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?

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

No-dead-bees
No dead bees or wasps were found on the screened bottom, just a bit of wax debris.
This one patch of brood was abandoned when the colony absconded.
This one patch of brood was abandoned when the colony absconded.

Comments

Nancy
Reply

Hi Rusty,

If this happens, can you give the frame of brood to another hive to raise? Thanks.
We have had a lot of absconding this year. I have been swapping some frames of old fragrant brood comb with the startup beekeepers, for some of their new ones, when they’re installing packages. Seems to be working.

Nan

Rusty
Reply

Nancy,

I don’t see why not. In my case, I found it too late. I think the brood cooked for a day or two before I discovered it.

Brian
Reply

Interesting. I’ve read before that some bees (I am thinking they were African/Africinized) abscond seasonally, perhaps in search of resources. So aside from just poor hive conditions, perhaps there is also a genetic disposition for some bees to abscond in a dearth. It also sounds like/looks like there is nothing but capped brood, is that right? No eggs, no larvae … does that suggest that for weeks ahead of absconding the queen had stopped laying … in anticipation?

Rusty
Reply

Brian,

Yes, Africanized honey bees are known for absconding and do it regularly. As for the capped brood, I’ve heard that absconding is a lot like swarming in that the bees know well in advance. If that is true, I have no doubt the queen stops laying in anticipation. I would love to know more about the biology behind it, though. Most accounts I’ve read are sketchy.

Rickvv
Reply

How does this look different than being robbed out? I had a colony last year (package colony, progressing nicely towards fall), and between 10 day inspections, everyone was gone and honey and brood and all. Gone.
I thought it had been raided and pillaged , but reading this, maybe not?
Any thoughts?

Rusty
Reply

Rick,

That is why I spent so much time looking for dead bees either in or outside of the hive, and the reason I checked the edges of the combs. Robbing bees leave a very distinct pattern of damage on the combs that residents of the hive never do; it is easy to see. Also, robbers fight and fighting leaves dead bees and bee parts. There was no sign of that here. Also, it was quite populous with a reduced entrance, which means it was most probably capable of taking care of itself.

Rickvv
Reply

Hmm. Then I think I was falsely accusing my neighboring beeks of sending over the attack squads.
There was no sign of violence, no wax damage, and no ransom note. It was a populous colony, with a “ton” of honey. we had left it just that extra couple of weeks to take advantage of the goldenrod flow, but we were two “boo-hooing beekeepers” when we came looking for honey and found NOBODY home.
I am really glad that you posted this article this week…it put some things into perspective that I hadn’t thought of.
I always thought of absconding as an early-season behavior (being the 4th season newbie that I am).
Thank you!

WesternWilson
Reply

Rusty, the ways of the bee are mysterious! I have read that bees will also abscond after persistent pestering/predation as from skunks or wasps. Maybe an event like that tipped the balance? It has been very unusually hot, sunny and dry here in the PNW since March…and I have been told the late summer dearth is deeper than usual and follows a lighter than usual blackberry nectar flow. If your empty hive is honey-less, but there is no ragged robbed comb, perhaps your girls were starving and left in desperation, searching for better pastures? Still, so disappointing : (
I know that normally I count on the overwintered colonies to be my best honey hives, and the main source of new colonies. So, my condolences, from one beekeeper to another.

Rusty
Reply

I vote for the nectar dearth: it seems worse than usual and earlier.

Merilyn
Reply

I am wanting to plant some trees to shade my hive, as I think it gets too hot in summer. When the outside temp is 36 degrees celcius in the sun, what temperature could it be inside the hive? As the bees are really very busy at present and I have been left with a hive of smaller more aggressive bees, possibly after the first queen and brood absconded, I am not game to move the hive after reading how finicky bees can be. So I have thought of planting some young future shade trees on the northern side of the hive well after sunset, and then watering the trees well after sunset. Is this a good idea and the best time of day? Lately I have seen small paper wasps walking over the front of the hive. What might they be doing there?

Rusty
Reply

Merilyn,

Lots of questions here. First off, the bees work very hard to keep the nursery at the proper temperature. At an outside temperature of 36 C, the bees will have to work very hard to keep the hive cool, so it is especially important that they have a good source of water. Afternoon shade is a great idea, and one that I embrace.

That said, I don’t know anything about Australian tree species or when and where to plant them, but that info can be found on the web. Find a gardening site and follow their recommendations.

The paper wasps may have smelled the presence of brood and/or honey and are probably looking for the source. A few now and then is probably no problem, but if they start arriving in large numbers I would reduce your entrance to protect your bees. Again, I don’t know how aggressive your paper wasps are, but in general, I think it pays to keep watch for potential trouble.

Aram
Reply

Sugar is super cheap now at Costco, 42 cents. I am feeding syrup and protein patties because I want to maybe catch a fall knotweed flow. My 3 week old queens are stretched out like they’ve been laying for 4 months.

Blackberry’s been disappointing, but I still got some Hogg cassettes filled up. Most cassettes are started but unfinished and many new people got introduced to the taste of comb honey, myself included. I suppose I’ll store the unfinished ones till next year or the fall flow.

Rusty
Reply

Aram,

Thanks for the heads up; I went to Costco.

Nick
Reply

I’ve yet to experience an absconded hive… not that I’m eager mind you… but my curiosity is piqued. I’m wondering about the ‘empty’ of the empty hive. Are they without any honey or pollen stores?

If so, you have to wonder if they left in one mass never to return taking everything from the hive, moved out but returned to remove all of the hive contents (or moved the contents and then moved out?), or moved on taking what they could and the remainder robbed out by others?

That’s operating on the assumption that they were doing any harvesting and storing. If other hives in the neighborhood were putting up surplus you would think that they would have been able to put something into stores unless their numbers were really low..

Ack.. they do like to keep us guessing!?!

Nick
Kent WA

Rusty
Reply

Nick,

My guess is they absconded because of a lack of food, and the lack of food was due to the hot and dry summer. There was absolutely no sign of robbing. I checked every single frame for ragged edges, but everything was neat as a pin. Robbers leave their marks, but there were none. There was, at one end of the screened bottom, a little pile of wax cappings. I assume the bees filled up on what they could (just like swarming bees do) and then took off. They did leave a tiny bit of honey that remained, unrobbed, that I found when I opened the hive.

My belief is that some bees are better foragers than others. Also, luck plays a part. One colony may stumble on a gold mine while the colony next to it finds nothing at all. Remember that they forage long distances, and the distance increases in times of dearth. The acreage they cover is huge, so it is very likely, in fact totally reasonable, that colonies find different sources and some end up with a lot more in the pantry than others.

Absconding is not all that unusual, and as others have pointed out, there is definitely a genetic component. It is only my second colony to abscond since I lived here (20 years) so I’m not all that surprised by it: it was bound to happen sometime.

Charlie Beyersdorf
Reply

First thing I noticed was the capped brood looked “caved in” on the bottom of the pattern. That concerned me with, is it AFB?

Rusty
Reply

Charlie,

That illusion is caused by shadows in the photograph. The cappings are neither depressed, punctured, nor smelly. The cells contain fully-formed pupae in the white body/purple-eye stage (approximately day 15) and they can be extracted from the cell all of a piece. They look good.

Heidi
Reply

Perhaps the queen becomes uncomfortable and stops laying first? Then the colony starts sending out scouts? I’m sorry you lost your bees, maybe they found a home with someone who lost a swarm earlier in the season, that would be nice for the bees and the keeper too.

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