WHY DID MY BEES LEAVE?

Posted September 16, 2016
by Hilary

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

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

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
Two Other Scenarios

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.

How to Learn What to Look For

Hands-on classes and mentorships are an excellent way to learn about your bees, but good teachers are not always available. There is a lot of conflicting information out there, too.

If you enjoy my teaching style, you might benefit from taking my on-demand online beekeeping classes. My Intro to Beekeeping class goes over the basics of understanding colony health, and the second in my online class series, Hive Inspection, focuses on how to do proper hive inspections.

As a starting point for hive inspections, be sure to check out my article, Why Keep Hive Inspection Notes?  

Warning Signs

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.

63 Comments

  1. 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?

    Reply
    • Hilary

      Hi Rich, not at this time. Sorry! Maybe you can watch from a library?

      Reply
      • Wes

        My bees have just left the hive can’t work out why , now reading the post looks like ants had a big part in the problem.
        How do I kill the ants without killing the bees

        Reply
  2. Susan Rudnicki

    Helpful post! I would only recommend a caption on photos—most newbees would not know you are highlighting a varroa mite.

    Reply
    • Julia

      Oh wow! That’s true because I just read your comment and googled it. I thought maybe that was some fancy marking that a queen has hahaha. Well at least I learned something valuable, thanks Susan. I plan to read and educate myself in depth before I start beekeeping myself.

      Reply
    • AJ

      You’re right! I thought it was a cute little bee hat

      Reply
  3. 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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
      • 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.

        Reply
      • Sylvie Oconnell

        Hi Hilary, I’m pretty desperate at this point. Last month two of my colonies just up and left within a week. Should’ve seen the signs, but I wasn’t quick enough. On my third hive, I’ve been checking and while there was a large population I could not see any eggs larvae or anything. I re-queened 2 weeks ago, still only empty cells in the brood box and honey in the second layer. I’m really worried now. Can you help?

        Reply
        • Hilary

          Sorry Sylvie, I am just seeing this now. For urgent help email me next time.

          Reply
  4. (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.

    Reply
    • 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?

      Reply
      • (JWC)

        Yes and Yes.

        Reply
        • Hilary

          I’m curious, how can you be sure a hive was usurped? What are the tell tale signs?

          Reply
          • 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.

  5. 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.

    Reply
  6. 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?

    Reply
    • Hilary

      It couldn’t hurt, but it sounds like your bees are handling it OK.

      Reply
  7. 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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  8. 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.

    Reply
    • Hilary

      I need way more information to be able to answer this question. Have you taken my online beekeeping class? It might help. https://vimeo.com/ondemand/gndhoney Generally there are 3 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.

      Reply
  9. 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?

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
      • Victoria Allen

        Hello from Norwich in the UK. I am very sad because this spring there are no bees upstairs in my house! We have had the bees living in the airspace for the last 11 years without any problems but now they have gone. Our local beekeeping association would not remove them as it would involve brick walls being removed up a ladder- 30 feet. They swarmed last year and seemed unwell in the sutumn with lots of dead bees in the jasmine by the front door underneath the airbrick where they went in and out. Before the bees there was a wasp nest. I’m blocking the airbrick with fine mesh tomorrow. I miss the buzzing vibration in the wall. In Norfolk it is an old custom to tell the bees what is going on in the family and your life. Don’t be scared of bees- they are just trying to get by like all of us.
        Vic.

        Reply
  10. 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

    Reply
    • Hilary

      How do you know it was the same colony?

      Reply
      • 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.

        Reply
        • Hilary

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

          Reply
      • Step

        My bees left because they dont have enough honey to harvest when i checked their hive it was completely empty,, no Honey no broodlings,, just a few bees left abandoned by the colony it was pretty sad news

        Reply
  11. 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.

    Reply
    • Hilary

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

      Reply
  12. 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…

    Reply
    • Hilary

      Hi Glenn, bees are sometimes mysterious. How were you counting for mites?

      Reply
  13. 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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
      • 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.

        Reply
  14. 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?

    Reply
    • Glenn

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

      Reply
  15. Terry Torres

    We just got a package of bees on Saturday we fed them sugar water put them in the hive Saturday night Sunday they seem to be doing well and they were being fed sugar water and this morning they are gone, Queen and all, why did they leave already?

    Reply
    • Hilary

      Package bees sometimes do this, they don’t have anything invested yet in your hive box and they sometimes decide to go elsewhere. It probably wasn’t anything you did, but sometimes if you open them too frequently after installing them it can prompt them to leave.

      Reply
  16. Terry Torres

    The beek is my partner and he is a newbie. I know he’s very disappointed. I also know he wasn’t getting into the hive. I’m wondering if he had kept the hive closed for a day or two or at least made the openings smaller, they wouldn’t have “run away”. He has another hive that we got from a retired gentleman in Jax, Fl. That is doing well, or at least seems to bee. We’ve had that one for a month or so. He has taken some bee classes through our extension office. We are near Gainesville, Fl. and University of Florida. Very excited that they have received funding to study the plight of bees and have built a facility to promote beekeeping. We are joining the logical bee club. Thsst should bee helpful!

    Reply
    • Hilary

      Yes, sometimes closing them in with a screen gets them to stay because they start building and feel invested.

      Reply
  17. Karen

    Hi, I recently received a package of bees they were installed 5/29 and I released the queen on 6/. On 6/9 I have approximately 200-300 bees left with some comb and have been feeding them sugar water continuously. I see nectar in the combs but am not sure if I still have the queen (do not want to disrupt), and don’t see any larva. I am in the Portland, Oregon area and we have had some rain recently. I am not sure what is wrong and would like to know what my next step should be. Any ideas for a newbie beekeeper?

    Reply
    • Hilary

      It sounds like your hive may have lost it’s queen. Sometimes you can contact the place where you purchased the package and they will send a replacement queen or you may need to buy a new queen.

      Reply
  18. Carla R Cook

    It thought I had been very diligent at checking my hives, but I went out to check them today (I have 3) and one was empty. ???? My other 2 seem to be thriving. One of the 2 that are thriving is 1 I caught this year. I am new to all this…

    Reply
  19. Pedro.

    In my resurch i found frequencies effect bees the most, the grater the number of telephone cell towers the lesser numbers of bees . They hate emf ,wifi, and power stations. There is more info but i can’t say it here.

    Reply
  20. Alexa

    We just got a new bee hive and colony. We don’t have many flowers in our yard at the moment but the neighbours and less than 1km away there’s plenty of flowering trees, shrubs etc.

    I’ve noticed something strange happening, in one of the wall mounted flower pots the bees (about 10-15) are huddling, seem to be digging? and just walking around and I’m worried they are trying to make it their new home or something? we provide plenty of water and sugar water.

    What is this strange behaviour of the bees hanging out in the flower pot?

    Reply
    • Hilary

      That does sound weird… are you sure that they are honey bees?

      Reply
  21. Zee

    Hi Hillary, I just started beekeeping last year. I live in the mountains of North Carolina. My bee hive was at a family friends house nearby because I live on a Christmas tree farm, we didn’t want them getting into the spray or anything. They were doing great, producing honey, and everything normal when all of a sudden they were just gone. A few bees were left dead at the bottom but no sign of them anywhere else. We have relocated them to our home, on the far end of our yard, other side of the tree patch. Some new bees have robbed some of the old honey, so we went ahead and extracted it and then put the part of the hive that had the honey in it. Do you think new bees will find the hive? I want to start a business to sell honey. beeswax candles, chapstick, ect. I will call it Zee’s Bees. Thanks.

    Reply
  22. Don

    Your statement about Africanized bees swarming themselves to death is 100% correct. I have 12 hives and it just happened again for the 2nd year in a row. Both times it was easily my hottest colony. The one which occurred a few days ago left in 2 swarms of only a few thousand bees each. They even left about 300-400 in the box along with a ton of honey and pollen which my other hives were thrilled to incorporate.

    Reply
  23. Kim Jensen

    I have bees for four years, but this season if you cal call it season in mid Florida I lost all my bees.
    In February I had three hives, then end of March I got two new queens and did a split on two hives for the two new queens. in end of April i noticed that I had unusually many bees, like 10 – 15, walking around on my concrete walkway around 20 feet from the hives. This happen almost everyday and I did an inspection of the hives, but found no problems I did not do a mite test with sugar powder in the past four years I never had a mite problem. Three weeks ago one of my old hive and one of the new was empty. I checked the empty the only thing I saw was some dead bees emerging from their cells. Then last Sunday I found two more hives empty and to day my oldest hive is empty. All hives gone in three weeks.

    Reply
  24. April

    New beekeeper here…I live in Indiana. We had a swarm move into our top bar hive in late July. They were active last week and today they’re gone. I inspected the hive and the only thing that’s wrong is that a mouse built a nest on top of the bars and had babies. Would that be enough to drive them away? My other thought is that it’s been pretty cold the last week and I wonder if they didn’t have enough comb built to keep them warm.

    Reply
    • Hilary

      Late July is pretty late for a new colony to get started. They may not have been strong enough to survive winter. I doubt the mice played a role.

      Reply
  25. cindy

    I have had my hive for 3 years they swarmed for the first time last year and this year now the weather (MA) is getting warmer I see no bee so I checked the hives and the rest are gone. Not sure why I don’t see they thing . My husband keeps saying its the spot but we have plenty of food for them (plant nursery across the street) , he thinks the road is to noisy for them.

    Reply
  26. Michael Bradford

    Hi! Had just treated my bees for mites and was preparing them for winter (NZ). One of my hive was completely empty. I mean the honey and pollen frames uncapped and empty.. The brood frames all uncapped and dried up. When I opened the hive there were a few German wasps inside which I killed about 15 of them. My other 3 hives were just fine. What could have done this, wasps, or my bees swarmed. Keep in mind here in NZ we are about a month away from winter. Not sure what to do now?
    Cheers

    Mike

    Reply
    • Hilary

      Hi Mike, the bees sometimes abscond from high mite loads or from the stress of the mite treatment. It’s hard to say.

      Reply
  27. Paula Reeves

    We have had bees for about 6 years. This year when we went out to check on them in the early spring, they had absconded and the hive was empty. I don’t know exactly what the problem was, but we didn’t want to get anymore until we had time to do a little research and be better bee keepers sometime in the future. We just took the bee house and moved it behind the barn among some trees and other old items. Today I was back there looking for something and I noticed the bee box is again fool of bees. They seem to be very active. I didn’t want to mess with it so I have just left it where it is for now. It still has all the old frames in it so I guess a new colony found it. Do you have any suggestions for us?

    Reply
    • Paula Reeves

      full not fool, although they may be fools to want us as their bee keepers, obviously we weren’t very good at it.

      Reply
    • Hilary

      Hi Paula,

      I would go in and try to inspect and see what’s going on. You want to learn if they are building straight and if they have a queen and are healthy.

      Reply

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My name is Hilary Kearney. I’m the author of the book, “Queenspotting” and founder of the urban beekeeping business Girl Next Door Honey in San Diego, California. I’m an artist turned beekeeper on a mission to help new beekeepers succeed and educate the public about the magic of bees!

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