The absolute best time to start a new hive is at the beginning of the spring nectar flow, which is just about now in Middle Tennessee.
In making a nuc, essentially you are creating a controlled swarm--but without the queen. So along with taking bees for the new hive, you must ensure that you take newly laid, unhatched eggs, less than 3-days old. These look like little grains of rice in the bottom of the cell.
Once in the new hive, the bees will discover that they have no queen and will go to work making one. To do this, they will choose one or more of these unhatched eggs and create a queen cells around them. When these hatch, the bees will feed them only royal jelly and thus develop the new queens. Waiting for the nectar flow is important not only because the bees will have access to lots of nectar and pollen for food and wax building, but also because plenty of drones will be available this time of year for the newly hatched queens to mate with.
This timing is also important because bees from your bigger, more established hives will be busy gathering nectar and pollen from nature’s abundance and less likely to rob out the smaller nucs.
My nuc boxes are regular-size deep hives that I have sawn in half and rebuilt (see photos).
The hive you take the nuc from must be healthy with lots of bees and a good laying queen. A healthy hive will have a good solid brood pattern (not spotty) and by this time should have lots of eggs, larvae, and capped brood. Drones should also be present by this time of year.
For those who follow my blog, you know I don’t feed my bees anything but honey. Since I’ve been doing this for a number of years, I’ve learned to freeze frames of honey for making nucs or for emergency winter food. I also usually have jars of crystallized honey left from the prior year that I can use for feed. You may not have that luxury if you are just starting out. In this case, you may have to make some sugar syrup as starter feed. However, by waiting for the nectar flow to create your nucs, you should only have to feed them once. Feeding them more than that during the nectar flow can be counterproductive. You want them to learn to gather their own nutritious nectar and pollen, not to be dependent on you, poorly nourished, and making honey out of sugar water. I have had nucs do very well during the nectar flow with no feeding at all and this is an option for you too.
If you do make sugar syrup, mix one-half sugar and one-half water, boil to kill any pathogens, and then let it cool before feeding. Do not just pour the syrup into a container because the bees will drown in it. You can use a small jar. Choose one that will fit inside your top feeder box (see photo). Fill it, punch a few small holes in the lid and place it upside down over the hole in the inner cover, inside your feeder box. Test it first to make sure your holes aren’t too big and the syrup doesn’t pour out.
Now you wait--and hope! As long as you see bees coming and going, stay out of the boxes for a month! It will take 14 days for the queen to hatch and up to another week for her to mate. In the last week, she will have begun laying eggs. If you check too soon, you may accidentally destroy a queen cell or you may not see her because she may be hidden among the bees (an unmated queen is easy to miss) or is out on her mating flight. When you see new eggs and larvae, you’ll know things have worked out. If things didn’t work out, you still have another month of the nectar flow to try again. On average, this method works to establish a new hive 70% of the time.
Happy nuc making!