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How to Deal with Laying Workers in a Beehive

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Laying Workers in a Honey Bee Colony

A honey bee colony is a social organism devoted to preservation of the hive. Though a problem for beekeepers, laying workers in a hive demonstrates a genetic desire for survival. When a colony is without brood for a period of time, some of the worker bees begin to lay eggs. These individuals can not save the colony due to their inability to lay fertilized eggs. However, they do help spread the genetics of the colony through drones they produce.

Honey bees in laying workers hive with little brood image.

A healthy bee colony depends on constant production of new worker bees. As aging bees die every day, new members must be available to take their place in colony life. This is why, when a hive loses their queen – time is critical.

The colony can make a new queen but they must have young larva from a fertilized egg. Once the larvae have passed the age of 4-5 days, rearing a queen becomes unlikely. Older larvae do not produce good quality queens.

Worker bees laying workers in a beehive image.

Even in the best of circumstances, the time of replacing a queen is tenuous for our bees. Many things can go wrong in the process, resulting in a colony with no queen and no way to make one.

If the beekeeper practices routine hive inspections and catches the problem early, the colony may be saved with a new queen or a frame of fresh eggs.

Why Laying Workers Develop

The lack of worker brood pheromones and to a lesser extent queen pheromones can trigger changes in the bees. Within 3 weeks of no open brood, some workers will start to lay eggs.

These bees do have ovaries capable of producing eggs. However, because workers are unable to mate, the eggs are unfertilized and will develop into drones.

How do You Know if You Have Laying Workers in Your Hive

There are several characteristics of a laying worker colony that are easy to identify. First, the lack of a queen and worker brood is the big signal that your bees are in trouble.

With no workers being produced, colony size will decline over time. Also, you will find the hive has a very large percentage of drone bees inside.

Failing honey bee hive with many drones image.

When a queen bee lays drone eggs, she places them in larger drone sized cells. However, worker bees will lay their eggs in regular worker brood cells.

Normal drone brood t is concentrated in patches along the edges of the brood nest. Drone brood produced by laying workers is scattered.

Small patches of a few cells, or even single cells, here and there. The brood nest of the colony is in chaos compared to the normal organized nest of a regular colony.

It is also common to see multiple eggs cells of a laying worker colony. These bees lack the long tapered abdomen of a queen. Eggs are often placed on the side of the cell wall rather that attached to the bottom.

Piscisgate, CC by-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Laying worker brood looks unorganized. It is all drone brood with the characteristic bullet shaped cappings. Rather than concentrated together with similar ages close by, it is scattered here and there.

Laying Worker or New Queen

One word of caution. Many a new beekeeper has been alarmed upon finding a few cells with more than 1 egg. They fear the worse and think their colony has a big problem. In some cases, all is well and there is no need for panic.

A new queen or one that has stopped laying for a while may lay a few cells with multiple eggs. But this behavior will clear up quickly. In a few days, egg laying will proceed normally.

Fixing a Laying Worker Hive

Beekeepers use several strategies in dealing with a laying worker hive. Normally, a colony can be requeened by the beekeeper.

However, once the hive reaches this state, a new queen is often not accepted. Laying workers will kill a new queen.

Why can’t you simply remove the laying workers from the hive? Finding them is almost impossible, they look just like the other bees. The only way to identify a laying worker is to see her in the process of laying.

They are much like the other bees in the hive. In fact, they may leave the hive to forage like their sisters. Remember, you do not have a laying worker – you have several, or many.

Strong honey bee colonies in a bee yard image.

Combine with a Strong Queen Right Colony

One of the best methods to fix a laying worker hive is to combine it with a strong queen right colony. Don’t combine them with another small colony. They may just kill the queen.

By combining the two hives using the newspaper method or similar, the bees will work things out. Members of the queen right colony will sort out the troublesome workers and restore order.

In a few days or so, you can split the colony back off into 2 parts if you wish and give one of them a new queen.

Give Hive Several Frames of Open Brood

If the beekeeper has other hives with a few frames of brood to share, the technique of adding open brood to the colony is worth a try.

Milk brood or open brood in honeycomb cells image.

Give them a frame of worker brood (larvae) each week for 3 weeks. The pheromones from the brood suppresses the laying workers.

By the third week, the colony may begin to build queen cells. When this happens, you can go ahead and give them a mated queen. Or, if the colony population is still good – maybe let them raise their own queen bee.

Shaking Out Laying Worker Hive

Some beekeepers report success with shaking all the bees out of the hive about 100 feet or so from the hive. The thought is that younger adults are the laying workers and they will not be able to find their way home.

However, laying workers are sometimes foragers. This method may not always work and seems rather hard on the bees.

Final Thoughts of Fixing a Laying Worker Hive

If you are a beekeeper with hives in your backyard or nearby, you may employ any of these techniques.

Having another colony to either combine them with or share brood from is key. Sometimes local beekeepers will sell a frame of brood to another beekeeper in need. This is another reason to try to find local bee friends.

Whatever method you choose to deal with your laying workers, keep this in mind. Don’t damage your good colonies trying to save one that is having problems. If the population of your problem hive is low before you notice it, just letting is go is probably best.

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