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Why save a laying-worker colony?

This is not a post on how to save a laying-worker colony. I have beat the subject to death in prior posts, and the comments always devolve into arguments on the best way to tame those drone-laying demons. Each beekeeper’s personal technique is the right way and you’re ignorant if you don’t believe it.

While there are probably hundreds of ways to save a laying-worker colony, there doesn’t seem to be any clear winner. Lots of people have succeeded and lots have failed. Many beekeepers, myself included, succeed with some colonies and fail with others.

However, my inbox during the past two weeks has been swamped with newbees wanting to know what to do with their laying workers, so here is this year’s two cents. As I’ve said before, maintaining this website has changed my outlook on a number of issues, and laying worker remediation is one of them. I used to think you should try no matter what; now I think you should get over it.

What is a laying worker?

For those of you unfamiliar with the problem, laying workers arise in a colony after an extended period of queenlessness. After about two weeks without a queen or without any open brood, a certain percentage of the workers will begin to lay eggs.

Research has shown that in a normal colony, pheromones produced by open worker brood and by the queen herself keep the ovaries of the workers suppressed. But once the pheromones become weak or non-existent, the ovaries begin to develop in perhaps 10-12% of the workers.

Because workers are incapable of mating, all their eggs are haploid, meaning they have one set of chromosomes and develop into drones. Without any new workers or any way to raise a queen, the colony is doomed.

However, these laying workers go through physiological changes that give them some queen-like characteristics, including enough pheromones that the colony “believes” it has a queen. Because of this, any introduced queen is unwelcome and usually destroyed.

How can you detect laying workers?

A laying-worker colony is easy to spot. Since you have many bees laying eggs, they tend to share the cells and reuse them. Some cells may contain two or three eggs, or in some cases, even a dozen. And instead of standing upright in the center of cell they may be on the walls of the cell or even on the rim. Workers don’t have the long, sleek abdomen needed to place the eggs precisely as a queen would.

Then too, you may notice many capped drone cells randomly distributed on the combs. You will see no worker brood, usually no queen, and often a kind of nervous energy among the workers, who seem in no way relaxed.

The techniques of laying-worker remediation

Techniques for remediation are designed to reverse ovary development. This is done by adding caged queens that are protected from workers or adding open brood, or both.These additions boost the pheromone levels within the hive. If pheromone levels remain elevated for several weeks, the worker ovaries will eventually begin to shrink. After enough time passes, the colony will be receptive to a new queen.

As I mentioned, there are many ways to go about introducing a new queen and adding open brood pheromone. Every beekeeper has developed a “foolproof” way to do this—you need only ask to get all the details.

Why I no longer recommend it

Let me back up a moment and say that if you have plenty of resources (queens and brood) and lots of time and patience, by all means go for it. You can learn a lot by messing with these colonies, so if that’s your goal, just do it.

However, a successful save can require repeated introductions of open brood. If you are in a situation with a limited number of colonies, or a limited amount of brood, you may want to reconsider.

Each time you steal brood, you are weakening the donor colony. If you have lots of colonies, you can take from several. Or if your other colonies are large, you can probably get away with this. But if you are a beginner with just two colonies, I would be wary about weakening one in order to save a batch of laying workers.

What  are you actually saving?

When you think about it, spring and summer workers live, on average, about four to six weeks. For argument, let’s say five weeks. If you catch the laying workers just as they begin to drop eggs, they have been without open brood for two weeks already, which means the last workers are emerging now. (Assuming the brood cycle is three weeks, after two weeks, you have one more week of emerging bees.)

If we add that one week of still-to-emerge bees onto our five-week lifespan, we have six weeks of worker bees remaining. If it takes three weeks to revert their ovaries, you will have only half that remaining, and they will be fairly old. These are rough numbers, of course, but you get the idea.

If you didn’t discover the laying workers until they’d been laying for two weeks, you only have two weeks of lifespan remaining on those bees you are trying so hard to save. If you start trying to save them now, virtually none will be left by the time you are done. You have to ask yourself if removing all that brood from your other colonies is worth it.

Appearances are deceiving

If you start adding brood, the colony will get much larger, of course. But most of the bees you see will be bees you added in the form of brood, not necessarily bees from the laying worker hive. What you actually achieve is a slow split.

I contend that it’s a better use of resources to use that brood for a regular split, and either add a queen or let them raise one. Instead of making a split gradually over the course of three or four weeks, just make it all at once. You are still using the same amount of brood, but you’re not risking a new queen, and you’re not continually messing with the nest structure of your good colony.

Shaking out the bees

In the “old days” we just dismantled the laying worker hive and shook the frames in the grass at edge of the bee yard. This results in most of the bees finding a home in one of the other colonies. The laying workers are usually denied entrance (due to their high pheromone levels) or if they are allowed in, any eggs they lay are carted out and dumped.

This isn’t such a bad outcome and, as far as I know, this method is still practiced by most sizable apiaries. The laying worker colony is considered a loss, so you save what you can and move on.

While I understand the urge to save every last bee, I think it’s more important to concentrate on the healthy colonies you have remaining. Later, when you have more experience and more colonies, you can fuss with laying workers until the cows come home.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Related Posts:

What does a laying worker hive look like?

How to fix a laying worker hive

Multiple eggs in a laying-worker colony.
Multiple eggs are a sign of laying workers. BeeBase photo.

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Comments

Brenda
Reply

Hi,

Just found your site and love it. I’m a 1st year beekeeper and yes, one of the 2 packages I loaded have laying worker(s). Wanted to unite them, but it was suggested I first try introducing a queen cell. After reading a number of posts going back a couple years, the fact there was NEVER any brood in the colony has me concerned the workers will just kill the virgin queen soon as she emerges.

What sort of bothers me is the “master” beekeeper who suggested this in my club was told (by me) there was no brood, no eggs, larva, never was. So either the queen died before laying anything, or was killed when I released her after 5 days (which they also recommended and I now regret..should have let them take as long as they wanted to do so).

Anyhoo…all this to ask if there’s a snowball’s chance in H, E, double-hockey sticks for this queen to make it 10 seconds out of her cell? If not I will shake those bees out and give the frames of honey they produced to the other colony that does have a laying queen. I’m afraid to try and unite them in case the queenless workers decide to kill the good queen I do have!

Brenda in Virginia

Rusty
Reply

Brenda,

When did you hive the packages? Laying workers take at least a couple of weeks to start laying, so I was wondering if they were in the package for a long time or if you hived them a while back.

When in comes to laying workers, some people have better luck using a queen cell than a queen, but it’s not always the answer. A lot has to do with how many workers are laying. The more that are laying, the higher the pheromone concentration, the lower the probability of success. No matter what they try to lead you to believe, what works in one case may not work in another.

You could try putting the queen cell in a cage (like a roller cage, if you have one, or a push-in cage) and let her emerge inside the cage (or you can make a cage out of #8 hardware cloth). They will ball the cage if they don’t like her, so that will give you an idea before they kill her. Some say queen cells work well, some say they don’t work at all. Like I said, every colony is different.

BeeHappy
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Can you just add with newspaper the laying worker colony to a normal one? “On top are my thoughts.”

Then in 3 or 4 weeks do a split? Seems you would have the same end result referring to your “slow split” comment. Any chance the laying worker colony will mess up the good one? IMO that seems to be less messing around, 2 visits, and the first one would not disturb the original good colonies brood nest.

Rusty
Reply

Keith,

Like I said, there are lots of ways and they all work sometimes. You can put the laying workers on top of your other hive, but you run the risk of the laying workers killing your one good queen. You can use a double-screen board for a couple weeks and see if that helps.

Brenda
Reply

Thanks for the quick response Rusty! I received the packages on Easter Sunday morning April 16th. (interesting day for them to be delivered from GA to S.W. Virginia). They were loaded immediately when I got them home around 10:30am.

The queen in this package was not released after 5 days, so upon the advice of the club, I released her. Went in again 1 week later (4/23) and no eggs/larva and couldn’t spot the (unmarked queen) anywhere, but did manage to see the one in other hive. So I closed it up and let them to their business.

The following week on the 30th I found eggs and larva all over in the queen rite hive. Again…closed it up/left them alone. In the 2nd hive couldn’t find the queen, and there was no egg/larva anywhere. Looked over each frame 3 times and nothing.

The following week on May 5th There was tons of capped brood in the queen rite hive, eggs/larva too, but no queen to be found in the other. Upon inspection noticed a number of cells with multiple eggs/laying workers?

So, I got a queen cell this Saturday (5/6). Was in one of those little plastic cages. Stuck it where the bees cluster most. They basically ignored it which surprised me since I figured they’d be all over it. She was supposed to emerge today. Not sure how long I should wait to check for any eggs because she has to do her mating flights and I’m sure that will take a number of days after she emerges…if she lives.

Sorry this is so long, but I am first year keeper…waited until kids were grown, done with college and gone before starting so I’d have time. Work from home (middle aged IBM lady 🙂 so I have the time and am all about trying to get it right and not overdo it. I mean, they are bees. They know what to do without my guidance no doubt. But in this situation they’ve been kidnapped from their home, sent hundreds of miles away with a foreign queen, then left queenless, and now a queen cell out of nowhere appears. I thought of trying to merge, but what I”m seeing online says it’s not safe if they’ve been queenless this long. Especially since the queen rite colony is also new and still rather weak. If they killed that queen, it would truly stink!

Brenda in Virginia

Linda Beehler
Reply

After reading all the comments, it seems there is no answer. Bees have a mind of their own and survival of each colony depends on them not the beekeeper. What is the sure fire answer? Or is there one?

Rusty
Reply

Linda,

I think the sure-fire answer it to just shake out the colony and be done with it. We beekeepers are no match for pheromones.

O. Vasquez
Reply

Hi Rusty, you sound like us after being around our kids and grand-kids for a few days on a short vacation (because that is all we can take ’em for anymore). We sincerely appreciate your undying devotion to your audience and your blog. Your frustration shows through and at some point you just have to know when to let ignorance be its own reward. In the mean time we always enjoy your humor, candor and informative posts. Be assured this too will pass. Be blessed! I’m allowed to start a sentence w/a prep. phrase just bc.Lol

Glen Buschmann
Reply

A number of species of bumbles rely on workers to lay some or all of the drone eggs. Do any Apis species (e.g. not A. mellifera) have drone laying workers as part of their normal reproductive cycle?

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

I don’t know that any depend on it, but I’ve read that there are always some laying workers in Apis colonies, and that some of their eggs manage to fully develop into viable drones. Somehow, they just slip under the radar.

Also interesting, if off point, is that Apis mellifera capensis workers (the cape honey bee) can lay diploid (female) eggs due to a process called thelytoky, a form of parthenogenesis. Apparently this ability is due to a double recessive allele, so it doesn’t happen frequently, but often enough to be interesting.

DJ
Reply

Hello again,

I replied to a post last year about how my newly-purchased mated queen destined for a split was killed by hive beetle larvae while still in the queen cage. The topic was about combining weak colonies or trying to over winter them. I chose to over winter the weak colony because of the trials and tribulations I faced in the spring. Here in Texas another mild winter ended again with no losses. The colony is doing great, filling out 15 of 19 deep frames.

I write in reference of this colony because after the tragic death of the purchased queen, I attempted to add brood in hopes a new queen created by the bees for the bees would would be crowned. That did not happen. The brood was tended to but no queens were created. Instead I had lots of cells with multiple eggs. I had invested my time, money, and emotions. I had to make the split successful.

Ignorant and stubborn, I reviewed suggestions and remedies from books, blogs, and YouTube. None of the suggestions were to let the colony go. The calculated thought process was never addressed. The numbers you provided in this post, never mentioned. A common theme was everyone has an opinion on what to do, so just pick one you want and do that. In hindsight sight, with your numbers in consideration, I would have let the 4 deep frames go and try again another day.

But that’s not what I did. I burnt the candle at both ends. I introduced a frame of brood with the queen and nurse bees on it. The double deep colony whom I stole the queen and brood from made an extraordinary queen. I am grateful they were able to do so. I regret that I risked that colony and its well being for 4 deep frames, because after all without a laying queen I don’t consider it a true colony. Even though the colony is strong today, I feel I would not make the same decision. Thank you for your insight.

DJ

Shelly
Reply

I’ve heard before that bees will collect syrup that is feed out of hive faster. Like in a bucket or whatever. The given reason was because the bees see that syrup fed in the hive is already theirs therefore they can use it at their leisure so are less inclined to put it in cells. This is opposed to out of hive feed where they need to move fast so that they can collect as much of it as possible. Is this true at all?

Rusty
Reply

Shelly,

I think it’s more complicated than that. If it’s rainy or overcast, the bees are likely to put away syrup from inside the hive. If it’s clear and sunny (and warm enough) they like to collect from flowers. If there’s a nectar dearth, they will take in syrup from the outside or the inside. I never believe statements that say bees “always” do this or that. It is more dependent on local conditions and also the genetics of your particular colony.

Many people don’t like open feeding (feeding outside the colony) because it can accelerate disease transmission, it can cause fighting, and it can attract predators to the area. I almost never feed outside the hive, but some people like it. As for the bees thinking the syrup is already theirs, how does anyone know what bees are thinking? I would just feed them in a way that makes sense to you and ignore the busy-bodies.

Dee Johnson
Reply

Rusty -Thank you for this clear explanation of what happens with laying workers. I lost 2 hives in 1 year to this problem. In one of the hives I did the very time consuming “shake ” method, introducing a new $40 queen when the hive was reassembled. They killed her and eventually the hive died. I like your philosophy – time is too short to spend going to such efforts to save a hive that has succumbed to laying workers, at least for me. However, I am planning to check my hives more frequently than in the past, and learn how to raise my own queens since I am quite sure this may happen again! Thank you for all your hard work providing great information 24/7 – your site is there for me when I can’t reach one of my beekeeping mentors and I always find the help I need.

Paul
Reply

Rusty, I have this very thing happening. My hive went queenless for a couple of weeks and by the time I was able to get a new queen it was too late and the hive killed the new queen. What I ended up doing was shaking all of the bees into one box and then I moved that box to the other side of the yard. I then immediately put in a nuc in the location of the failed hive. After a couple of days I put the box with the laying workers on top of the nuc and separated them with a screened inner cover. This should provide the open brood pheromone but it will take a couple of weeks to stop the laying workers. I have to agree with the premise of your post though because in the end what have I really achieved? I would probably been better off and further ahead just shaking them out and doing away with the house bees.

Anna
Reply

I don’t bother with those colonies anymore. If I see a true laying worker colony (maybe a few since is started in 2011), I just break them up. What I’ve seen much more often is a drone laying queen. If it’s a decent-sized colony I’ll give them eggs to raise a new queen. But laying workers? Fugetaboitit!

Tim
Reply

Thanks for the post. I have been learning to be a beekeeper for 6 years now and have tried three times to save a laying worker colony with no success. In fact I have killed off another colony by making it weak in the process. In the future it will be shaking them to the bee yard.

Thanks,

Tim

Tammy
Reply

Oh, I am with you. I don’t bother anymore to correct a laying worker colony, and that is liberating!

Rusty
Reply

Tammy,

I’m glad to know so many people see the light. I agree: it is liberating.

Li
Reply

I like your laying worker math, it makes sense. The advice is often that if a beekeeper had just a few hives in their backyard, they can take the trouble to save a laying worker hive. It’s not mentioned at what cost to their other hives. The real trick is to make timely inspections, especially if you are waiting on queens getting mated.

A beekeeper I know had all the workers die off in his laying worker hive and was left with nothing but drones. He invited his nieces and nephews over to the drone petting zoo!

Keith in VA
Reply

I wonder if you can amplify the effect of adding one frame of open brood by removing all of the other frames in the hive. Maybe shake out the drone layer hive and distribute the honey and pollen to other hives, then set a nuc box in its place with just one frame of open brood, some foundation, and a feeder jar. If the laying worker bees raise a new queen with the open brood then they can save themselves without risking a lot of resources. Otherwise, the doomed bees will at least draw some comb out for you that you can use in another hive.

Rusty
Reply

Keith,

Even if successful, you are still doing a lot of work to save a few bees that won’t live very long even in an ideal situation. For me, it isn’t worth it, but if that’s your thing, give it a try.

Denise
Reply

I love your website and especially the blogs and stories, thank you! I’ve had a question for a while now and wondered if you might be able to answer this: If 2 or more eggs are laid in a single cell, what happens to the egg that doesn’t make it to the larva stage? Because we know there’s only one bee that will develop in the cell. Does the extra egg just die off, or does the larva eat it, or do the worker bees remove it? Do you know? Thank you for your time!

Rusty
Reply

Denise,

In laying worker hives where many eggs per cell are laid, you will often see more than one larvae develop. There’s a photo here. In a regular hive where a young queen has laid multiple eggs, the workers will remove it. I’ve read that they eat these as a way to conserve protein in the colony. It’s one of the exceptions to the “bees are vegetarian” rule.

Sharon
Reply

I have a laying worker hive and have been reading and reading and watching youtube videos to figure out what to do. After summarizing all the advice given, it seems that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t and most of the methods are labor intensive. As a 2nd-year beekeeper, I felt hopelessly confused and defeated. So glad to read your blog post saying to just get over it!

I have two other hives I started from nucs this year – one strong and the other okay (it swarmed in early summer). I can focus my efforts on making sure they are strong enough to make through this next winter.

I am still a bit confused about what to do with the frames from the laying worker hive, as the current workers die off and only drones emerge. Do I add those frames into the two other hives? Or as you suggest make a split with them (something I have never done and would have to learn how to do)? Or do I just abandon them and harvest the honey?

Thank you for your informative blog!

Rusty
Reply

Sharon,

I would just abandon. The drones will soon be unwelcome and the workers are getting old.

Sharon
Reply

I guess I was thinking I might replace on frames that are not built out in the other hives with the ones that are from the worker laying hive and save the other hives a bit of energy.

I read somewhere they would clean out the cells and remove the drone larvae. I assume they would then use the built out frames then themselves.

Thanks Rusty!

Rusty
Reply

Oh sure, you can do that. Giving your other hive drawn out comb will definitely be a benefit to them. And yes, they will clean things up.

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