honey bee management

Do honey bees leave in winter and return in spring?

Honey bees do not return in the spring. An assortment of grren and yellow bee hives in an apiary.

A new colony might move into your old hive, but last year’s colony will not return.

“My bees are gone now. Will they return in spring?”

This question makes me sad because I know someone wants a hopeful answer.

But no, honey bees do not leave in the fall and return in the spring. If an entire colony is gone from its hive, that colony is not coming back. The colony may have absconded, or it may have died for some reason. I can’t say much more without knowing the details.

Absconding bees leave their hive forever

Absconding means the colony abandoned its hive and selected another location to live, usually because their living conditions were bad. It’s hard to say why a colony absconds, but it may have no food, it may be repeatedly attacked by predators, it may be subject to excess noise, or it may be assaulted with chemical pesticides.

Absconding takes different forms. Sometimes the entire colony leaves at once. More often, the bees leave one by one. Individual bees may try to move in with another colony, or some may simply leave to die in the field. Things must seem unbearable for them to leave because they have very little chance of survival.

A new colony may look like an old one returned in spring

Depending on where you live, it is remotely possible that an entirely different colony might move into your empty hive. To some people, this may look like their colony spent the winter somewhere else and is now returning.

In truth, hives that were occupied by honey bees in previous years become very attractive to swarms. Swarms detect the odor of bees, wax, comb, or propolis and decide it would make a good place to live. This is why bait hives work to attract bees in spring.

But having a swarm move into your empty hive is not something you should count on. If you want to continue keeping bees after your colony has left, you should plan to acquire a new colony.

Try to learn why your bees left in winter

In addition, you should try to figure out why your colony disappeared in the first place. Review the hive location and your management skills. Did you do something wrong or questionable? Did you fail to treat for mites in a timely way? Do you check on their winter food supply?

If you don’t change your technique, you are bound to make a similar error. So review and rethink your strategy before you try it again.

Rusty Burlew
Honey Bee Suite


  • Oh that headline is SO sad! I hope the reader will get some more bees and stay with it. Best wishes to them (and their bees wherever they are!)


    • I must be a Negative Nelly. It’s not the headline that makes me sad, but rather that it was asked at all. Of course I don’t know the situation, as to how the asker acquired bees, but the lack of self-education prior to starting as a beekeeper annoys me. Winter is for reading . . . what were they doing all winter?

      • Negative Nelly, they might not be beekeepers but rather inquiring about a wild colony such as myself. I was researching the same thing because a wild swarm settled in my yard, so I hope you don’t get too sad when people post questions about bee habits. This is a forum for people to share their knowledge and insight not for picking on people who ask questions.

        • Rena,

          Two things: First, I didn’t post the entire quote because it was too long to work into the format I have chosen. I assure you, the question was about a beekeeper’s purchased colony. Second, this is not a forum; it is a personal website wherein I select the content. If it’s a forum you want, there are plenty out there.

  • Hee Hee, yes sounds like a swarm moved in to the old hive.

    You really need to make sure why the bees left, and check that the hive isn’t full of disease.

    Doesn’t it sound great that the bees travel away for winter to a nice warm place and then return in spring 🙂

    See ya…Gary

  • It’s the last thread of optimism that they may have gone for the winter that is so sad. For a beekeeper it brings back the memory of every loss. On the plus side, the bees and their swarming (thought this wasn’t swarming as otherwise some would remain) is part of the way they multiply!

  • Question!

    I just installed my first package a week ago, into a top bar hive. The queen was dead in her cage & I was told this usually means there is a queen in the package loose, so give it 3-5 days and see what happens. The weather immediately took a turn for the worse, with days inn the 50s and nights below freezing. At first we saw some bees making flights, but over the past few days, nothing.

    Due to the cold weather, I haven’t had a chance to take a look until today, exactly a week from when I installed them. The bees are all clustered on the floor of the hive. The cluster is just about the size of a baseball. They hadn’t discovered the sugar I’d put behind the follower, no comb has been built, and there’s signs of defecation inside the hive (3 or 4 spots of bee poo on one wall).

    I moved the sugar in next to them instead of leaving it behind the follower, and lightly dusted the cluster with it so they have at least a little something to eat that they can’t help but find.

    My question is, what next? If I need to order another package, it needs to happen asap, likewise if I just need to order a queen. The next several days are supposed to be gloriously warm and sunny, with more moderate night time lows. Do I wait another few days and see what happens? Should I go ahead and order a whole new package? Order just a queen?

    The place I got the bees from says they have no idea about bees in top bar hives, so they aren’t any help!

    • Andrea,

      Whoever told you that a dead queen in her cage meant there is a queen loose in the package was either ignorant or lying. And anyway, even in the remote chance there was a loose queen in the package, you paid for the one in the queen cage and she should be alive and healthy.

      With the queen dead, and no way of making a queen, the colony is just dying. It is hopeless. At this point, you need a whole new package including the queen. If the queen in the cage was dead and they sent you home without a replacement, they owe you a whole new package, including a live queen, at no extra charge.

      In the meantime, put starter strips in your top-bar hive, if you haven’t already. Also, it’s not clear if you gave them solid sugar or syrup, but it should be syrup. Without lots of food they can’t build comb. So make syrup and add an attractant like lemongrass oil or anise oil so they can find it easier.

      Next time, attach the queen cage to a middle bar and leave her in it a few day until comb building begins.

      Andrea, I’m going to post this on the front page to see what other people think. I hope they agree.

      Good luck, and next year get your bees from someone else.

  • I have had a colony of bees take over 2 of my sprinkler boxes during the last 5 summers. They thrive and are so productive very calm I can walk right up to the box and bend down to watch them work so they are not Africanized. But sometime in the mid fall, they all abandon the hive, honey and all. (I like to consider it a gift. If only I could harvest the honey but it is too dirty from the leaf blowers.) I clean out the wax and honey each year and each year they return to build a new hive. Is this normal? Are they the same bees or are they a new colony that “smells” the former colony and takes over the space? I live in Northwest Phoenix and have many blooming bushes in my yard as well a a humming bird feeder. (I know they need a water source.)

    • Kathy,

      I would say it is unusual just because honey bees seldom nest in the ground. Some do, but it’s not common. On the other hand, I’ve heard quite a few stories of bees living in sprinkler boxes. I don’t know what the attraction is, other than the boxes tend to get condensation inside and maybe the bees consider that a convenient water source, especially in drier areas like where you live.

      Why they are abandoning it is a mystery because they probably won’t be able to survive the winter without the honey they stored. I’m guessing that new bees are moving in each time. New colonies are attracted to the scent where colonies have been in the past and frequently will re-populate a previously used nest.

      • Ok, I live in middle Florida. I have bees living under my shed and one day they just swarmed and they left. Now it is October and I have new bees going under shed, lol. If the old bees left why are they coming?

        • They are different bees. Bees are often attracted to places where other bees have lived because of the way they smell.

  • I was given two hives this year that had not been touched in over 4 years. I set them both up next to the field behind my house, and after a few days opened the door of their hive so they could get used to the new location. I have kept an eye on the hives since but have not opened them. Thursday morning I went out hoping to get a frame of honey out of the super on top of one of them only to find them both completely empty, no honey, bees, nothing. There was a little empty comb in the bottom of one but that was all. Any ideas?

    • Waylon,

      I can’t say because I don’t have enough information. It would depend mostly on what condition the colonies were in when you got them, but also where you are living (what climate), how long they’ve been in your field, what they had for forage, etc. Also, were they infected with mites, beetles, or moths? How much honey did they have when you got them? How old were the queens? There are endless possibilities.

  • Hello,
    We had a wild hive in a very large sassafras tree for at least 4 years. The tree was slated to be cut down this past fall, but the tree workers wouldn’t do it because of the bees. With our hard winter, they didn’t cut it down again. Tree was cut down 2 weeks ago, tree guys did not see or hear any bees this time. Upon cutting open the tree, we found tons of honeycomb, most of it empty and no bees, no bodies, nothing. While I feel really bad that the bees are no longer anywhere around, I am wondering how we can extract the honey that is there. Most of the cells are haphazardly filled and now with cutting up the tree, they are covered in sawdust and other stuff. Is there a way to clean it all and extract it?

    • Dawn,

      Cut away the worst parts, put it in a large pot, and crush it with a potato masher. Try to break as many cells as possible so the honey runs out. Strain it through a paint-strainer; the one- or five-gallon sizes are available at Home Depot or similar store and they are not expensive. The straining will take a while. Put it in a warm place to speed it up, but it will take overnight at least. Then just bottle the honey. At first there will be many fine bubbles, but they will eventually rise to the top after several days to a week.


  • A bee hive has settled in a cavity in the top of a concrete post, the top of the post is 3 inches from the bottom of our house, just outside our back door. The bees are swarming and we are unable to use the back door. We have tried to find someone to take the hive but everyone tells us there is no way to extricate the hive from the cavity. We cannot continue to let the bees live there, what to do? We have small children and it is a dilemma.

    • Arabella,

      If no one knows how to get them out, you may have to kill them. So sad because bees need all the help we can give them. It is the small children I worry about: they may grow up in a world where there isn’t sufficient nutrition because of a lack of bees. I was just reading a study this morning about how human malnutrition will follow the demise of the bees.

  • I live in Marion County, Florida and I had honey bees under my outside shed for 4 years and they abandoned their hive about 2 months ago, but as of yesterday, they were all back and working very hard. So why did my bees leave and then return?

    • Elaine,

      Most probably what you have is a different colony of honey bees. Honey bee swarms that are looking for a new home are highly attracted to places where previous colonies lived. They can detect the smell for some distance away, so scout bees that are out searching for a place to live, can pick up the scent and hone in on the location. It is very common for this to happen.

  • Hey there

    Not being, no pun intended; a bee keeper. My wife and I just got a homestead cabin outside of Joshua Tree national park in cali. One of the entryway doors was filled with old comb not a bee to be found. But as of late more and more have been showing up buzzing around late mornings into the late afternoon. Super happy to see them and we wanted to ensure that they have their home, as we moved in with them…

    Thanks again

  • I too have a wild colony that has taken over a bird box that my late father in law built for us. I stumbled upon this page because I too was wondering why the colony leaves and then returns, but as I’m reading I learned that its a different colony. So my new question is this, after a colony leaves, should I clean out the old hive/wax (I’m ignorant to proper bee terms), or just leave it bee (see what I did there?) like I’ve always done in the past?
    We love and appreciate our bees and don’t mind making our back yard a home for them

  • I had a colony that swarmed twice last year. One swarm formed on a nearby fence, and within a couple of hours were gone. The second swarm came a few weeks later, and it surprised me. They formed on a willow tree beside my house and stayed there for FOUR days. They even stayed through a rainstorm on the 2nd night, and on the 5th day they were gone. This winter i saw the bees who had remained, and all was well until the Spring when I realized they were gone. Only a few dead bees remained. I opened the the 2 supers to air out (not knowing what else to do, i planned on keeping and cleaning one day and purchasing a new colony. 5 weeks ago i noticed bees flying around the opened hive, so I reassembled it and each day I see bees flying around and into it. I don’t know if they are searching for or have moved into this “new” nest, or if they are scavenging. One thing is certain, they are cleaning it, as each day a new pile of small bits resembling material in an ant hill are present at the bottom opening. I use a stick and remove it. I was wondering if these bees will stay and take over or if they are just finding what they can and going back to a nearby hive. I do hate that I only had this hive for 4 years, but I am happy that 4 swarms came from it and spread out into the world.

    *One last point: thank you for your above comments about forum versus website. I have a book and google, but I also have a 60-hour a week job recruiting Soldiers and a son and 2 dogs and toys and a lawn that is my mistress. So much like gardening (I grew large peppers and apparently provide an abundant food source to nearby moths), unless you have the time then you just have to do the best you can and be happy if your bees last even a single season nowadays.

    • Thad,

      Based on your description, it sounds like they are robbing and scavenging. Just guessing. Used combs are very attractive to swarms however, so sometimes a new colony will move in.

  • Please can someone help. I’ve read your threads and it doesn’t really help my problems. I love bees, i just wanted to get that out there before I go on my rant.

    Last year we were lucky to have bees under our house (got in through an air brick). We also had burrowing bees behind our shed. And wasps above our front door, under roof tiles.

    That meant sitting in our garden in summer time was ruined. I am desperate to enjoy my garden this year. Any tips on stopping this happen again would be greatly appreciated.

    • Lil,

      I’d like to help, but I’m confused. I can’t see how those insects could be ruining your garden time unless you were being really aggressive towards them. The bees have no interest in you. Ground bees especially are extremely docile and just want to get on with nest building. I don’t know what is under the house, but it sounds like bumbles, which will also mind their own business. The wasps might be more of a problem, but you said they were in front while your garden was in back. Still, I think the best thing would be to get rid of the wasps and let the bees alone. Most likely the bumble bees and the wasps will not return to the same spot this year, but the ground bees will. Why don’t you wait and see what happens. And give the ground bees a chance. They are fun to watch, they are great pollinators, and they are most often gentle. You can let them crawl up your arm and watch them. They are beautiful.

  • We need help with bees which have made a hive in a cable box in the ground. They have been there for six months. We hope to find a beekeeper that could relocate them. Bees are important to the environment and we don’t want to exterminate. We live in Victorville, CA. Please help.

  • Hi Rusty,

    We live in upstate NY and have 2 hives. The second hive we had, was a split from the first hive 2 years ago. I check the girls regularly and feed in the winter. Both hives had a mouse move in this winter. The original hive is doing very well, healthy, cleansing flights etc. etc.
    The second hive is empty. No dead bees, honey in the supers, I couldn’t see any brood, but some of the frames were quite dark. I could also see pollen in some of the comb. There were no beetles or moths and no foul smell….why are they gone? I took pictures of the frames but I can’t see that there is a problem.

    • Robyn,

      Did you treat for mites? Usually, when the hive has honey remaining but is empty of bees, mites was the cause. One by one, they leave and die.

  • Robyn,

    One of my colonies flew the coop last spring, leaving a pretty good crop of honey behind. I thought it might attract a new colony but instead attracted an assortment of beasts (flying and four-footed) who robbed the hive and tore up the combs. I sealed it up for the winter without cleaning anything up, with the thought that I would get a new package this spring, but before I could I discovered a new colony setting up shop in the four mediums with ragged frames and foundations. Should I leave them alone and let them settle in, or should I start replacing frames with new ones with new foundation? Thanks! Bill

  • I have a swarm of bees in my live oak tree. They have been there about a week. They seem very docile and I have fenced off the tree so the guy who cuts the grass doesn’t get too close. Will they eventually leave? I don’t mind them being around but it is a very large group of bees.


    • Donna,

      Most probably the scouts are looking for a permanent home. A colony usually stays at a temporary spot from a few hours to a week or more. They could be building comb up there, but I doubt it.

  • I have bees at my house on my front porch in a piller. I don’t want them. And I don’t want to kill them, I just want them gone. Who can I call?

    • Margie,

      I recommend you contact a local beekeeping club and see if someone will come out and see if removing them is possible. If you can’t find a beekeeping club, call an exterminator and ask them who does bee removals. In some places, exterminators are not allowed to kill honey bees, so they frequently know the people to contact.

  • I’m a designer/landscaper. I found a ground nest of probably bumble bees in the area where I’ve been asked to install a garden design. In zone 5b, Chicago suburbs, when can I expect the bees to leave the nest for winter? I can wait to install that area for awhile but I need to finish installing it this fall.

    • Susan,

      The timing varies with the species of bumble bee. Some are active early, some late, and some in the middle of the season. However, once nighttime temperatures start to dip near freezing, most activity will stop, even with the latest ones.

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