The Summer of Laying Workers, 2

Read Part One of this series here

We’re two-thirds through, folks, and I hope you’ll feel the investment of your reading time pays off, with drama and fascinating facts from the insect world.

Beekeepers call a honey bee colony “queen-right” when it has a laying queen in residence, and “queen-less” when it doesn’t—which, as we’ll see, is rarely the desired state.

Worker bees in a queen-right colony do everything in their power to keep their queen healthy and safe. She is the egg layer: the mother of every bee in the colony. Workers can lay only unfertilized eggs, which become drones. Queen pheromone normally suppresses worker ovaries so very few of them do lay. This ensures that all drones are genetically descended from the queen, and that the number of drones is not so large that it affects the colony’s ability to function and grow.

For added control, the queen bee coats her eggs with a compound that proves they are the real deal, laid by her, not worker-laid knock-offs. Police bees eat the few non-coated worker eggs they discover, ensuring genetic and population balance.

Since worker bees build comb, raise young, collect resources, and keep the colony going over generations, no colony can survive without workers. Drones alone cannot survive; nor can workers without a queen, or a queen without workers. The colony is one organism made of tens of thousands of individuals divided between three castes—queen, worker, and drone—each of which needs the others to function.

Queen Yaroslava prepares to stick her long, tapered abdomen into an empty wax cell to lay an egg precisely at the bottom. Workers’ abdomens are short and can’t reach the bottom, so their eggs land on the cell’s sides.
All photos by Ellen Symons or Louise Dallaire

But bees are tiny animals, after all, and the challenges to the colony, and to the queen, are many. 

How does a honey bee colony go from being queen-right to being temporarily or permanently queen-less?

  • A newly mated queen doesn’t make it back from her mating flight: weather, insect or bird predators, or an accident leave her lost or dead
  • A newly mated queen flies into the wrong hive box on her return—bees recognize their own box by sight and smell, but if all boxes in the apiary are the same colour, facing the same way, or if the wind causes the bee to drift, she may fly into the wrong box, leaving her home colony queen-less
  • Pesticide poisoning can kill a virgin queen on her mating flight, or kill a large number of foragers, leaving the colony weak and vulnerable to attack or disease without enough bees to protect and care for the queen
  • A queen is not well-mated, and does not produce a high quantity or quality of eggs: the workers may decide to replace her, raising a new queen and killing the old one
  • A queen ages, producing less queen pheromone, signalling to the workers that it is time to replace her
  • The colony gets big enough that queen pheromone is weaker in the outlying areas; the workers decide to swarm (leave to establish a new home)—half the bees will leave with the existing queen, and the remaining bees will raise a new queen
  • Skunks, bears, raccoons, wasps, or other predators attack the hive and the queen dies in the melee
  • The beekeeper accidentally kills, injures, or loses the queen—this happens distressingly often, even with experienced beekeepers
On the edge of this wooden frame, open toward the camera, are two of the large, peanut-shaped cells that bees build for queen pupae (although these two cells are empty). Because the queen herself is so much bigger than a worker, the cells for queen pupae are also much bigger, and conical.

In some of these cases, worker bees can raise a new queen on short notice. If the original queen, now dead or absent, laid eggs within the past five days, the workers can raise several new, strong queen candidates by feeding a special diet of royal jelly to selected young larvae. 

But a queen raised from older larvae will have had a gap in her royal jelly diet, and will make a poor queen. After the sixth day, larvae cells are capped with wax and can’t be fed at all. Once the eggs left by the previous queen have reached this stage, if the workers haven’t already started a new queen, they are permanently queen-less.

Above and below: Two views of a deceased queen pupa and the cell she was in.

Then, in an attempt to save the colony, some workers will start laying. Up to one quarter[1] of workers in a queen-less colony lay eggs and produce some queen pheromone. It’s purely biological, by no means a coup d’état—but these laying workers effectively take control of the colony, providing eggs that their sisters now care for (giving them something else to do than to hang about on the porch, cleaning their feet)—but remember: these eggs are drones only. No new workers, no new queen: the colony is defunct when the last of these workers dies—and summer bees live only six weeks.

This is important: worker bees in summer live about six weeks. Thus a queen-less colony will effectively collapse less than two months after the queen’s last worker egg emerges as a baby bee.

Beekeepers regularly introduce new queens into colonies as part of routine maintenance. But a group of laying workers may not accept a new queen, killing her as soon as she’s introduced. Conventional wisdom is that a laying worker colony can’t be turned around: it can only be, in effect, destroyed. But in the summer of 2021, we had two laying worker colonies and were able to convert them to queen-right colonies within a few weeks without destroying bees.

How do you know you’ve got laying workers, and what can you do about it? The Summer of Laying Workers, 3.


2 thoughts on “The Summer of Laying Workers, 2

I'd love to hear what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.