15 May WHY A BEE COLONY ABANDONS THE HIVE
I have a sad story to tell you. A few years ago, our buddy Todd and his friend, Lisa, took a beekeeping class and asked us if they could have an apiary on our urban farm. We love bees but knew little about them, so we eagerly said yes. All was well for a long time — Todd and Lisa diligently tended to the colony, inspecting carefully and providing food and water sources for it. We noticed a nearly immediate uptick in our flower production and edible garden harvest, and the bees added a delightful buzz to our farm.
Then a year and a half ago, Todd moved. Lisa came over one time after that to inspect the bees, but soon lost interest without her bee buddy with her. Todd put us in touch with another local bee enthusiast who took over monitoring the colony for us. (Why didn’t we do it ourselves? See my note at the end of this article.) All was well — again — for a long time. We even harvested some honey a few months back!
Until a couple weeks ago, that is. We suddenly noticed no bees flying around in the pollinator garden, and upon closer observation, discovered that our bees had left. Not died — just gone. We called the Bee Guy, who kind of shrugged and said, “Hmmm. That sometimes happens. It’s hard to tell why.”
Well, that is true, but we wanted to know why. Because we want bees here on our urban farm, and it’s up to us to figure out why the entire colony decided that it was no longer hospitable for them.
Reasons Why A Bee Colony Absconds
When a bee colony ups and leaves without giving their 30-day notice, it’s called “absconding.” And actually, if you’re paying close attention, they do give you notice, but you have to notice the notice. If you’re performing adequate hive inspections, you may notice some indications that your renters are unhappy. These include:
- Presence of beetles or moths
- A high mite count
- An ant invasion
- Deformed wings on bees
- A lack of honey stores
- Fewer bees than you are used to seeing
Bees can abscond because of those issues, but also if there is:
- Consistent disturbances including noise and vibrations
- Bad odors
- Not enough food or water in the vicinity
- High wind and/or humidity
Any one of these indicates that something is wrong, and if you don’t address it, the problem will compound into a domino effect leading to possible absconding. Your bees are telling you that they are unhappy or unwell, and it’s up to you to step in and fix the problem. And often, one problem will lead to another, creating unhealthy bees and allowing pest and disease problems to move in.
So, Where Did They Go?
When the Bee Guy shrugged and said “They sometimes do that,” he was right. But the temptation is to then infer that the bees are like human renters — they simply found a nice place somewhere else and took off in the middle of the night. Maybe for a place where rent was cheaper and the view was better. But the unfortunate reality is that, when a colony is unhealthy and they abscond, they usually don’t have the stamina or reserves to survive for very long afterwards.
This really saddened me. Chances are good that our bees are not simply enjoying life elsewhere, umbrella drink in hand. No, they’re likely not even alive. Could we have prevented this? Yes, we probably could have.
What Do We Do Next?
If you want to continue to have bees, you’ll want to figure out what went wrong so your next colony doesn’t suffer the same fate.
Here’s what I learned:
- Don’t rely on other people to be responsible for your bees. Don’t get me wrong; Bee Guy is great. But we substituted his judgement for all of ours, not asking adequate questions and ultimately not taking enough responsibility.
- Perform more regular inspections next time. I truly believe that a couple extra inspections could have revealed the problem in time for us to fix it — we will stay on top of this next time.
- Become a detective. This is kind of like Monday Morning Quarterbacking, but it’s necessary to at least hazard a guess as to what was going on to make our bees abscond. Current theories include:
- Lack of food – Our pollinator garden got hit with a nasty invasive weed, choking out our pollinator plants.
- Disturbance – Our neighbors on the bee hive side of the yard were doing a months’ long building project. It’s possible our bees got fed up with the noise and vibrations.
- High humidity – We’ve had an unusually wet spring around here with lots of rain and severe thunderstorms.
- All of the above – It was the perfect storm and our bees said “Adios.”
So Why Didn’t We Monitor Our Own Bees?
While the bees initially were not our project but were well cared for by Todd and Lisa, they became our project when the original beekeepers left. We were unprepared, with everything else going on at our urban farm. So, we gratefully accepted help from Bee Guy, promising ourselves that 2019 would be our year to learn about the bees ourselves.
But, we didn’t learn in time. So, we’ve learned the lesson. Bee Guy is bringing over a new colony (I think he recently split one of his), and we’re committed to learning what we need to in order to have thriving, happy bees. Sad story, yes — but it’s much sadder if you don’t learn from your mistakes, right? Hopefully, our story can help you have a stronger, healthier bee colony — while you can’t control everything in your bees’ environment, or their ultimate fate, you can do your best to care for them so they can continue to work their magic.