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.

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