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Why did your bees leave their hive?

You just installed a package of bees in a brand new hive, but the bees don’t seem settled. You check on them the next day and they are the same. Then on the third day, everything is quiet. No sounds come from the hive, and no big-eyed faces peer through the entrance. When you remove the lid you find the hive is empty with only a handful of dead on the bottom board. What happened? Why did your bees leave? Are they coming back?

When all your bees leave, we say they absconded

We often hear about absconding colonies. Absconding is the term applied to a colony of bees that abandons its nest. Unlike a swarm, which divides the colony into two parts, an absconding colony leaves the hive “lock, stock, and barrel.”  The whole colony disappears and, no, it’s not coming back.

While the definition of absconding is pretty clear, I like to pigeonhole absconding colonies into three different categories. These are not “official” categories, but they help me visualize what is going on.

1. House hunting

The first, and most simple, is the one I just explained. I call it “house hunting.” Your agent just showed you a new home that is available. You take a look. You don’t like it much, but you think on it for a day or two. Ultimately, you decide to look for something else.

2. Environmental stressors

The second type I call “environmental stressors.” For some reason, a colony is not thriving or it feels threatened. Something in their environment is making the bees restless, and rather than endure it one more day, they decide to leave. Environmental stressors come in many forms. Repeated loud noises, bad smells, too much beekeeper interference, predators such as skunks, or parasites such as small hive beetles all can cause your bees to leave. The colony simply says “enough is enough” and goes in search of a better life.

3. Death by a thousand cuts

The third kind of absconding I call “death by a thousand cuts.” Every fall, hundreds of beekeepers claim their bees absconded when, in fact, the colony collapsed due to varroa mites and the viruses they carry. Some beekeepers call it progressive absconding or altruistic suicide. Instead of all the bees leaving together, they leave one by one. They are so uncomfortable, or so sick, they try to escape. Some die right away, some drift into other colonies. But regardless of where they go, to the beekeeper, it appears the colony absconded. The colony was large last week, but the next time you look, it is gone.

When house hunting goes awry

Since folks in the northern hemisphere are busy installing packages, let’s look more closely at what may cause a failed installation. Previously I published a detailed list of things you can do to prevent absconding from new hives, so check that out for ideas. In the meantime, bear in mind that absconding in spring (house hunting) is often caused by a few minor details that are easily fixed.

  • First on my list is new wood. Something about sparkling, freshly-milled lumber clearly turns them off. It’s easy to install into an old beat-up hive and hard to install into a new one.
  • Bad smells such as off-gassing from paint, primer, wood preservatives, glue, or plastic can send bees running. It may be the odor itself, or the smells may interfere with in-hive communication. In any case, let your newly painted hives air out as long as possible before adding the bees.
  • Sometimes packages contain an extra queen who is running around free while the purchased one is still in a cage. When it happens, the package may take off with the free queen, leaving the other queen behind.

Other things, too, can cause a package to abscond, but I think these are the most common. (For other reasons, see the detailed list.) So how can you prevent your bees from leaving?

Things that hold the bees in place

Here are some things you can do to encourage your bees to stay. I say encourage because you can’t really force honey bees to do anything that’s not on their agenda.

  • Nothing on Earth will hold a colony in place more than brood. If you have other colonies with brood, borrow a frame of it to anchor your package in place.
  • Second best is old dark, brood comb. As unappetizing as that may sound, bees love it. Comb that is really old can have a build-up of pathogens or pesticides, so use some judgement. Just using a year-old brood comb from a healthy colony can work wonders.
  • Most brand new beekeepers are without brood or comb. In that case, keep the queen caged until comb building begins. Even a few square inches can help keep the colony in place.
  • When you install your packages, consider shaking the bees through a queen excluder. If there is an extra queen in there, a queen excluder can find her.
  • Some people paint the inside of the hive with a thin layer of beeswax to give it a homey smell. I haven’t tried this but I hear it works.
  • You can also place a queen excluder between the lowest brood box and the entrance. This will keep the queen (and the drones) from leaving and can help hold the bees in place for a few days. If you use this method, be sure to remove the queen excluder as soon as the colony is settled in, a few days at most.
  • A frame or two of honey or a syrup feeder also helps to keep the bees home. If the weather is still cold where you are, use a feeder that goes inside the hive, preferably above the cluster, where the liquid feed will stay warm. If the feed gets too cold, the bees can’t drink it. A baggy feeder works great for this short-term purpose.
  • Keep the hive feeling secure and cozy by keeping the entrance reduced and the ventilation at a minimum. Don’t use screened inner covers or screen bottom boards without drawers until the colony has settled.

When your bees leave for other reasons

One of the reasons I like to divide absconding into different categories is because each calls for different management. If your established colony is stressed due to environmental conditions or varroa mites, none of the suggestions listed here will do any good. For now, concentrate on a successful installation and don’t worry about the other problems—at least not for a couple of weeks.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Don't let your bees leave. Let new wood air out completely before installation.
New bees on new wood require special handling. Flickr photo by Chiot’s Run.

Comments

Robert Callahan
Reply

Rusty,

Just what I do……..with new boxes/deeps I put together, I “smoke’m” or lightly burn them on the inside giving a slight odor of a burnt out log. Seems to work great.

Rusty
Reply

Robert,

Good idea.

Craig
Reply

Also, I recall a youtube video Where they hived a swarm. It absconded, then came back TWICE. The second time the bees stayed. it was hilarious. Probably either Dirt Rooster or JP. Naturally, I can’t find it just now.

On a serious note, I’ve always heard that you should keep a new package locked in for 2 days. Lets them get acclimated. Not sure how effective it actually is but it doesn’t hurt anything and it seems reasonable.

Rusty
Reply

Craig,

I don’t think I’ve ever kept a package locked up, but it’s a good idea. I’ve haven’t purchased a package in many years, so I kind of forget some of the details.

john zone 5
Reply

Rusty, how did your bees overwinter? I lost two of three hives. I believe I was not aggressive enough with mite treatments. The living hive is doing great. On the bright side, I have a lot of honey for the two new packages. Have a good season. Thank God warmer weather is finally here; it has been a terrible spring.

Rusty
Reply

John,

I had a good year and overwintered eight of eight. I’m also glad spring is here.

Michael Skeels
Reply

Nice job Rusty. And isn’t that two years with no losses?

Rusty
Reply

Michael,

Actually, I had zero winter losses in seven of the last ten years. Two years it was 80% and one year 50%.

Sharon Klemm
Reply

I had this experience a few years back with packaged bees. Everyone was set up and life seemed grand. I look at new packages everyday (just looking from the outside) to see that bees are moving in and out and it appears normal. One morning I went out to take a look and one hive was really, super quiet. Still bees going in and out, but certainly not the hustle bustle, of the day before. The hive next door however, was bursting at the seams with bees. I decided to open the quiet hive and take a look. The queen was still there with a handful of workers, but things were not so good in there. I concluded that most of the bees moved next door to the hive that I named Irma’s Big House (bc of all the bees in there). This I thought was a little weird as why would they move anywhere without a queen, and Irma’s absolutely had a queen in there. This is also the hive that was there one day September, 2017 and totally gone the next. (That was a hard find.) Anyway, that little colony lost its queen. She left. I looked everywhere to see if I could find a dead queen, even all around on the ground to no avail. Altho I probably should have dumped the remaining few into Irma’s, I left them and ordered a new queen. As you can well guess this was an epic fail. There were not enough bees to keep brood warm and forage and tend this new queen. I tried to help them along to see if I could get them going again, moved them into a tiny box, fed them, the whole thing, but I guess I was doing science experiments in the end. The lot of them eventually died, which I think was helped along by Bald Faced Hornets who decided to bother them. I won’t repeat that process again, but it was interesting that Irma was running an OK colony and then overnight that population exploded, courtesy of the neighbors. I moved my hives away from each other after that, just in case they get an idea cooked up in their heads that the house next door is preferable to their own. I lost all my hives this year, so I am starting fresh with packaged bees from the south, something I am thinking more and more is a bad idea and cannot help but wonder if the genetics of those bees is such that this northern climate is too much for them??? However, not a lot of northern apiaries that are in the package bee business so it is what it is. Anyway, May will be interesting and I would really like to move them through the winter this year. That would make me happy.

Myrna Warren
Reply

Last fall we lost all 3 of our bee hives because of all the smoke from forest fires in the North Carolina area. The smoke lasted 2 or 3 weeks and was very thick. the bees left honey in the hives and no more than a dozen dead bees were left. There was nothing we could do to prevent this since the smoke covered such a large area. This spring we had a hive to swarm. We caught the swarm and put it in a box with some old comb and a frame with some brood. They stayed 4 days and swarmed again. They had really made up their mind to find another home. Sometimes the bees are just strong willed.

Cal
Reply

Here’s an easy way to make new wood smell like home to honey bees; put those blobs of propolis you remove during inspections / frame scraping in a jar and pour in denatured alcohol. Make it as concentrated as you like. Mine looks like strong tea. Slather it inside new boxes / swarm traps / whatever with a chip brush. The alcohol evaporates completely within a few hours, leaving s thin varnish of proplis.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Cal, (Rusty,) this sounds very clever, but I’ve a question. Alcohol is “denatured” with some addition to the ethanol to make it undrinkable — a bittering agent or some other additive. Wouldn’t a flavorless vodka be better, (though spendier) in case the additive leaves a repulsive residue? Or do bees not seem to notice?

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

Whenever I’m using alcohol around bees (or around people) I use EverClear. The stuff they put in denatured alcohol is poison, so I don’t use it for cleaning propolis off my skin or camera either. Excellent point. EverClear is also good for making tincture of queen.

Hippie
Reply

You haven’t priced denatured alcohol lately that stuff is 10 bucks a quart. I think I’ll go get a bottle of everclear…in a brown paper sack of course…. Southern Mississippi Baptist… I do cutouts and find lots of propolis, in fact recently the hive I pulled had covered insulation with thick propolis that I saved. I had 3 hives before winter last year but failed to check on them or feed them and lost them. This year I have done 5 cutouts and have 2 more in one house to do this week and I have lost all but my last one (no queen, overheated, stacked overheated hive on a good one, sucked up to much insulation killing over half in the vac) stupid things like that. I have learned a lot of what not to do. I will be coating the inside of the boxes real soon.

Cal
Reply

Glen,

Nah – they don’t seem to care. Typical denaturants for ethanol are volatile solvents such as methanol, acetone, and ethyl acetate. My gallon can of denatured alcohol says it contains ethanol and methanol. Both evaporate just fine, leaving no residue. I’d save the Everclear for other purposes. You can toss all those mixed scraps of propolis and wax into a plastic paint bucket (new from the store), cover with denatured alcohol and the lid, soak as long as you like and then strain through a cheesecloth, pantyhose, or paint strainer. That separates the solids from the propolis, which is dissolved in the alcohol. Rinse the solids (mostly wax) with clean alcohol if you like, let it dry completely and then process it however you do for recovering wax.

I don’t know if bees would be repelled by a bittering agent, were one present. What I use doesn’t have one.

Of course, this solution of propolis in denatured alcohol should never be consumed or used for any medicinal purpose.

Vince
Reply

Sometimes the package bees are leftover from large transported bees to California, etc. And owners do not want to fork out money to bring back to say Florida. Some of them are probably diseased. So they are bought at a great discount say in Mississippi and made into packages. So buyer beware. What do you think Rusty.

Rusty
Reply

Vince,

I have run into unscrupulous package dealers and queen sellers. I think most operations are above board and proud of their products, but you can always find the other type too. So yes, buyer beware.

Mikey N.C.
Reply

Rusty,

A few years ago , I did some crush and strain. After all honey was strained, I took wax and put in ss colander in a 13×9 pyrex dish in oven and melted off wax. What’s left in colander is this dark goo, that gets hard like wax. I saved this in zip-lock bag. With new boxes I build or swarm boxes, I heat in microwave enough to soften and rub on inside of box. Haven’t had a problems.

Rusty
Reply

Mikey,

That sounds like it would work well. All the stuff in the slumgum (dark goo) is what attracts bees to old comb.

Peg Davis
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I installed two new packages a few weeks ago. Checked about a week later and found both queens.

Although I am seeing bees coming and going I am not seeing them bringing in any pollen. Should I be concerned?? I have been feeding sugar water. I also have one over-wintered hive that has been bringing in some pollen. I am located in the Northeast (MA) and the weather is finally getting warm.

Peg

Rusty
Reply

Peg,

I would not be concerned. Give them a chance to get established and build some comb. They will be fine.

CHRISTINA CLEVENGER
Reply

We had a bunch of bees in a wooded area we were so happy when a new swarm cane in and our one loaded hive became two.. Much to our demise a bear has annihilated both hives sending what few bees were left packing. The conservation tells us to move the hives to a remote area and install an electric fence ( made special for bees) around the hives. My question is will the bees be happy if you have several hives clustered together? And will they ever come back?

Rusty
Reply

Christina,

Several hives clustered together is fine. The colonies that left due to bears will not likely come back.

CHRISTINA CLEVENGER
Reply

OK thank you very much. I’m extremely sad because of the growing bear population I cannot keep the hives throughout our woods but will have to isolate them to an open area around an electric fence…

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