July 21, 2022

Laying Workers (083)

If you have a colony of honey bees, chances are, at some point, some year, that colony will become queenless. If you do not realize it and the bees are unsuccessful at re-queening themselves, there is a pretty good chance, your colony will end up with...

If you have a colony of honey bees, chances are, at some point, some year, that colony will become queenless. If you do not realize it and the bees are unsuccessful at re-queening themselves, there is a pretty good chance, your colony will end up with laying workers. 

In this episode, Jim and visiting cohost, Jeff Ott from Beekeeping Today Podcast, talk about laying workers. How can you tell if you have laying workers? The first sign many beekeepers recognize is the appearance of multiple eggs in a single cell. Not only are there multiple eggs, but they are not centered in the bottom of the cell, and haphazardly laid. There are other signs too, that are discussed in this episode. 

Also discussed are the options you can take as a beekeeper and what you can expect for the future of that colony.

Laying workers is a tough management challenge for a beekeeper with no easy solution. Listen today as we discuss the problem and the management approaches you can consider. 

Watch a special Honey Bee Obscura VideoMoment on YouTube about Laying Workers, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0QWZ2Ob3tM

We hope you enjoyed today's episode. Please follow or subscribe today and leave a comment. We'd love to hear from you!


Thanks to Betterbee for sponsoring today's episode. Betterbee’s mission is to support every beekeeper with excellent customer BetterBeeservice, continued education and quality equipment. From their colorful and informative catalog to their support of beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast series, Betterbee truly is Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers. See for yourself at www.betterbee.com


Honey Bee Obscura is brought to you by Growing Planet Media, LLC, the home of Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, Walking in Paris by Studio Le Bus, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

Copyright © 2022 by Growing Planet Media, LLC


Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 83 – Laying Workers


Jim Tew: Honey Bee Obscura Podcast listeners this weekend, I was at a Bee meeting where I had a young, new beekeeper talk to me at length about laying workers. What a timely topic. Jeff, what's your situation? What's your concept of laying workers?

Jeff Ott: Laying workers is a challenge that I've faced. I think every beekeeper has faced whether they know it or not. It's a hard one to overcome. I'm glad we're talking about it.

Jim: It is. I'm Jim Tew.

Jeff: I'm Jeff Ott from Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Jim: We're coming to you today again on Honey Bee Obscura where we'd like to discuss the topic of laying workers and some idea of what, if anything, can be done about them.

Introduction: You are listening to Honey Bee Obscura, brought to you by Growing Planet Media, the folks behind Beekeeping Today Podcast. Each week on Honey Bee Obscura, hosts Kim Flottum and Jim Tew explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honeybees in today's world. Get ready for an engaging discussion to delight and inform all beekeepers. If you're a long-timer or just starting out, sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honeybees,

Jeff: Jim, I'm glad we're talking about this today. Can you explain to our listeners, what is a laying worker?

Jim: Well, as best I can, I'll draw in the air here, but basically if you see eggs, multiple eggs in a cell, that's a dead giveaway that probably 90% of the time you've got a queen problem. If those eggs are stuck on the walls of the cells, if the colony is not thriving and many other ways, spotty, brood patterns, lethargic, rundown, they got little nubby, undersized, adult drones, and you got drone cells coming out, this is not a good situation, Jeff, not a good situation.

Jeff: Yes. If you have little ready drones running around, you've had that problem for a while.

Jim: By the time you see that, this colony is dead, it just hasn't finished dying.

Jeff: Let's not get to that point yet.

Jim: Okay. All right. I do want to go back to what I said, because I was very conscientious about saying 90% of the time you've got laying workers, because there is a little 10% thing that I need to put out there. If you've just put a brand new queen and a colony and maybe a split or a nuc that you've made, sometimes that queen is so pumped up, so ready, so turbocharged that for the first day or two or three, she will put multiple eggs per cell until the house bees, the nurse bees can catch up with the productivity of this new queen. That only happens if you've got a new queen in place.

Jeff: Yes. That's a great point, and especially for those any new queen, whether it's from a breeder or from a swarm. I think that's a good point to keep in mind that there is that chance that you'll get that double egg syndrome.

Jim: Yes. In general, if you see this what I've described, you've got a situation. Now, the reason I wanted to talk to you and to the listeners is that it was painful to talk to this young beekeeper that last Saturday, because I have said it in articles boldly that we're beekeepers, we're not bee killers. This young man wanted to do whatever it took to turn this laying worker colony around, and, Jeff, he had already invested $32 on a queen and had installed her. He was asking me if he should punch a hole through the candy plug to release her sooner. I wanted to say no, put the cork back out and get that queen out of there, but that's not what he wanted to hear. He wanted to be reassured that he had done the right thing.

Jeff: What I want to know, Jim, is where did he find a $35 queen? That sounds like a pretty good deal.

Jim: Well, actually it does. It was out of--

Jeff: Didn't you get the address of that?

Jim: Don't lure me off the subject, Jeff, because I used to pay a buck and a quarter for queens and nobody wants to hear about some old guy paying a nickel for a Coke and a buck and a quarter for a queen. Knock it off with the old man stuff. I don't know where he gets those queens. They're late in the season. He said that two of the nurse bees were already dead of the five nurse bees in the cage.

I think this queen he bought had been banked probably several months already. None of that has any bearing on anything, but, Jeff, he did tell me this and I want us to put this out there over and over again. It's in the literature and I don't think we'll ever get it out. Podcast listeners, you can't take a laying worker colony, move it off at stand 50, 60 yards away, shake the bees out and then go put that colony back on the original stand thinking that you've left the laying workers out in the bush, the laying workers were back at that stand far faster than you were.

He had done that. He pridefully explained that he had taken it off and he had moved it away. I hope he doesn't listen to this podcast because it really was an educational experience for me, he had done all the right things, but all the right things and the old literature is wrong. Those workers will take foraging flights. They go collect water. They do whatever. They act like workers that can lay eggs. When they're back and they have enough nutrient, apparently they will deposit an egg or two, you have more than one.

There is something called a pseudo queen where a laying worker carries herself like a queen and can actually have a small written new formed around her. Let me tell you, Jeff, I only find that in beekeeping urban legends, I have never seen that one time, but yet, if you really delve into the laying worker world, you'll find this concept of a pseudo queen, but I got to tell you that's rare or not existent. Back to my point, moving those bees away and off of the stand and shaking the bees out does not leave the laying workers out in the field. If you go back and look a bit later, all those bees are gone. They're back on the hive stand. He had done that.

Jim: Yes.

Jeff: This is where you tell me that you've done this in the past.

Jeff: Well, I have and I've ended up with the same results. It's just--

Jim: There's nothing wrong. Honestly, here's brutal truth. Years ago, I did that because the books said to do it.

Jeff: Absolutely.

Jim: Even though you put it in articles and even though the newer books have these corrections in it, that recommendation I think will live in the beekeeping literature indefinitely.

Jeff: On that note, should there be a listener out there who's actually done this and have it succeed? Let us know. I'd really like to hear a successful story of this actually working.

Jim: Well, they're coming. You know when you ask for that, they're going to be coming because it's beekeeping. The only thing you can't do, for sure, in beekeeping, I've never figured out how to keep bees underwater, but everything else in beekeeping is possible. I've had people tell me, "Dr. Tew, I just heard you give this laying worker talk and you need to know that I had laying workers in a colony that was in two deeps and two supers of honey. There were thousands of bees in there and I put a new queen in and they took it and it all turned around." I don't argue. I can't argue. I have no basis for argument. Beekeeping mistakes, beekeeping failures, colony failures are not standard things. Everyone have their own unique categories.

Jeff: I wonder if it has to do with the length of time that the colony is without a real queen.

Jim: I'm guessing you didn't ask me to guess. I don't know for sure, but yes, I I'm thinking that the longer the colony is queenless, the more dire it situation becomes.

Jeff: Therefore, our original comment that if you see little ready drones running around, the colonies dead and doesn't even know it.

Jim: I agree with that. I have, and some of the articles I've written in the past on laying workers where I've took a step way beyond any science that I had to support it. Could I say argumentatively that those drones, that those desperate laying workers produce is the final genetic dying gasp of that colony to leave some mark in the gene pool? I mean it's a remote chance, but it's a chance. I mean the bee knows, that colony knows in its own survival way that it's done. It's not going to survive the winter. It's not going to procreate and swarm next year. Is this putting a message in a bottle on a deserted island that maybe somebody will find it and send help kind of thing? Is there any survival value in laying workers doing this just before they die?

Jeff: That's a question for greater minds than mine. That's for sure.


Let's talk. That sounds like a cosmic question. We have those two different symptoms. I'm not sure if I've ever read any other symptoms that you could look for that are a sure telltale sign.

Jim: This is conversation, Jeff. This is not lecture. This is strictly a conversation. There's a demeanor about the colony. The colony is defeated. The colony is not thriving and the colony on either side of it, it's just got bees coming and going and pollen loads coming in. Here, this colony that I'm worried about, it's just not thriving. Before I ever open that colony up, I'm suspicious. Then when I begin to go into it, there's no bees rowing out to meet me. There's no bees balling over the edge. They're lethargic. There's not a population there. That just confirms my suspicion to this point.

Then when you pull that first frame out, I'm expecting to see those attributes because I've already been forewarned that something's not right here. Add that to the whole list. There is a demeanor. In fact, don't get off the subject, Jim, but the whole personality of the yard changes over the season. My yard today in the middle of July, doesn't have the same personality that my yard had in the springtime when the bees were just eager beavers to go out and forage and just swarming in the air and humming and bird singing and blue skies and apple blooming.

Now, it's July and it's hot and dry, and the bees are lethargic. I think they're probably robbing each other and they're testy and they're more stingy than they were. Same bees, different personality. This lay worker thing, same bees as the neighbors on either side, but a different personality. Jeff, why don't we take a break and hear from our sponsor?


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Jim: I've also made the comment several times. I think I may have made it in this podcast that we're beekeepers. We don't like letting our bees go. We don't like having them die. It's nothing about that. These people want to save these bees. They want to turn them around, but I have to ask the question, what are we really doing for the colony that you're combining these laying workers with if that in fact is going to be your solution? We're not doing the better colony much of a favor, giving them these rundown, depleted and nutritionally-deprived bees with all these runt-size drones.

Really, Jeff, could I say this without having somebody just eat me alive? I think what we're doing when we combine those laying worker weakened colonies with colonies that don't have a particular need for more space, I think what we're doing is just having the better colony clean that mess up, clean up those eggs, get that out, destroy those, that haploid, tiny drone larva that's there, kick out those undersized drones and then importantly, keep the wax moth away. Really, I think if y'all look at the bright light of reality, what I hope to accomplish when I combine a colony is to get my equipment back. Argue with me on that, right or wrong.

Jeff: I have to agree with you. The value that the laying worker colony provides the "healthy colony" is zero. There is no value-add there. In fact, like you mentioned, the healthy colony is just cleaning up the mess of the laying worker. Yes, the beekeeper has a choice. They can combine the colonies and try to save the few viable workers that will survive the combination and get the work. Then, like you said, the foundation and the rest of the waxwork for future bees, but there's no value in doing that. There's not much option there.

Jim: Right. This whole thing is distasteful, isn't it?

Jeff: [laughs] Yes, this is a--

Jim: It was a split that didn't work. It was a swarm that didn't work. It was a colony hit by pesticides that died, had a hard hit. This colony is just not going to be here next year, and that's a distasteful thing for a beekeeper to have to deal with. The last question I want to bring up is by a new beekeeper. He's been keeping bees four weeks and he thinks that one of the splits that he bought, one of the nucs that he bought is queenless. How long before he develops laying workers in that colony? I just hate that question because everything's a variable.

How much open brewed did the nuc have when he bought it? What was the adult population? What was the age of the bees? Were they mostly nurse bees when he brought those bees home? Everything is a variable, but in general, you can probably develop laying workers anywhere inside of three to five days on the short side, up to maybe two weeks on the long side, before you really see the signs of laying workers.

Jeff: In many cases, I think that we don't notice it, or maybe I should speak for myself. I know that it will take me several weeks before I notice that I have a laying worker situation. Often, I will hope against hope and wait a little bit longer before I try to do something. I never know really quite the right thing to do because it's-- I know ultimately nothing will work.

Jim: There's always that hope that, "Yep, boy, you're not right. You just try to do what's least wrong in this situation.

Jeff: [chuckles] Let's have it.

Jim: Now that I'm depressed, we ought to wind this down and leave on a sad note here, but you can't go shake the laying workers out. You can't really put a new queen in. You're not really doing a lot for the colony that you combined it with if you combined-- You can go shake them out and just let them die on the grass, let them roam around, let them do whatever. That's distasteful, distasteful. There really are no happy options to a colony that didn't thrive. Cut your losses, get your equipment back and try it again.

Jeff: One thing I've never tried and I should is just a frame of eggs and/or a frame with a swarm cell or a queen cell in it or two is, I've not tried that. I don't know whether--

Jim: You can add that to your docket. You can be one of those people who calls in and says that you did that and it worked.


Then you can make the rest of us look bad for just killing our bees off and not trying hard enough.

Jeff: When I'm at that point, I'm usually at the point, I'll try anything. I will. I'll be there. I'll be that one beekeeper trying to make something work other than letting them die because I'm pestimistically optimistic.

Jim: I think you'll pull it off. I think you'll pull it off. We're obviously beekeepers. All right, I'm done. Know this, folks, if you keep bees long enough, you're going to deal with laying workers. It's just a way that a colony finishes its life when it's not thriving.

Jeff: Especially--

Jim: I can't put a bright spin on the goodness of laying workers. I will tell you this and then I want to stop talking, a laying worker colony is a beautiful colony to teach kids about the concept of keeping bees. The bees are defeated. The bees don't sting. There's a lot of drones there. [music] You have almost no fear of the young students being stung. Other than the fact there's no queen and the colony's going to die, it's a great teaching tool.

Jeff: Well, that sounds like a great glass of lemonade you've just made there.

Jim: All right. I can use that. It's a hot summer day. Hey, friend, all the best to you and for everybody who listened and gotten this far along, thank you for hanging in there. I appreciate it very much. Until this time next Thursday when we'll talk about something again just as enthralling. See you next time.

[00:19:32] [END OF AUDIO]