Identifying & fixing drone layers
Drone layers are extremely annoying. Not only are they a waste of a good hive, but they are very difficult to fix. Right off the bat, I want to communicate that even with hard work, and trying multiple methods, I’ve only ever been able to save drone laying hives about 50% of the time at best. I typically recommend not even attempting to save drone laying hives because of this. At the very least, don’t try to save a drone layer unless it’s at least 5 frames of bees and you are at least a few months away from winter.
Identifying a Drone Laying Hive
First, you need to be able to identify the cause of a drone laying hive. One of two things could be happening.
- Your hive could have lost its queen, and the bees failed to raise a new queen. Eventually, without a queen, multiple worker bees (who are undeveloped females) will begin to lay unfertilized eggs which will develop into a “haploid drone”. Basically a drone that can’t even mate properly with a future queen. The drone brood tends to be scattered throughout the hive, and the big giveaway is there will be multiple (4-12+) eggs per cell, often stuck to the sides and floor of the cell.
- Alternatively, you could have a queen that has completely failed & run out of sperm, or more likely, a virgin queen that never mated at all, and is now laying unfertilized eggs. When this happens, there is often only 1 egg per cell, and the pattern is much more compact in the hive, as would be the case with normal brood. But, the brood is oversized and bumpy as the bees widen worker bee cells to fit drones.
In both cases, as noted above, the brood will be very raised and bumpy as the bees work to enlarge worker sized cells to accommodate the larger developing drone brood. See the picture below.
Killing a Drone Laying Hive & Saving the Comb
Ok, you’ve identified a drone laying hive, and decided not to bother trying to save it, either because it’s less than 4-5 frames of bees, getting close to winter thus lowering their odds of rebounding in time, or you just don’t like the odds, and don’t want to potentially waste the money on a new queen. What next? You’ve got a hive full of bees, honey, and distorted comb.
I don’t want to join that mess with another hive, yet I do want to try to save the comb for use next year. Here is what I recommend:
- Smoke the hive well, and shake all the bees out at least 20 feet from any other hive. Some of the bees will eventually drift to other hives, but theoretically, they won’t let the drone laying virgin or bees in if they make it to the other hives at all.
- The frames of honey, pollen and comb you can give to other hives, or store in your freezer or with wax moth crystals (See “Storing Supers of Honey”) for use next year. The frames of drone brood present a bit more of an issue. If they are more than half full of drone brood, I usually just throw them away. However, if the drone brood is sparse and not compact, you can freeze the frames to kill the drone brood, then put them on a hive next spring and they typically clean them up.
If you do want to save a drone laying hive, especially if you catch it early and it’s hive with a lot of bees, then here is the best way I’ve found to do so:
- Identify if it is workers laying, or a virgin/failed queen. If it’s the latter, attempt to find and kill the queen. If you do find & kill her, skip to step d.
- Assuming no queen is found, shake all the bees out of the hive about 20 feet away.
- Return the hive and frames back to their original location.
- Remove the frames that are completely covered with drone brood. See above for what to do with them.
- Replace the removed drone brood frames with new or used frames. Place them on the outside edges rather than in the middle of the hive.
- Take 1 frame of brood from a stronger hive, and put it in the center of the hive.
- Put a caged queen in the hive (See “Installing a Queen”) Check back about 7 days later to see if the new queen is out and laying. If so, success! If not, and the bees are actively raising queen cells on the brood you placed in the hive (See “Queen cells vs queen cups”) you can let them attempt to raise their own queen. If that fails, then it is time to shake out the bees and save the comb for next year.