Improving apiary sustainability by using an overwintered nuc system for colony replacement and expansion instead of purchased package bees

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2015: $7,492.00
Projected End Date: 05/15/2017
Grant Recipient: Bending Sickle Community Farm
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Meghan Milbrath
Bending Sickle Community Farm

Annual Reports


  • Animals: bees


  • Animal Production: animal protection and health

    Proposal summary:

    Honeybees face many threats, and Northern beekeepers have experienced high losses every winter since 2006.  Annual colony losses are about 30%, twice the level beekeepers consider sustainable. Last year was especially devastating; average losses were as high as 65% in Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois. Current rates of winter colony loss are not sustainable, resulting in significant economic consequences for Northern beekeepers, increased pollination costs for fruit growers, and a reduction of pollinators in the environment.

    Beekeepers generally replace lost colonies by two methods: 1) splitting a surviving hive into two, or 2) purchasing a package of bees. Both methods result in economic loss. Colonies split in the spring often do not make a honey crop, recovering too slowly to capture the early and short bloom periods in Northern climates. Packages are expensive and of variable quality. High demand has caused prices to skyrocket - packages were $45 in 2001, $85 by 2013, and I have been quoted $120 for 2015. Packages rarely produce enough honey their first season to net a profit at these prices. Furthermore, queen quality has dropped as package producers rush to meet demand, and shipping bees aids in the spread of disease.

    This project presents an alternative method to colony replacement that avoids the problems of the current methods. Replacement colonies are made the previous fall by splitting full-sized colonies into multiple nucleus colonies (nucs). Nucs have the necessary components for a colony, but are much smaller – generally 5-10 frames of comb (full-size hives have 20-80). Beekeepers will estimate spring needs the year before, and make up a sufficient number of fall nucs from their operation to replace winter losses and to expand the apiary in the spring..
    For example, a beekeeper with 100 hives loses 30 over winter. Using the standard method, she replaces those colonies in the spring by purchasing 30 packages ($90/package = $2700). Using the new system, she splits 15 of her 100 colonies into 4 nucs each in August, overwintering 85 full colonies and 60 nucs (145 colonies). The same 30% winter loss leaves 60 colonies + 42 nucs = 102 colonies in the spring. The extra colonies can be sold at current prices of $150 each, resulting in a net profit of $300, with no need to purchase more colonies.

    Other advantages of this system:
    - Splits made after the honey flow do not affect current year’s crop
    - Bees are not imported, reducing the risk of disease introduction
    - Surplus nucs can be sold to local beekeepers creating extra income
    - Beekeepers have greater control of queen quality
    - More colonies can be overwintered with the same amount of equipment

    Beekeepers still use the old methods because 1) the unknowns in overwintering nucs 2) it is what they know. This project overcomes both of these obstacles by 1) by determining minimum requirements for winter nuc survival, and 2) by creating a step-by-step guide for beekeepers.

    I will examine two measurable outcomes: survival rates and rate of spring build-up. I will vary 2 key factors: cluster size – measured in frames of bees, and food stores – measured by weight, and record their effects on the two outcomes, while monitoring colony health. This will provide key (currently unknown) information on minimum requirements for a nuc that can survive the winter and build up in the spring to make a surplus crop that season. These requirements will be developed into a booklet, with an outline of the equipment needed, timing, and the step-by-step process, that beekeepers can use to create fall nucs for colony replacement and apiary expansion.

    Year 1 goals: perform the experiment to determine the best size of nuc (minimum number of bees and minimum number of food frames), and to write the first draft of the booklet.

    Year 2 goals: Disseminate the results from year 1, and confirm the success of the system over a second winter. I will present the results of the first year at club meetings and prepare and article for the trade journals. By the end of the second year I will have the booklet completed, published online, and available for paper publication.

    Year 1 (August 2015 – July 2016)
    -August 2015
    *Purchase and construct equipment
    *Create experimental nucleus colonies from existing colonies
    -September- November 2015
    *Monitor and record food needs/ inputs for nucs
    *Begin writing booklet – Introduction,
    -December 2015– March 2016
    *Monitor colony survival,
    *Continue working on booklet -Literature review, timeline
    -March – June 2016
    *Record survival and growth data
    -July 2016
    *Determine best practice and complete booklet with results

    Year 2 (August 2016 – May 2017)
    -August 2016
    Make up nucs based on best practices from previous year.
    -September 2016 - November 2016
    *Monitor and record food needs/inputs and changes from previous year
    * Write report of results.
    -December 2016- March 2017
    *Publish 1st draft of booklet online
    *Write article for trade journal
    *Give talks at club meetings about process
    -March 2017- May 2017
    *Record second year survival and growth data
    *Modify booklet as necessary based on 2nd year data and make available for publication.

    Project objectives from proposal:


    1. Reduce the number of package bees necessary to be purchased by Northern beekeepers to replace winter losses.
    2. Promote healthy hives and management practices by reducing the number of bees shipped into a location, which reduces stress of the bees, risk of transmitting diseases to native pollinators, and carbon footprint involved in shipping.
    3. Maximize profits for beekeepers by determining overall savings for replacement colonies.
    4. Create social benefits for beekeepers by providing a system where beekeepers can plan for and recover from winter losses, reducing stress and frustration.
    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.