Finding A Drone Layer In The Hive
Beekeepers strive to have healthy productive honey bee colonies. Realizing that your colony has a drone layer is upsetting. What is a drone layer and why does it matter? First, let’s talk about your queen bee.
Is your bee colony queen right ? Not only do you need a queen bee in the hive, you need a well-mated one ready to lay eggs and produce worker bees!
Drones are male bees that do no work in the hive. They play an important role in the colony but female workers are essential for colony survival.
Only a fertile queen bee can lay both worker and drone eggs. 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.
Periodic Bee Hive Inspections Are Important
Timely inspections are an important part of managing honey bees. A beekeeper hopes to find healthy bees with plenty of food and room to grow.
We are always on the lookout for pests or diseases. 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.
Looking For A Good Brood Pattern
What is a good brood pattern? The answer to this question depends somewhat on the time of year. But generally a good brood pattern is defined as compact sections of worker brood.
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.
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.
A colony with a drone layer will have no worker brood. And you may find patches of brood scattered around on the frame.
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.
That’s okay. If it is a time of colony build up with ample food available, lack of a good solid brood pattern may mean trouble.
Occasionally, a beekeeper will find a bad brood pattern and evidence of a drone layer.
This is not something that we ever want to see. All drone brood with no good worker brood requires beekeeper intervention!
What is Drone Brood?
Drones are male bees. They will leave the hive and mate with virgin queens. In this way, the genetics of the hive are spread.
Drones play an important role in the colony but they do not contribute to colony up keep.
They don’t collect food but they do eat it. They don’t make beeswax or protect the hive.
It is easy to see why the majority of bees in a colony must be workers and not drones.
The queen bee 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).
A normal honey bee colony only needs so many drones during the warm season. And, normally no drones are allowed to live through Winter. A colony full of nothing but drones can not survive.
What Does Drone Brood Look Like ?
When bee larva are ready to pupate,(make the transition from larva to adult) worker bees will cap the cells with wax.
Worker brood caps form a smooth pattern that is slightly raised fro the surface of the comb. But drone brood looks different.
Drone bees (males) are larger and require a little more space than workers. The capped cells of drone brood will protrude slightly from the honeycomb surface. This creates a bullet appearance.
Normal drone brood is usually grouped together in small patches on the outside edges of worker brood.
Drone brood is not a bad thing. It is a natural needed function of the colony. However, if drone brood is the only thing you have – that’s not good. Not good at all! You have a drone layer.
Regular Inspections For Queen Status Are Necessary
We beekeepers have so many challenges to face and having a “drone layer” is something that every beekeeper will face at some time in their bee experience.
Inspecting your hive monthly is extremely important during our South Carolina summers.
Sometimes the heat and humidity is just too much for us and we don’t inspect when we should – this can lead to serious problems.
This is exactly what happened to me in regards to one hive. Upon inspection, I did not find large smooth areas of capped worker brood OR small groups of drone brood. Instead I found a mess.
A Hive With No Worker Brood
This hive has a serious problem. Due to the fact that we seeno regular worker brood, we know that only unfertilized eggs are being produced.
2 Reasons For A Drone Layer
Laying Workers Have Developed
This situation still begins from a queen problem. If a colony is queenless, they will try to make a queen but they are not always successful.
The queen may have been killed or died and the colony realizes this. Female worker bees will begin to lay eggs if a colony remains queenless for a long time. (Usually 2-3 weeks with no brood.)
However, the eggs will not be fertilized because workers can not mate.
Only drones can be produced from eggs laid by female workers. We call these individuals “laying workers“.
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.
Laying workers (drone layers) continue to produce drones until the colony collapses. They can not make a new queen with no fertilized eggs.
Drones do not work. The colony can not sustain itself.
Laying worker solutions abound across the internet – I just like to combine them with a queen right hive for a couple of weeks.
Then I can split them back off and have 2 colonies again.
Your Queen Bee Has Failed
Another reason for having a drone layer, you have a bad queen.
Why would your nice fertile queen go bad? Because, a queen bee can run out of stored semen.
The queen bee only mates during her early days. The queen honey bee can not mate again after the mating flights of her youth.
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 layer.
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.
How Do I Know if I Have a Drone Layer Worker or Queen?
Laying workers do not have the long abdomen of a queen bee. They usually 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.
If you see the queen in the hive but have only drone brood. Then, that’s your answer. She will need to be removed from the colony and replaced with a mated queen.
A Colony With A Drone Layer Is Doomed
No matter why it has happened, a drone layer is a death sentence to the colony. Colony size will decrease until pest, disease or robber bees cause the colony to collapse. It’s time for the beekeeper to help.
The first step in any problem with your honey bees is to determine the problem. The issue here is that I have a drone layer. Now what to do?
We will explore my options in the next post – Combining Hives – Drone Laying Queen or Worker