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I began this blog to chronicle my beekeeping experiences. I have read lots of beekeeping books, but nothing takes the place of either hands-on experience with an experienced beekeeper or good pictures of the process. I want people to have a clearer picture of what to expect in their beekeeping so I post pictures and write about my beekeeping saga here.Master Beekeeper Enjoy with me as I learn and grow as a beekeeper.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Absconding vs. Colony Collapse Disorder

I find myself thinking about Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day. Alexander is having such a bad time of it that he thinks throughout the book that he would like to move to Australia.

Although I imagine that Australian beekeepers have it pretty good - at least down there it's winter and if you are a beekeeper you are hoping your bees make it through the winter. Me, I'm struggling with my bees not making it through the summer.

So I came back from helping my brother in Natchez to find that Mellona was completely empty. The bees had absconded.

Beekeeping is an interesting challenge for me on so many levels. I have struggled all my life as an oldest child in my family, because I always feel like I have to get it right, make an A, follow the rules. Boy, beekeeping is really throwing a wrench into the works. I am forced as a beekeeper to face this "follow the rules and get it right" issue all the time.

So I switched hive positions, moving Mellona which was housed in three boxes - two 10 frame and one 8 frame - into the position of the Easter hive which had five ten frame boxes stacked. Mellona was then bursting out with bees at every possible opening, as the bees from the Easter hive returned to their old hive position.

But they hadn't used the frames in the top box so I didn't add a box. After all, the rule is to add a box when the box below is built out 80 %.

Also, I realized that they weren't solid with honey but didn't feed them because I thought they could manage with what is blooming now (although we are in a dearth). And I didn't want to feed sugar water before fall, if then, because it isn't natural.  And the rule is to feed the bees going into the fall, if you are going to feed them.  Not in the middle of the summer.

Well, pride goeth before a fall and all of that. Mellona absconded, leaving NOTHING behind. No bees, no brood, no honey, absolutely nothing.  A great lot of good it did for me to follow the rules so rigidly.

I sat down on my deck, smoker beside me, and cried. Why didn't I give them a box so they could spread out more? Why didn't I recognize that they needed food? Of course they've been gone for days and I have no clue where they went. There's no nectar anywhere in my neighborhood right now.

The pictures below show what they left - NOTHING.

Swarming:  A method of hive reproduction in which the queen and half of the bees in the hive leave to start a new hive, leaving behind the other half of the bees, queen cells, brood, honey, pollen
Absconding:  A desperate hive leaves with all the bees, the queen and everything else except the honeycomb. This happens when circumstances are not survivable in the hive as it is constituted.  The hive has no stores and no room.
Colony Collapse Disorder:  Adult bees are gone, but honey, pollen and some brood remain behind. The difference in absconding and CCD is that the honey, pollen and brood are left behind  Sometimes the queen and a handful of bees are left in the hive.  Opportunists (SHB and wax moths) seem slower to take over when CCD is the cause of the dead hive.
Robbing:  You can see dead bees and parts of bees on the tops of the frames and strewn all over the screened bottom board.  The edges of what had been capped honey are ripped, ragged and torn.  The hive may survive but the bees are disheartened and have no stores.

I remember last fall hearing a new beekeeper saying that she lost her first hive to colony collapse disorder. She didn't, I'm sure. I imagine she managed her hives as badly as I did this one and they absconded.

When bees leave at this time of year, that's what is going on. They have no stores and no hope because there's a dearth.  These bees were also bearding off of the hive in every single space - they didn't have enough room.  Then the bees leave because they have no hope of surviving in the hive as it is. They will probably die wherever they went, but they don't know anything else to do.

I am absolutely distressed.

See - completely empty comb. It hasn't been robbed out. You can tell because the edges of the comb are smooth - no torn and ripped wax. There just were no stores for these bees.  And not enough room.  Because the beekeeper was too rigid about following the rules.

The screened bottom board wasn't strewn with dead bodies (as it would be if the hive had been robbed out)  - just a little detrius from the hive.

I put the frames out on the deck to kill any wax moths who might feel inclined to take up residence.

 My dog Hannah is looking through the deck railing for the absconded hive.

And I am despondent.....it's a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

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  1. dehavik11:53 AM

    I'm very sorry this happened. It's a shame that some of the biggest lessons come with loss. Thank you for still taking the time to record this experience, even in your saddened state. It will very likely prevent someone else from losing their colony. Small comfort, but there is no great loss without some small gain.

    1. Anonymous7:46 AM

      thanks for your posts i have been beekeeping for 10 years here in australia five years ago i moved state and left my mentors behind. after reading your post i realised that i just had my first established hive abscond, due i now believe due to hives weakend state poor queen and lack of food thanks for your posts i am still learning

  2. Thank you - what a comforting thing to say.

  3. I would feel exactly the same way if my hive were to despond on me. I"m very much like you in my hive management, I try my very best to follow the rules and use all sorts of strategies to get ahead of what my bees would do. I recently had a visit from my local bee inspector and she was telling me that alot of apiaries in British Columbia she inspects have experience their bees abandoning the hive (swarm) eventhough there was enough space in the hive. She could not explain why this was happening. I got another beekeeper friend who recaptured her hive that swarmed and shortly after about a month it swarmed off again.

  4. Dear Linda! I agree you are brave to report your loss and it will possibly help others from losing their bees. Our first hive absconded in 2007, so we installed two hives in the Spring of 2008. So far, so good, but, as Winnie says, you can never tell with bees.

  5. Anonymous6:39 PM

    The rule "follow the rules and get it right" ... h'm.
    Never mind. I would buy a small temperature data logger and put it on the upper frames. It helps to observe what's going on in the hive.

  6. I am so sorry this happened. I felt so bad for you and could empathize about sitting down and crying...I think I would do the same. How does one know the difference between colony collapse disease and absconding? Maybe this did happen through no fault of your own. Either way, I am very sad for you and your bees that it did happen. Thank you for sharing your story, hopefully it will help someone else.

  7. Dear Linda,

    I have been following your blog for about a year now, and you have been so helpful to me as I started my first two hives this spring. I am so sorry that the Mellona bee's absconded and feel your sadness.

    I am wondering if other beekeepers in your area have also experienced the dearth, and how they have responded.

    I am also wondering if those of us that are beekeeping shouldn't try to plant bee-friendly gardens/wildflower gardens to make sure the bees have adequate local nectar supply?

    And another thought, if the bees needed to do leave to survive, then maybe that is something to celebrate, rather that despair. It is akin to watching your children leave home. They need to leave to grow. Survival is built into all creatures. It is better that they left in order to find a sustainable environment, than to stay and die.

  8. What is it about beekeeping that's so humbling? Is it the very alien nature of insect life, so different from our mammalian experience?

    You and your blog-writing have been an inspiration to me, and I've always been impressed with how honestly you describe your failures as well as your successes.

  9. Anonymous10:02 AM

    Dear Linda - my heart breaks for you, but please note your post may have saved my hive. After reading it, I realized I was seeing the same things, rushed home to make sugar syrup (I felt it was too early to feed, too) and placed it in the hive this morning. Sure enough, I had starving bees and they may not have stayed longer. I did have enough room, I think, but hopefully they will discover the new food quickly. You will never know how much you blog has helped me. Bless you. Karen

  10. Linda (((HUGS))) I'm so sorry about this loss. I can only imagine how you feel. I do appreciate you sharing the experience with your readers as I'm very new to beekeeping and only know a fraction of what I need to know. If I were there I'd cry with you.

    Thank you for explaining the absconding, CCD and swarming differences as well!

  11. Linda,
    I was hoping to meet you today. Don K said you were coming up to his bee yard. I am in training with Don and picked up my first 2 nucs today. I also started a blog if you are interested.


  12. Anonymous8:53 PM

    So sorry for the loss Linda. It's definitely a challenge and you've got a pot full of it this year unfortunately.

    One of my new hives decided to swarm even though they had a completely empty super available. Luckily, my husband was sitting out with the neighbour and saw the action happening in the top of a pine tree. I've been feeding the new swarm hoping they stay around because there seems to be a dearth of natural food about for them right now.

    About Colony Collapse - have you watched the documentary Nicotine Bees? I highly recommend it - for some reason, the info it contains, which is well known in Europe, is not hitting the media here. I can venture a guess as to why but will leave that for now. If you can get your association to have a viewing of it, I think it may help explain some things.

    Please don't lose courage and thank you again for your blog.

    Here's a link to a preview:


  13. Linda - wow, you have been such a help to me through your blog - wish I could help you, too. I get upset if I squish any of my girls when replacing supers, can't imagine losing the whole hive. I am in the second year of bee keeping - no real training except a short class at a local museum and reading any book I can get my hand on. I have discovered mites on the drone brood and am nervous about a weaken hive going into the fall, so I am foregoing the last honey flow in order to medicate early and get them ready for the cold winters of Upstate NY.
    Best of luck with the rest of the season.

  14. Linda, so sorry to hear about your loss of bees, you are such a great mentor to so many of us, I for one, appreciate the fact that you do speak about your losses and pain, things that can happen to any of us who keep bees - thank you for your compassion and knowledge. Best of luck

  15. Anonymous3:54 AM

    You may want to read this book:

    "Essence and Mechanism of Nest Abandonment by Honeybee Swarms"


  16. I just started bees and i feel so awkward. There is so much to learn. I hope u r doing well.

  17. Anonymous4:51 PM

    I found you by looking up the word absconding. We lost our bees last year. We are beginner bee keepers and will keep trying. I can't wait to show my husband your site. This is awesome. THANKS

  18. Anonymous1:46 PM

    First year as a beekeeper, harvested almost 4 gallons of amazing honey. Somewhere around December 10th I noticed quite a bit of activity outside the hive on an unusually warm winter day. No flowers blooming that time of year in Northern Utah and a couple of days later we had a terrific windstorm. 2 or 3 days after that I check the hive and there are no bees. A few dead bees in the bottom screen and 20 - 30 lbs of honey still in the hive. Before the storm I noticed the lid had a gap in it and I pushed it back down. Very sad as they can't have survived leaving in the winter. I did something to cause this and I am not sure what. Emptied a composter about 5 ft away from the hive and the soil was sweet, no bad smell to it. Maybe the lid being askew let too many wasps in? I just don't know. I am going to replace them and it is time to order but I am hesitating, wondering if I will have it happen again.

  19. Good luck, Kevin. It helps if you have a mentor to get someone more experienced to look at the left-behind hive - you'll get a better idea of what might have gone wrong to help you with what we all experience - beekeeper error - going forward.

  20. Two weeks ago, I filled the syrup feeders and all 9 hives were really full of active bees. Today I checked and 5 hives were empty of bees. A very few death ones, but gives still had honey and feeders were still half full! No foul oders or things that looked abnormal. Weather has been damp, highs 50s lows in 30s. Anyone have any insight as to what I should watch for on the 4 remaining healthy looking hives?

  21. Feeding is something about which to be careful. If you fed and the bees did not need feeding, the bees would have filled up all the cells with syrup, leaving no room for the queen to lay. This can be a cause for them to leave the hive. I rarely feed because I want the bees to take care of themselves and instead leave lots of honey for the hive every harvest season. The queen has to be able to lay to have bees to live through the winter.

  22. My husband and I noticed a lot of activity 2 days ago in the area of our hives. 3 hives. Up off ground in a bee garden area in front of 3 greenhouses. Hives were full in july 2 so i did what was suggested. Add another box & move feeder up top story. All has been awesome. 2 weeks ago lots of rain From Flagstaff Az monsoons and dry and 90 for last week. I was watching the bee's as i always do with my afternoon coffee. My husband is usually out of town often but we were enjoying everybody returning from their journey all yellow & heading in for the day. Silly me i even got up close and took pic and a video. 2 days later..im reading swarming season and decided to take a closer look and the hive nearest flowers had no action..non at all. I opened it today and not a bee anywhere. A few larva on bottom and some incased, but all the honey and bees gone. Im sick over this. I went searching for our swarm today with no avail. Even put a sign on mailboxes out on the road.." Lost Swarm" if seen please call or text joanie with greenhouses. I actually cried telling my husband about my day.. There was syrup in the feeder about 2 inches. Im so saddened ..but as i watched the newbie video..i see the bees fighting on the ground and zooming in I can see alot of fighting. Perhaps the hive was robbed? Not absconded..not swarmed...something new to google.. Ohh what a sad day..i will look again tomorrow..set a few swarm traps and have a small burning of a few old frames to put the scent up in the air.. This is my first year.. And this is heartbreaking. Any advise will be helpful and appreciated..


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