Absconding: when your bees move on
I tend to think of absconding as a “new colony” thing. That’s because I usually hear of it when a beekeeper puts a package in a freshly painted hive made of newly milled lumber, and the bees decide it doesn’t feel like home. New packages often leave in the first week or two, especially if they don’t have food or drawn comb to keep them interested.
But in fact, a colony can abscond any time. For whatever reason, the entire group decides to pack up and leave. It’s been years since I’ve had an established colony leave home, but last week—sometime between Tuesday and Friday—a three-year-old colony just disappeared.
On Tuesday, I noticed the hive was busier than usual. I watched them come and go for a while, saw no fighting or other signs of distress, and decided it was just the heat. I had re-queened the hive at the end of June with a New World Carniolan, a bee I thought would serve the colony well over the winter. I did not open the hive again after I assured myself the queen was laying, but the colony looked good at the time and I didn’t foresee any trouble. That was just before the hot and humid weather set in.
Friday afternoon I was working in the garden when I noticed there was no activity in front of the hive. I tapped and listened: nothing. I tapped louder: nothing. I pounded: nothing. When I popped the lid I could see down to the ground—right through three mediums and the screened bottom.
Inside the hive I found a small patch of capped brood, a couple square inches of honey, and absolutely nothing else. There were no dead bees anywhere, no sign of yellowjackets, moths, beetles, or any other predator. There were no ripped or ragged cells, no mold, no mice—just 30 empty frames.
If you had asked me last week which of my hives would most likely abscond, I would have to admit that this is the one—even though it showed no signs of doing so. As a matter of fact, when I told my husband of losing a hive I asked him to guess which one, and he got it right on the first try. Why? What was wrong with this hive?
I set up the hive three years ago in a rush, just after catching a swarm. I figured it was temporary until I found a better spot, but it turned permanent. I didn’t like the area because it was low and damp, but it did face southeast, received morning sun and afternoon shade, and it had a sturdy hive stand that kept it well above the damp ground.
The bees thrived in the area for three years, but this spring loggers cleared the sky just south of our property line. Suddenly the hive was in the blazing sun most of the day and the runoff from the freshly cut acreage increased. The wet ground kept the area especially humid, and the lay of the land was such that it didn’t catch a breeze: even with screened bottom, screened inner cover, and a gabled roof the ventilation was poor.
Obviously, I should have moved the hive, especially since I knew the spot was less than ideal. But I didn’t and I lost a three-year colony and a brand new queen. Will the lessons of beekeeping never cease?