When a colony leaves what seems to be a perfectly good home (other than swarming) we call it absconding. This is a sobering thing to happen to any beekeeper and it represents a significant loss. When keeping honey bees, we don’t always understand why things happen. However, we must try to evaluate the situation and see if we can prevent further problems.
Absconding bees are an unknown issue to new beekeepers until it happens. The beekeeper goes out to inspect a new hive. It is opened with high expectations to find – nothing.
All the bees are gone or at least most of them! A very few young bees and some pollen is present- but no adults.
Where are the thousands of bees that were present a few days ago? A previously active hive is empty.
The beekeeper has experienced absconding of a beehive and it happens more often than you may think.
This mystery can cause new beekeepers to leave the hobby. And, it doesn’t make us old beekeepers very happy either! Though we realize it is a part of the beekeeping experience.
Thankfully it does not happen to every beekeeper – every year. Nothing is more distressing to a beekeeper than finding an empty hive.
Often, the beekeeper has no idea why the bees have left.
Learning More About Bees
While we will never know everything about honey bees and why they do what they do. Learning everything you can does help understand more of their behavior.
And if you invest the time to study bee nature, it will be helpful in diagnosing some hive issues.
Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping, Revised Edition
Honey Bee Biology & Beekeeping is one of the best books in my beekeeping library. A good choice for a first or second year beekeeper who wants to learn more.
Absconding Bees vs Swarming Bees
How is Absconding Different?
Almost everyone has seen pictures of swarming honey bees. A swarm in transition may hang in a large ball of bees from a tree.
Swarming activity is very different from absconding. In swarming, all the bees to do not leave the hive.
Absconding bees are leaving the hive completely (as a colony) to live somewhere else. Swarming bees are splitting the hive into 2 parts.
In a hive that throws a swarm, roughly half the bees will stay in the old hive to carry on and half will journey to a new home.
Swarming happens mainly during the spring and early summer.
Absconding bees can leave the hive anytime that the bees are active, even in the fall.
Why does Absconding Happen?
Despite interacting with honey bees for thousands of years, we still do not know everything about them. Absconding bees are often a mystery.
Experienced beekeepers can recognize common conditions associated with absconding bees.
We can not control everything but we don’t want to add to the problem.
Possible Causes of Bees Leaving Their Colony
– frequent disturbances from predators at night.
The colony may be under attack from predators at night. Skunks and opossums eat honey bees.
Skunks will scratch at the hive entrance during the night. When bees come out to investigate, the skunk eats them.
This problem can be lessened by choosing a proper hive stand to raise hive off the ground.
If predators are a big problem in your area, perhaps you should consider putting some type of fencing around the bee yard.
The fence would deter predators or all sizes and perhaps keep away curious pets in the area.
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– over anxious beekeepers inspecting too much or too rough
While it is important to inspect your new colonies weekly, do not go into the hive every other day. If you do, you may find the hive empty on your next visit. And once the colony is doing well, you can reduce the number of inspections.
– aggressive ant species
Ants are attracted to beehives and cause considerable aggravation for new beekeepers. A small infestation of ants will aggravate the beekeeper more than the bee colony.
However in some areas, aggressive “fire ants” and other species can invade the hive.
This causes enough of a disturbance to create absconding bees. I try to eliminate fire ants with a granular ant killer.
Here are some other ideas for dealing with ants! (Click here)
Other Pests That Bother Hives
Some of the absconding bee hives will be small, weak and unhealthy. These colonies were already under stress. Queen problems contribute to weak hives.
Infestations of varroa mites, hive beetles and other pests may make the bees decide to search for a better location.
Do you have a large population of yellow jacket wasps attacking your weak hives?
You can make your own trap or buy one! All this stress contributes to unhappy bees.
Absconding Bees Leave The Hive Because of Discomfort
I encourage beekeepers to paint bees hives with a good latex paint. Complete painting several days before bees arrive. A strong paint or wood odor causes some colonies to seek shelter elsewhere.
Bees do not like hives that are damp with poor ventilation. Too much humidity increases the chance of chalkbrood and other related diseases.
Again, finding the best beehive location for your bees contributes to bee satisfaction.
A lack of forage is sited by some as a possible factor in absconding bees. This is unlikely in my area.
Everyone has a different climate so local conditions matter. Proper feeding during times of drought should prevent this cause of absconding.
A Word Of Caution – Package bees come with a mated queen (and her attendants) in a queen cage.
Once in a while, an extra queen will end up loose in the package from the supplier. If this happens, the bees may leave right away.
Less frequently, a new package of bees leaves as soon as they release the queen from the cage. It does happen and sometimes we never know why.
Do Genetics Cause Absconding
As with everything in beekeeping, sometimes we cannot stop absconding bees. Some races are genetically predisposed to move to another location.
African honey bees often abscond relocating to a resource rich area. Most of the honey bees in the US have a degree of Africanized genetics. As a beekeeper, practice good management and be at peace with the fact that you have done all you can.
Beekeeper Strategies to Keep Bees From Leaving
Whether you are a new beekeeper or one with years of experience, no one enjoys loosing a colony of bees.
It represents a loss of your hopes for the colony. There is also a financial loss associated with bees leaving.
Here are a few tips that can guide you to lessen the chances of this happening in your bee yard.
Choose a good location for your bee hives. Elevate the hives off the ground on a hive stand or similar item. Place hives in sunny locations with good air flow. If you have a heavy infection of predatory wasps, place traps near your bee yard.
Keep your colonies strong and healthy. Healthy bees are happy bees.
Control pests (such as mites) using the management methods of your beekeeping philosophy.
Do not give your bees more hive space than they can patrol. Match the bee population to the number of boxes you have on the hive.
Is there a lack of forage ? Are you in a drought with little natural nectar or pollen available ? Feed your bees if they need it.
Sometimes Bees Just Leave
It is most distressing when a new beekeeper loses bee colonies to absconding.
To bring home a new package of bees and find them gone a couple of days later is very upsetting.
One method I used to prevent absconding bees is the addition of a frame of brood.
When I purchase a new package of bees (yes I prefer packages over nucs) , I take a frame with a little brood from a mature colony and give it to the new hive.
I believe this brood helps anchor the new colony to the hive. I have never had a new package colony abscond, so maybe it works.
Now you know the difference between absconding bees and swarming bees.
Honey bees are wild creatures that are beyond our absolute control. I am not a fan of using queen excluders and other items to obstruct the hive entrance.