Laying workers

Quite a title, I know, but that’s what it’s called in the beekeeping world.  This weekend, I looked into my colonies and added honey supers as necessary in preparation for the honey flow which starts soon in WV.  I mostly found good colonies with healthy queens, good worker build-up, plenty of eggs and larvae, etc.  In one hive, I found a problem though.

Healthy honeybees on comb
Healthy honeybees on comb

Sometimes, when a hive loses its queen, the infertile female worker bees sort of change into queen-wannabees.  Every hive needs a queen to survive as she is the one which controls the mood of the hive, ensures future bees and generally runs the show.  When a colony goes queen-less, all of that falls apart.  Something in a number of worker bees triggers and they begin to sort of convert into queen bees.  These infertile bees are called laying workers.  Their bodies begin producing eggs.  Since the aren’t really queens though, they cannot fertilize the eggs and something is just not right about how they roll…they don’t know how to properly lay eggs like a real queen would.

A healthy brood pattern
A healthy brood pattern…can you find the queen in this pic?  She’s there!

Instead of laying a single fertile egg in the center of each honeycomb, laying workers lay multiple eggs in the honeycomb, on the honeycomb walls, heck, sort of everywhere.  If the eggs develop into anything, they would turn into male drone bees but in most cases, they are just junk and signal the end of a hive.

Multiple eggs in the honeycomb cells from laying workers
Multiple eggs in the honeycomb cells from laying workers..there should be single little white eggs in each cell

Some beekeepers used to say that they could save the non-laying workers by shaking all of the bees out of the hive at some distance, say 500 yards, from the original location.  The idea was that, like a typical real laying queen, laying workers would not really fly and so would die where they were shaken out (queens can fly…when they breed in their first week or so after emerging from a queen cell and when they swarm…in both ).  Non-laying bees would return to the hive where the beekeeper could install a new fertile queen.

A healthy queen
A healthy queen…look for the longer body…this queen is darker than the surrounding workers

Research has shown that it doesn’t really work that way though…or not consistently.  I prefer to shake the bees out and remove the actual hive from the location where it once stood.  Any bees that return have to either transition into a nearby hive that will not tolerate laying workers or die where their old hive stood.  It’s a harsh reality I suppose but the only viable solution in my yard.  Sometimes it happens which is a drag, but I am pleased that I have a good number of healthy hives that will hopefully produce  a lot of good honey…if the predicted frost tomorrow doesn’t kill all of the nectar-producing blooms!

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4 thoughts on “Laying workers

  1. If you were to install a new queen, would she kill off the queen-wannabees?

    I remember my parents doing this to hives with older queens where they couldn’t find the old queen to dispatch her for one reason or another. I think the theory was that once the candy was removed and the new queen free, she would hunt down and destroy the older less able queen.

    Looking at your photos, I am reminded that their queens used to have a bright colored dot glued to their backsides to make them easier to spot. Do they still do that these days or is that considered not good for them?

  2. Good questions…I never take the chance on trying a new queen…as I understand it, in a laying worker scenario, the hive thinks they are queen-right because there is brood/eggs. So, if you install a new queen, there is a good chance that the colony will kill the new real queen…at a loss of around $25.

    As for the colored dot, it is still very common for people to pay the extra buck or two to have the queen marked when getting a new queen. I tend not to bother because, for some reason, I am really good at finding the queen so it isn’t a big deal to me…and when I have done it, it seems like the marking only lasts a few months at best anyhow…

  3. I had beetles once in TN when I started with bees. I have never seen them here yet but I suppose it’s a matter of time. Beet;es suck. I went nuclear on them and cleared them out but I was always concerned that the fix was also bad news

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