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Bees Absconding-Why Bees Leave The Hive

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A sobering situation for any beekeeper is finding an empty hive. When all the bees in the hive leave, this is called absconding. This represents a significant loss to the beekeeper and presents somewhat of a mystery. We don’t always understand why honey bees abscond but there are some common factors to consider.

Absconding in Honey Bees

Empty beehive with only a few workers after colony absconded.

This is especially upsetting to beginner beekeepers will little beekeeping experience. Going out to look at the your hive with high expectations only to realize – you are a victim of absconding.

All the bees are gone or at least most of them! A very few young workers and some pollen may be present- but for the most part the only thing left is comb and maybe some stored food.

Where are the thousands of workers that were present a few days ago? You had a fairly active hive and now its empty.

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This happens more often than you may think and the upsetting experience can cause new beekeepers to leave the hobby.

Honestly, finding any empty hive doesn’t make us old beekeepers very happy either! But, we realize it is only one part of the beekeeping experience and better days will come.

Long mass of honey bees hanging from a limb image.

How is Absconding Different from Swarming?

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

Almost everyone has seen pictures of swarms. Swarms are the way in which a honey bee colony reproduces itself and creates a new colony. If you are a beekeeper, perhaps you have been involved in catching a bee swarm or two.

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 colony.

Absconding bees are leaving the hive completely (as a whole colony) to live somewhere else. Often plenty of food is left behind and occasionally even some bee brood. This situation can happen any time of the year that the bees are active, even in the fall.

Despite interacting with honey bees for thousands of years, we still do not know everything about them. The reason for colonies leaving the hive often remains a mystery.

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But, experienced beekeepers can recognize common conditions associated with bees absconding. While we can not control our hives, we do not want to do anything that adds to the problem.

Possible Causes of Absconding Behavior

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

  1. frequent disturbance from predators at night
  2. over anxious beekeepers opening the hive too much or being rough
  3. aggressive ant species in the bee yard
  4. very high level of hive pests
  5. bees are uncomfortable with hive
  6. poor ventilation
  7. bad beehive location
  8. bee genetics

Predators Disturbing Hives at Night

The colony may be under attack from predators – especially at night. Skunks and opossums eat honey bees. Though opossums are not thought to be a major threat and they do eat ticks.

Skunks will scratch at the hive entrance during the night. When guards come out to investigate, the skunk eats them. This problem can be lessened by choosing a proper hive stand to raise the hive off the ground. 

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 deter other types of predators too.

Opening Hives too Often

While it is important to  inspect your new colonies as needed- 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 frequency of inspections.

Beekeeper with gloves inspecting a colony image.

Aggressive Ants in the Bee Yard

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 (Argentine Ants) 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 and inventive beekeepers come up with other ways to control common ants in beehives.

High Level of Pests

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 colony decide to search for a better location. Controlling varroa levels is always important and most beekeeping in beetle country use hive beetle traps.

Do you have a large population of yellow jacket wasps attacking your weak hives?  You can make your own trap or buy one! 

Most of this 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 image.

Bees Leave The Hive Because They are Uncomfortable

I encourage beekeepers to paint bee hives with a good latex paint. Complete painting several days or weeks before bees arrive. A strong paint or wood odor causes some new colonies to seek shelter elsewhere.

Wood smells, paint smells and don’t forget glue – all of these can be irritating to our odor sensitive honey bees. Give those new hive components time to air out.

Poor Hive Ventilation

Bees do not like hives 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. Bees must control internal hive temperatures to protect growing brood.

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 bees. They need to feel secure in their home.

Do Bee Genetics Promote Absconding?

As with everything in beekeeping, sometimes we cannot stop this bee behavior. 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.

How 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. Here are a few tips that can guide you to lessen the chances of this happening in your bee yard.

  • 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 queen bee
  • control pests – mites
  • if lack of forage – feed your bees

Prevent New Colonies from Absconding

It is most distressing when a new beekeeper loses bee colonies to absconding. To bring home a new package and find them gone a couple of days later is very upsetting. 

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.

I am not a fan of using queen excluders and other items to obstruct the hive entrance.  Drone bees cannot enter or leave the hive and young queens (or those slimmed down to swarm) may slip through anyway.

Beehives contain wild creatures that are beyond our absolute control.  If your bees leave the hive you provided for them, rest assured that they had a reason – even when we are left to wonder why? Practice good beekeeping skills and understand that sometimes we have to let the bees be.