The Summer of Laying Workers, 3

Read Part Two of this series here.

Read Part One here.

It’s been a long set-up, but we’ve arrived at the punch line. Or at least, at my favourite part of this story: where we see, in images, what happens when a colony develops laying workers. It’s a royal mess, and yet, an engaging cacophony.

Remember this: it is not the bees’ fault.

Bees don’t act out of malice, or covetousness, or a desire for power.

  • Workers start to lay because there is no queen pheromone or open brood pheromone to suppress their ovaries (the colony is queen-less and all brood has been capped or has emerged)
  • Workers lay drone eggs because they don’t mate, and can’t lay fertilized (worker) eggs
  • Workers lay in rough, wrong, multiple piles, even in cells already filled with pollen, because their abdomens are not long enough to place eggs on the bottom of the cells, and they are not laying specialists

Why workers lay multiple eggs in a cell is a question I haven’t yet seen answered. (Same with why a new queen may lay multiple eggs in a cell while she’s learning the job.) Same with why honey bee workers lay eggs on top of pollen deposits. Despite centuries of observation and study, humans still know only a bit of why honey bees do what they do.

Still: we know the what. A colony with laying workers will have multiple eggs per cell; on the sides of cells; in cells already filled by pollen; and in a haphazard pattern rather than in the consecutively aged spiral pattern of a quality queen. And when those eggs, drone eggs, grow into drone larvae, they will be too big for the worker cells they occupy; when they are capped, to develop as pupae, they will form an exaggerated version of the signature popcorn shape of a properly laid drone bee in his cell.

Bees store everything–eggs, pupae, pollen, bee bread, and honey–in comb made with wax flakes they secrete from their abdomens. Each worker can secrete four wax plates every 12 hours, which she mixes with saliva, then precisely shapes, using mandibles and feet, adding it to the growing comb project.

Below, worker bees have built some perfect free-form comb for the queen to lay eggs in.

We also see a proper frame of “capped brood”: cells capped with wax, protecting the (worker) pupae that mature inside.

Conclusion: A healthy, strong queen bee lives here.

All photos by Louellen Apiary.

Beekeepers use the presence of eggs in the hive as one sign that a healthy queen is in residence. But a quick glance is not always enough: the egg pattern, egg location, and size and shape of brood distinguish a queen-right hive from a queen-less laying worker hive.

Compare the photo of wax cells, each with one egg in the bottom–you’ve got a queen-right hive, with the multiple eggs in each cell–you’ve got laying workers.

When workers lay, it’s here an egg, there an egg, everywhere an egg egg.
When the queen lays, it’s one egg per cell, placed neatly in the cell’s centre.

What Would Goldilocks Do?

In the photo below–TOO LITTLE–worker honey bees are building wax cells to hold the queen’s eggs. This colony probably has an actual laying queen, but we can’t tell from this egg-less frame. In fact, we can see the shine of nectar in a few of these unfinished cells, so the frame is already being used to store supplies. If the queen does need this frame for laying, workers will move the nectar to the periphery of the frame or to a different frame.

Middle–TOO MUCH–the normal popcorn effect of drone comb is exaggerated by too-big drone pupae growing in too-small worker cells, and improperly spread across the entire frame. In a queen-right colony, drone brood will be laid in drone-sized cells along the bottom edges of the frame, making up about 20% of the colony’s total population.

Bottom–JUST RIGHT–each cell has a faintly convex top, but together their capped surfaces form a level plain of worker brood growing in worker-sized cells.

Goldilocks would choose ‘too little’ or ‘just right,’ getting rid of ‘too much’ pdq.

No eggs in cells: too little.
Capped drone brood, laid by workers, in worker cells: too much.
Wax-capped worker brood, laid by the queen, in worker cells: just right.

What should a beekeeper do?

Usually, a beekeeper can re-queen a colony by gradually introducing a new queen–caged at first for her own safety–until her pheromones pervade the colony and the bees accept her.

Here are links to videos of us introducing a new caged queen into a colony.

  1. The queen–marked with a white dot–and her attendants in their protective cage. There’s a candy plug in one end of the cage to feed the queen and attendants. Bees in the colony will eat the candy plug from the outside, and the queen’s attendants will eat from the inside. This takes several days, giving the resident bees time to spread the queen’s pheromone throughout the hive, until, when the queen crawls free through the now-open candy door, the bees have accepted her as their queen.
  2. The cage rests in the hive between two frames, which we will push tight to stabilize the cage with the candy plug at the top–so that the open door is not blocked by any dead attendants when it’s time for the queen to crawl out.

Laying workers, however, may kill a new queen even after a gradual introduction.

Older advice about resolving laying worker colonies is to carry the hive several hundred feet away, shake out all the bees, and take the box back to its normal spot. The theory is that the laying workers, who are the young nurse bees, and have never left the hive, have no orientation landmarks to lead them home again. Gradually, lost and stuck in place, they will die where you’ve dumped them. The older bees, foragers, who have not been laying, will find their way home, and will welcome a new queen introduced by the beekeeper.

Call us softies, but Louellen couldn’t stomach the thought of that. When we were lucky enough to (unwittingly) ‘rescue’ a laying worker swarm, initially thinking it was queen-right, we solved the problem with the following techniques.

  • We scraped off the excessive drone brood
  • We added frames of open brood from other colonies
  • We repeated the process each week until the bees started to raise their own queen

Later in the summer, one of our existing colonies became queen-less without us realizing, and within three weeks we recognized the signs of another laying worker hive.

  • This time, we combined the weak laying worker colony with a stronger, queen-right colony
  • Queen pheromone and brood pheromone from the strong, queen-right hive suppressed the laying workers’ ovaries, and one healthy, productive colony resulted

Beekeeping websites list pros and cons for each of these solutions. What you do in your apiary will depend on many factors, including the strength of your other hives, how early or late you are in the season, and whether you can afford to wait for bees to raise their own queen.

A laying worker colony is a whole pack of trouble, but it offers an unparalleled learning experience. I hope you get at least one in your beekeeping career.

Odds are, you will.

Thank you for following along with this saga. If you have questions about honey bees, we’d love to hear from you, and possibly answer them for you in future posts.

Very best,



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