Absconding swarms leave an empty hive

When all of the bees—including the queen—leave the hive in search of a new home we say they are “absconding.” This is very different from swarming. Swarming is a reproductive process in which one colony splits and becomes two. From 40 to 70% of the original colony leaves with the old queen to start a new colony elsewhere. The remaining bees are left with a soon-to-emerge virgin queen who will head what’s left of the original colony. If a colony is robust, it may swarm more than one time in a season.

Absconding is not a reproductive process because all the bees leave—the entire colony just moves somewhere else. While absconding does not occur very frequently in European honey bees, it happens enough to be annoying.

The primary reasons for absconding are overheating, lack of food, and frequent disturbance. However, it can also be caused by bad odors, parasites in the hive, or disease. It seems that newly installed packages have a greater tendency to abscond than well-established colonies.

I have had two colonies abscond. The first time was after I installed a package of bees in a brand new top bar hive. I had wired some comb onto a few of the bars to give them a start and fed them with sugar syrup. About three days after the queen was released, I found the entire colony in a nearby bush. I re-hived the swarm and re-caged the queen. Instead of letting the bees release her, I kept her caged until comb building was well underway. By the end of the summer it turned into a huge colony—so it all worked out in the end.

The second time was about two weeks after I split an overly-populous hive. Everything seemed fine, the new queen was laying and the workers were storing pollen and nectar. But we were in the beginning of a long, hot, rainless period with very little forage available. Of course I didn’t know it was coming when I made the split. One day I went out to find the entire colony hanging from the supports underneath the hive stand.

As before, I knocked the swarm into a box, returned it to the hive, caged the queen, and fed sugar syrup like crazy. It turned into a good colony as well.  Once again, everything worked out.

I was lucky to find both these absconding swarms and get a second chance at tending them. In the first case, I think the new top bar just didn’t feel “homey” until more comb was built. In the second case, I think it was the extreme heat and lack of forage that drove them away. If you have a colony abscond try to figure out why it happened, but don’t get discouraged—it’s just another part of a strange hobby.

Rusty

Comments

Sri
Reply

I live in West Bengal India. I have this huge bee hive (wild and natural) by my window. Every year when summer starts they just abscond everyone and then they come back after summer ends. Now this is happening since a few years now. The hive gets too much sun during summer and that’s why they leave.

But my question is I know the time when they will leave. Can I take the honey just before they leave? Last year for the first time I took very little honey, and 2 days later they left the hive completely empty.

Will they come back if I take most of the honey?

Thanks,
Sri

Rusty
Reply

Sri,

I have never heard of bees absconding from a hive in spring and returning in the fall, so I can’t answer your question. Are you sure they are the same bees? Maybe the bees are leaving in the spring due to heat and others are moving in later in the year?

In any case, if they leave every year at the same time, and you know when they are going to leave, I suppose you could take the honey. The bees can only carry so much with them when they go. Whatever is left will be stolen by some creature, so it may as well be you.

It would be interesting to see if you could track these bees and see where they go and if they actually do come back. What kind of honey bees are these? Has anyone else in your area reporting this behavior? Interesting stuff.

Kevin Whittington
Reply

Rusty,

Put a new hive in this spring, my first experience. Harvested 3.75 gallons of honey just from the top box. Noticed the lid had a gap last week and pushed it down on a cold morning. We had a huge wind storm last week here in Utah and today I went to check on the hive and all the bees are gone. Still lots of honey and maybe 100 dead bees but, no movement. Any idea what happened?

Rusty
Reply

Kevin,

I don’t know. Was the lid open during the windstorm? Could they have blown away?

Sounds like you had really good honey production. Too bad you lost them!

Richard
Reply

I live in central Portugal and this is my first year of beekeeping. I had a great harvest of honey in summer and the bees were still actively foraging – even the last few days although it has got down to freezing at night. There are still eukalypt and rosemary flowers about. Yesterday I noticed that there was a lot of activity in the hive which is unusual. So for the first time this winter I opened it up and looked in. They were eating a lot of the wax and depositing it outside the hive and there was no brood and I couldn’t see the queen. This morning I looked at the hive and they had all gone! There is still plenty of honey and pollen stores in the hive and no sign of disease.

Rusty
Reply

Richard,

I don’t know what would cause the bees to abscond and leave honey behind, but several people have written about similar experiences this year. Do any readers out there have any idea what’s going on here? I’m eager to hear your theories.

girish
Reply

Does the bee hive have honey left after the bees abandon after 3-4 months?

richard
Reply

I first noticed something was up when I saw a lot of bees outside the hive and that they were eating the wax. I can only assume these were robber bees or rather bees just scavenging wax after my bees had already left. I therefore took the hives in so that at least I could use the honey and wax that was still there. I’m sure my bees would not come back now. This all happened last week. By the way I only had the one hive.

Rusty
Reply

Richard,

I’m sure you are right, they were robbers cleaning up after your bees were already gone. They probably were not eating the wax so much as tearing it apart to get every last molecule of honey. Taking in the hive was the best thing to do because robber bees could easily clean out the whole thing in no time. It’s still a mystery why your bees absconded in the first place.

paul
Reply

It has happened to me two times and I did not find the bees. Both of the bee hives were found wild. I kept checking on them, I think too much! But the next time I left water 20 feet away and feed them a lot and they are doing good. So who knows why!!!!!

maria
Reply

Hi there. I had a similar experience happen to me. On Sunday I went to check my hive which I had not checked on in a while (1 month) and there was no activity. I opened it and there were 2 full boxes of honey, loads of pollen and NOT ONE SINGLE BEE. No brood, nothing. Not even the inkling of dead or unhatched brood…

I checked for varroa of course on the board I have for such a purpose and nothing. Just loads of pollen and wax…I looked under the hive and found a small baseball size of a cluster of dead bees inside one of the cinder blocks I used as a hive stand. Could they have tried to abscond or swarm because of the warm weather and when it got suddenly cold they died? We had a whacky winter in NJ so I don’t know what happened here.

I am hoping part of the hive swarmed to a new home as there are many honey bees in the vicinity, just not in the hive! A funny thing was also that although honeybees were in the yard foraging, they were not robbing the honey in the hive…just strange. There was no sign of disease or varroa although we have many hornets in the area. Perhaps the hornets attacked them? Just so sad to have lost a hive…

Joe
Reply

Rusty,

Great article. We had a swarm establish a colony in a cherry tree out back. It grew to a pretty large size which thrilled us. The hive did well all summer, even during the hot weeks. Then suddenly, they swarmed (okay, absconded), tried to settle on an new tree and finally just left. There was no sign of die-offs and the colony seemed very healthy up until then.

Your article seems to explain what happened: Our neighbor has been spray-painting his house for a week or so and the fumes were drifting into the colony. Bummer since our backyard garden had tremendous yields this year!

Joe

Drea Jones
Reply

I found this searching for why my bees suddenly left. I got my first hive up and running in May. I have fed tons of sugar water thru the entire summer. Looked outside yesterday morning to see my bees swarming all up by the house. Later, there were bees at the feeders. Feeders were empty this morning and I filled them again. I notice, though, while there that for the first time ever there were no bees in the entrance. I took off the top. No bees. Had to come back to the house for the hive tool and broke open the seal and got into the bottom super, no bees anywhere! The last time I was in my hive was the first of August when I treated for mites, though I saw none and certainly no moths or beetles. It was clean and full of bees. Apparently mine haven’t moved far as they are still coming in for the sugar water! My brother lives about 75 miles from me and his hive is 3 years old and he found his all gone last Friday, What the heck is up?

Rusty
Reply

Drea,

Where are you living? It would help me answer.

Rusty
Reply

Also, Drea, is there any honey in the hive? Has it been bothered by wasps or skunks or other critters? Is there any brood in the hive? If so, how much? Any pollen? Did you harvest any honey?

Drea Jones
Reply

Rusty, I am in Texas. There was honey in the bottom super in August. I will have to look better this weekend as I didn’t pull any of the frames out as I was in total shock that my hive was empty. The weird thing is they are still living somewhere close because even after discovering the empty hive, they are flying in and hitting the sugar water jars. Blows my mind. I don’t have a lot of predators though we live on 5 acres, two dogs are penned close to the hive and know when something shows up in the yard.

Drea Jones
Reply

I forgot to add, I just got bees in May; I didn’t have them long enough to harvest honey. I had a hard time getting started; the first box of bees I ordered arrived dead. The replacement box arrived, but they never released the queen, she died in the cage. I got a frame of brood from a local beekeeper and my hive raised their queen and seemed to be doing well. Until they ran away from home!

Rusty
Reply

Drea,

My guess it that they were out of honey. Texas was one of the states hit hard by hot, dry weather. The colony probably used up its food stores in the nectar dearth, even though you were feeding them. Bees will often abscond in the fall from an empty hive. It’s almost as though they know they can’t survive where they are—and with few options—they just up and leave to try their luck somewhere else. Of course, chances are very slim that they will find something better. It’s just a last-ditch effort to save themselves.

A colony will rarely abscond with honey stored in the hive unless other conditions are particularly bad, such as predators, poisons, continuous loud noise, or something else along those lines. I will be very surprised if you find honey or brood in your empty hive. The late start you had with a failing package and then a failing queen didn’t help because it put the colony behind schedule in the spring.

Bob Johnson
Reply

I have two hives that have left this fall. They both have honey and nectar left in them. I did harvest honey from them about a month ago. I have also been feeding them to get them better ready for winter. I went out to feed them today and both hives were empty. Trying to understand why. My daughter who lives 9 miles away also found that her hive was empty today. The only thing I could see that disturbed me was that some of the comb and wax was very dark, almost black in the hive that is two years old, the other hive is from a split this spring. How can I tell the cause for them leaving?

Rusty
Reply

Bob,

It’s really hard to know why bees abscond, but it was most likely not the comb. Given a choice between old black comb and new comb, bees prefer the black stuff. Beekeepers are cautioned, however, that pesticides can build up in old comb so it should be rotated out of the hive every three to five years. But two-year-old comb should not be a problem (See Why do brood combs turn black?).

You don’t say where you are writing from, so it’s hard to speculate. Did you have unusual weather this year? Trouble with yellow jackets or other predators? Unusual problems with hive beetles or wax moths? Excessive noise where the bees are? Pesticide spraying in your area? Were the bees pestered by skunks or mice or humans?

Again, I don’t know the climate where you are but when bees abscond just before winter, it’s pretty much a death sentence so something had to be seriously wrong for them to leave. Are you sure they absconded and didn’t die out? Did you try to find them? Often, they don’t go far.

Bob Johnson
Reply

I live in Utah. It has been a very warm and dry year. I have talked to the person who I purchased my initial nuc from and he has had several people with the same concerns. His feeling is that is was foul brood, which has been a problem in the area this year. I am going to do a closer inspection of the brood left behind. I have put the word out to look for any bees anywhere, but I live in a city. No unusual activity by the hive. My daughter is also going to look through her hive. I treated them with terramyacin and mites about a month ago (my daughter did not, in fact she did not even harvest any honey), so maybe I did not catch it soon enough is the only thing I can think of for now until I go through the hives for closer inspection.

Rusty
Reply

Bob,

European foulbrood or American? Usually AFB has an overpowering rotten odor that really can’t be mistaken for anything else. EFB has a more sour smell. From what I’ve heard, EFB is on the rise again, but I haven’t heard much recently about AFB.

Please let me know if you learn more. I’m interested in what happened. Two absconding like that is so unusual.

Julie Wood
Reply

I have a two-year old hive that had great honey production this year and I just found today that my bees had absconded. I harvested honey from the hive twice this summer, about 2 months apart, and I take almost all of it from small supers on top, leaving two deep supers for brood and honey for the colony. We had a sudden cold and wet snap here (San Francisco Bay Area) starting last month, directly after record high temps, so I’m not sure if that stressed them out.

Inspection of the racks shows plenty with capped honey, nectar and pollen. No live brood, just some capped, dried out brood in places and no signs of moths or disease.

My bees were having a varroa mite issue this year and I was in the middle of a mite treatment. The mite numbers exploded recently and they lost a generation to the chewed up wings/disorientation. It seemed like the treatment was working because a week and a half ago, there seemed to be plenty of activity in the hive.

I’m wondering if the queen died suddenly or something, because I found three, mostly finished queen cups in the center of the racks (not hanging off the bottom). Could it be that she died and they couldn’t recover in time because of the sudden, cold weather and mites?

Only other hive disturbances I can think of were an unusually high number of yellow jackets around the hive this year (but I never saw them going to the entrance) and a couple of ant attacks that I caught within a day or two.

Any thoughts are appreciated.

Rusty
Reply

Hi Julie,

I’m amazed at the number of people this fall who have reported absconding. You mention several things that are often associated with absconding, including record-high temperatures, parasites (mites), and predators (yellow jackets and ants). Also, you mention that you were in the middle of a mite treatment, so there is the possibility of bad odors, depending on what you were using.

Any of those things could cause absconding, although I’m not convinced it was any single item, but maybe two or more in combination. The presence of a few queen cups doesn’t tell you much because some bees keep a supply on hand just in case. Sometimes they are built and dismantled and then rebuilt, so the presence of queen cups doesn’t necessarily mean there was something wrong with the queen.

You say your bees “lost a generation due to the chewed up wings/disorientation.” Do you mean deformed-wing virus? And what about disorientation? How do you know they were disoriented? You say there was no sign of disease but deformed wings and disorientation are certainly signs of disease. Maybe that is what drove them to leave.

The presence of capped brood bothers me. How much was there? Are you sure it was old and dried up? Are you absolutely sure the queen wasn’t left behind? The fact that the bees left honey, pollen, and a bit of brood behind sounds more like colony collapse than absconding, but that’s just conjecture on my part. It’s unusual for bees to leave their stores behind, especially going into winter.

Bella
Reply

It is winter here and has been cold. I went out today as the temperature was nice to check on my bees. They are gone. No dead bees were found in or around the hive. I found a mouse in the bottom of the hive. I replaced the hive box with a new one, installed a mouse guard, and replaced the honey that was in the original hive box as the mouse had not destroyed any of the frames when I saw a honey bee out and about fly towards the hive while I was out working.

Has anyone ever had their bees return after they have absconded their hive?

Rusty
Reply

Bella,

I’ve never heard of a swarm returning, except when they make a false start and return within hours. But that’s not to say another swarm won’t move in.

You might also want to read “Absconding or CCD?”

kairu
Reply

I am new with bee hives or whatsoever. Currently living in Malaysia. The weather over here is hot like usual, but this time . . . superb hot. No four season a.k.a tropical country. My father and I recently found this bunch of bee hives hanging on the tree. The weirdest part is, our yard doesn’t surrounded with flowers or tree. So, since we saw this beehives, we plan to reproduce it more, therefore we made a house for the bee and put the hives inside it (we made the house for the bee refers to Youtube channel) and successfully transfer it. Only my concern here: do you think this bee will run away coz as I told you our yard has nothing . . . only just a few bunch of tree no flowers plus hot too, or we harvest the hives right away?

Rusty
Reply

Kairu,

If the bees moved into your yard by themselves and built a home, they must think that enough forage is nearby. I think there is a good chance they will stay.

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