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My bees swarmed right after installation

This is most likely to happen when you install a package of bees in a brand new, never-been-used hive. I’ve heard people say it’s the smell of new lumber they don’t like, or it’s the glue in plywood, or it’s the odor of paint. But it may just be that the bees are not in love with the place, and they would rather live elsewhere. Technically, they have not swarmed; they have absconded. Swarming is colony reproduction that produces two colonies from one. Absconding means all the bees left in one cohesive group. In other words, it is still only one colony—not two—and it lives somewhere inconvenient for the beekeeper.

The problem is easy to prevent. The package of bees will not leave without their queen, so if the queen can’t leave, the bees will stay and start to build comb. Once the comb-building process has begun—and the hive begins to smell like home—you can release the queen and relax.

To keep the queen home, you can leave her in the queen cage until comb-building is underway or you can use a swarm guard, which is like a queen excluder, across the entrance. Beekeeper Jim Withers pointed out that in Langstroth hives you can also use a regular queen excluder placed just under the lowest brood box. In any case, the queen should be released from her cage as soon as comb appears. Queen excluders need to be removed before any drones emerge.

I had several packages abscond at the prison where I taught beekeeping, all from top-bar hives. Since then, I always sequester the queen if the wood is new, or I install several bars of used brood comb—the darker the better—to start them off. This is the same type of comb you would use in a bait hive. Even though it looks disgusting, it is full of odors the bees find irresistible. Go figure.

But what about those old combs? Shouldn’t old black combs—which may contain pesticide build-up or disease—be rotated out of the hive? Absolutely. I handle this by using combs that are almost ready to retire, but not quite. For example, if you retire combs after four years, use three-year-old combs for baiting a hive or starting a colony on new wood. The following year you can rotate them out of the hives.

Comments

Nancy
Reply

Rusty, just in case this helps… I salvaged some old boxes and frames from a damp abandoned basement, and went over them with a heat gun (paint stripper). Figured if it could boil propolis or wax, it would kill other scary stuff. The split I used some in is thriving.

I got some more of them out to get ready for another split, and even now, a year after cleaning, if they sit in the sun there are sure to be honey bees around them, looking for food or just investigating the hive scents.

So even if you’ve had to remove the comb, just using the frames might make your setup more attractive to to the package.

We will find out this week. Just as you speculated, the city beekeepers who left 6 hives for me to look after all winter came and got them yesterday – well, the 4 that made it – because it’s “too far to drive” to harvest honey. I miss them, but mine (which I have to quit calling a “split”) is thriving, and I will be making a new split and putting in 2 packages this week. I think 4 is a nice number of colonies, don’t you? 😉 Thanks,
Nan

Gerry
Reply

I just read a website yesterday that said new packages shouldn’t be installed in a hive with a screened bottom board or there is an increased likelihood for them to abscond. The article said once the colony had drawn comb and brood established that it would then be save to replace the solid-bottom board with a screened one. Have you ever heard of that? To play it safe, I followed the advice so we’ll see what happens, but I think the queen excluder under the bottom brood chamber should be “fool proof.”

Rusty
Reply

Gerry,

No, I never heard of that. I’ve never had a package abscond and I always use a screened bottom. From the bottom up, I put a new package in a hive on a stand with screened bottom, slatted rack, deep brood box with half the frames removed to make room for the package, feeder only if they don’t have frames of honey, screened inner cover, and lid. I leave the queen caged for a minimum of three days.

Gerry
Reply

Rusty,

Maybe its more of an issue when installed with foundation only. Do you use a slatted rack below the brood chamber often? I never used one, but have been contemplating trying them out since starting back into this great hobby.

Gerry
Reply

Thanks Rusty! I just ordered five slatted racks for installation next week!

Rusty
Reply

Gerry,

That was quick!

Nel
Reply

Rusty,

We have been keeping bees in top-bar hives for 3 years. We try to do things as naturally as possible.

We placed a new package of bees in a hive in mid-April and when we looked yesterday there were 6 capped supersedure cells. There are combs with pollen and nectar and only a little spotty brood. All signs of no queen or weak queen.
We are unsure if this young hive would be able to wait for the process of the virgin queen emerging and taking her flight and returning to lay. We could give them some combs of brood from another hive without bees to help them maintain numbers? Would they have enough nurse bees to take care of the brood? Or should we get rid of the supersedure cells and buy a queen? Thanks for your help.
Best,
Nel

Rusty
Reply

Nel,

You could do either. If it were me, I would move a frame of brood and all the worker bees that are on it over to the queenless hive and let them raise their own queen from the supersedure cells. I like locally grown queens and find that they often do better than purchased queens. The extra bees and brood will help them get through the queenless period. Be careful not to move the queen from the other hive. She is easy to miss, so I like to find her so I know where she is for sure before I move a frame.

stacey
Reply

I just installed two new hives this week. After only one day, I noticed one hive seems to be doing great with lots of activity, the other however, had very few bees flying around outside, I couldn’t hear much when I listened next to the hive, etc. I opened that one up and found that nearly all the bees I installed are gone! There is a small cluster surrounding the queen cage, so I think the queen is still in there and alive (I haven’t verified this just yet) but I think the majority of the bees must have left. It is past mid-May now so I’m not sure if I even still have time to get another bee package but if I do, can I install another bee package in the existing hive with the current queen (assuming she’s still in there)? She will probably already be released from the cage by the time I could put new bees in the hive. Or would it be better to start with a new queen and begin the process all over, with waiting 3 or so days before release so the bees can adjust to her?

Rusty
Reply

Stacey,

You can add another package to the same hive, but the new package will come with a new queen. Alternatively, you could move a frame of eggs and nurse bees from the other hive over to the empty hive and see if you can get it going from that.

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