“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.