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 of 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.




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.


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???



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

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.



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.


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.



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


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.



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.


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


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.



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.


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.



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.


I am not a beekeeper but have had honey bees that built a hive in a pillar holding up my deck for the last 10 years. Don’t see them all winter but in spring they are busy and busy all summer. Same was true this year until 3 or 4 weeks ago and I see no more bees. I am not able to see into the hive, just a small opening where they used to come and go, but no more.

What happened?


Well, the colony either left (absconded) or died for some reason. Without inspecting their hive, it is hard to even guess.


If I’ve discovered a hive has recently absconded and there is still capped brood, can I move that brood to some of my other hives?

Too many things happened at once: Yesterday I removed an empty deep from the hive and rearranged some honey frames. Then that same night, a coyote killed a fawn right behind the hive and it was really stinky this afternoon when I discovered it.
When I discovered the dead deer, the bees were clustered under the entrance and there were no bees inside. I think most have already flown off.

I just saw the queen yesterday, so if I can save the brood I’d like to.



Yes, go ahead and move it over. It would be a shame to lose it.

Bruce Petway

Rusty, I live in central nc. My question, have a couple hundred bees bearded outside of my hive day and night. mostly doing that little back and forth dance. its a large package installed this year, two full deeps, lots of brood, plenty of stores. 4 nearly completely capped supers. great hive. When i harvest the supers in two weeks, where will all the bees go… 4 supers are full of bees. cant see them all fitting in the two deeps. they will be so crowded… will they swarm? please offer some advice.. friend told me to make a split, could get stores from other hives if needed. but i think its too late in the year.



After you extract, put the wet supers back on the hive for the bees to clean up. Then as winter approaches and the colony size shrinks, you can start taking them off. Take off two or three at first, wait a while, and then take off the rest. By then your bees should all fit in the two deeps.

Bob Gotwals

We just had an indoor observation hive abscond, was able to collect most of them and move them to another hive offsite, adding them to an existing hive. We’ll see how this goes, but two days after doing this (Friday, now Sunday), I have about a dozen or more dead bees on the landing.


I had a hive abscond yesterday. I live in Northern CA. Inspected it two weeks ago, and it was welll loaded with honey, larvae and brood. Two days ago the was a lot of activity around the hive (1000’s of bees flying in and out of the entrance) yesterday the hive was robbed and empty. It had been very hot here the last few days, assuming this is the reason, but reading all these stories makes me wonder. I have been scouring the neighborhood looking for the swarm, but can’t find it yet. Still hoping




This sounds more like straight-forward robbing instead of absconding. Usually, a colony plans in advance to abscond, and reduces brood rearing and honey storing. But 1000s of bees flying in and out is classic robbing, and the robbers may have killed most of the bees (by fighting) and perhaps killed the queen as well. I wouldn’t hold out much hope of finding the remainder.

During a hot and dry nectar dearth, I never leave robbing to chance. As soon as nectar sources dry up, I reduce entrances to about 3/4 by 3/8-inches, which takes care of it before it starts.


I just started in March with my bees. I started with 2- 5 frames from nucs and one either had an old queen or no queen. I replaced the one queen and it must have been too late, because the hive got infested with beetles and they left. I bought 2 more 10 frame hives from a different person and all 3 were doing great. I live in Citrus county Fl, and we have had tons of rain this summer. I inspected the hives on Labor Day weekend and everything was looking great. I went back the next Sat and my best hive was empty of bees and filled with carpenter ants. I went back the next Friday and another hive was empty and filled with carpenter ants. I am so discouraged and upset. Could it have been because of all of the rain and this is where the ants took to the food and shelter. I have one hive left and we put the four legs in containers with oil and water so the ants hopefully can’t get to them. Has anyone else had issues with lots and lots of rain, and the bees absconding? I am almost afraid to see my last hive this weekend. : (


I started with two packages in the spring. These are not my first or only bees; but the only ones at my home. I didn’t expect honey this year, CA is just too hot and dry and the drought really make is worse. I didn’t check on the bees often, just enough to make sure they had a queen, but I did walk by them every day and observe the coming and going, they looked like a normal, busy hive; lots of bearding on summer evenings. A few weeks ago I noticed 1000s of bees around the hive and I assumed they were being robbed but life just didn’t give me time to look. So this weekend I had time and I was right, one hive was totally gone and all the honey had been chewed out. The other hive was gone as well but the honey was there and a few capped brood, some even emerging. They left about 30 pounds of capped honey and quite a bit of uncapped. No dead bees in either hive. So where did they go? This isn’t the first time I have lost a hive like this, it is really getting to be an all too familiar story. So what am I doing wrong? Is this absconding or CCD? I make sure they have room, afternoon shade, water, lots of flowers, no chemicals, an orchard, and a garden. They should be happy for longer than 6 months. So frustrating.



I don’t know. I hesitate to blame CCD because it’s such a nebulous thing, but it certainly seems to meet the description. It could be absconding as well, but normally the hive would get emptied out by robbers soon afterward. I know it’s frustrating, but I really don’t have an answer. So sad.

Karine Pouliquen


This absconding behavior just happened with one of my hives. I have 2 hives not far from each other. They gave us 190 lb of honey. They are in 3 boxes, their top box was completely full of honey, and very heavy. In addition, both hives had a lot of bees, beautiful queens that laid eggs fabulously all spring and summer.

After harvesting, I treated them with Apiguard. I have used this product in the past with success.
I came back 3 days later to collect something in the bee yard, then I saw to my complete dismay that one of my hives, had maybe 50 bees walking on the frames, ALL combs were clean and dry with no damage, no queen and absolutely no dead bees to be found.

Yes, they had left their home. I was wondering if adding a medication, can do that? The other hive is perfectly happy with lots of honey and pollen and ready for winter.



It is sad to lose a colony, especially one that is so productive. That is a lot of honey for just two hives. But to answer your question, the Apiguard could have caused them to abscond, especially if the internal hive temperature got too high. You will never know for sure, but it definitely is a possibility.


I lost 7 colonies by absconding this year. Besides what could have been a high level of mites, which I treated with Apiguard, there was no other possible reason.
I would say that Apiguard has something to do with it. Maybe applying when it was too hot like Rusty is suggesting, who knows.

My friend 5 miles up the road applied to 12 hives at the very same time and he lost nothing.

Kit Hiatt

Hi Rusty!
I have two hives (of five) with swarm cells going full tilt! Both hives are happy, thriving, filled with bees and lovely brood. No sign of a queen in either hive (herself or larvae). Swarming plans in mid October? I have applied no chemicals although I know I do have a mite problem. I thought I’d use oxalic acid in a month or so.



Where are you? If you’re going into winter you need to think about this. Are you sure they are swarm cells and not supersedure cells? Are there any drones around? Can new queens get mated?

Kit Hiatt

Thank you Rusty and I apologize for not telling you I’m in Seattle, West Seattle to be exact. I do have some drone brood but I haven’t seen a drone in a while. Yes these are swarm cells, an interesting cluster of about five of them in one case. One has even hatched!


I just lost a hive, I think to absconding. There is a handful of remaining bees and I would like to save them. They still have a lot of honey stores. Is it ok to move brood from another hive into this hive at this point? What would some of the detriments be? If I were to do so, should they create their own queen or should I get a queen?



Since I don’t know your location, I can’t be much help. But you have to decide if a “handful” of bees can take care of brood, defend the hive, keep the colony warm, etc. More than likely the answer is no. I would take the remaining bees and introduce them into one of your other hives.


Hi Rusty, just discovered lost hive. Checked them last time a month ago, doing great. Harvested honey, made sure no swarm cells and room for laying queen, and not honey bound. Two deeps, bottom box brood, pollen and outer frames honey. Top box all 10 deeps honey. Harvested medium super from top with 4 frames of honey. I am first-year beek this was a 5 frame nuc. Checked on them yesterday no queen, no bees, no brood. Found a few eggs and larvae. Think it is a laying worker. About 40 pounds of honey left and about 40 bees.

Can I requeen? I think now they are being robbed. What do I do with the rest of bees and honey? Save the frames of honey pollen for next year? Thank you.



You cannot requeen if you have only 40 bees. They will die and she will die. If your hive is being robbed, chances are you won’t have any honey remaining in a couple of days. I would take what remains out of the hive as soon as possible, and save what you can for next year. There’s nothing you can do for the remaining bees.

Mary P.

Yep, in the last 2 or 3 weeks, there has been a rash of “absconding” among my beek friends’ hives, and then it happened to me last week. One friend lost 3 of 6 hives, another one lost both hives, about 3 weeks apart. Then my own top bar colony, which was my strongest and most robust…disappeared. On a Friday, I put in some 2:1 syrup, and everything looked fine. Two days later, I went to refill the syrup (because my other hives are taking a quart every day). In this hive, the syrup was untouched (I could see from the observation window). I waited another day and when I returned, the hive was surrounded by clouds of robbers. This hive was too big and strong, with only a small entrance to defend, to be vulnerable to robbing. Sure enough, the colony was gone (not dead, only a handful of bees on the hive floor) and they left their honey (7 big fat bars of it). There is no chance they could survive outside now (in Massachusetts) so this was suicidal on their part. Here in New England, the hardest part is getting a hive through the bitter snowy winters; it’s devastating to lose them before the winter even starts with no reasonable explanation given. Bummer, man.



I wish I knew more about absconding. I hear about it all the time, and I’ve had it happen once, but it doesn’t seem to make any sense. This year in particular seems especially bad with vigorous colonies that just up and leave for no apparent reason. It’s almost as if something in the environment is setting them off.