The Summer of Laying Workers, 1

Before we begin, some background. You need to know the players: the honey bee queen, the workers, and the drones; and why it gets messy when one group tries to protect the colony by taking on the wrong role. 

For honey bees, sex assignment happens with the egg: fertilized eggs become female bees, and unfertilized eggs become males.

Then, there’s a distinction between two types of females: queens, and workers. Once the existing queen lays a female egg, the colony’s workers choose whether to nourish it with a queen’s diet, or with a regular worker’s diet. The diet leads to irreversible physiological changes that give each bee particular abilities and fit her for a specific job.

Honey bees have job stability. Once raised as a queen, always a queen. You can be beheaded, but you cannot be assigned to spend your life rearing larvae. You don’t have the body or the skills to care for other bees or even for yourself.

Likewise, a drone is a sperm provider, and a worker is an egg tender, forager, and defender. Together, workers can decide to replace their queen with a new one who lays more and better eggs, but no worker will ever claim the job of successful egg layer. 

But when there is no queen, workers can lay eggs—after a fashion. And that is how we end up with the one-way ticket to the end of the line that we call a “laying worker colony.” 

The queen, a large bee with a long abdomen, has two roles: 1. to ensure genetic diversity by mating with a dozen or so male honey bees (drones) on her mating flight; 2. once mated, to spend her lifetime laying the eggs that become future generations of bees. 

The mated queen, marked by the beekeepers with a non-toxic pen for her birth year (2019), has a long and tapered body compared to her worker daughters.
Photo by K. O’Shaughnessy. All other photos by Louise Dallaire or Ellen Symons.

Female worker bees are smaller than the queen, with rounded bottoms. Their bodies are built for things like communication, long-distance flying, and finding and storing resources. There are about 10,000 to 80,000 workers per colony, depending on the season, and they forage for supplies, feed the young, control the temperature inside the hive, care for the queen, defend the colony, build wax and comb, make honey from nectar, and do every other task required to keep the colony going.

Dozens of agile female worker bees, and toward the bottom right, a drone with his signature large eyes, big body, and long, strong wings.

Male honey bees—drones—are big, strong, square-bottomed, with huge, acute eyes and large wings. They’re about 20% of the colony’s population, responsible for having keen eyesight, being exceptional flyers, and finding, then mating mid-air with, virgin queens from other colonies, to ensure the genetic diversity of the race. 

Honey bee worker (left) and drone.

The queen is the only female bee in a colony who can mate with drones and store sperm. On her successful mating flight, she collects all the sperm she will have for the rest of her life: up to 5 years of egg-laying. Once back from that mating flight, she gets to work. Daily, she walks in concentric circles on each frame of hexagonal wax cells that the workers have built, using her feet to feel the size of the cell beneath her: it’s either a small cell, worker-bee sized, or a large one, drone-sized. In a small cell, she’ll put a fertilized egg—adding sperm before sticking her long abdomen in the cell and laying the egg at the bottom. This fertilized egg becomes a female worker bee. In a large cell, she’ll normally lay an unfertilized egg, one without added sperm, creating a drone. 

Friends, take note. An unfertilized egg—one with no sperm added—can only be a drone. Worker bees cannot mate, cannot store sperm, and therefore, on the uncommon occasions when they do lay eggs, can create only drones.

To learn how this all played out in Louellen’s apiary, read The Summer of Laying Workers, 2.

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