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.
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 or the second in my online class series which focuses on how to do proper hive inspections. 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.