For the past two or three years, I’ve been reading everything I could find about laying workers. The biology of why a laying worker hive forms is pretty straight forward. But ideas on how to deal with them vary radically.
Without actually keeping a tally, it seems to me that large-scale beekeepers mostly shake out the bees and move on. Hobby beekeepers often work diligently to save them.
What to do with a laying worker hive
I don’t see a problem with either philosophy. When time is money—such as in a large operation—moving on is probably the best strategy. In a smaller operation, though, when the purpose is to learn about bees and beekeeping, playing around with one of these hives can be a memorable learning experience.
The one exception, I think, is that if you have only two or three hives, you could seriously weaken one in order to maybe save another. For example, if you have two hives and you transfer a frame of brood from the queenright hive to the laying-worker hive every week for three or four weeks, you may seriously weaken your strong hive.
How laying workers come about
Without going into detail, laying workers begin to show up roughly three weeks after a colony has gone queenless. Pheromones from open brood, and to some extent from the queen herself, suppress the workers’ ovaries. After loss of the queen, the brood is completely capped within nine or ten days, and worker ovaries slowly begin to mature. By the end of three weeks it is possible for some of these workers to begin to lay.
Since the loss of pheromone affects all the workers, you may find dozens or even hundreds of these layers. Hives with laying workers are notoriously hard to re-queen, and often the colony will kill a newly introduced queen. Many factors determine the number of workers affected, including the size of the colony and the length of time the queen has been missing.
How to reverse laying in workers
Beekeepers have developed many different strategies to save these colonies. Some beekeepers have been successful by combining the laying workers with a queenright hive. Others succeeded by introducing open brood and gradually reversing the ovarian development. Once the bees start to build queen cells, some of these beekeepers have managed to introduce queens. Others have only had success by letting the colony produce its own queen.
The different programs, successes, and failures are extremely interesting, but my purpose today is merely to show what a laying worker hive might look like.
A case study from Australia
I’ve been working with a brand new beekeeper in Sydney who, four weeks ago, installed a package into a new Flow hive. The beekeeper, Edmun, was worried he had done something wrong because, after releasing the queen, he could not find her or any evidence of eggs or larvae.
It wasn’t until he purchased a second hive and package that he was convinced that something was wrong with the first. The second colony took off, while the first continued to languish.
Edmun supplied detailed information on all the steps he took to hive his packages. By the time I got involved, he was worried about the foundationless frames, the lawn mower, the coating on the hive, and the number of times he opened it. I can understand the anxiety here. When you’re new at this, you always question yourself and what you are seeing.
As far as I could tell, however, he did everything by the book. Queens die sometimes in spite of what we do. But I was worried that too much time had passed, and that laying workers would show up any day. After I explained what to look for, he sent the photos below.
The photos tell a story
Edmun did a great job with the photos, and I thought they would be a good learning tool for someone who has never seen a laying worker hive. At first glance, the new comb looks great. The bees are busy and the honey is capped with snow-white wax. Below the honey, you can see some stored pollen and worker bees feeding fat larvae.
However, on closer inspection you can see several signs of trouble.
- Many cells contain multiple eggs.
- The eggs are not centered in the bottom of the cells, but cling randomly to the sides of the cells.
- Some eggs are atop pollen.
- At least one egg appears to be on the rim of the comb.
- Some cells have more than one larva.
- Some cells have eggs and a larva.
- Capped drone cells occur randomly within the comb, whereas queens generally group drones together at the edges or bottom of the comb.
- In a normal colony, workers prepare larger cells for drones, but in a laying worker colony, the drone eggs are laid in worker cells.
- In places, the edges of the comb appear to be “reinforced” in preparation for capping drones. Drones require a large rounded cap, rather than a small flat one.
Look for more than one sign
Occasionally, a newly-mated queen will lay multiple eggs per cell during her first few days. Egg laying, apparently, is a learned skill. However, the other signs listed above will not be present if you have a normal queen who is just learning the trade.
For example, she usually won’t lay on pollen, she won’t lay an egg in a cell that contains a larva, and she won’t lay eggs on the rims and walls of cells. If you see multiple eggs but no other suspicious signs, and if those multiple eggs are basically in the middle of the cell, wait for a few days to see if the problem clears up or gets worse.
In general, you should not conclude you have laying workers based on just one of the signs listed above. Instead, look for several. For example, multiple eggs plus eggs on pollen plus two larvae in a cell would make me suspicious.
I suggested a number of options for handling the laying workers, but ultimately Edmun decided to shake out the bees at the edge of his apiary to get rid of them. Since he only had one other hive, he didn’t want to weaken it by stealing brood. Combining the two was another risk he didn’t want to take. Instead, he was able to get another package and install it in the first hive.
The episode cost him the price of another package, but I think Edmun learned a lot in the process. Yes, it would have been helpful to recognize queenlessness before it progressed into laying workers, but that’s how we learn and it’s all part of beekeeping. Although he might do it differently in the future, as a beginner with only two colonies, he made a good decision.
I want to thank Edmun for allowing me to use his story and his photos. Perhaps his experience can help another beekeeper avoid the same problem. For more details on how to save (maybe) a laying worker hive, see “How to fix a laying worker hive.”
Honey Bee Suite