Why save a laying-worker colony?
This is not a post on how to save a laying-worker colony. I have beat the subject to death in prior posts, and the comments always devolve into arguments on the best way to tame those drone-laying demons. Each beekeeper’s personal technique is the right way and you’re ignorant if you don’t believe it.
While there are probably hundreds of ways to save a laying-worker colony, there doesn’t seem to be any clear winner. Lots of people have succeeded and lots have failed. Many beekeepers, myself included, succeed with some colonies and fail with others.
However, my inbox during the past two weeks has been swamped with newbees wanting to know what to do with their laying workers, so here is this year’s two cents. As I’ve said before, maintaining this website has changed my outlook on a number of issues, and laying worker remediation is one of them. I used to think you should try no matter what; now I think you should get over it.
What is a laying worker?
For those of you unfamiliar with the problem, laying workers arise in a colony after an extended period of queenlessness. After about two weeks without a queen or without any open brood, a certain percentage of the workers will begin to lay eggs.
Research has shown that in a normal colony, pheromones produced by open worker brood and by the queen herself keep the ovaries of the workers suppressed. But once the pheromones become weak or non-existent, the ovaries begin to develop in perhaps 10-12% of the workers.
Because workers are incapable of mating, all their eggs are haploid, meaning they have one set of chromosomes and develop into drones. Without any new workers or any way to raise a queen, the colony is doomed.
However, these laying workers go through physiological changes that give them some queen-like characteristics, including enough pheromones that the colony “believes” it has a queen. Because of this, any introduced queen is unwelcome and usually destroyed.
How can you detect laying workers?
A laying-worker colony is easy to spot. Since you have many bees laying eggs, they tend to share the cells and reuse them. Some cells may contain two or three eggs, or in some cases, even a dozen. And instead of standing upright in the center of cell they may be on the walls of the cell or even on the rim. Workers don’t have the long, sleek abdomen needed to place the eggs precisely as a queen would.
Then too, you may notice many capped drone cells randomly distributed on the combs. You will see no worker brood, usually no queen, and often a kind of nervous energy among the workers, who seem in no way relaxed.
The techniques of laying-worker remediation
Techniques for remediation are designed to reverse ovary development. This is done by adding caged queens that are protected from workers or adding open brood, or both.These additions boost the pheromone levels within the hive. If pheromone levels remain elevated for several weeks, the worker ovaries will eventually begin to shrink. After enough time passes, the colony will be receptive to a new queen.
As I mentioned, there are many ways to go about introducing a new queen and adding open brood pheromone. Every beekeeper has developed a “foolproof” way to do this—you need only ask to get all the details.
Why I no longer recommend it
Let me back up a moment and say that if you have plenty of resources (queens and brood) and lots of time and patience, by all means go for it. You can learn a lot by messing with these colonies, so if that’s your goal, just do it.
However, a successful save can require repeated introductions of open brood. If you are in a situation with a limited number of colonies, or a limited amount of brood, you may want to reconsider.
Each time you steal brood, you are weakening the donor colony. If you have lots of colonies, you can take from several. Or if your other colonies are large, you can probably get away with this. But if you are a beginner with just two colonies, I would be wary about weakening one in order to save a batch of laying workers.
What are you actually saving?
When you think about it, spring and summer workers live, on average, about four to six weeks. For argument, let’s say five weeks. If you catch the laying workers just as they begin to drop eggs, they have been without open brood for two weeks already, which means the last workers are emerging now. (Assuming the brood cycle is three weeks, after two weeks, you have one more week of emerging bees.)
If we add that one week of still-to-emerge bees onto our five-week lifespan, we have six weeks of worker bees remaining. If it takes three weeks to revert their ovaries, you will have only half that remaining, and they will be fairly old. These are rough numbers, of course, but you get the idea.
If you didn’t discover the laying workers until they’d been laying for two weeks, you only have two weeks of lifespan remaining on those bees you are trying so hard to save. If you start trying to save them now, virtually none will be left by the time you are done. You have to ask yourself if removing all that brood from your other colonies is worth it.
Appearances are deceiving
If you start adding brood, the colony will get much larger, of course. But most of the bees you see will be bees you added in the form of brood, not necessarily bees from the laying worker hive. What you actually achieve is a slow split.
I contend that it’s a better use of resources to use that brood for a regular split, and either add a queen or let them raise one. Instead of making a split gradually over the course of three or four weeks, just make it all at once. You are still using the same amount of brood, but you’re not risking a new queen, and you’re not continually messing with the nest structure of your good colony.
Shaking out the bees
In the “old days” we just dismantled the laying worker hive and shook the frames in the grass at edge of the bee yard. This results in most of the bees finding a home in one of the other colonies. The laying workers are usually denied entrance (due to their high pheromone levels) or if they are allowed in, any eggs they lay are carted out and dumped.
This isn’t such a bad outcome and, as far as I know, this method is still practiced by most sizable apiaries. The laying worker colony is considered a loss, so you save what you can and move on.
While I understand the urge to save every last bee, I think it’s more important to concentrate on the healthy colonies you have remaining. Later, when you have more experience and more colonies, you can fuss with laying workers until the cows come home.
Honey Bee Suite