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?



Kristin Okerholm on Facebook

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


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


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.


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 :)


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


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!


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 …..


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.


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.



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.


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 !


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,


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?



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.


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…)


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

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