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The Drone Laying Queen Hive

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Do You Have a Drone Laying Queen?

Frequent hive inspections during the warm season helps beekeepers ensure that everything is going well. One of the most important factors in colony strength is having a good queen. A good brood pattern with worker brood and some drone brood is normal. Finding all drone brood and no worker brood is not good. You may have a drone laying queen – it is time for action. 

Drone brood in drone layer queen hive image.

First, let’s talk about your queen bee. Is your bee colony queen right ?  What does that mean? It means that your colony has a good queen that is performing as she should.

If the season is warm and food is available, eggs are being laid in cells prepared by the workers. These eggs become bee brood and most colonies have some of each type of brood during the warm season.

Not only do you need a queen bee in the hive, you need a well-mated one ready to lay eggs and produce plenty of worker bees!

Only a fertile queen bee can lay both worker and drone eggs.  A well mated queen can produce thousands of eggs a day – until the semen stored inside her body runs out.

picture of brood from a drone layer queen in hive

Hive Inspections Spot Queen Problems

It is important that we beekeepers keep track of what is going on inside the hive. Failure to notice a problem can lead to catastrophe.

Timely hive inspections are an important part of managing honey bees. Perhaps, the most important aspect of a bee hive inspection is to verify the status of the queen bee.

It is not enough to just see her in there. We need to know that she is capable of producing workers. The best way to evaluate your queen is to look at the brood pattern.

Bee brood on a hive frame with drone brood on the edges image.

A Good Brood Pattern

What is a good brood pattern?  Generally, a good brood pattern is defined as compact sections of worker brood. Brood should be placed together in a general area. The brood nest often occupies several frames in the hive.

Worker brood is a smooth expanse of capped cells (or larva).  You may notice what looks like a pattern on the covers of capped brood. This is normal and no cause for concern. Some caps have little markings and some do not.

image of worker brood pattern in beehive

Tan is the common color for capped cells because the bees re-use valuable beeswax for this purpose.  A few empty cells is no problem. As the colony grows in population the brood nest area grows too!

How Much Brood is Normal?

How much brood should we see?  Well, that depends. During late Fall, very early Spring or times of nectar dearth, you may not see a lot of brood.

If it is a time of colony build up with ample food available, lack of a good solid worker brood pattern may mean trouble.

A colony with a drone layer queen will have no (or very little) worker brood.  Instead, most if not all brood cells with be drone brood.

What is Drone Brood?

Drones are male bees.  They do no work inside the hive. Their role in the colony is to leave the hive and mate with virgin queens.  In this way, the genetics of the hive are spread.

The queen honey bee lays two types of eggs: fertilized and unfertilized. Amazingly, she can choose whether or not to fertilize the eggs that she lays.

When a queen lays an egg and does not fertilize it with semen stored in her body, it will develop into a drone (or male bee). Fertilized eggs develop into worker bees.

What Does Drone Brood Look Like ?

Looking inside the honeycomb cells of the brood nest, to the untrained eye – drone larvae doesn’t look much different that worker larvae.

When bee larvae are ready to pupate,(make the transition from larva to adult)  worker bees cap the cells with a wax covering. This capped brood stage is the final phase before the new bee emerges as an adult.

Now, it is much easier to distinguish drone brood from worker brood. Worker brood caps form a smooth pattern that is slightly raised from the surface of the comb.

But, drone brood looks different. Drone bees are larger and require a little more space inside the cells.

Drone brood in frame.

The capped cells of drone brood will protrude slightly from the honeycomb surface.  This  creates a bullet appearance. In most cases, the bees have drone brood grouped together along the edges of the brood nest.

Finding Some Drone Brood is Normal

Drone brood is not a bad thing. But, a colony only needs so many drones during the warm season. And, normally no drones are allowed to live through Winter.

However, if drone brood is the only thing you have – that’s not good.  Not good at all!  You have a drone layer queen.

Drones play an important role in the life of the colony but female workers are essential for day to day colony survival. It is easy to see why the majority of bees in a colony must be workers and not drones.

Frame of scattered drone brood in a drone layer hive image.

Lack of Worker Brood Affects Colony

When the queen bee begins to fail, you may find large sections of drone brood. Instead of it being mainly along the edges of the frames, the brood might be scattered across or in a tight pattern.

Also, these bullet shaped cells protruding from the honeycomb will be found in worker sized cells. If the queen is laying and trying to fertilize the eggs, it will not happen if she has no semen.

If the colony is completely queenless due to queen death, the bees will to make a new queen. But, they are not always successful. And, they need a young fertilized larva to work wth.

Laying Workers

Some of the worker bees will begin to lay eggs if a colony remains queenless (or worker broodless) for a long time. This usually happens after 2-3 weeks with no worker brood.

Workers bees have some female parts but they can not mate or store semen. Only drones can be produced from eggs laid by female workers.  

We call these individuals laying workers. Laying workers (drone layers) continue to produce drones until the colony collapses.  They can not make a new queen with no fertilized eggs.

Note: Some beekeepers will refer to the laying worker as a drone layer (and that’s true) and sometimes the term drone layer is used in reference to a bad queen honey bee.

Laying worker solutions abound across the internet – I just like to combine them with a queen right hive for a couple of weeks.

Later, I can split the combination back into 2 hives if I wish – I simply give one half a new queen.

Young Queens Can Become Drone Layers

Another reason you may experience a drone layer colony is having a bad queen. Why would your nice fertile queen go bad?  Because, even a young queen bee can run out of stored semen.

In bee reproduction, the young queen bee only mates during her early days.  Semen is stored in a special organ inside her abdomen. 

When the semen supply is exhausted, she will be unable to fertilize the eggs that she lays.  Now she is…. you guessed it – a drone laying queen.

It is not uncommon to receive queens that are not well mated.  This is especially true in early Spring when bad weather makes mating more difficult.

Laying Worker or Drone Layer Queen?

How do you know if you have a drone layer queen or laying workers? We all know it is not always possible to find that elusive queen bee.

A look a the brood frame can help you with this decision. Laying workers do not have the long abdomen of a queen bee.  They deposit eggs on the side of the cell wall instead of centered in the bottom.

They tend to scattered the eggs around instead of placing them in adjacent cells. And they often lay more than 1 egg in each cell.

However, if you find the old queen in the hive and she is still trying to do her job – you probably have a failing queen. It is a good idea to requeen that hive.

Final Thoughts on a Drone Laying Queen

No matter why it has happened, a drone layer is a death sentence to the colony-without beekeeper intervention. Colony size will decrease until pest, disease or robber bees cause the colony to collapse.

You have to do something to enable the colony to have a new queen before the population drops too low. There are many ways to fix a drone laying situation in the hive and each beekeeper has a favorite.

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