Nurse Bees

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Each member of a honey bee colony has a task to perform – one of the most interesting – nurse bees. You may be surprised to know that female workers go through an array of jobs during their short lives. But, it is their role as nurse bees that is most critical to the next generation of bees.

Group of young nurse bees feeding larvae.

Honey bees are social insects that work together for the benefit of the colony. When you look at the different jobs a worker bee performs, it is easy to see that she is quite remarkable. 

What are Nurse Bees in a Colony?

Nurse bees are female workers that feed and care for young – developing bees. They work primarily in the brood nest region.

Their primary job is the feeding of young brood with require constant attention. Special glands in the head and mouth of nurse bees develop to produce the nutritious food needed by growing honey bee larvae.

This is not a long-term job but one of many tasks required by the colony. Young adults normally function as nurse bees before they transition to working outside the hive.

Nurse bees have a stinger and can sting but they do not normally need to – it is not their job. Honey bees sting for hive defense and that is the job of older workers.

Nurse bees with cells of bee bread pollen.

Key Nurse Bee Jobs

In the typical, healthy hive, newly emerged bees begin their tasks as nurse bees on about day 3 after emergence.

Because they are responsible for brood care, their brood food glands (hypopharyngeal and mandibular) must mature a bit before they function well.

A colony uses various bees pheromones (external hormones) as a form of communication. Nurse bees are attracted to young by the pheromones given off by larvae. 

At the brood cell, nurse bees secrete tiny white drops of brood food into the cell. Older honey larvae may be fed bits of bee bread.

Bee larvae have a voracious appetite. On average, a nurse bee will visit each cell over 3,000 times during the period of larval development.

The amount of time spent as each cell varies – some only require a quick check. And, once it is time to transition into a pupae, feeding is no longer needed.

Developing workers and drones (male bees) are fed similar food – including royal jelly. But, female larvae that are intended to be queens are fed larger amounts of food of a different composition.

Transmission of Disease

As important as nurse bees are, they can also be responsible for harm. Though not done intentionally – disease is often spread to brood during feeding. 

European Foulbrood is one example. The bacteria that cause this disease persists on cells walls, feces and wax debris. Sometimes, the nurse bees are exposed and feed contaminated food to healthy brood.  

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Workers in hive with larvae and eggs.

Juvenile Hormone

How do nurse bees changed into other functions? Without getting into a deep scientific discussion, one factor that affects these changes is a hormone.  It is called juvenile hormone (or JH).  Contrary to what the name may imply, it is a maturing hormone.

Young adults have low levels of JH. As bee ages, her duties as nurse bee transitions to different tasks.  And, her JH levels increase.

After Brood Care

Worker bees develop a wide range of skills. Thankfully, the anatomy of honey bees provides special structures to help her get the jobs done.

The actual time number of days spent at each type of task (including serving as a nurse bee) varies a bit due to hive genetics (genes) and the needs of the colony. 

In general, young adults perform work inside the hive (brood care, comb building etc.) and the role of older worker bees transition to outside jobs.

As the worker ages a bit, her wax glands and alarm pheromone glands mature. This is preparing her for her role as a comb builder, a guard bee, forager and even a scout bee.

We can state generalities but in a normal hive – there is no hard and fast rule regarding when a bee does a certain job.

Lack of Nurse Bees Stresses Colony

Due to the important task of feeding growing brood, the hive must have enough nurse bees to do the job well. Larva deprived to sufficient nourishment will not be as strong and healthy as those that are well fed.

This also applies to queen production. Queen cells in a colony that lacks a strong population of nurses and food resources tend to be smaller.

Not an ideal situation for a hive that is producing a future queen. A healthy good-sized queen bee is more likely to be a productive layer of bee eggs.

Good population of nurse bees in brood nest of hive.

Needs of the Colony Affect Job Transition

A remarkable ability of a honey bee colony is the manner in which they can change direction when needed. If the queen bee dies, in most cases, the hive can produce a new queen.

The same situation applies to bee roles. Imagine a strong hive with a strong population of bees collecting resources that are needed.  

Then, a horrible thing happens – many of the field bees die (perhaps due to poisoning, exposure to pesticides or other catastrophes.)

Now, many of the nurse bees in the brood region have no new food coming in. Some of them will quickly transition to become foraging bees. Some brood may die or bee lost due to a lack of staff.

Honey bee colonies need pollen and nectar coming in. When a special hardship hits, the colony must adjust.

It is also believed that the earlier bees start foraging, the faster they age. Therefore, in a colony where nurse bees are accelerated to foraging sooner than normal – those foraging bees will not live as long as normal.

FAQs

What does the nurse bee do?

Nurse bees are responsible for feeding and caring for bee larvae. As nurses age, they transition to other hive tasks.

Can nurse bees fly?

Yes, nurse bees can and do fly outside the hive. While they are not actively foraging for food, they can leave the hive for short cleansing flights etc.

Are nurse bees male or female?

Nurse bees are regular workers – young adults that are female.

A Final Word

Each job in the colony is important. The different types of bees in the hive all have a part to play. The wonderful nature of the honey bee allows it to change and serve in different roles (even as a nurse bee) during their lifetime.

In nature, this generally works out well and results in productive hives. As beekeepers, we must strive to help (but not too much) without hindering the progress of the bees.

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