A performance comparison of three honeybee nucleus colony configurations in Massachusetts

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2015: $14,987.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2018
Grant Recipient: Invisible Cities Apiary
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Daniel Berry
Invisible Cities Apiary

Annual Reports


  • Animals: bees


  • Crop Production: beekeeping
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research

    Proposal summary:

    At a time when honeybee colony losses are on the increase, nucleus colonies can offer beekeepers in northern climates a viable and efficient means to retain or increase their stock. Nucleus colonies are small, viable colonies of honeybees created during the late spring and early summer from full-sized hives. They are an appealing addition to the commercial, sideline, and backyard apiary for two reasons. First, they function as a reserve stock of locally raised bees that can be used to replenish any winter losses. Second, because the demand for northern raised nucleus colonies vastly outstrips the supply in New England, they are a highly saleable product that offers an attractive business opportunity to apiaries in the region. Successfully managing and overwintering nucleus colonies requires coordinating hive setup with local environmental conditions. This project will compare the performance of three different nucleus colony hive configurations by measuring strength, winter survival, as well as the time and steps required to maintain them over a one-year period. The object of the study is to determine whether winter survival rates between groups are measurably different, and whether one hive configuration shows considerable advantages over the others. Our hope is that this study will result in a reliable, replicable model that beekeepers in western Massachusetts can use for making increase with nucleus colonies. The results of this project will be shared with beekeepers across the region via an illustrated handout and presentations to interested bee clubs and associations.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The experiment consists of 60 nucleus colonies divided into three groups: A, B, and C. The three groups will be equally distributed among two separate bee yards because most locations in Massachusetts are rarely able to support more than 30 hives. The yards are organized as follows:


    Yard 1:


    Group A: Control group (1 large nucleus colony in each hive). Consists of 10 standard hives, each set up with 10 “deep” frames of bees over a two-way bottom board.


    Group B: Experimental block (1 medium nucleus colony in each hive). Consists of 10 standard hives, each with 8 “deep” frames of bees with an internal feeder, over a two-way bottom board.


    Group C: Experimental block (2 small nucleus colonies in each hive). Consists of 10 standard hives, each set up with 2 colonies of bees on 4 “deep” frames, separated by an internal feeder, over a two-way bottom board.


    Yard 2:


    Is set up identically to Yard 1 in a separate location.


    All 60 nucleus colonies will be created at approximately the same time in the spring from full-sized production colonies belonging to my apiary. All nuclei will also be headed by newly mated queens originating from a single breeder queen, thus ensuring a similar genetic lineage across the experiment’s population of bees. Each colony will receive a unique ID number for tracking purposes. The yards and groups thus set up, colonies will be inspected on a monthly basis from July through September 2015. During each inspection, the following data points will be measured and recorded in an Inspection Sheet: presence of queen, swarming impulse, number of frames of brood with adhering bees, number of frames of honey, hive weight, hive health/presence of disease, as well as the nature and amount of time spent on hive management tasks. Towards the end of the production season, any hives under 60 lb in gross weight will be fed supplemental sugar syrup for overwintering purposes. In the late fall each hive will be wrapped with a sheath of tar-paper and outfitted with a 3/4” layer of foam insulation above the inner cover as a wintering aid. From November through February hives will be checked on a monthly basis for the presence of live bees by doing a “knock test”: placing one’s ear to the body of a hive, knocking on it, and listening for buzzing inside. Finally, as weather permits in March or April, each nucleus colony will receive a final inspection and all the live and deceased colonies tallied.


    During the month of May, the data points recorded in the Inspection Sheets for each nucleus colony will be transcribed into an Excel database, organizing the data into three blocks corresponding to the three different groups A, B, and C in the experiment. These figures will then be compared against each other and correlated with the most important factor in the study: whether the colony survived the winter or not. Conclusions will then be drawn about which colony configurations fared best and which did poorly, as well as why.


    Project Timetable


    All tasks performed by Daniel Berry (project leader). Task 8 includes assistance by the project’s Technical Advisor:


    1. May 2015: prepare yards in two separate locations.


    2. Mid-June 2015: create 60 nuclei and outfit with newly mated queens.


    3. July-September 2015: conduct monthly inspections as described in response to question 4.


    4. September 15-October 15, 2015: provide supplemental sugar syrup to any colonies below 60 lb. in gross weight.


    5. Mid-November 2015: wrap and insulate hives.


    6. November 2015-February 2016: as winter conditions allow, perform monthly knock-tests to confirm presence or absence of live bees inside.


    7. March-April 2016: as weather permits, conduct final inspections and tally of deceased and surviving colonies.


    8. April-May 2016: input data into Excel spreadsheet, compare and analyze data, draw conclusions and complete SARE project report. Prepare electronic handout and share with state and county beekeeping associations.


    9. June 2016: conduct project workshop at Massachusetts Bee Field Days in South Deerfield, MA.


    10. July-December 2016: engage interested beekeeping associations to discuss project results.


    Outreach Plan


    This project specifically focuses on the central-western Massachusetts region and its beekeepers, so the outreach plan caters primarily to them. There are currently 6 registered beekeeping associations in this region, including 1 statewide organization and 5 county-specific bee clubs. The findings of this research will be made available to these groups in three ways. First, a concise, well-designed and carefully illustrated guide will be sent electronically to the secretaries of each of these associations to share with their members. Second, if the associations wish to invite the author to one of their meetings for a more extended presentation and discussion of results, efforts will be made to schedule these events. Third, findings will also be presented as a workshop during the 2016 Massachusetts Beekeeper’s Association Annual Field Day, where I have been a regular presenter for the last two years.


    Note: In the case that this experiment’s results are not promising, the illustrated guide will not be pursued but the remaining outreach plan will still be followed through as described.

    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.