Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Tips to Prevent Absconding

It's that time of year! Pretty soon, folks will start installing packages, and 2 of the most frequently asked questions are going to be:
  1. How do I prevent my bees from absconding?
  2. Why did my bees abscond?
Package of bees
In a post last year, I shared some tips that have helped me with installs, but today, I want to focus more on keeping bees in the hive rather than on putting them there. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So hopefully by answering the first question listed above, you'll never have to answer that second one (fingers crossed because you still never can tell what bees are going to do).

Tip 1: Make the hive a home.

You know how realtors always tell you to bake cookies right before a showing because the smell is attractive to potential buyers? It turns out bees like cavities that smell "homey," too. 

In the wild, bees prefer cavities that other colonies have occupied. I have no proof, but I think it's a survival instinct. According to Tom Seeley, something like 75%-80% of swarms die their first year. For a long time, I wondered why bees would swarm when it meant almost certain death for them. Then I figured out that when bees swarm, they build comb and collect resources. When they die, they leave those resources behind so that next year's swarm can find them. As a result, the future generation's odds of success are greatly increased.

If you want your bees to stay, try giving them a house with a "used home" smell. You can try any or all of the following:
  • Rub the interior hive walls and/or bars with beeswax
  • Hang some old comb in the hive (If you're a first year beek, it helps to have a friend who can give some to you.)
  • If you have a friend who can give you some capped brood comb, that's even better. Bees love babies. As an added bonus, capped brood requires very little care and will quickly jumpstart the colony.
  • Add 2-3 drops of lemongrass oil, which smells like Nasonov pheromone. Actually, Nasonov pheromone also contains a number of other odors, including geraniol, so if you want it to really smell like bees, you could use a combination of lemongrass & geranium oils. (I think the mixture is 4 lemongrass:1 geranium.)
  • To increase hive hygiene, I stain the interiors of my hives with propolis dissolved in 70% isopropyl alcohol. The ratio of propolis to alcohol is approximately 1:1. I do it for hygiene, but no doubt the bees love it, too.

Tip 2: Install close to sundown.

In all likelihood, a package of bees has had a really rough week. All they want is to get on with things again by finding a new home.

If one installs bees early in the day, they may accept the hive, but they might also want to take a look around for better digs. The longer the bees stay in the hive, though, hopefully putting more time and energy into making it their own, the better the chances become that they'll stay put.

Installing an hour or so before sundown is a good tactic because bees don't fly around at night. That means that they'll cluster up in the hive for roughly 8-12 hours (depending on how many hours of darkness you get), which will make that hive seem cozier and cozier to them.

Tip 3: Keep the hive completely closed for 5-6 days. Afterward, minimize disturbances.

Hives in the wild are dark, enclosed spaces with small cracks for entrances. To make the girls feel at home in a man-made hive, keep it dark and leave them alone for about 5-6 days. For first-time beeks, that first week is an eternity, but be strong! Resist the urge to peer through observation windows. Feeding can be accomplished behind the follower board (if your board has gaps/holes that let the bees pass), which doesn't disturb the girls at all. Also, keep screened bottom boards closed. 

The first couple of weeks are a really important time because the bees have to settle in, release the queen, and start raising brood. If they're constantly disturbed, they may feel unsafe and take off.

5-6 days after installation, make sure the queen is out and comb is being built straight, but keep disturbances to a minimum for awhile. You can take quick peeks through an observation window, but unless you have some issue that needs to be addressed (e.g., crooked comb is something I'd deal with immediately) try to limit inspections to once every 7-10 days. Until the colony population is increasing rather than declining, try to leave them alone. Every time the hive is opened, it changes the temperature/humidity inside, and the bees have to work hard to restore optimal conditions.

Tip 4: Keep any screened bottom boards closed.

This sounds like a reiteration the previous tip, but it's really, really important, so it bears repeating, nagging, harassing, haranguing, badgering... If there is one thing I could convince new beeks to do, this would be it. If I weren't too lazy to reorder my list, I might bump this tip to #1. ;-)

I've heard so many cases of bees absconding within a month after install, and in every single case, the bees left because the screened bottom board was open.

If you want to do mite counts, SBBs are helpful, but they just seem to make it way too difficult for a brand new colony to control its environment. In TBHs occupied by weak colonies, SBBs provide too much fluctuation in temperature and humidity, allow pests in, and -- if feeding -- attract ants.

Remember that package bees are dying off and not being replaced until the first brood cycle emerges about 3 weeks after install. (3-5 days to release queen + 20 days until adult workers emerge) They're not going to generate much heat for awhile, so minimize stresses and leave the SBB closed until the colony has had a chance to build up. Even if the weather gets hot, the girls can manage, so keep the SBB closed.

Tip 5: Give the bees an appropriate amount of space

Remember that a swarm looks for a hive that is an appropriate size -- about 40 L in volume. If the space you give your bees is too small or too large, the hive will be that much less attractive to them. This is a good time to use your follower board to set the boundaries of the space that your bees can inhabit.

Depending on the dimensions of your hive, your total hive volume will vary. (There is a link on this page for calculating the volume of a trapezoidal object if you'd like to check it out.) However, for most TBHs, 12-15 bars is an appropriate amount of space for a new package.

Tip 6: Reduce entrances

A package just doesn't have enough bees to defend itself properly right away, so help them out by minimizing entrances. If you have an entrance slot, reduce it. If you have multiple holes for entrances, open just one of them. Leave them reduced until you see the entrance becoming a bottleneck for bees entering/exiting the hive.

Tip 7: Use a "queen excluder"(optional)

True confessions -- Even though I've never used a queen excluder, I've never experienced a package absconding.  However, I do hear quite a few success stories involving excluders, so if that's a tool that works, then why not make use of it?  It's better than ordering new bees.

Some people make their own excluders by repurposing/redesigning Lang excluders. However, it should be possible to just staple a piece of 1/4" hardware mesh over the entrance. The holes are large enough for worker bees to pass, but they should be too small for the queen's poochy tummy to squeeze through. Again, I've never tried this myself, but it seems a viable approach.

So those are my tips for preventing bees from absconding. Do any of you experienced beeks have your own stories or tips to share?


  1. This is a good one Julie well done, even if you're not happy with the order:)

    I cannot think of anything else to add..... Being a beekeeper though it wouldn't be right to not express an opinion so IF you're housing a swarm instead of a package be careful about using a queen excluder to block them in as Virgin queens (and smaller "flight-ready" queens) can squeeze through.

    1. Thanks, Dewey!

      Glad you brought that up about housing swarms. I hadn't thought of it, but you're absolutely right. A virgin queen could slip out, but might not be able to slip back in. Good point! Thanks for that input!

  2. Really nice summary, Julie! One point of clarification on Tip 3 about keeping the hive "completely" closed that may confuse a new beek. You want to have an entrance open (one hole or a very reduced slot entrance) and not have the hive completely sealed for the first 5-6 days. You do cover this in Tip 6, but when I first read Tip 3, I was a bit confused. ;-)

    1. Thanks, Don. Glad you pointed out that "completely" closed does NOT mean closing the entrance!!! I can see how that was badly worded, and if I ever update this, I'll definitely fix that. THANK YOU for clarifying!!!

  3. All excellent tips! Even when following the rules I still had one of the four packages I installed this year take a hike on me. Although I did not give them brood. Perhaps that is where I fell short.

    1. So sorry about your package that absconded. That's the problem with bees. Even when you do everything by the book, they have their own ideas. Hopefully, you'll be able to make a split to fill that hive.


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