Something about laying workers brings out the wizard in all of us. We devise 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, 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 makes no 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. Instead, 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 pheromones play a part as well, but open brood pheromone is the primary chemical suppressant. Without a source of these chemicals in the hive, the ovaries of some workers begin to mature. It doesn’t happen overnight, but gradually these bees will lay eggs. The exact time varies, but you may see worker eggs about three weeks after losing 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 place multiple eggs in cells or atop stored pollen. They put eggs in cells with developing larvae. And they drop eggs on comb rims or even woodenware. The pattern is one of randomness. And because worker bees have no way to mate, all the eggs are haploid (having a single set of chromosomes) and all will develop into drones.
Biologists believe that laying workers are nature’s last-ditch effort to save the colony’s genetic line. Each of the many drones the colony produces has a chance of mating with a virgin queen from elsewhere and passing its DNA to a new generation of bees. Although the original colony dies, its genetic heritage lives on.
Not all brood pheromone is equal
The real kicker with open drone brood is that it does not produce the pheromone that suppresses laying workers. So even though laying workers can produce lots of open brood, that brood does nothing to suppress worker ovaries. Only open worker brood performs that trick.
However, the laying workers produce enough queen-like pheromone that the colony will not accept a new queen. Convinced they already have a queen, they will kill any queen you try to introduce. 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 does not work either. Experiments with marked laying workers show most have no problem returning home. And even if they didn’t return home, you haven’t cured the problem. As long as the colony has no open worker brood, the workers will kill a 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 way to save the colony 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. Since the pheromone is produced by larvae and not eggs or pupae, 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 older.
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.
Some beekeepers have had success by combining a laying worker colony with a queenright colony or nucleus that has plenty of open brood. Separate the two colonies with a double screen or similar device to keep the queen safe until the workers’ ovaries are fully suppressed. Allow about three weeks before removing the screen.
Dismantling the hive
If you decide to add frequent infusions of open brood to a laying worker colony, always consider the strength of both. If the laying worker colony is strong with many healthy bees, it might be worth trying to save, but be careful. Each time you remove brood from your queenright colony, you are weakening it, so you need to decide if the laying worker colony is worth the sacrifice. If the queen died a while back, the laying worker colony may be small, aggressive, and hardly worth the effort.
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. (Only after throwing salt over your left shoulder, of course). Some bees 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.