We briefly touched on laying workers in our post “My Colony is Queenless”. Here we will tell you how to be sure that you have laying workers and what, if anything, you can do to fix the colony.
Firstly lets look at what a “Laying Worker” is. Laying workers is exactly that’ it is worker bees that are laying eggs. The presence of brood in a colony inhibits the ovarian development in the female worker bee so our worker bees don’t have ovaries and therefore cannot lay eggs. When a colony becomes queenless and broodless there is a chance that the workers in your colony can be stimulated into developing their ovaries to enable them to lay eggs.
We often get asked how long can I leave my colony for before the workers start laying. There is no answer this question, its like asking how long is a piece of string. Your colony could be queenless for many many weeks and never develop laying workers but then again they may be queenless and broodless for just a week or two and then you may find that some workers have started laying. If you are unfortunate enough to have laying workers the eggs that they lay are of course unfertilised as the worker has not mated. All the eggs laid will therefore be drones (male). The eggs will also be laid haphazardly through out the colony and not laid in a neat pattern like a queen. It worth noting here that early identification of laying workers can be easily missed as we often only look for eggs in the middle frames and usually we start to look in the center of the middle frames.
Laying workers will lay anywhere in the hive so you need to check every part of every frame. They will also lay multiple eggs in the same cell. The worker bees abdomen is shorter than that of the queen so the eggs are often laid along the cell walls or are to one side at the bottom of the cell and not in the center of the cell as a queens egg would be. It is worth noting that a newly mated queen, or a damaged queen, can also lay multiple eggs in a cell. A newly mated queens will soon get over this so whilst you may see a few multiple eggs this should stop if a few days. The best indication as to whether its a queen or laying worker would be the placement of eggs in the cell.
When laying worker drones are capped over, they are often stunted in size. Even when the drones hatch they are considerably smaller than a queen’s drone. To the untrained eye laying worker drone brood can be difficult to identity and can be confused with a drone laying queen. This is especially true if you have put a new queen into a colony that has been broodless for a while and didn’t notice that some of your workers had started laying. In this situation you will see the queen on the frame so you will assume she is a drone layer. If however you look closely you will see that your queen is being ignored by the workers and she is not looking for cells to lay in. If left the queen will eventually will die as the workers will not attend to her or feed her.
The two photos both show drone brood. The one on the left is a very scattered pattern and if you had the frame in your hands you see some cells have multiple eggs in them; these were laid by a worker bee. The picture on the right is a drone laying queens brood. You will see the lay pattern is better and if you had the frame in your hand you would see single eggs in cells.
So, having identified that you have laying workers what, if anything, can you do?
If your colony has laying workers as advanced as the above photo on the left, this colony has a lot of sealed brood and some drones have started to emerge, then the colony has probably gone too far to be fixed. In this instance you are best to shut the bees up, carry the hive as far away as possible and shake the bees out. If you have other bees in your apiary, that are sited not too far away from where the one with laying workers was, then the flying bees will find those hives.
If you spot the laying worker early enough, you see multiple eggs and maybe a little larvae but no sealed brood, and your colony is of fair strength and has not been queenless for too many weeks, then you may be able to save the colony.
If you do want try to save the colony you will need a mated queen and, if you have another colony, its worth taking a frame of emerging brood from it. If you have, or can get, a mated queen but don’t have a frame of emerging brood and your colony with laying workers has lots of bees then it is possible that you may still save them. How we deal with laying workers is that we carry the colony away as far from its location as far as we can, ideally around 30 yards or more and then we shake all the bees out. We need to ensure every single bee is shaken off every frame and off the brood box walls and floor etc. We do this because we have no idea which worker or workers are laying but we do know she is a house bee rather then a forager. By shaking all the bees out the house bees will not know their way home only the flying bees will. It is for this reason that the colony needs to be reasonably strong as you will lose all your none flying bees. Already flying bees will be returning to the original site so if you have a spare hive it is best to set this up on the original site with one frame in for the flying bees to return to. I always put the new mated queen, in her cage, in the new hive ready as well. By the time you have finished shaking out the bees a good proportion of the flying bees will have made it back to the hive (new hive) with the mated queen in the cage. Return to the original site and populate the hive with your frames, make sure you have some frames of food. Any frames that have multiple eggs, or sealed worker drone, should be thrown away and replaced. If you did have a frame of emerging brood from another colony drop this into the hive as well, positioned in the middle, and remove the tab from the queen cage. The queen will be let out of the cage and if all is well you will have eggs when you check the colony in 10 days.
Dealing with laying workers does not have a great success rate however if this is your only colony, or one of a few, then it is likely you will want to try and save them. Do bear in mind the time of the year, you are not likely to build a colony up strong enough for winter if its end August and you find laying workers.
If the laying workers have gone too far and you do have other colonies that are strong you can always make a nuc up and place this where the laying worker colony was and then shake you bees out at a good distance. If the nuc had been made up from bees on the same site then a good proportion of the bees will be flying bees, these will return to their parent hive, and the bees you shake from the laying worker colony will then boost the nuc.