A Drone Laying Queen

June 9th, 2010

With the rain and warmer weather, this year has been good for the bees so far.  My hives are really increasing their bee populations now, all except for one.   When I installed the package of bees for the hive I remembered thinking there were a lot of drones (males) in there. I wasn’t too concerned however because I was installing a new queen right along with them. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but it’s now pretty apparent that I have a “drone laying queen.”

I thought at first I had laying workers, where there’s no queen and some of the workers began laying many infertile eggs. But you can tell that pretty clearly from multiple eggs in each cell, which I don’t have. And I have a good-looking queen in there, laying single eggs. Just not fertile ones!

What does that really mean? Simply that the queen bee in this hive is not laying enough fertile eggs that can develop into female worker bees.  She is laying some fertile eggs, but not enough. How does that happen?   Well she could be older or running out of eggs, or if the queen wasn’t fertilized properly on her mating flights. Perhaps it was too rainy or whatever, and then even though she lays eggs and looks strong, many or all of those eggs are infertile and may simply develop into drones (male bees).   Take a look at this picture (click for full-size detail):

Brood Pattern of Drone Laying Queen

It’s not as healthy a brood pattern as you would like to see.   A nice brood pattern is much tighter, and more uniform.  In the picture above there are mostly scattered brood cells, all over the frame.   And see the puffier ones that bulge outwards? Those are the drone cells because drones are bigger bees.  Look at that big drone halfway down and to the left, and compare his size to the workers. This weak pattern existed on several frames in this hive and the queen was just wandering around all over the place.    I think she’s laying both fertile and infertile eggs because there are worker bee cells and larvae in addition to all the drone cells.

Yesterday as I stood at the hive entrance I counted nearly 50% drones entering and leaving the hive right along with the workers. That’s pretty bad… too many drones simply eat all the nectar and honey stores, and don’t contribute anything.  Well they do contribute something… they say it takes at least 12 drones to mate with a queen bee for proper fertilization, so they’re necessary. Just not all the time! Yes, snicker, snicker. But that’s why in Autumn we see the drones being dragged out of the hive because they don’t need to overwinter and eat all the stores inside. The queen bee can always produce more drones when needed.

Obviously for a normal, strong hive you need countless thousands of female workers, or the hive won’t survive (or make any honey!).   Right now my drone-laying queen hive is slowly losing ground, kind of like running in place on a backwards moving treadmill without growing the worker population.

Here’s a frame from one of the strong hives.  See the much tighter pattern of brood?  Just what I like seeing, especially with the honey stores at the outside upper and lower edge of the frame.  The queen in this hive is awesome, and their population has exploded recently.

So how do I fix the problem hive?  Out with the old queen and in with a new one!  Ah, but not as simple as it sounds and there’s many ways to go about it.  I was thinking about shaking out some drone heavy frames and providing a few frames of open brood from a strong hive… with the right pheromones and fertilized brood they should be able raise a new queen.    Should. Or perhaps the hive would raise a new queen themselves, but that might not happen for a long time, or at all before the hive dies out.

A friend suggested starting a new hive or nucleus (smaller) hive with a new queen. After a couple weeks, take the old hive and literally shake out all the bees on the ground a little distance away… workers, drones, queen, everything. Then I install the new queen/nuc frames into the original hive/location, and put a queen excluder on the bottom. Voila! New hive, and all the workers from the old one will come back and join the new one.   But all those lazy honey-eating drones will be stuck outside, along with the old queen.

Sounds like a plan to me… but what do you think? How would you approach it? Isn’t beekeeping fun!

9 Responses to “A Drone Laying Queen”

  1. Ed

    Never done anything this late in the season but when we replaced queens, we always just bought new ones and then squished the existing queen with a hive tool. By the time the worker bees got the “candy” out, everyone was happy and the new queen went to work. Occasionally we couldn’t find the old queen and just put the new queen in hoping that she would be the survivor.

    If buying a new queen is out of the question, I think I would be tempted to just squash the current occupant and seeing what kind of queen they raise from the existing brood cells. We never did the shake out method you described but I don’t see any reason that wouldn’t work.

  2. Your solution is probably ok I think. Personally though, I would find the bad queen and mash her just to be sure. Once they lay comb full of drones, I think it is worthless…when I get your problem, I ditch that comb and let them start over.

    By the way, no offense to Ed, the other commenter, but almost everything he said is bad. This isn’t really late in the season to do stuff. June swarms are definitely viable for winter survival and lots of people (me included) requeen in the fall (i.e Aug) when the queens are fresh going into winter, (potentially) better mated and cheaper, easier to acquire.

    Bees can get the candy out of the boxes in under 6 hours (maybe less…by dumb luck I happened to check on after 6 hours and she was free…that is typically a bad thing to check so soon though)…they will sometimes ball a queen if you mess too soon…I have seen that happen after several days even.

    One should always find the queen or know there isn’t one (i.e. no eggs) because a colony will kill a new queen without the old queen even having to bother in many cases…wasted money.

    Of course, with all drone brood, they can’t raise a new queen so you have to do something…either buy a new queen or at least give them fertilized eggs with which to work…

    Ok, sorry for the rant

  3. Not being a bee rancher, I shall refrain from offering advice or comment on your predicament.
    I shall also refrain from any number of off-color jokes, which came to mind as I read this post.


  4. Let me tell you my situation, Beau. I moved four swarm cells to a new hive with open and closed brood. After awhile, those disappeared and changed over to supersedure cells — so it appeared that maybe a queen hatched and was still virgin and the bees decided to start over. After awhile, the supersedure cells disappeared and I waited for a couple weeks, thinking that the queen would leave, mate, then come back and go to work. After deciding that two weeks was sufficient, I looked for eggs — and I found some — two and three per cell. So now I had a laying worker. All we could figure out was that the queen left and never came back for whatever reason and one of the worker’s ovaries kicked in. It was the damndest situation. So I took the hive way across the yard and shook every bee from every frame, then put it all back together (I had what looked like a swarm waiting for me on the stand when I got back with the hive) — then I introduced a new queen in her cage. Five days later she was out and alive and laying eggs. She’s still new so I’m waiting to see how she is going to do but so far, so good. I’m not telling you what to do but just giving you an idea of what worked for me. Good luck, my friend!

  5. I really appreciate everyone’s thoughts. As you can see, there are countless approaches to doing things in the beekeeping world. And it’s both art and science… But garnering various opinions and experiences is very worthwhile, so thanks!
    Ed- Thought about it, but I was concerned w/ putting a new queen in there if they might just kill her. That’s why I was thinking about frames of fertilized brood, after getting rid of the old queen to see what they would raise as you mentioned.
    Warren- Hey I appreciate your take as well. Good point about drone comb being an issue as well- I had not thought about that. The queens I’ve introduced took 2-3 days to be released from their cages, but 6 hours is incredible. I’ll find the old queen and get rid of her before starting the new… I do plan to do at least two splits this year before mid-summer so we’ll see how it goes!
    Randall- I think you could indeed craft several worthy responses… bee rancher, I like that. :)
    Mark- Goodness that must have been frustrating- I followed some of that on your site, but I thought you were talking about different hives! I like how you approached it however… and I’ll probably pursue the shakeout method as well.

  6. Ed

    No offence taken Warren. It’s been a quarter century since I helped my parents raise 150+ hives of bees so I’m sure a lot has changed. We did all our re-queening in the spring to ensure that the hive would be at its strongest in the winter. But if you’ve done it in the fall with success, I’m guessing anytime in-between works.

    Also, I should have been more specific when I said putting in a new queen without killing the old queen first because we couldn’t find it. We also looked for signs that the old queen wasn’t around/alive before doing so.

  7. Off Topic: I don’t know if you’ve seen the word about Abby Sunderland, the 16 year old trying to do a circumnavigation, but she’s having problems in the southern Indian Ocean. A manual EPIRB and PLB have both been activated after several days of rough weather with multiple knock-downs. Rescue is about 40 hours off.

    Her blog.

  8. R.S.- Thanks; Just looked at it. I’m glad she was found safe (hope she stays that way until rendezvous!), and too bad her mast was broken. I’m sure she would have liked to have finished. Can’t imagine what she’s gone through… Kind of like Everest. Two weeks ago that 13 year old boy climbed and made it down, and a week later an experienced Brit perished on the upper reaches of the mountain…

  9. I feel as though I have dived into a new, unfamiliar and yet wondrous Bee world!

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