The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Why did our package of bees abscond?

Swarm of beesThe bad news is --- the package of bees we put in the top bar hive Friday absconded Monday.  They only ate half as much sugar water as the other hive, which should have tipped me off that something was wrong, but I didn't realize there was a problem until I saw that the hive was empty and all of the bees were clinging to the trunk of a nearby tree.

We tried to brush the mass of bees (technically not a swarm, but they act like one) into a bucket to be rehived, but I suspect the queen took flight because all of the bees flew right back out and disappeared.  So, we're down to one hive and I'm trying to figure out why our bees flew the coop.

Searching around the internet, I ran across these possible causes for absconding:

Other common causes of absconding that aren't relevant to my disappearing package include: lack of food, lack of space, and presence of parasites or diseases.  Bad odors can also drive bees away, and I did feel like straw in my kill mulch under the hive was giving off a strong smell, so that's a slight possibility.

If we can't find a nuc to refill our top bar hive and have to wait for a new package next year, I'll do things a bit differently.  In addition to leaving the bees strictly alone, I'll reduce the opening more, perhaps even making a queen includer to fit over the entrance for the first week, forcing the matriarch to stay put.

And three hours after losing our colony, I realized what I really should have done --- called in our beekeeping mentor for hands-on help.  I was afraid that if I delayed, the swarm would fly to a less accessible location, so I muddled through trying to catch it myself and failed.  But I'll bet my mentor would have made short work of rehiving those bees.  Twenty-twenty hind-sight!

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Dangit! I'm very sorry to hear that.

I caught a swarm over the weekend and put them in a top-bar hive made to the exact specifications as yours and they seem very happy. I left all three holes open and the screen is open, but I put the follower board at about half-way so they're a bit more snug, and I've only opened the window once in three days. They are also under an awning, but at the edge of it so they get sun in the winter and shade in the summer, sort of like a passive solar window without the window.

Admittedly though, I got lucky. A friend of mine had a hive that split and he didn't have an extra hive so he called to ask me if I wanted the swarm.

Comment by Everett Tue May 1 09:09:11 2012

you must be crushed! i'm sorry to hear about this. i guess the positive is that it's yet another tough bee lesson (in the process of being) learned.

good luck finding a local nuc!

Comment by Kevin Tue May 1 11:59:02 2012

Everett --- I'm pretty sure it was user error, not the design of your hive. :-) That said, The Barefoot Beekeeper does make a distinction between a swarm and a package. I don't know enough about bee behavior to know if it makes sense, but he points out that a swarm is a more cohesive unit and more likely to stick around while a package consists of workers from several hives plus an unrelated queen. I'm going to have to study on that some more....

Kevin --- Yep, I was pretty sad yesterday. But every day is something new on the farm, and I'm willing to accept that I've learned the lesson and move on. After all, the bees aren't dead --- maybe they'll find a tree nearby and their drones will mate with our queens in the future.

Comment by anna Tue May 1 12:10:55 2012

Consider also proximity to your other hive.

After I caught and re-caught this swarm I left 'em all closed in to their new digs for a few more days with some syrup to a: stimulate wax production in the workers, and b: prompt the queen to begin laying. Once there's a little brood for the nurse bees to look after they'll usually stay put.

Have you considered putting out a bait box? I captured two swarms this Easter. One from my own colony, clustered together well within reach like low-hanging fruit in a bush, and one moved into a bait box I left at my Dad's place with a couple of lures: a 2 - 3 inch piece of vinyl tubing stuffed with dryer lint soaked in lemongrass oil and a chunk of last years' dark, nasty brood comb.


Comment by Dean Tue May 1 12:41:57 2012

Dean --- We keep meaning to make a bait box, but haven't gotten our act together yet. I sure wish we had! One of these days....

Proximity is a good point, but, like temperature, it should be less of an issue with this package than with previous ones we've installed. The other hive is perhaps 50 feet away, on the other side of a shrubby gully, whereas when we did packages last time, they were all within 15 feet of each other, separated by lawn.

Comment by anna Tue May 1 15:00:22 2012

your speculations about why sound about right to me, in about the order you had them...remember, that package didnt pick that location, so you have to make it perfect (in their judgement) to stay there...

next package you get, try inserting a frame of drawn comb (taken from your other hive) to make them feel at home

Comment by rjs Tue May 1 18:02:49 2012
rjs --- If we'd had any living hives, we would have added some comb --- I like the idea of comb with brood to really anchor the bees. Unfortunately, if you're just getting started, there's no brood to share....
Comment by anna Tue May 1 19:03:40 2012

You may remember when you were first considering top bar hives, I wrote about a package I had that absconded my first top bar hive last year. Since then, I managed to buy two nuc's, borrow two sets of two medium Langstroth hive setups, and overwinter them. As you can imagine, one of them is getting cramped and just swarmed on me. (I killed the queen in the other trying to make a nuc from it--oops! They are recovering, slowly though.) I managed to catch the swarm and put it in the same top bar hive I had tried to put the bees into last year. Success!!

So ... what did I learn that you might appreciate? First, use top bars that are interchangeable with frames if you can. (These aren't, but with a swarm it didn't matter.) Reason? It makes it easier to get nucs onto top bars. Second, the entire bottom of the top bar hive is open save for a screen--this hasn't seemed to bother this swarm. I first used 1/4" hardware cloth as the screen. After the package absconded, I chatted with other beekeepers and, at their recommendation, I switched ... to window screen. (I've since been told it'd be better to special order the 1/8" hardware cloth--mites aren't likely to fall through the window screening.) Since putting the swarm in the top bar hive, I've peeked in on them several times and it hasn't seemed to bother them--even up to several times a day. Gosh, since installing them just over a week ago they've already built full combs on four top bars that I can count and likely several others. We also have a fence a couple of feet in front of our hives. It doesn't seem to bother them, although it may be 20 ft from the top bar hive.

One beekeeper ( warned me before we installed the package into the top bar hive that packages abscond more often going into top bar hives than other hive types. He described his experience installing bees in a top bar hive, only to have them abscond and choose to inhabit one of his empty Langstroth hives instead. (He didn't discover this until he went to use that hive ...)

I guess my big conclusion is that packages are prone to absconding--especially from top bar hives.

Comment by Dan Tue May 1 19:41:00 2012

Dan --- Thanks for that useful data! I had actually forgotten your previous comment, so it was good to be reminded.

I agree that planning top bar hives so the frames are interchangeable (at least somewhat) with Lanstroth frames is a very good idea. I don't think ours are, but I know there are workarounds if you're moving a nuc from a Langstroth to a top bar hive.

Comment by anna Wed May 2 13:25:27 2012

I purchased a local colony that was being relocated to due it's dangerous positioning nside a power company junction box. My mentor kept them in a cage overnight, and added a double handful of bees from a queenless hive he had just to bulk up the number or workers in the bunch. We got them home, put them in the top bar hive without incident at around 10am - it was a perfect sunny day, and they seemed gentle and curious. We watched the hive all day, only opening the entrance once the bees seem to have fund the piece of honey comb I had attached to the third bar (from entrance). We gave them 8 bars lf space, which was a compromise, since we had been advised to do everything from only 5 bars worth of space, to leaving the entire 4' box open and ready for them to build.

Anyway, within about an hour, all the bees had found their home, we put the last bar in place, and put the lid on. A hour after that we opened the entrance and the girls began their orientation flights. About 4 feet from the entrance, I put an upcycled chick waterer filled with a half-gallon of 1:1 sugar syrup. We used a very shallow bird bath with fresh water and pea gravel (to pevent drowning) right there next to the feeder, as well. Within 4 hours of putting the girls in the hive, they had draped beautifully over the 4"x5" piece of comb I had provided them. (My mentor advised the comb would be neccessarysince the queen would need comb on which start laying so she wouldn't leave.)

That same afternoon, I happened to get lucky and found the queen toddling about on the ground right after I noticed they had starting working on the comb. I picked her up and put her back in the hive, hoping it was just some fluke that she was doing some sort of orientation flight (this is what I was told by the fellow from whom I got the bees.) I watched the hive every day for several hours during diffent times - all seemed well, and they appeared to be clustered around the queen while they enlarged the comb and started several more. I didn't see the queen again, but I was really trying to be judicious about opening the viewing window too often. And they appeared to have a queen in residence by the way they looked clustered on the comb and bars.

Then, this past Wednesday (exactly one week since we put the bees in the hive) I noticed that it seemed like the numbers of bees had started to decline, but since we've been having temps higher than 100 degrees every day, I assumed the girls were simply out foraging. With a lot of the bees gone, I could see that there were very few brood cells, but there were capped honey cells. By Fiday night, there weren't enough bees to cover the comb they had built. Then, yesterday evening (Saturday) I open the viewing window to find that there were virtually no bees inside the hive, aside from maybe 10 walking on the walls and combs.

I've been watching sugar syrup consumtion, and up until Thursday, they had only used about a quart a day. After Thrusday night, they are now consuming about a quart an hour, and today are swirling in an angry mass around the feeder, and inside it once it's empty. Add to that, there are giant hornets eating the swarm voraciously, which only serves to make the whole thing a buzzy, scary, stingy mess since the girls are agressive as all get out with tthe giant predators attacking them!!

As a newbie, this is a scary, upsetting thing. With no eggs in any cells, I would guess that the colony became queenless early on, and that the hornets just hastened the process of the hive going whacko. I can get a new queen to them if I can only persuade them go back in the hive, or maybe back into the nuc box we brought them home in, but I am at a loss as to what to do about it now. With the hornets causing such a stir, I am hoping that if I stop feeding them for this evening, that maybe they will go back into the hive or maybethe (bait) nuc box. Other wise, I imagine that once the food is gone, they will move on? And if you're wondering, my mentor has been out of town for the holiday and I can't get in touch with him for any guidance or instructions. I just don't know how to proceed. I am worried about the proximity of the mass of angry bees and hornets, but I don't even know if they will stay together without a queen in their midst, and I haven't found any evidence of a queen mass anywhere nearby, either.

I wonder if maybe I gave them too much space (should have started with only 4-5 bars instead of 8-9)? Or maybe having the feeder outside the hive was a bad idea (even though we had seen no evidence of robbers or similar issues)? I would say they might have had issues with the entrance size, but there is no damage to the combs from any invading force, and since there was no brood comb, the are no missing brood, either. And since it was a newly moved colony, I was able to see that there were only a few SHB that came with the bees, but noting else that I could see. Maybe I just opened the viewing window too many times, like the OP mentioned.

All that said, I plan to make some changes,like adding a boardman style feeder that I can access by notching one of the moveable back board (I had an extra one made just for something like this) so that it will be inside where only the honey bees have access to it. The other change I will make is limiting the amount of time I open the viewing window to once or twice a week when I need to check on them.

Any input would be greaty appreciated. I am at my wit's end and just wanted the little bees to be happy in their new home!! Thanks, in advance for any help you can give!!

BTW: I am in SC, but have a friend in NH who is having the same type of issues (minus the hornets) with her Langstroth hives - her 2 colonies swarmed within 6 weeks, leaving behind honey comb but no brood, and no eggs to be seen, either. Is this something that happens commonly at this time of year? Or are us newbies just doing something fundamentally wrong??

Comment by Carlyn~ Sun Jul 8 17:37:47 2012

Carlyn --- That's some eye --- catching the queen on the ground in front of the hive!

I wish I could give you more solid information, but like you, I'm a bit new to the issue. You might be interested in this post by a nearby extension agent which goes a little deeper into the issue.

Comment by anna Sun Jul 8 18:58:14 2012
I populated two TBH's this spring with bees - one with a swarm and one with package bees. The package bees all disappeared in under a week. The swarm TBH is still going strong!
Comment by Tommy Tue Oct 16 15:43:26 2012
Tommy --- It does sound like packages in top bar hives can be trouble. I'm hoping to be able to split our Warre hive this coming spring and put the new bees in the top bar hive so we can give it a fair shot.
Comment by anna Tue Oct 16 16:31:33 2012

Wow! I'd never heard this before. I've installed six packages of Italians in our TBHs and while we've had problems overwintering (hence 6 installations rather than 2), I've never had them take off on me!

I'm pretty sure it is just luck here rather than something I did, but I am curious now. I installed them, released the queen a few days later and then left them alone. I'd sit on a stump nearby to watch the entrance, but I didn't even bother to open it, figuring I'd go for the Warre Hive style of just watching to figure out what they're doing. That and I figured the chances of being able to requeen in time to save a package were pretty slim. So I watched at the entrance to make sure they were busy and that was about it.

Comment by Dana Sun Jul 14 23:08:16 2013

3/31/17 Place a package in a brand new TBH 8 days ago and cked two days later to see if queen was released, which she was, comb was being built, went of check yesterday(day 8) and small amount of comb and 40-50 bees no sign of a queen. No dead bees in the hive or on the ground. I have no good idea what happened other than they absconded.

Comment by Dean Chipman Fri Mar 31 12:08:34 2017

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