August arrives with lost queens and egg laying workers – is this the end of my colonies?

It’s always the way that everything seems to come along just when you have really limited time, like carrying out last minute hive checks the week before you go away of a family holiday and finding that there is loads to sort out….

Following the artificial swarm earlier in the season I had left the old hive with the new queen well alone to allow her to hatch, mate and start laying eggs. The new hive (with the old queen) was checked and they seemed exceptionally strong as a colony as the bees had drawn out the comb rapidly filling every inch with brood, honey and pollen, all within a matter of days and ‘getting grumpy’ with the lack of space in an 11 frame brood box within a fortnight (note – getting grumpy means they rush out to meet you when you arrive at the hives and all want to get inside your veil to sting!)

When I came to check on the new queens progress I knew I was a little overdue, a combination of bad weather, commuting for work and a young family leaves me on a tight time bee schedule. I was hoping to open the hive and find a beautiful new queen with at least five frames of brood, good pollen stores and plenty of the golden stuff but unfortunately my visit revealed quite the opposite. No queen was found and I can only assume she never returned from her mating flights but even worse there were eggs in the hive but these were randomly laid (in a pepper pot fashion), the eggs were not perfectly placed at the bottom of each cell and there were multiple eggs per cell.

Eggs laid by workers

Multiple eggs in each cell as laid by workers (4 shown in this cell!)

I knew straight away that this was the sign of a beekeepers nightmare – the egg laying worker! With the lack of a queen in the hive the colony slowly dies as there is no regeneration of the workers. In some cases a number of workers will then develop active ovaries and start egg laying, bought on by the lack of queen pheromone that normally suppresses the ovaries of the workers. The workers have not mated and are not fertile and therefore they can only lay drone (male) eggs.

Erratic egg laying

Erratic egg laying with drone brood from an egg laying worker

Deformed worker brood comb to house drone brood

Deformed worker brood comb now being used to house drone brood

Their bodies are not adapted for egg laying and being smaller than the queen they do not reach the bottom of the cells and they do not have the queens methodical approach of laying eggs in cleaned cells together so that they can be tended, there may also be several egg laying workers in one hive.

Lack of time didn’t allow for me to go home, read a book, speak to a bee master or look up the best way to deal with it on google so I made a decision to unite the queen laying worker colony with the very strong artificially swarmed colony using the paper method, in which the queenless colony is placed over the queen right colony with only a sheet of newspaper between them, with a few small tears in it. This allows the bees to chew their way through and merge the colony with minimal loses due to fighting and the resident queen takes control of the whole colony.

Uniting colonies using the 'paper method'

Uniting colonies using the 'paper method'

Feeling quite pleased with myself I rang my friend Paul who pointed out that this was the one thing that the books recommend not to do and a egg laying worker in a colony is really a lost cause, I checked and he was right – it now looked like I may lose both colonies instead of just the one but it was now to late to change anything – it was done!!!

After returning from my holiday I attended the hives for a routine check, now expecting the worst but was very happy to find that against all the odds the old queen, artificially swarmed into a new hive back in June had seen off her ‘laying worker rivals’ and was heading a very strong colony with a large brood area and good stores. I am happy that this colony when treated will be strong enough to pull through the winter months ahead.

brood boxes united with queenless colony on top

Brood boxes united with queenless colony on top

United colony

two colonies united together

Checking my other hives I discovered that another colony that had been in shutdown conditions whilst the new queen hatched, mated and started laying was also queenless but here there were no laying workers and a new buckfast cross mated queen has been ordered from Paynes bee farm for introduction into the colony this weekend. The hive had swarmed back in early July but the old hive had not been checked in order no to damage the queen cells, but on the recent inspection there were no ‘used’ queen cells found so I can only assume that the queen fled without leaving a new queen behind – possibly due to weather conditions or hive conditions, guess I will never know but again I am hoping that this has been spotted early enough to remedy and save the colony.

A busy week lays ahead with a new queen to be established, final honey extractions from all hives, the application of varroa treatment and starting to feed sugar syrup back to the bees …. lets just hope that the rain clears long enough to get into the hives.

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