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Is That a Laying Worker I See?

For those of you who enjoyed reading the New Queen with Capped Queen Cells article… well, here’s another anomaly for you.

Dave and I were placing escape boards on the hives in preparation for a harvest and extraction the following day. All went well until I came across a super that had solid drone cells. When I say solid, I mean EVERY cell on the frame was capped drone. And not just one frame. Almost a whole super full of it.

This was at a time when we were building up our hive numbers so seeing evidence of laying workers was certainly not a pleasant sight to see. We’ve had laying workers in our hives before. They are not fun. In fact they are a right pain in the butt. We’ve rarely had much success in either shaking off all the bees a distance from the hive, or requeening them.

Drone wasteland

I didn’t mention earlier that there was a thick layer of dead drones on top of the queen excluder (most of them decapitated). I wasn’t about to waste the next batch of boys by removing the frames completely. This hive had one of my best queens in (a Rottnest daughter) so having her drones around wasn’t a bad thing.

So I took the supers into the middle of the paddock and shook all those bees off, hoping to shake free any laying workers. I then brought them back to the hive and set them aside in order to inspect the brood box.

What did I see down below? Our Rottnest daughter happily going about her business. Eggs, larvae, and capped brood all present in the brood box. So why did I have laying workers up top if I had a fit, healthy and young queen down below? Figured I’d sit on that one for a while and maybe put it out on the forums.

So having seen the queen, I placed the super with all the capped drone under the queen excluder. This would allow the drones to leave the hive without being trapped above the excluder once they had emerged. I then placed the honey supers back on (with the escape board in preparation for the harvest) and closed up the hive. Time to think…

Social media to the rescue

Here’s where I say that social media has its benefits. There were many suggestions that were offered up that certainly made sense. But then a queen breeder contacted me directly and suggested that perhaps I had an unmated queen in the super. We had probably rotated a brood frame up above the excluder that had eggs on it and the bees decided to raise a queen up there. Given that she was above the excluder she had no way of leaving the hive and going on a mating flight. So she was unable to fertilise the eggs. Resulting in drone brood. That made sense given that laying worker (drone) brood tends to be spotty and random. Whereas this brood was solid. So I settled for that scenario.

Suspicion confirmed

A few months later I came across the same scenario again. Drone brood up above the excluder. Lots of dead drone on top of excluder. Rottnest daughter with healthy brood below the excluder. Different hive. What are the odds? So I decided to look for a virgin queen in the super. What did I find? A virgin queen! She was small but healthy. Definitely a queen though.

A lightbulb moment

Breeders spend a lot of time and effort producing drones to mate with their virgin queens. It would be an interesting trial to set up hives with unmated queens whose sole purpose is to produce drones for the mating yards. Judging from the number of drones my two virgins were laying the mating yards would be absolutely pumping with selective drones genetics.

But then there are the logistical issues, starting with ensuring there are enough stores to support the hive as well as providing donor nurse bees to tend to the brood. Well and good if you have time to conduct trials. Perhaps one day.

In the meantime, what did I learn from all of this? Don’t go moving frames with eggs too far above the queen excluder. And time to get my eyes checked I think!

Helen Humphreys Passionate Beekeeper Trainer | Mentor | Producer

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