Drone-laying queens vs laying workers

If you have a hive that is producing nothing but drones, one of two things is happening. Either you have a drone-laying queen or you have a bunch of laying workers. Before you can fix it, you need to decide which situation you have.

A drone-laying queen arises after a queen has run out of sperm or when a virgin queen fails to mate properly. In either case, the queen does not lay any fertilized eggs so the colony is unable to raise a new queen. In time, the colony will dwindle and die.

Laying workers arise after a hive has been queenless for about three weeks. By the end of three weeks, all the brood has emerged, so the hive no longer contains brood pheromone or queen pheromone. Those two pheromones act to suppress the ovaries of workers. When they no longer exist, the ovaries of the workers can become active and produce eggs. But since the workers cannot be fertilized, all their offspring will be drones.

How to tell them apart

A drone-laying queen acts a lot like a normal queen. She lays her eggs, one per cell, in a normal brood pattern. She places the egg in the center bottom of the cell just like normal, and she may have enough pheromone to keep the workers from laying. However, the eggs mature into drones that don’t quite fit in worker comb, so the brood looks knobby and rough on the surface.

On the other hand, laying workers don’t follow the traditional pattern. Their eggs are laid in random cells and, rather than being centered in the bottom of the cell, they are often attached to the wall of the cell or just dropped in like pick-up sticks. This happens because a worker doesn’t have an abdomen long enough to reach the bottom of the cell.

Furthermore, laying workers don’t appear in ones or twos, but in hordes. You can have dozens or hundreds of laying workers, and each one doesn’t care where another one placed her eggs. As a result, you frequently will see multiple eggs per cell.

What to do next

If you have a drone-laying queen with plenty of workers remaining, you can remove the queen and introduce a new one in the standard way. You can use a sugar-plugged cage or a larger queen introduction cage, and then make sure she is released in a few days.

If you have laying workers, the solution is much more difficult. Laying worker colonies tend to be aggressive toward any queen that you try to introduce and they are very likely to kill her.

Some people claim success from combining the laying-worker hive with a strong, populous hive using the newspaper method. Other people have had this method fail miserably when one or more of the laying workers killed the queen.

Laying workers are not worth the risk

In my opinion, trying to save a laying worker hive is not worth the risk. Usually, these hives have been queenless for quite some time so they are no longer populous, but they are aggressive and unpredictable. I can’t see any point in possibly ruining a perfectly good queen to save a few rogue bees.

I think it best to dismantle the laying worker hive and shake the remaining bees into the yard. The normal workers will usually find homes in another hive while the laying workers are most likely denied entry. In any case, the hive is gone and the layers, evicted from their home, will soon die. Chalk it up to experience and move on.


Scattered brood typical of laying workers. Photo by the author.
Scattered brood typical of laying workers. © Rusty Burlew.
Multiple eggs per cell is evidence of laying workers. Photo by Michael Palmer/Beesource.com.

Why are my bees different colors?

“I’m worried about my bees. They are very busy and the brood frames are full but the bees are so different; some are yellow, some brown or gray, and some are almost solid black. Is my hive being invaded by robbers? What should I do?”

Good question. What you are most likely seeing is a strong colony with a good variety of genetic material. Far from being a bad sign, a mix of colors is an indicator that your queen is sufficiently mated.

As you know, a queen bee mates many times before she begins to lay eggs. The sperm from all the different drones is mixed together and held in a storage organ called the spermatheca. For the rest of her life, the queen draws from this supply to fertilize the eggs which will become workers or new queens.

Each female bee in the colony will get half of her genetic material from her mother (the queen) and half from her father (one of the drones). For the sake of argument, let’s say this particular queen mated 16 times.

A subfamily for every drone

Sixteen matings means that the queen’s offspring can be divided into 16 different subfamilies. Each of these subfamilies has the same mother, but a different father. In human terms, the offspring are very much like half siblings: one mother, different fathers.

All the bees in one subfamily (that is, all bees having the same mother and father) will be very similar to each other, even though they are not identical. They are not identical because the genes from the mother (who has two sets of chromosomes) will sort out in different ways when she is producing eggs (which have one set of chromosomes). The genes from the father will all be the same since he has only one set of chromosomes to begin with. Overall, however, the bees within one subfamily will be very similar to each other.

Bees belonging to different subfamilies will be less similar to each other because, even though the mother is the same, the father is different. These bees have thousands of traits you cannot see, but one you can see is color. So when you open your hive and see different colors and patterns, you know you are seeing the offspring of different drones.

Multiple matings can strengthen a colony

It is well known that multiple matings lead to strong colonies, and it is easy to see why. Let’s say, for example, that one of the 16 drones is a strong, fast flier but he’s allergic to apple pollen. One whiff and he keels over dead. (I’m making this up, so don’t fret over apple trees.)

He will pass this bad gene to all of his offspring. At this point, I don’t want to get into dominant and recessive genes or the regulation of genetic expression by other factors. Suffice it to say that, depending on the mother’s genetics, this defect may show up in some of his progeny.

For the sake of argument, let’s say it shows up in 50% of his children, and that those bees will die at the first scent of apple pollen. Because of multiple matings, those that die will be only 50% of 1/16 of the colony (half of one subfamily) or 1/32 of the entire colony (about 3%). A colony can survive a loss of 3%. If, however, that drone was the only father, the colony would lose half the bees—a very different story.

Mitigating the bad genes

Although I used an on/off, all-or-nothing example to illustrate my point, many real-life negative traits are suppressed by multiple matings. Disease resistance, overwintering ability, foraging distances, stress regulation, and thousands of other things are genetically controlled, and damage to the colony by so-called “bad genes” can be mitigated by multiple matings.

So next time you see bees of many colors, know that the wonders of nature and genetic inheritance are helping your colony along. Celebrate! Everything is working according to plan.


Bees of many colors share a hive.
Bees of many colors. © Rusty Burlew.

For the love of bees

I used to be a respectable member of society, but now, not so much. For one thing, I carry test tubes in my pocketses (“What has it got in its pocketses?). And while some women keep little pots of makeup in their glove box, I keep little tins of dead bugs. Then too, my recent book purchase, The Natural History and Behavior of North American Beewolves, is annotated and dog-eared. Meanwhile, I keep buying bigger and bigger lenses so I can photograph smaller and smaller bees.

Although my fascination for all things bee began with honey bees, it expanded when I read papers by Cane, Morandin, O’Toole, Kearns, Greenleaf, and especially Kremen. In that way, my first love, honey bees, led to my true love, native bees. It was from these scientists that I learned the problem of pollination and food supply goes far beyond the reach of Apis mellifera.

We forget about native bees

We tend to forget that before the European honey bee came to the New World in 1622, all plants that needed bee pollination in the Americas were doing just fine—absolutely thriving. Yet these native bees are now in a world of hurt. They have many of the same problems as honey bees, but they also have a gigantic problem that honey bees don’t have: almost total neglect and disregard. People just don’t care.

We also forget that while honey bees pollinate lots of things, they don’t pollinate everything. Many plant species would disappear without their own special pollinators, and there is nothing an infinite supply of honey bees could do about it.

Beekeepers can help

Beekeepers are in a unique position to help educate others about native bees. Most importantly, they’ve lost the miasma of fear that surrounds the word “bee,” and they are willing to concede that an insect can have value. Then too, on some level they understand pollination and bee/plant interactions.

Still, most beekeepers don’t know much about other bees. For some obscure reason, it seems that the general population is more interested in wild bees than are beekeepers. I get most questions about native bees from non-beekeepers—and not, I think, because beekeepers have all the answers but because they are smitten with honey bees alone.

Recently I attended a bee event sponsored by the Olympia Beekeepers Association and The Evergreen State College. It was all about honey bees, and included displays, samples, and a screening of More than Honey. But nestled among all the honey bee tables was one about native pollinators hosted by Glen Buschmann of OlyPollinators. In my unofficial capacity as observer and question-answerer, I would say it was easily the most popular display. People were standing four and five deep to see masons, bumbles, and leafcutters and to collect pamphlets and ask questions about native bees. People loved it.

One good bee leads to another

For beekeepers, though, knowledge of native bees is useful for more than answering questions. I have found that the more I learn about native bees, the more I understand honey bees and vice versa. For example, learning about mating leks helped me to better understand drone congregation areas. Learning about larval defecation in an underground tunnel helped me understand larval defecation in a brood cell. It’s all related and it’s all the same—just different.

So once again I urge all beekeepers to look beyond your charges. It is incredibly satisfying to know a leafcutter when you see one, or a sweat bee, or even to know you’re looking at something new to you. Believe me when I say that in some way you cannot predict, it will make you a better beekeeper.


You never know when that test tube may come in handy. © Rusty Burlew.
According to Bugguide.net this is an anthophora bee, a type of solitary digger bee. © Rusty Burlew.

Putting the squeeze on mason bees


Talk about claustrophobia. Just looking at this bee gives me the heebie-jeebies. Conventional wisdom says a blue orchard mason bee (Osmia lignaria) likes a 5/16th-inch nesting hole. This hole is smaller, only 1/4 inch, drilled specifically for leafcutters. Apparently, no one in the bee world is reading my mind because the masons are eschewing the larger holes in favor of a tight fit. They remind me of women struggling into small garments—just hold your breath and sque-e-e-e-eze.

Even though they give me confined-space anxiety, I love to watch these workaholic bees. Returning from a foraging trip, the females look like big black flies with one exception: the undersides of their abdomens are painted with colorful pollen. The bees crawl into their holes head first, back legs flailing for purchase against the sides of the tunnel. After a few moments, they back out, do a quick 180, then re-enter tail-end first.

Mason bees make odd little noises while they work. Sounding a lot like bugs in glass jar, they make vibrate-y, echo-y noises that sound like distress . . . and maybe it is. Panic attacks?

When they’re not carrying pollen, the bees haul in the mud they will use to seal up each compartment until the nest is complete.

My worst mason bee problem occurs each year right here at my desk, which is near a double-paned window in a white vinyl frame. On the outside of the house the frame has two little drain holes. Every year the mason bees go into those holes and build nests. From the inside of the house I can’t see any opening at all, but somehow the bees hatch to the inside. Sometimes I find them on the windowsill or sometimes they get caught between the window and the screen. I’ve rescued five so far this year, and a sixth I found dead on the carpet.

The other odd thing has to do with pollen mites. One year I purchased mason bees from a place in Oregon and for the next two years had serious pollen mites. I never purchased bees after that. Instead, I just built housing and let the wild masons move in. Since then, I’ve seen no mites. Each afternoon I net as many bees as I can and check for mites, but for three years now, I’ve come up clean. I’m wondering if local populations have local resistance. Perhaps shipping them around the countryside is the wrong thing to do—it certainly didn’t help the honey bees or the bumble bees. Serious food for thought.


When your bees mess with you

On Friday I had one easy job to do. One of my triple-deep hives overwintered thanks to the cartloads of sugar I had trucked out of Costco since December.  Every time I checked, the cluster was on the top bars and the sugar was gone, so I just kept feeding.

Since it was finally warm enough to open things up, I decided to consolidate the brood into one deep and remove the other two. Once I got the bees squished into a single deep, I planned to put a comb honey super on top, just long enough to catch the maple flow. At least, that was the theory.

So being the organized type, I drew a quick diagram of the hive I would end up with plus a list of equipment I would need. The whole job would take thirty minutes at most.

Trouble from the start

The trouble began at the beginning. I suspected the hive wasn’t overly populous, but kind of average. But when I popped the lid and removed the quilt, the bees didn’t exactly flow over the top. Instead, they exploded like a cherry bomb; a shrapnel of bees shot in all directions. I was shocked.

The last feeding of sugar was gone, of course, so I thought the top box would be light. But I couldn’t begin to move it, even after I wedged it loose with a hive tool. Thanks to being organized, I had brought along an empty deep. I began to remove frames, one by one, starting at the end.

The first was heavy with honey. And the second. And the third. The next four were filled with brood in a pattern solid as granite. I couldn’t find a single empty cell. The last three frames were also filled with honey.

Honey bee trickery

So what gives? Thanks to these twerps, I was supporting the sugar industry all by myself while they hoarded their honey for some higher purpose that I wasn’t privy to.

Irritated, I moved on to the second box. It also contained brood—about two-and-a-half frames—and six frames of honey. And the bottom? You guessed it: six more frames of honey. Eighteen frames of honey while I’m driving back and forth to Costco—twelve miles and four stomach-lurching roundabouts in each direction. I was furious.

At this point I decided to regroup. There was clearly enough brood and honey for two hives, so I decided to make a split. I went back to the house and got more equipment because my plan and well-organized list were now meaningless. I decided to move the queen into the new split, hoping the old colony might think it swarmed.

A queen gone AWOL

After so many years, I’m completely confident in my ability to find the queen. No problem. Scan the brood combs and she will reveal herself. Only she didn’t. Not the first time through. Not the second time through. Stupidity overwhelmed me and I tried a third pass. Nothing.

So after two hours I ended up with two colonies in two single deeps, both with scads of honey, both with comb honey supers, one with a queen and one without, and me having no idea which is which.

In the end, I stood before my hives­­ feeling like an idiot. Bees had mucked with me. They made me drive to town and spend money, they hid their queen, they negated my list and destroyed my plans. They swallowed up my whole afternoon and probably laughed at my funny clothes.

As I stood there, the thick smell of brood, redolent of uncooked beef, held me in awe. While I inhaled the feral scent, a woodpecker rattled his brains in search of the next meal. Behind the hives a baby opossum poked through new greens and eyed me curiously. In that moment I once again decided that, indeed, beekeeping is worth the trouble. Yes, even when they mess with you.


I’m not the only one who likes the smell of fresh brood. © Rusty Burlew.