ab·scond — verb

to depart in a sudden and secret manner

( intr ) to run away secretly, esp from an open institution
[C16: from Latin abscondere to hide, put away, from abs-]


A post about bees is long overdue. Unfortunately I had a big setback with my beekeeping plans that left me depressed about the whole subject and certainly not in the mood to write about it.

A few months later and it’s still depressing if not so immediate. After years and years of reading and ten months of planning and working towards getting my first colony this year, it all went wrong so quickly.

Part of what made the thing that happened so bad relates to the weather.

First there was last year’s disastrously wet summer which left many honey bee colonies weak and underprepared for the winter, and then the UK’s longest winter for many a year which saw snow still on the ground in April and temperatures significantly lower than the seasonal averages way into May.

All this terrible weather meant that honey bees were in big trouble by March and April when in any other year they may have been feeding well, with young bees appearing and colonies growing in strength.

Instead, spring 2013 saw colonies dead from hunger and bees on metaphorical zimmer frames struggling to forage for food from plants also coming out of winter 6-8 weeks later than normal.

One consequence was that many of those supplying bee colonies to beginners and to those expanding their apiaries, found they were short on numbers and some people where going to miss out this year.

Initially I was lucky, the people supplying my bees still had enough colonies to be able to sell me one. It was later in the season than ideal, but at least I had a colony.

bees tipped from their travelling box onto a cloth by the hive entrance

bees tipped from their travelling box onto a cloth by the hive entrance

The bad luck came in what followed. I housed my bees in my new hive and that whole operation went pretty much as all the books had said it would. I had food supplies in the hive ready for them and two water sources in the immediate vicinity as well as others within the garden as a whole. Bees explored, activity was visble at the hive entrance for the first four days, and I left them alone and the hive shut as all the advice seemed to indicate one should.

However on the afternoon of the fourth day, despite it being mild and sunny I couldn’t see any activity around the entrance. I hadn’t been observing them continuously, but I had approached within about 6-8 metres every few hours when excitement and curiosity would no longer allow me to stay away.

I stood watching for a few minutes and curiosity turned to concern and then worry. It probably took less than five minutes for the lack of activity to spur me to break the rule and look closer. I’m fortunate to have an observation window in my hive, so at least I wouldn’t be committing the cardinal sin of opening the hive.

I quickly discovered this was an uneccessary precaution – as soon as I looked in the window I could see the hive was empty.

My bees had buzzed off.

Now everyone who knows nothing about beekeeping has heard of swarms – but this was not swarming in the accepted sense, which usually happens when there are too many bees for the hive and the colony splits itself in two, one half of the bees leave with the old queen to find a new home – that’s a swarm.

But that’s not what happened to me, all my bees went at once – This is Absconding.

Basically the bees find a home they prefer somewhere else, probably not many miles away, and they move house en-masse and establish their colony in their preferred location.

The first thing everyone asks me is why they went and what could I have done to prevent it. The real answer is it is very hard to say exactly why any one colony of bees absconds. A number of factors can contribute and it’s very hard to work out specifically what caused a particular colony to go, so it’s equally hard to say what one could have done to stop it happening.

It seems that this phenomenon is more common using a hive of this type where frames of food and brood (the young bees in egg and larval form) are not moved into the hive when the bees are housed.

some bees on the ramp, others reluctant to leave the travelling box (bottom right)

some bees on the ramp, others reluctant to leave the travelling box (bottom right)

Mine is a horizontal top bar hive, and encourages the bees to start from scratch, make new wax comb, free of any issues which may be introduced to the hive by transferring frames of old wax from another hive. But by the nature of imposing this on the bees they have left behind all the brood they had been rearing in the nucleus hive (where they were raised) so there is nothing tying them to the new space, no young to care for, they are free to find a better pad with cooler wallpaper to start again!

What we also know is that in any newly built hive there are no familiar smells, it hadn’t housed bees before, it didn’t smell of bees, it had no reassuring traces of pheromones from colonies past.

It may also be that some scout bees found a plentiful food source and near it a space suitable for the colony which was preferable just because the food was nearby.

It could have been something entirely different.

But here’s the crunch  because of the shortages of colonies I mentioned above – that was it, my chances to establish a colony in 2013 were blown, there were never going to be surplus colonies of bees so I could try again. Also because the year started so late, there was a much reduced possibility that colonies would get strong, big and split themselves into swarms, which in another year may have been a way for me to get more bees.

Basically a load of factors, most outside my control, screwed all my plans.

The question I get asked most now is will you try again? Of course I will – I’ve wanted to do this for years. I just have to accept that I’m starting in 2014 instead.

I may however take the precaution of having a mixed hive environment, start with a more conventional National Hive into which bees can be introduced with their brood and stores and hope that if they thrive I can later artificially swarm them (split the colony) and try to introduce the swarm into the Horizontal Top Bar Hive.

Only time will tell.

Some other beekeepers posts about absconding bees:

Why did my bees leave?

The Walden Effect – Homesteading year 7



2 thoughts on “Absconders

  1. Very sorry to read this 😦 Growing brood gives off a pheromone called… brood pheromone, which workers are attracted to, so beekeepers will sometimes put a frame of brood in from another hive when housing a captured swarm. A queen excluder above the entrance until wax making begins is another option to stop the queen leaving, but that wouldn’t be possible with a top-bar hive.

    I think you’re right to start off with the National next year, as that’s quite an easy hive when you’re a beginner.

  2. You have our sympathies as well. Losing a colony is very sad and all the more frustrating when replacements are not available.

    Just to complicate the discussion with contrary opinions, (Beekeepers. Worse than rabbis.) a mixed hive environment can be educational and entertaining but incompatible hives limit the useful ability to exchange frames/bars between them.

    Still we understand feeling more secure with starting from a nuc rather than risk a package again. Having that option is why our top-bar hives are Tanzanian rather than Kenyan.

    If you do get a vertical hive that prospers and want to try populating your horizontal hive from it, you might look up information on the Taranov board. Here is one link: http://www.dave-cushman.net/bee/taranovswm.html We have not tried this ourselves but it sounds good. 8)

    Best of luck. Our first year was a complete disaster ending in beelessness. The second year with a fresh attempt was much better.

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