WHY DID MY BEES LEAVE?

Why Did My Bees Leave?

Often when a new beekeeper loses a colony, I hear them claim that the bees “just left”. The thought is that the bees simply moved out and are still alive in another location. This rationale is typically followed up with bafflement as to why they would have left, a shrug and then good wishes to the bees in their new home. Unfortunately, the reality is that bees abandoned their hive when conditions became unbearable and when bees do this, they don’t typically have the resources to survive long afterwards.

Swarming vs. Absconding

First, let’s define the two scenarios in which bees leave their hive and clear up some of the confusion surrounding these two terms: swarming and absconding. I often hear new beekeepers use “swarming” to describe an event that is actually absconding. It’s important to understand the difference because they are not the same thing.

Swarming is when a portion of the colony leaves the hive with the queen to create a new hive in a new location. When this happens a significant number of bees will remain in the original hive, raise a new queen and continue to thrive. Although many beekeepers view this as an undesirable event (because it can result in a lower honey yield for the beekeeper), it is not an indication of poor health. It is a natural biological function designed to propagate the species. When your colony swarms, all you need do is make sure they have a new queen either by letting them raise their own or by installing one for them. Sometimes, after swarming, the new queen fails and your colony can end up queenless. See my article Signs Your Colony is Queenless for tips on how to recognize this.

Absconding is when the bees completely abandon their hive. All or almost all of the bees leave the hive along with the queen. They may leave behind young bees, who cannot fly, unhatched brood and pollen. This is an indication that something is wrong. Bees can abscond for a number of reasons, the most common being: lack of forage, ant invasion or a heavy mite load. However, there is one scenario, unrelated to health, where bees will abscond: a freshly caught swarm! It is not uncommon to catch a swarm and then have them leave the following day. Swarms are not yet an established colony and have nothing invested in their location (no combs, brood or honey). Therefore, it is easy for them to pick up and leave and they will do so if their new home isn’t to their liking. The fickle nature of swarms is not usually an indication of their health.

It is worth mentioning that sometimes a colony will “swarm itself to death”. I have seen this many times with Africanized bees. The bees send out a high number of small swarms, weakening their original population with each one. Eventually, their original population becomes so small that it cannot survive and the colony fails.

Why Did My Bees Leave?

Recognizing Signs of an Unhealthy Colony

So, how can you keep your bees from absconding? The answer is to monitor their health, recognize when they are struggling and intervene if necessary. You can accomplish this by performing regular hive inspections. I recommend that new beekeepers inspect their bees once every 2-4 weeks, but not more often than that. Too many inspections can stress out your bees and cause health problems. When you inspect your hives, it is not enough to peek in and blindly assess their wellbeing. You must understand what you are looking for to make a real assessment of their health. This can be an overwhelming challenge for new beekeepers, but if you want to succeed you need to make the effort to learn. Hands on classes and mentorships are an excellent way to learn about your bees, but good teachers are not always available and there is a lot of conflicting information out there. If you enjoy my teaching style, you might benefit from taking my online beekeeping class, which goes over the basics of understanding colony health. I also have a handy Inspection Notes printout  to help guide your during inspections. For now, here is a breakdown of what you will find in your hives prior to them absconding. If you catch these early enough, it is possible to save the hive.

– A spotty, unhealthy brood pattern

– A shrinking population

– Bees with deformed wings

– A high mite count

– A lack of honey stores

– Empty combs

– Beetles or Moths in the combs

– Ants in the hive

Usually a weak hive will exhibit one or more of the above problems. It is common for one problem to lead to another. For example, a lack of food can limit a hive’s population and result in both a smaller workforce and empty combs. If the hive does not have enough bees to defend these combs, they can quickly become infested with moths or beetles. If you find a “lack of honey stores” on your list of issues during an inspection, feeding your bees can sometimes resolve your other problems. If feeding does not seem to help after a few weeks or if your bees are exhibiting some of the above problems, but have ample honey stores, more drastic measures may need to be taken, such as requeening. Document your colonies symptoms with notes and photos and begin to research what might be ailing your bees to determine the best solution. If you’ve already lost your colony, take the time to study what remains and try to figure out why they may have failed. That way, you won’t repeat the same mistake with your next hive.

33 Comments

Rich Veum

would love to take the online beekeeping class but I live in the wilderness of Big Sur and have only limited internet access/bandwidth. Do you by chance sell a DVD or other version?

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Charles Rivers

Very informative article on absconding, but a month too late for me. I am a new beekeeper, started this past March here in NC. I spent two years studying on beekeeping getting ready for starting when I retired. I must say that I was overwhelmed with the skills required in beekeeping and the large amount of bad information that is available on the internet. Back in the forty’s when my dad had bees all you had to do was put them in a box that keep them dry and make sure that they always had access to food. I must admit that I spent too much time studying the different methods of beekeeping and not enough time on the basic of bee health.
I started out with two hives, did two splits, one swarm removal and one trap-out. I had two hives abscond in the last month. One was from a split and the other one was from a trap-out that I had done from a hollow tree. I now know that I did not give the bees the attention that they needed (was afraid that I would disturbed them by going into the new hive too often). Both hive left due to an infestation of wax moths. At first I thought that the moths move in after the bees left, I now know better. Another mistake that I made was placing my hives under a nightlight that was attracting the moths. I am an urban beekeeper and had no choice due to limited space for the hive location. Not only do I have a nightlight, the neighbors on both side have one. Once I realized what a was moth look like and confirmed the damage done by the infestation of the hives, I have taken steps to help the remaining hives, by install moth traps in the area and checking the hive more often.
BTW I have started spending more time reading the publication on your site and that of Dave Burns in Illinois still loving my bees.

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Hilary

Hi Charles, I would look a little deeper into this. On the surface it often looks like moths are to blame for colony failure, but a healthy hive can control moths in their own. Something made your hives weak and then they weren’t strong enough to deal with the moths. A Trapout is often very weak because they’ve lost all their comb. You sometimes have to feed them or give them frames of capped brood from another colony to boost them. If your split failed, I would look into why. Maybe it was done too late in the season? Maybe the hive you split wasn’t really big enough support a strong split? Maybe you had problems with what’s called “drift” and all the foragers from your split went back to the mother hive. Setting up moth traps is not going to fix your problem.

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Charles Rivers

Thanks Hilary, I am looking into my records on how each hive was setup. I have keep a log for each time I entered the hive and how each one was setup. The information you provide will give me somewhere to start.

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(JWC)

Africanized Honey Bees (AHB) abscond in September frequently. This is tied to their instinctual pattern of following seasonal flows. Think seasonal migrations across the Serengeti. These AHB bees also usurp colonies with honey on the comb in this season. Semi-domestic races of bees abscond far less frequently, and usurpation is vanishingly rare.

One of the reason AHB dominate feral colonies in affected zones is this behavior (absconding and usurpation). The impact of AHB on domestic beekeeping is one reason I recommend new keepers avoid “free” feral swarms, but obtain hives with known queen pedigree.

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Hilary

I have read this about ABH. I certainly see ABH swarm more often, but I rarely see them abscond/usurp. Do you live in an ABH zone? Have you seen this often?

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Steve Gibbs

Been beekeeping a number of years in SoCal (AHB territory) with dozens of hives, and never seen a “usurpation”. Have seen cases of hives turning hot after they raise a new local queen though, and I think this is attributed by some people to usurpation, imho.

Megan Tyminski

Thank you for this informative article. I’m a new beekeeper that started a beekeeping club at my university. I lost one of my hives in between summer and fall, the day before my semester started. Some of the symptoms sound very similar. There was a lack of forage and honey stores, and ants outside the hive. I guess the correct term would be “absconding”, which I had never heard before! It was very heartbreaking because I was going to the hive to start feeding and try to prevent this from happening, but the bees acted before I did. We’re feeding our other hive, and they’ve been storing everything, which is good news.

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Jen

My hive appears healthy. Feral swarm captured locally in March 2 deep supers 95% full, added an additional medium super last week, no excluder. Plenty of well patterned capped and uncapped brood, honey on each frame and healthy appearing bees. Today for the first time, I noticed 3-4 hive beetles, some dead in homemade beetle traps made by the bees and a couple live ones I squished on the top lid and upper super comb. Should I set up a beetle trap at this point?

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Darlene

I just lost my 3rd hive and I’m ready to throw in the towel. If anyone wants to buy some used bee equipment and a hive, just let me know.

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Hilary

Hi Darlene,

You might want to add where you are located. I’m sorry to hear about your frustrations. If you want to reconsider my online beekeeping class might be a help.

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Umer Waqas

Hi , I am Umer from Pakistan,I have a problem in my area about bees that they made 5 to 6 queens in the current honey season and I have to remove their queen cells manually, So why they are doing so.

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Hilary

I need way more information to be able to answer this question. Have you taken my online beekeeping class? It might help.

possible reasons: 1. your queen is sick/old and they want to replace her 2. The queen is already dead and they have no queen 3. They want to swarm.

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Valarie Lindner

I have AHB in my attic. I live in Mesa Arizona. Will they leave on their own? They make me nervous. We can’t afford an exterminator as we’re senior citizens on limited income. Hubby says they would have to make a hole large enough to to get in there to get the queen and leave a huge hole to repair. How can we make them unwelcome?

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Hilary

It’s too late now that they are there. They may die out, but hives can go on for years and years. Unfortunately getting AHB out of a roof is not an easy job. I don’t think you will find a beekeeper willing to do it for free. You have to forcibly remove them by cutting open the roof and removing all the comb. The only good news is, they may never bother you since they are so high up.

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LB

Hi Hilary. I am fairly new to bee keeping. I live in Arizona in a rural area. Last April when I purchased a package of bees all was going well. The bees were building comb and the queen was laying eggs. They were healthy. I was checking on them once a week. Sometimes once every two weeks. I provided clean water every week and started providing them sugar water and pollen patties because our rainy season was coming up. Around August they absconded. After taking additional online classes and watching more videos, I believe they didn’t have enough to forage on in our desert area. I think I started feeding them a little late. Anyway, I thought they were gone, but my son found them at the end of January in a truck tire close to our property in a junk yard. The hive had grown quite a bit and they had comb in the tire. The combs had pollen and brood, but not much honey; we brought the tire back home and put the queen and bees back in the hive. I cut comb from the tire and included it in the hive. They were all fine for about a week and then they absconded again. I didn’t know where they were for a couple weeks. Again, thought they were gone for good this time. Yet again, my son found them in a saguaro cactus hole 25 feet in the air. I knew they wouldn’t stay there because it just wasn’t big enough for them. We couldn’t get to them when we first saw them. A day or two later I was working in the garden and watched them abscond from the cactus into a staghorn cholla cactus. I ran and got suited up, etc. Set up a new hive I had in storage for this year. I cut the whole branch off the queen and bees were on and put the whole branch in the hive. It was difficult not to just keep them on the branch since it is cactus. Anyway, thought I was all good to go. The next day I could see them entering and exiting the hive as normal. Third day and I went to remove the branch thinking they would be starting new comb. They had absconded again. This time they had plenty to forage on; flowers blooming everywhere and I still provided them with clean water even when they absconded because we knew they were still around. The hives have no signs of bugs or anything, so I am baffled. Why won’t they stay in the hive? If you have any suggestions, I sure would appreciate them! I would hate the same thing to happen again this spring when I purchase another package.
Thank you!
LB

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LB

We can’t be certain it’s the same colony but we live on 60 acres in a very rural area in the desert. There are no water sources close by other than what we have provided. We have no neighbors. They looked just like our Italian bees we purchased. I didn’t mark the queen, but I plan on doing that with our new package we ordered for this year.

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Hilary

It’s hard to say. Did you ever test your colony for mites? This behavior could be starvation, mites or both.

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Colleen Picciotti

I had a hive with a hive created queen who has been laying since mid August. 8 days ago I did the first Apivar treatment for mites, the sugar roll tested 6 and I could see them in the hive. The hive was doing well otherwise, queen was laying good brood pattern, a little small size wise but they were growing, marked the queen and all seemed fine. They had some honey and pollen and she was laying with no issues. I checked it yesterday and the whole hive is gone, all the honey, some pollen. No evidence of robbing and no dead bees in the bottom. Could this be because of the Apivar treatment? I did per directions, 1 wafer split up.

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Hilary

Yes, it could be because of the Apivar treatment or it could be because of a heavy mite load that they absconded.

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Glenn

My bees absconded sometime over the past few days. The hive was strong when I inspected it last month, with plenty of capped honey, and nectar/pollen still coming in. It was queen right, and brood pattern was good. The mite count was almost non-existent, so I was not treating for them, and there were no signs of any other disease.

I hadn’t seen any guards for a week, but I thought they were sitting back inside as the cooler nights were closing in. Then I noticed two wasps entering unmolested today, so I opened the hive up. Nothing but empty comb and capped honey, a dozen or so unhatched cells, and maybe 20-30 dead bees on the hive floor. Looks like they just waited for the last of their brood to hatch, and flew off taking most of the pollen with them.

The hive right next to it is still thriving. Absolutely no idea what the absconders were thinking, unless someone tipped them off about the Round-Up spray that’s scheduled for my neighbour’s yard next week…

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Glenn

I use screened bottom boards/traps in which I lay a sticky pad. I monitor the ‘drop rate’ over 24 hour periods on a regular basis throughout the season.

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Hilary

You might try doing a sugar shake or alcohol wash for a more accurate mite count. My guess is that they absconded because they were overwhelmed by mites. They can ramp up really quickly this time of year. Its really hard to say though. It could have been something else. Ants sometimes drive our bees, for example.

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Glenn

I’ve rolled them in icing sugar before, but I find the sticky pad drop method just as accurate. It’s also less invasive, so I can check hive health more regularly. From September-November I’m on them 2-3 times a week, because the boards also act as traps for the wasps we have trouble with around here. The hive right next to the absconded colony is thriving with virtually no mites, so it must have been something else.

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Dianne Solivais

My bees recently absconded, but the queen was still in the hive. We extracted honey and treated for mites, then three weeks later went in to remove mite treatment and only a small cluster of bees left and a full super of honey gone….. any ideas?

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Glenn

I’m lost for answers these days. Maybe all our honeybees have just decided to move back to their native Europe…

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