A Tale of Abscondence

Although somewhat rare, it is certainly not unheard of for an entire colony of honey bees to suddenly leave their hive in search of a new place to live.  This phenomenon is referred to as “absconding,” and, after occurring, the bees are said to have “absconded.”

Of course, to us it seems “sudden” because we have no idea how long the bees took to make this decision.  Nor does anyone know why they do it.  There may be a lot of reasons why a colony decides to do this.  What’s fascinating is that, as a super-organism, they come to this decision corporately and all leave together at the same time.

Today I visited a hive that had clearly absconded.  There were many clues.

In this first photo you can see that there are bees in the hive, but there are no eggs, larvae, or capped brood.  Thus, there is no queen.  So, at least in this case, these bees do not live in this hive.

Abscond 01

So what are these bees doing there?  They are robbing-out the nectar and pollen that was left behind.  You can clearly see the pollen in this next photo.  It is the yellow substance in the cells:

Abscond 01b

Another clue that these bees don’t live in this hive is that there are bees in here that are unrelated.  Look at the difference in the coloration:

Abscond 01c

There was also another HUGE clue that the original colony absconded rather than perished.  Below is a photo of the top of the base.  There are a few live, robbing bees on the base, but NOT A SINGLE DEAD BEE ANYWHERE IN THE HIVE.  If the original colony had perished for some reason there would be a large pile of dead bees lying on the top of the base.

Abscond 02

But there is yet another clue in the hive that tells the story of what happened to this colony.  Below is a photo of two queen cells that were built after this colony was installed in this hive.  Due to their placement on the comb, these would be considered classic “emergency” queen cells.  The bees build emergency queen cells when the queen dies or fails suddenly.

Abscond 03

So, what’s the story here?

For some reason, the queen in this colony failed or died suddenly.  But when it happened there were still eggs, or larvae less than three days old, from which the bees could make a new queen.  (They almost always make more than one queen cell to increase their odds of getting a viable, mated queen to continue the life of the colony.)

But in addition to this, and for whatever reason – and these two things are not necessarily related – the colony also decided to abscond once they had their new queen.

Here’s the bad news for this honey bee host:  The colony is no longer living in this hive.

But there are several points of good news:

  • This colony is most likely still alive.
  • This colony may very well be living on this host’s property or very nearby.
  • This colony is most likely still pollinating this host’s flowering plants.  (The colony would remember the location of the flowers they were already foraging on.)
  • It’s likely that some of the bees robbing-out (and therefore using) that remaining nectar and pollen are from the original colony.  (They would also remember the location of their original hive.)
  • This host has contributed to the proliferation of honey bees living in the wild in our valley.
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