Absconding in Honey Bees

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Seemingly overnight, all (or almost all) the bees in the hive leave – they are gone. In beekeeping, we call this 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.

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.

Why do Bees Abscond?

Finding a beehive that was active a few days ago and is now empty, is especially upsetting to new beekeepers.

You walk out to look at the your hive with high expectations only to realize – the bees have left. Sometimes, the bees have left a hive full of honey!

When a colony absconds from the hive, all the bees may be gone. Sometimes, a 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.

This happens more often than you may think and the upsetting experience can cause beginning 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.

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

Possible Causes of Absconding in Honey Bees

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.

  • 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 – 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. Now, I love skunks (weird right ;).

This problem can be easily 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.

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Opening Hives too Often

While it is important to inspect your new colonies as needed- 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 in the Bee Yard

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. These colonies are already under stress.

Then, the pests move in. Infestations of varroa mites, hive beetles and other pests may cause the colony to relocate.

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.

Another issue that can aggravate your colonies into leave the hive as wasps and hornets? Do you have a large population of yellow jacket wasps attacking your weak hives? If so, 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 image.

Bees Leave The Hive Because They are 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 causes some new colonies to abandon the new hive box you just gave them.

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

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.

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 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 genetics.

How to Keep Bees From Leaving

Here are a few tips that can help the beekeeper reduce the likelihood of having your bees take off for parts unknown. These 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

Anchor in a New Package of Bees

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 realize a new beekeeper may not have this option.)

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.

Long mass of honey bees hanging from a limb image.

How is Absconding Different from 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. Often plenty of food is left behind and occasionally even some bee brood – in the case of pest infestations.

FAQs

What does absconding look like?

When a colony absconds most often the hive is left empty with nothing but comb. If the comb is neat and smooth, the bees may have left due to a lack of food. Wax cells with ragged edges may have been robbed out by other bees. In absconding, there is a lack of dead bees in the bottom of the hive.

How do you keep bees from absconding?

There is not certain way to prevent absconding in honey bees. However, good hive management to look for problems within the colony is an important step. For a newly installed bee package or captured swarm – giving them a frame with a little brood is a good plan.

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.

Finally

The reason for why your bees left often remains a mystery. And, it can happen any time of the year that the bees are active, even in the fall.

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.

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.