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No matter how many beekeeping books you've read, you need Rosanna Mattingly's Honey-Maker to bring it all together. Honey-Maker is a handbook about the worker bee herself—what she does, how she does it, and how all her little parts work together. For less than the price of one average queen bee, you can learn the secrets of the worker in minute detail. She—and the book—are nothing short of awesome.

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.

I was so much smarter then

If you are prickly, easily offended, or a second- or third-year beekeeper, please do not read this. Hey, you! Yes, you, the second-year beekeeper out there who is trying to sneak a peek! Please go away!

Wow, that was close. Anyway, for the rest of you, I have completed a one-sided, unscientific, and misguided study on the knowledge base of beekeepers correlated with the length of time they’ve been keeping bees. And this is what I found:

The beekeepers who know the least are the first years. No surprise here. Many don’t know a mite from a mouse—after all, they both live in hives—but that’s okay because they are soaking up knowledge and learning fast. They read, attend classes, ask questions. They are grateful for any help they can get.

The beekeepers who know the most, those who actually know everything there is to know, are the second- and third-years. If there is a question, they have the answer. If you have an opinion, they will let you know what they think of it—and you. They don’t read, because they could write it better. They don’t listen, because they could say it better. Trust me, there is not one thing about bees that they don’t know. If you need a fast answer and confident opinion, they are the people to see. I am happy for them as they revel in their vast knowledge.

Then, long about the fourth year, something happens—their knowledge begins to erode. It’s not that they know less, it’s that they know so much that they begin to realize how much more there is to learn. It dawns on them they’ve seen but the tip of the iceberg. They begin to see issues as complex rather than simple. They begin to see answers as multi-faceted, not smooth and round. The amount they want to learn slowly grows until it becomes infinite.

You’ve heard of the “tree of knowledge?” Well, I think of it like this: The first years are on the ground, right where the tree breaks through the soil. The second- and third-years are on the trunk where everything is smooth, well-defined, and nothing is messy. Those who’ve been at it longer are up in the limbs, branches, and twigs where every question has more than one answer and all the pathways are obscured by leaves.

Knowledgeable beekeepers start sentences with indeterminate words like, “sometimes,” “often,” or “possibly.” They read, go to lectures, search the web, and experiment. Each year that passes, as their knowledge increases in multiples, they feel they know less . . . and they want to know more. They are awed by the bees, mesmerized, humbled. They never have fast answers, only well-considered opinions that are tempered with experience and the realization that there are no easy answers—not about bees.

But, yes, the exception makes the rule. Of course there are second- and third-years who are not know-it-alls and old-timers who are. Furthermore, I don’t really think the progression from knowing nothing, to knowing everything, to knowing just a portion is bad. It’s just the way it is.

I am speaking partially from experience gathered from my website, classes I’ve taught, and lectures I’ve given, and partially from being there. I used to know way more about bees than I do now. Actually, I used to know just about everything. But once I began studying bee nutrition, pathogens, pesticide interactions, reproduction, genetics, health, hygienic behavior, flower selection, pollen composition, communication, social interaction, nest-site selection, and environmental stressors . . . well, let’s just say I know less and less every day.

‘Nuf said. Now back to the books before I lose a few more percentage points.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Tree
Where on the tree are you?