Laying Workers: The Why, How, and Now what!

I have tinkering with this post on and off now for some months and cannot get it right. It just seems very meanderng and inconcise. Perhaps it’s the “man-flu” speaking but I had enough of it. You can deal with it now.

From time to time a beekeeper will be faced with the question of whether or not a hive is queenless and ultimately do you have a laying worker. It can be difficult to tell the difference between a laying worker and a drone laying queen but generally your options are the same. Often these concerns are as a result of the colony swarming but occasionally a colony can suffer from “queen failure” or the queen can be lost or injured during an inspection (naughty beekeeper!).

When triggered by swarming, if you haven’t seen the swarm leave hopefully you have at least seen queen cells. Sadly, even the most beautiful of queen cells can end in tragedy with the queen not returning or bad weather affecting mating. In the short term you will notice an increase in stores of honey and pollen as the bees with no/less brood to look after turn their attentions to foraging. You may well panic in this period as the amount of drone brood appears to increase, it probably hasn’t. It could simply be due to the longer period of time it takes for any drones laid by the old queen to emerge. After all the worker brood has emerged there may well still be drone brood waiting around appearing as though it has increased because you notice it more.
Do not be in a rush! The quickest you can expect to have a laying queen from the point the swarm leaves is two weeks.

It can certainly take longer and if you keep disturbing them it is not helpful. Two week inspections should be sufficient.

Obviously the best test of whether a queen is present is to see her. However, not all of us have a good queen eye and often young queens are a little thinner and harder to spot. The next best thing is eggs. Occassionally, a new queen may lay more than one egg per cell to start with but she soons gets the hang of things.  Many eggs laid haphazardly and even in cells containing pollen is a good sign of a laying worker.


Laying workers will also lay their eggs to the sides of a cell instead of in the bottom middle as their abdomens are shorter. This isn’t always obvious to the new beeks eye so don’t rely on it.
If you don’t see the multiple eggs then often the way the capped brood is arranged can offer a clue.


Again, laying workers are haphazard leaving large patches. Drone laying Queens give a better pattern but the cappings will be domed as in drone brood but laid in worker cells.
When queenless the bees do behave and sound very differently to how things are with a queen about. Over time working with bees with even realising it you will have developed an ear for the tone of a working hive. You probably won’t even realise you know what it should sound like until it sounds….wrong! Rather than the many toned buzzing of a hive on task the buzz becomes low and monotonous. The bees themselves appear listless and easily provoked to sting.

Now what!
Well it really depends on the type of beekeeping you aspire to.
If you have laying workers that needs sorting first. There are two ways I know of to “deal” with laying workers. Fast and dirty, or slow and surely.

I have not done this but many swear by it. Shake out all the bees 100yds or so away from the hive.  The idea is laying workers (having never left the hive) will not know their way back. Any foragers will be able to return since they recognise the area. Do this at a busy time of the day so the laying workers will be challenged should they attempt to enter another hive. Then try a queen fix below.
It is important to note that laying workers are NOT the result of absence of a queen, but the absence of brood. A subtle difference I know, but an important one. If a colony shows signs of laying workers weekly brood transfers from another hive… assuming you have one… will over time suppress the laying workers. Three or four weeks should see the colony building queen cups with the best of them.

New queen:
This is a relatively quick fix…. if you have spare queen. The queen will have to be properly introduced because even when queenless the colony will kill off a poorly introduced queen. If you have laying workers you must deal with them first as they will also kill a queen.
If the colony is queenless you combine it with another… assuming you have one. This could be done with a newspaper combine for vertical hives, or using icing sugar to coat the introduced combs and bees in a kTBH.
Brood transfer:
Transfering young uncapped brood …assuming you have some… will allow the colony raise a new queen. Take care they don’t produce too many and swarm.

By the this time you may have noticed two things:
1 – Transfering young brood into the colony from another will fix the problem of laying workers AND queenlessness.  It will even help you post swarm. Adding brood can stimulate a new well-mated queen to lay, and provides the colony with opportunities to replace her if poorly mated. It also stops you from having to bite your fingernails trying decide what, if anything, is wrong.
2 – If you only have one colony you’re stuffed. The curse of the new beekeeper is that at a time when you need the most resource and have the least experience the reality is opposite. So, join forums, find mentors and seek out supportive associations.

There is always the option with your to allow ‘nature to take its course’. I can certainly get on board with that philosophy and at times have applied. All I will say is that be wary of generating unnatural circumstances and leaving nature to sort it out. Sometimes she’ll be able to sort it out on her own but don’t count on it. Make sure for any manipulation you perform on your hive you are clear on:
a) What you want/expect to achieve (over and above not doing it).
b) You have considered what might happen if it doesn’t work.
c) You have fall back plan and know what you want to do and how to do it.

This entry was posted in Beekeeping, mistakes to learn from, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Laying Workers: The Why, How, and Now what!

  1. Emily Scott says:

    It makes sense to me, lots of good advice here. Get well soon.

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