Pretender to the Throne

E55 hatches as the last of the brood in her colony.  She emerges into the brood nest and before she has even dried, before her hairs are fluffed, before she has sipped a first draught of nectar, she knows that something is wrong. 

Where E55 hatches she should be surrounded by bees of all ages and types.  Instead everywhere she turns she finds only her older sisters.  She can find no trace of her mother, the queen.  Where she has gone the other bees cannot say but she is no longer here.  In her absence the colony is sick.

The scent of the queen normally unites the colony and though she does not truly rule it, her presence is essential to its survival.  For this reason instinct has burned her pheromones into the workers as the scent of calm, the smell of well.  The colony is knit together by dozens of chemical flavors, each conveying something about the status of the colony as a whole and individual bees, their actions and intent.

Pheromone communication is built into bees from the moment their eggs hatch.  Brood emit a pheromone that tells workers their sex, age, if they are ready to be capped, or even if they are hungry.  Brood scent is the other half of the pheromone equation that tells a colony that it is well.  E55’s colony is missing both.

In the absence of something to unify them each bee does as it sees fit.  Some haul in pollen on overdrive, stuffing entire combs full and then scrambling out for more.  _There are no brood now, but there will be soon.  The brood will need much pollen_ says this instinct.  Younger bees hang on the comb, barely alive.  They eat and rest, rest and eat.  At this age they should be caring for young but there are none.

E55 has cleaned her cell and every one around it a dozen times at least.  She scurries from cell to cell, checking them over and over again.  Surely somewhere there are eggs to hatch and brood to care for.  There are none.   Bees can raise an emergency queen from appropriate age larva in just fourteen days but this colony has no brood.  It has no hope.

E55 has never left the hive, even though she is nearly two weeks old.  The hive is in no danger of starving with the foragers working but the youngest bees are two weeks old with no replacements underway.  As the days past E55 has felt a strange urge stirring deep within her at times, an ache that she has no words for.  She is changing.

Some species of bee have the ability to lay a special egg which develops unfertilized into a female who can be raised into a queen.  Honeybees do not share this unique ability but all females retain the “plumbing.”  Every female has ovaries, every stinger can be used as an ovipositor.  In a healthy colony the scent of the queen and the brood prevent workers from developing ovaries but without this inhibitor E55’s body has changed.  She is not a queen.  She can never be.  That will not stop her from trying.

One afternoon as she cleans a cell over she pauses midway into it.  If it were a honey cell she might be drinking, with her tail sticking out instead she is measuring it.  This itch and urge within her has been growing and as she inspects the cell something feels right about it.   She backs out and pauses, then backs in tail first.  When her forelegs touch the rim of the cell she flexes her abdomen downward and touches…nothing.  E55 was not raised in a queen cell and so never developed the long abdomen that allows a queen to reach the bottom of the cell.  She curls her abdomen and lays an egg on the side of the cell.   Around her a pair of workers takes notice of her actions and grapple with her. 

E55 is hauled from the cell and a worker darts in.  A queen’s egg is doused with queen pheromone when it is laid but E55’s egg has no such pheromone on it.  The worker sniffs it and then devours it.   E55 scurries down the comb and then slows.  She measures a new cell, then backs in and lays an egg.  It feels right.  It feels good.   She backs out, then back into the same cell again and lays another and another.  Though she shares the mechanics for laying her instincts are undeveloped so E55 will lay anywhere.

Workers continue to devour E55’s eggs but not all are found in time.  Some hatch and once hatched the bees will care for them.  E55 has never taken a mating flight and cannot lay a fertilized egg, so her children will all be drones.  Drone brood emits the same scent the colony so desperately desires and it is calmed.  E55 is changing further as time goes on.  With each act of laying she becomes more and more sure of her position and now her body even emits a pale imitation of the queen scent.  In the absence of a true queen the bees cannot tell the difference.  The workers no longer devour her eggs.  Instead they care for them and soon a wave of brood line the combs, all drones.

The oldest workers are dying off and a new generation is not emerging, so the colony clings to life, consuming its stores in the absence of foragers.  They are holding on for the hope of the brood to come.  When the brood do hatch the cruel reality is laid bare.  Drones do not work in the hive and have no stinger.  They can only consume precious resources. The hope of the colony has been shattered.

Without workers to defend it the wasps set in like vultures.  No longer content to scavenge bee corpses from the area outside the hive they now venture in, plucking E55’s helpless children from their cells, devouring drones at will.  E55 is ancient now.  She is a worker, and workers live only a few weeks.  When she dies there are no mortuary bees to ferry her from the hive.  A passing wasp does the honors, feeding E55’s corpse to its ravenous children.  The colony has been brought to ruin by the loss of their queen and the disastrous reign of E55.

The view from the House

Of all the chemical blends essential to a functioning hive brood pheromone is the most vital.  Brood pheromone is what tells the workers that the colony is growing, that it has a future.  Brood emit pheromones from the moment they hatch for the rest of their life.  The general scent they emit tells the colony that there are open brood.  This scent is an anchor which will draw the nurse bees to the brood and keep them there.  Only Africanized Honeybees abandon brood.

The brood also emit another pheromone that tells the workers which sex the developing larva is.  In a healthy colony a lack of drone brood will drive workers to produce drone cells.  In a laying worker colony the scent is everywhere, but the worker scent is missing.

As noted, all female bees share the core organs needed to lay.  A worker has ovaries, though they are tiny and underdeveloped.  She has a stinger with which to lay eggs.  She even has the sperm sac with which she could fertilize the egg.  For all of this the worker is still not a queen.

Queens are raised in special queen cells, which allows them to grow longer abdomens.  Queens are fed a thousand times or more as larva.  Queens take a mating flight, allowing them to fertilize eggs.  Most importantly, Queens develop solid laying instincts. 

When a hive has a queen and open brood, the brood and queen pheromones suppress the development of a worker’s ovaries.  The workers are kept in check by the scent of brood.  Even if a lone worker were to develop a laying urge her eggs would not be covered with queen scent.  Attendant workers check the eggs to make certain they contain a queen’s marker.  A laying worker cannot cover her egg in this marker, and the workers perform an action called “worker policing” in which eggs that are not a queen’s are devoured.   Hatched brood are another case entirely (open queen cells being an exception).  Once a larva hatches the nurse bees will care for it.  This is true if a larva is a worker, and true if it is the first drone of the season.  It’s unfortunately true if the egg is the thousandth drone in the frame.

As stated before workers can lay only unfertilized eggs.  Unfertilized eggs can develop only into drones.  Drones can’t assist the hive in any way other than to fertilize queens, so the development of a laying worker is a mortal blow to a colony in most cases.  To complicate matters, though E55 was the laying worker focused on, in most laying worker hives multiple workers lay.  Removing a single laying worker won’t resolve the issue.

The final complication on the matter is brood scent.  The drone larva give off a scent that partially satisfies the worker’s desire for brood.  A laying worker colony considers itself queenright, so even if a true queen were offered to the colony they would not accept her.  This leaves the colony in the untenable state of having no new workers, no functioning queen, and an ever rising number of drones.  A laying worker spells the doom of a colony without drastic measures.

The Hive at Home

Every beginning beekeeper, faced with a lack of eggs, immediately suspects a laying worker.  The facts of laying worker development indicate that in most cases this fear is unfounded.  Remember that it takes weeks for a colony that is without a queen to develop laying workers.  Begin by asking yourself some basic questions:

1.        Do I have open brood that are not drones or capped worker brood?  Going back to bee math, capped workers could only be capped for at most eleven days.  That means that eleven days ago there was open brood, and brood pheromone.

2.       What are my other colonies doing?  I recommend at least two for this reason.  If you have no mentor, you won’t know when to expect the bees to cut out brood production, as they so often will during a nectar dearth (like late summer).  The brood cutoff can be sudden and drastic, leaving you worried about a queen who might be in good shape.  Is your other colonie(s) cutting back brood at the same time?  Relax, it’s probably just a natural break in brood rearing.

3.       Did you see supersedure cells within the last month?  If you are monitoring for a laying queen post supersedure, again, check bee math.  Twenty eight days to see the first eggs is not unheard of.  If it hasn’t been a month, wait patiently.  If it has, time for plan B.   Plan B often involves sacrificing a queen.  If you introduce her to a queen right colony she dies.  If there’s no queen the colony dies.  Choices, choices.

4.       Are there swarm cells?  If so, don’t expect brood.

No supersedure cells, the other colonies are doing fine, and there’s no brood here for a month.  You might have a laying worker.  Here are the ways to determine if you have a laying worker.  All methods of identifying a laying worker bee involve inspection, in which the you examine the brood pattern and type to identify if a healthy queen is present, or a potential laying worker. Here is what to look for:


Brood Pattern: Look for empty cells scattered through brood.  Laying workers lay eggs that lack the queen's egg recognition pheromone, meaning that other workers may remove the eggs. This results in a spotty brood pattern, in which empty cells are scattered heavily through capped brood.

Number of Eggs per Cell: Look at the honeycomb cells to see how many eggs are laid in each one. Queen bees will usually lay only a single egg to a cell, but laying workers will lay multiple eggs per cell.  By multiple eggs I mean five or more.  Multiple eggs per cell are not an absolute sign of a laying worker because when a newly mated queen begins laying, she may lay more than one egg per cell.

Egg Position: Egg position in the cell is a good indicator of a laying worker. A Queen bee's abdomen is noticeably longer than a worker, allowing a queen to lay an egg at the bottom of the cell. A Queen bee will usually lay an egg centered in the cell. Workers cannot reach the bottom of normal depth cells, and will lay eggs on the sides of the cell or off center.

Drone Brood in Worker Cells:  Look for hundreds of drones in a area you know held worker brood earlier.  A good indicator is drone brood in worker sized cells. Drones are raised in larger cells than workers. Drone cells are recognizable by their larger size, and when capped Drone cells are capped with blunt pointed caps. Drones in worker cells are a sure sign of a failing queen or laying worker.

Removing a laying worker bee

So you have a laying worker?  The task ahead is difficult.  Laying workers may not appear different from other workers, so don’t waste time hunting for them with your hive tool in hand.  Anyway, in hives where a laying worker develops multiple workers will lay, meaning that killing a worker spotted laying will not resolve the problem.  You’d like to give them a queen, right?  The problem is that they think they have one.  That’s not to say it can’t be done.  Here are a few of the methods you can use.  As always there are more.

Shake out the bees:  In a shake out, you are going to throw all  the bees out of the hive and disband the old hive.  The bees may be allowed to disperse to other hives where they will likely accept the current queen, or you can let the field bees return to the hive location.  To shake out a laying worker hive, put an empty box with lid and floor where the laying worker hive is.  Make sure you are wearing all your equipment – there will be many bees in the air soon.  Carry the colony twenty yards away and open it.  One frame at a time shake all the bees off .  It helps to have a empty box handy to put the frames in and a towel to cover it so the bees cannot return to their old equipment.  When all frames are shaken off brush the bees clinging to the inside of the box off and walk away. The field bees are oriented to the old location and will return.  You may choose to put a frame of open brood and a queen (safe in her cage) in that spot. The theory behind a shakeout is that laying workers are nurse bees who have not taken orientation flights and thus will not find their way back.  Should they make their way to a queenright hive the brood pheromone will aid in suppressing their urge to lay.

Requeen the laying worker hive via Push in Cage: A push in cage is a plastic cage that can be pushed into the wax comb while leaving space for bees to move over the enclosed portion. It prevents bees outside the cage from reaching the queen inside and contains the queen in a small area, reducing her ability to lay. The new queen can lay in the enclosed cells, which usually include capped brood who are ready to emerge. The bees that emerge in the push in cage will accept the queen and care for her. The beekeeper can release the queen from the push in cage later when there is a population of workers who have accepted her.  Using a push in cage is simple – take a frame of emerging brood , identifiable by the bees chewing their way out of their cells and push the cage in to the wax.  Some bees will be killed where the cage punctures their cells but don’t sweat the small losses.  Most push in cages have an door by which to put the queen inside.  Bees that emerge see the new queen and accept her.  She can begin laying in the cells that open up as soon as they are clean, and the fresh worker brood will help suppress the worker’s urge to lay.

Combine the laying worker hive with a queenright hive: Combining a laying worker colony with a queen right hive puts the the workers from the laying worker to use. The danger in combining a laying worker with a queenright hive is that the workers from the laying worker colony might harm the queen from the queen right hive.  Many beekeepers consider this risk unacceptable.  Introducing frames of open brood into the laying worker colony before the combine can increase the odds of a good merger.  Again, brood pheromone helps suppress the urge to lay.  If you see the bees making emergency queen cells the hive is ready to combine (after you remove the emergency cells).  Bees that are making emergency cells may also be willing to accept a new queen, but be wary of introducing a new queen into a colony of bees that are too old to survive until the new brood emerge.