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.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

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

Comments

Nancy
Reply

Rusty,

Sadly agreeing. Last summer my strong hive swarmed when I wasn’t looking and did not leave a good queen cell. By the time I checked (now there’s a lesson for the novice) I had pulled supers and figured, “That’s enough bothering them for today” when a short inspection would have shown the problem and let me introduce a frame of eggs from next door. Three weeks later, there were sealed drone cells everywhere.

This colony killed an introduced queen and failed to raise a queen from two more frames of eggs. When I finally combined them, the combined colony failed. Heartbreaking.

Beekeepers will read a lot about how to get rid of laying workers. Everybody’s an expert. When you pin them against a wall at a state meeting, they admit it doesn’t work.

Here’s hoping you’ve saved some readers all that frustration. Thanks!

Nan

Rusty
Reply

Nan,

Thanks for the illustration. Sorry it happened, but it proves my point.

Bill Castro
Reply

Rusty, in each case viable queen cells on frames of open brood will correct the problem. Laying workers are a bit more tedious due to the survival propagation instinct that has kicked in within the colony. Honey bee main survival instincts is to propagate, whether by queen or drone. A hopelessly queenless colony does go into survival propagation by converting workers into layers to propagate their genetic presence in an area as a final solution to their predicament.

Curious though that the previous contributor tried frames of open brood with a laying worker that failed…of the dozen we have corrected as a mentor, never once has it failed.

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

You are not the only one to say this. I have heard of it going both ways, but most of the people who can make it work are quite experienced, like you. I think beekeeping intuition evolves with time and sometimes we do things (or don’t do things) that we are not even aware of. I have nothing against using queen cells and open brood to save a laying worker hive, I just hate to see a beginner lose everything to save an iffy colony.

phil
Reply

Rusty: I now know what bee heart break is. This spring I went to feed my two colony’s some pollen patties and both colonies were dead. There was still honey left plus some of the bee candy I put in before wrapping them up for the winter. I guess the winter was to long and hard. It is so late now that I cannot find any new bees for sale so guess I will just have to go for a whole year with this sadness, but I still read your blog every day. We still have snow on the ground here in northern Michigan….Phil

Rusty
Reply

Phil,

Try to look on the positive side. You’ve got plenty of time to ready your equipment for next time, make plans, learn more. In the meantime, pay attention to your native bees because they are fascinating as well. I never get tired of learning about them.

bill castro
Reply

Phil,

Take out all the honey frames and frames with any pollen…leave only a couple frames of bare wax…buy a swarm lure which is really just lemongrass oil and apply several drops to the interior and entrance of the empty hive body…any swarms nearby WILL investigate your now swarm trap and very likely move in.

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

Question: I imagine old comb loses it’s appeal because all the volatile oils evaporate and the wax becomes dry and brittle. In your opinion, how old can comb be and still attract swarms? I have some old combs that are not highly used, in other words they are still tan and not black, and they are brittle and roughly five years old. What do you think?

Bill Castro
Reply

Rusty, the old brood combs work best, and it only takes 1 or 2 in a 10 frame deep. The rest of the frames I use are also previously used frames that are propolized and hopefully have a bit of old wax still present, but not necessarily full combs. A heavily propolized hive body will also be an added plus. If the bees recognize the swarm trap as a previously occupied by honey bee cavity…chances are high that a swarm will make it a home provided swarming scouts have found it. Adding the lemongrass swarm lure is the icing on the cake!! Hope this helps everyone and please don’t forget to keep trying…

Rusty

Thanks, Bill. I was worried that old combs might not smell right anymore. But I’ll give it a try. I’ve had good luck with bait hives in the past, but I always used newer comb.

Patrick
Reply

I guess I got lucky, because I did the newspaper combine and it worked. It definitely taught me the importance of always knowing whether your hives are ‘queen-right’.

Aaron Dionne
Reply

Okay, I guess I’ll offer something positive… instead of suggesting Phil move to lower Michigan :-)

Phil, You might also want to let people in your club know you’re looking for bees in case they might have splits available. Talk to local exterminators. They might be willing to pass along calls about honey bees. You can move them instead of them getting killed. Mentioning something about free honey bee removal on Craigslist might help, too… but make sure the people have bees instead of wasps. I’ve found a few yellow jacket colonies when going for honey bee retrieval.

Good luck.

Debbe
Reply

Your post was very timely. We had a hive which appeared to have survived our protracted and much colder than usual mid-Atlantic winter, but we decided to add two new hives because having one even apparently healthy hive is a gamble. The new packages were installed 3 weeks ago.

Yesterday we inspected all 3 hives. The two new hives are doing well with 3+ frames each of nice capped worker brood as well as eggs and larva.

By comparison the over-wintered hive had only a small amount of drone brood; however, the marked queen (new last year with a red dot) was there. If the lack of brood pattern were not enough to tell us the queen herself was not “queen-right,” her behavior was odd as well. I have usually found queens not that easy (for me at least) to find; they are either covered by a scrum of other bees or they run and hide on the bottom or back of the frame. This queen was wandering aimlessly very much in the open and she was not being tended by the other bees. They seemed to be ignoring her.

Unfortunately nobody near us has any queens immediately available. While we could have removed this queen (do you think a year old queen would actually have run out of sperm?) and incorporated the remaining bees into one of the 2 new hives, we really didn’t want to possibly tip the balance since both are doing well. A beekeeper within an hour’s driving distance did have did have some packages of bees available. We picked one up and installed it today. However (and nothing we seem to encounter is by the book), this queen cage was different from any other we’ve had in the past. It had only a cork on one end. Ones we’ve had from our usual source have had a cork on one end and a candy plug on the other, so there was always the chance that the helpers could chew through the candy and release the queen, although that rarely happened. Most often we would end up removing the cork to release her after several days. In this case there was only one possible exit with a cork and we found the cork turned sideways in the hole and the cage was empty. Tomorrow we need to try to find the queen (who is probably not marked.)

Two questions: if we find her, when do we remove the ineffective queen from the other hive and incorporate the remaining bees into this newest hive? If we don’t find her, do we wait and to see whether eggs and brood appear which could take weeks? And what would we do with the hive with the ineffective queen in the meantime? Or do we assume that now we essentially have two hives without good queens and maybe do need to add all these bees to the 2 new packages that are doing well.

We will also try to get in touch with the supplier and ask him about all this as well, but we’d like other opinions (if this isn’t too convoluted to follow.) Thanks.

Rusty
Reply

Debbe,

I have seen one-holed cages before and I have seen corks in sideways before, but I’ve never seen a queen get past the sideways cork. Did it look like a space she could get through?

Once you find your new queen, if you do, she should start laying right away. Since she’s already released, and assuming they didn’t kill her, I would think you would see eggs in a day or two. Then you can remove the non-performing queen and unite the two colonies with newspaper.

A queen could run out of sperm if she wasn’t mated well or perhaps there is something else wrong with her. I hope the drones you are seeing are hers and that they don’t belong to laying workers. Look in the cells and make sure you do not see multiple eggs. I would be careful about combining your new colony with a laying worker colony. As you can see from this thread, people do it, but I would advise caution.

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