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How to fix a laying worker hive

Something about laying workers brings out the wizard in us. We think up convoluted ways to rid ourselves of these miscreant creatures, most of which don’t work. Carry the box to the edge of the apiary, turn in a circle with your eyes closed and a drone in your teeth, shake the bees out of the box, apply the appropriate spell, swallow the drone, then beat the workers back to the hive armed with newspaper and a double screen board. Nothing to it.

I’ve seen long lists of not-so-successful ways of dealing with laying workers, and I always wonder why we bother to memorialize our failures for future beekeepers. All the methods for dealing with laying workers will fail unless you first correct the problem—and the problem is a lack of open brood pheromone in the hive.

How they come to be

Many misconceptions surround laying workers, but if you understand how they come about, you won’t be confused about what you have, how they got there, or how to get rid of them.

The thing you hear most often is, “I think I have a laying worker.” The misconception here is that a laying worker is much like a queen, and like a queen, there is just one. But when you think about how they come about, that doesn’t make any sense.

Picture this: Your colony has lost its queen. Like the old lady who lived in a shoe, she had so many children, she didn’t know what to do. So she stroked and died. Phew! Now, in this particular hive the workers tried to raise a new queen, but they failed. So after about ten days—give or take—the last eggs your queen laid have become capped pupae. There is no open brood left in the hive.

Why so many laying workers?

It turns out that open worker brood pheromone is the stuff that suppresses the worker bees’ ovaries. Queen pheromone may play a part as well, but it’s the open brood pheromone that is the primary chemical suppressant. Without a source of these chemicals in the hive, the workers’ ovaries begin to mature. It doesn’t happen overnight, but gradually the workers begin to lay eggs. The exact time varies, but you may begin to see worker eggs about three weeks after the loss of your queen.

Think about it. You have thousands of worker bees in your hive and, all at the same time, they lose the open brood pheromone. That means that many, many workers may have maturing ovaries, and they are maturing simultaneously. They all won’t develop into layers; for whatever reason, only some do. But it’s not just one, it is many—perhaps dozens, perhaps hundreds.

Soon these workers are laying eggs all over the place. They place multiple eggs in cells or on top of stored pollen. They put eggs in cells with developing larvae. And they drop eggs on comb rims or even woodenware. The pattern is one of randomness. And because worker bees have no way to mate, all of the eggs are haploid (having a single set of chromosomes) and all will develop into drones.

Not all brood pheromone is equal

The real kicker is that while your hive may suddenly develop lots of open drone brood, open drone brood does not produce the pheromone that suppresses the laying workers. Only open worker brood does the trick.

However, the laying workers produce enough queen-like pheromone that the colony will not accept a new queen, so introduced queens are usually killed. No matter what incantation you whisper over the hive, or how surreptitiously you introduce a new queen, most of the time it won’t work.

Dumping the bees at the edge of the apiary (to rid yourself of not-so-agile laying workers) and introducing a new queen to the returning bees does not work either because you haven’t cured the problem—the colony is still without open worker brood. The workers will kill the new queen before she can produce any brood, and more of the workers will begin to lay and take the place of those you tossed out.

Saving the colony

The only way to save the colony is to suppress the laying workers’ ovaries. This can be done by adding open worker brood to the hive. But just as it took a while to develop the workers’ ovaries, it will take a while to suppress them. If you add a queen too soon after adding the open brood, the workers will kill her too.

One of the best ways to save the hive is to introduce a frame of open worker brood every few days until the bees begin to raise a supersedure queen. How often you have to add brood depends on how old the brood is. Eggs remain eggs for three days and larvae are open for about 5.5 to 6 days. Since the pheromone is produced by larvae and not eggs, a new frame of open brood should be introduced at least once every five or six days if the larvae are very young, but more frequently if the larvae are old.

Once the colony begins to raise a queen on its own, you can either let the bees raise it or you can introduce a queen. The building of supersedure cells indicates their willingness to accept a new queen, so it is fairly safe to introduce a queen at that time.

Using the same reasoning, you can combine the laying worker hive with a nuc that contains a queen and open brood. The nuc should be separated by a double screen or similar device to keep the queen safe until the workers’ ovaries are fully suppressed. Allow about three weeks before combining.

Dismantling the hive

Other than suppressing the workers’ ovaries, the only other thing you can do is dismantle the hive and shake the bees out in the vicinity of your other hives. (Only after throwing salt over your left shoulder, of course). If the colony has been queenless for a long time, it may be small, aggressive, and hardly worth your time. In that case, you can just shake your equipment free of bees. Some will find a home in one of the other hives and some will die. But in any case you will be rid of the laying worker problem until the next time it happens.


To fix a laying worker hive you have to suppress worker ovaries.
Eggs of laying workers. To fix a laying worker hive you have to suppress worker ovaries. Photo courtesy of BeeBase Crown copyright.




Excellent post. The “shake them out” misinformation is across languages and continents. A virgin queen raised by the laying works seems to be the only queen they’ll readily accept each time. But even if they do not start a queen cell, at least you get to use their care-taking abilities with the young larvae before they expire. How good they’ll feed youngsters is hard to say.

By the way, some people might not be aware, but there are usually several laying workers in huge colonies. Their eggs are consumed by workers who recognize that they were not laid by their queen.


Excellent! Thank you!

Anubis Bard

That’s fascinating. I’ve wondered, but no one ever seems fit to mention whether the laying workers actually successfully raise drones. Do they? If so, it strikes me as an elegant adaptation. You have a hive that can produce no queen, so there is no mother for the next generation – but it nevertheless can produce a father for a new generation. It’s like a last ditch effort to continue the genetic line.


Andy & Aram,

Each of you hit on a point that I deleted from my final draft (in an effort to cater to short attention spans). But Andy, you hit it right on. The honey bees do successfully raise the drones that then pass on their genetics to the next generation.

In bumble bees it is even more complicated. According to Dave Goulson in “A Sting in the Tale,” when the queen begins raising sons in the fall (to mate with new queens) the workers sense the presence of the drones and begin laying their own. Fights ensue where the queen eats the worker eggs and the workers eat the queen’s eggs, each competing to pass on their own genetics. Apparently, the fights can be quite nasty. The workers are only 25% related to their brothers (the queen’s drones) but they are 50% related to their sons. So from a genetic point of view, it is advantageous to raise their own sons.

Aram is correct, too, that some laying workers are not suppressed in a normal and thriving honey bee colony. Researches who have dissected thousands of workers found that roughly 1% of the workers in a hive lay eggs. Most eggs are eaten, but some make it. Sometimes you’ll see a frame where all the worker brood is together and all the drone brood is together except for 2 or 3 drones cells that are in the “wrong” place. It almost looks like the queen forgot what she was doing, but most likely these are the offspring of laying workers.


Rusty, I love reading your stuff. As a 4th yr beekeeper (with 12 colonies this year), I’m just starting to quietly understand how amazing these creatures are. I mean I always knew they were amazing, but reading this kind of article really makes me think. Thank you 🙂

Jan Brett

But Rusty, where do you keep getting frames of worker brood????



Without multiple hives—or friends with hives—it is indeed hard to come up with frames of brood. But if you do have another hive, you can always switch out one frame for another. So, for example, after a frame has been sitting in the queenless hive for a week and is nearly all capped, you can switch it with one that has a greater amount of uncapped brood, and put the first one back in the original hive.


A most excellent post. Clear, informative, with a little humour. I have to share this and as I use a different blog I am going to hope you won’t mind if I post a link as i don’t think I can reblog from yours.


I had laying worker bees (multiple eggs per cell) in hive with a live 3 year old queen. I couldn’t find the queen immediately so as a first year beekeeper with only one other hive (with a virgin queen) I got quite anxious.

Two weeks later I found the queen again and didn’t find any more cells with multiple eggs. I can’t explain this nor have I found anyone who could. Anyone here have an hypothesis?



It could be that your three-year old queen is failing, although usually a queen that lays multiple eggs is young and just getting started. You say that now you do not see multiple eggs, but are you seeing any eggs? Is brood being produced? If she is not producing a reliable brood pattern, perhaps you should replace her. Has anyone else seen this?


This queen has since died, she with her colony didn’t survive the winter. I hadn’t seen multiple eggs per cell before that one time and no longer saw them a few weeks later. The strange thing was that all the eggs were positioned at the bottom of the cells ( And I heard that workers mostly stick the eggs on the sides of the cells because they aren’t long enough to reach the bottom of the cells…(?)



Great photo. Worker-laid eggs aren’t always stuck to the side. In the photo with my post, there are none on the sides. I think your queen was failing, she no longer produced brood, then laying workers took over. After that, the colony died over the winter. Just a guess.


The eggs in the photo in the post look like they were laid on top of pollen. The colony was the result of a late swarm, mid July, and was just not big enough to survive the winter.

It was my first season of beekeeping, I was just not experienced enough to correctly asses the size of the colony.

David Heilman

Another thing that will work sometimes is to take frames of brood with developing queen cells on them and put them in the laying worker hive. I have made a hive raise queens cells by removing the queen for a few days and then place those frames with Q cells into problem hive.


Can you recommend further reading about the pheromones that suppress ovaries?


Hi Danielle,

Yes. Here are three that I found useful. Also, if you go the site of Dr. Zachary Huang at Michigan State University, he is a wealth of information on honey bee pheromones of all types.

“E-β-Ocimene, a Volatile Brood Pheromone Involved in Social Regulation in the Honey Bee Colony (Apis mellifera)” by Alban Maisonnasse, Jean-Christophe Lenoir, Dominique Beslay, Didier Crauser, and Yves Le Conte.

“Four Quantitative Trait Loci That Influence Worker Sterility in the Honeybee (Apis mellifera)” by Peter R. Oxley, Graham J. Thompson , and Benjamin P. Oldroyd.

“Factors affecting ovary activation in honey bee workers: a meta-analysis” by Backx A, Guzman-Novoa E, Thompson GJ.

Glen Buschmann

So workers don’t ever mate with drones and start laying fertile eggs? With a reproductive society so complicated and heavily dependent upon a single fertile female, it seems sensible that in a queenless hive, if some egg-laying workers actually mate with the new drones, they might be able to lay a few female eggs and restart the hive. Or is there something that interferes with this — workers lack the right perfume, mating only happens outside a hive and laying workers never leave to mate, or some such. How long can a queenless hive survive assuming no human intervention?



I spent a while looking up the reason, but all I could find in my references is that workers cannot mate. I’m assuming they don’t have the right hardware, but I don’t know for sure. But with nothing but drones being produced, a colony will survive only as long as the remaining workers—perhaps six or eight weeks at most. The colony just dwindles to nothing, and the process is often accelerated by robber bees or wasps.

One interesting thing, however, is that the cape honey bee worker, Apis mellifera capensis, can sometimes produce females by a type of parthenogenesis. Apparently, these offspring are capable of becoming queens. Who knew?


I find this blog fascinating. Thank you.


Glen, workers do not lay fertile eggs. They lay infertile eggs which end up developing into drones. Do not know why they would not want to mate with drones, but maybe drones are not attracted to worker bees which do not produce an abundance of whichever queen pheromone seduces them in the first place. Drone have to be discriminate, there are thousands of bees that fly out of a hive.

Andrew, your three-year-old queen is probably no longer the three year old queen, but instead a young replacement queen that was learning the ropes. She laid incorrectly at first and then fixed her ways. Young queens often lay 2 eggs in a cell especially if they run out of space to lay but have plenty of eggs that they want to lay. So it is either that, or you had a combination of factors like laying workers and a new queen. The old laying workers died and only the new queen is left. Was your queen marked, do you know for sure you have a 3 yr old queen still?

Emma Tennant

What a very light hearted and informative read on a very serious subject. Thank you.

Cheri H.

We discovered a “laying worker” situation in one of our two hives a few weeks ago. There were SO MANY drones and capped drone brood in there, it was ridiculous! We also saw one or two capped supersedure cells (and a few hatched, but no queen in sight). So, I took two frames of open worker brood from our other hive and put it in the laying worker hive. Left it alone for a few weeks. Just went out yesterday to check up on them and all is back in order. They had the appropriate number of drones, lots of open worker brood, hatching workers, lots of honey being stored. 🙂


Hi Rusty,

I have a swarm that ended up queenless and now seems to have laying workers. I do not have the resources in my other hives to take frames of brood from, so I thought I would try using the Snelgrove board to re-queen. If I put the Snelgrove board between the brood box and an empty box, with the top entrance opened to the back, would you leave the laying workers and nurse bees on the hive after I put a new queen in a queen cage in the bottom box? Would that suppress the laying workers? Would you remove the top box with the laying workers completely and shake them out?



If you try to requeen this laying worker hive, you will likely just lose the new queen. As stated in the post, it is not the queen pheromone that will suppress the laying worker ovaries, it is open-brood pheromone that is needed. Since you can’t afford to take open brood from your other hives, I would either combine this hive with another using a double-screen board (as explained in the post) or just shake them out.

Jerry Holman

I have trapped out a bee tree. I was surprised at the number of drones that came out. I had put a box onto the tree next to where they were coming out. Now after a week the bees have taken up in the box with very few bees coming out of the old hive but the bees seem to have taken to the box. I am wondering if I should introduce a queen? If I do will she be accepted? I feel I need to do something as soon as I can. Please let me know what you think could it be the queen in the old hive has been lost and that is the reasons for the many drones?



The number of drones in a natural hive is very large, especially in the spring. I would expect to see a vast number from a trap-out in the spring.

Very rarely will the queen be caught in a trap-out, so I would think you need to add one. Check for eggs first, just to make sure there is no queen in there and then add a queen. Use a standard introduction method such as keeping her in a screened cage for a few days before releasing her. Don’t just drop her in or she will be killed.

Peter Hughes

I am new this season to beekeeping. In 1 of my 5 colonies I have laying workers and a bumper crop of drones capped. It’s Sept 1st in central Ontario and I have been told that this colony should be dismantled. So…I can shake the bees off and some may join other hives (only 1 other in this location) others may die. I can use the honey in a hive that needs additional stores but how do I handle the frames that have the drone brood plus some honey and some pollen? I would hate to loose all that lovely comb that they worked so hard to draw out.



After you shake out the workers, put a box with the combs of drone brood, honey, and pollen on one of your other hives. The bees will clean out the drones and most likely move the honey to another location. When the frames are clean, you can remove the box.


Thank you so much for the quick response. I am glad the bees will do this. One of my non beekeeping neighbour’s said that he would use a pipe cleaner! I love unsolicited advice from well meaning but not so well informed folks. Naturally I just said “thanks for that idea”☺


Thank you so much Rusty. I am glad the bees are able to take on that task.



It’s mid-March, and my first early spring check shows laying workers in one colony. The other 2 colonies do not have enough eggs/brood to steal frames from. So I plan to shake out the colony, and hope some of the bees will be accepted to boost the populations of the other 2.

My question is, can I shake them out right in front of the hives and just dismantle the previous hive? Or do I have to go across the bee yard. Honestly, right now I am looking for the least amount of work to do on this…. :-p



The theory that I’ve heard is that laying workers do not fly well, so shaking them out at some distance from the hive decreases the likelihood of making it back. However, I don’t know how important (or true) that really is. It seems to me that an established colony will probably not allow a laying worker to enter due to her pheromones, and even if one got in, the real queen’s pheromones would soon suppress her laying ability. I’m guessing on this, but I think you would fine to shake them out onto the ground in front of a strong hive.


I wonder if a Tarnarov shakeout would help square-up a laying worker hive. Perhaps the drone layers would beard, not being able to fly over the 4 inch gap.


The usual problem with laying workers, but hoping that a new queen has been produced as there are early signs of brood. One can only hope in this game!



If you’ve had signs of laying workers and now see signs of brood, it may be that the bees are raising drones. If they’ve had enough time to develop their ovaries for laying, they would not have been able to raise a queen because there would be no fertilized eggs to raise her from, unless you added open brood at some point.


In February/March, I checked my hive. I found lots of bees, did not find the queen and the hive had very little capped brood. The frames were loaded with nectar and capped honey. Over the next five weeks, I checked the hive and never found a queen, no eggs and no capped brood. Three weeks ago, I purchased a new queen and slowly introduced her to the hive. I check the hive yesterday and did not find a queen and nor did I find eggs or capped brood.

I have a nuc coming to begin a second hive, however could I take one frame from the nuc, with newly laid eggs and brood and place this into the queenless hive in hope the bees with make a queen cell? Prior to this should I dump the existing bees 20 yards from the hive and have them find their way back. Any other suggestions would be helpful.

Thanks a ton in advance.



It certainly sounds like the old hive had laying workers, and that those laying workers would not accept a new queen. You can try moving a frame of brood to that hive and the open-brood pheromone will probably suppress the worker ovaries over time.

Still, you have to ask yourself if the number of bees remaining is really worth saving. Also, are there enough bees in there to raise the brood? If not, you are weakening your nuc for no benefit. To make this work, you often have to add a frame of open brood once a week for two or three weeks before they start raising a queen.

I think I would shake the bees on the ground in front of the second hive and walk away from it. Later in the season, if you still want two hives, you can make a split.

Tom M

I have a worker laying hive chock full of drones. The hive swarmed March 29. I notice the post where someone put in two frames of open brood. My other hive is 9 frame with one deep and several medium supers with brood. How many frames should I transfer? Need to do this quickly.



It depends on how much open brood is on the frame. And it also depends how many bees are available to care for that brood. If there are not a lot of bees in the laying worker hive, I would include enough nurse bees to cover the frames. Then, in a week or so, you may have to add another until they start raising a queen.

John S

Rusty, I have a hive with a laying worker that I have placed a frame of open worker brood in and also a new queen in a cage. I thought after 5 or 6 days, I would add another frame of open brood. How long can I leave the new queen in the cage?



Complex question. First of all, you don’t get a laying worker, you get dozens. Once there is no queen and no open-brood pheromone, many workers will have ovaries that start to develop. You can probably keep her caged for a week, but too long isn’t good. I would not release her if eggs are still being laid, so I would look for that. Also, when you do release, watch carefully to see how the bees react to her. If they start balling around her, remove her immediately.


Found laying workers in hive. Can we put this hive on a queen right hive, not only boost hive, but correct it as well?


You can try, but I would be very careful. Use a double-screened board or at the very least a newspaper to combine them. You need plenty of time for the worker ovaries to become suppressed, and there may be quite a few of them. It might be better to add a frame of open brood to the laying worker hive for a few days before you start the combination.

David Criss

Would a newly emerged queen lay a double egg in a cell, and maybe on top of pollen? I’m wondering if a new queen could take a few days to get the hang of laying eggs. All the eggs are bottom center on the cell, good coverage pattern, but more than a few cells have a double egg. Then there are a few pollen cells with an egg on top.



Absolutely. It is common for new queens to lay double eggs or eggs in the wrong place during the first week or so. The workers will clean up the mess and the queen will mature quickly.


Shook them out, after trying for weeks to provide brood, thought I saw the new queen, but this week started finding dozens of dead drones in front of the hive. Opened the hive up and found probably hundreds of capped drone brood (only) throughout the colony. Dumped them all in the corner of the yard … And now, it’s day 2 and they are all clinging to a rock like a big swarm. Feeling a little bad 🙁 Thought that they would start flying and circling around and beg to get into any of my other hives … But, it seems that they like being balled up outdoors. Did I shake them off too far from the other hives? Is there a queen hiding in there? Put a small nuc with old comb, one of theirs, on top of the rock but they do not seem that interested in moving into it. I’m leaning towards letting nature take its course, for now … It does always seem to know better



Just let them go. They only live four to six weeks anyway and they are causing nothing but trouble.


Noted the reference material on pheromones and will read. Caught the start of a laying worker situation and placed hive over Snelgrove board. Do you have anecdotal evidence or actual science this works? It’s an experiment for me; will know in 3 weeks or so. Thought I’d give the girls a chance rather than do the dump.

Great blog.



It works as long as there is plenty of open brood in the queen-right hive. I like to check the laying worker hive for eggs before removing the Snelgrove board, just to be on the safe side. You should see very few eggs in the laying workers hive and you should see almost no developing drones. The presence of either eggs or drone larva is a sign that some laying workers still remain. The Hive and the Honey Bee (2015) states that the pheromone responsible for worker ovary suppression is E-β-ocimene. It is highly volatile, so it travels freely throughout the hive.

Rebekah Lee

Success. I placed the laying worker deep over a two deep hive and Snelgrove board. I also added two frames of brood to the laying worker box. Two weeks later, no laying workers. Did a newspaper combine with the bottom hive and reduced to just the two bottom deeps and a medium over an excluder. The hive is a going concern today. Thanks for a great tip (shared with my local forum).


Great Rebekah! I’m glad to hear it worked.


Yesterday I inspected a hive that appears to have a viable queen (her second year) as there is a nice laying pattern and plenty of larva and capped brood in the hive. But, on a couple of frames in the box above the queen excluder I have drone cells – laying workers I assume. I didn’t look for the queen – so perhaps she is failing/dead and I happened to inspect before signs of a problem were evident? I can’t tell if there are any cells from laying workers below the queen excluder. Anything I may be missing? Huge thanks.



Hmm. I don’t recall ever hearing this before. It seems that if you have open larvae in the brood nest, the open-brood pheromone should keep the laying workers suppressed. In any case, if you still have brood you shouldn’t have laying workers yet, even if the queen is dead. I do recall reading that every hive has some laying workers at any given time, but they don’t persist and they don’t increase in number. I suppose the logical thing would be to try to estimate the number of laying workers you have. I would see how many cells, if any, have multiple eggs in that upper box. And I would count the number of drone cells and see if it increases or decreases over the next couple of weeks. Also, look for your queen (or eggs or very young larvae) just to make sure she is there. Wow, Julee. That’s a weird one.


Great advice. Thank you.


I believe the mystery of the laying workers is solved. It appears that the queen has been able to pass through the queen excluder. I have two supers above the queen excluder – when I saw the drone cells in the top super I didn’t inspect the second super – just went to the brood boxes below the excluder to see if the queen had died or was failing. Today, following your advice, I went in to count the drone cells and look for multiple eggs. I couldn’t find multiple eggs. The second super had capped brood – no drone cells. The queen excluder is definitely in place.



As soon as I began reading this, I thought “Why didn’t I think of that?” It’s a known fact that some queens get through excluders, and sometimes excluders are irregular with wide spots. In any case, I’m glad you solved the mystery. It had me perplexed.


Interesting to read all this. Strange that no one seem to have found a reliable method to deal with the laying-worker-problem. Perhaps because it doesn’t happen often.

My neighbour has started beekeeping, and I help him as I have experience from many years.
In a nuc, laying workers developed. We washed all brood and eggs from the comb and introduced a mated queen in a cage with 10 attendants, cage kept locked. After five days with the caged queen we introduced queen pheromone. After two more days we released the queen. She was readily accepted and started laying. But the laying workers were not suppressed – they kept laying, and there were queen-eggs and worker eggs in the cells. We washed the combs again to remove whatever drone brood was there. The following days the queen kept laying and so did laying workers, but their eggs were now much smaller – less than half the size of queen-eggs.

We let them be for a couple of weeks and examined the brood, now sealed. The workers had not sorted the eggs, but removed the excess number of larvae before sealing the pupae, most of the cells were with drone pupae. So the presence of a laying, fertile queen for 2-3 weeks did NOT inhibit the laying workers within two-three weeks. So much for that!

We will now try and shake all the bees from the combs, some 50 yards from the hive, let the bees find their way back to the hive and hope the laying workers will not make it back to the hive along with the bees (the queen now being alone on the combs in the mother-hive). After that, we will introduce some young brood comb for a few days and then replace the sealed brood with new open brood, taking the sealed brood back to the brood donor for emergence, so the laying worker hive only “borrows” the brood combs along with their brood-pheromone for a week or so.

I’ll let You know how it goes in a few days. This is Denmark, northern climate, and the bees are half wintered so there is not much time left of the season for this experiment.