Is Your Queen Nonfunctional

Laying Worker Colony

A phenomenon that is seen most often in the early spring is that of a “laying worker colony.”

In this case, an older queen has become nonfunctional in her egg-laying ability, and worker bees have taken up the job of producing eggs for the colony.

Female worker bees are diploid, having genes both from the queen and a drone with which she mated, and they retain the ability to produce eggs. However, this tendency is suppressed by queen pheromone. Because these workers have never mated, they can only produce haploid eggs that will turn into drones—the male of the species. The process is called “parthenogenesis.” It is a natural form of asexual reproduction in which the growth and development of embryos occur without fertilization by sperm, and it can be found in many different animals and plants. (A familiar example you might observe in your own back yard is aphids: they’re “born pregnant.”)

In honey bees, the laying worker’s abdomen is not long enough to reach the base of a cell, so she will lay eggs on the sides of cells and even on top of pollen. Often, a beekeeper will observe multiple eggs in one cell or 2 to 3 drone larvae developing in a single cell. The colony is doomed if it continues on this imperfect pathway without a queen. The only reliable way to correct the situation is to combine a laying worker colony with a queenright* colony and allow the normal worker bees to kill the laying workers.

*a queenright colony is one in which the queen is healthy, laying eggs, and producing adequate queen pheromone so that the colony is satisfied and not seeking to replace her.

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