If there was any question that bees are truly wild animals, then their ability to up and exit without leaving a forwarding address should settle that.
Absconding is when the queen and all her loyal subjects clean out the stores and migrate to a new home. This shouldn’t be confused with swarming. Swarming is the reproductive process of colonies.
One colony becomes two when the old queen takes some (approximately 40-70%) of the workers and begins a new colony at a different location.
At the original hive, a new queen will emerge from one of the swarm cells, mate and begin her royal duties. Swarming is natural, absconding is induced.
Now, there are mysteries that the bees like to keep to themselves, and this may be one of them.
Though we may not know all the reasons bees go AWOL, we have managed to spot some clues.
4 Common Reasons Why Bees Abscond and Leave the Hive
1. They Didn’t Like the Crown Moldings
Bees are quite free-spirited. You can coax them to do your bidding, but you can’t force them.
When you capture a swarm and put them in a hive, it doesn’t guarantee that they will stay.
They’re probably keeping their options open.
In actuality, the scout bees are out there looking at real estate options even as you move them into your trendiest bit of lumber in your side of the state. So, you may do everything right.
You will retire in the evening having patted yourself on the back for a job well done.
Then, when you decide to pay your new tenants a visit the next day, you find your hive empty. This could also happen with package bees.
Sometimes the new smell puts them off. Bees have been known to prefer old hives to new ones.
That “new-car-smell” does nothing for bees. Actually, it would seem that it repels them. They like the tried and tested structures.
If they move into a hive with some old brood comb, they settle. It’s almost like they are picking up where they left off at their previous home.
2. Lack of food
Have you heard of the term “hangry”? That’s when you’re hungry and angry.
As you can imagine, these two sensations can come together and lead to some pretty explosive behavior. For bees, it’s time for a major change.
A lot of beekeepers notice that their bees abscond in the fall. One of the reasons could be that there simply isn’t enough food for them.
If you harvested a good portion of honey and the fall blooms don’t deliver for whatever reason, the bees are going to find themselves in a precarious situation.
They could stay and starve or take their chances and find a better nesting site that’s closer to a food source.
This is not an impulsive decision for them. If they decide to leave the nest, then they have to prepare.
The queen has to stop laying eggs so that she can get back her flight figure.
They also clean out their stores and may leave a few members behind, but it would be just a handful of recently emerged bees who haven’t had their flight lessons.
You may also find a little brood as well, but not much.
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees of survival once they leave so they are at the mercy of mother nature, and she can be cruel.
3. Pests and Harassment
Home invaders can be very stressful to the bees.
Ants raid the hive to enjoy the honey stores and sometimes feed on bee larvae as a source of protein. Bees are a target because they are so enterprising.
Yellowjackets can also be violent culprits. It’s not enough that they rob the hive and kill the young. They also fight and kill the adults.
Then you have the sneaky invaders. These are the small hive beetle and the wax moth.
Now, a healthy and vibrant colony will be able to expel these trespassers.
Unfortunately, if your hive has been weakened by disease, a failing queen or even swarming, then the invaders can do a lot of damage.
If they overwhelm the colony, the bees may choose to beat a hasty retreat and take their chances elsewhere.
We also have the mammal invaders. That includes the skunks and even you.
Yes, your constant visits every few days can be very stressful to the bees.
Skunks can cause agitation by consistently scratching the hive trying to find a way to the bee larvae.
Your enthusiasm which involves ripping the roof off the hive several times a week will cause a feeling of insecurity.
We can’t talk about invaders and pests without mention the Varroa Destructor mite.
Now this one is tricky because the collapse of a colony can be confused for absconding.
This is because the mite to bee ration can be overwhelming for the bees in the fall. Collapse can happen in a matter of a few weeks.
This means that you can lose the colony between inspection visits.
Drastic changes in the immediate environment of the hive could also cause the bees to migrate.
Sometimes you choose a perfect site to set up your hive. Unless you are a commercial beekeeper, you may opt to put up your hive on someone else’s land.
If they choose to change the landscape around the hive, then your hive could lose its appeal.
Perhaps you had set it up so that the shadows of the trees provide the bees with some protection from the afternoon sun.
If they chose to cut down those trees, the hive is exposed to temperatures that the bees didn’t sign up for.
If the colony is small, it will be very difficult for them to keep the hive cool in the summer.
That could contribute to their decision to abscond. Is the area around the hive well-drained or does it get very humid?
That too could cause the bees a great deal of discomfort.
How to Prevent Bees from Absconding
In order to prevent bees from absconding, it is important to think like a salesperson.
When you wander into a store willing but not fully convinced that you will actually buy a product, and then end up leaving with it 10 minutes later, it’s usually due to good salesmanship.
It’s exactly the same for bees.
You can’t save them all, mind you, so should they leave, don’t beat yourself up too much. Just try to learn from the experience.
If you have just received your first package of bees, your priority is to feed them enough for them to start building comb.
If they don’t build comb, they have no incentive to stay. To facilitate this, you need to keep the queen imprisoned until they have built comb.
If you allow them to release her as usual, then they can all decide to find a new home.
Without her, they are unlikely to leave so you will have to keep the cork in until the workers have begun construction.
As you do this, keep feeding them until your sure that the forage in your area is sufficient.
Your packages could arrive a little earlier than nature can handle so you have to provide nourishment.
Give Them Brood
If this isn’t your first hive and you have another healthy colony in your apiary, borrow some brood from them.
Bees will not walk out on a homecare job.
Ensure that they have enough food, either from the environment or by providing syrup and pollen patties to help with the care of the brood.
Use a Queen Excluder
Another option is to place a queen excluder between the brood box and the bottom board.
This allows the workers to go in and out of the hive, but the queen shall not pass. Since they won’t leave without her, it will buy you some time.
This is a temporary solution because it also keeps the drones from leaving the hive.
Once the workers have drawn comb and have begun bringing in pollen, then it’s safe to remove the queen excluder.
Use Old Brood Comb for Installing Packaged Bees
If you can get your hands on some old dark brood comb, that can be another option for you.
I don’t know what stories the comb tells but it seems to keep the bees’ wandering urges at bay.
Getting a drawn frame of it, or placing it on a new frame using a rubber-band, can save you some grief.
How About a Wax Finish for the Hive Walls
Another option would be to spread a thin layer of wax on the inside of the hive.
We do this with plastic foundation sometimes to encourage the bees to draw comb on it.
I think it’s the equivalent of that baked cookies smell that makes a house homier.
Early Diagnosis of Disease and Infestation
If the problem has been caused by pests, then this is likely to be a painful lesson.
What works best is preventing the invasion in the first place.
When you get your next colony, use entrance reducers to help the guard bees inspect all patrons seeking admission.
The smaller the area they have to guard, the more successful they are at it. This works for invaders like yellow jackets.
For wax moths and small hive beetles, you need to diagnose what is weakening the hive in the first place that prevents them from keeping these invaders away.
If the colony is healthy and vibrant, they are quite capable of taking care of these guys themselves.
A screened bottom board with a varroa drawer can also help with the small hive beetle.
If the issue is a disease, usually brought on by a mite infestation, once again, prevention is better than cure.
Remember that even though you should keep an eye on your bees, inspecting the hive every few days can cause them to vacate the premises without so much as a farewell.
What to do When Bees Abscond
Let’s go through this using best-case and worst-case scenarios.
So, the bees have left the hive. But wait, what’s that spherical buzzing thing in a nearby tree? It’s your colony.
You caught them just in time.
Since we are being optimistic, the bee ball isn’t 20 feet in the air. It’s easily accessible and now you have a second chance to get things right.
The first thing you want to do is capture the swarm.
Once you get it into a nuc or the old hive, you need to find the queen and put her in a cage. Why?
If you don’t, there’s no reason for them not to try to leave again. Since they won’t leave without her, keeping her in a cage buys you some time.
If the issue was food, then you need to load up on syrup.
If the issue was the environment, you need a new spot to place your beehive.
The area should be well-drained, protected from direct winds that can chill the colony, and safe from big lumbering predators like bears and skunks.
If everything seems okay, then evaluate your beekeeping practices and see if you might be the problem.
If, unfortunately, the swarm is gone and all you have left is an empty hive, it’s time for a full evaluation.
Look at the hive left behind. Is it newly constructed?
If so, you should let it air out a little longer. Bees are not fond of that new timber smell.
If you painted your hives recently, let them dry out a little longer.
It isn’t clear if the objections that the bees have to the smell are due to the smell itself, or if it has to do with interfering with pheromone communication in the hive.
Either way, they don’t like it so you need to respect that.
If the colony was well established, look through the debris left behind. Can you see any mites? Are there signs of other pests or disease?
The results will help you take proactive measures to keep your bees healthy and happy.
They say if you love something, let it go. If it comes back to you, then it’s yours.
Bees don’t care at all for that saying.
If you love them, keep them healthy, give them their space and protect them from their enemies.
If they leave, they won’t come back.
The good news is, you can try again with a new colony, but the rules will remain the same.