By Clarence Collison, PhD
The presence of laying workers in a colony usually means the colony has been queenless for approximately two weeks. However, laying workers also may be found in normal “queenright” colonies during the swarming season and when the colony is headed by a poor queen. When a colony becomes hopelessly queenless, the ovaries of several workers develop and workers begin to lay unfertilized eggs. Development of workers’ ovaries is believed to be inhibited by the presence of brood, the queen and her pheromones. Colonies with laying workers are recognized easily: only drones are reared in worker-sized cells; there may be anywhere from 5 to 15 eggs per cell; and the eggs of a laying worker are slightly smaller than those of the queen. In addition, laying workers scatter their eggs more randomly over the brood combs, and the eggs are usually on the sides of the cell instead of at the base, where they are placed by a queen. Some of these eggs do not hatch, and many of the drone larvae that do hatch do not survive to maturity in the smaller cells. Drones that do mature are normally undersized. The activities of a laying worker are similar to those of normal workers. They consume pollen and honey as well as forage in the field.
Workers do not mate and, therefore, only have individual reproductive success through the production of viable male off-spring. Laying worker colonies usually decline rapidly in worker population and brood-rearing activities after egg laying and drone production begin, but may produce more than 6000 viable drones before their demise (Page and Metcalf 1984). Most of these males come from eggs that are laid within a few days of the onset of worker oviposition (Page and Erickson 1988).
Page, R.E. and E.E. Erickson 1988. Reproduction by worker honey bees (Apis mellifera). Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 23: 117-126.
Page, R.E. and R.A. Metcalf 1984. A population investment sex ratio for the honey bee (Apis mellifera L.). Amer. Nat. 124: 680-702.