absconding honey bee management

Drones under house arrest

Beekeepers are frequently advised to put a queen excluder under the brood box to keep a new package from absconding. Since the queen can’t leave, the colony won’t leave either.

This is good advice that works well as long as you remove the excluder once the bees have settled in. Since drones cannot leave through the excluder, they are prohibited from leaving the hive as well. Recently, someone asked why they couldn’t just leave the drones inside.

Several reasons came to mind, and I’m sure you can think of others:

  • Incarcerated drones get in the way of progress in the nursery. Instead of helping with the work, they take up space, and the workers have to maneuver around them.
  • Drones consume the food stores that workers collect for winter. Drones that don’t fly probably have a longer lifespan than those on the prowl, and at home there’s nothing to do but eat.
  • Drones increase the heat load in the hive. In a colony that is desperately trying to keep the nursery cool, the last thing the bees need is an abundance of sweaty drones, each with three pairs of smelly socks.
  • If they can’t get out, drones will be forced to defecate in the hive. The workers must then spend time shoveling instead of building and nursing.
  • Once they die, dead bodies will contaminate the interior of the hive. Since drone bodies can’t fit through the excluder, the workers can do nothing but pile them in a corner. R.I.P.
  • From a larger perspective, those drones are an important part of the gene pool in your area. If you prevent your drones from flying, you are deleting their genetics from the local population.

As a beekeeper, it is easy to be overcautious. Yes, you want to prevent your new package from absconding, but if you go too far you will jeopardize the colony in other ways. So as soon as you see your bees hanging pictures and building comb, it is time to get that excluder out from under the brood box.


Drones just love a good top-bar hive.

Drones released on their own recognizance.



  • I see the logic but it made me think of how to exclude the drones from the stores as they seem to be an excessive presence in some of our hives. I have felt like giving them a good shake off the frames as they were thick and the colony seemed to be battling to put up stores. Is it common to have what seems like an excess of drones?

    This our first year of bee meddling and I am running into things that I wish I understood better, ie, queenless conditions and the aforementioned.

    Sonoma County, CA

    PS, I truly enjoy and share many of your musings.

    • Michael,

      A lot depends on whether you use foundation. I forget the precise numbers but with foundation you will get about 15-17% drones. With foundationless, you will get more like 40%. In the wild, the 40% is realistic, which is one of the primary reasons people use foundation.

      • Rusty,

        As an avid foundationless beemanager, I can say that there is a much higher amount of space dedicated to drone production on foundationless than foundation. Many think this is very bad since varroa target drone brood for reproduction. I personally find it extremely beneficial since I raise my own stock and don’t have issues with poorly mated queens. Also, when working the colonies as foundationless, it becomes important as a beemanager to move these frames up into the honey zone. Drone combs become the most wonderful honey frames which become LOADED with nectar and are easily then reused after extraction.

        Fear not drone production folks…it’s perfectly natural for them to be around and sometimes necessary in great numbers…especially if you make summer splits to cleanse the brood nest for fall!!!!


      • I had not heard the 40% number before! it seems outrageous since they don’t forage or work.

        I have been fumbling along between foundation that inherited with the equipment and foundationless. I am not even sure of the cell size but I see on Dee Lusby’s forum that encouraging small cell size is one of the keys to healthy bees. I think I have a lot of reconfiguring to do at some point.

        Thanks to your readers for more insights on the many issues found here.


  • Rusty,
    1. A note from my trials with a laying worker last Summer: besides eventually losing the colony itself, one thing I noted was very little foraging. One of our State scientists told us that laying-worker hives burn through stores, because the workers are kept busy feeding the excess drone population.
    2. I really wonder about the excluder to prevent absconding. You’ll recall my package that up and moved themselves to a nearby hive, leaving their queen and a small group of workers. An excluder would not have prevented that.
    It appears that little helps to stop workers from leaving a hive that doesn’t suit them, and that this is more likely with a package, which may not have had time to develop “loyalty” to their recently packaged queen.
    We are working within our club and surrounding areas, to provide used brood comb to new beekeepers and anyone installing packages. Not that it’s foolproof (lol) but at least it’s an alternative to the “new package + new equipment” model.
    Our speaker last Fall on mentoring programs talked about how a club can support “beekeepers” – as opposed to “bee havers.” Those of us who were fortunate to begin with a mentor just have to keep passing it along.
    Thanks as always,

    • Travis,

      Because the size of the cells is pre-stamped in the foundation. The bees just take it from there and finish out the cells like the pattern indicates. Later, when they really feel the need, they expand some of them into drone cells, but not nearly as often as they do without a pattern to follow.

  • I use drone comb removal as a primary IPM method to rid my hives of Varroa, as an added reward fewer drones consuming resources? :^) but if you are raising queens you need those drones for your yards. I use 1 super frame in the #3 slot of both my deeps in each hive. The queen lays workers in the frame but drones beneath. I come along every 10 days and remove the capped drone comb by simply slicing off the bottom with my hive tool. I bring it home and toss in my solar wax melter so I can reclaim the wax to paint on my foundation, works great and keeps varroa loads low.

  • I installed a 3-pound package of Italian bees in a brand-new top bar hive, and they absconded, predictably enough. However, some of the bees seem to be hanging around, maybe a fist-sized cluster or a little bigger, and the bees drew out a small piece of comb before they left. Is it worth trying to requeen this many bees? I used to keep bees in a Langstroth hive with great success, but I’m a complete novice at TBH beekeeping, so I thought I’d ask.

    • Brendan,

      It’s hard to get a colony started from such a small cluster. Even if you added a queen today, they could only tend a few eggs/larvae at a time, so build up would be really slow and the first to hatch would be three weeks from now. In my opinion, it’s not worth it.

  • We captured a swarm about a week ago, Sunday night. Monday, my husband finished the new TBH and we placed them in it and started feeding them due to the lateness in the season. On Wed, the temperature shot up here and we have been in the 98 – 104 degrees since then. The hive seemed to be doing well until Saturday, when they tried to abscond. They did not, because I had put a queen excluder on the front, so they were forced to return. They did the same on Sunday (yesterday). Gauging by their difference in activity from my other TBH this morning and their lack of feeding, I imagine they will try again today.

    When they swarmed, I saw they had started building 8 combs. My ‘guess’ is that the increase in temperature may have initiated the absconding. We live out in the desert and there is no shade. I have ordered a shade sail which should be in on Wed, to help. However, my other TBH seems to be doing great. They have a small sail shade – too small – but it helps a bit in the late afternoon/evening hours.

    My first hive absconded in their new TBH this spring. I put the queen excluder on. They never tried to abscond again, but left the excluder on for 2 weeks before removing it. I planned on doing the same for the swarm, but this repeated attempt at absconding concerns me. I want to wait until we can provide them some shade, and see what they do. I am not sure however, that it’s the heat – that’s just a guess. My other hive had a chance to air out for several weeks. This hive is brand new and may smell funny. My question is, I have been considering getting a new queen and replace the current one, since I imagine it’s her that has decided she doesn’t like the new hive? Perhaps a new queen would steer the hive mind to remain.

    I have considered moving some brood comb from the first hive to give to the swarm, however, it is also a new colony and has not over-wintered yet. I am loath to make them weaker for this crazy swarm. I checked the first hive at the end of June and they only had a bit of capped honey on the corners of a brood comb. They have built 2 partial combs for honey in the back, but it hasn’t been capped yet. Since it is so hot, the late summer blooming plants like Russian Sage, have already started blooming, so August looks like it may be slim pickings. Another reason I don’t want to borrow from my first hive and I know of no other TBH in my area.

    So, if you have any idea if a new queen could help or not, I would be glad to hear it. Also, any other ideas, if you have any, would be great.

    • Marti,

      That’s a hard call to make. The absconding is most likely due to the combination of heat and new wood. The hive is off-gassing and they are probably offended by the smell.

      Hive behaviors like swarming and absconding are controlled by the workers more than the queen. I’m afraid if you added a new queen they might abscond anyway, but it’s impossible to know for sure.

      The shade should help, but the addition of brood would help even more. I understand your hesitation to borrow brood from your first hive, but that’s what I would do. If you can get the second hive to stay, you can always replace the brood later.

      • Thank you. I wasn’t sure who was in charge of swarming/absconding in the hive – so that is good to know. Last Friday, I went in our swarms’s top bar hive. All of the combs had nectar in them. No brood, no pollen. I found the queen. Either she has decided (??) not to lay b/c she doesn’t like the hive, or maybe she is a virgin queen – but off a swarm, I find that unlikely. I ended up taking off my queen excluder (my time frame to leave it on was 2 weeks and I was a little shy of that) on Saturday morning. I decided to take your advice and the next morning added a frame of brood. So, I will wait and see what happens. So far (about a day), I have not seen but one bee bring back any pollen. If they are still here, I will go in the hive the next week, or two, depending if I can find a relatively cool day and see if there has been any progress. Thanks again for your advice.

      • Quick update. I added a comb of brood to my swarm hive and took the queen excluder off my TBH one week ago. This week I find the queen has started laying some brood of her own. So, knock on wood, putting on a queen excluder for 2 weeks and adding brood comb, has convinced my absconding swarm to hopefully stay……at least for now. Again, thanks.

  • Hi Rusty,
    How long is it necessary to leave the queen excluder in place when establishing a hive? And when removed; do the drones overtake the honey boxes above? How does the foundation /or no foundation change the amount of drones in the hive?
    Thank you,

    • Patty,

      1. When establishing a colony, I would not use a queen excluder.
      2. I don’t know what you mean by “overtake.” Drones will certainly walk around up there, but they don’t do any damage.
      3. If you use preformed worker foundation, you will have fewer drones than if you don’t use any foundation. If you use drone foundation, you can get more drones and/or you can concentrate them in one place. It all depends on what you are trying to do.

  • There is a school of thought strongly held by some but not all experienced beekeepers which says it is poor practice to extract honey for sale from brood chambers that have backfilled after the brood has flown. Others are equally adamant that there are no hygiene issues as the bees clean up after the brood has left and they prefer the flavours, which drone comb, in particular, adds to the honey. In any case, the honey is filtered before it is jarred.

    Can anyone advise on this?

    • Allen,

      I think there is no problem with eating honey from brood comb. By its nature, properly cured honey is exceptionally resistant to infection from nearly every pathogen, which is why so many cultures use it to dress wounds. Some papers even say it works against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Read “Four Ways to Slay Microbes” if you are unfamiliar with these biological systems.

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