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Drone Laying Queen or Laying Workers?

So you have a problem - What problem is it?

Laying workers will sometimes (not always) lay the eggs on the side of the cell rather than at the bottom – for the simple reason that their abdomen is not long enough to get all the way down. Also it is common that multiple eggs are laid when laying workers are present. Laying workers also tend to lay in a random pattern rather than the usual brood pattern that a queen will lay in so you may see patches of eggs or brood on one or more combs. 

A drone laying queen will lay drones because either she didn’t mate properly, has been damaged in some way or she has run out of sperm. An old queen is likely to start laying more and more drones as the sperm runs out and often the bees will construct queencells as they know something is wrong. If you, for example, removed queencells in the hope that you might stop the bees swarming whilst the queen is actually failing, you might have inhibited the bees' ability to replace the queen and they become stuck with the one that can no longer lay worker eggs.

Drone laying workers will usually not start for some time after the absence of a queen. The reason for this is that brood itself produces a pheromone that inhibits the development of worker bee ovaries so if the colony is able to generate a queen it is unlikely that laying workers will be there. The presence of a virgin queen, even if she has not mated for several weeks, shouldn't result in laying workers. A test frame of brood with eggs and young larvae from a disease free colony will confirm the presence of a queen and will also reduce the likelihood of laying workers if there is no queen. This can be used as a preventative measure to ensure that laying workers do not develop if you are unsure whether a queen is there.

 Colony history, (how old is that queen?)  behaviour and the examination of the colony will in many cases identify if there is a queen present. However the most likely time when we are concerned and most difficult is when we have had a colony with what we expect to have a virgin queen and we see no eggs for a long time. Is a queen present or not we wonder? (Check the "When will my queen start to lay" page). 

An area of polished cells where the brood would usually be indicates that a queen is present and not yet laying. Note that a ratty queenless colony can become calm once laying workers are present  - in a similar way that a queenless colony will become calm once a queen has been introduced.

What to do?

1) If a drone laying queen is present then she can be found and removed. The colony can be united with another which has a good queen or a queen or queencell can be introduced. If there is just some drone brood; i.e. there are worker eggs present, the colony has the ability to raise a queen itself from a worker egg and they often try to do this anyway. Another option if you want to breed from a different strain is to remove the queen, cut out all queencells after one week and then put in a frame of brood (with eggs) so the bees can rear a queen from the donor. Reduce to one queencell only.

2) If you suspect laying workers then introduction of a queen will probably not work as she almost certainly be rejected i.e. killed. A comb of brood (including eggs) per week has been recommended however it can take 3 weeks before a queencell will be started; you then have 2 weeks before virgin is present and 2 - 3 weeks typically before she starts laying - a long time to wait and may well not be worth it.  The pheromone from the brood will eventually stop the laying workers and the eggs will encourage one or several  queencells to be produced. Uniting a drone laying colony to a queenright one by, say, the newspaper method  is not often recommended unless it is small. This can be done over the supers over a queen excluder.  

 Many recommendations are to shake the bees out in front of a good queenright hive one evening and this has worked for me on several occasions - for example if a nuc loses a queen. It will always have a better chance of working if the queenright hive is bigger and stronger than the ‘bad’ hive. I have also shaken out bees in front of several hives so I strengthen all of them. The worry is that the good queen could be killed if overwhelmed by a large party of drone layers so splitting helps here.

Usually by the time we discover and confirm that we have a drone laying problem the comb is pretty bad so there is no need to retain the comb which has been ruined by a large amount of drone cells. We don’t want to rear a massive number of drones necessarily so the drone brood can be discarded once the bees have been shaken off. (Remember that sealed drone brood is a good varroa trap).

 Note that the hive that had the drone problem should be removed after the bees are shaken out as otherwise some of the flying bees will return to it the next day. Upon finding their own hive missing, they will find the nearest hive and will usually be let in - especially as they have food to offer the guard bees. The younger bees, that have not yet ventured out of the hive, will in any event stay in the hive they are dumped in front of.

One method that is generally suggested in books is to shake the bees out of their hive 50 or 100 metres away. So the theory goes, the flying bees (which won't be drone layers) will return to the apiary and find their way to another nearby hive. The younger bees which might contain the drone layers, will perish. However laying workers CAN fly. In any event a colony with laying workers is a pain in the neck and is often hardly worth rescuing.