Drone laying workers

Chronically queenless, and hence broodless, colonies can develop egg laying workers . Since these workers are unmated the eggs are haploid so develop into drones, therefore explaining the usual term ‘drone laying workers‘ (DLW). Without intervention these colonies are doomed and can be problematic to deal with, particularly if you only have one or two hives. It’s not the absence of the queen but the absence of open brood that allows the development of DLW’s. This is because pheromones produced by open brood usually suppress the egg-laying activity by workers. For a variety of reasons – lousy conditions for queen mating, failed colony uniting, balled queens, dodgy record keeping – I’ve had several colonies developing DLW’s this season so have (unfortunately) had to investigate ways to deal with them effectively.

Diagnosing drone laying workers

The two characteristic symptoms are spotty drone brood appearing in worker cells and multiple poorly placed eggs in individual cells.

The brood pattern is spotty because, unlike a drone laying queen (DLQ), there are usually multiple laying workers in the colony, each laying at random. This contrasts to the clustered brood pattern seen with a DLQ. Secondly, eggs laid by DLW’s are often located on the sides or edges of the bottom of the cell, rather than centrally. In addition, DLW’s often lay multiple eggs per cell and you can sometimes even see 2-3 young larvae developing together. Not shown in the photograph, but also characteristic of DLW’s (and shown nicely in a photograph here), is eggs laid on top of pollen already stored in the cell.

Recommended solutions for drone laying workers

The key point about a colony with DLW’s is that they ‘think’ they’re queenright. If you add a frame of eggs and young larvae they may well not raise queen cells. Therefore the usual test for queenlessness – queen cells generated from young larvae – gives misleading results. If you add a mated queen they are likely to kill her. If you unite the colony with a weak queenright colony – such as a small nuc – they may well again kill the queen. This makes ‘curing’ a colony with DLW’s problematic, particularly if you have only one or two hives.

If you have many colonies, don’t need and don’t want the bother of trying to ‘save’ the DLW’s then the solution is simple … move the hive from it’s original location, shake out all the bees in front of other strong colonies, distribute the frames to other colonies in the apiary and go and get a cuppa. Job done.

But I’ve only got two colonies …

However, I suspect many readers don’t want to reduce their colony numbers in this way and would like to consider alternative solutions. You’ll find a range of ‘fixes’ in books and online, including:

  • unite the colony with another
  • add a frame of open brood every few days until they start generating queen cells
  • shake the bees out some distance away and requeen those that return to the original site

Of course, the first of these still reduces your hive count (!). However, you can certainly unite with a strong nuc successfully. I’ve used this method, but am only really confident if the queenright colony is good and strong.

Adding a frame of open brood effectively adds the brood pheremone that suppresses ovary development and egg laying by DLW’s. You can tell when it works because the colony will attempt to raise queen cells i.e. they now consider themselves queenless and are trying to fix things. At this point you should be able to requeen them if you can get your hands on a spare queen. Alternatively, let them raise their own if the weather permits. However, adding frames of open brood is expensive in valuable resources – if you only have a couple of colonies you might rescue the DLW colony, but you definitely will weaken your other colony. Remember that strong colonies collect more nectar, overwinter better and build up faster in Spring … despite the maxim that two colonies are better than one, at many times of the season you’re better off having one strong colony rather than two weak ones.

Finally, what about moving the colony away, shaking them out and requeening the workers that return? The principle here seems to be that the DLW’s will not or cannot return to the hive. Therefore shaking them out reduces the DLW’s either because they are younger bees that have yet to go on orientation flights or older bees that are, for whatever reason, just less able to fly well.

But they can fly …

However, my experience suggests that at least some DLW’s are able to fly perfectly well. The image of the eggs right above was taken three days after shaking out a colony ~100 yards (or 91.4 metres in pre-Brexit measurements) away. These eggs were in the middle of a frame of drawn comb with some stores, flanked by frames of foundation. This colony contained a lot of DLW’s (an assumption from the levels of drone brood present in the original hive) some or many of which could clearly fly.

I ended up shaking this colony out and walking away … for a cuppa.

This summer I’ve started using a composite method to ‘rescue’ DLW colonies that seems to get reasonable results. Importantly, it achieves this without excessive delay, without using up multiple frames of open brood and without reducing the colony number. I’ll write something about this next week.

† actually there are usually a few laying workers in every hive … these probably account for the rare single drone pupae developing in the honey supers that are sometimes seen.



15 thoughts on “Drone laying workers

  1. Emily

    I’ve always wondered why drone laying workers wouldn’t be able to fly as well, whether they were weighed down too much by the eggs?! But it seems this may be somewhat of a myth based on your experience, or at least doesn’t apply to all DLWs. Looking forward to reading about your composite method.

    1. David Post author

      Hi Emily
      I need to read up a bit more on DLW’s but have been too busy dealing with DLW’s to do my homework 😉 If they’re only young bees they might be able to fly but won’t have been on orientation flights so won’t know where to fly.

      1. Emily

        Good point. I expect it’s one of those things which is quite hard to study.

  2. calum

    with the shaken method, would not adding a queen excluder to the hive entrance help?

    1. David Post author

      I’m not sure I follow you Calum, what am I missing? I’m reasonably confident that there’s no queen in the hive, the DLW’s are indistinguishable from their half sisters (which we’re trying to separate them from) and the drones will return, but aren’t the problem. Other than causing congestion at the entrance I’m not sure what the QE would achieve.

      1. calum

        yeah you are right, a laying worker should still pass through an excluder, they dont get that fat. Brainfarts sorry.

  3. Pingback: Dealing with DLW's - The Apiarist

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  5. Becca

    To do the shaking of the bees, what is the best time of the day to do so? I was thinking of doing this at 6.30pm as it suits my work schedule sadly and also the hive I want them to go into is in a different location of the main hive and will have to transport it by car.

    1. David Post author

      At this time of year, on a warm evening, that shouldn’t be a problem Becca. My bees are flying late into the evening. My beekeeping has to fit around the pesky inconvenience of full-time employment meaning I do it when I can … which sometimes means inspecting in poor weather or late in the day.

      I’m not sure I understand the comment you make about going to a different location to the main hive though … the bees you shake off will return to the site their hive was from. Perhaps your intention is to allow them to do that and then move the hive to another site?

      Good luck

  6. John

    Looking forward to reading your composite method, used a dlw hive to supplement some 3 frame mating hives by brushing them off the frame a couple of feet from the nucs. All 4 were laying, checked today 3 missing and 1 with a bad leg. Need to find better way to recover these dlws

    1. David Post author

      Hi John
      I covered this ‘composite’ method the following week … essentially I shake out the colony but provide a frame of eggs and open brood on the original site. It worked well last year. I’ve – fortunately – had no cause to use it this year as I’ve yet to have any hives with problematic laying workers. ‘Problematic’ as all hives contain a very low level of laying workers but these are not a problem if the colony is queenright.
      In your situation, 3 frame mating hives (I presume these are full sized frames?) the number of workers is appreciably smaller than a full colony, so the returning/added laying workers probably just swamped the ‘locals’. If they were mini-nucs (many of which contain 3 frames) then that applies to an even greater extent.

      1. John

        Yes these were full sized frames, I use the snelgrove board and these were extras. Have lost a few VQ this year and was a little late reacting, had a few issues. I’ll try that idea thanks.
        As an aside had 6 apideas only 1 has a laying queen

        1. David Post author

          If it’s 1 of 6 because the virgin has simply gone AWOL on a mating flight then that’s just terrible luck. However, mini-nucs are difficult to maintain – they starve in the cold, abscond in the heat, get overcrowded, are robbed etc. A good source of information is Jon Getty via the SBAi forums (link on the right somewhere … search for posts by ‘Jon’). I’ve not written much about them but perhaps should. Pressure of work means that most of my queen rearing in the last year or two is via splits of one form or another, with mating in full-sized nucs. These are undoubtedly easier to manage, but require much more resources. I actually think that managing mini-nucs (at least in a challenging year) is the most difficult part of the grafting/cell raising/queen mating procedures …

  7. John

    Yes these were full sized frames, I use the snelgrove board and these were extras. Have lost a few VQ this year and was a little late reacting, had a few issues. I’ll try that idea thanks.
    As an aside had 6 apideas only 1 has a laying queen

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