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Two beekeepers watch their bees abscond

Oftentimes, what we describe as absconding is actually collapse from varroa mites. Some of the confusion is due to the speed at which the collapse occurs and the size of the affected colony, which may be huge. In addition, the act of absconding is rarely seen and the colony is seldom found.

But this week I heard from two beekeepers in Los Angeles who actually watched their colony leave the hive and disappear. The colony was known to have mites because varroa-bedecked dead bees had been recovered from their swimming pool. Other aspects of the hive also look like varroa collapse, including a small circle of shot brood and plenty of honey left behind.

John and Jen Petrovich did a thorough write-up of what they saw, and I thought it was fascinating. With their permission, I’m posting their story below along with some photos. The text was edited for clarity.

If you have any insight as to what happened, we would love to hear from you.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

[Note: This post updated on 11/16/2017 with additional photos.]


Witnesses to an absconding colony

“My wife and I are backyard beekeepers and actually witnessed an absconding yesterday, November 12. We wanted to share what the experience was like and also give a few complicating factors. Here are the details:

We trapped a feral swarm in April by setting up an old hive body and supers in our backyard. The colony grew very fast. We had an exceedingly hot summer here in Los Angeles, so there was lots of bearding and apparent overcrowding in the hive. It was a two-box stack—both full size—with a queen excluder in the middle. In an attempt to give them more room, we put another small box under the queen excluder and a second full-size box above it.

Varroa mites were present

The bee traffic in and out of the hive was phenomenal all summer long and they were putting up lots of honey in the honey dome above the excluder. We have a swimming pool, and when inspecting the bees that fell into the pool, we noticed that some did have varroa mites on them, but by no means all. (No scientific sampling done, just looking at random dead bees). We decided not to treat (It’s hard to do in California anyway, without an applicator’s license).

By the middle of October, we noticed the in-and-out traffic was significantly lower. We weren’t disturbed by this because we know there is usually a drop off in the late summer/early fall. We saw the same foraging behavior, just not as heavy. This was the case even up to Saturday this past weekend: plenty of bees, plenty of activity in the hive working on the honey super, etc. The last hive we had survived for over 3 years and there never seemed to be any problem for them finding sources of nectar and pollen. There’s always something blooming year-round in LA, and we grow a lot of plants in our garden that provide a good source right near the hive.

A bee cloud forms and leaves

Yesterday morning, we noticed that a small “bee cloud” was forming in front of the hive. This was new behavior, so we watched it throughout the day. By about 4 pm (about an hour before sundown) the bee cloud expanded and the entire backyard (about a 50′ x 50′ area) was full of bees just flying around randomly, so many that you would not be comfortable anywhere in the backyard without being suited up (normally not the case).

As it got closer to sundown, the extended bee cloud in the entire backyard began to dissipate, but in looking at the hive continuing into the early evening after sundown, we witnessed a steady stream of bees leaving the hive. They would walk out the hive opening, up the face of the hive to the top of the stack of boxes, and then take off (even though it was quite dark in the early evening). By 9 pm there was very little activity in the hive, and the normal “hum” of the bees was all but gone.

Inside the empty hive

We opened the hive up this morning thinking that we might find that it was a varroa mite-induced colony collapse after reading this article and the other one you posted about varroa mites. What we found left us scratching our heads. Above the queen excluder there was a ton of honey left behind, probably about a gallon and a half of honey in the top box of the honey dome and none in the next one down, just some comb being built out. Only a few dozen bees left in the upper supers, apparently ones that didn’t get the memo on the evacuation. This is consistent with what you wrote about a varroa induced colony collapse.

When we got down below the queen excluder, though, the story was completely different. As we pulled out frames from the half super and the original full hive body box, every bit of comb was absolutely clean, no honey, no pollen, and very little brood left behind. All very clean and neatly uncapped, none of the evidence that the honey was cleaned out by parasites, no moths, no beetles (we found 3 or 4 beetles, but no evidence of an infestation or damage to the comb). No bees at all left in the hive body, and no dead bees in the bottom of the hive. If we looked just at the hive body, we would swear that it was a textbook absconding.

Anyway, that’s our story. We’d be interested in your thoughts. We decided to write when we read in your article that very few people actually have witnessed an absconding, so we wanted to contribute to the knowledge with what we saw.

John and Jen Petrovich

These frames came from the hive body, below the excluder. As you can see, all of the cells are picked clean with sharp, clean edges, definitely not done by parasites or invaders. These are half-high frames put in a full-size hive box, so the bees built their own comb hanging off the bottom. You can see a few brood cells left, but no pollen, no honey, no nectar. These 10 frames and the 10 half-high frames in the next box up (also below the excluder) are absolutely clean. © Jen Petrovich.
Shot brood. Did their bees abscond?
The curious thing about the frames from above the excluder is the presence of some brood. This means that the queen either got through the excluder, or (more likely) left the hive body and re-entered the hive through a secondary vent hole/entrance that I drilled in the hive box right above the excluder. I did this during the heat wave this summer to provide some air circulation and ventilation. The thought occurred to me that this might have been what contributed to the absconding and collapse of the colony, maybe the queen found her way into the upper honey dome and couldn’t find her way back to the hive body, which set off some sort of panic in the hive that the queen had been lost and that they had to move on. Hard to say, and I’m definitely not a bee psychologist! © Jen Petrovich.
The other photos are of the frames from the upper honey dome, above the queen excluder. Tons of honey. Probably close to a gallon and a half in all. © Jen Petrovich.
© Jen Petrovich.
© Jen Petrovich.
© Jen Petrovich.

Additional photos

After the first round of comments, John and Jen opened some of the remaining brood cells to see what they could find. The new photos are below.

Photo of white-eyed pupa, fairly normal.
To me, this looks like a fairly normal pupa, still in the white-eye stage. © Jen Petrovich.
Another photo of shot brood.
Another photo of shot brood. © Jen Petrovich.
A cropped view of the brood nest.
This photo is cropped from the photo above. © Jen Petrovich.
Liquidy young pupae.
These pupae are younger, but liquidy. It’s hard to say what got them. You can see mites on the board below. © Jen Petrovich.
Partially developed dead brood.
Another angle of the partially developed brood. © Jen Petrovich.

A final note

None of us are perfect beekeepers, but we strive to do our best based on our individual skills and knowledge. I greatly admire folks like John and Jen who are willing to share experiences so that we all may learn and develop our abilities. I especially appreciate the opportunity to see something I haven’t seen before, so thank you. —Rusty.

Comments

Terri Brantley
Reply

I am guessing you weren’t doing any regular hive inspections so your queen may have been gone quite a while. Did you see any evidence they tried hatching another queen? I have read it’s quite common for workers to lay eggs if a colony becomes queenless. Just my very inexperienced observations! How extremely interesting, but so sad for you to lose the colony. Thank you for sharing. Love this site!

Rusty
Reply

Terri,

Good questions, Terri. To me, the brood pattern doesn’t suggest laying workers because it is in a definite circle and the caps are flat, not mounded like drone brood. Laying workers only lay drone brood and they lay their eggs randomly throughout the frames. My guess, based on the scanty brood, is there was a queen, at least until three about weeks ago. Although, if the brood is dead under those cappings, it may have been longer.

This leads me to think John and Jen should open the caps and see “how dead” the pupae are. Recently dead (because they got chilled) or longer dead. Also, they may see varroa in there, either alive or dead.

Gail
Reply

Please notify me of follow-up comments.

Rusty
Reply

Gail,

You need to check the box beneath your comment.

BeeHappy
Reply

Ok, so if we are to have a guess:

Due to some environmental factors, I’ll list them last, the bees immune systems were weakened.

Eventually some of this nefarious substance, either caused queen failure or a significant drop in queen pheromone production. They had a supersedure, and the mated young queen flew in the hole created for ventilation, perhaps that is the hole she few out. Young just hatched queens often can get thru an excluder.

In a frantic attempt at survival they tried to start another queen. However either she was a bad egg, or succumb to the nefarious substance, or perhaps had a mite on her. The new brood nest in the upper chamber was now failed as well, so not just queenless but hopelessly queenless. So alas they flew off in search of a queenright hive to join, and while away the cold winters eve.

Environmental factors:

A pool is mentioned, the bees need water, we are in LA so 1 or several pools could have been the water source, with chemicals in the water.

I seen a website listing the products not to use near bees and it was the who’s who of the Walmart pesticides aisle, in a town or city I do not see how some of these pesticides do not get into the pollen.

The virus vectored by mites, I think there are 6 or 7 now that the mite helps spread.

And the ones I did not think of but you may.

Combinations of the above, as more than one of these could have happened.

Enjoy,
Keith

Dieter
Reply

Looking @ the scattered brood cells in the second image with some brood, could that have been a laying worker? Would a queen not have laid in a more closed pattern? If so, would that provide a clue as to what might have happened?

Rusty
Reply

Dieter,

To me, this does not look like laying workers. I believe it was a solid brood pattern at one time, but the bees pulled out the dead or dying pupae, which gives the shot brood appearance. Also, as I think I mentioned earlier, this looks like worker brood, not drone brood.

James Hagerman
Reply

Dear John & Jen

The observation that many bees “seen in the swimming pool” had varroa on them is to me a sure sign that the colony was over run with an explosion of mites since we almost never see them (unless we test) until the colony is as good as dead. Also take a look inside of the empty brood cells. The mites should have left their “poop” on the sides of the cell walls. Look down from the top of the frame to see inside of the cells.

It’s a hard lesson but one that all beekeepers need to take to heart, (test for mites, treat to control them or lose the colony). Nothing else really works at this point with mites!

Your bees took a “bomb” of mites to their new home or home(s) since the mites are vary good at staying with their hosts as you saw at the swimming pool.

James

Rusty
Reply

James,

I agree with your assessment. In my opinion these bees absconded due to varroa mites. I was convinced of it when I got to the part about the mites in the swimming pool because, as you point out, once you actually see mites, you’re usually past being able to do anything about it. Normally, one doesn’t see mites, even with a fairly heavy infestation.

One point, guanine deposits are left on the “roof” of cells, so to see them, you need to tip the top of the frame away from you. If you look down from the top you won’t see them. (It’s the opposite of looking for AFB scales.)

Harold meinster
Reply

I wrote about this very similar occurrence last month. I was at work during the day and not able to see them off. I too had varroa in a very active hive, 4 boxes deep. Then during the end of August they were all gone, honey included. It happened all too fast. I accepted that it was varroa collapse, but it was not slow, but very quickly an empty box.

I was treating the varroa the second week of August. I surmise that the instinct of the hive was the varroa was overwhelming in the brood and they decided to relocate.

Unfortunately after all these years, I am never able to find a swarm that left the hive. I just can’t find them.

Rusty
Reply

Harold,

I recall you writing about this, but I still think collapse is much more likely than absconding. A huge hive can collapse in just a few days, and the bigger the hive the faster it seems to go down. And four deep boxes is huge. Remember, it’s the viruses, not the mites, that gets them. Once they all get sick, they go fast.

We’ll never know, of course, but I think the absconding thing is rare.

James Hagerman
Reply

Please send follow up comments (box now checked)

frances I Moore
Reply

Ha. I had a hive leave like that I did not see them go like u did. I got on the web and it said check the comb for white specks it looks like salt that is mite pee. The bees left because the mite load was too great for them; they could not stand it any longer. They did not know they were taking the mites with them when they left. I had not treated my bees I thought they had been and was treated before I got them from Pigeon Mountain Bee Farm, but they were not and I was a real newbee I did not know any different. so I lost both packages I got from them now I know to treat.

I checked the comb with a magnifier and sure enough mite pee everywhere, I could not see it with out the magnifier. So when mine left it was mites.

Deb Western Catskill Mtns NY
Reply

Hmmm, wish I could see and smell those frames better…I think it might have been a two queen hive? or they could have swarmed due to the QE and maybe she came back to the upper entrance. It seems as if the bottom was not used in a while, they might have moved any stores above the excluder. I think it looks as though there might be some mold in a few places on the comb but can’t tell. I didn’t see any mite poop. The bigger holes in the brood capping I’m not sure if they didn’t finish capping it; the tiny holes in the bottom deeps brood capping could be something viral or bacterial like AFB. Some of melted looking brood reminds me of PMS or EFB.

Rusty
Reply

Deb,

I, too, thought the lower box hadn’t been used in a while. I think a queen returned to the top box instead of the lower box after a supersedure, and then the lower bees just moved up with her. To me, the dead brood doesn’t look like AFB, and the cappings don’t look sunken. To me it looks more like PMS. But like you, I’d like a closer look.

KenA
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I wrote to you sometime ago about acquiring a “FlowHive” unit. Well, set it up last spring on top of my one established hive, second year, at the end of the season went to harvest and to my dismay found I couldn’t open the cells to allow harvesting due to excessive propolis buildup. The folks at the HoneyFlow website in Aussie came to my rescue and told me to open one column of cells at a time. This took quite a lot of time but success in the end. I’m collaborating with the Aussies to try a different method of keying the cells to overcome my problem. They are quite a helpful mob.

Second part, this spring I started a second hive using standard brood boxes and honey supers, I didn’t harvest from this hive this year as we had a pretty poor season so I left them all of the food they had collected. I’m a little worried about this hive having enough supplies and want to know if I should add a feeder to the top of the hive and will they access this through the winter if needed? Quite a few differing views about leaving feeders over the winter. Your advice?

Third part, I have ordered a Warre hive, this will be arriving shortly (dismantled) which will be my winter project building it for the spring (on top of and apart from the honey do list). My question, how do I install a nuc in a Warre hive?

I really enjoy your blog and find it a marvelous source of information and one that I trust.

Thanks for listening,

Ken A

Rusty
Reply

Ken,

You’re in Canada, eh? So, the thing with feeders is simple. If you are using liquid feed (syrup) the bees will not (or cannot) drink the syrup once it gets down around 10 C (50 F). Liquid that cold chills the bees and drops their body temperature until they are “frozen stiff,” barely able to move.

On the other hand, they can eat solid food all winter long. Moisture from the hive condenses on the sugar forming a film of liquidy feed, which they then consume. So to feed in winter, try solid feed such as sugar bricks or candy boards.

If your nuc is on standard-size frames, you are going to have to shake the bees into the Warre, I think. Then you can cut parts of the brood combs to fit and tie them onto the Warre bars. It will be a multi-stop process. Can you get package bees in Canada? That would be a lot easier.

KenA
Reply

Thanks Rusty,

Will get onto the solid food ASAP, have a warm day coming tomorrow, 9C so if I’m fully prepared I can get some solid food into the top of the hive lickety split. Be a nice break from raking leaves, (item 1 on honeydo list).

I can buy nucs from my local supplier in Port Hope, will check with them about bees for Warre hives, they sell top bar hives which is a similar proposition, thought about shaking the bees in but was wondering about the comb.

Ken

Mike Corne
Reply

Very informative and thank you for your time and effort to document your experience.

Annie Myers
Reply

Is it possible that the hive re-queened itself and when the new queen returned from her last mating flight she reentered the hive above the excluder and found herself honey-bound?

Rusty
Reply

Annie,

I certainly think it’s possible a new queen returned to the entrance above the excluder. But being “honey bound” going into winter doesn’t seem likely, especially since little brood is being raised this time of year, even in LA. A honey barrier is more apt to cause a problem during times of expansion.

Cal
Reply

Did they look for guanine deposits on the upper walls of brood cells? How about signs of DWV in the bees as the summer wore on? The small amount of brood above the excluder, in combination with the totally cleaned-out combs below it suggest the queen had gotten above and the workers just moved everything they could “upstairs” where she now was. Or, the original queen that lived below the excluder died, and they raised a replacement that returned to the upper entrance from her mating flight. In any event, the queen was above the excluder, not below, so that’s where everything got moved to, since they didn’t need all that space. Then, it looks like the colony shrank from dwindling reproduction during the late summer, compounded by a rapidly increasing mite load, and perhaps a failing queen as well. At last, they gave up and left as their final and probably futile attempt to avoid the depredations of the mites. Seems like honey bees will abscond as a non-specific response to some factor they find intolerable. I had a small nuc take off in June this year due to ants that had set up shop in their box.

Rusty
Reply

Cal,

I had one abscond due to yellowjackets. Luckily, I was able to re-capture the colony, queen and all. But you’re right about it being a “non-specific” response to an intolerable problem. I would love to know how common absconding really is.

Terri Brantley
Reply

OH dear! I just now put out a yellowjacket trap. My local home improvement store didn’t have any so I had to order one online. Please, please let it work quickly! Every time I go out to the hive I get to see a ball of angry workers rolling around with a yellowjacket at its center! I have gone from three hives down to one this year and don’t think I’ll have the heart to start all over again if I lose it.

ET Ash (aka Gene aka tecumseh)
Reply

I am not certain why the burr comb on the bottom bars of picture 1 but evidently someone placed the wrong frames in the wrong box??? Picture 2 informs me that there was definitely NOT a laying worker in this hive. The small pen holes in the capped brood does suggest varroa but I am wondering why some brood in the same area appears dark dead and decayed black? With varroa the primary thing to look for is varroa poop (looks like small white bits of thread) inside the cells around that small area of brood. I should mention here that lower California does have africanized bees and I am GUESSING that any highly africanized queen can squeeze thru a queen excluder < ps and to make this question even more undecided all queen excluders are not created equal with the plastic version being imho pretty much worthless.

Rusty
Reply

Gene,

I had a queen ruin a comb honey super this year, but what she did (I think) was leave the hive as a supersedure virgin. When she returned, she came in through the entrance hole in my comb honey super. I have real good comb honey production with upper entrances, but I learned the downside when this happened. Can’t blame her, though!

Debbie
Reply

Why we don’t use queen excluders for anything but candy boards. I saw a hive abscond this year, it took the whole hive, I estimated about 80,000 bees or more. Just started like a swarm, but then, poof, all was gone, no where in sight. When the hive was opened, here it was infested with mites and beetles. A ‘no treater’ hive, now infesting who knows how many hives. Mite detection requires diligence. They are getting more insidious and the viruses they carry are mounting.

A few years back I witnessed a usurpation, and when it was all over, the outside of the defending hive was covered in mites from the bees that had been trying to get in and covered the entire hive. Needless to say, we treated the defending hive right away in order to avoid infestation.

When I hear people telling me they don’t treat and the bees are ‘swarming’ at the wrong time of the year, I immediately think of the above scenario, as who knows where the mite infested bees go?, plus, they are not ‘swarming’, they are “absconding” because conditions are just awful in the hive. You also see this in late summer when conditions are sweltering and the hive is so hot and the mite load is overwhelming for the bees .. it’s just way too much for them to handle.

Live n learn ! If you don’t take care of the mites, they will take care of your bees !!

Rusty
Reply

Debbie,

I would love to hear more about your usurpation. I saw my first one this year, but I haven’t written about it yet. Perhaps you could email some additional information? Usurpations are fairly common where Africanized bees are common, but they are far less likely up here in the north. Thanks!

Anna
Reply

The BIP webpage is very useful when looking to figure out what may be going wrong (or went wrong) in a colony. This looks like PMS and then collapse to me (I’ve seen both early and late stages). You can use the test kit if you want more information: https://beeinformed.org/programs/emergency-response-kits-2/

Interesting to note is the difference in the coalescing of the bees- I’ve seen my colonies swarm and it is FAST, less than 10 minutes and the bees have exited the hive and settled. Jen and John describe the bee evacuation occurring over hours. Wonder if all absconsions occur like this?

MerryBee
Reply

I am puzzled by this statement: “We decided not to treat (It’s hard to do in California anyway, without an applicator’s license).”

A feral swarm is very likely to bring a high varroa load with it and should always be treated IMHO.
You could alternatively wait for the first frame of brood to be sealed, (containing most of the mites that came with the swarm), then remove and destroy it. That will set back colony development by no more than a couple of days.

Rusty
Reply

MerryBee,

Maybe someone from California can answer your question. It is my understanding that California has especially strict regulations for pesticide use, including in-hive mite treatments. I wouldn’t be surprised if those restrictions are discouraging mite treatment in many cases.

Dieter
Reply

Does this include vapourizing oxalic acid?

Rusty
Reply

Dieter,

I don’t know, which is why I hope someone from California will chime in. I tried to find the regulations on the web, but so far, I haven’t succeeded. I know that Brushy Mountain Bee Farm cannot ship their oxalic acid varroa kit to residents of California.

JoAnne
Reply

I was wondering what all the larger black spots in the cells were. Some sort of brood disease? Small hive beetles? Blackened, dead larvae? Resolution of pics is too small for me to tell.

Steve Nichols
Reply

The pictures of the ‘liquidy’ brood looks like it could be sac brood. I lost a hive from that at the beginning of the season.

Alan
Reply

Some of the symptoms you described, like the absconding in the late evening or night, reminded me of a website I had run across. It was about Zombees. Don’t laugh, this is evidently a real website.
http://www.zombeewatch.org

Alan Henning
Reply

Sorry Rusty,

I evidently missed that memo. I’ll have to go look at that. Al

debbie
Reply

Rusty,

I had 3, yes, three usurpation attempts on one hive … huge Italian hive. I will go back and look at my notes and write you what I can. It started at 6 a.m. and lasted most of the day … the hive had to be closed up. Then they came back two more times to try to gain access to the hive. My belief was that it was a feral hive, but I am not positive about that. I have tried to figure it out for a long time now. When it first happened no one believed me, they said ‘bees don’t fly at 6 a.m.”, but they do!

I do think more needs to be written on this, since it happens so fast sometimes that one w/not notice until they opened and hive and saw a different queen, and then one w/just think supersedure or replacement. I had asked so many bee keepers what happened and no one had an answer, then I saw an article by Mr.Magnum and it all fell into place for me.

Bees … if it isn’t one thing, it’s another! They sure keep you on your toes!

Rusty
Reply

Debbie,

I look forward to what you write. I believe usurpation happens more often than we realize, partly because it happens so fast, as you say.

Debbie
Reply

Rusty, I am gathering my notes and going through my computer files. It will take me a while, but I will get the information to you hopefully before the holidays. It happened back in 2015, so I have a lot of notes to find. Also, please email me your address, I have something to send to you that I would like to see you discuss and write about for your followers. Thanks!

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