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Importance of Worker Bees in the Colony

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

What Does a Worker Bee Do?

Female worker bees in a honey bee hive image.

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

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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 except reproduction.

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

Most colonies grow smaller as late Winter approaches. But as Spring comes, the population begins to grow again. Healthy hives can reach a population of 40,000 to 60,000 by mid-Summer.

The worker bee is important. However, the drones and queen could not mate and fulfill their destiny without the combines efforts of the other members of the colony.

Are Worker Bees Male or Female?

The queen honey bee can lay fertilized or unfertilized eggs. Fertilized eggs develop into females. Very young female larvae can develop into a worker or even a queen bee.

The quantity and quality of food fed to the worker 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. But, most will complete their life as the “workhorses of the colony”.

Adult worker honey bee image.

Specialized Anatomy of a Worker Honey Bee

The anatomy of a worker bee is just a bit different than her sister-the queen. They have well developed structures that aid in their tasks for the hive.

  • pollen basket
  • honey stomach
  • barbed stinger
  • wax glands

These foragers 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 or brood.

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

Workers 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 their regular digestive system. (Honey is not bee vomit).

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Unlike the smooth stinger of a wasp, the honey bee forager has a barbed stinger. It becomes embedded in the skin of mammals and injects a full load of venom.

Beeswax production is a main function of young worker bees. Honeycomb must be built to house the food and young of the colony. Wax glands on the abdomen secrete wax flakes that are shaped into cells.

Forager bees gathering pollen from pink flower image.

Do Worker Bees Lay Eggs?

Worker bees are not able to lay fertilized eggs. They do not have the developed physical structures that allow mating or storing semen in their body.

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

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

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

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, they can only sting once.

Their stinger is barbed at the end – similar to a fish hook. Honey bees sting only when provoked – they give their life for the hive.

Role of Worker Bees in the Colony

Developing from fertilized eggs, worker larvae go thru complete metamorphosis like the other members of the colony. From egg to emerging adult is a span of about 21 days.

Individual workers do not perform the same jobs for their entire life. For the first 3 weeks, her jobs will be performed inside the hive.

Then, most of her tasks involve work outside. But, there can be a small variance in the age of task change 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: 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 colony members die of natural causes. Bees do not live very long compared to mammals.

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 Nurses: 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.

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 they can kill the queen bee. Older or failing queens will be killed so a new queen can lead the colony.

Beeswax Production: Day 12 -18

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

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 tasks due to the needs of the colony.

Making Nectar into Honey: Day 13-18

Field bees return to the hive with collected plant nectar. The contents of the foragers “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.

Workers 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.

Guard honey bees at hive entrance image.

Guarding the Hive Entrance: Day 18-21

The last in-hive job of a worker bee is to guard the entrance of the hive. This is the initial line of defense for the hive. 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 those not belonging to the hive may not be allowed inside. This is to prevent robbing by other hives. The last half of the life span of a worker bee is spent on tasks mainly outside the hive.

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 collect things that the colony may need.

In addition to foraging for food, water etc, a small percentage of foragers 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 scouts will have selected a few possible candidates for a new home.

Honey bee colonies are most active on warm sunny days. While bees can fly in light rain, it is not their preference.

Chart with jobs of worker honey bees image.

Life Span of Worker 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.

She may fly outside near the hive 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. 

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

Reared for Winter, they are different than summer workers. These healthy “fat bees” for Winter will live much longer – 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.

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 – the role of a worker bee is to do just about everything. In fact, they are the decision makers that direct colony actions.

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