How to fix a laying worker hive

Something about laying workers brings out the wizard in us. We think up convoluted ways to rid ourselves of these miscreant creatures, most of which don’t work. Carry the box to the edge of the apiary, turn in a circle with your eyes closed and a drone in your teeth, shake the bees out of the box, apply the appropriate spell, swallow the drone, then beat the workers back to the hive armed with newspaper and a double screen board. Nothing to it.

I’ve seen long lists of not-so-successful ways of dealing with laying workers, and I always wonder why we bother to memorialize our failures for future beekeepers. All the methods for dealing with laying workers will fail unless you first correct the problem—and the problem is a lack of open brood pheromone in the hive.

How they come to be

Many misconceptions surround laying workers, but if you understand how they come about, you won’t be confused about what you have, how they got there, or how to get rid of them.

The thing you hear most often is, “I think I have a laying worker.” The misconception here is that a laying worker is much like a queen, and like a queen, there is just one. But when you think about how they come about, that doesn’t make any sense.

Picture this: Your colony has lost its queen. Like the old lady who lived in a shoe, she had so many children, she didn’t know what to do. So she stroked and died. Phew! Now, in this particular hive the workers tried to raise a new queen, but they failed. So after about ten days—give or take—the last eggs your queen laid have become capped pupae. There is no open brood left in the hive.

Why so many laying workers?

It turns out that open worker brood pheromone is the stuff that suppresses the worker bees’ ovaries. Queen pheromone may play a part as well, but it’s the open brood pheromone that is the primary chemical suppressant. Without a source of these chemicals in the hive, the workers’ ovaries begin to mature. It doesn’t happen overnight, but gradually the workers begin to lay eggs. The exact time varies, but you may begin to see worker eggs about three weeks after the loss of your queen.

Think about it. You have thousands of worker bees in your hive and, all at the same time, they lose the open brood pheromone. That means that many, many workers may have maturing ovaries, and they are maturing simultaneously. They all won’t develop into layers; for whatever reason, only some do. But it’s not just one, it is many—perhaps dozens, perhaps hundreds.

Soon these workers are laying eggs all over the place. They leave multiple eggs in cells or on top of stored pollen. The pattern is one of randomness. Because worker bees have no way to mate, all of the eggs are haploid (having a single set of chromosomes) and all will develop into drones.

Not all brood pheromone is equal

The real kicker is that while your hive may suddenly develop lots of open drone brood, open drone brood does not produce the pheromone that suppresses the laying workers. Only open worker brood does the trick.

However, the laying workers produce enough queen-like pheromone that the colony will not accept a new queen, so introduced queens are usually killed. No matter what incantation you whisper over the hive, or how surreptitiously you introduce a new queen, most of the time it won’t work.

Dumping the bees at the edge of the apiary (to rid yourself of not-so-agile laying workers) and introducing a new queen to the returning bees doesn’t work either because you haven’t cured the problem—the colony is still without open worker brood. The workers will kill the new queen before she can produce any brood, and more of the workers will begin to lay and take the place of those you tossed out.

Saving the colony

The only way to save the colony is to suppress the laying workers’ ovaries. This can be done by adding open worker brood to the hive. But just as it took a while to develop the workers’ ovaries, it will take a while to suppress them. If you add a queen too soon after adding the open brood, the workers will kill her too.

One of the best ways to save the hive is to introduce a frame of open worker brood every few days until the bees begin to raise a supersedure queen. How often you have to add brood depends on how old the brood is. Eggs remain eggs for three days and larvae are open for about 5.5 to 6 days. Assuming that most pheromone is produced by larvae rather than eggs, a new frame of open brood should be introduced at least once every five or six days if the larvae are very young, but more frequently if the larvae are old.

Once the colony begins to raise a queen on its own, you can either let the bees raise it or you can introduce a queen. The building of supersedure cells indicates their willingness to accept a new queen, so it is fairly safe to introduce a queen at that time.

Using the same reasoning, you can combine the laying worker hive with a nuc that contains a queen and open brood. The nuc needs to be separated by a double screen or similar device to keep the queen safe until the workers’ ovaries are fully suppressed. Allow about three weeks before combining.

Dismantling the hive

Other than suppressing the workers’ ovaries, the only other thing you can do is dismantle the hive and shake the bees out in the vicinity of your other hives (after you’ve thrown salt over your left shoulder, of course). If the colony has been queenless for a long time, it may be small, aggressive, and hardly worth your time. In that case, you can just shake your equipment free of bees. Some will find a home in one of the other hives and some will die, but in any case you will be rid of the laying worker problem until the next time it happens.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Laying-workers-BeeBase-1
Eggs of laying workers. Photo courtesy of BeeBase Crown copyright.

Comments

Aram
Reply

Excellent post. The “shake them out” misinformation is across languages and continents. A virgin queen raised by the laying works seems to be the only queen they’ll readily accept each time. But even if they do not start a queen cell, at least you get to use their care-taking abilities with the young larvae before they expire. How good they’ll feed youngsters is hard to say.

By the way, some people might not be aware, but there are usually several laying workers in huge colonies. Their eggs are consumed by workers who recognize that they were not laid by their queen.

jinksto
Reply

Excellent! Thank you!

Anubis Bard
Reply

That’s fascinating. I’ve wondered, but no one ever seems fit to mention whether the laying workers actually successfully raise drones. Do they? If so, it strikes me as an elegant adaptation. You have a hive that can produce no queen, so there is no mother for the next generation – but it nevertheless can produce a father for a new generation. It’s like a last ditch effort to continue the genetic line.

Rusty
Reply

Andy & Aram,

Each of you hit on a point that I deleted from my final draft (in an effort to cater to short attention spans). But Andy, you hit it right on. The honey bees do successfully raise the drones that then pass on their genetics to the next generation.

In bumble bees it is even more complicated. According to Dave Goulson in “A Sting in the Tale,” when the queen begins raising sons in the fall (to mate with new queens) the workers sense the presence of the drones and begin laying their own. Fights ensue where the queen eats the worker eggs and the workers eat the queen’s eggs, each competing to pass on their own genetics. Apparently, the fights can be quite nasty. The workers are only 25% related to their brothers (the queen’s drones) but they are 50% related to their sons. So from a genetic point of view, it is advantageous to raise their own sons.

Aram is correct, too, that some laying workers are not suppressed in a normal and thriving honey bee colony. Researches who have dissected thousands of workers found that roughly 1% of the workers in a hive lay eggs. Most eggs are eaten, but some make it. Sometimes you’ll see a frame where all the worker brood is together and all the drone brood is together except for 2 or 3 drones cells that are in the “wrong” place. It almost looks like the queen forgot what she was doing, but most likely these are the offspring of laying workers.

Rickvv
Reply

Rusty, I love reading your stuff. As a 4th yr beekeeper (with 12 colonies this year), I’m just starting to quietly understand how amazing these creatures are. I mean I always knew they were amazing, but reading this kind of article really makes me think. Thank you :)

Jan Brett
Reply

But Rusty, where do you keep getting frames of worker brood????

Rusty
Reply

Jan,

Without multiple hives—or friends with hives—it is indeed hard to come up with frames of brood. But if you do have another hive, you can always switch out one frame for another. So, for example, after a frame has been sitting in the queenless hive for a week and is nearly all capped, you can switch it with one that has a greater amount of uncapped brood, and put the first one back in the original hive.

Tricia
Reply

A most excellent post. Clear, informative, with a little humour. I have to share this and as I use a different blog I am going to hope you won’t mind if I post a link as i don’t think I can reblog from yours.
Tricia

Andrew
Reply

I had laying worker bees (multiple eggs per cell) in hive with a live 3 year old queen. I couldn’t find the queen immediately so as a first year beekeeper with only one other hive (with a virgin queen) I got quite anxious.

Two weeks later I found the queen again and didn’t find any more cells with multiple eggs. I can’t explain this nor have I found anyone who could. Anyone here have an hypothesis?

Rusty
Reply

Andrew,

It could be that your three-year old queen is failing, although usually a queen that lays multiple eggs is young and just getting started. You say that now you do not see multiple eggs, but are you seeing any eggs? Is brood being produced? If she is not producing a reliable brood pattern, perhaps you should replace her. Has anyone else seen this?

Andrew
Reply

This queen has since died, she with her colony didn’t survive the winter. I hadn’t seen multiple eggs per cell before that one time and no longer saw them a few weeks later. The strange thing was that all the eggs were positioned at the bottom of the cells (http://apiarists.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/eieren-klein.jpg). And I heard that workers mostly stick the eggs on the sides of the cells because they aren’t long enough to reach the bottom of the cells…(?)

Rusty
Reply

Andrew,

Great photo. Worker-laid eggs aren’t always stuck to the side. In the photo with my post, there are none on the sides. I think your queen was failing, she no longer produced brood, then laying workers took over. After that, the colony died over the winter. Just a guess.

Andrew

The eggs in the photo in the post look like they were laid on top of pollen. The colony was the result of a late swarm, mid July, and was just not big enough to survive the winter.

It was my first season of beekeeping, I was just not experienced enough to correctly asses the size of the colony.

David Heilman
Reply

Another thing that will work sometimes is to take frames of brood with developing queen cells on them and put them in the laying worker hive. I have made a hive raise queens cells by removing the queen for a few days and then place those frames with Q cells into problem hive.

Danielle
Reply

Can you recommend further reading about the pheromones that suppress ovaries?

Rusty
Reply

Hi Danielle,

Yes. Here are three that I found useful. Also, if you go the site of Dr. Zachary Huang at Michigan State University, he is a wealth of information on honey bee pheromones of all types.

“E-β-Ocimene, a Volatile Brood Pheromone Involved in Social Regulation in the Honey Bee Colony (Apis mellifera)” by Alban Maisonnasse, Jean-Christophe Lenoir, Dominique Beslay, Didier Crauser, and Yves Le Conte.

“Four Quantitative Trait Loci That Influence Worker Sterility in the Honeybee (Apis mellifera)” by Peter R. Oxley, Graham J. Thompson , and Benjamin P. Oldroyd.

“Factors affecting ovary activation in honey bee workers: a meta-analysis” by Backx A, Guzman-Novoa E, Thompson GJ.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

So workers don’t ever mate with drones and start laying fertile eggs? With a reproductive society so complicated and heavily dependent upon a single fertile female, it seems sensible that in a queenless hive, if some egg-laying workers actually mate with the new drones, they might be able to lay a few female eggs and restart the hive. Or is there something that interferes with this — workers lack the right perfume, mating only happens outside a hive and laying workers never leave to mate, or some such. How long can a queenless hive survive assuming no human intervention?

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

I spent a while looking up the reason, but all I could find in my references is that workers cannot mate. I’m assuming they don’t have the right hardware, but I don’t know for sure. But with nothing but drones being produced, a colony will survive only as long as the remaining workers—perhaps six or eight weeks at most. The colony just dwindles to nothing, and the process is often accelerated by robber bees or wasps.

One interesting thing, however, is that the cape honey bee worker, Apis mellifera capensis, can sometimes produce females by a type of parthenogenesis. Apparently, these offspring are capable of becoming queens. Who knew?

Jilly
Reply

I find this blog fascinating. Thank you.

Aram
Reply

Glen, workers do not lay fertile eggs. They lay infertile eggs which end up developing into drones. Do not know why they would not want to mate with drones, but maybe drones are not attracted to worker bees which do not produce an abundance of whichever queen pheromone seduces them in the first place. Drone have to be discriminate, there are thousands of bees that fly out of a hive.

Andrew, your three-year-old queen is probably no longer the three year old queen, but instead a young replacement queen that was learning the ropes. She laid incorrectly at first and then fixed her ways. Young queens often lay 2 eggs in a cell especially if they run out of space to lay but have plenty of eggs that they want to lay. So it is either that, or you had a combination of factors like laying workers and a new queen. The old laying workers died and only the new queen is left. Was your queen marked, do you know for sure you have a 3 yr old queen still?

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