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, your bees might leave
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 might leave for other reasons
I like to divide absconding into different categories 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.
Honey Bee Suite