Oftentimes, what we describe as absconding is actually collapse from varroa mites. Some of the confusion is due to the speed at which the collapse occurs and the size of the affected colony, which may be huge. In addition, the act of absconding is rarely seen and the colony is seldom found.
But this week I heard from two beekeepers in Los Angeles who actually watched their colony leave the hive and disappear. The colony was known to have mites because varroa-bedecked dead bees had been recovered from their swimming pool. Other aspects of the hive also look like varroa collapse, including a small circle of shot brood and plenty of honey left behind.
John and Jen Petrovich did a thorough write-up of what they saw, and I thought it was fascinating. With their permission, I’m posting their story below along with some photos. The text was edited for clarity.
If you have any insight as to what happened, we would love to hear from you.
[Note: This post updated on 11/16/2017 with additional photos.]
Witnesses to an absconding colony
“My wife and I are backyard beekeepers and actually witnessed an absconding yesterday, November 12. We wanted to share what the experience was like and also give a few complicating factors. Here are the details:
We trapped a feral swarm in April by setting up an old hive body and supers in our backyard. The colony grew very fast. We had an exceedingly hot summer here in Los Angeles, so there was lots of bearding and apparent overcrowding in the hive. It was a two-box stack—both full size—with a queen excluder in the middle. In an attempt to give them more room, we put another small box under the queen excluder and a second full-size box above it.
Varroa mites were present
The bee traffic in and out of the hive was phenomenal all summer long and they were putting up lots of honey in the honey dome above the excluder. We have a swimming pool, and when inspecting the bees that fell into the pool, we noticed that some did have varroa mites on them, but by no means all. (No scientific sampling done, just looking at random dead bees). We decided not to treat (It’s hard to do in California anyway, without an applicator’s license).
By the middle of October, we noticed the in-and-out traffic was significantly lower. We weren’t disturbed by this because we know there is usually a drop off in the late summer/early fall. We saw the same foraging behavior, just not as heavy. This was the case even up to Saturday this past weekend: plenty of bees, plenty of activity in the hive working on the honey super, etc. The last hive we had survived for over 3 years and there never seemed to be any problem for them finding sources of nectar and pollen. There’s always something blooming year-round in LA, and we grow a lot of plants in our garden that provide a good source right near the hive.
A bee cloud forms and leaves
Yesterday morning, we noticed that a small “bee cloud” was forming in front of the hive. This was new behavior, so we watched it throughout the day. By about 4 pm (about an hour before sundown) the bee cloud expanded and the entire backyard (about a 50′ x 50′ area) was full of bees just flying around randomly, so many that you would not be comfortable anywhere in the backyard without being suited up (normally not the case).
As it got closer to sundown, the extended bee cloud in the entire backyard began to dissipate, but in looking at the hive continuing into the early evening after sundown, we witnessed a steady stream of bees leaving the hive. They would walk out the hive opening, up the face of the hive to the top of the stack of boxes, and then take off (even though it was quite dark in the early evening). By 9 pm there was very little activity in the hive, and the normal “hum” of the bees was all but gone.
Inside the empty hive
We opened the hive up this morning thinking that we might find that it was a varroa mite-induced colony collapse after reading this article and the other one you posted about varroa mites. What we found left us scratching our heads. Above the queen excluder there was a ton of honey left behind, probably about a gallon and a half of honey in the top box of the honey dome and none in the next one down, just some comb being built out. Only a few dozen bees left in the upper supers, apparently ones that didn’t get the memo on the evacuation. This is consistent with what you wrote about a varroa induced colony collapse.
When we got down below the queen excluder, though, the story was completely different. As we pulled out frames from the half super and the original full hive body box, every bit of comb was absolutely clean, no honey, no pollen, and very little brood left behind. All very clean and neatly uncapped, none of the evidence that the honey was cleaned out by parasites, no moths, no beetles (we found 3 or 4 beetles, but no evidence of an infestation or damage to the comb). No bees at all left in the hive body, and no dead bees in the bottom of the hive. If we looked just at the hive body, we would swear that it was a textbook absconding.
Anyway, that’s our story. We’d be interested in your thoughts. We decided to write when we read in your article that very few people actually have witnessed an absconding, so we wanted to contribute to the knowledge with what we saw.
None of us are perfect beekeepers, but we strive to do our best based on our individual skills and knowledge. I greatly admire folks like John and Jen who are willing to share experiences so that we all may learn and develop our abilities. I especially appreciate the opportunity to see something I haven’t seen before, so thank you. —Rusty.