Absconded

Honeybees.  They’re good at delivering lessons to those who are arrogant enough to think that we “keep” them.  Each of the five years (happy honeybee anniversary this month!) that we’ve been beekeeping, the insects have taught us something new, forced us to ask questions about their complex biology and our competency, and humbled us with their honeybee prowess.

So what’s on tap for 2020?  For the first time, we’ve experienced the absconding of a hive.  What does that mean? Absconding is when the bees leave the hive–all of the bees, all at once, and with the queen. Why does this happen?  There are many reasons, including lack of food sources, overcrowding, heavy mite, beetle, wax moth load or ant invasion, but it’s mostly unclear why honeybees bolt.  What happened to our hive?  We haven’t a clue. 

Three weeks ago, our honeybee hive, Buzz, swarmed.  A fascinating event to behold, swarming is a normal and healthy event for a honeybee hive.  Swarming is honeybee procreation and usually occurs in spring and early summer. Swarming means is that the hive is ready to make another hive, a new hive.  The established queen sends out her let’s get out of here and find new digs pheromones, and she leaves with a fair number of worker bees to set up a new colony somewhere else, leaving the new queen with the remaining the original worker bees in the old hive.  Basically, there’s one hive, then there’re two hives, and this equals procreation.

As an aside, and since it is spring, you might hear about or see swarms, and you should understand that swarms are not dangerous.   In fact, honeybees are at their most docile during a swarm:  they’ve engorged on honey before they leave the hive (happy, contented bees), they’re hanging out (literally) with their queen, and they have no honey stores or larvae to protect.  Swarming bees are laid-back bees, more so than at any other time of their life cycle.  A swarm might look scary and has the undeserved reputation of being scary, but it’s not scary.  Photos of honeybee fans with bee “beards” are taken when the bees are swarming and not protective of anything; that’s when it’s okay to scoop up a bunch and plop onto your head.  I’ve never placed a swarm on my head or face-nor am likely to do so–but I have picked up a clump of bees in swarming mode and moved them from one place to another.  I’ve also stood amidst a swarm of our own bees.  It’s an unsettling, but incredible experience.  Remaining calm is a must and not because of any issues with the bees, per se, but because humans have an innate fear of bees (those stingers!) and that fear must be controlled if you’re going to hang out with a swarm of bees.  It’s just best not to freak out.

So, Buzz swarmed; she went into my SIL’s tree for an hour or so, then back to our oak tree.

By late afternoon, she was gone from our property.  I have no idea where the bees went, but wish them well in their new home.  Since the swarm, Buzz’s bees looked normal; there were foragers, to and fro, and by all appearances, things looked good.  We should have check the hives a week after the swarm, but rain, then cold, prevented a regular hive check until late last week.  By then, Buzz was quiet.  There were a few bees around, but not many.  Once we opened her up, there wasn’t much to see except a lot of empty comb in both brood boxes and the honey boxes.  While there were some honeycomb cells with pollen stores,

…there was no honey, no capped or uncapped larvae, and a few bees around.  I didn’t see any indication of wax moths, though there were some hive beetles.  Hive beetles are bad news, but every honeybee hive has some beetles; hive beetles (and varroa mites and wax moths) are an unfortunate part of modern beekeeping.  

Could there have been a heavy varroa mite load in Buzz?  That’s certainly possible;  we haven’t consistently checked for varroa mites since last spring; our bees are varroa resistant and the reason we’ve become lazy about checking for mites is that we never saw any.   We lost  a hive several years ago, which you can read about here, to a presumed varroa mite infestation, but it was in late autumn, which is the more typical time for a mite infestation to kill a hive.  Also, Buzz wasn’t “killed” by anything.  There were no dead bees around the hive.  There were simply no bees.

So what happened?  I’ve wondered if perhaps there were actually two swarms, the one we witnessed and another, either before, or after that one.  Other than that, all we know is that Buzz is empty, bees absconded. 

We’re not beekeeping for honey production.  Yes, taking honey is part of this weirdness, but not the reason we started beekeeping, nor why we continue;  honey is a sweet reward, not the ultimate goal.  Therefore, we don’t ignore our hives–never checking them, never heading off problems–but we’ve also learned that too much fussing, too much checking the honeybees is not necessarily best for the honeybees.  What we’ve come to understand is that these critters know what they’re doing and it’s best for them if we encourage an environment that allows their lives to be as easy and productive as possible by providing organic nectar sources, water, and the space to be bees.   We check our hives once every 2-3 weeks throughout our growing season. 

That said, they love messing with our beekeepers’ heads and have tossed a honeybee curve ball to us each and every year.  There’s always something new to learn with honeybees.

Buzz’s brood and honey boxes, abandoned and bee-less, are stacked together in the room where we store the honey extractor. 

Bee Daddy will engage in woodworking magic to repair some minor damage to the frames and the bee hive parts will likely remain sequestered in the house for a year, maybe longer.  Currently, I’m not inclined to purchase a package of bees because a new hive would require feeding with sugar water (to help them get established) which is the ONLY nectar replacement source that should be fed to bees.   With white, refined sugar in shorter-than-normal supply, I don’t want that commitment or responsibility.  If a swarm appeared nearby and was easy to capture, we’d snatch it up, but I’m not going to search far and wide for that scenario. 

We have two, apparently healthy, hives. The Langstroth hive, Woody,

…and the Warre hive, Scar.

If it was my decision, I would have chosen Scar to be emptied.  Scar is much more difficult to manage and when we take honey (which is delicious), it’s a complicated and messy process compared to any similar management of the Langstroth hives.  But that wasn’t our choice; it was Buzz the Langstroth that absconded, deciding that its hive wasn’t safe, or comfortable, or…something.  Whatever was going on with Buzz’s bees, they felt the need to vamoose–and they did. 

Honeybees.  When honeybees are a part of the garden, there’s always a new event to respond to or a different situation to make allowances for.  Learning their ways is rewarding and flummoxing and we’ll continue our education.

Honeybee nectaring on a dewberry flower.

19 thoughts on “Absconded

  1. Strange why the bees left like that but like you said, they must have needed to go for some reason. My grandfather used to keep bees and I remember more than one occasion when he went out and captured a swarm and brought them home. There is a lot of red clover in the hayfield now and i have been wondering if someone would lie to set up a hive or two here. There are a few people who move hives to other people’s property and manage them. Great post and thanks for sharing.

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    • You’re welcome, Mr. Rooster–glad you enjoyed the read. Yes, very odd and I wish I had an answer, but I just don’t. There are lots of beekeepers here in Austin/Central Texas who capture swarms, so if they land somewhere, I hope a beekeeper snags them and not an exterminator.

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  2. What a saga. I’ve learned enough about bees from you to understand more of what you’re talking about here, as well as to know how perplexing/frustrating this must have been. One of my most common thoughts when out in nature is, “I wonder why…” and it certainly is relevant here.

    Have you ever gained bees in the same way — having them just show up and try to move into a hive? If a beekeeper builds a hive, will they come? Or do you have to find them yourself, one way or another, and bring them to their new home? So many variables are in play, it’s no wonder there are failures as well as sweet successes. Speaking of ‘sweet,’ I was surprised to see you mention sugar being in shorter than usual supply. We’re awash in sugar around here; just don’t try to find flour or yeast.

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    • Saga is the correct word, but honestly, they’re always doing something that trips us up! Or maybe it’s us doing the tripping?

      I would love it if a new crew would situation themselves in an empty hive, and I guess it’s possible, but they seem to favor spots high up in trees. That will not work for me! I once saw a photo on a FB Texas honeybee group showing a swarm that was hanging out on the door of a car in Houston. I’ve decided that honeybees have a weird sense of humor and like to keep us entertained.

      The only swarm from one of our hives that moved just outside the original hive is the one I referred to, that I picked it up. It was out of Scar, moved onto a contraption that hub had engineered to spray a fine mist of water; it was geared to attract hummingbirds, but we got bees instead. I moved that group into the box that Mufasa once lived in. They didn’t take and absconded. I didn’t write that bees more typically abscond from a newly installed hive, which makes our situation even odder.

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    • Nature, indeed! Yes, they will settle into tree holes and all sorts of other places. I’ve heard of bees who moved into the place in the ground where the meter reader for water is located. That’s not a good spot. I also have a neighbor who’s compost is one of the barrels that you turn and she’s had bees settle in there. It’s really a mystery (to me, anyhow) how they choose, what they choose.

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  3. Wonderful information, particularly about not fearing ‘swarming’. I would love to have hives (we have a lot of bees in the garden – they are mostly solitary or carpenter bees that live in the walls, I think), but I don’t know if I could be so philosophic if something went wrong (and don’t really have the knowledge anyway). Maybe we will try, some day!

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    • Thanks, Cathy. Your native bees are even better pollinators than honeybees, so you’ve got great bees! As for being philosophical, I think it’s mandatory with bees, because you just never know!

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      • I did have a friend who had bees in the UK and I remember her distress over the varroa, so it kind of put me off. Although I do have a farmer friend that has about 180 hives dotted around our area and produces honey for sale on a small scale – she has made me think again, that perhaps she could site hives in our garden. And she would have the expertise. But we appreciate our bees that ‘happen to be here’ more every day (mostly carpenters, that nest in the walls)

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      • Wow, that’s impressive–180 hives!! Looks like you have an expert mentor and the thing about honeybee people, we LOVE to talk about them and lead others, ahem, to bee happiness. You might try just one hive. The learning curve is steep, it’s a little expensive to start out, but it’s quite rewarding and there is always something new to learn.

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  4. First of all Congratulations on your fifth anniversary of having bees !!! Let there be many more! Tina I’m really sorry that Buzz is empty. What could have caused her to be abandoned in two different swarm waves? First one, what was your perched oak. And then another who left without you noticing. Mother Nature is like this, she acts following rules that we do not know. Buzz was not infected with mites, moths, or beetles: she was normal, with a few beetles. I hope Bee Daddy fixes and gets Buzz in shape, and maybe next year you’ll be excited to buy some bees for Buzz. Woody and Scan look great. And I love the photo of the bee eating on the white flower of dewberry. It is up to all of us to take great care of our health and stay safe. Very affectionate greetings from Margarita.

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  5. So sorry to hear about Buzz! I know it’s frustrating to not know why, but it is nice that there are some mysteries in life, a good lesson for us humans. Also glad you added the caveat about being calm in the face of a swarm. I know they are not inclined to aggression in the swarm state, but a flapping, screaming human can wake anyone out of a honey stupor….

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