional treadmill of purchasing commercial packaged bees in the spring and losing the colony over the winter. Our data demonstrates that despite the many threats to Maine honey bee colonies, sustainability is achievable by maintaining healthy colonies of northern raised honey bees that are particularly well adapted to our climatic conditions.

The project methodology and results demonstrate alternative sustainable methods of beekeeping by starting new and rebuilding dead colonies while getting off of the “treadmill” of packaged bees and commercially raised queens. The project shows the viability and superiority of local (Maine and New England) alternatives to packaged bees with commercially raised queens from the South by the fact that the both the Nucs and Requeened packages experienced significantly higher survival rates. It is important to note that the commercial packages are required for the “requeened package” colony start option, and that it is the replacement of the package queen with a northern raised queen that apparently increases the survival rates in the “requeened packages.”

Project Objectives:

Our objective is to use a side-by-side comparison of overwintered nucs, packaged bees with commercial queens, and packaged bees in which the queen has been replaced with a northern raised queen to:

- Increase awareness among Maine beekeepers that there are options for purchasing or repopulating colonies other than purchasing from the traditional southern and western sources.
- Demonstrate that northern raised bees can be obtained and raised in time to provide valuable pollination services, build to sufficient wintering strength, and often collect surplus honey crops, even in their first year.
- Demonstrate that re-queening package colonies with locally raised queens can improve overall colony survival rates.
- Clearly demonstrate, explain, and demystify a management technique that many new beekeepers find intimidating or unattractive (the requeening process).
- Promote sustainable beekeeping practices overall by emphasizing Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies and reducing chemical/antibiotic use throughout our project, and focus on these practices in our educational and outreach efforts.


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  • Larry Peiffer


Materials and methods:
Colony Management Protocol

The 2010 project’s thirty hives are split into two groups of fifteen, all started in April and May of 2010 (Packages in April, nucs in May). Collaborating beekeeper Larry Peiffer managed one group in Hollis, Maine and Erin MacGregor-Forbes managed the other group in Westbrook, Maine. The project honey bees do not share any equipment with the beekeeper’s current operation hives nor will any honey or pollen stores from existing colonies be given to the project colonies. All project colonies are in excess of three miles of any of the participants’ other colonies, eliminating the risk of drift from non-project colonies. It is important to note that that the project colonies are all started and managed on identical new equipment setups with new “foundation” only in order to objectively compare the progress of the colonies.

The project participants purchased all new hive equipment in March 2010 for the 30 project colonies. Volunteer beekeepers from the Cumberland County Beekeepers Association helped to complete painting of the hives. The packages were picked up and installed in April 2010 and the nucs were installed in May. All colonies were fed constantly from installation through the end of May when they had substantially built out their “nests” and were able to forage for their own food.

Each colony in the project was managed “as a new beekeeper would”, with the goal being to maximize colony strength and health, not necessarily honey harvest. All colonies were fed sugar syrup during the spring build-up period until the entire “nest” area of the hive was 80% full of drawn honeycomb. At that point feeding was discontinued. Colonies were regularly evaluated by the beekeepers and by outside participants. Each time the colonies were opened, detailed notes were taken using the SARE hive evaluation form.

Disqualification of Colonies

Management Protocol:
In both projects FNE09-665 and FNE10-694, we had a particular protocol for setting up and managing all honeybee colonies. Each colony was maintained individually with no exchange of comb, bees, brood, or other resources that were not specified in the project and provided to all colonies.

Disqualification of colonies due to Queen Events:
Any colony that initiated a queen replacement (swarming or supersedure) that did not successfully re-queen was disqualified from the project. To be clear, colonies were not disqualified as a result of swarming (though the beekeepers did try to discourage swarming as much as possible) and supersedures were also allowed to occur. However, in several instances the new queens did not successfully return to the hives, and the hives were allowed to remain queenless until it became clear that the bee-initiated requeening had failed. (the beginning of laying worker/ thorough repeated inspections revealing no queen). These colonies were then disqualified from the project, moved to a separate yard and a queen and/or brood was introduced.

Disqualification of Colonies due to Pesticide Event
In early July, 2010 the Hollis Bee yard began showing signs of distress including crawling and dead bees at the entrances of several of the colonies. The Cooperating Beekeeper in charge of this yard contacted Maine State Apiarist Tony Jadczak who inspected the colonies on 7/13/2010 and confirmed that there had apparently been a light-moderate pesticide kill approximately one month prior. Three of the colonies were queenless at the time of inspection and all colonies had clearly been weakened by the occurrence, with several evidencing secondary stress diseases (sacbrood, chalkbrood). Tony Jadczak recommended disqualifying one colony and requeening the remaining with queens of the origin that was designated in the project. This was done within three days and all colonies were fed for approximately two weeks following the inspection. The cooperating beekeeper, Larry Peiffer continued to manage the colonies within the grant paramaters, to collect data regularly and followed the remaining SARE procedures, including treating for mites in the fall and preparing the colonies for winter. In the end, however, only three of these fifteen colonies survived the winter with two being rated “weak” (one nuc and one package) and only one colony rating “average” (a nuc).
In terms of project results, this yard clearly negatively impacts the overall data, lowering the average survival rates of all of the groups of colonies. We therefore offer the full version of our survival results with this data both included and excluded, but suggest that disqualifying this entire yard portrays a more accurate representation of expected results. Our published summarized data excludes all of the colonies in this yard.

Research results and discussion:


The results of the project were extremely promising with significant differences between the three groups. The results listed below include all colonies, from the 2009 and 2010 project years.

Honey Production:
More package colonies (requeened and conventional) produced surplus honey crops than the nucs, but this was primarily due to the high rate of reproductive swarming in the nucs (a sign of colony strength). Surplus honey production of the 54 colonies was measured, even though first year colonies are not typically expected to produce surplus honey. Thirteen of the colonies produced surplus honey. The following table describes the breakdown and averages of honey production.

Colony Survival:
Disease and parasite loads were higher in the packaged hives than the “nucs”, not surprisingly leading to the higher mortality rates in those colonies. Interestingly the requeened packages seemed to better handle the higher disease and parasite loads than the conventional packages. The break in the brood cycle caused by the requeening process may play a role in this, although it is unlikely to be the primary reason. Greater disease resistance in addition to genetic adaptation to the northern climate may explain the increased rates of survival and strength of the requeened packages.

Over the two-year trial, with all colonies included, requeened packages had 50% survivability compared to 28% survivability of the conventional package bees. The highest survival rate was the northern nucs at 61%.

It is important to note that in the second year of the project, one of the bee yards experienced a pesticide incident that significantly impacted the entire group of 15 colonies in the Hollis yard, skewing the data (5 of each type). In addition, 8 colonies of the 54 were disqualified from the project for other reasons relating to queen replacement. For reporting purposes, it is valuable to review the project with these colonies disqualified, leaving the following results with the remaining 34 “non-disqualified” colonies.

Of the remaining colonies, 83% of the northern raised nucleus colonies survived the winter in Average or Strong condition, 90% of the requeened packages survived in Average or Strong condition (not statistically different from the nucs due to sample size), while only 42% of the package colonies survived in Average or Strong condition.

Actual number of colonies in each category data is below:

Research conclusions:

The Maine State Beekeepers Association (MSBA) newsletter and the MSBA website are the primary outlets used to disseminate information regarding progress and results of the project. Erin MacGregor-Forbes wrote a semi-monthly article in the MSBA newsletter, The Bee Line describing the latest activities of the project and updating the membership on progress of the colonies. The participants feel that this ongoing communication regarding the project more fully engaged the membership in the project than simply by reporting results at the end. Raising awareness of the alternatives and promoting sustainable beekeeping practices and IPM strategies for pest management are key components of the goals of this project. The project participants have received a significant amount of feedback from new and experienced beekeepers alike, expressing support for and interest in the project as a result of the ongoing articles.

The grant process, from writing the proposal, to obtaining the equipment and supplies, to performing the bee work and data collection, to writing the final reports and doing the outreach work has been extremely rewarding for the project coordinator and collaborators. Many conversations have been started as a result of this project, and beekeepers are reexamining their current methods and considering changing strategies as the result of this project.

Outreach presentations have been warmly received, and we anticipate additional outreach opportunities to continue to present themselves. At this point, Erin MacGregor-Forbes has given talks on this SARE project in 5 states, and at the American Beekeeping Federation conference in January 2010 and the Eastern Apicultural Society conference in August of 2011. We look forward to further promoting the results of our project, and the SARE Farmer Grant program in the future.

Examples of outreach communications are attached.

Erin Forbes speaking about the SARE project at the Prince William Sound Virginia beekeepers meeting: http://vimeo.com/21378039

Maine Cooperative Extension article and video describing the project.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:
Bee Line Articles
  • Erin's SARE Grant articles in The Bee Line, newsletter of the Maine State Bekeepers Associaton are attached below.
  • Association Newsletters describing scheduled outreach events.
  • Two short videos of colony installation in the Westbrook SARE yard can be found "on the Youtube"
  • Package Installation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bk0iFG7xorI&feature=BFa&list=UUTKQ6xptyCNNd7r6GI-Z8zA&lf=plcp
  • Nuc Installation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mB7Vab9hxmg&list=UUTKQ6xptyCNNd7r6GI-Z8zA&index=3&feature=plcp

Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

While beekeepers have known that in recent years commercial packages have not been surviving as well as they had in the past, it is easy to write the failures off as beekeeper error, weather related, one time mysteries, or simply bad luck. Without a clear, fair comparison, it is difficult to assign success and failure rates to one type of colony or another. This project was designed specifically to remove the external forces arguments from the survivability question by meticulously treating all colonies equally, and measuring their successes objectively. The results of our project certainly warrant further investigation, as they clearly point to higher survival rates in colonies with northern raised queens. We believe that our project has shown that there is potentially significant value in requeening with local queens, or using locally raised nucleus colonies.

We hope that individuals and beekeeping groups will consider replicating our methods and perform other projects looking at the same issues. Ultimately, requeening with local queens could become an important management technique for beekeepers in many regions.

Additional Contributors/Acknowledgements

Special thanks to everyone who assisted in making this project happen. Especially to Larry Peiffer, who put in many many hours working with and tending to the bees, collecting and compiling data, and making this project a success.

Project Collaborator:
Larry Peiffer, Tea House Honey Apiaries, Standish Maine lpeiffer@bonneyeagle.org

Technical Advisor:
Anthony M. Jadczak, Maine State Apiarist. Anthony.m.jadczak@maine.edu

Special Thanks to:

Jack Hildreth, Erin’s lead apiary assistant in the Biddeford and Westbrook yards, without whose help we could not have completed our project.
Geoff MacLean, Westbrook yard assistant.
Ray Salmon, Larry’s principal assistant, who provided both muscle and companionship in the Standish and Hollis yards.
Melissa Estes, Hollis yard assistant.
Pamela Peiffer, help and support in so many ways.
Briget Ganske, who took many wonderful photos of the bees.
Rick Cooper, www.bees-n-me.com who assembled all of the frames and equipment, and acted as an advisor and “guest inspector” of the colonies.
Cumberland County Beekeepers Association, for providing assistance in painting the SARE project hives, and for the support and outreach assistance.
Lori Harley, The Bee Line Editor, for her invaluable help in producing the outreach articles.
Davida Sky, Guest Inspector
Anne Frey, EAS Master Beekeeper, project consultant and, Guest Inspector
Karla Eisen and the Prince William Sound Beekeepers association. For encouragement from the outset, for “sister SARE” support, technical and writing advice, and for providing outreach opportunities.


A few photos from the project.

Future Recommendations

The project coordinator, Erin MacGregor-Forbes has been awarded an additional SARE Farmer grant to continue the work begun in FNE09-665 and FNE10-694. In 2013, we will begin a demonstration project comparing only commercial packages with requeened packages with the intent to increase the statistical significance of these results, and to further demonstrate the reliability of the project results seen in the first two years. We hope to further promote discussion of the importance of locally adapted queens, to encourage an educate beekeepers in using IPM strategies in managing their colonies and to perhaps inspire others to pursue projects making similar comparisons.

Information Products

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.