You know what one of the best parts of having a blog about your hobby is? When something goes wrong. Like a hive having laying workers. If I didn’t have a blog, I’d only have the sad part of knowing my tiny swarm colony was pretty much doomed. Because I have a blog, I perk up and think, “Well, at least I have something to write about!”
Optimism. It’s all in the options.
I mentioned in our newsletter that Handyman and Perfection had caught the third swarm that issued forth from Annamaria the Kind’s original hive. Still not getting the newsletter? Sign up already?! However, now I have some bad news. That little swarm doesn’t have a queen. Not only that, but the girls have gone wild. The workers have started laying for themselves.
First, let me explain why that’s not normally possible and why it’s such a bad thing. Then, I’ll explain how I know it’s laying workers and not just a new queen that hasn’t worked out what to do. Finally, I’ll tell you what can be done about it… and why I’m not doing any of those things.
Why Laying Workers Isn’t Normally Possible
Interesting factoid: All worker bees have the genetics to be a queen. They were just fed differently. As little baby bees, the nurse bees decided to turn them into either a worker or a queen. That decision in hand, they worked out the meal plan. All baby bees are fed initially on ‘Royal Jelly’, a milky white secretion from the nurse bee that helps baby bees to grow up big and strong. I’m simplifying, ok? However, worker bees are weaned off, while queens continue to enjoy the royal diet.
To those of you whose moms stopped breastfeeding at an early age… It’s worth wondering… Did that make a difference?
Philosophical musing aside, this diet change makes a big difference in the development of little baby bee. The continued feeding of royal jelly allows for the queen’s reproductive organs to completely mature. Meanwhile, only a tiny percentage of worker bees have the ability to lay eggs.
So Why Don’t They?
This is actually an interesting topic of debate. Some books claim that a queen puts of pheromones that discourage workers from laying eggs, or even that the queen’s pheromone is what stunts the workers’ reproductive system, or stops it from developing. In actuality, it has been found that the pheromones of open brood are what discourage the workers from attempting to lay and that neither queen or brood pheromone has anything to do with inhibiting or encouraging the bees reproductive system development. The queen doesn’t die and the laying workers suddenly gain the ability to lay… They have that ability from birth, and when there is no more open brood, they gain a desire to use that ability.
Why Are Laying Workers Such a Bad Thing?
Laying workers sounds kind of like an awesome win-win, right? All of a sudden, you have multiple critters laying eggs for you? Score! Your hive is gonna explode!
Not so much.
Here’s the issue. A queen flies off to drone congregation areas and gets herself properly mated. She kills a bunch of boys in the process, but that’s a gory subject for another day. Preferably one where only female beekeepers are reading, because us poor weak males can’t stop wincing. She stores up enough sperm in a little internal sack to last her lifetime and settles down to work. In humans, this would mean that she was capable of providing both sperm and egg to make babies, whether boys or girls. But bees are Haplodiploidy. In other words, their unfertilized eggs raise boys, their fertilized eggs raise girls.
With me so far?
So, laying workers, lacking the ability to go fly off and find a bunch of mates, can only lay infertile eggs. Nothin’ but boys. Since drones (boy bees) are pretty much worthless layabouts who do nothing but eat, fly and look for nooky – They resemble some other guys I know, actually – This is a death sentence for the survival of the hive.
How I Know I Have Laying Workers
The first warning sign that you have laying workers in your hive is the same sign I spotted. Multiple eggs per cell. A mature queen, who knows her job, rarely (if ever) lays two eggs to a cell. So when you see multiple eggs in a cell, it’s certainly time to start worrying a little. However, it took me quite a bit of searching to realize, amidst all the other terrible information out there, that this is not definitive. A young queen, newly mated, will sometimes lay two, or even (though it’s rare) three, eggs per cell.
So how can we tell?
A more exhaustive search found a few other useful indicators.
Eggs Won’t Be Centered
Worker bees have a smaller butt than queens. It may not be polite to comment on that, but at least I’m telling the majority of the hive they’re slim, right? Their smaller rears mean they cannot actually reach to the very bottom of most cells. This results in the eggs they lay often attaching to the sides instead of the bottom of the cell. Even when they are down below, a queen will usually stand her eggs on their end, while a laying worker will just drop them on their side.
Again, this isn’t a definitive sign. A new queen might have a hard time balancing her eggs. But it is additional evidence if you’re seeing multiple eggs per cell, and some are stuck to the side.
Eggs Will Be Laid In Pollen
From what I have read, this is basically a sure-fire sign that you’ve got laying workers. Queen’s won’t lay in pollen. They instinctively know not to. Laying workers, on the other hand, might appreciate the half-full cell and try to lay there nonetheless. So if you see eggs in the pollen, you’re in trouble.
More than Three Eggs Per Cell
While a new queen might mistakenly lay up to three per cell, she’s not going to keep repeating the mistake. Laying workers just keep on laying, and when things don’t work out, they lay some more. When you’re seeing 5 or more eggs per cell, again, you know you’re in trouble.
Nothing But Drone Brood
This sign happens a little later in the process. But if your hive is ONLY producing drones, you know there is an issue. This on its own is not definitively a laying workers problem, however. A queen can sometimes run out of sperm for fertilization. When she does, predictably, she keeps on laying drones. Usually, this happens to queens who have lived a good long life of 3+ years.
What Can Be Done About Laying Workers?
There are a bunch of things that CAN be done about laying workers. The problem is that most of them don’t work all the time. When the remedy doesn’t work, it usually fails spectacularly. You end up with a bigger mess than you started with.
The most common advice on dealing with laying workers is to take them out into a field away from the hive and dump them out. Put the hive back in place. Those who don’t know the way home, or are too heavy to fly because of a sack load of eggs, will die in the field. Meanwhile, the field bees will return home. You can then requeen or combine them ‘safely’. But here’s the issue. The conventional wisdom is that the laying workers are too heavy to fly. So why is the internet full of stories of people who tried that, and continued to have laying workers? Yeah, because some of them are still stubborn enough to fly. Regardless of what their beekeeper says they can do.
The other common method is to give the hive open brood from a different hive for a number of weeks. Usually a frame a week for 3-5 weeks. The idea is that the open brood smell will slowly convince the laying workers to go back to being normal workers. Eventually, they’ll raise their own queen. If you have plenty of strong hives that can afford the strain of supporting this little colony, this usually works. If it doesn’t work, you’ve basically put an unnecessary strain on your other colonies for nothing. Even if it does work, if you lose one of the other colonies because of it, you’ve still not gained anything.
What I am, and Am Not, Doing About My Laying Workers
This particular colony is the third swarm from Annamaria’s original home. It’s a fairly small group of girls. I’m already not sure exactly what the likelihood of them making it through winter would be, even if I fed them constantly between now and then. So I have chosen not to try and save the colony.
There were those who suggested dumping the bees out in the middle of no-where and letting them die. I can’t bring myself to do that, either. So I’m letting them live out their days trying to do their jobs. I’m a softy. I realize bees are like any other farm animal, and they can’t be viewed as pets. But since they’re not doing any harm. Sitting in their box gathering nectar and trying to build comb. I have decided to let them bee.
That’s it for now about laying workers. Again, if you haven’t signed up for the newsletter yet, take care of that problem right now!
And, of course, remember. We CAN be self-sufficient. Together.