This time of year many beekeepers discover or realize their hive(s) is in trouble. Their initial investigation shows it is either queenless or has a non-laying queen. Rectifying the non-laying queen situation is rather straight forward; dispatch the old queen, wait a few hours and introduce a new queen.
A hive that has been both queenless and broodless for a long time will develop into what is called a “laying worker” hive. Research has shown that all hives have a small percentage of laying workers. It is when the queen and brood pheromone levels fall off a significantly larger percentage of the “sterile” workers becomes laying workers.
Beekeepers that conduct weekly or biweekly inspections to verify their hives are queenright will usually identify a queenless hive long before this situation becomes critical. During each inspection the beekeeper is looking for eggs. The simple presence of eggs means the queen was present no less than 4 days previously. These beekeepers know additional action is required when no eggs are found. At this point it is a matter of re-queening the hive.
To gauge how far your queenless hive has progressed consider these milestones:
1) After 4 days any eggs will have hatched into larvae.
2) After 12 days the larvae will have been capped.
3) After 21 days all the worker brood will have emerged.
4) After 24 days all drone brood laid by the queen will have emerged.
If all that you are seeing is capped drone cell brood you know at least 24 days or possibly longer have elapsed. When all that you see is capped drone brood with its dome shaped capping you can then start to look for the signs of laying workers. The signs are:
1) randomly distributed capped brood
2) multiple eggs in a cell
3) eggs adhering to the side wall of the cell
4) a random egg distribution.
When you see these signs laying workers are in charge of the hive. If a queen is introduced at this point the laying workers will usually kill her. In fact it is not easy to re-queen a laying worker hive. So what are your other options?
If you do nothing the hive slowly dwindles away and you will have nothing to show for the season and you also won’t have a hive capable of overwintering.
Some people have reported success by putting in frames of open brood and eggs from another hive. This needs to be done on a weekly basis and multiple times. The brood pheromones slowly suppress the laying workers. Sometimes they will make an emergency cell and raise a new queen. It’s not a 100% cure. Sometimes at this point the hive could accept a new queen. Putting in the queen is a big gamble. I have tried this method several times but without success.
If you have many hives you can split up your laying worker hive amongst other queenright hives; several frames of drone brood and bees into each. The outer honey frames can remain. Then you take frames of eggs and brood from the queenright hives, refill the empty hive and introduce a new queen. This is similar to doing a split. If you do this early enough you may be able to get the hive ready for winter.
A third alternative involves switching hive locations with a strong hive while the field bees are out foraging. This throws both hives into chaos. The strong hive recovers with no problem. The laying worker hive is inundated with the field bees from the queenright hive. Reportedly, the field bees quickly eliminate the laying workers. Then the beekeeper removes the frames with drone brood. Finally a full 5 frame nuc with queen is added to the hive using the newspaper separation method.
In summary, the best thing you can do is to recognize as early as possible that your hive is queenless. If you fail at this then you must choose one of the three solutions and work the process of salvaging your laying worker hive. Good luck in whichever method you choose.