Bad-ant advice and the ascension of bees

You have no idea how terrible I feel about the following turn of events. I feel remorse. I feel guilt. I feel like I should buy the guy a new package of bees. At the same time, I don’t think I was wrong; I gave him solid, well-reasoned advice. Still, the entire incident is heart wrenching.

It all started with this e-mail:

I’m a new beekeeper and I installed my 1st package last weekend. By Sunday morning there were ants walking on the outside of the hive and ants inside the hive walking around my container of sugar water. Should I try and control the ants or leave them alone and hope that the bees can control the ants? I sprayed soapy water on the ants (but avoided spraying bees), which killed them. Is that enough? Or should I place those small metal containers with ant bait around the base of my beehive?

I hate ants but I answered with equanimity:

Don’t do anything more for now. The bees are just getting accustomed to their new home. As they start building their nest and “taking ownership” of the hive, they will take care of the ants. Ants and bees are very closely related, both in the order Hymenoptera. Anything that kills ants will kill bees, so it is best to not use ant bait. The bees probably wouldn’t go for the bait, but if any gets in the hive it could do some damage.

The killer wrap-up came a few days later:

Thank you for replying. My bees ascended last Saturday around 12 noon, 7 days after their installation. There were a lot of ants in the now empty hive. I’ll try again next year after I figure out a plan to keep out ants. (The package cost $99.)

No way! His bees absconded! I was mortified. Still, in my heart of hearts, I don’t think it was related to ants. I tried to get more information from him but, so far, I haven’t heard back. My guess is that he installed his new package on brand-spanking-new equipment, did not use foundation or drawn comb, and then released the queen before any comb was built. The colony—not finding any delicious used-comb odors—decided to sample the market. Sure enough, they found something they liked better and were off. It happens. I’ve had it happen more than once.

Bees may abscond because of excessive heat, noise, strange odors or just because they feel like it. It’s hard to assign a reason but a well-fed package with a strong young queen has lots of options. In my own experience I have found that new wood, especially with no foundation, is a crap shoot—maybe they will hang around and maybe they won’t. After learning the hard way, I always advise people who are starting on new wood to keep the queen tied up until you see comb. Like us, bees hate to walk away from a down payment.

By the way, I don’t know if he made a typo when he wrote “ascended” instead of “absconded” or if he is a literary genius. But I have never encountered such a poetic allusion to bees on the run. I imagine them at high noon arising from the hive in a slow spiral, circling up through the trees, up past the clouds, up through the blue, up, up until they mingle, glistening and shimmering among the stars and indistinguishable from them. Magic and melancholy all rolled into one.

In any case, I can’t think of anything so discouraging as losing a new package, especially when it’s your first and your only. I wish I could say something consoling and reassuring. I wish I could issue a recall to his bees. Instead I feel like I led a lamb to the slaughter. So what do you think? Did the ants do it?

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

Kristin Okerholm on Facebook
Reply

My first package absconded. No ants, but it was a brand new hive with no drawn comb. I think your advice was spot on.

Tom
Reply

Advise him to set the legs of the hive stand in some oil next year.

Heidi
Reply

I agree with your assessment and enjoyed reading your “ascended image” – the bees could have left for a number of reasons. If the bees were interested in staying, I would think they would have protected their new home and done away with the ants. Loosing a hive is always a sad and disheartening moment.

Sam
Reply

Bees abscond sometimes, like you said. I remember hearing somewhere the ratio of packages and abscontions some people experience, this in part might be why folks around here sell nucs instead of packages, several problems with nucs as well but that exceeds the scope of this comment :)

Vicki
Reply

I wonder if the soapy water ended up in contact with the bees . . .

Carol
Reply

I’m currently duking it out with ants, too! Here’s what I’m doing:

• When replacing feeder jars (I use an enclosed feeder board) invert the jar over a bowl until it stops dripping. Place it carefully into the cut out circle in the feeder board.If there are ANY drips anywhere (inside on the board or on the outside of the hive) wipe them up immediately with a wet sponge and rinse the sponge in a bucket of water. Do not drip any syrup on the ground around the hive.

• When your jars have been replaced and all syrup drips cleaned up, sprinkle the surrounding area of the feeder board with ground cinnamon, right up to the edges of the board. Put your empty super on your board making sure you place it on the sprinkled cinnamon edges. Put on your inner cover and sprinkle more cinnamon on the top. Put your t-cover on and weight it down.

• Sprinkle more cinnamon all around the base of the hive, on the corners of the bottom entrance, and all over nail boards and cinder blocks (if using).

• After every rain all the exterior cinnamon has to be re-sprinkled. It’s very labor intensive but as soon as it stops raining I am going to get my three hives up on legs which will stand in a container of oil.

Needless to say … I HATE ANTS!

Peter
Reply

Not sure I agree … there is not really enough information to tell. It depends on what size these ants were. Based on what I see here, if they were large black ants then the bees did not abscond, they were all taken away by the ants. Ants can totally clear a colony in two days, especially if it is just starting. If you see the ants early then a very small amount of ant powder on the ant column (by the hive legs) will stop the problem in about ten minutes. If the ants are more established then you have to take the ants out of the hive which really is a challenge when the colony is not yet established and there is only one hive body available …..

Herb
Reply

One thing you can do to help prevent the newly installed bees from leaving …is to place a queen guard on the front of the hive for about a week…then remove the guard after the bees have started building out the foundation.

Thom
Reply

Here in Belize we have army ants and they will clear out a hive very quickly. We build special stands and keep the weeds away from the hive, but still can loose hives because they build ladders or bridges.

Valentin
Reply

Hello,

Here in Venezuela we built a hive stand over a couple of car wheels. The vertical pole welded to the wheel on top has a horizontal crossbar that holds two longerons on which the hives are located. The vertical post about midway has welded all around a metal container which we fill with burn out oil from engines. I should mention the car wheels are in horizontal position, not vertical as they are in a car.

Beverly
Reply

When I have had an infestation of ants in my bottom board and/or around my hive base, I put cinnamon, and while it doesn’t bother the bees, it gets rid of the ants every time. I keep the Costco size containers of the stuff on hand and just sprinkle very liberally after clearing away what ants I can. (When it comes to ascension , that is an understatement if I am blessed, so to speak, by a swarm……they ascend 100+ feet up into an oak tree near the hives where there is no hope for salvation before they go on to their new abode.)

I’m telling you, bless-ed be thy cinnamon !

John
Reply

Like you say Rusty, a lot of unanswered questions although my sympathy goes out to this first time bee keeper. I hope he/she does not give up.

I lost my first hive in late January here in N. Illinois. Was so disheartened, I neglected to clean out the hive until just before installing 2 new packages (decided to double down). The neglected hive was infested with numerous large black ants doing their best to ‘rob’ the remaining honey from the comb. I cleaned them out as best I could and re-installed. Ants are in evidence (exterior to the brood box) but in nowhere near the previous numbers.

I did put Miller type feeders on top of my newly installed packages as well as providing them with some drawn comb, much of it with stored honey.

I very seriously doubt that ants alone were responsible for either ascending or absconding. Just my 2 cents from my very limited experience.

Hang in there all,
John

Brad
Reply

I started 4 hives last year on new woodenware / plasticell frames just sprayed with sugar water on install… no problems, but I didn’t have ants. Can’t you use vegetable oil in tuna cans for four legs of a hive stand to keep the ants out?

Brad

Tom
Reply

Hi Rusty,

It may depend on where you live. Here in dry Monterey, CA we have the little Argentine ants, which if left unchecked, will drive even an established hive off to new quarters in 2-4 weeks. They love sugar and once they have a chemical train into the hive it is all over unless you stop them. I’ve lost 3 hives by not controlling the ants, two the first year when I didn’t know any better. It’s a running battle though.

To stop the ants, I’ve tried tanglefoot (works OK on thin metal table legs, but still kills bees who seem to think it looks good). I’ve tried bowls of water with flower pots in the middle to create a moat and drowned hundreds of bees over a summer. I’ve since seen a better design that keeps most of the bees out of the water. Currently I use borate in sugar solution (Terro or Aptiguard) and put it in covered cottage cheese containers with small holes near the bottom to let the ants in and keep the bees out. I used to put it out more in the open until this spring when I accidentally killed a few hundred bees and the queen in a hive when the ants didn’t find the bait but the bees did. That queen seemed to be my most resistant to Varroa mites and so I really regret the loss.

Cheers and thanks for all the great information.

Alia
Reply

Regarding the ants, you can build an ant bait dispenser that excludes bees while feeding the ants delicious poison. Take a plastic jar/tub and drill 1/8″ holes around the top. Put in something the ants can use as a ramp down to the bait, like styrofoam peanuts or dry grass. Fill the jar about 1/3 of the way with boric acid ant bait. (The bait I use is 2 tsp boric acid, 1 cup sugar, 2 cups water to make a 1% boric acid bait. The max ants accept is 2%, and 0.5% can also be effective. If they ignore it, you can always add a little of the honey they’re used to…)

Scott
Reply

Rusty: I think your advice was sound……better to be safe than poison……and concerning their swarming, there are so many variables, and things that could have played a roll in that, that it would be futile to even try and guess without more info. He likely did something erroneous, not knowing any better, and they decided to take their chances in the woods instead.

I would call him and have a fact finding, and if the reason can be revealed and was simply a newbie error, I’d get him straightened out, then offer to sell him a small nuc, complete with bees, laying queen and brood. Allowing him to linger in failure, depression and hopelessness for a whole season, is counter-productive to our greater cause and devastatingly heartbreaking. I’d find a way to get him up-n-runnin’ asap regardless. It’s an effort for the craft and for the bees/environment……fulfilling a greater need, at a higher level…. We will need all the beekeepers we can muster for support later…..helping him is like sowing another ”seed of hope”, and worth the effort. I believe that such efforts will be rewarded down-the-road…good Karma…. LOL

Kerry
Reply

Guard Star.

Cans of oil for the legs of the stand.

Ants will kill the queen. They know what she does.

Greg
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Being a new-bee to this quest, all I can add is a pun. If the bees “ascended” from the hive, and the ants left, would they have “descended?” I have recommended your site to three friends and they appreciate it also. Thanks.

Tricia
Reply

Poor Rusty and poor thwarted beekeeper. In the UK we buy bees as nucs – small colonies with brood and stores. Bees don’t like to desert their babies so I assume we’d be less likely for this to happen – but I think in the US buying as a package is more common. Can you buy nucs in the US? Or is he able to put his name down for a swarm? Perhaps if you have a blog follower who lives near him and who collects swarms, they may give him a swarm to salve your guilt?

Rusty
Reply

Yes, you can buy nucs here. Good idea, I’ll see if I can find someone down in his area. It would be good to get him up-n-runnin’, as Scott says.

Sarah
Reply

I had a piece of Styrofoam between my ventilated inner hive cover and the outer hive cover. In spring I opened the lid to see if they had eaten any of the fondant I had given them and ants were chewing tunnels through the Styrofoam. I took out the Styrofoam and the ants started POURING over the sides. They are not a big problem as of now. I really can’t imagine my bees leaving the hive because of them, though.

Scoobydobee
Reply

Too little information to determine anything. I can imagine how conflicted you are over that, tho, Rusty. You did the right thing – gave him the advice you thought best. If it was a mistake, those things happen. Sorry it happened with you somehow involved and mostly sorry you can’t get feedback. How else are we to learn?!

Pat
Reply

I’m a soon-to-be brand-new beekeeper – I pick up our two nucs next weekend. I’ve been planning this for two years now, but now that bee-time is so close, I’m fretting about everything, including this now. I wish we had some drawn comb or honey to give them, but maybe since they’re nucs, they will be less likely to abscond? I will have to investigate a queen guard for the entrance.

Rusty
Reply

Pat,

Yes, the chances of a nuc absconding is much less than a package. They have a home established on those few frames which they will guard, rather than an unfamiliar empty box. You will do fine.

LJ
Reply

It would be difficult at second-hand to discern whether either potential cause—ants or package bees—is related to the ‘ascension’. I, like you, am taken with this word, and have seen both of my hives ascend, and one of them descend (unswarm) this week. It is a mesmerizing sight, if you weren’t so worried about the neighbors!

Greendruid
Reply

I had a bad ant experience lately. I went to check on my new hive two days after I first installed it. I had received a six-frame nuc (no typo) from one of our senior co-operative members. When I checked it, the hive was covered with ants. I’m not sure what the species is called but it is by far the most prevalent species on our farm and on our island (Cape Breton). They are about 1/4” long, red on the front half and black on the back half. They always attack if you step near them.

They build large sand mounds in fields with grasses or blueberries growing nearby. They were not only covering the hive but were also building their own hive in the spaces between the bottom board legs and the tops of the concrete cinder blocks that the hive is resting on. There are four of these in place and every one was being used. I managed to kill hundreds of the ants every day for three days, morning and night and eventually thought up a plan to discourage them. I bought four dish-washing basins, placed one under each of the four cinder blocks, and filled each one half full of water. The remaining ants on the hive I killed or brushed off. The next day – no ants! I am confident that these aggressive ants would have taken over the hive without my intervention.

Rusty
Reply

Greendruid,

I wish you had taken a photo of the mounds. I have heard others from Canada complaining about “nasty red and black ants” but I’ve never heard about them moving in so close to beehives. I’ve seen huge ant mounds on McNeil Island in Washington State and I’m wondering if they are the same or similar. I’m not an ant person, so I don’t know much about them.

Good solution you came up with and I’m glad to hear it worked. So one more time I have been proven wrong about ants and beehives! I appreciate you (and others) setting me straight.

Greendruid
Reply

I’ll gladly take a picture but how can I post it? I don’t see a .jpg file manager on here. People here call them fire ants but everything I’ve read on fire ants says that they’re a southern US and southern hemisphere phenomenon. These ants actually point their stingers at you or rear up on their hind legs if you approach them slowly with your finger to kill them. I’ve never actually been stung by them but they can clamp on with their mandibles. I don’t react if they have a venom that they can inject from their mandibles.

As for dead bees with the water basins, I get anywhere from 0-4 a day. I usually check on the hive everyday and to me, it’s a lot better than the havoc that the ants were creating when the basins weren’t there. The oil is really just to quickly drown the ants I assume. Sooner or later, they drown in water too and it makes less of a mess. I’m going to drill some drain holes half-way up the basin too to make it so that there is no overspill when it rains. The more work the ants have to do to get to the hive, the less likely they’ll bother with it. If they have to climb up the outside of the basin, then halfway down, then swim across water, they’ll give up. My quandary was also that our co-operative is organic so I had to come up with an organic solution.

Rusty
Reply

Greendruid,

Sorry I forgot to give you my e-mail. You can send the pic to me: [email protected]

I like the idea of using water without the oil, just because oil is so messy. It sounds like it’s working. Killing ants it tricky business since ants are so closely related to honey bees. Things that kill ants, kill bees so you have to hone in on those differences in “lifestyle.”

Rusty

susan
Reply

When I tried the oil thing it turned out to be a horrible mess. Even with covers over the oil the bees got into it and drowned, then the rain got in and the bees were rotting and smelling. I have a birdbath with water and floats for them to land on, but they would rather drown in the oil and water that is covered. It all seems so complicated. I took the oil pans out from under the cement legs, along with rotting bees.

Pat
Reply

My hive stands have built-in moats for the legs. I fill them with water, not oil. They need to be topped up frequently in the heat, but I just keep a watering can nearby and fill them when I check on the bees. (My hives are in my backyard, so I’m out there pretty much every night.) Because I’m a softee and worry about every bee, I put screen cloth on the outer side of the moats so any bees that fall in can climb back out. I haven’t seen any ants, so it’s just preventive measures at this point.

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