Laying Worker

slide of the stimulated ovaries of laying workers in honey bee colonies

Laying workers lay unfertilized eggs that produce drone brood

Stimulated ovaries of laying workers in honey bee colonies

Here’s the same slide with the context of the gut

When you dissect thousands of bees, like I have, it is important to remember that exploration is the process and discovery is the goal. Pictured below is the stimulated ovaries of a worker that I discovered while performing an autopsy on a honey bee.   In beekeeping terms we would call this a “laying worker”.

During the period of time from queenlessness to colony collapse workers may sometimes begin to lay eggs.    A laying worker occurs when the ovaries of worker bees are stimulated. The ovaries develop allowing her to lay eggs. Normally ovary development in workers is suppressed by the presence of uncapped brood.

Sampling and assessing honey bee hives is another way of turning exploration into discovery… I have seen the chaos that laying workers can create in the hive and know that their presence is in response to the panic felt throughout the hive when a colony goes queenless…

Because worker bees don’t mate, the eggs they lay are unfertilized and all become drones (except in some very rare occasions).  Exploring a frame like the one pictured below may lead to the discovery that there is a laying worker in the hive (Photo courtesy of Dennis vanEngelsdorp).

Laying Worker Drone Brood

Laying workers lay unfertilized eggs that produce drone brood

Further exploration of the frame may also lead you to discover that this laying worker has deposited multiple eggs in a single cell and laid them in all cell sizes (worker and drone).  See

If you were to look even closer you might also notice that the eggs aren’t centered at the bottom of the cell.  This is because the abdomens of laying workers are too short to reach and center the egg to the bottom.

Brood pattern is another visual clue used to identify the absence or presence of a laying worker.  Workers will lay eggs in a disorderly manner resulting in the formation of spotty brood patterns.

Seeing a hive in the field that has a laying worker in it and being able to dissect one to see what stimulated ovaries look like has been a very rewarding way for me to put pieces of the puzzle together.  Being able to apply what I have seen in the lab with what I have seen in the field (or vice versa) is the way I learn best.  I am looking forward to continuing to learn like this in California.

Written By: Michael Andree

Michael Andree has written 43 post in this blog.

Based out of the Butte County Cooperative Extension in Oroville, CA I am a member of the “Bee Team” created by the Bee Informed Partnership as a tool to help bridge the gap between scientists and beekeepers. The team works directly with bee breeders in the field and has been coined as those with their “boots on the ground”. We assemble field and lab data through hive inspections, surveys, and sample collection. The data and samples we accumulate are processed by the Bee Research Lab in Beltsville, MD where reports for beekeepers are generated. Our most essential duty is to report results to beekeepers empowering them to make more informed management decisions.


13 Responses to “Laying Worker”

  1. Roger and Tammy Gady

    I found you from Backyard Bee Keepers on Facebook. Nice of them to make mention of you. We are new beekeepers in the upper peninsula of Michigan. Today we had a great inspection of our two hives and found these formations you are describing. We did find the queen in both hives alive and active. We are on day 25, week 4. Should we destroy these droon brood cells, we have read four books and they don’t say. We were confused and thought they were queen cells. We left them alone. We have experienced very cold and wet weather and find it difficult to visit the hive to learn. Dandelions just popped and we have found beautiful pollin and honey in a ring outside of capped brood. Apple blossoms are not out yet. We are still feeding sugar water in top feeders. We used ten trays full of last years honey that we purchased with two hives from a neighbor. The old honey appeared to be cleaned up. Today we found fresh honey glistening, very yellow pollin and capped brood. What a wonderful experience today! Could I send you a jpg. I took of these so you could positively identify them for us please. Thank you.

  2. Jerry Breedlove

    My question, how do/did you find the laying worker? The couple above do not
    appear to have a problem, if they found and honey pollen capped brood, and
    saw the Queen. The Drone cells are just part of the natural process. My Op.

  3. Ratna

    Hi, could you kindly help me to locate worker bee’s ovaries. Is it near the sting gland or near the first segment of abdomen. I hope, I will you soon. Thank you

  4. Anne Frey

    Thank you Michael for a clear description of laying workers. You mention the fact that they lay the eggs partway down the cell wall, because they have short abdomens, but do you have a picture? I searched for a photo of this, and everywhere on the internet it shows what people call laying worker egg photos, and it is really a young queen that laid too many eggs at the very bottom of the cell. Newbees see all these pictures and are bound to think they have laying workers, and they don’t.