absconding honey bee behavior

Gone! The Oklahoma colonies abscond

In an unexpected turn of events, the Oklahoma open-air colony I wrote about last week absconded from its nest. Even more surprising, the parent colony, the one that had lived for many years in the hollow of an oak tree on the far side of the pasture, absconded at roughly the same time.

Lorieann Bradley, who sent the original photos, told the story:

I am heartbroken! All of the bees have absconded! I have no idea why they left or where they went. I saw them every day when I fed my chickens.

On the 24th, when I saw that the comb was empty, I noticed a small swarm on the end of the limb about 6-7 feet away from the comb. It was terribly hot the last few days. I thought the bees may have gotten too hot, being crowded on the comb, and were spreading out to cool themselves off. Hoping they would go back to the comb when it cooled off, I went down to check on them after dark. They were still on the end of the limb.

Today, the 25th, there was not a single bee left on the limb! I did find just a couple of dead bees, and one barely alive bee on the ground. No sign of any others!

I made it a point to go across the pasture to check on the original colony… THEY ARE GONE!!!   No bees anywhere!

The question is why

This is nothing if not unusual. Absconding colonies are not very common, but to have two abscond at the same time is just plain weird.

When a colony of honey bees absconds, it is usually due to some uncomfortable condition. The bees may leave due to lack of food, frequent disturbance, loud noises, overheating, bad odors, parasites, predators, or the presence of chemicals.

Lorieann did mention the oppressive heat, and that is the only thing that seems to make sense, although we will never know for sure.

Honey Bee Suite


The open-air colony on July 21. © Lorieann Bradley.


Another view of the open-air colony on July 21. © Lorieann Bradley.


This group of bees was spotted on a limb near the open-air colony on July 24. © Lorieann Bradley.


Here is the open-colony on July 24. No one home. © Lorieann Bradley.


This is an earlier photo of the colony in the tree trunk. © Lorieann Bradley.


This is the empty hollow on July 25. © Lorieann Bradley.


  • To quote David Tarpy PhD:

    “No idea why or how, but bees are amazing in their complexity and ability to induce frustration!”

  • As you said, there is no way to know for sure at this point, but there may possibly have been heavy varroa infestation in both colonies. Both abscond at the same time, yes. But this time of year is the high point in normal varroa populations. I did not see slime evidence which would indicate small hive beetles overwhelming them.

    • Terry,

      True. But since it was a recent swarm, both the parent and the swarm had a brood break which aids in Varroa control. It doesn’t eliminate Varroa of course, but reduces it.

      • Terry and Rusty, would a Varroa infestation result in the bees dying or just moving? I found very few dead bees.

        • Lorieann,

          Usually a severe infestation will kill the colony because the mites carry viral diseases, and it is the viruses that finish them off. But often people think their hives absconded when, in fact, they died of Varroa. But however many mites these bees had, the colonies clearly absconded.

  • Hey Rusty,

    Okay, follow me on this one. The mother hive broadcasts a swarm in the spring, lands on the limb and establishes a new colony (open air). At the time of the swarm, there was sufficient food available while foraging for both because the spring-summer buildup was still underway.

    Now with the expansion of both colonies and the “competition for food” by both colonies, a problem may have arose, sustainability. Was there a dearth due to the high temps, lack of blossoming forage for both the colonies, lack of water for cooling etc. Should the above been the cause, then both colonies would abscond to search for “The ideal conditions”.

    I attended a lecture last month that was given by Dr. Jamie Ellis. The Honey Bee as A Super organism. One very interesting point he brought out was when honey bees forage and build up stores, they’re doing it in anticipation of a swarm, a propagation for this year (time permitting) or next year. There has to be a lack of a food source as the culprit, for both colonies realized they would not make it through the season let alone the winter. Now I don’t know what the farm layout and surrounding areas are in so far as a viable food source and most important water, but I would bet that that was the reason.

    Again, speculating, given the facts.

    Hope all is well!!! 36 supers on 8 hives this year, will send you pictures soon or check them out on Instagram Tonybees.

    Hope everyone’s having a great season!!!!
    Tonybees. 🙂

    • Tonybees,

      I love your analysis. Two rapidly-growing colonies, close together, in competition for scarce resources. Environmental economics at its best. In fact, the more I think about it, the righter I think you are. Thanks!

    • Tonybees,

      You bring up a very good point, competition for food! It is hay season around here and several nearby properties have recently cut their fields. These fields are mainly prairie hay and have some flowering weeds, but I would think it would not have much of an impact given the fact that there are also many properties that remain uncut.

      There is plenty of water available. There are two large ponds within a couple hundred yards of the colonies, along with water troughs for the livestock, bowls of water in several places for the cats and dogs when they are away from the house, tubs of water for keeping potted plants hydrated, water for the chickens …. water everywhere! 🙂

      The temperatures have been in the high 90’s and above. The day I noticed the bees leaving the open air comb it was 103, with a heat index of 109. The humidity was stifling! I’m aware that high temperatures can cause some plants to quit flowering.

      How far will bees go to get sustenance? I don’t know of any place within miles of here that would have a greater concentration of flowering plants.

      In the meantime, I keep my eyes and ears open, looking for bees dancing in the sunlight and listening for the faint hum of a new colony!

  • We had a swarm that stayed in the hive box a couple of days. They drank up a quart of sugar water then in 3 or 4 days they absconded. I was later told that we should have put at least a frame of brood in with them. Will do that next time we catch a swarm.

  • So interesting to hear about your absconded Oklahoma bees. I have two hives here in Oregon that were doing well. I took a trip and was away for 4 days and when I returned both hives were empty. Only a few straggler bees remained. I am heartbroken as well.

  • How very strange, but as all beekeepers know, just when you think you have begun to understand them, the bees confound you once again. I hope that this bee experience will spur Lorieann to think of having a few serious hives.

    • Jasmine,

      The colony in the old oak tree was there for many years. We often imagined the tree trunk filled with honey! They were left to go on about their business, doing what bees do. Never did we imagine that they would just up and leave!

      I think bees are fascinating, but there is so much more I need to learn before entertaining the idea of trying to be a beekeeper! Maybe someday. 🙂

  • The David Tarpy quote above explains it all. Three weeks ago, I split a large healthy colony and the one with the new queen left their new home and landed on a tree limb fifty feet in the air. Since then they have started building new comb and appear to be settled in. I have placed two baited swarm boxes near by with hopes they will move once again before our winter sets in here in NC.

  • I’m relatively new to beekeeping, coming to the craft from a technical background. I am, at times, frustrated by the lack of data in the field of beekeeping. We spend a lot more time looking in the rear view mirror than we do watching the traffic ahead.

    I wish I had a practical solution here — I don’t. It would have been nice to know the environmental conditions (at a minimum temperature and humidity), and whether or not this correlates to other absconding events.

    • Bob,

      I never really tried to learn about bee behavior until I discovered the open air colony that was forming above my chicken coops. I’m still in the action-reaction phase….. the bees act, I react (research the reason for the bees action)!

      The temperatures have been in the high 90’s to 103 (heat index of 109 that day), very humid, most days above 50%, scattered light showers on a couple of days. According to the local weather reports we have been experiencing slightly higher than normal temperatures.

  • That is so sad! I’m sure the bees had their reasons, especially the open air colony, but I hate to think the bees left their cozy hive in the tree. Is Lorieann going to leave the comb from the open air colony in the tree, or somehow harvest that? It’s so beautiful!

    • Miriam,

      I wish I had one of those tiny cameras I could lower down into the trunk of the old oak tree to see what the bees left behind! They had been in that tree for many years.

      The open air colony comb is a beautiful structure! I would love to preserve it somehow. I guess there is no reason to leave it in the tree, is there?

      If I can get up there to it, I will take some close-up pictures for Rusty to post.

  • Sad, in your last post it was a concern of exposure for the open air colony, but it seems it may have been the media exposure that was more worrisome to the bees…..

    • Mike,

      I actually wondered that, myself! The open air colony is right above my chicken coops. I am there every day putting out food and water. It is also not far from the shop/garage where we work on our tractors and hay equipment. It can get noisy at times.

      The colony in the old oak tree across the pasture is virtually undisturbed. We very rarely go to that part of the pasture.

      I did take a fair amount of pictures. Maybe they’re shy!

  • I’m in Wichita, KS. We had a hive in our maple tree for about 3 years. Multiple swarms the last 2 years. Then one day they were gone. That was about 6 weeks ago. Then this last Sunday I noticed a swarm way up in our tree!! Today they are gone leaving honey stacks. No idea where they went. The hive in the tree is almost cleaned out and looked like wax moths were in there. But there are bees robbing it. Wish I knew where they are so I could bring them back. Glad to know I’m not the only one experiencing this. It’s so bizarre.

    • Samantha,

      I’m surprised at the number of absconding stories. I always hear about a few each year, but not this many.

  • I can’t help but feel the original swarm may have been the bees’ way of tackling a problem (such as a large hive and limited food/water etc).

    But when the swarm settled close by, the situation actually got worse? So both colonies went looking for pastures greener.

    So sad 🙁 I just hope both colonies are safe and happy.

  • We are concerned about something similar happening to our new hive. We set up our first new hive from a nuc in late April. It seems that a significant portion of the hive tends to hang out outside of the hive. Is this normal or will they eventually leave like these did?

    • Todd,

      Hanging around on the outside of the hive, called bearding, is very common in hot and humid weather.

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