Why do honey bees abscond in the fall?

Absconding is the term used when a colony of honey bees leaves its home in search of another. It is not the same as swarming. When a colony swarms, it splits in two parts: one part stays in the old home and one part finds a new home. Swarming is a form of reproduction. When a colony absconds, however, the entire colony leaves together and finds a new home—there is no increase in the total number of colonies.

I’ve heard many reports of absconding honey bees during the last month, both locally and from beekeepers in other parts of North America. But why would honey bees abscond right before winter?

Absconding is another of those honey bee behaviors that isn’t completely understood, but we can draw some conclusions based on repeated observations. Usually at least one of the following conditions exists in a hive before a colony absconds in the fall:

  • There is a severe nectar dearth resulting in a shortage of stored food
  • There has been excessive disturbance from interlopers such as skunks or beekeepers
  • The hive is extremely hot due to the weather or severe overcrowding

In general, the environmental conditions in the hive became too stressful for the bees. Somehow they sensed they had little chance of surviving in the present circumstances and decided to leave.

Much like swarming, absconding is a process. Preparations are made well in advance of “moving day.” Usually the queen ceases to lay eggs and slims down in preparation for flying, foraging stops, scouts begin searching for a new home, and honey stores are used up.

By the time a beekeeper discovers an empty hive there is usually nothing left but wax comb. Comb left clean and neat usually indicates the bees left due to a nectar dearth and impending starvation. Comb that is shredded and irregular may have been damaged by robbing bees or yellow jackets. Comb ruined by small hive beetles or wax moths is often completely destroyed and full off feces and cocoons.

A fall absconding honey bee colony has virtually no chance of surviving the winter. The bees have no comb, no honey, no nectar source, no pollen source, and no time. They left their home because they didn’t know what else to do.

If you can catch such a colony, you may be able to save them by heavy feeding of honey, syrup, and pollen. But don’t put them back where they came from unless you can determine what was wrong and correct it. Otherwise, they will simply abscond again.

Rusty

Comments

Sharon
Reply

This article on absconding (which I’ve never heard of before today) has been helpful. Recently I noticed a honey bee hanging around me. A few days later a honey bee landed on my neighbor, I placed my hand (gloved) next to it and it crawled onto my hand. It flew away when I lifted it up in the air. I was haunted for several days by this bee. I kept thinking it needed food and I needed to help it. I figured I was just being silly. I began to pour little bits of honey onto a foil tray. Each day the honey would disappear by honey bees. I only see up to 3 – 4 at a time. I noticed in my yard there was a destroyed hive lying beneath a tree in my yard. I feel very right about feeding the honey bees. I keep having a nagging feeling about building some kind of small shelter for them. I have no clue if I should or not, but I will continue looking up information about it so I can help them out.

Mike
Reply

Just found a perfectly healthy hive totally empty too! Two weeks ago—5 heavy boxes high, 2 brood boxes, 3 supers 1/2 to 3/4 full. November 2, 2014 not a bee in sight. Pretty well robbed out by yellowjackets???

Mike

Rusty
Reply

Hey Mike,

I think it is disturbing that so much of this is happening. Sure, a certain number of absconding fall hives is to be expected, but this year it seems there are more than usual. I wonder if something else is going on. Was there any brood left behind? Did the queen go with them? Were the combs ripped open or neatly opened? Were there any dead bees? Was there brood two weeks ago? Did you see a queen two weeks ago? I have trouble understanding why they left if they had all that honey.

Philly Mike
Reply

I just discovered my bees have absconded (Nov 8, 2014). I hadn’t checked on them in 4 weeks, but left three 3 full medium brood chambers plus a 4th medium super full of honey. I opened the hive today to install a candy tray. Everything’s gone: comb neatly opened, residual white powder (caps?) everywhere, a few partial brood cells, a few dead bees, no bugs or ants. I’m a first year beekeeper and very disappointed.

I had re-queened in June with a northeastern queen and was very hopeful that they would make it through the winter.

I wonder if the hive location was bad or noisy, although they seemed to thrive up to now.
I guess I I can do now is clean up the hive and start again in the spring. The new bees should inherent a great hive with lots of comb ready for them.

Rusty
Reply

Mike,

It is really sad to lose a hive like that and it’s hard to figure out why. As I said last week, I’ve gotten dozens of reports just like yours this fall. It’s crazy and I don’t know what’s happening.

Be sure to protect your empty hive from things like mice and wax moths. They can ruin your comb in a hurry.

Joe
Reply

Had the same problem this year. Had installed a new hive in a top bar hive last spring, and was feeding them sugar syrup every day. I stopped feeding them a couple of weeks ago, thinking that the weather was getting cooler and they wouldn’t come out to feed as much, and a week later, they were all gone. There were a few dead bees at the top of the hive, not sure why. The combs were cleaned out, no honey left. There appeared to be a few stragglers lingering. This was also my first hive, pretty heartbreaking.

Rusty
Reply

Joe,

It is heartbreaking. I wish I had some answers, but it mystifies me.

Alicia
Reply

I have 2 new hives that were put in this spring. One has struggled (think it is a queen problem) the other had 2 deep supers with brood, honey, pollen etc. I just opened them to feed candy and winter patties and could not believe my eyes. Same situation as you have described. The strong colony is gone. I live in central Oklahoma. Just wondering if this is a problem in a certain area or nationwide.

Rusty
Reply

Alicia,

Well, I don’t have it mapped out, but certainly I have heard more “disappearing” stories this year than ever before. I even had one disappear this past summer.

Melissa
Reply

I discovered mine, a split, has meager stores. I am going to feed. What are the ratios I should be feeding?

Martin
Reply

I started my first year with 4 colonies early spring. I did so well I even harvest a small crop, unusual for first year nucs.

After harvest, I made 7 nucs using Michael Palmer’s method and got local queens from a reputable breeder.
Everything seemed fine but… 5 of 7 nucs absconded! I caught one of them and it is currently doing just fine.
2 weeks ago we inspected all and treated with Apiguard. Today I went to 2 second treatment and noticed one of the hives had all the syrup I have feed them a week ago. There were signs of robbing, so I decided to inspect to see what was going on and… you guessed it! The colony had absconded. All clean, still some pollen and half ripped nectar in some frames, some brood still hatching out of the cells but nothing else.

This was not a brand new hive, it had been fine since last spring, it had food and 2 weeks ago there were so much bees the we even consider splitting (which we didn’t).

I can’t really understand this, nobody has an idea why is happening and I have checked all the reasons posted and none seems to apply. I have not heard anyone in my club mentioning about their hives absconding.

Rusty
Reply

Martin,

To me it sounds like a robbing problem, not an absconding problem. If the colonies were being aggressively robbed by either wasps or other honey bees, they may well leave the hive in search of another place to live. Robbing in the fall is often caused by feeding, because even one spilled drop can lure thousands of bees and/or wasps to the area. I never feed in the fall without first reducing the entrances to a 3/4-inch width or using a robbing screen.

Absconding in large numbers (5 of 7) would indeed be unusual, but robbing can affect a whole bee yard very quickly. It’s hard to say without actually inspecting, but that’s my guess.

Martin
Reply

Rusty.
Thank you for your answer.
I can guarantee you this is not a robbing problem. Granted, I found bees robbing, but they were cleaning an empty hive.
Also, this was one of my strongest colony.
We had inspected it 2 weeks ago and there was no reason to believe they would be gone.
Even when found empty, there were just 5-7 SHB running around.
The only thing out of ordinary was the application of Apiguard, but the dosis we used was low because of current high temperatures. Still it didn’t seem to affect the bees at all.
We are all puzzled with this situation as we can’t find any logic to it. My buddies at the bee-club have not seen anything like this before, and upon inspection of the hives they have determined they are healthy and strong.
Sight!

Rusty
Reply

Martin,

LOL. If you know the answer, I’m not sure why you asked. But here’s what worries me: You said the dose of Apiguard was low because of high temperatures. I don’t know exactly what you mean by that, but when using a product like Apiguard you have to use the correct dosage for the indicated length of time. A “low” dosage will only accelerate the breeding of resistant strains of mites. It’s the same reason you are supposed to take the trays out after a certain number of days—you don’t want mites exposed to low dosages because that is exactly what breeds resistance.

If it is too hot, you don’t put it in the hives in the first place or you take it out. Low dose is a no-no. And if you used it when temperatures were too high, that could definitely cause absconding.

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