My bees swarmed right after installation

This is most likely to happen when you install a package of bees in a brand new, never-been-used hive. 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 it may just be that the bees are not in love with the place, and they would rather live elsewhere. Technically, they have not swarmed; they have absconded. Swarming is colony reproduction that produces two colonies from one. Absconding means all the bees left in one cohesive group. In other words, it is still only one colony—not two—and it lives somewhere inconvenient for the beekeeper.

The problem is easy to prevent. 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.

To keep the queen home, you can leave her in the queen cage until comb-building is underway or you can use a swarm guard, which is like a queen excluder, across the entrance. Beekeeper Jim Withers pointed out that in Langstroth hives you can also use a regular queen excluder placed just under the lowest brood box. In any case, the queen should be released from her cage as soon as comb appears. Queen excluders need to be removed before any drones emerge.

I had several packages abscond at the prison where I taught beekeeping, all from top-bar hives. Since then, I always sequester the queen if the wood is new, or I install several bars 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. The following year you can rotate them out of the hives.


  • Rusty, just in case this helps… I salvaged some old boxes and frames from a damp abandoned basement, and went over them with a heat gun (paint stripper). Figured if it could boil propolis or wax, it would kill other scary stuff. The split I used some in is thriving.

    I got some more of them out to get ready for another split, and even now, a year after cleaning, if they sit in the sun there are sure to be honey bees around them, looking for food or just investigating the hive scents.

    So even if you’ve had to remove the comb, just using the frames might make your setup more attractive to to the package.

    We will find out this week. Just as you speculated, the city beekeepers who left 6 hives for me to look after all winter came and got them yesterday – well, the 4 that made it – because it’s “too far to drive” to harvest honey. I miss them, but mine (which I have to quit calling a “split”) is thriving, and I will be making a new split and putting in 2 packages this week. I think 4 is a nice number of colonies, don’t you? 😉 Thanks,

  • I just read a website yesterday that said new packages shouldn’t be installed in a hive with a screened bottom board or there is an increased likelihood for them to abscond. The article said once the colony had drawn comb and brood established that it would then be save to replace the solid-bottom board with a screened one. Have you ever heard of that? To play it safe, I followed the advice so we’ll see what happens, but I think the queen excluder under the bottom brood chamber should be “fool proof.”

    • Gerry,

      No, I never heard of that. I’ve never had a package abscond and I always use a screened bottom. From the bottom up, I put a new package in a hive on a stand with screened bottom, slatted rack, deep brood box with half the frames removed to make room for the package, feeder only if they don’t have frames of honey, screened inner cover, and lid. I leave the queen caged for a minimum of three days.

  • Rusty,

    We have been keeping bees in top-bar hives for 3 years. We try to do things as naturally as possible.

    We placed a new package of bees in a hive in mid-April and when we looked yesterday there were 6 capped supersedure cells. There are combs with pollen and nectar and only a little spotty brood. All signs of no queen or weak queen.
    We are unsure if this young hive would be able to wait for the process of the virgin queen emerging and taking her flight and returning to lay. We could give them some combs of brood from another hive without bees to help them maintain numbers? Would they have enough nurse bees to take care of the brood? Or should we get rid of the supersedure cells and buy a queen? Thanks for your help.

    • Nel,

      You could do either. If it were me, I would move a frame of brood and all the worker bees that are on it over to the queenless hive and let them raise their own queen from the supersedure cells. I like locally grown queens and find that they often do better than purchased queens. The extra bees and brood will help them get through the queenless period. Be careful not to move the queen from the other hive. She is easy to miss, so I like to find her so I know where she is for sure before I move a frame.

  • I just installed two new hives this week. After only one day, I noticed one hive seems to be doing great with lots of activity, the other however, had very few bees flying around outside, I couldn’t hear much when I listened next to the hive, etc. I opened that one up and found that nearly all the bees I installed are gone! There is a small cluster surrounding the queen cage, so I think the queen is still in there and alive (I haven’t verified this just yet) but I think the majority of the bees must have left. It is past mid-May now so I’m not sure if I even still have time to get another bee package but if I do, can I install another bee package in the existing hive with the current queen (assuming she’s still in there)? She will probably already be released from the cage by the time I could put new bees in the hive. Or would it be better to start with a new queen and begin the process all over, with waiting 3 or so days before release so the bees can adjust to her?

    • Stacey,

      You can add another package to the same hive, but the new package will come with a new queen. Alternatively, you could move a frame of eggs and nurse bees from the other hive over to the empty hive and see if you can get it going from that.

  • I installed a package in a new Warre hive. I’d finished the hive with tung oil a week or so before my bees moved in. After a few days, they swarmed. I don’t know whether it was the size of the hive or the smell of the tung oil, but as soon as they freed the queen, they left. I’d like to try keeping the queen in the cage, but have never done this before. How long can I leave her in there? Or how long does it usually take before bees start building comb? Like I said, I have a Warre and am foundationless.

    • Jean,

      A brand new foundationless hive is tricky. There is simply nothing “homey” about it, and it’s hard to keep the bees interested. So yes, keeping the queen caged until comb building begins is helpful. I see no problem with keeping her in there a week. Just make sure they have plenty of light sugar syrup to encourage comb building.

  • I installed packages yesterday. On my way to work I passed one of the hives but there was little activity at the entrance. It’s not a new hive. I have a full frame of honey and syrup and old brood comb in there to make it more like home. Temp this a.m. was around 51 degrees. Should I be concerned or are they just busy housekeeping. I don’t want to open the hive till it’s time to check If the queen has been released.

  • I just installed bees in new foundation less langstroth hives on Friday. This morning all my bees look like they are swarming. I haven’t checked if queen has been released yet. What should I do?!?!

    • Rose,

      When using brand new hives, I would not release the queen until the workers begin building comb.

  • Thanks for your response. I checked my hives and the hive that appeared to be absconding still has the queen in her slow release cage with only a handful of bees around her cage. The rest of the hive is empty! Why would the bees leave without the queen? My second hive is active…they are building comb and still haven’t released their queen. There seemed to be a lot of bees in there. Would the bees from the first hive join the second hive? What do I do? I now have a nearly empty hive with a queen still in her cage. TIA… total newbie here.

    • Rose,

      What you describe is very common. It seems that the queens with the strongest, most appealing pheromones will attract all the bees.

      If there are enough bees in the small hive to maintain the queen, you can release her and wait until the large hive has lots of brood frames. You can move some of the brood frames with worker bees adhering to them, and transfer them to the small hive. The adhering bees will stay with the brood and the hatching brood will stay in the new hive. Just be careful that you don’t accidentally move the queen.

  • Rusty, I took your advice and left the queen in the cage for a week. When I check on the hive, they had started building comb. After another week, they seem to be doing well. Thanks for the great advice!

  • I hived my bees yesterday evening. Did not get all the bees out as I was nervous. I put the package near the feeder/opening. Will they go into the hive or do I need to open tonight and try to get the rest in?

    • Tina,

      Most of the bees will eventually join the rest. Just be patient or shake the rest out onto the ground in front of the hive.

  • Hi.

    After struggling to install my package I seem to have found my queen but it seems like no brood is being made. Just capped honey and I see a few queen superseedures made that are empty at the bottom not sure where the queen is now when I checked again and I don’t want to destroy these if she is gone.

    • Alicia,

      If you have no queen and the supersedure cells are empty, you can’t hurt anything by destroying the cells. It sounds like you should order a queen from somewhere.

  • Hey thanks. I found the queen after some scrambling through frames. There is brood. I accidentally knocked one out (and feel like a monster) when I thought it was a queen cell.

  • Rusty,

    Should I use a slatted rack and screened bottom rack? I have read where you shouldn’t, then come fall/winter remove both and replace them with a solid bottom?

    I live in the Northeast.

    Thank you

    • Randee,

      I leave both the slatted rack and screened bottom board on all year. When it gets cold, I slide in the varroa tray in order to prevent cold drafts, and of course, the slatted rack keeps the bees further from the cold entrance—especially helpful in cold climates.

      Did the person give you a reason for that odd advice? Evaluate their reasons and see if they make sense to you.

  • Can you tell me why a newly installed hive [colony] would start making queen cells? Never seen this in 20 years of beekeeping! The queen that came with the package is lying well. Looks healthy. But the hive [colony] has made a lot of supersedure queen cells.

    • Kathy,

      Perhaps her pheromones don’t smell right or are weak. Something about the queen is making the workers uncomfortable, so they want to replace her.

  • I have a question and I could not find any information anywhere on this (and I looked). We put a new package of bees in (June 20th, 2021) and we put the entrance reducer on it (smallest hole), cause it was a new colony and they needed to be able to defend it. It turned hot, but I left the entrance reducer at the smallest setting. My question is: do you leave the entrance reducer on a new package of bees? Or do you open the hive up? I live in Georgia (USA) and I think my bees left because it became too hot in the hive (and other things, too). I did have a hole drilled in the top of the hive for airflow and we put sugar solution in the hive for the new package….

    • Elaine,

      The entrance reducer is a good idea for a new package. If you have a screened bottom board, the colony would have plenty of ventilation. In the future, you can also use a screened inner cover.

      Did the bees abscond (leave all at once) or did the colony dwindle away? There may have been more going on than just the heat.

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