Queens with benefits: running your own Mating nucs.

Have you ever accidentally squashed or damaged one of your queens? Perhaps you were being a bit rough while pulling frames out from the brood nest or maybe she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Either way, it sucks. Once the hive knows that they’re queenless, it will take another 10-12 days for them to get another one. Then possibly up to another week of mating flights before she begins to lay again and by the time that happens, you have a three to four week gap in brood production.

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Three mating nucs with successfully laying queens.
Three of nine mating nucs I split off my first year of trying this. Each one raised their own laying queen successfully. Only one of them had to try twice, even honey bees gotta practice. Photo by Jonathan Hargus

What if I told you that you could do something about this without buying queens? Would you be interested in learning how you could have replaced that queen you rolled between those two frames? And that you could do it within one week with a mated, already-laying queen? I’m not talking about grafting, which definitely has its place. But grafting is not designed for needing a queen, stat!

Today, I’m talking about mating nucs saving the day. They’re easy to have around, small enough to manage with ease, and are worth their weight of a ‘3-pound package of bees‘ when you need a laying queen on the fly.

~Stick around. I’m going to teach you the main advantages of having mating nucs and how to manage them in the best way possible for your style of beekeeping and beehives. ~

Successful mating nucs have produced several quality laying queens.
On the left are three of my original nine mating nucs. These three produced the most queens the first year; they were exceptional at raising queens. The two other beehives on that old pallet are in-yard splits I made for increase. Photo by Jonathan Hargus

First things First If you have ever looked up mating nucs online or in a book on the subject, chances are that you saw a picture of a field of what looked like little tiny baby beehives. Commercial queen-raisers use small mating nucs, also called queen-raisers, to raise virgin queens until they have successfully been laying for at least three weeks. This ensures that the beekeeper buying a mated queen is getting one that has ‘proved’ herself. It also helps the breeder guarantee that they are selling a quality laying queen. Having a small queen-raiser boxes helps the breeders to keep costs low, save on space being able to place a lot of them in an apiary, and it saves them time by being able to quickly locate and cage the queens for mailing.

Now I know that queen-raising nucs are really cute. They are itty bitty and that’s hard to resist wanting one of your very own. But it’s not practical for anyone except queen-raisers. And this brings us to our very first advantage of running your own mating nucs:

Queen raising mating nucs on hive stands.
See, I told you that these tiny mating nucs were cute. These are approximately the size of half a shoe box.

Universal Equipment This step is where you’re going to learn how easy it is to keep a few mating nucs of your own and how to do it. The reason you do NOT want to have those cute little mating nucs, which is the same thing as a queen-raiser, is because the equipment used is not compatible with your own. If you run Langstroth style equipment then you want to have a mating nuc that has compatible frames with your Langstroths.

For example, I have Langstroth style beehives but I run them using nine, instead of ten frames. I make up the difference using follower boards for ventilation purposes among others. So because I have nine frames in my deep hive bodies, I run 3-frame mating nucs for easy math.

Queen raising mating nucs secured to hive stands.
These particular queen-raisers are strapped tighly shut and also to the stand for protection against potential predators and/or high wind.

Setting up In the spring, to easily set up my mating nucs, I take a strong colony or one that is about to swarm and I divide the nine frames into three separate groups: two groups go into mating nucs and the one with the queen will remain in the original deep hive body. I then give them six more frames to fill the hive body. Then I ensure that each one has a frame of young brood for making queen cells and that they have plenty of food. At this point I have my original colony plus two mating nucs that will now have to raise their own queens. However, they can only do so if I give them the youngest of brood; capped brood will not work for this. So roughly in one month I will have two more laying queens available should I need one.

The procedure of breaking off mating nucs works best if you have two apiaries, otherwise you will lose some of your mating nucs’ field force as they return back to their original location. To prevent this, it’s easy to block their entrance for the rest of that day and not open it until half an hour before sundown on the following day.

Some of you may be saying that all I have accomplished is making two splits, thereby increasing my numbers. Nope. Remember, our objective is not increasing our numbers by creating these nucs. Our goal is to have extra queens on-hand in a ‘crisis.’

an absconding swarm landing in a pine tree.
A couple of months after splitting off nine mating nucs, we had rainy weather for days. It rained so long during that early spring that all of by beehives began consuming all of their stores and nearly starved. The bees in the tree here are an ‘absconding swarm,’ which means they swarmed because of stressful situations; in this case, no food. I did catch them and started feeding them right away. Photo by Jonathan Hargus

In my first year of running mating nucs, I was able to correct two beehives that went ‘droney,’ using two good laying queens from my mating nucs. I also replaced a queen that had completely lost her wings and had slowed down in production. In a good season, you could actually get 3-4 queens from just one nuc! When summer turned into fall and I realized that I probably wouldn’t need any more of my extra queens, I ‘graduated’ three of the mating nucs into full size deep hive bodies and they grew to fill them. This is the importance of using the same equipment. My very last mating nuc was growing too slowly to fill up a full deep hive body so I am currently wintering them in their 3-frame nuc box. I can’t wait to see them in the spring to see how they did.

There’s another plus when it comes to using universal equipment; if you have a beehive that could use a little boost in their population, just give them an entire frame of capped brood from a mating nuc. Then, replace that frame of brood with another empty frame and watch as your queen in the nuc starts to lay it full of eggs. In fact, it’s important that you do this so that your mating nucs don’t become so large in population that they want to swarm. When it comes to the point at which you need to call upon the services of one of your laying ladies, here is a great reference for a proper introduction; into her new colony that is.

Saving Money So let’s say that last year I used ten queens from my own mating nucs. How much money would it have cost me to buy those queens? I guess it depends upon the breed, the demand of needing them right away, and the season; it may be too late in the year to order a queen. Let’s look at some numbers shall we! So I just randomly searched on Google to find the price of mated queens. The website that came up first is called, Honey Run Apiaries. Their price chart for 2018 is based on Open Mated New World Carniolan Queens. Since I need ten queens, their prices for purchasing 6-10 queens are $30 a piece. So ten times thirty is $300 dollars in mated queens.

A gorgeous laying queen bee.
Sometimes a quality mated and laying queen can cost between $30-$40 dollars depending upon the breeder’s reputation and the queens’ genetics. Photo by Jonathan HargusĀ©

Of course you could save a little money if you looked for someone selling virgin queen bees but you would still have to wait to receive them, introduce them gradually to their new hives, then IF they weren’t killed when you released her from the cage then they would finally begin to go on mating flights and eventually start laying. That could be too long. Your bees will raise their own queen in that amount of time. But the idea of having your own queens available is to SAVE on time and as a result, MONEY too.

Queens with Benefits Sometimes as a beginner beekeeper, you can get nervous or possibly even anxious when it comes to handling queens or even opening your beehives. Many times when we’re digging through our beehives, beekeepers feel that they MUST make visual contact with their queens. Just to see her. This is not a good practice. It’s more advantageous to look for SIGNS of the queen’s presence and performance. Fortunately, with mating nucs it is much easier and practical to easily locate and observe your queens without the unnecessary risks. There are only 2-5 frames in a nuc. Decide which types of hive inspections require physically locating the queen and which ones do not.

Let’s not forget Genetic Diversity Keeping a handful of mating nucs in the apiary means that as long as you’re using your queens, or selling them, then there’s always some lucky drones hanging around at the local ‘Air B&B’ waiting to hookup with a regal lady. Genetic diversity is important in the pool of…being genetically diverse. Ugh!

Use Mating Nucs that match your Hive Style Are you a top bar beekeeper? Or perhaps a Warre or Langstroth? What ever style you choose can be adapted to having mating nucs with universal equipment. My nucs are modeled after the same frame size as my Langstroth style deep hive bodies which are technically 10-frame boxes with 3-frame nuc boxes. If you run Warre style beehives, you can use a smaller box as a mating nuc that will fit 2-5 frames of your Warre frames. If you run top bar hives then maybe consider dividing one or two of your units to house three mating colonies each. This makes switching out frames a cinch. There’s always a way to make your ideas happen when it comes to beekeeping. Beekeeping is truly an inventors trade.

Have you ever tried running mating nucs in your operation? I encourage each of you to try this for yourselves. One of the first things I am going to do in late February and early March is to get my mating nucs going for the year. I would really like to hear from you guys and gals out there. Let me know what worked and what didn’t. I know I have not covered this topic in full, so if you have any questions or need clarification, leave a comment below. We’re all in this together to make our honey bees the best they can ‘bee.’

Weeds are wildflowers, let them bee, painted on a pallet.
I painted this pallet for displaying at markets and festivals where we sell our honey and other honey bee related products. Photo by Jonathan HargusĀ©

Thanks so much for joining me and until next time remember,

~Weeds are Wildflowers, let them Bee.~

Jonathan Hargus/Beekeeper Extraordinaire

One Comment Add yours

  1. I don’t know about any of you but whenever I think about my bees for this year, I can tell I’m already getting spring fever!

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