Beginners frequently ask, "What's the difference starting with packages as opposed to nucleus colonies?" Since both have an equivalent number of bees and a queen - it's not apparent why an established Nuc is a better bargain than a package regardless of price.
It has to do with time and what's happening in the bees' season...
Spring is when colonies build - as temperatures grow warmer and pollen and nectar become plentiful, their inclination is to make a new colony. Packages, nucs and swarms all arrive about the same time in the southern Appalachians (early to mid-April, unless a nuc is over-wintered, in which case they'll be available earlier.) Each contains about 10,000 bees and a mated queen. If packages are installed in new equipment, comb must be drawn for the queen to lay. Extruding wax requires tremendous energy and warm temperatures. If the beekeeper does not provide additional feed the build up will be slow.
A package is like Ellis Island - a bunch of immigrants from different lands (hives) are thrown together, given a queen who's not their mother - and told to build a City. They will do it - but it's not the best way to start. A caged queen will take several days after she's released to resume laying. Her eggs won't hatch for 21 days and it will be two more weeks before newly born bees mature into foragers. Added together it will be six weeks before any new bees bring forage. By then nearly ALL the original bees in the package will be dead! (The average lifespan of a worker is only six weeks!)
Bees are shaken down a funnel to make a package. They aren't sorted by age - and even if all were one day old when shaken - they'll be week-old when picked up - and it will be six weeks before the first replacement bees are ready to forage. The flowers of Spring will largely be missed while the package isn't strong enough to take advantage. The honey flow will pass them by as the package loses strength every day until at least the fourth week after installation. And if the new colony doesn't like the queen they've been given, they will reject or supercede her - adding another three week delay and seriously jeopardizing the survival of the colony.
By contrast the Nuc has many advantages: their queen is already accepted and laying eggs. She is a proven force. She continues to lay even as the nuc is transported and frames full of brood are tranferred into the beekeeper's equipment. Within existing comb are stores and brood of all ages. A balance exists between older bees and an increasing number of replacements.The colony utilizes these abundant resources and builds into a fully established colony.
Comparing a package and nuc around May 30 (six weeks after installation), the package has been continuously fed by the beekeeper and now has mostly drawn ten deep frames of comb. The first daughters are beginning to forage and the population once again approaches where it started. Unfortunately, the Spring flow is nearly over. If the beekeeper continues to feed, the second deep should be drawn by another 3-4 weeks.
The nucleus colony did not have to be fed. It expanded immediately and filled the five frames of foundation in less than two weeks. By the end of May the second deep is mostrly drawn and the colony has reached full strength. They are in position to gather a surplus in summer and go into Winter strong and healthy.
Looking at it in economic terms, the package costs "$", plus five frames with foundation that'll add $15 to the cost. If the colony doesn't accept the queen, a new one will cost $25 plus shipping and another two weeks will be lost. Hopefully the colony will get it's comb drawn (feed cost$, takes time, and is messy). In a good season it may gather summer surplus and be ready for Winter by early Fall.
"Time is money"
The Nuc builds much faster, and may actually gather a surplus that Spring. Each shallow super contains 2.5 gallons of honey. That's 30 one pound jars of honey at minimally $10 a jar. Or the colony could be split at the end of May (using the box the nuc came in) and allowed to raise their own daughter - giving the buyer a new two-deep colony and a 5 frame nuc for the cost a single nuc!