Bees Absconding from the Hive
When a colony leaves what seems to be a perfectly good home (other than swarming) we call it absconding bees. This is a sobering thing to happen to any beekeeper and it represents a significant loss. Even those of us who have been keeping honey bees for a long time don’t always understand why things happen. However, we must try to evaluate the situation and see if we can prevent further problems.
The beekeeper goes out to inspect a new hive. It is opened with high expectations to find – nothing. You are more than likely a victim of absconding bees.
It is 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 may be present- but no adults.
Where are the thousands of bees that were present a few days ago? This was a fairly active hive and now its empty.
This happens more often than you may think and the experience can cause new beekeepers to leave the hobby.
And, it doesn’t make us old beekeepers very happy either! Though we realize it is only one part of the beekeeping experience.
How is Absconding Different from Swarming Bees?
In both absconding and swarming, some bees leave the home hive. However, the difference is the amount of the population that is suddenly gone and the continuation of the colony.
Almost everyone has seen pictures of swarming honey bees. Swarms are the way in which a honey bee colony reproduces itself and creates a new colony.
A swarm in transition may hang in a large ball of bees from a tree. 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 swarming, all the bees to do not leave the hive.
In a hive that throws a swarm, roughly half the bees will stay in the old hive to carry on life in the mother hive. The swarm journeys to a new home to begin a new colony.
Swarming bees are splitting the hive into 2 parts and mainly happens in Spring and early Summer.
Absconding bees are leaving the hive completely (as a whole colony) to live somewhere else. Bees can leave the hive anytime that the bees are active, even in the fall.
Why do Bees Leave the Hive?
Despite interacting with honey bees for thousands of years, we still do not know everything about them. The reason for bees leaving the hive often remains a mystery.
But, experienced beekeepers can recognize common conditions associated with absconding bees. While we can not control our bees, we do not want to add to the problem.
Possible Causes of Bees Leaving Their Colony
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 bees.
- frequent disturbance from predator 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 or location
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 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.
Opening Hives Constantly Can Cause Bees to Leave
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 frequency of inspections.
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.
A High Level of Hive Pests Can Result in Absconding
Some of the absconding bee hives will be small, weak and unhealthy. These colonies were already under stress. Queen problems contribute to weak hives.
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.
Bees Leave The Hive Because of Discomfort
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 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 hive location contributes to bee satisfaction.
When New Package Leave
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 Bee Genetics Promote 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.
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.
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.
Educate Yourself about Bee Behavior
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 & 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.
Sometimes Bees Just Leave the Hive
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.
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. Drones cannot enter or leave the hive and young queens may slip through anyway.
Honey bees are 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?