Keep Package Bees or Swarms From Leaving

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The fun of starting a new hive can be ruined when the bees promptly leave. Why do package bees just leave sometimes? This can also happen with newly hived swarms. 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 keep new bees in a hive get off to a good start.

Reduced entrance of beehive to discourage a new colony of bees from leaving.

When bees leave what seems to be a perfectly good hive – we call that absconding bees. And there are several suspected reasons for this behavior. But, when a new bee colony leaves a new hive immediately – that can be especially perplexing.

Why Your Package Bees Left?

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. Honey bees are insects with life plans that may not match our goals.

New bee colonies being added to hives a package and a swarm.

We often hear of colonies that abandon hives full of resources – this absconding sometimes occurs in relation to a pest issue (perhaps Small Hive Beetles or similar pests).

Also, it is natural for colonies to produce bee swarms – especially during the Spring. Though in this case – some bees stay behind to continue the mother hive. All a part of Spring beekeeping.

But, arriving in the bee yard to find a newly hived colony has left – that is a special kind of beekeeper pain. Yet, it happens more than we might think.

Reasons Package Bees Leave

Having a newly captured swarm leave your bee box is disappointing. But, it is especially disturbing to buy a bee package and lose them. Your investment of ($150 or so) is suddenly gone!

Sadly, you may never know for certain why the colony decided to look for better accommodations elsewhere.

But, we do know of a few triggers that seem to play a role in new package bees leaving their hive.

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

Opening the Hive Too Much

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 everyday – or every other. This is not natural for the bees to have a giant taking the top off their home everyday.

Inspect when you have a reason, be gentle and don’t linger. Let them settle in and accept their queen before you try to look at every bee in the hive.

This is especially important for new colonies that do not yet have a good pattern brood pattern in the hive.

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Hive Smells Funny

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

No matter which paint you use – plan to assemble and paint everything a couple of weeks ahead of installing your bee packages.

Package queen cage installed in new hive .

Extra Queen in the Package

Bee packages are not true swarms. They are made by shaking excess workers (and drones) from large populous colonies.

Bee farm staff remove the queen from the populous colonies before shaking. Then, give a new queen to the package. But, sometimes mistakes happen and occasionally a loose queen ends up in the package of bees.

This happened to me one Spring. I had purchased several packages and as I poured one in the hive – I saw a loose queen (thankfully – she was marked). So, I had to use the caged queen in another colony.

If you have a loose queen, it is possible that the bees may just decide to leave. Why would they stay? They don’t know that lady in the protected queen cage.

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

Location Unsuitable

Overall, location doesn’t seem to play a major role in new bee colonies leaving a hive. But, if something nearby is a constant irritation-there have been reports of hives becoming empty. Some theorize that possibly very windy or very damp locations were not favored by the bees.

Fussy Bees – Release Queen and Leave

One of the most puzzling situations is when new bee colonies leave several days later. For a day or two, everything looks good.

Bees are installed – foraging bees are bringing in pollen. 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. As soon as the queen was released from her cage – they left.

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 – 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 Bee Colonies in a Hive

Here is a checklist of tips to use that should help prevent new bee colonies (packages or swarms) from leaving their new hive.

  • don’t rush queen release
  • prepare/paint equipment 2 weeks before bees arrive
  • give new colonies 1 frame of bee brood from another hive if possible
  • provide sugar water to bees – (new colonies) so they feel the location will support them
  • limit hive inspections to once per week
  • reduce hive entrances to 2″ or less
  • 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, workers eat the candy releasing the queen.

This gives the colony time to get used to the queen’s pheromones and accept her. This is necessary – before the queen can begin her role as leader.

Paint Equipment Well in Advance

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

And painting, gluing or painted beehive decorations should be completed a couple of weeks before you install bees. This gives nasty odors time to dissipate.

Frame of brood with bees from a hive to prevent new colony from leaving.

Give New Colonies Brood

Can you “borrow” a frame from another hive with a little brood. Some eggs or young bee larvae can be very effective.

If you have access to a frame of brood (baby bees) this is a big plus. This is one of the best ways (and my favorite) to keep a new 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

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

Resist the temptation to open the hive too much during the first weeks of colony life. Especially, do not rush to perform that very first hive inspection after installing your bees. They need time to settle and feel safe.

Bees entering hive with new colony with low population entrance is reduced.

Reduce Entrances

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

Use the Grid Insert

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 – it seems rather inhospitable.

Final Thoughts

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

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 hives.

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