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Worker bees in a honeybee colony are do not lay eggs except in special circumstances. This explainer article answers your questions on what are laying worker bees and how they come about. It also details what you should do to prevent worker bees from turning into laying worker bees, as well as how to address the problem if it occurs in your beekeeping operation. The setup of honeybee colonies requires the queen bee to lay eggs in the beehive. Having laying worker bees is, therefore, not good for the beehive. This is because the eggs that a worker bee lays are not fertilized. They bring forth drone bees which do not have much to do in the beehive except to fertilize virgin queen bees.
In normal circumstances, a newly-emerged queen bee flies to a drone congregation area and mates with several drones. She keeps the sperm from male drone bees in a sac in her abdomen. The sperms fertilize eggs that the queen bee then lays in the beehive. Fertilized eggs result in female worker bees in the colony. When there is need to, and at a small scale, the queen bee can lay unfertilized eggs. The unfertilized eggs result in the production of drones in the honeybee colony.
Male drone bees in a colony of honeybees do not mate with worker bees and fertilize them. Additionally, the worker bees cannot change into queen bees, even if the queen bee is absent from the beehive. They can, however, start laying eggs in the colony. Laying worker bees can thus only lay unfertilized eggs that result in the production of drone bees in the colony. Without female worker bees, the colony collapses after some time.
Causes of Worker Bees Laying Eggs
A laying worker bee is any female worker bee in a honeybee colony that lays eggs in the colony. Eggs from such a worker bee are unfertilized an do not contribute to the continuation of the honeybee colony. In a normal honeybee colony, only about 1% of the worker bees have developed ovaries that can allow them to lay eggs. They lay very few eggs that do not cause any harm to the honeybee colony.
The main cause of the development of worker bees laying eggs is the absence of a queen bee in the beehive or the queen bee failing in her egg-laying function. When the queen bee is not present in a honeybee colony, brood production stops soon afterwards. In a honeybee colony that has brood, pheromones coming from the brood cause development of the ovaries of worker bees to be suppressed.
Absence of a queen bee and brood in the beehive allows the development of many laying worker bees because there are no brood recognition pheromones being released in the beehive. The rise of laying worker bees happens en masse many weeks after the death or loss of a queen bee from the beehive. In an affected honeybee colony, there are usually many worker bees laying eggs in the beehive, not just one or a few worker bees.
How a Colony with Laying Worker Bees Dies
- Worker bees live for a period of 2-6 weeks in summer, and around 20 weeks in winter and then they die. The high death rate among worker bees is caused by exhaustion of the worker bees over time. Honeybee colonies ensure that there is continuity of the colony by rearing new worker bees from the brood in their beehive to replace the dead worker bees.
- Worker bees in the beehive find food, water and other resources needed in the beehive. Having few or no worker bees in the colony results in the honeybees using up all their stored honey and then starving to death.
- Worker bees clean the beehive and keep it suitable for habitation by the honeybee colony. The drop in the number of worker bees in the beehive results in the beehive becoming unhygienic. It may then attract diseases, pests or predators that hurt the honeybee colony in varying ways.
Preventing the Rise of Laying Worker Bees
The best way to prevent the development of worker bees laying eggs is to ensure that the honeybee colony has a queen bee. Honeybee colonies need a strong and virile queen bee for success of the colony. She must lay many fertilized eggs every day. The eggs hatch and cause the production of more worker bees for the colony. Queen bees also release pheromones in the beehive that keep the honeybee colony united.
Ensuring that your honeybee colonies are queenright is important to prevent the rise of laying worker bees. You should quickly install a queen bee in any colony where she has died, swarmed away or is failing. Delays in superseding a failing queen in a honeybee colony can result in worker bees starting to lay eggs.
Always exercise timely requeening of honeybee colonies to ensure that you have young, healthy and prolific queen bees that sustain strong honeybee colonies. It keeps the colony working at its optimum and gives you the best quality and quantity of beehive products. Both beginner and experienced beekeepers can requeen a beehive using a new queen bee, a queen cage and a candy plug.
How to Identify a Honeybee Colony with Laying Worker Bees
Honeybee colonies that have lost their queen bees and developed laying worker bees are easy to identify. Beekeepers use various clues and pointers to determine whether worker bees are laying eggs in a colony. Seeing one clue or pointer is not usually conclusive evidence that a beehive has laying workers. Seeing two or more of the clues and pointers, however, should cause you to carry out a detailed inspection to find out whether worker bees in the honeybee colony are laying eggs.
1. Multiple Eggs per Brood Cell
A major indicator that you may have laying worker bees is the observation of more than one egg laid in a brood comb cell. While some young queen bees may be overzealous and lay more than one egg in a cell, they usually correct themselves. Persistent presence of more than one egg per brood cell is a reliable indicator that the worker bees are laying eggs.
2. An Absent Queen Bee
The second indicator you should use in determining whether you have a case of laying workers, is failing to spot the queen bee during several sequential beehive inspections. Mark the queen bee of each honeybee colony in your apiary so that she is easy to see during beehive inspections.
3. Eggs on the Sides of Brood Cells
Seeing bee eggs on the sides of brood cells is the third pointer that worker bees may be the ones laying eggs in the colony. Queen bees place the eggs that they lay in the middle of each brood cell. Worker bees often lay eggs away from the center of the brood cell. They may also lay their eggs in cells that already contain pollen or honey.
4. Spotty and Too Much Drone Brood
Spotty drone brood and too much drone brood in a beehive are also indicators that worker bees are laying eggs in a honeybee colony. This is because worker bee eggs result in drone brood. The amount of drone brood in the beehive may rise to a large number and then decline when the population of worker bees in the beehive also declines.
Spotty drone brood results when some worker bees remove the eggs laid by other worker bees from brood cells. Empty cells are heavily scattered throughout the capped brood of the hive.
What Does Drone Brood Look Like?
When you do not use foundation but let bees make cells of their preferred sizes, brood cells for worker bees are smaller than those for drone bees.
The drone brood in a honeybee colony with laying workers, is reared in cells whose size should be for worker bees. This is one of the indicators you could use to detect the rise of laying worker bees in a beehive.
Additionally, the drone larva in worker cells will have blunt, pointed cappings. It protrudes out of the cell more than worker brood cells protrude. It looks more like the eraser that are usually found on pencils.
How to Save a Colony That Has Laying Worker Bees
There are several approaches you can use to save your honeybee colony that has developed laying worker bees. Each approach has its unique advantages and effectiveness. Some also have greater risk than others. Ultimately, saving the honeybee colony will require you to install a new queen bee. The acceptance of the queen bee varies by each method that you may use as your solution. Some of the approaches you could try are:
1. Adding the Laying Worker Bees to a Queenright Colony
Combine the colony with laying worker bees with another one that is queenright. This takes advantage of the brood and queen pheromones in the queenright colony to stop the worker bees from continuing laying eggs. The colony that is queenright should be strong. If it is not strong, the laying workers may kill the queen and lead to the rise of a large colony with more laying workers.
To reduce the risk of the laying workers taking over your queenright colony, you may split the laying workers into several splits and add each split to one honeybee colony per beehive in your apiary. You should also reduce this risk by separating the queenright colony from the laying workers that you add to their beehive using a double screen. It keeps the queen bee safe from attack until the ovaries of the laying worker bees are fully suppressed. Allow about 3 weeks to pass before you remove the screen.
2. Removing Nurse Bees from the Colony
Shake out the bees at a distance of 100 or more meters from their hive. The laying worker bees are usually the young nurse bees. These do not know their way home because they will never have left the beehive previously. Forager worker bees that know their way home move back into the beehive and can easily accept a new queen bee.
All the nurse bees that you leave out in the field will die from various causes. Removing nurse bees from the beehive also stops the problem of worker bees laying eggs in the honeybee colony.
3. Providing Viable Brood Frames to the Colony with Laying Worker Bees
Place brood frames from another honeybee colony in the beehive with your colony that has developed laying worker bees. Firstly, the presence of the worker brood will suppress some of the worker bees from laying eggs. Note that; just as it takes some time for the ovaries of worker bees to start producing eggs, it will take some time for suppression to occur.
Secondly, giving the colony with laying worker bees some appropriate brood frames gives the colony a chance to raise a new queen bee. For best results, use a frame that has freshly-hatched bee larvae that is not more than 1 day old. Do this once every 5-7 days for 3 weeks or until you see that the bees have started rearing a new queen bee.
The presence of supersedure cells in the brood frames that you added to the laying workers’ colony is an indicator that they are ready to accept a new queen bee.
If they have not raised their own new queen bee at the end of 3 weeks, they will be likely, anyway, to accept a new queen bee easily.
Can Beekeepers Save All Honeybee Colonies with Laying Worker Bees?
Not all honeybee colonies that have developed laying worker bees can be saved. Despite your efforts, you may still lose the colony. This is likely to happen if the worker bees have been laying eggs for a long period of time, such as several weeks, before you noticed and started interventions.
In such a scenario, find out what caused the worker bees to start laying eggs and take steps to prevent it from happening again in your beekeeping operation. You should then clear out the beehive, clean it, and install a new honeybee colony in the beehive.
While this may seem extreme or merciless on the bees, it saves you from using resources from other honeybee colonies in futile attempts to save the colony with laying worker bees. Using up the resources of a strong colony to try and save a colony with laying workers might have the unwanted result of weakening the strong colony.
Worker bees laying eggs are a sign of problems in the beehive. The honeybee colony that has laying worker bees is usually in deep trouble and needs your help to ensure its continuity. If you do not intervene, the colony eventually collapses. Often, the cause of laying worker bees in a honeybee colony is the absence of a queen bee. To save the colony, the remedy is usually installation of a new queen bee. You may also bring fresh brood into the hive for the bees to raise a new queen or use the other mentioned solutions. Feel free to apply the information you get from this article about what are laying worker bees to ensure you have healthy honeybee colonies in your beekeeping operation.
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