Drone Laying Queen or Laying Workers?

Laying workers or drone queen

Having to decide whether you have a drone laying queen or laying workers can be difficult to determine. And once you have, it can also be difficult to resolve. Here's a few pointers.

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.

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 unable to generate a queen it is highly unlikely that laying workers will be there by around the time all the worker brood emerges. So, once there is no possibility of a queen being produced and the brood has emerged the only reason for the colony to exist (storing honey for a colony that will die out is pointless) is to scatter it's genetics around in the form of drones. The presence of a virgin queen, even if she has not mated for several weeks, won't result in laying workers. A test frame of brood with eggs and young larvae from a disease free colony can be used as a preventative measure to ensure that laying workers do not develop if you are unsure whether a queen is there and it also acts as a test frame as if queencells are produced then you have no queen and no laying workers.

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 in any case as they know something is wrong with her. 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.

It's also a good idea to consider 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). This is where a test frame will generally answer the question for you - if you put in a test frame with eggs and young larvae, resultant emergency queencells will tell you that there is no queen present.

TIP: An area of polished cells, where the brood would usually be, indicates that a queen is present and not yet laying. This is easier to see if there is nectar coming into the hive as there is a visible contrast between empty cells which have been prepared for the eggs and cells with nectar inside them. Simply take out a central frame where you would expect to see brood, hold it to the light and you should see the central portion of empty comb surrounded by an arc of shiny nectar in the cells. There may not be much pollen at this stage as it is the brood pheromone which says "feed me protein now" which is why the bees pack pollen as close to the brood as they can - i.e. in an arc around it.

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. (Check the 'Finding the Queen' page). The colony can then 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 after one week and then put in a frame of brood (with eggs and young larvae) so the bees can rear a queen from the donor. This is simple queen-rearing and selection. Reduce to one queencell only before emergence.

2) If you suspect laying workers then introduction of a queen will probably not work as she almost certainly be rejected i.e. killed. You'll be wasting your money on that new queen, sadly. 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 a couple of 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. (And, yes, I've tried it). The pheromone from the brood will eventually stop the laying workers and the eggs will encourage one or several queencells to be produced. However by this time you might just as well have made up a 3 frame nuc from other colonies and introduced a queen or queencell to that.

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 (i.e. not losing the good queen in the established colony) 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 :) and drone brood is good for breeding varroa. ].

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. In any event a colony with laying workers is a pain in the neck and is often hardly worth rescuing.

It seems a bit brutal to shake the bees out. What a waste! Even if the bees are getting on a bit, they should have some use surely? Provided you are not concerned about varroa and disease, you can move the colony away from it's usual location; the flyers will return from their foraging trip and will enter the nearest hive to their own home. As they have food they should be allowed in without a problem and at one stroke you have 'recovered' some of the bees from the laying worker colony. IF your laying worker colony has supers and the flyers have gone, the supers can be united over newspaper over another colony - or the same one a few days later. You will then be 'saving' the bees in the super(s) and the honey therein. The bees in supers are usually not the flyers so they should stay put over the hive you have given them to. (Check that you don't have drone brood in the supers!!). You now have the remainder of the colony which won't have too many bees in it by now. The comb will probably be a bit rubbish too. Maybe now is the time to discard them all. OR maybe you have one last chance to find the drone laying queen you thought you didn't have! AND if you really want to keep the remaining bees AND THE VARROA THEY CONTAIN, the brood box can be put over a queen excluder over the supers of another strong hive. The bees will be accepted and as they are a long way from the good queen downstairs there should be no concern over the good queen being attacked by the newly-arrived residents. Of course all those drones will not be able to get through the queen excluder so after a week or so, the bees from the top brood box will need shaking out to release the drones. It's never good to see a queen excluder jammed with drones that were desperately trying to escape!

Workers and policing.

Worker bees are female and have a few ovarioles which are not usually needed. However there will be some workers in a queenright hive that will lay eggs but these are removed by something known as worker policing. If the colony becomes queenless and there is no brood; the pheromones given off by both the queen and brood will disappear and this is when the the ovaries develop in some workers and they start to lay eggs and worker policing is switched off. What can also happen is that the colony has a psudo queen; a worker develops enough that she has a court around her and behaves like a queen except that she cannot lay female eggs.