absconding beekeeping equipment how to

Why did my bees leave their hive?

swarm on a swing

Why did my bees leave their hive? What would cause a new package of bees installed in a brand new hive to leave in just a few days? What did I do wrong and how can I prevent it in the future?

First off, having your new bees abscond is not only heartbreaking, it’s expensive. You spent lots of time and money setting up the perfect hive, you’ve waited all winter for your package to arrive, and two days after installation you are left with nothing but an empty wooden box. Sort of like the stock market.

New wood doesn’t smell like home

Every time I have seen this happen, the bees were installed on new wood. If the newly installed bees don’t like the real estate, they act like any other swarm. They stick around for a day or two while the scouts go out and look for something more to their liking. When they’ve come to an agreement on their new digs, they leave and you become an empty-nester.

So, what do you do when you have only new wood? The answer is easy: sequester the queen. The package of bees will not leave without their queen, so if the queen can’t leave, the bees will stay and start to build comb. Once the comb-building process has begun—and the hive begins to smell like home—you can release the queen and relax.

I’ve heard people say it’s the smell of new lumber they don’t like, or it’s the glue in plywood, or it’s the odor of paint. But in my opinion, it’s just that the bees decided they could do better somewhere else. Remember, they have no loyalty to the box you just dropped them in. It’s like someone else choosing an apartment for you. Chances are good that while the place may be okay, you would prefer something different. Same with the bees.

Confine the queen or use old combs

One year I had a package abscond from a newly built top-bar hive. Lucky for me, the swarm landed in a nearby shrub and I was able to capture it. I re-installed them in the same hive but I put the queen in an introduction cage and left her there for about ten days. Once several combs were under construction, I re-released the queen and the colony stayed put.

Since then, I always sequester the queen if the wood is new, or I install several frames of used brood comb—the darker the better—to start them off. This is the same type of comb you would use in a bait hive. Even though it looks disgusting, it is full of odors the bees find irresistible. Go figure.

But what about those old combs? Shouldn’t old black combs—which may contain pesticide build-up or disease—be rotated out of the hive? Absolutely. I handle this by using combs that are almost ready to retire, but not quite. For example, if you retire combs after four years, use three-year-old combs for baiting a hive or starting a colony on new wood.


swarm on a swing

A swarm on a swing. Anything may seem better to your bees than a hive filled with nothing but brand new wood. Pixabay photo.


  • I remember David Burns saying that installing a queen excluder on the bottom of the brood box until the queen begins laying will also reduce the chances of the colony flying away. The top entrance needs to be blocked or screened off though. I’ve never done it, but that’s what David says.

    • Phillip,

      Should work. It’s basically the same idea–you are preventing the queen from leaving the hive and the colony stays with her.

  • Very interesting post – makes excellent sense. We’ve heard from other beekeepers who have had their packages abscond, and we didn’t know what to tell them! Neither of our employers have ever had packages abscond (and they’ve poured thousands of packages) – probably because they were always poured into “old” equipment.

  • For both Phil and myself most of the nectar and pollen sources will be from wildflowers. There shouldn’t be major sources of pesticides in our areas. Would you still look at a 4 year cycle for replacing comb or could that be extended for 5 or 6 years?

    • Jeff,

      I think the time to rotate frames is very much a local and personal decision. If you are not dealing with agricultural chemicals and your bees are disease-free you can go much longer than a beekeeper dealing with these issues. I’m in a similar situation here. I’m next to a huge state forest and there is very little agriculture in the immediate area, but I still like to rotate frames after four or five years. You will know more when you get there. The decision will come naturally.

  • I wonder if spraying the inside of the hive with sugar syrup that contains lemongrass oil would help? I know of a huge queen breeder that uses syrup with oregano oil in it to keep them in their own boxes. A lot of the packages are shaken from the same hives, and the oregano oil stops them from all moving back in together, after they hive them, on a large scale.
    My last two years of installing packages, I’ve made my own Honey Bee Healthy brew. I use it to lightly spray the packages before I install them. I have never had any abscond.

    • Commercial swarm lures smell like lemongrass oil, so I’m sure it works. Also, spraying the bees with essential oils like oregano interferes (just temporarily) with their sense of smell. It confuses them and, like you said, the groups can’t find each other so readily.

  • After selling our house in Port Elizabeth South Africa and being on holiday for 10 days, we came back to find honey bees in our fireplace/chimney (high up). We cannot see them but can hear them and now and then one will come down the chimney and die. (about 10 per day).

    How do we get rid of them, we have contacted bee keepers but beside the fact that they want a farms price to take them away, they are not interested as soon as they hear it’s in the chimney. Please help!! (The new owners will be in by June and we cannot leave them with the bee problem.)

    • Wilma,

      I don’t know the answer. What would happen if you built a small fire? Might the smoke drive them away? Would the wax melt? Or is the chimney so clogged it will not draft? The beekeepers probably know they can’t get them out alive and that is why they don’t want to try.

      Bees hate smoke. If you kept a small fire going for a long time they might eventually leave. An exterminator will use poisons and that would be sad, so the smoke may be worth a try.

      Readers? Anyone know what to do?

  • On the question of new bees leaving, I put a new bunch in my top bar hive, they started making comb, and then on the third day left, leaving nice little lobes of comb and a few confused sisters behind, any idea why?


    • Andy,

      It certainly has been the year for bees to abscond. I’ve heard more reports of absconding this year than ever before. Basically, though, I have no new insight. If a swarm takes off on its own, it makes a “democratic” decision about where to live (see Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley). But when you buy a package and install it, you have attempted to make a decision for them—one that they may or may not like.

      It could be the size of the opening, the size of the cavity, the amount of sun exposure, temperature, the amount of noise, nearby threats (or what they perceive as threats), the smell of new wood or paint, the height above ground . . . or maybe something else entirely.

      The bees I’ve had abscond had been placed in new top-bar hives; I’ve never had them abscond from Langstroths. But personally, I don’t think it was the hive design as much as the fact that the hives were made from new lumber. Now when I put packages in new hives I always keep the queen caged and wait for a substantial amount of comb to be built. I also add pieces of old comb tied to a frame or top bar as well as a piece of honeycomb, if possible. All these things add aromas the bees like.

      I can’t guarantee that a package will stay if you do all the above, but it seems that advance preparation does make a difference. All I can say is your bees left because they found something they liked better. It happens.

      • In my poor experience with packages, the bees didn´t start to build up combs. Later I put queen excluders under the nest box and this resolved. The bees started to build combs!

  • The same happened to us. We were able to re-hive the swarm, with the help of an rescuer in our beekeeping association. We left them corked in the TBH for a couple of days and I just pulled one of the corks last night. Hope they stay this time. If not, we may go with the queen cage next time.

  • Rusty & posters,

    Thanks for the good info on this topic. Wished I would’ve read this before this season! They absconded on me last year and I thought it was the brand new top bar hive I had made for them. So after it weathered for a year and I added in fresh (not years old) honeycomb, I was hoping they would want it to be home….not so. I let the queen out too soon…..oh when will I ever learn! Thanks for all the great info. I love Honey Bee Suite!

  • You state the bees will not abscond without the queen. I have two incidences of packaged bees absconding while queen still in the queen container. All bees left queen behind and departed hive. Queen originally came with packaged bees.

    Why did this happen?

    • Jack,

      Sometimes a queen or a virgin queen gets vacuumed up and put into a package along with the workers. I’ve been told this is not uncommon, although I have never seen it personally.

      • Bees follow swarms or enter existing hives. So if a swarm passes the hive, your packet bees go with the swarm. Or they smell another colony and leave the useless (caged) queen.

      • Evelyn,

        At this time of year, it’s more likely your colony died. In August, it’s usually a result of varroa mites combined with the viral diseases they carry. As the bees get sick, they fly off to die.

  • My bees left this week. I installed them back in April in a new top bar hive. They seemed happy, built 7 combs filling 2/3 of the hive. Saw honey and thought all was well till this week. Had about 30 / 40 dead bees in the bottom. All the combs are empty of anything. What did I do wrong?

    • Bruce,

      Dead bees and empty combs sounds like robbing. If the colony got robbed of all its stores, it may have decided to find another home. It is possible the queen was lost during the summer, and the colony got weaker as the summer wore on. When was the last time you saw capped brood?

  • I have several instances of absconding – especially with feral bees. I started using an excluder – top and bottom and the queen manages to abscond anyway. It is very frustrating especially when you spend hours retrieving the bees and then they leave.

    Any ideas anyone?

    • Jack,

      Make sure your queen excluders are not bent or damaged. I think virgins get through excluders sometimes, although others disagree with that. Do you give them honey? That helps.

      • Thanks for your comments.

        I do provide honey and good foundation but 40% depart. I had one hive with over 50,000 bees and I was working with my bees and heard a roar and looked over and they were pouring out of the hive, queen and all, none remained. I had spent 6 hours retrieving the hive and placing in my apiary.

        • Ok, everyone, here is one for you:

          I went Saturday, yesterday, and retrieved a swarm out of a tree about six feet off the ground. Got them. Received a call from same people and stated they believe they have another swarm – I thought it might be the remnant from yesterday but it was not – another swarm.

          I now have two new hives – here is the problem, from the two I found three other queens making a total of five queens.

          Now what?

  • There is a hive inside a pepper tree and it has been there for a while. Will the hive eventually leave in its own or do they stay there permanently? When is it the best time to relocate an established hive?

    • Ann,

      A colony of honey bees living inside a tree could stay there for years. If the colony gets too large for the tree, it may split into two parts with one part staying and one part moving somewhere else. If you want to move the colony into a hive, the best time is probably in the early spring. Since you are asking about a pepper tree, I assume you are in a warm climate. In that case, you could move it almost any time.

  • I am glad to have ran across this site. I am doing a top bar, built last year, introduced package and bees hit the road after queen was released from queen cage.

    This year, I had found some small plastic queen excluders and attached them outside on the entrances. I put in the package 7 days ago and they are building comb well. I had planned on doing a 2 week inspection or open to your suggestions.

    I hate using the queen excluders, and would like to take them off, would you have any recommendations on how long I should leave them?

    I read in one of your posts, maybe after she is laying broad. Or should I go for more like a 4-6 week period?

    Any suggestions would be much appreciated.

    • Dell,

      Once the queen is laying you can take off the excluders because bees hardly ever abandon their brood. The problem with the excluders is they also exclude the drones. So if any drones came with your package, they are trapped inside and that is not a healthy situation. By four to six weeks you would have lots more drones in there, so don’t do that.

    • So where did you find small plastic queen excluders that you can use with a TBH? I might be interested in getting something like that.

      But last year we just used corks on all the holes, filled up the internal feeders, and closed the hive for about a week. Once we saw comb being build (through the observation window) we uncorked the hive and all was well. Until the bear found them. But that’s another story.

  • So I’m new to the game. Installed two new hives and both absconded in the first week. Then installed a new brood in one of the same boxes (both are new) and they’re gone again. I sequestered the queen for four days before popping the cork. How long can the queen be sequestered and can she live without being fed? I’m going to give it another try. Have bees on the way.

    • Tom,

      Wow, that’s discouraging. You can leave the queen sequestered until the bees start building comb and providing a place for her to lay. She won’t starve because the workers will feed her and tend to her though the screen. Just make sure the screened side of the queen cage is exposed to the worker bees. Let me know how it goes.

      • Yes, that’s what we do too. When we introduce a swarm to the hive (top bar hive in our case), we put some full feeders in the hive and seal it up so they don’t get out. We check through the observation window after about 3 days. If we see comb building, we can remove the plugs and they’ll stay put. Just make sure you keep feeding them.

  • Hi

    I have bought a bee hive with bees 4-5 months ago, then added a box so became double. Last time I had a look at the box about a month a go and put 2 anti-varroa strips. A few days ago I found that the bees left!

    I do not know why and why…?

    Any idea from you guys?


    • JK,

      It could have been caused by the Varroa strips, especially if temperatures were very warm. I don’t know what product you used, but always follow the temperature guidelines to the letter.

  • I have had an established hive that looked like it was too full of bees. I put another brood box on top. They didn’t seem to make comb on the frames. But did make comb between the inner cover and the the tops of the frames. They filled the frames in the bottom hive. I saw a drone outside the hive on Wednesday and today (Saturday) The hive is empty. No honey inside just empty comb. I saw one hive beetle and 2 roaches inside. How can I prevent this?

    • Betsy,

      It’s hard to tell why your bees absconded, but you can prevent the feeling of being overcrowded by taking some of the full frames and putting them in the new box and taking some of the empties and putting them in the lower box. Leave the empty frames in the middle of the two boxes so there is plenty of room for the brood nest.

  • Hi Rusty,
    We’ve just installed our first package 6 days ago, and are feeding them 1:1 sugar with Honey Bee Healthy added. We’ve added sugar water to the top feeder, and there are lots of bees all over… It’s rained quite a bit for 3 days and yesterday and today, you can stand in front of the hive and see dozens of live/dying/dead bees all in the grass and seem unable to fly. What might be causing this? We check for eggs tomorrow.

  • Sorry, meant to say there were lots of bees all over the feeder 2 days ago…But not bees flying around or outside today and yesterday except the ones in the grass. But it has been drizzly/rainy for 3 days. Thanks.

    • Barb,

      It’s hard to say. I think what is important is how many are healthy vs how many are dying. Some bees will die every day, and if the bees have been packaged for a long time, more will die sooner. Some of the dying bees may just be old, some may have been ill. The fact that many were feeding is good news. You will just have to wait and see. Honey bees normally don’t leave the hive in bad weather, so that part is not unusual.

      • I have already moved away the hive as it was empty from BEEs and if I was keeping it there, they would empty the rest of honey in the combs.
        thank you

  • I have a broken heart because my bees left their hive yesterday. I bought them from a local beekeeper (approx. 80 miles from my home) a little over 2 months ago. I watched them for several weeks bring pollen into the hive and they seemed very content. Then I started to notice they seemed to act like they wanted to swarm. I found several small beetles in the hive and the bottom board seemed very old and damp, so I moved the frames into a new box with a screened bottom board. They seem happy for awhile but seemed I couldn’t provided them with enough sugar water, they were drinking over a gallon a day, and I noticed they were not bringing in any pollen and only drinking the sugar water. I put in a beetle hive catcher with vegetable oil and was able to trap over 15 beetle and to my surprise several small roaches (that was disgusting because I have never experience problems with any kind of roaches in or around my house). When I inspected the hive after the bees left I shook several of the hives and quite a few of the beetle fell out of the frames and the brood on the frames look very black in color, they almost look burned. I want to continue to keeps bees but I’m at a loss. I’m thinking that perhaps the hive a bought from the beekeeper was already infested with beetles, but the bees seems to happy in the first 4 weeks. Also should I burn the frames to destroy the beetles that are not in the hive and in the frames?

    Brokenhearted in Bandera, Tx
    Thanks, Deb

    • Deb,

      It is almost impossible to speculate without seeing the hive, but I’m more worried about the black brood than the beetles. The number of beetles sounds normal, but black brood sounds like a disease, perhaps American foulbrood. If that is the case, the bees may have absconded to get away from the disease, which of course won’t help them.

      If the beekeeper who you got the hive from was suppressing disease with antibiotics and you didn’t know about it, it could definitely show up. I would probably have the frames tested for foulbrood or burn the whole thing and start again.

      I would go to a different supplier next time. This does not sound good.

      Does anyone else have a thought on this?

  • Hello. One of my hives asconded late fall early winter. The bottom box was empty but the top was quite full of honey. Not sure what went wrong. Was wondering though what you would have done with the honey they left?

  • I’m currently reading all that I can, before I buy our first hive box. My husband told me that a coworker of his mentioned that she had bees leave and she didn’t try again. I told him to ask her if she still has the hive box. Is it foolish of me to think I can use her old/ failed hive box? I thought it could save us money. I see from other comments, that new boxes don’t end well. Maybe that was her original issue. Assuming it’s aged now and I wipe it down with smells they like too, is it ok?

    • Kari,

      As long as her bees disappeared and didn’t die of a disease like American Foulbrood, it is perfectly fine to use her equipment.

  • Someone gave me the idea this beekeeping thing would be straightforward. And relaxing. I spent the first two nights feeling like I’d put my first child on the kindergarten bus. I almost put a tent and sleeping bag out there.

    • Deborah,

      I understand. Even after many years I lay awake at night second-guessing myself. When all goes well beekeeping is relaxing, but more often than not, it’s not going as well as it could.

  • I started my first top bar hive in April. All is going well with that hive. I put in a new package of bees in the second hive on May 20th. When I checked them a couple of days later, the queen was out of her cage. A few days later, the entire package of bees settled in on the opposite side of the top bar hive. I wasn’t alarmed and figured they preferred that side. There has been a lot of flooding in our area of Texas, and today was the first day we have been able to make it out to our property to check on things since the storms. We replaced feeders and noticed the new hive is mostly gone except for a few workers and a couple of drones that are on a small piece of comb. Also, it seems like our original hive has grown quit a bit. Is it possible that the second package of bees have joined the first hive?

  • My son placed a newly constructed hive on my property. All went well for about six weeks. During the second week ants were entering the hive feeding off of the feeders. He sprinkled cinnamon in the top box to detour the ants, he read somewhere that is what you should do. Now in the 6th week the bees have left the box. What went wrong?

    • Craig,

      Did the cinnamon work? If it worked and the ants were gone, then I can’t say. But if it didn’t work and the ants were still there, I would blame the ants. For more on ant control see, “Bad-ant advice.”

  • I recently shifted my three Ugandan local hives from where the bees entered themselves and absconded in one week what could have been the cause? In Uganda we don’t normally catch the bees they enter the hives themselves.

    • I’m sorry, but I really don’t know. Perhaps the amount of forage was insufficient. If so, they may have gone to a place with more flowers and water. I’m just guessing, though.

  • This just happened to me period prior to my install I had heard one individual recommend putting a queen excluder underneath the deep super but several folks said that wasn’t necessary period I install two packages Saturday and one colony was gone today.

    I looked online in only a few places for introduction cage I cannot find any that did not require pushing into the existing home. How would one do that in the new hive with perhaps empty frames?

  • Recently had a swarm of honeybees come in the afternoon and locate under my front porch. That evening I called a beekeeper and he came and put out a ‘bait box’ to try to get them out from under the porch. Checked the next morning and the bees were very active under the porch and totally ignoring the bait box. That afternoon the entire swarm was gone. Any idea why they would just leave?

    • Jean,

      After honey bees swarm, they huddle in a temporary location until the scout bees find and agree on the new permanent location. So it is totally normal that they would stay under your porch for a few days and then move on. Apparently they found something they liked better than the bait box.

  • I wish I’d found this post a few days ago. My brand new bees that I installed in my brand new hive on Saturday, sprung the queen from her cage and bailed sometime yesterday. I’m so sad. I’ve been excitedly waiting for them since January ? And to add injury to insult, I got stung by a random detached stinger that was laying pokey end up on top of one of the frames like sleeping beauty’s freaking spindle.

    • Heather,

      So, so sad. I’ve heard this story many times over the years. They never tell beginners this stuff and I think it’s unfair.

      As sad as it was, your comment on the random detached stinger cracked me up. Wow, you learned a lot about beekeeping in a very short time!

    • Beekeeping—it’s an expensive hobby. Honestly, I don’t know how some people make a living at it.

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