Absconding or CCD?

How can you tell if your bees absconded or disappeared due to colony collapse disorder? Many similarities exist between the two and it can be confusing.

When a colony absconds, the entire colony leaves the hive including all the workers and the queen. The bees usually take everything with them, including the stored honey, and leave only the empty combs behind.

Bees that abscond usually leave for one or more of the following reasons:

  • Lack of food
  • Lack of water
  • Overheating
  • Loud and continuous noise
  • Fires that cause prolonged exposure to smoke
  • Bad odors in the hive
  • Frequent disturbance
  • Invasion by predators such as yellowjackets, small hive beetles, Argentine ants, or wax moths
  • Parasites such as Varroa mites
  • Diseases such as American foul brood

Colony collapse disorder also results in a hive without bees, but the circumstances are different. Although we still don’t know the specific cause of CCD, a collapsed colony has specific characteristics.

  • Before a colony collapses it may contain much more brood than the small workforce can care for. In addition, the adult bees that are present are reluctant to take feed.
  • Once the colony disappears, it may leave behind both capped brood and the queen. The hive may be full of stored food as well—honey, uncured nectar, and pollen are all abandoned.
  • Then, after the collapse, a long period of time may elapse before the food stores and honeycombs are attacked by hive pests such as wax moths and small hive beetles.

Most of the time, especially in the spring, a new beekeeper is more likely to experience an absconding hive. A package of bees hived in brand new equipment may easily decide it would rather live somewhere else. Absconding also occurs frequently during a nectar dearth when food and water are scarce. In that case, the colony may decide to try its luck elsewhere.

However, when the bees disappear late in the year, when they leave lots of stores behind, when they leave brood behind, or when they seem to disappear without a trace, careful scrutiny is warranted. Yes, your particular bees may have absconded for some compelling reason and left some things behind. On the other hand, you should at least check for signs of CCD.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

chris
Reply

Rusty, you said one contributing factor to a colony absconding is ‘Bad odors in the hive’ – what exactly are we talking about here? I’m not planning on having my hives near a sewer, but what constitutes a ‘bad odor’ for bees?

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

One thing that comes to mind is chemicals used for mite treatments, such as thymol or formic acid. Another is chemicals used as wood preservatives. Also some paints can cause absconding which is why painted hives should be thoroughly dried before using. Some folks say bees don’t like cedar, but I don’t know if that is true or not. Harsh environmental pollutants, such as that from pulp mills, can also cause absconding, presumably because it causes the bees to have trouble detecting other smells such as nectar sources and pheromones.

chris
Reply

Ah, makes sense, thanks for the feedback.

John
Reply

My experience with CCD would indicate no bees left in the hive, no dead ones at the entrance and strangely enough, honey stores that the other colonies leave alone. It seems that the colonies were a bit light on workers before vanishing but not anything as noticeable as the leftovers after swarming. This year I lost no overwintered colonies nor divides late season (AUG) but new packages were a challenge this year. Of course the weather (lack of rain) has a huge impact. The new order probably warrants feeding packages for a long, long time. I mix it up with new and old equipment…not sure bees really like that new product lumberyard smell.

Rusty
Reply

John,

I agree that bees are wary of new lumber. When I’ve had colonies abscond it was almost always from a brand new hive with the freshly milled smell. If the smell is noticeable to us, imagine how strong it must seem to bees.

JoAnne
Reply

Great info. Thanks Rusty. I was called by a homeowner to collect a swarm this fall. It was a pretty large swarm and seems strong and healthy. I couldn’t imagine why a colony would swarm so late in the season. After reading your post I am thinking it might be a colony that absconded instead. Your thoughts?

Rusty
Reply

JoAnne,

It’s hard to say for sure, but since it was fall and since the colony is large, I would say there is a very good chance that it absconded from somewhere, probably from lack of food or water.

abdul Ghafoor chandio
Reply

Mr Rusty,

I have honey bees, but when I feed them inside, most honey bees die after that. What can be the reason? Another question, what precautions should be adopted for the month of December and January to make honey bees healthy? Please send some tips for the next two cold months.

Rusty
Reply

Abdul,

When you say “feed them inside” I assume you are feeding inside the hive. Also, I assume they are drowning in the syrup? I don’t know where you are, but the most important thing during the cold months is to make sure they have enough food, that they are kept dry, and they are free from cold drafts. If they need food, you should give them hard candy or fondant in the winter, not syrup. You should open up the hive on a warmish day and make sure water is not condensing on the inner cover. If it is, you need to ventilate the hive such that the moisture dries out, but you don’t want to set up too much draft. There are lots of suggestions in this site if you search for keywords such as ventilation, moisture, overwintering, winter feed, candy, etc.

dave
Reply

I am a newbie. I have two hives and my two colonies have absconded. One colony the bees were all gone. The other colony, there were numerous dead bees remaining in the hive. I have been unable to determine the reason. My question is, can I extract the honey from the hives? Thanks.

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

I see no problem with extracting the honey, but if you are going to continue beekeeping you may want to save the frames for starting new colonies. New colonies will start quicker and build faster with a few frames of honey. In addition, newly installed colonies are less likely to abscond in spring if they have a ready-made food supply.

Of course, I’m assuming there is no honey bee disease such as foul brood that could be passed on through the honey. If that were the case, you are better off extracting the honey. Bee diseases are not passed on to humans.

Is it possible that one of your hives died out and one absconded? I’m thinking the one with dead bees may have died for some reason. Was there honey in just the hive with dead bees or in both hives?

dave
Reply

There was honey in both. They seemed to have taken a turn after I started feeding them. I did a 2 to 1 ratio. One colony was always stronger by probably at least twice the number of bees. That is the one I found the dead bees in. Thank you for your comments and attention to my problem.

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

I don’t think I’ve been much help but I am very interested in the large number of absconding colonies I’ve heard about this year. It seems crazy that there have been so many, especially those leaving behind honey stores. I don’t think that feeding the bees had anything to do with them leaving; it was probably just coincidence, although feeding can lure predators and robbers. But since the honey wasn’t taken, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Don’t forget that you need to protect those frames of honey from damage regardless of what you decide to do with them. You don’t want them to be attacked by insects or small mammals, or large ones either.

Deb Weyrich-Cody

Hi Rusty and Dave, I just stumbled in here while looking for info on absconding vs swarming, so not sure where you are, or whether you may have already covered the subject – and being new to your site I won’t leave a live link – but you may find some answers on niagarabeeway(dot)com. Our local beekeeper’s association had this fellow speak at the Ssmmer meeting and what he had to say is truly disturbing, to say the least…

Bee well, Deb.

Bobbi
Reply

I lost several of my hives this summer, not exactly sure what happened, they were doing good then 2 weeks later they were all gone, most of the honey gone also. Had predators stealing what was left behind. The wax was hard and brittle in most of the frames, why would this be? Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Rusty
Reply

Bobbi,

It is nearly impossible to say without actually seeing the hives. With the bees and most of the honey gone, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were caused by wasps, yellowjackets, or robbing honey bees.

Wax becomes hard and brittle when the volatile elements in it evaporate. When the hive is dry inside—in other words no honey, no pollen, no nectar, no bees—it dries out quickly and becomes brittle. In late summer when the nectar resources become scarce, it is a good idea to reduce the size of the entrance or put a robbing screen on the outside of the hive.

Donna
Reply

I too have heard about large numbers of “absconding” colonies this year and late into the fall. In SC we tend to have erratic weather; 28 degrees one night and 70 the next day. So we blame a lot on the weather. I’ve been hearing the statement tossed around, “Have YOU ever known anybody who experienced CCD?” That got me thinking about the difference between absconding and CCD. Now it’s happened to me.

Last week I noticed no activity outside a hive and inside, no bees! A little capped brood, pollen, nectar, a super+ of honey. Very few dead bees on the screen bottom??? Well, today same thing on another hive. A few more dead bees on the screen bottom, a few dead SHB and the dead queen. No dead bees on the ground outside either hive. Is this considered CCD? This is perplexing.

Rusty
Reply

This very concise description of CCD from Wikipedia is based on the work of the MAAREC CCD Working Group:

A colony which has collapsed from CCD is generally characterized by all of these conditions occurring simultaneously:

-Presence of capped brood in abandoned colonies. Bees normally will not abandon a hive until the capped brood have all hatched.
-Presence of food stores, both honey and bee pollen:
–i. which are not immediately robbed by other bees
–ii. which when attacked by hive pests such as wax moth and small hive beetle, the attack is noticeably delayed.
-Presence of the queen bee. If the queen is not present, the hive died because it was queenless, which is not considered CCD.

Your case sounds suspicious, especially since it happened to more than one hive.

Donna
Reply

There were no conditions that might have promoted absconding. I think the remaining bees & SHB’s died from the cold. There were not enuff bees left in the hive to cluster & keep warm. There may have been a dead queen on the screen bottom of the first hive, but I didn’t think to look for her before I brushed some leaves away. I’ve had it in my mind that CCD was a commercial beekeepers problem. My way of thinking has changed. Us “small time hobbyist” need to observe closely too!

Rusty
Reply

Donna,

I think a lot of us think that way, that CCD is a problem belonging to “them” not “us.” It will be helpful if we can ever figure out what causes it.

Donna

I agree. It’s a truly sad sight to see. Not a good Christmas present for me, however Merry Christmas to everyone at Honey bee Suite!
D

Jennifer Erickson
Reply

Thank you for this article. This will help me figure out what happened and what to do next. I have just lost a two-year-old colony that seemed extremely healthy 6 weeks ago. We took the honey from the top super. The next time I checked them, 3 weeks later, I noticed that the sound was a bit different and fewer bees were entering and leaving the hive. Then, last weekend the hive was completely empty of bees but full of moths. No dead bees anywhere! I don’t know when they left, it could have been anytime in the last 3 weeks. What do you advise that I do? It’s October and I won’t be able to get a new package of bees this time of year so I will have to try again in the spring. Is it worth trying with the same hive or should I get new equipment? Could this be related to me taking the top super’s honey? It was the first time we harvested.

Rusty
Reply

Jennifer,

Once of the signs of CCD is that other invertebrates do not move into the hive right away, but you had moths within three weeks. Also, if the queen was missing and there was no capped brood or food stores left behind, I would say your bees absconded, especially since the hive was strong fairly recently.

It may have been related to taking the honey. If there was a lot of honey left for the bees, it usually would not lead to absconding. If you took most of what they had stored, they may have decided to take their chances elsewhere. It happens.

Anyway, my guess is that your hive and equipment are just fine. Clean up the moth damage and install a new package in the spring.

Jennifer Erickson
Reply

Thank you so much Rusty! I really appreciate the advice. We will do that.

They had SO much in the bottom super and in the two hive boxes below, I can’t image that they didn’t have enough, but I did notice they became extremely aggressive after we took that top box. My gentle little bees were stinging for the first time ever. Maybe I just made them that mad!

The comb and honey in the hive, should I just leave it over the winter for the new package next spring? The boxes are so full they are almost impossible to lift.

Rusty
Reply

Jennifer,

I was under the impression that there was not much honey left in the brood boxes. So let me check on something: did they leave the queen or any capped brood behind when they left?

Jennifer Erickson
Reply

I live a couple of hours away from our farm- so this is second hand, but no queen and no brood is what dad is reporting. I am heading out Friday to see if he missed anything. He said is was just totally full of heavy, capped comb.

I’m overly sad about this!

Rusty
Reply

Jennifer,

You should be fine just getting a new package. Do protect the rest of the combs from wax moths, beetles, and robbers. You don’t want to lose all that nice comb and honey.

Jennifer Erickson
Reply

Thank you Rusty! Just one more quick question- how would you protect it? just close the entrance or should I pull the frames and put them in rubber tubs for the winter?

Rusty
Reply

Jennifer,

Both wax moths and beetles (if you have them) can be controlled by freezing the frames. Wrap in plastic, freeze overnight, keep plastic wrap in place to prevent re-infestation. For details see: Freeze comb to prevent wax moth damage.

Nicole
Reply

I hope you are still answering questions on this forum. We were shocked this week to open our two hives from the winter and find two supers full of honey, but no bees (some dead ones) and no brood. No damage otherwise to the hive. What could have happened?

Rusty
Reply

Nicole,

It’s really impossible to tell without knowing more. Where do you live (north or south)? When was the last time you checked the hives? Did you treat for mites last fall? Do you live in an agricultural area?

Nicole
Reply

Thank you for responding. We live in northern Alabama. We have only two hives. Both colonies were a split with new queens that we received from a neighboring bee keeper last March, after our first bees ever (the year before) that we had mailed ordered came late spring and didn’t have time and/or resources to build enough stores from brand new equipment, so they died out over the winter. The split received the benefit of the early colonies comb and honey. The hives were opened last in October, then left alone to winter. My husband was feeding them through the winter. We became concerned this spring when we saw only few bees flying in and out with no pollen. One hive had two full production supers of honey, the other one died earlier, that hive had very little. We did not treat for mites, but show no signs of any infestations. We live in an agricultural area, last year the crop of choice was soybeans around our area. A friend who lives a mile west of us has bees that are thriving.

Rusty
Reply

Nicole,

I would say they died of mites, especially since you live in an agricultural area near other people who also keep bees. You say there were no sign of mites, but when few bees are left in a hive that still has plenty of honey, that is a sign of infestation. You probably wouldn’t see the mites, only the telltale dead colony with honey. Virtually all colonies have mites, and to keep the colonies alive, you have to do something. If you are not using mite-resistant bees (such as varroa-sensitive hybrids or survivor stock) then you will have to use treatments of some kind or another. Some colonies can make it one year without treatment, but most can’t.

You can’t assume a hive doesn’t have mites. You have to assume they do, and then decide how you are going to manage them. It is not a question of if, but of how. There are many ways of dealing with mites, but if you ignore them, your colonies don’t have a chance.

Michael
Reply

I live in upstate South Carolina. I started with one hive this year and it was doing fantastic. I installed an entrance reducer in November and started feeding. They took the first pail feeder with no problem. The second feeder they didn’t touch. I checked on them on December 15 and all had left with only a handful remaining. I have no idea what happened. They were thriving and suddenly POOF. This is my first attempt at beekeeping so I’m going to assume I did something wrong when trying to winterize them.

Rusty
Reply

Michael,

Are you sure they left or did they die? If the undertaker bees kept the dead cleaned up, then you would be left with just a handful in the hive. Did they have stored food? Bees can’t drink syrup that gets below 50 degrees, so if that’s the only food they had, they may have starved. How about mites? Mites can seriously weaken a hive until there aren’t enough bees left to keep the cluster warm. Did they have a viable queen? Queens sometimes die in the fall, and then the colony slowly dwindles away. When was the last time you saw the queen or saw some brood? It could be any number of things, but if you can figure out what happened, you have a better chance of preventing it in the future. Be sure to read “The value of a post mortem.”

Gigi
Reply

Hello, I caught a giant swarm on Monday (Memorial day). I brought them home, cleaned up a old hive, dumped them in from the trap – wasn’t too sure if I got the queen under the extruder or not- but apparently I did not – cause two days later – (even with food and water in the hive) they absconded. What a magnificent sight. BUT now my question is why is there just a baseball sized ball of bees left behind? And observing them closely there are about 4- three in rows perfectly lined up next to each other and the remains bees re hovered in a cup over them. I’m HOPING they are laying workers and there rest are providing warmth and they will stay. I know its just a matter of time these too will leave but I have never observed this before can someone tell me whats going? I separated them about 15 feet from another hive – I do think there was some disruption with the other hives but I’m wondering about the clump left behind.

Thxs gigi

Rusty
Reply

Gigi,

I’m guessing, but my guess is that the main part of the hive absconded while some of the bees were out foraging. When they came home, they didn’t know where everyone else went, so they are still there.

Peter de V
Reply

Hi Rusty

I couldn’t find a better place to post my question, please edit this out of the post;

I know bees do not take kindly to odours, like pesticides and even sweat. Whenever my father and I worked with bees, if we had used deodorant or were sweaty, they would become aggressive. I also fully understand that our human sense of smell and what we appreciate differs vastly from that of bees.

A colleague has asked me to remove a swarm from a sewer manhole on his property, they are attacking the gardener. I will remove them and give them to a friend who is wanting to start with beekeeping for personal consumption.

My question is twofold.
Why on earth would a swarm of bees move into a sewer manhole with that constant stench?

Most importantly though, after removal, will the colony clean up the comb so that the honey produced in next season be safe for human consumption given the origin of the swarm? My logic tells me that the colony will be riddled with ‘bugs’ which the human body will not appreciate.

Maybe someone has been through this before and can provide insight.

Kind regards

Peter

Rusty
Reply

Peter,

I will move your comment as soon as I can figure out where to put it. In the meantime, refresh my memory. You are in South Africa, I think?

The first question I would ask is if these are honey bees in the sewer and not wasps. I know, sounds silly, but it happens all the time. If your friend knows bees, that’s fine. Otherwise I would check.

It doesn’t seem like a place honey bees would choose, but you never know. Do you keep A.m. scutellata or something else? I’m sorry if I asked this before, but I can’t remember.

Honey bees are very careful with their honey stores, and they carefully clean and polish cells before they are reused. Then too, honey is highly hygroscopic such that microbes can’t live in it, which is why honey is used to dress wounds and burns. Still, I can’t say it sounds very appetizing. Perhaps the beekeeper could mark these combs in some way and use them for brood production only. Then he could harvest honey from newly formed combs.

Peter de V
Reply

Hello

They are definitely honey bees, he brought me a short video of the entrance so that I could estimate the size by the activity and colour at the entrance. It is the cape honey bee, which is a variation of the western scutellata by the looks of it (Cape Town – S.A.).

I removed it yesterday. There were 4 pieces of comb approximately 6″ wide each with plenty of beautiful brood, which means they were there for approximately 2 months.

Without all the details, the property owners are a medical doctor and an engineer, perfect situation for what transpired. The engineer climbed into the manhole to clear debris after removing the bees, and we had a doctor on site if needed. Both of them, with all their knowledge and experience, didn’t hesitate to eat some honey from the offcuts of comb. So, if they become ill, we have our answer … They said it tasted great …

I will take your advice a step further. I will mark the frames which have the original comb, and once they have more comb to work with, I’ll completely remove and destroy that comb just to be safe.

Kind regards

Peter

Rusty
Reply

Peter,

The cape honey bee (Apis mellifera capensis) is a different subspecies from A. m. scutellata, but they both appear in your area—although capensis is concentrated in the south, and scutellata to the north. Capensis is known for thelytoky, which means worker eggs can produce more workers. Cool, eh?

R
Reply

Hello,

I installed a package of bees this spring. They were doing very well. The queen laid eggs fine for a long time. Then I noticed when I inspected the hive that something was a little off. I wasn’t sure and did not know what it was. I kept observing. Then one time this fall I was sure that the problem was that their queen had stopped laying for while. They really really needed a new queen. I installed a new one quickly, and the colony seemed to be getting back to business. The new queen was laying, and they seemed fine.

Then I checked back a few days later, and they were gone. They left the babies. There was not much, if any, honey left. I saw a few bees moving around on the combs. They looked very unhealthy. They were stumbling around and one had a tattered wing. The small hive beetles took over very quickly. I removed the good comb and left the rest.

I read about all the different common bee ailments. I thought what happened was CCD. I am now thinking about whether to buy another package of bees in the spring. I checked the hive today. The beetles are gone, but now there is some mold on the bottom screen.

I have a top bar hive. What do you think happened to them? If I throw out the yucky combs, clean the hive with your recommended solution (water, salt, vinegar), and expose it to the sunlight, do you think it would be ready for a new package of bees?

I would appreciate your advice. I am still a beginner beekeeper.

Rusty
Reply

R,

Before I answer, can you tell me roughly where you live so I have an idea of climate/weather etc?

Rusty
Reply

R,

This sounds like a classic case of Varroa mites. I asked about your area because it seems that absconding may be more common where there are a lot of Africanized genes, but this doesn’t sound like that at all. The fact that some brood remained, that some honey remained, that the bees looked ill, that nearly all the bees were gone, and that it all happened very quickly spells viral diseases carried by Varroa mites.

What did you do for Varroa control and when? That would tell us a lot.

R
Reply

I checked for that afterwards. I thought that when you have a hive die out from Varroa mites, you will find lots of debris on the bottom of hive from them. I have a screened bottom on my hive. I looked on the board underneath the screen and did not see what the pictures showed. As a result, I did not think they died from that.

I was giving them this solution for mite control. http://www.brushymountainbeefarm.com/Honey-B-Healthy/productinfo/468/

They did not always take it though.

R
Reply

I understand now how it could be varroa mites. Thank you.

R
Reply

I live in Fort Worth, Texas in the the zip code 76112.

Rick
Reply

Rusty,
I had the same problem as Jennifer. I started these bees last year and they wintered fine. They made it through the spring and summer until mid-July. I checked the bees and there was good sounds in the hive. 2 weeks later I checked and there were bees. Three weeks later nothing. They left no honey or stores, just regular wax and a brown wax foundation. Can I reintroduce bees in the hive next year? Do I need to treat the foundation to prevent diseases? I am in Montana and a new beekeeper. I am assuming since no bees they took off on me for better digs so will start over with the same hive if that works. Thanks,
Rick

Rusty
Reply

Rick,

If you checked the frames for AFB and found no sign of it, then I would just go ahead and re-use the equipment. If the frames are empty and there are no piles of dead bees, I think they either absconded or died of varroa mites. But in either of those two cases, you can just re-install new bees.

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