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Drone honeybee? He’s just a boy bee, right? He’s the one with a mother, sisters, a grandfather, grand -sons and yet not a father or sons. We all know he is characteristically very good at one specific thing- mating! Some refer to this big eyed, 16 chromosome haploid offspring of mom as nothing more than “Flying Sperm".

But wait! What if this "fly boy" is not the prodigy of mom the queen? What if the 16 chromosomes nature intended he inherit actually came from one of his sisters! Say it isn’t so!

A close look into the goings on within the typical queen-right colony reveals the actions associated with successful colony life. We know that mom, the queen, is responsible for most of the eggs in a normal colony including those that intentionally become drones. She is tasked with this responsibility up until the time that she can no longer adequately perform, which unfortunately does not necessarily stop her activities.

Typical signs of “poor performance” appear when a queen is low on or has no more sperm. A good queen typically lays one egg per cell, in the center of the cell, in a normal brood pattern.

The eggs are laid in cells appropriately sized for either female worker bees or our sperm bearing drone bee. When failing, the egg of the drone is dropped in a cell that is typically too small making the brood look extra knobby and rougher than normal. Patterned brood disappears, multiple eggs per cell appear and chaos ensues when failing.

As fertilized egg-laying unintentionally diminishes and unfertilized egg-laying unintentionally increases a pending crisis begins to develop. Whether poorly mated or simply out of sperm, the queen is unable to lay fertilized eggs. If not immediately corrected, this once successful colony is now doomed.

Who’s making all of those drones? Where are they coming from? Is mom the queen still present? If not, who’s making all of these boys?

No Queen, no fertilized eggs. No fertilized eggs, no worker bee larva. No worker bee larva, no worker bee brood pheromone. No worker bee brood pheromone, No suppression of worker bee ovaries. No suppression of worker bee ovaries = LAYING WORKERS

Drone Rearing Queen or laying workers? Does it really matter which?

Only one of two things can be happening when a hive is producing nothing but drones. Either you have a drone-laying queen or you have a bunch of laying workers, you know, the sisters.

Can we tell the difference and does it really matter? Laying workers happen when a colony is recognized as queenless. At about the three week mark, all brood have emerged so both brood pheromone and queen pheromone are gone. When the pheromones are missing, some workers can become active and produce eggs. Their eggs/offspring will always be drones.

Why? Because, the workers were never mated as queens and aren’t fertile. They lay eggs randomly, in multiples on top of each other and they do not touch the bottom of the cell.They don’t know any better and believe they have the ability to save the colony by laying eggs.

Mixing vs. Cloning?

Unfertilized eggs from sisters only produce clones, thus no genetic diversity.

Now, back to the sisters and their 32 chromosomes. Yes, the sisters have twice as many chromosomes as do the boys! A sperm fertilized egg begets a 32 chromosome diploid female worker bee. Honeybee genetics can be a head scratcher. Unlike humans, honeybees do not aspire to the shared contribution of mothers eggs and fathers sperm resulting in either a boy or a girl. A boy bee is created from an unfertilized egg and so logically contains only ½ of the mothers’ original 32 diploid chromosomes and is referred to as a haploid. When drones are created by mom the queen, genetic diversity is virtually guaranteed by her mating with numerous fathers. When created by sisters, genetic diversity ceases to exist because they have not been mated. Only the 16 chromosomes from the egg are included and no chromosomes from the fathers sperm resulting in each boy drone being essentially identical or clones.


Laying worker- possible solutions:

When a hive has laying workers, it potentially has hundreds or more of them, not just a single laying worker. The smell of the brood pheromone is what suppresses the laying workers instinct to lay eggs. Once worker brood is gone because they have all emerged, the laying workers kick into gear laying eggs just about everywhere. When a hive becomes a laying worker hive, they will not accept a new queen easily because they consider themselves a queen-right colony. 

" You cannot simply requeen a laying worker hive because they will try to kill the new queen."

What can we do when a colony reaches the point of no new worker brood and has only drone brood?

Option 1 of many…

Some people suggest shaking the out bees 100 feet or so away from the hive possibly being an answer. The idea here is the laying workers are the young nurse bees and by shaking them out they won’t find their way home since they have never been out of the hive. This may or may not work because the original problem hasn’t been solved-the colony still doesn’t have open brood. The workers will kill a new queen before she

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can lay and more workers will take the place of those dumped.

If the colony has been queenless for a long time it is probably small, and aggressive and possibly not worth saving anyway.

Do not boost these colonies by giving them resources from other colonies; it will just weaken a stronger colony to save a hopeless one and create even more laying worker bees. In this case it may be best to simply dismantle the hive shaking all bee on the ground in front of other colonies. Most of the bees find their way in to a new home. Laying workers are mostly kept out because of their high pheromone levels. Any layers that do make it in will have their eggs dumped out because they emit the wrong brood pheromone.

Option 2 - The only way to save the colony is to suppress the laying workers ovaries.

One way we can do this by adding a frame of open worker brood to the hive once every 5 or 6 days for about 3 weeks. It takes a few weeks for workers to become layers so it’s logical that it will take a few weeks for them to revert. Once the colony begins to raise a new queen you can either let the bees raise it or you can introduce a new queen. This method takes a lot of resources away from a strong hive and does not always work. This is really just a slow split. The colony does grow larger but mostly from the introduced bees.

What are you actually saving? It takes 2-3 weeks for workers to develop the ability to lay eggs and this only happens once a colony has been queenless for two weeks. Bees live an average of 6 weeks in the spring so only 1-2 weeks of bees are left at the time you began adding larvae. This is something to think about.

Option 3 - A drone laying colony can also be combined with another queen-right colony, a nuc or hive, to the top using a double screen for separation. Brood pheromone from the new colony will correct the problem and can be left in place or split once fully recovered.

 Option 4 - Another method is switching hive locations with a strong queen-right hive. This hive switch should be done on a sunny day when the outside worker population is foraging. When the foraging bees from the queen right colony return they find a colony that lacks queen pheromone and worker brood pheromone. The workers will restore order in about 48 hours also eliminating many of the laying workers. It’s best to remove excess drone brood by scraping or simply replacing these frames.

Next, we requeen the laying worker-free hive by adding a strong nuc or hive on top using the newspaper method. The nuc should not have an outside entrance.

The only way to exit is through the already cleared hive, but first the bees need to chew through the newspaper barrier. That takes time and happens gradually and the queen pheromone from the nuc will seep into the lower hive. This hive shouldn’t be disturbed for at least five days, otherwise the new queen may be rejected. The original queen-right hive will usually recover without much set back. A strong colony has a large worker population and these bees will soon become foragers and replace the lost ones.

*Opinion - Boys will be boys but genetic diversity begins in our bee yard by minimizing laying workers. It is said that an individual’s success can be measured by the ability to pass along as many copies of its genes as possible. Worker offspring is the last chance a dying colony has to pass along its genetics. This concept can easily be misinterpreted and should not override our goal as beekeepers to support and seek to obtain genetic diversity.

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