Absconding in Honey Bees

Pinterest Hidden Image

Honey bees absconding from their hive is a perplexing event for beekeepers. Going out to a hive that was busy and full or bees yesterday – now it is empty! That can be quite a shock. This represents a significant loss to the beekeeper and presents somewhat of a mystery. Why, we don’t always understand why honey bees abscond – there are some common factors to consider. In this guide, I share with you some of the most common situations where absconding occurs in bees.

Empty beehive with only a few workers after colony absconded.

As time goes by, everyone learns that beehive management is not always about getting the bees to do what you want. More so, it involves trying to understand why bees do what they do. If you can, this makes you a better beekeeper.

Why do Bees Abscond?

Finding a beehive that was active a few days ago and is now empty, is especially upsetting to new beginning beekeepers. Your first thought may be – what did I do wrong? And, maybe you did do something wrong! But, maybe not.

When a colony absconds from the hive, all the bees may be gone. Sometimes, a few young workers may be left behind and even some bee brood. Sometimes, bees leave a a hive full of honey!

While we don’t always understand why this behavior occurs, we do know some of the triggers that seem to be present in these situations. Honestly, it happens more often than you may think. So, don’t beat yourself up – yet 😉

Beekeeper with skunk and beetles inspecting hive for causes of absconding bees.

Possible Causes of Absconding Honey Bees

Lets review some possible reasons for a honey bee colony to abscond. Of course, we will probably never know for certain in each case – but these situations often accompany absconding.

  • frequent disturbance from predators at night
  • over anxious beekeepers opening the hive too much or being rough
  • aggressive ant species in the bee yard
  • very high level of hive pests
  • bees are uncomfortable with hive
  • poor ventilation
  • bad beehive location
  • bee genetics

Predators Disturbing Hives at Night

The colony may be under attack from predators at night. Skunks opossums and raccoons eat honey bees. They scratch at the hive entrance and when guard bees come out to investigate – they are eaten.

Now, I love skunks (weird right ;). This problem can be solved by choosing a proper hive stand to raise the hive off the ground. The bees are protected and your back with thank you someday.

If large predators are a problem in your area, perhaps you should consider putting some type of fencing around the bee yard. An electric bear fence can keep them away and can deter other types of predators too.

Opening Hives too Often

While it is important to know how to inspect your beehive– do not go into the hive every other day. This is not normal and it will affect the progress of your colony.

If you do trouble them too much, you may find the hive empty on your next visit. Try to minimize the disturbance when you do look inside. A little cool white smoke from your smoker and a quick gentle inspection is best.

Bee smoker with cool white smoke and an open beehive.

Aggressive Ants

Ants are attracted to beehives and cause considerable aggravation for 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 (Argentine Ants) can invade the hive. This causes enough of a disturbance to force bees to abscond and seek better living conditions.

I try to eliminate fire ants with a granular ant killer and inventive beekeepers come up with other ways to keep ants out of their beehives.

High Level of Pests

Sometime honey bees leave their hive due to being small, weak and unhealthy. Already stressed when pests move in (varroa mites, hive beetles ,etc ) may cause the colony to abscond.

The beekeeper can help prevent this by routine varroa mite testing to see if treatment is required. And, by using hive beetle traps as needed.

Do you have an very large number of predator insects near the hives? What about wasps and hornets? If you have a large population of yellow jacket wasps attacking your weak hives- make your own wasp trap or buy one – give your bees a helping hand! 

Most of these conditions on their own are not necessarily a big problem. But, all this stress contributes to unhappy bees.

Person painting a new hive with yellow paint.

Bee Colony is Uncomfortable

I encourage beekeepers to paint bee hives with a good latex paint. However, complete painting several days or weeks before bees arrive. A strong paint or wood odor may cause bees to abscond.

This is especially true if the new hive is from a package. And, I do have other tips to try to keep new package bees from leaving the hive.

Poor Hive Ventilation

One of the interesting characteristics of honey bees is their ability to control conditions inside a hive.

They do not like beekeeping supers that are damp with poor ventilation. Too much humidity increases the chance of chalkbrood and other related diseases.

Sometimes we beekeepers try to keep our colonies “too warm”. Hives need good ventilation. Don’t wrap them up too tight. Upper entrances and even screened bottom boards may help the bees help themselves.

Langstroth beehives set up on hive stands in apiary.

Bad Hive Location

The importance of a good hive location can not be overstressed. An area that is near food and water sources and protected from high winds is the goal.

Foragers need to be able to come and go without being disturbed by people, traffic or other things that annoy them. They need to feel secure in their home.

Do Bee Genetics Promote Absconding?

There are many different genetic profiles in the races or types of honey bees that we keep in managed hives. Some races are more genetically predisposed to move to another location – if they are a bit unhappy.

A perfect example, Africanized honey bees often abscond relocating to another resource rich area. This is how they survive in their original homeland. Most of the honey bees in the US have a degree of Africanized “killer bee” genetics.

Strategies to Prevent Bee Absconding

Here are a few tips that can help keep your bees in their hive. Most are just good basic beehive management practices.

  • choose a good hive location
  • elevate hives off the ground on a stand
  • place hives in sunny locations with good air flow
  • if predatory wasps attack your hives – place traps nearby
  • keep your colonies strong – good productive queen
  • control pests
  • if lack of forage – provide bees with sugar water
  • when installing swarms or new packages – give them a frame with some brood if you can

What to do if Your Hive Absconds

If you find that you are a victim of absconding bees, look back at your beehive records and try to find any noticeable problems. Perhaps, you can look back and see some problem that did not stand out at the time. If so, can you correct it?

Save any valuable resources in your hive. Depending on the time of year, you might be able to catch a bee swarm or even buy a new hive.

If the colony left behind frames of drawn comb, I would store it to protect it from wax moths. As long as the colony shows no signs of disease, this comb will be valuable for a new colony.

Swarm of bees in a tree and an empty hive after bees absconded.

Absconding vs Swarming

In both absconding and swarming, some bees leave their home. However, the difference is the amount of the population-that is suddenly gone. With absconding, no sustainable population is left.

Swarming activity is very different from absconding. In a hive that throws a swarm, roughly half the population will stay in the old hive to carry on life.

The swarm journeys to a new home to begin a new home. Absconding bees are leaving the hive completely (as a whole colony) to live somewhere else.

FAQs

What does absconding look like?

When a colony absconds most often the hive is left empty with nothing but comb. In absconding, there is a lack of dead bees in the bottom of the hive.

How do you keep bees from absconding?

There is no 100% strategy to prevent absconding in honey bees. However, good hive management strategies to keep the bees comfortable is an important first step.

Why would bees abandon a hive?

The most common reasons honey bees abandon a hive: something about the hive displeases them (odor), they do not feel safe (too many inspections or bothering from predators) and pest problems.

Final Thought

Bee absconding can occur at any time of the season – even in the Fall. While we can not control our hives, we do not want to do anything that adds to the problem. If your bees leave, rest assured that they had a reason – even when we are left to wonder why. Sometimes, we have to let the bees be.