For a new beekeeper, discovering that your honey bees have abandoned the hive is a pretty alarming event.
You went to all the hard work of setting them up in a lovely new snug home, and then they vanished from one day to the next!
Or maybe things seem to have been going well, when suddening, vamoose !
If you lose bees in this way, the best you can do is examine the situation and learn from the experience. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to recapture the departed bees.
However, bees absconding from a hive is a unique problem that can be anticipated and avoided if you know what to look for.
What is absconding (in honey bees)?
The term absconding describes bees leaving the hive and relocating to a new nest area. They completely abandon the nesting site to start afresh. They will often leave behind honey and brood in the hive.
This can occur at different times throughout the season and for various reasons. But in general, this happens because the bees have deemed the hive to be unsuitable for sustaining the colony.
The hive will be almost entirely empty, but the colony will abandon young bees who haven’t yet learned to fly. They will also leave honey stores and brood.
But be reassured absconding is not a common occurrence. You might encounter this someday, but only on rare occasions.
Also, don’t confuse absconding with a swarm. These two events are very different…
Difference between swarming and absconding
Swarming occurs when the queen leaves the hive with up to half the colony’s population. Whereas absconding bees will leave the hive almost completely empty.
When bees abscond, this is not the same behavior as swarming.
A swarm of honey bees displays their innate desire to reproduce. Absconding bees, on the other hand, is a result of some kind of stress.
Absconding is a sign that things are not going well and that the health and well-being of the colony are at risk. In extreme conditions, bees prefer to abandon the hive and try their luck someplace else!
Beekeepers usually try to prevent swarms for many good reasons, but a swarm is actually a positive sign of growth.
Why do bees abscond?
There are many reasons why bees abandon a hive. However, this is usually due to a series of stresses on the colony or because the bees consider the beehive to be unfit. New beehives that have never been occupied are more prone to absconding than older used hives.
Exactly why bees choose to abscond is not entirely understood. However, some of the possible causes include:
- A new beehive or nuc box
- Repeated disturbances
- Food shortages
- Hive beetles or other parasites
- Pesticides or exposure to chemicals
- Problems controlling the temperature inside the hive
- The nature of your bees
Or maybe they just don’t like your yard?
Bees could be suffering from one or several problems simultaneously. Poor health, a weak colony, or unsuitable conditions inside the hive are all factors that contribute to absconding.
Something interesting to keep in mind is that absconding happens mostly in new hives. This is because brand new hives or nuc boxes haven’t had time to develop a homely “hive odor.” This can be tricky when you’re a completely new beekeeper. But most seasoned beekeepers always use elements from old hives to make a new box feel more inviting.
Disturbing a hive too often with repeated inspections or other disruptions such as loud noises are thought to contribute to this problem. In addition, predators like yellowjackets or mice and infestations from parasites can make conditions inside the hive untenable.
For example, once a colony has been infested by small hive beetles, the colony typically abandons the hive leaving the mess behind them.
Similarly if the environmental conditions inside a hive become uncomfortable (moisture or temperature for example), bees could eventually prefer to abandon the beehive in search of a better nesting site.
Finally, most European bees used in apiculture are more docile in nature and less likely to abscond. Absconding is more a characteristic of Africanized bees. If you captured a swarm, they could have been africanized honey bees (AHB).
Africanized bees are avoided by US and European beekeepers because they are more tricky to manage. They abscond more easily because they evolved in harsh habitats where food can quickly become scarce. They easily abandon a nest in search of new food resources.
How do you tell if bees are absconding?
Some signs occur before the bees abscond. They don’t just leave on a whim.
Once the bees have sensed the need to quit the hive, they begin preparing. The queen stops laying. You might notice that the queen bee gets thin and slender in preparation for flight. Honey stores will be consumed, and the worker bees will stop foraging.
A lack of new brood, diminishing nectar and honey stores, and changes in the queen’s appearance could all give you a clue.
Why do bees abscond in the fall?
Fall absconding is not normal behavior and is a sign that something has gone wrong in the hive. This usually happens because of a health problem, insufficient food, or robbing.
Probable reasons for absconding in the autumn include:
- An overcrowded hive gets too hot
- Predators like wasps and ants
- A nectar dearth combined with a lack of stores
- Infestations of hive beetle of wax moth
At this time of year, you have no new beehives, and colonies have had time to build up resources.
By the end of summer, the colony is at its peak, and space in the hive is most limited. If climatic conditions remain hot, this can make the interior environment challenging to control.
Furthermore, the nectar flow declines during the fall, and honey bee populations dwindle. Slowly the queen stops laying in the brood chamber, and older bees die off. This can leave a previously strong colony in a weakened state.
A strong colony can usually fend off problems, but predators and pests will more easily infest a weaker colony.
Some beekeepers claim absconding in the fall takes place because varroa mites have gotten out of control. Varroa populations increase as the number of bees increases. But in the fall, bee populations decline, leaving more mites than bees! In this case, what appears to be absconding is very likely the result of varroa colony collapse. Bees that are ill will fly off and die. Dead bees are removed and deposited away from the hive. A large colony of bees can fail quickly over the space of a week.
If honey bees abscond in the fall, the chances of surviving winter are meager. They have no stores or honeycomb and no time in the season left to rebuild a hive. They would also need nectar and pollen sources to feed on and to start making honey. Without these resources, they also cannot produce wax.
Bees absconding in winter
Low temperatures and freezing conditions can cause bees to abscond during the winter months.
Bees have been known to survive temperatures as low as 28°F (-2°C), but if they cannot sustain the heat needed to keep the queen warm inside the hive, they may decide they have no choice but to up and leave!
They won’t survive outdoors, so rehousing the bees in a different beehive is essential.
Bees abscond in spring.
Absconding in the springtime often occurs because the bees cannot settle in a new hive. Bees do not like fresh wooden hives. They prefer secondhand hives that have a familiar smell.
You could try coating the inside of the hive with a mixture of melted beeswax, propolis, and old honey to improve its attractiveness. Alternatively, an old frame with comb provides an appealing scent.
Also, if you are installing a new package of bees, make sure there isn’t a second queen accidentally roaming around and causing havoc!
How to prevent bees from absconding
Good beekeeping management practices can help prevent bees from abandoning a hive. First, look for signs of absconding bee behavior. If a problem is spotted in time, you can take action to remedy most issues.
Absconding can be tricky to predict.
Keeping in mind that, by and large, bees abscond in new hives, here are some ideas to help avoid absconding:
- Inspect regularly for signs of poor health. Since weakness or illness is one of the critical factors in absconding, timely intervention from the beekeeper reduces the
- Keep the queen inside the hive. For new colonies, prevent the queen from leaving a new hive by putting a queen excluder on the bottom of the brood box. Or keep her in the cage until the workers have started building wax comb.
- Put some used comb inside a new hive. The scent will make them feel at home.
- Make sure the bees are well fed. In times of dearth, a large colony will need supplemental feeding. Light sugar syrup will also encourage a new colony to build comb.
- Locate your beehive correctly. The morning sun helps “wake” the bees up, but a hot afternoon sun can cause overheating, especially in a weak colony whose numbers are insufficient to cool the interior.
- Raise the hive off the ground. Putting beehives on a stand can help protect them from certain types of predators.
- Avoid disturbances. Don’t run lawnmowers past your hive or use other noisy machinery nearby. The bees dislike the vibrations.
A final note about new hive boxes and nucs. Some beekeepers enthusiastically paint their new boxes to protect them from the elements. However, do NOT paint the inside of the box. The chemical smell from the paint or other sealants can be overpowering for bees.
What to do after bees abscond.
If you can recapture the departed honey bees, try to relocate your bees to a different hive. Do not put them back in the same hive box, or they will just abandon the hive again.
You might be left with honeycomb in the empty hive. Do not use this in other beehives. There is a risk that the comb is diseased, and that was one of the causes for abandoning the hive in the first place.