Why Do Bees Leave Their Hive?

Written On: by Theo The Beekeeper

Whether you’re simply wondering what bees do when they aren’t in their hive, or you own honey bees who have suddenly disappeared from their hive, this article will let you know why bees leave their hives. First, we’ll cover the normal reasons that bees leave their hive on a daily basis, and then we’ll go into why honey bees permanently leave their hives, or abscond, in beekeeper lingo.

There are a great number of perfectly normal reasons that honey bees leave their hives. Foraging is the most common reason that a honey bee leaves its hive, but bees also leave the hive to defend it, to mate, and simply to practice flying. Finally, bees leave the hive to poop.

Now, if you are a beekeeper and you notice that all of your honey bees are suddenly gone from their hive, you may have a case of Colony Collapse Disorder or the bees may have absconded. This can be a serious concern, as either one can mean the loss of an entire colony. Colony Collapse Disorder is a mysterious phenomenon in which worker bees simply disappear in large numbers, and absconding happens for many different reasons that have to do with the bees’ comfort in their living space.

It is also possible that your bees are swarming, especially if you notice that your colonies seem suddenly much smaller or they are creating new queens. This can also lead to bees leaving their original hive, as swarming is the process of part of a colony breaking off and finding a new nest.

What Do Bees Do When They Aren’t in Their Hive?

There are many different healthy activities that bring bees outside of their hives, including foraging, mating, practice flights, and cleansing flights. All of these activities are perfectly normal for bees and are no cause for concern.

Foraging

The most common reason that bees leave their hive is to forage for food. Worker bees, the sterile female bees within a honey bee hive, leave the hive daily to find nectar and pollen to bring back to the hive. Nectar and pollen are bees’ primary food sources, and they collect them on any sunny, warm day that they can find. Solitary bees and bumblebees also leave their nests regularly to forage for food.

Honey bees can fly up to two miles away from their hive to forage for food, although if they are in a pinch, they can travel up to six miles in total before becoming exhausted. Bees like to stay as close to their nests as possible, which is why ost wild bees nest in places where flowers are abundant. Bees fly back and forth from their hive or nest and flowers in order to bring back nectar and pollen to feed their young and, in the case of social bees, their queen.

Some bees forage on a wide variety of flowers, while other bees are specialists and only feed on a select few or even just one species of flower. No matter what flowers they are foraging on, as long as the weather is good, bees will be out and about, buzzing to and from their hive in search of food.

Mating

Another reason that bees might leave the hive is in mating season, when both queens and drones gather at drone congregation areas to mate. Drones leave the hive first and wait for the queens to arrive, gathering in one area called the drone congregation area. These areas are typically rather high in the air, and the drone bees simply wander around in the air waiting for the new queens to come.

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The new queens leave the hive when they are ready to mate, and they are always escorted by worker bees on their way to the drone congregation area. Once they arrive at the drone congregation area, they mate with the drones high in the air, and then return to the hive.

Solitary bees and bumblebees also leave their nests to mate, although there is more variety within how they mate and where they mate. Some bees mate on the ground, some on flowers, and some in the air. Some female bees mate with multiple males, while some only mate once. Most female bees store sperm from the male bees inside their body until it is time for them to fertilize and lay eggs.

Practice Flights

Bees also leave their hive when they are young in order to practice flying. This is true of both workers and drone bees, although not as much the case with queen bees. Bees of most species will leave the hive or nest for short periods of time early in life in order to learn to fly and improve their flight skills.

The bees will fly further and further from the hive or nest as they become more confident in their flight skills. This, again, is perfectly normal and is no cause for concern.

Cleansing Flights

The final normal reason that bees leave the hive is to go on cleansing flights, which is when they poop and pee. Bees do not like to defecate or urinate within their hive, preferring to do it outside. The only bee that can poop or pee in the hive is the queen bee, and the worker bees quickly clean up her messes whenever they appear.

Why Are My Bees Gone?

Now, if you are a beekeeper and you notice that your honey bee population has suddenly drastically declined or even disappeared entirely, this is not normal. There are several reasons that your colonies might shrink or vanish, including swarming, colony collapse disorder, and absconding.

Honey bee swarm on tree
Honey bees swarming.

Swarming

Swarming is a phenomenon in which bees split off from their existing colony, and find a new nesting site. Swarming usually occurs when bees are feeling overcrowded due to overpopulation within the hive. Bees swarm by sending out scout bees to find new nesting sites for the part of the colony that will split off. Once the scout bees all agree on one specific new nesting site, they lead the bees to that nesting site all together, along with a new queen and many worker bees. The bees then enter the new nesting site and begin to build new comb and make honey, and the queen begins to lay eggs.

Swarming is actually a pretty healthy part of the bees’ lifecycle, and is not a cause for concern overall. However, many beekeepers prefer to keep swarming to a minimum because of its impact on the bees’ honey production levels. If you find that one of your colonies is suddenly much smaller than it was before, and perhaps producing less honey or infant bees, it is possible that the colony simply swarmed and that part of the original colony is now residing elsewhere.

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It is fairly easy to tell if a colony has just swarmed simply by looking for open queen cells along the bottom of combs, especially brood combs. Queen cells are larger than other brood cells, and typically hang off in a more cylindrical shape as opposed to the hexagonal pattern of regular brood cells. If you find many of these queen cells open within the brood comb, it is likely that your colony is either preparing to swarm or has already swarmed.

Colony Collapse Disorder

A more concerning reason that you might notice that your colonies have become smaller is colony collapse disorder. This phenomenon is rather mysterious, with no one known cause, but rather many hypothetical causes that have not yet been proven. Whether it is caused by mites, other diseases, starvation, or something else is yet unknown. But this disorder essentially results in large numbers of worker bees leaving the hive permanently, and essentially disappearing.

If you find that your bees have suddenly disappeared, but that there are still drone bees, a queen bee, and bee brood within the hive, you may be observing colony collapse disorder. It is essential to identify colony collapse disorder early on and check for any parasites or diseases that may be causing it, so that you can treat all of your bees for any parasites or diseases that you do find.

Absconding Due to Unsuitable Living Conditions

Finally, if you find that an entire colony has suddenly disappeared from its hive, it is possible that they have absconded. If there are absolutely no bees left in the hive, as if they have all simply jumped ship, it is likely that your bees have absconded. This is the most concerning of the possibilities, as it typically means that your bees were not comfortable in their hive. There are many reasons that bees might not be comfortable within their hive, which we’ll cover below.

Painted beehives
Beehives painted with colored paint.

Uncomfortable Hive

It’s possible that your bees were simply uncomfortable in their hive if they absconded. Maybe the hive was the wrong size for the number of bees, or the hive was painted with smelly paint or stain and not aired out properly before the bees were placed in the hive. A lack of ventilation, especially if combined with strange odors like paint smells or perfumes can make bees abscond very quickly. Or perhaps your hive was the wrong temperature for the bees, the wrong humidity, or maybe it was placed in an area that was too windy or too sunny.

Some simple ways to make hives comfortable for bees is to make sure that there are plenty of frames installed in each hive box, and that there are at least three to four deep frame boxes per colony of bees. Also, not using smelly paints or stains on your hives, or at least airing them out well before placing bees in them, will help the bees be comfortable. Ensuring that your bees have plenty of ventilation and fresh air is always important, as well as keeping them away from harsher winds if you live somewhere where it is windy and rainy often.

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Overpopulation

Another possibility as to why your colony may have absconded is because of simple overpopulation. While typically overpopulation leads simply to swarming, it can also prompt bees to fully abscond from their hive, especially if they are not inclined to create the new queens necessary to begin swarming. The solution to this is simply to ensure that you have far more frames than you think you might need for your bees. If a hive seems full of honey and brood cells, or if the bees seem crowded, just add a new hive box with new empty frames for the bees to occupy.

Disturbance

Frequent disturbance can also make bees abscond, especially in the case of colonies that have just been moved a long distance or are not yet comfortable in their hive. If you open the hives too often, bump them, or talk loudly around them, the bees may become uncomfortable and leave the hive. If you have frequent visitors coming to see and interact with the bees, this can also spook them.

Keeping the area around your hives quiet, and not opening hives unless necessary, will help keep your bees feeling at home. Using smoke as sparingly as possible will also help. Finally, introducing a lot of people to your bees may overwhelm them, so especially with newer colonies it is important to limit visitors.

Parasites

Bees also may abscond from their hives because of parasites such as Varroa mites, tracheal mites, or wax moths. Such parasites can make the bees uncomfortable in their hives, and may cause them to leave in search of a home that is not infested with parasites.

To prevent absconding because of parasites, it is essential to monitor your bees regularly for mites and wax moths. Inspect hives at least twice a year in the spring and fall, or more often, though not enough to spook the bees into absconding. You can use techniques such as sugar shaking or alcohol washing to test your live bees for Varroa mites, or drone uncapping to test brood for Varroa mites.

Wax moths are fairly easy to identify by their distinctive larvae and the silken tunnels that they spin throughout the beehive and comb. Tracheal mites have several recognizable symptoms, such as misshapen wings and crawling bees found in front of the hive.

Predators

The last reason that bees might abscond from their hive is the frequent visits of predators. If your hives are in an area where many animals live, raccoons, bears, and skunks may visit your hive more often than you might think. This can make the bees very unsettled, and they may seek out a new location for their nest so that they can feel more secure.

Author

Theo The Beekeeper

When I was a kid, my dad used to keep bees around the small farm we had, and I absolutely loved helping him. In the past few years, we’ve picked up the hobby again, and I’ve been doing a lot more research. This website is the accumulation of things I’ve learned along the way! You can learn more about my journey and the resources I’ve developed on my about page.

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