Updated on September 11th, 2022
Honey bees leave their hive en masse in two ways: absconding and swarming. Each of these phenomena occurs for different reasons and has a different impact on your beehive.
Absconding bee colonies abandon a hive leaving little behind, save some very young bees and small amounts of brood and food. Bees abscond if their hive is unacceptable due to a lack of resources, pests, frequent disturbances, or other reasons. They may also abandon new hives they have not adapted to yet.
Swarming is a natural occurrence by which bees form a new colony and expand their population. The queen leaves a hive with about half the bees (including some drones). Before swarming, the colony begins the process of raising a replacement queen for the bees that remain.
If your bees abscond, your beehive is virtually empty, and you are starting over. If your colony swarms, your population is depleted, but the remaining bees will carry on with a new queen.
See our article What Is A Swarm Trap? (How To Get “FREE” Bees) for more information on swarming.
Absconding is relatively unusual while swarming is something you need to be aware of annually.
This article details the causes of absconding and the steps you can take to prevent it.
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Honey bees may find a hive undesirable for a variety of reasons. Mitigating those issues lowers the chance that your bees will abscond.
Bee packages and newly trapped swarms take time to settle into a new hive. Without brood, comb, or honey to bind them to their new digs, honey bees may abscond. However, you can take steps to keep them put.
Consider transferring a full frame of comb, honey, or brood from another colony to the new box to anchor the bees.
Used, disease-free hive boxes have scents, propolis, and wax that help the bees feel at home.
Paint new hive boxes well in advance of putting them to use. Give them time for any chemical odors to dissipate before the bees are in residence.
See our article Should I Paint My Beehive (Do It!) for tips on what how and why to paint your boxes.
Feeding sugar syrup provides nutrition and helps accelerate comb production.
See our article Why, What, How & When To Feed Honey Bees for more sugar syrup information.
Keep the queen in place by delaying her release from the cage for a bee package. You can cage the queen with a newly caught swarm or, more simply, place a queen excluder under the brood box and above the bottom board for a brief. With the queen trapped, the colony will not abscond and will build out comb.
Lack of resources
If a colony is low on honey stores and foraging resources are scarce, the bees may abscond in search of greener pastures. Unfortunately, this can happen in the fall if the colony did not build up adequate stores for winter. A colony that absconds in the fall is unlikely to survive the cold season.
When resources are scarce, like during summer nectar dearth, bees may consume honey stores and be unable to replace them. Feeding sugar syrup and providing water sources when needed can help them out.
See our article What Is Summer Nectar Dearth? (What To Do For Your Bees) for more information.
Pest Or Parasite Infestation
Varroa mites, ants, small hive beetles, and wax moths are among the most common pests that can cause a colony to abscond.
A large, thriving colony is your best defense against most pests (varroa mites being an exception). Smaller, weak colonies are susceptible to being overrun, causing bees to abscond.
Keep the apiary and bottom boards clean and free of debris where pests can gather and hide. Do not remove burr comb and toss it on the ground around the hives as it may attract unwanted guests.
Varroa mites are a serious threat to bees. Consider testing and treating to control varroa.
Also, see What Is Treatment-Free Beekeeping? (A Controversial Topic) other information.
Beekeepers use a variety of methods to keep ants out of beehives. Elevate the hive off the ground with a hive stand to start. Coating hive stand legs with oil or setting the legs in cans with oil or water may keep ants at bay. We used a line of petroleum jelly around a low hive box with mixed results. Try cinnamon powder or sticks as ant repellants.
Wax Moths & Small Hive Beetles
After extracting honey, freeze comb for at least 24 hours before storing to kill wax moth and small hive beetle eggs.
Traps have been proven effective in controlling small hive beetles. The University of Arkansas – Division of Agriculture has a list of traps and additional information in their online publication Managing Small Hive Beetles.
Limit the amount of area your bees need to defend themselves from pests. Do not leave empty supers full of comb on the hive as a breeding ground. Forcing bees to cover this additional territory offsets the benefits of having a healthy, populous colony.
BeeAware’s website has detailed information about wax moths, small hive beetles, and other pests.
See additional resources at the end of this article.
If the colony is often disturbed, bees may decide there are better places to live and abscond.
You, as a beekeeper, might even be the cause of the frequent disturbance, especially with a new installation. Limit intrusions into a new hive while it gets established.
Give the bees a chance to adapt. For a while, refrain from weed whacking, lawn mowing, and other activities close to the apiary that may disturb a new colony. Bees react to vibrations more than just sound.
Hungry skunks, raccoons, and bears often disturb hives at night. Repeated activity may trigger absconding.
Bears will do more than disturb a hive; bears will wreck a hive. Once the hive components are scattered, bees may abscond. Bears keep returning once they find an accessible food source. The best protection against bears is an electric fence.
See our article How To Protect Beehives From Bears (Set Up An Electric Fence) for details on how an electric fence works and how to set one up.
Put the hive on a stand to limit access by skunks and raccoons. Secure the cover from intrusion with a brick, stone, or ratchet straps.
Hive Interior Atmosphere
If a hive gets too hot or too wet or lacks adequate ventilation, bees may abscond.
Ideally, hives should get at least morning sunlight. However, without some shading, afternoon heat could make a hive’s temperature too extreme.
Our inner covers are notched to provide an upper entrance, aid ventilation, and let heat escape. A screened bottom board with a removed drawer also helps.
We drill ¾” holes in some of our supers for additional access and airflow. Holes are angled so that rain is unlikely to blow in. We add inexpensive entrance gates to close these openings when needed (like to prevent robbing).
Recapturing Your Bees
You may get lucky when your bees abscond. If you spot them temporarily clustered nearby on a tree limb or fence post while they wait for scout bees to find a new home, you may have an opportunity to recapture them.
If they land in an accessible spot, it is worth an attempt. Do not take unnecessary risk with ladders trying to reach bees way up in a tree. (Better to wave goodbye and wish them well.)
You may only have an hour or two before the bees head off, so move quickly.
Be prepared with:
- Protective gear (especially a veil)
- A short ladder or step stool, if needed
- Pruning shears or another tool to remove a branch, if needed
- Spray bottle with sugar syrup
- Bee brush
- Closeable container (such as a cardboard box) to hold the bees (optionally, a cage if you can separate the queen)
- New hive box with some comb and honey and a queen excluder under the brood box
Swarming bees are usually very gentle. However, their mood may be more defensive if they have been clustered for a long time without food or if they left because of a predator attack. Play it safe and wear protective clothing.
A quick spray with sugar syrup helps keep them clustered together as they enjoy a little food.
Small branches with bees can be clipped and shaken into a box or other container. Try to remove them without jarring them loose.
A sharp shake of a larger limb may drop most of the cluster into a container, or you can gently brush them off.
See if you can spot the queen in your container. If so, you can
Quickly take the enclosed container to the new hive. Shake in the bees as if you were installing a bee package.
Do not put them back in the original hive. The bees left it for a reason.
The queen excluder should prevent them from leaving for a few days while they adapt. Afterward, remove the excluder and see if they stay.
Before re-using the vacated hive, try to determine what drove them away so you can correct the situation for your next colony.
Absconding is relatively rare. Total abandonment of a hive and loss of an entire colony is a costly blow to any beekeeper.
Newly installed bees are the ones most likely to abscond.
Provide your bees with well-located, dry, well-ventilated space with reasonable protection from predators. Disturb the colony only when necessary.
Do not add to the colony’s workload with unneeded boxes. Stay alert for and immediately address any signs of pest infestation.
Keep the bees comfortable, and they are likely to stay home.
Small hive beetle management options by Nicholas Annand, State of New South Wales through NSW Department of Primary Industries
Managing Small Hive Beetles by Jon Zawislak, University of Arkansas, Division of Agriculture at Bee Health
Wax Moth IPM by Wm. Michael Hood, Dept. of Entomology, Soils, and Plant Sciences, Clemson University
A Quick Reference Guide to Honey Bee Parasites, Pests, Predators and Diseases – PennState Extension