Why did my Bees leave in Winter?

Why did my Bees leave in Winter?  Margaret answers this question from Michael.

Question from Michael after reading article “10 Mistakes New Beekeepers Make”

My beehive looks healthy but I’m worried that the hive 1) may not have enough honey for winter & 2) I’m scared my hive might swarm as what happened last winter as you can tell I’m a 9 months old bee minder. Any help would be appreciated

Okay first understanding that if the hive is healthy, capped brood is free of varroa and there are no issues with the health of walking Bees – thats a great first step : )

When we come to Autumn it can be a time when hives become ‘honey bound’ – this means that there is nectar in amongst the cells in the brood frames, this means that the queen cannot lay and no more honey can be produced as everything is full.

Great Frame of capped Honey

When this happens the colony will make the decision to “abscond” which means they leave everything behind but do not leave eggs or brood…once every brood-cell has hatched, everyone leaves…this can be a fatal decision as its difficult for colonies to completely rebuild as the hive is leaving as Winter is coming.

Absconding is also caused when a colony is feeling threatened, perhaps robbing, wasp attacks or varroa mite load. When a hive feels threatened and cannot deal with the ‘threat’ this also causes absconding.

So when a question from a New Beek comes to me, I generally like to ask them to go back in time and take stock of what they saw and what went on before the colony left.

I like to analyse what I did and didn’t do…perhaps it was timing – maybe I was too late – maybe because I didn’t know what I was looking at?

Analysis of records I wrote and then dissecting the whole hive, frame by frame. If the bees left because of a threat, then that may simply be down to the hive suffering from heavy varroa load and they may have left before it overwhelmed the hive – in this instance you will see some dead brood left in cells, cappings showing some holes bees in the cells forming but dead. Possibly there may be PMS = Parasitic Mite Syndrome – dark dead bees in cells or Sac-Brood, where you find the developing bee in a watery sack.

I know the question is about ‘having enough honey’ but I think its important to acknowledge what may have happened when the first hive left last winter. as this will help to give you confidence in your decisions.

It sounds like you may be concerned this will happen again but understanding the previous situation is a great learning tool and helpful to create ideas for your next moves.

From my thoughts….I am thinking the problem may be about understanding how to ‘manage space’ and identifying what you see so you can understand if more space is needed, some seasons have been arriving late and others slow to start and good Autumnal temperatures (warm) and second flowerings could mean your bees are still actively collecting nectar.

Check the empty cells to see if nectar is in them

Once you know what is in each frame, whether there is nectar in brood these are key-indicators for knowing when to add/remove space.

If the Bees have enough space, there is enough space for eggs and brood then they won’t abscond, if the frames are all capped and full of honey then they may benefit from an extra box.

Swarming versus Absconding

Swarming is a Spring activity for healthy hives and a natural occurence in the Honey Bee colonies desire to breed and spread their genetics.

In a ‘true’ swarming, the bees will leave behind Queen Cells and generally the Queen of the colony leaves with the swarm – this is called “principle” swarm.

“Secondary” swarming is considered mostly due to multiple queen cells hatching at the same time and those virgin queens leaving with some bees from the colony.

So back to having enough honey…

Its important to note that there are varying factors which need to be considered when looking at what your specific hive will need.

What do we tell our students ?

I advise that initially when starting out with new colonies we advise beginners to leave all honey the colony has collected their first Summer, which means the beginner can then see what their bees consume over a Winter in their location. The check for how much was used is by noting what you gave them before Winter and what is the balance left as they hit Spring

Warning: If extractions are removing too much honey, bees can react by becoming robbers and possibly causing risks in the hive such as AFB from their bees robbing other colonies which may be infected.

Our view is that leaving enough honey may be enough to stop this panicked robbing behaviour.

The beauty of beginners using this method means they can assess what their hive uses as some advice given for quantities of honey stores may not work for your specific area.

General advice can range from 18kgs to 44kgs of honey in frames. Our view is that our colonies benefit from 28kgs to 30kgs which we work out to be 14 full-depth “Hoffman” style frames.

Long periods of confinement such as regular rainfall and low temperatures can cause the colony to use lots of energy = eating honey stores, energy burned up to keep the hive warm and fed well.

If you want to manage the risk of the bees possibly starving – perhaps make up some sugar syrups to have on hand but add some crushed thyme leaves to help stop it from going-off.

Variety of Thyme

Handy Hint: Filter out the leaves once the sugar-syrup cools. If you decide to use the sugar-syrup best practice is to use a “top-feeder” which is placed at the top of the hive and has a hive mat with a small access hole – this is called “closed-feeding” which helps to prevent your beehive from becoming a robbers target.

Sample of plastic top feeder requires things for bees to crawl over so they don’t drown

I hope that these thoughts and ideas help to make your plan for wintering-down.

An article with ideas for wintering down Beehives : https://www.kiwimana.co.nz/wintering-down-beehives/

BTW we leave all our girls honey on over winter by using a hive-mat (inner-cover) with a small slot cut into it to the rear of the cluster, placed above the brood box, the small slot enables the bees to access their food when they want… but meanwhile the hive-mat with slot keeps the cluster safe to keep heat consistent.

Hive-mat with the slot

I have used the hive-mat with slot over the last 4 winters and is proving a real benefit to our colonies.

When do I “winter-down” ?

Start before Winter !?

Start at the end of Summer, it is handy to note temperatures, then carry on and note temperatures through Autumn – this benefits the beekeeper because as temperatures start to decline = single digits indicate winter is around the corner ….this can be used to determine when wintering-down needs to be done and taking notes gives you time to plan rather than panic and leaving it too late.

Usually start to add when wintering-down when temperatures start to drop in Autumn.

This is also the time to ensure the hives do not have heavy mite load or varroa in cells.

Thanks for sharing a great question, all the very best.

Regards Margaret

…its the kiwimana buzz…

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7 thoughts on “Why did my Bees leave in Winter?

  1. Avatar photo
    Peter Miller says:

    I am worried about Varroa. It is July and my hives are in the Wairarapa. We will have a good frost tonight and tomorrow it will get up to maybe 10 degrees.
    So bought an oxalic acid vapouriser so that I can kill off any mites on the bees. But how can I tell if there were mites, if there are still mites? What happens to the dead mites?
    I don’t want to open up the hive because I think it is too cold. I don’t want to kill my workers !

    • Avatar photo
      admin2324 says:

      Hi Peter, It’s best to assume there are mites. Sorry for the delay in replying.
      To make checking for mites easier without having to open the hive, you could get a mesh-bottom-board with an inspection tray underneath which can be removed and oiled so it will trap varroa mites – this will give you indication that there are mites being groomed-off by the bees or being removed from cells, etc. In our work we always assume there will be mites arriving on bees who come and go (foraging bees) from the hive so in reality – the hive will never be completely mite free, the oxalic acid vapourisation method is organic so needs regular application – after being treated the bees will remove mites that emerge from cells, any walking mites and any which are on a bee – the vapourisation encourages bee-cleaning behaviour with the smoke-particles targeted by the bees and removed from any surfaces, the cells, bees etc…The objective of OAV is to not cause resistence and also not to harm the bees but to increase grooming and cleaning bee-behaviours so they learn to identify and ‘cope’ with mites. The bees learn to kill the mites and then the mite drops down to the baseboard and another bee will remove from hive.

      I would treat once a week over 4 weeks by then the temperatures may rise high enough to inspect otherwise just treat once a week until you can do a proper inspection and check inside cells, etc.

      Here is a link to an article BLOG on the meshboard useology method which may help :

      We use OAV year round which keeps knocking down varroa numbers so to prevent any build-up in cells. Remember when adding boxes you need to use a Quarter Teaspoon (1/4tsp ) per hive box – regardless of there being brood or honey. so a four box hive would use a full head of oxalic acid crystals.
      We hope this helps otherwiae happy for you to call 0211752137 to discuss further.
      Regards, Margaret …it’s the kiwimana buzz…

  2. Avatar photo
    Vipin Khatri says:

    Thank You for sharing this Informative Blog.I hope that you will share more blog in Future.
    As you love to write about beekeeping so i would like to share you this awesome website “WikiBeekeeping”.

  3. Avatar photo
    Istvan Vido says:

    I would like to have an expert opinion!
    If I must move a Beehive from under a steel cargo container, what should I do to increase their chance of survival?
    By the way, I live in the San Francisco East Bay

    • Avatar photo
      Margaret Groot says:

      Hi There,
      the best chance of success is to find the Queen bee and move her into the hive box, this means her pheromones will help the other workers and drones to identify her and they will move into the hive box. All the best. Regards, Margaret… it’s the kiwimana buzz…

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