Fix Laying Workers in a Beehive

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A honey bee colony is a social organism devoted to preservation of the hive. Sometimes, this strive to survive can be a problem for beekeepers. When a colony is without brood for a period of time, some of the worker bees begin to lay eggs. These laying worker bees can not save the colony. However, they do help spread their genetics to the region through drones they produce.

Laying Workers in a Honey Bee Colony

Drone bee emerging from erratic comb in laying worker hive image.

There are two kinds of female bees in the colony. Those known as workers and the queen. Physically, they share a lot of common characteristics – at least at the very beginning of their lives.

But, workers are not reproductive individuals. They can not mate and lay fertilized eggs to grow into the next generation of colony providers.

A healthy bee colony depends on constant production of new worker bees during the warm season. The life cycle of the honey bee is not very long. Aging bees die every day and new members must be available to take their place.

Tiny bee larva needed for queen replacement image.

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. Only female larvae have the ability to become a reproductive (able to mate) queen.

Once the female larvae have passed the age of 4-5 days, rearing a queen becomes unlikely. Older larvae do not produce good quality queens. Fresh fertilized eggs or very tiny larva are a must for high quality honey bee queens.

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 resources available to make one.

If the beekeeper practices routine hive inspections and catches the problem early, the colony may be saved by providing them with a purchased new queen.

Or if the beekeeper has access to another hive, a frame of fresh eggs might give the colony the resources they need.

Why Laying Workers Develop

Pheromones are chemical messengers used for communication among honey bees. Think of them as external hormones. They relay messages to colony members about the status of the hive.

When no bee brood is developing in the hive, things start to change. This lack of worker brood pheromones and to a lesser extent queen pheromones triggers changes in the colony.

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 (males).

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Many drone bees inside a laying worker hive image.

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.

  • lack of a queen
  • no worker brood
  • very high percentage of drones on the comb

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

Scattered Drone Brood

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.

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

Small patches of a few drone 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.

Multiple Eggs in Cells

It is also common to see multiple eggs in the cells of a laying worker colony. Workers 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.

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

Laying Worker Bee 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.

Young queen bee just beginning to lay with a few workers bees image.

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 who purchased a mated queen.

However, once the hive reaches a certain state of unsettledness – a new queen is often not accepted. Laying workers will kill the new queen.

Can You Remove the Laying Workers?

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. 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.

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 that 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 Tips

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 very low before you notice it, just letting it go is probably best.

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