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

Andrew
Reply

Borax soap and powdered sugar has worked quite well for me. Ant problems cured in East Texas.

Christopher
Reply

I use Amdro ant bait spikes at the base of my hives. They’re gray plastic spikes with a gelatin based poison in the head. Ants love it, but I haven’t seen bees touch it. One spike in the ground next to the base, and I don’t have any more ant problems. Bees never even noticed it was there far as I can tell.

Dan
Reply

I had a similar experience several years ago. After a lot of research, both asking other beekeepers and spending hours cruising the internet I found that ants do not like cinnamon. So now when I feed my bees I put a stick next to the feeder and I have not had a problem with ants since.

Derrick
Reply

I think I just figured out what happened to one of my hives last summer. I did start out with all new equipment, and I was feeding with a top hive feeder. I did have lots of ants but nothing I thought was a worry. I thought the hive was really doing well. Then one day late last summer I went to open my hives and BAM! Just like that they were gone. Nothing left. No brood. No honey. No pollen stores. Nothing but empty comb. I wrote it off as ccd, but after further research I think they absconded.

Last year as a new beekeeper I purchased 2 nucs both 5 frame deeps. I hived them both in 10 frame deeps and thought I was off and running. The other hive (the one that didn’t leave) I had to requeen because of a really slow start, but after that I thought I was off to the races. I ended up putting another deep on top of both because they were doing an outstanding job drawing out comb and storing honey and pollen. Then just one day out of the blue one of my hives just vanished. What are anyone’s thought on this situation? Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance.

Derrick

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