Plain Talk Beekeeping: The Basics … and then some

Bungled Queens and Laying Workers

- October 1, 2022 - James E. Tew - (excerpt)

A failed colony’s last gasp

This is how this laying worker story started

Earlier this summer, I was under a tent at a rainy outdoor field day where I had just given a general spring/summer presentation that essentially required me to shout at my audience for about fifty minutes. Afterwards, a couple of new beekeepers spontaneously and aggressively quizzed me.

Of the two, one (#1) had kept bees for two years while the other of the pair (#2) had kept bees for exactly four weeks. The first beekeeper (#1) seemed certain that one of his two colonies had laying workers, while the #2 beekeeper was still struggling to see eggs in either one of his two nucleus colonies that he had only recently purchased. Both of these beekeepers feared they had colonies with laying workers.

The #2 beekeeper was rightfully concerned about laying workers, and he told me several times that he could see honey — or something shiny — in the bottoms of the cells but he had seen nothing that he could say — conclusively — was eggs. The first beekeeper was certain he was seeing multiple eggs — essentially everywhere — in the brood nest. Are you confused? I certainly was.

Where to go from this muddled point

For those of us who are new to this craft, this confusion will seem discouragingly familiar, while those of us who have already been through lost queens and laying workers will be more comfortable with the confusion and indecision.

I ask you, at this point in this spontaneous discussion that I was having with these two new beekeepers, should I have gone backwards to where the problems began, or should I simply move forward from this point? Either directional path has merit.

I realized that Beekeeper #2, the one who had kept bees for only four weeks, was most likely seeing royal jelly that was pooled in the bottoms of the brood cells. That is all that would glisten in the cell bottoms in the brood nest area. While he was not seeing eggs, he was seeing young larvae. That was good enough.1 Ironically, the bees belonging to the newer of the two beekeepers were most likely in better shape. At this point, Beekeeper #2 exited this story and moved out of the picture. His bees were okay — for the moment. But, unfortunately, Beekeeper #1 had a colony that was in dire trouble.

A possible sequence of bee management events

After talking — at length — with Beekeeper #1, I formed the following list of probable events that could have resulted in his colony’s laying worker situation. Other sequences could be devised, but this list seemed most plausible.

What happened to Beekeeper #1’s bees?

  1. Last fall, (2021), Beekeeper #1’s bees were well prepared for the cold season, allowing the colony to survive winter.
  2. In the spring of this year (May 2022), the colony in question built up nicely and then swarmed.
  3. The swarm, headed by the old queen, escaped and is no longer a part of this story.
  4. The parent colony was not successful in replacing the queen that left with the swarm. We don’t know why. After failing to produce a fertile queen, no young brood remained in the queenless parent colony that was suitable for nurse bees to develop into a queen.
  5. After being queenless for several weeks (June 2022), and without fertile queen pheromones being present to suppress worker ovaries, a few laying workers developed in the colony.
  6. The well-read, new beekeeper correctly diagnosed laying workers and began installing a new caged queen.
  7. Workers in the weakened colony did not aggressively release the queen through the candy plug in the cage. Consequently, after about a week, the replacement queen remained confined.
  8. During that time, the laying worker population probably increased. The young beekeeper was aware the queen had not been released and was rightfully concerned about that, too.
  9. The new beekeeper, with two colonies, one with laying workers and a caged $35 queen, went to this beekeeping field day meeting to ask for advice from experienced beekeepers.
  10. He was clear on one vital point — he wanted to save his laying worker colony.

There is no right answer in this instance

The weakened queenless colony was most certainly going to die. There is no best answer for dealing with laying workers. This situation is an instance where the strategy that is the least wrong is the best strategy. We have all heard the old beekeeping adage — Ask five beekeepers a colony management question and you will get five different answers. This is one of those situations. Other experienced beekeepers will read 1-10 above and improvise a different approach to mine. I don’t mind that.

That day, being tired from standing, shouting, and lecturing “on the fly,” I formulated the plan and suggestions that I have described below. Other plans could have been suggested, but at that instant, I needed to offer a practical recommendation. Whether or not the young beekeeper heeded my suggestions was a decision he would have to make.

Don’t ransack the good colony

In the opening paragraphs above, I wrote that the #1 beekeeper with the laying worker colony had two colonies. To this point, I have not given his healthy colony any consideration. As the conversation unfolded, the beekeeper asked if he should take frames of brood and honey stores from the good colony to subsidize the afflicted colony.

Normally, I would have immediately said, “No.” Don’t tinker with the good colony and unintentionally cause it to develop problems of its own. Readers, at this point in my conversation with the young beekeeper, everything was a variable. If the beekeeper had managed more than two colonies — maybe a different approach could have been taken.

A common beekeeping philosophy that I generally support is to leave the good colonies untouched. Whatever survival pathways that the good colonies have taken have worked well. Don’t diminish those good colonies trying to help the colonies that had poor outcomes.

Good colonies, Okay colonies, and Needy colonies

For beekeepers who have more than two colonies, their colonies could be triaged into three groups, Good, Okay, and Needy. The Good colonies would be removed from the consideration mix. The Okay and Needy colonies could then be used to combine or subsidize brood and stores to make reduced numbers of “improved” colonies.

But the beekeeper in this story only had two colonies. Typical triage decisions would not work in this instance. So, I said to leave the good colony alone and only work with the sickly colony — though, without outside resources, precious little could be done to help that weakened colony.

The caged queen

I admit that I was floored that he had already purchased a queen and after removing the cork plug on the candy end, had put the queen in the needy colony. Oh, my!? Laying worker colonies are notoriously difficult to requeen. Plus, he paid thirty-five dollars for this queen. This situation was growing increasingly complex.

Information from some of the established literature indicates that the failing colony incorrectly assumes that it has a queen — in the form of these infertile workers. Some beekeepers lament the fact that the offending workers cannot visually be identified as the haploid-egg-producing culprits. They feel that if the offending workers could be removed from the colony, the remaining workers could then be requeened. You see, at junctures like this, different management opinions arise.

The caged queen situation worsened

As I was quickly trying to accept the realization that he had put a purchased queen in what was probably a hopeless colony, he said that of the five attendant workers, three were already dead in the cage before he put the queen in the laying worker colony.

The death of those attendants could indicate that this caged queen had been grown several months previously and had been banked (i.e., stored) in an active bee colony until the time of her sale. If not handled correctly, the candy plug can begin to harden and be difficult for the attendant bees to eat. I did not know how long this queen had already been caged. Not knowing the history of this caged queen, I became concerned for her survival welfare, as well.

The reduced worker bee population in the deprived colony had not aggressively released the queen. The caged queen could still easily be removed from the dying colony. When I suggested that he might want to reconsider this plan and get the caged queen out of that hostile environment, he said that he wanted to turn this colony around and get it back to good health. So, she would stay there and face her fate.

I suppose I was not surprised. That is not an uncommon beekeeper emotion. I still feel it when I find a laying worker colony in my apiary. Who of us who keep bees want to oversee the demise of a colony?

He shook the bees out

ABJ readers, in the beekeeping literature there are numerous accepted instances where beekeeping lore supports long-held beliefs that have been scientifically shown to be untrue. Yet, these beekeeping legends survive even today in both written and oral formats.

It is in the old literature that tanging (beating metal pieces together) brings down a swarm. No, it doesn’t, but it is so very easy to find beekeepers who say that it does. Another story is that some bees are  …