Laying Colonies and How To Manage Them

As discussed in other articles, the queen is the ‘only’ egg-laying caste in the hive, out of the three castes (queen, worker, drone). And this is mostly right. However, the worker bee can, in some cases, start developing egg-laying capabilities. Since the worker cannot mate and does not have a spermatheca(a place to store sperm), when the ovaries become functional, the worker bee will begin to lay only haploid eggs (1 pair of chromosomes), which produces a drone.

In most cases, the queen’s pheromones and the pheromones coming from her brood stop the ovaries from becoming functional. A ‘laying colony’ is one in which there is no queen, and they are incapable (without any intervention) of making a queen since there are no longer any fertilized eggs with the three-day mark.

When you have a laying colony, a few workers start laying eggs, and the sign will be many eggs in a single cell. They do this as a last-ditch effort to pollinate their genes in the form of drones.

Keep in mind that there can be some laying workers in a colony with a queen. In typical colonies, around 10% of workers show some signs of ovary development, such as minor swelling of the ovarioles (Jay 1968, 1970; Kropacova & Haslbachova 1969; Visscher 1966), and around 0.01% of workers lay eggs. However, although ca. 7% of male eggs are laid by these few workers, 99.88% of these eggs are removed by worker policing (Visscher 1996).

This helps to appreciate that due to the complexities of pheromone production and even the effect of pesticide treatments, laying workers may not be as rare of an occurrence as we thought but are in most of our hives – their eggs simply are destroyed before our inspection, or we fail to notice it.

Workers with developed ovaries are often attacked by other workers (Visscher and Dukas 1995). So this puts pressure on the laying workers.

How Do You Tell If A Colonie Has Laying Workers?

It’s easy to tell. Only drones are reared in worker sizes cells, and there could be anywhere from 5 to 15 eggs in each cell. The eggs are usually on the side of the cell instead of placed on the base in the center of the cell (by the queen).

When you are doing your inspections, one egg is normal, two eggs are kinds regular, 5 to 15 eggs are not typical. So, in that case, you know you have a laying colony.

Many eggs in each of the comb cells.

What Do You Do If This Happens?

There is a lot of debate on how to handle this situation – and this is why regular inspections will assist in keeping laying colonies at bay.

The best way to handle this is to combine them with a queenright colony. The queenright colony must be at least double in size than the laying colony. You can always split the laying colony up and combine them with a few different queenright colonies to make sure the queenright colony outnumbers the laying colony.

You can combine them by shaking the frames of bees in front of the queenright colony and having them walk in. If you are doing this during the day, after you shake the frames, you can place a NUC with a queen in the spot where the laying colony was to catch any stray foragers.

Here are some other relevant blog posts: