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How to Keep New Bees From Leaving

Starting up a new hive is an exciting time for any beekeeper regardless of their experience level. But, things don’t always go as planned. Imagine the heartbreak of going out to check on your new hive and they are gone! Months of planning and expense has flown away over the hilltops. While no one can guarantee success, there are some things you can do to help new bees in a hive get off to a good start.

Letting New Bees Settle in a Hive

Reduced entrance of beehive to discourage bees leaving.

Sometimes, it seems rather remarkable that you can place a family of insects in a man-made box and they stay to build a home.

This ability to prosper in wooden boxes is one reason that honey bees colonies are such great crop pollinators. Migratory beekeepers can move large numbers of colonies across the country to the fields where they are needed for pollination.

Anytime the beekeeper installs a new package of bees or a captured swarm, there are some things you should do. Then, leave them alone for a while and let them feel secure and safe in their new home. Otherwise, your new package may leave.

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Foragers Come and Go Everyday

Being outside the hive is nothing for our colonies. Worker bees spend the day foraging for nectar and pollen every day. Fortunately, most of them make it back to the hive.

However, new bees that are placed in a box may leave within the first new days. This situation is more common with packages or freshly captured swarms. They usually do not have brood or honey to leave behind. They may decide to try in another location.

When the unthinkable happens and a new beekeeper finds a hive empty, it is natural to blame yourself. Beekeepers do make mistakes whether you are new to beekeeping or have years of experience.

Why Bees Leave their Hive

Did you do something that caused your new bees to leave the hive you gave them? Yes, it is possible. But, that is not always the case.

In spite of years of bee research, we still do not totally control them. They are wild insects with life plans that may not match our goals. There are a couple of situations where bees leave the hive for good.

  • swarming
  • absconding

Swarms

Swarming is a natural occurrence in honey bees. When a colony grows strong, it may “cast a swarm”. This can happen any time during the warm season but early Spring is the most common swarm season.

A bee swarm usually involves about half the population of the colony leaving to start a new home in another location. But, the remainder of the colony stays in the original mother hive.

The mother hive retains some of the colony population, food stores, developing brood and a some queen cells.

New swarm of bees in tree image.

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Whole Colony Absconding

When a complete colony of bees suddenly leaves, we call this absconding. In absconding, no or very few bees remain in the hive. This is usually due to pest issues or other conditions that the colony disliked. 

There may be a few left-over members of the colony that were late to mature or unable to fly. However, the hive is basically empty. Thankfully, this does not happen often.

Reasons New Bees in a Package Abscond

Having a newly captured swarm leave your bee box is disappointing. But, it is especially disturbing to lose a new package of bees. They are not inexpensive and thus your $100 or more is suddenly gone!

Often, we never know for certain why the colony decided to look for better accommodations. But, we do know of a few triggers that seem to play a role in package bees leaving their hive.

  • frequent disturbance by beekeeper
  • equipment with paint smell or odor
  • poor hive location
  • extra queen in a package
  • fussy bees

An overzealous beekeeper checking inside the hive daily to “see what’s happening” may cause the bees to feel unsafe. There is no reason to open a hive every day – or every other.

Inspect when you have a reason, be gentle and don’t linger. This is especially important for new colonies that do not yet have a good pattern of bee brood in the hive.

Did you assemble and prepare your equipment well ahead of installing the new colony? Beekeeping equipment painted at the last minute -still smells strongly of fumes. Bees are very sensitive to smell.

If everything else is good, location doesn’t seem to play a major role in bees leaving. But, if something nearby is a constant irritation-there have been reports of hives becoming empty.

Package queen cage installed in new hive image.

Extra Queen in the Package

Packages are not true swarms. Commercial bee packages are made by shaking excess workers (and drones) from large populous colonies.

Bee farm staff remove the queen from the populous colonies before shaking. But, sometimes mistakes happen.

If you have a loose queen, (in addition to the protected one that comes with your package) it is possible that the bees may just decide to leave.

Don’t over-stress about this. It is not a common occurrence but it is one possibility for why package bees are gone the next day.

Package Bees Release the Queen and Leave

Your new package is installed and everything looks okay. The next morning, you see bee flight in front of the hive. Foragers are bringing in colorful balls of pollen on their hind legs. All is well in the bee yard.

Then, a few days later you notice a lack of activity. You open the hive to find “NOTHING”. All of the bees are gone – including the queen bee that has been released from the cage!

Thankfully, this doesn’t happen a lot either but it is more likely to happen if the queen is released too quickly.

And sometimes, things happen that the beekeeper can not control-such as having bees that are just unhappy about being moved and are anxious to travel. These fussy bees just refuse to settle in.

Tips to Keep New Bees in a Hive

  1. don’t rush queen release
  2. prepare/paint equipment 2 weeks before bees arrive
  3. give new colonies 1 frame of brood from another hive if possible
  4. feed new colonies so they feel the location will support them
  5. limit hive inspections to once per week
  6. reduce hive entrances to 2″ or less
  7. if using screen bottom boards-consider leaving the grid board in for a few weeks

Don’t Release the Queen too Quickly

Most beekeepers (myself included) allow the queen bee to be released naturally. The queen cage will have a white candy substance in one end. Over the first few days (3-5) workers eat the candy and allow the queen to exit.

This time period gives the colony time to get used to the queen’s pheromones and accept her. You can wait a bit to mark your queen if you wish to do so.

Paint and Assemble Equipment Well in Advance

Prepare your beehive weeks before your new package arrives. Make sure your box doesn’t smell funky.

Painting the hive and any gluing of parts should be completed a couple of weeks before you install bees. This gives nasty odors time to dissipate.

Give New Colonies a Frame with Brood

Do you have other beehives in your bee yard? Can you “borrow” a frame with a little brood. Some eggs and young bee larvae can be very effective.

If you have access to a frame of brood (baby bees) this is a big plus. Honey bees are very serious about raising young. This is one of the best ways (and my favorite) to keep a colony in the hive.

It is rare for even new bees to leave healthy brood. If you are a new beekeeper without other hives, maybe you can buy a frame of brood from another beekeeper. If getting brood is not a possibility – just make sure you follow some of the other tips in this article.

Feed New Colonies to Encourage Build Up

Most new bee colonies can benefit from some feeding – at least in the beginning. Feeding packages can be especially helpful for the young colony with no resources.

Internal mason jar feeders are one of the best methods. While their population is low, they will not have as many foragers.

But, even an external bucket feeder can be a boost. Having plenty of food for the growing hive help promote a sense of stability.

Limit Beehive Inspections at First

Resist the temptation to open the hive too much during the first weeks of colony life. The bees need time to settle and feel safe.

Once the queen is laying a decent brood pattern (even a small amount) package bees (or swarms) are less likely to leave the hive.

Entrance reduced to protect colony and encourage new bees to remain in hive image.

Reduce Entrances on New Colonies

In nature, bees tend to prefer nesting sites with smaller openings. This is due to their need to defend the hive against predators.

Reducing your hive entrance to a smaller opening is beneficial for a new colony. This helps the colony feel safe. And, it prevents other insects from trying to steal from your feeder.

Use the Grid Insert Below Screened Bottom Boards

Honey bees are very adaptable but in nature they would not normally live in a cavity with an open bottom. If you are using screened bottom boards, slide the grid board in for a couple of weeks until the colony settles into their new home.

I have never had a problem when leaving the screened bottom open with a new package. However, it doesn’t hurt to put that grid in for a while – just in case.

Using an Excluder?

Locking the queen up inside the hive is a technique that some beekeepers use with success. A strip of metal queen excluder is attached to the front of the hive for a few days. Once the hive has settled in, it is removed.

I am not a fan of this method. First of all, sometimes young small queens can get through the excluder.

Also, the excluder traps drones inside or outside of the colony. I don’t use this method in my apiary. It seems rather inhospitable.

The more you learn, the better beekeeper you will become. Strive to make the colony feel safe, give them time to settle in and you will increase your chances of having success with your new bees.

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