“Why did my bees leave?”

Several people wrote in to say they installed a new package of bees only to have all the bees disappear a few days later. They want to know what they did wrong.

First off, having your new bees abscond is not only heartbreaking, it’s expensive. You spent lots of time and money setting up the perfect hive, you’ve waited all winter for your package to arrive, and two days after installation you are left with nothing but an empty wooden box. Sort of like the stock market.

Every time I have seen this happen, the bees were installed on new wood. If the newly installed bees don’t like the real estate, they act like any other swarm. They stick around for a day or two while the scouts go out and look for something more to their liking. When they’ve come to an agreement on their new digs, they leave and you become an empty-nester.

So, what do you do when you have only new wood? The answer is easy: sequester the queen. The package of bees will not leave without their queen, so if the queen can’t leave, the bees will stay and start to build comb. Once the comb-building process has begun—and the hive begins to smell like home—you can release the queen and relax.

I’ve heard people say it’s the smell of new lumber they don’t like, or it’s the glue in plywood, or it’s the odor of paint. But in my opinion, it’s just that the bees decided they could do better somewhere else. Remember, they have no loyalty to the box you just dropped them in. It’s like someone else choosing an apartment for you. Chances are good that while the place may be okay, you would prefer something different. Same with the bees.

One year I had a package abscond from a newly built top-bar hive. Lucky for me, the swarm landed in a nearby shrub and I was able to capture it. I re-installed them in the same hive but I put the queen in an introduction cage and left her there for about ten days. Once several combs were under construction, I re-released the queen and the colony stayed put.

Since then, I always sequester the queen if the wood is new, or I install several frames of used brood comb—the darker the better—to start them off. This is the same type of comb you would use in a bait hive. Even though it looks disgusting, it is full of odors the bees find irresistible. Go figure.

But what about those old combs? Shouldn’t old black combs—which may contain pesticide build-up or disease—be rotated out of the hive? Absolutely. I handle this by using combs that are almost ready to retire, but not quite. For example, if you retire combs after four years, use three-year-old combs for baiting a hive or starting a colony on new wood.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

Phillip
Reply

I remember David Burns saying that installing a queen excluder on the bottom of the brood box until the queen begins laying will also reduce the chances of the colony flying away. The top entrance needs to be blocked or screened off though. I’ve never done it, but that’s what David says.

Rusty
Reply

Phillip,

Should work. It’s basically the same idea–you are preventing the queen from leaving the hive and the colony stays with her.

Chelsea
Reply

Very interesting post – makes excellent sense. We’ve heard from other beekeepers who have had their packages abscond, and we didn’t know what to tell them! Neither of our employers have ever had packages abscond (and they’ve poured thousands of packages) – probably because they were always poured into “old” equipment.

Jeff
Reply

For both Phil and myself most of the nectar and pollen sources will be from wildflowers. There shouldn’t be major sources of pesticides in our areas. Would you still look at a 4 year cycle for replacing comb or could that be extended for 5 or 6 years?

Rusty
Reply

Jeff,

I think the time to rotate frames is very much a local and personal decision. If you are not dealing with agricultural chemicals and your bees are disease-free you can go much longer than a beekeeper dealing with these issues. I’m in a similar situation here. I’m next to a huge state forest and there is very little agriculture in the immediate area, but I still like to rotate frames after four or five years. You will know more when you get there. The decision will come naturally.

Jeff
Reply

Thanks Rusty

Doug
Reply

I wonder if spraying the inside of the hive with sugar syrup that contains lemongrass oil would help? I know of a huge queen breeder that uses syrup with oregano oil in it to keep them in their own boxes. A lot of the packages are shaken from the same hives, and the oregano oil stops them from all moving back in together, after they hive them, on a large scale.
My last two years of installing packages, I’ve made my own Honey Bee Healthy brew. I use it to lightly spray the packages before I install them. I have never had any abscond.

Rusty
Reply

Commercial swarm lures smell like lemongrass oil, so I’m sure it works. Also, spraying the bees with essential oils like oregano interferes (just temporarily) with their sense of smell. It confuses them and, like you said, the groups can’t find each other so readily.

stephanie
Reply

How do you sequester the queen?

Rusty
Reply

Stephanie,

Catch her and put her in a queen cage.

Wilma
Reply

After selling our house in Port Elizabeth South Africa and being on holiday for 10 days, we came back to find honey bees in our fireplace/chimney (high up). We cannot see them but can hear them and now and then one will come down the chimney and die. (about 10 per day).

How do we get rid of them, we have contacted bee keepers but beside the fact that they want a farms price to take them away, they are not interested as soon as they hear it’s in the chimney. Please help!! (The new owners will be in by June and we cannot leave them with the bee problem.)

Rusty
Reply

Wilma,

I don’t know the answer. What would happen if you built a small fire? Might the smoke drive them away? Would the wax melt? Or is the chimney so clogged it will not draft? The beekeepers probably know they can’t get them out alive and that is why they don’t want to try.

Bees hate smoke. If you kept a small fire going for a long time they might eventually leave. An exterminator will use poisons and that would be sad, so the smoke may be worth a try.

Readers? Anyone know what to do?

andy
Reply

On the question of new bees leaving, I put a new bunch in my top bar hive, they started making comb, and then on the third day left, leaving nice little lobes of comb and a few confused sisters behind, any idea why?

Andy

Rusty
Reply

Andy,

It certainly has been the year for bees to abscond. I’ve heard more reports of absconding this year than ever before. Basically, though, I have no new insight. If a swarm takes off on its own, it makes a “democratic” decision about where to live (see Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley). But when you buy a package and install it, you have attempted to make a decision for them—one that they may or may not like.

It could be the size of the opening, the size of the cavity, the amount of sun exposure, temperature, the amount of noise, nearby threats (or what they perceive as threats), the smell of new wood or paint, the height above ground . . . or maybe something else entirely.

The bees I’ve had abscond had been placed in new top-bar hives; I’ve never had them abscond from Langstroths. But personally, I don’t think it was the hive design as much as the fact that the hives were made from new lumber. Now when I put packages in new hives I always keep the queen caged and wait for a substantial amount of comb to be built. I also add pieces of old comb tied to a frame or top bar as well as a piece of honeycomb, if possible. All these things add aromas the bees like.

I can’t guarantee that a package will stay if you do all the above, but it seems that advance preparation does make a difference. All I can say is your bees left because they found something they liked better. It happens.

ORoedel
Reply

In my poor experience with packages, the bees didn´t start to build up combs. Later I put queen excluders under the nest box and this resolved. The bees started to build combs!

sidneypatin
Reply

The same happened to us. We were able to re-hive the swarm, with the help of an rescuer in our beekeeping association. We left them corked in the TBH for a couple of days and I just pulled one of the corks last night. Hope they stay this time. If not, we may go with the queen cage next time.

Christine
Reply

Rusty & posters,

Thanks for the good info on this topic. Wished I would’ve read this before this season! They absconded on me last year and I thought it was the brand new top bar hive I had made for them. So after it weathered for a year and I added in fresh (not years old) honeycomb, I was hoping they would want it to be home….not so. I let the queen out too soon…..oh when will I ever learn! Thanks for all the great info. I love Honey Bee Suite!

Rusty
Reply

Christine,

You will get right next time . . . so much to learn!

Jack
Reply

You state the bees will not abscond without the queen. I have two incidences of packaged bees absconding while queen still in the queen container. All bees left queen behind and departed hive. Queen originally came with packaged bees.

Why did this happen?

Rusty
Reply

Jack,

Sometimes a queen or a virgin queen gets vacuumed up and put into a package along with the workers. I’ve been told this is not uncommon, although I have never seen it personally.

ORoedel
Reply

Bees follow swarms or enter existing hives. So if a swarm passes the hive, your packet bees go with the swarm. Or they smell another colony and leave the useless (caged) queen.

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