Laying workers raise nothing but drones
Laying workers develop when a hive becomes queenless or when an existing queen begins to fail. As the queen’s pheromone levels decrease, the ovaries of some of the workers may begin to develop. If other workers begin to feed these bees royal jelly, they begin to lay eggs. The whole process happens two to three weeks after the loss of the queen.
Since workers cannot mate, the eggs of laying workers produce drones. If you recall, when the queen lays a fertilized egg, the offspring is female and has two sets of 16 chromosomes—or 32 total. If the queen lays an unfertilized egg, the offspring is male and has one set of chromosomes—or 16 total.
The worker-laid eggs will all have just the one set of chromosomes. And since a colony cannot survive with nothing but drones, it will soon die. In addition, it is almost impossible to re-queen a hive with laying workers. This is because the laying workers give off a queen-like pheromone that prevents a real queen from being accepted into the colony.
So how do you know if you have laying workers? There are four major indicators:
- A scattered brood pattern (this occurs because worker eggs are often eaten by other workers)
- Cells with multiple eggs (this occurs because there may be multiple workers laying eggs at the same time)
- Worker-sized brood cells that have the conical cappings characteristic of drones (this is because the workers don’t seem to “know” they are laying all drone eggs)
- Eggs adhering to the side of cells rather than being centered in the bottom of the cells (this occurs because the worker abdomen is too short to reach all the way down to the bottom of the cell)
So what do you do with a hive of laying workers that you can’t re-queen? One answer is to set up a new hive in the old position with a new caged queen and some brood frames taken from another hive. Then take the laying-worker hive to the edge of your apiary and shake the bees from the frames. Most of the bees will fly back and enter the new hive. The laying workers don’t usually make it back because they’ve become too large and heavy to fly (think pregnant.)
Keep your queen caged for a few days and check for laying workers before you release her.
If you don’t have a new queen on hand, you can combine the laying-worker colony with a queenright colony. You might want to use a double-screen board for a couple days until the real queen’s pheromones overpower the worker pheromones.