You are a brand new beekeeper. Three days ago you proudly installed your first package of bees according to directions that you read a dozen times. Today, covered in protective gear from head to toe, you open your hive to make sure the queen has been released from her cage.
What you find is shocking. The queen has been released all right, but every last bee is gone. Missing. AWOL. You are heartbroken. What happened? What did you do wrong?
Absconding is rare in European honey bees
Simply put, your bees absconded. They checked the place out but decided to look for something better. I like to compare it to house-hunting: you walk in a place that looks okay from the outside, but inside you are not quite comfortable. It’s not terrible, but it’s not you . . . so you keep looking.
Absconding can happen any time of year, triggered by things such as lack of food, frequent disturbance, loud noises, overheating, bad odors, parasites, predators, or the presence of chemicals. Regardless of all the possible reasons, absconding is rare—it doesn’t happen very often.
Of all the absconding colonies I have seen or heard about, the vast majority left brand new hives. It’s not because the beekeepers are new, it’s because the hives are new. New wood has certain odors, as does new plastic. New hives do not have that homey, lived-in smell that bees seem to crave. As a result, they often leave the first chance they get. A colony placed in a new hive is like a swarm hanging from a tree—the bees have options, they are not tied down, they can leave whenever they like. And sometimes, they do.
Bees rarely abscond from used equipment, so seasoned beekeepers seldom consider it. I can’t even remember the last time I installed bees in a completely new hive, but it’s a fact of life for new beekeepers who are starting with a package instead of a nuc. Hardly seems fair, does it?
How to prevent absconding
So how can you prevent your new package from leaving? Here are a few suggestions that may help:
- Do not paint the inside of your hive. If you already did paint it, let it air out completely before installing bees. New paint smell may overwhelm any other attributes of their new home.
- The same is true for new wooden or plastic hives and frames: let it all air out to dissipate the smells as much as possible.
- Do not let the queen self-release. Instead, wait until the workers have started to build comb and then release her by hand. Once the furniture is arranged (new comb is in place) the bees are less likely to leave.
- You can put a queen excluder under the brood box so the queen cannot leave. Don’t forget to take it out after a few days, however, because drones won’t be able to go through it either.
- While morning sun is a good thing, afternoon sun may cause the temperature to spike inside the hive. When the colony is just getting started, it may not have enough members to keep the place cool.
- Put the hive on a hive stand so it is less likely to be bothered by skunks or other hungry predators.
- Do not open the hive more than necessary, especially in the first few days.
- Do not run a lawnmower, rototiller, leaf blower or other loud equipment near the new hive. Once a colony is established, it will put up with these disturbances on occasion. But early on, when the colony is first settling in, any of these annoyances may cause it to leave.
- Used comb, even just one, can go a long way toward making your bees comfortable. If you have a disease-free comb, by all means put it in your new hive.
- Feed syrup. The presence of syrup will stimulate the workers to build comb, and the sooner you have comb, the less likely your bees will abscond. If possible, spike the syrup with a scent they like—a drop of lemongrass or anise oil works well.