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Worker Bees – The Heart of the Hive

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The Worker Honey Bee

Inside any healthy beehive, thousands of worker bees carry on the daily tasks needed for colony survival. It is a common fact of bee life that these hard working individual bees combine their efforts for the greater good. Beyond their tremendous devotion to the colony, what else do we know about worker honey bees? It turns out that we have learned a great deal over the years.

Adult worker honey bee image.

An average honey bee colony can grow into a very large social family. Colony population grows and shrinks throughout the season.

Most colonies grow smaller as late Winter approaches. But as Spring comes, the population grows. Healthy hives may reach 40,000 to 60,000 bees by mid-Summer.

What are Worker Bees?

Worker bees are female bees that develop from a fertilized egg laid by a mated queen honey bee. By a vast majority , most of colony members in a hive are worker bees.

Without them the honey bee colony would not be able to survive. The function of worker bees is to serve as the workforce of the colony. They perform all of the tasks needed for daily life.

Close up of honey bee worker bees what they do image.

Are Worker Bees Male or Female?

Any fertilized egg will produce a female bee. Very young female larvae can develop into a worker or even a queen bee.

The quantity and quality of food fed to the female larvae determines her destiny. If the colony is in need of a new queen, some of the young larva will have a chance to become queen.

Do Worker Bees Lay Eggs?

Worker bees are not able to lay fertilized eggs. They are incapable of mating with drones bees or storing semen in their body.

Workers can however lay eggs in certain situations. If a long period passes with no queen bee in the hive or fresh brood, worker bees are stimulated to lay. We call these bees “laying workers”.

Laying Workers in the Hive

This is not a condition that any beekeeper wants to see in the hive. Any egg laid by these infertile workers will develop into a drone bee (male).

The colony is doomed unless the beekeeper assists the drone laying hive in getting back to a queen right status.

Laying workers generally only become a problem when a colony has no queen and no young larva or uncapped brood for several weeks.  Fixing a colony with laying workers can be challenging if the problem has been allow to go one for a while.

Can Worker Bees Sting?

Yes, worker bees can sting . They are responsible for protecting the hive from predators such as a bear – or a beekeeper? But, worker bees can only sting once.

Their stinger is barbed at the end – similar to a fish hook. The stinger gets caught in mammal skin and rips from the bee’s body. Bees sting only when provoked – they give their life for the hive.

What Does a Worker Bee Do?

Worker honey bees do not perform that same jobs for their entire life. Work begins inside the hive with various bee jobs in and around the brood nest.

As the bee matures, she will shift to bee jobs that require her leaving the hive and going into the field. At that point, she has become a foraging bee.

Jobs for Worker Bees Inside the Hive

The newly emerged worker bee begins her life long mission right away. For the first 3 weeks, her bee jobs will be performed inside the hive.

There can be a small variance in the age at which each worker bee changes her job depending on the needs of the colony.

Cleaning and Polishing Honeycomb Cells- Day 1-3

Upon emergence, the young adult worker bee has two objectives. She will take a sip of honey from another house bee or an open honey cell.

And, she will clean and polish the cell that she just emerged from. The queen will not lay an egg in an unpolished cell.

The next couple of days will see the worker bee doing general comb maintenance. She cleans and polishes the brood nest area.

Worker honey bees inside hive making honey and storing pollen image.

House Bee Duties for the Worker Bee Day 3-16

The actual timing of these chores can vary (as can all of them) but bees at this stage may serve as undertakers.

Each day some bees will die of natural causes. Bees do not live very long compared to mammals. As bees reach the end of their life – some may die inside the hive.

It is the job of an undertaker bee to dispose of the bodies far away from the hive. This promote cleanliness inside and nearby the hive.

Worker Bees Serve as Nurse Bees Day 4-12

By the end of the first week, brood food glands have developed inside the head and mouth of our new worker adult. The Mandibular and Hypopharyngeal Glands produced special secretions to feed bee larva.

Royal jelly and other nutritious brood food provide nourishment for the rapidly growing bee larva. Nurse bees invest a lot of time in caring for young.

A visit to an individual cell can last a few seconds or up to 20 seconds. We do know that each larva is visited about 1,300 times a day.

Feeding larva is probably the most important role of the worker bee.  Without well fed adults continuously emerging, the colony stands little chance of survival.

Queen honey bee with a retinue of worker bees image.

Worker Bees Serve as Queen Attendants Day 7-12

During this period the role of a worker honey bee may be to take care of the queen. The queen’s attendants (we call this her “retinue”) feed her, groom her body and clean away any wastes.

In this way she can concentrate on her major role of egg-laying. Also, if she poops inside – who would have to clean it up? The Worker Bee.

Do Worker bees kill the queen? Yes, sadly the worker honey bees will and can kill the queen bee. Older or failing queens will be killed so a new queen can lead the colony.

The queen lays the eggs that become the future generation of workers. But, without thousands of workers to keep hive life moving, the queen bee would perish alone.

Beeswax Production is the Job of Worker Bees Day 12 -18

The worker bees makes wax from special wax glands located on the underside of their abdomens. Workers must consume a lot of honey for maximum wax production.

They are most productive between the age of 12 days and 18 days. Though older bees can produce wax if needed. This is also the age where there is more overlap of worker bees tasks due to the needs of the colony.

Worker Bees Make Honey Day 13-18

Field bees return to the hive with collected plant nectar. The contents of the field bees “honey stomach” is transferred to a younger worker house bee.

The house bee will add enzymes to the nectar and reduce the moisture content. This is how bees make honey.

When the process is completed, the house bee stores honey in comb cells and adds a wax capping.

Worker bees at this age are also responsible for fanning the hive. This wing fanning activity helps to cool the hive and reduce moisture.

The process of making honey increases the moisture levels inside the hive Fanning is an important job. On average, an individual bee gets credit for making about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in her life.

Guarding the Hive Entrance Day 18-21

Guard bees are the initial line of defense for the hive. The last in-hive job of a worker bee is to guard the entrance of the beehive. As beekeepers, these are the ladies we meet first when we go to do hive inspections.

Guards keep predators (wasps, hornets, beekeepers) out of the hive. They also inspect incoming honey bees and turn away those that do not smell like they belong.

Using scent cues honey bees not belonging to the hive may not be allowed inside. This is to prevent robbing by other hives.

Worker bees in hive collecting spilled honey image.

What do Foraging Worker Bees Do?

Older worker bees are the ones that we actually see most often. These are the colony foragers. 

Their task is to go outside the hive and find food and other things that the colony may need. Nectar, pollen, water and tree resins are collected by worker bees.

Specialized Structures of a Worker Honey Bee

The anatomy of a worker bee is just a bit different than her sister the queen. Worker bees have stiff hairs on their hind legs. These are called “pollen baskets” and are used to bring pollen back to the hive.

Pollen is the only protein source for the honey bee colony. They must have pollen in order to rear young bees or brood.

Worker bees also have a special organ inside their abdomen called a honey stomach – it is used to collect nectar for the colony. This is not part of the bees regular digestive system. (Honey is not bee vomit).

Millions of flowers are visited to collect plant nectar for honey production. Without ample stores of honey, the colony will not survive.

Worker honey bee collecting nectar on purple flower image.

Worker Bees Function as Scouts

In addition to foraging for food, water etc, a small percentage of worker honey bees have a special task. These are the scout bees.

Scouts range far from the mother colony to check out possible sites for a new home. This is a very important bee job during the time of honey bee swarming.

Before a swarm leaves the mother hive, the scout bees will have selected a few possible candidates for a new home.

Chart of worker bee tasks infographic image.

Life Span of Worker Honey Bees

Beginning life as a fertilized egg, the worker bee emerges from her cell as an adult on day 21. Her first few weeks are spent inside the hive performing the various tasks needed by the colony.

Even during the time of in-house duties our worker bee will fly outside near the hive each day. She does this to orient herself to the location of her home and to expel wastes.

This activity usually takes place on warm afternoons. It can scare the heck out of a new beekeeper who thinks the hive is about to leave.

If the activity dies down in 10 or 15 minutes, then you have just witnessed a worker bee orientation flight.

The last half of a worker bee’s life involves foraging outside the hive.  She continues to work until her wings wear out. 

The average life expectancy for a worker bee in Summer is 6 weeks.  However, worker bees “born” in late Summer/early Fall are special. They have the capacity to live much longer.

Fat Winter Bees Live Longer

If worker bees only live 6 weeks and little if any babies are reared during Winter, how does the cluster of bees survive from October to March?

Well, those wonderful bees have a mechanism for doing just that. In late Fall, bees reared are different than summer worker bees.

This is accomplished in large part by the diet feed to them during development. This is another reason it is important to have healthy nurse bees in late Summer. They will be able to produce healthy “fat bees” for Winter.

Winter worker bees will live much longer than 6 weeks – on average they live up to 6 months. Special fat bodies inside the bee helps her achieve this long life. Also, she is not having to work as hard as the Summer foragers.

And, as Winter fades away, the bee colony will begin rearing a new batch of worker bees for the productive season.

Recap of the Main Functions of Worker Bees

Mankind has always used the work ethic of the honey bee as a role model for being industrious. This appreciation for The Sacred Bee dates back thousands of year.

What do worker bees do? This is an easy one – a worker bee – um.. “works”. In fact, worker bees actually control the queen.

They feed her and they clean the cells before she can lay eggs. The workers are the decision makers that direct colony actions.

The next time you see a busy bee collecting nectar or pollen, I hope you will have a better understanding of the hard work involved in a short life – and the vital role of worker bees.

Beekeeper Charlotte

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