Worker Honey Bees
The role of the worker bee is often over-shadowed by the queen bee. But worker bees deserve more credit. Inside any healthy beehive, we find thousands of worker bees. These insects combine their efforts to do all the tasks needed for colony survival. It is a fact of honey bee life that the colony depends will quickly perish without the dedication of these members of the colony.
An average honey bee colony can grow into a very large social family. Most colonies are smaller in late Winter. But as Spring comes, the population can climb to well over 40,000 to 60,000 bees by mid-Summer.
By a vast majority , most of colony members are worker bees. These individuals are responsible for feeding and defending the colony.
Nature has a very good reason for producing so many worker honey bees in a colony. Many different jobs are required for the hive to survive and grow.
Are Worker Bees Male or Female?
Worker bees are female. The thousands of workers in the colony develop from a fertilized egg laid by a mated queen honey bee.
Any fertilized egg will produce a female bee. This bee can be a worker bee or a queen bee. The quantity and quality of food fed to the larva determines which.
The queen bee also develops from a fertilized egg. Once mature and mated, she lays thousands of eggs during the warm season.
Worker honey bees however, will never lay eggs that are fertilized. They are incapable of mating with drones or storing semen in their body.
Do Worker Bees Lay Eggs?
The worker bee is not able to mate and produce fertilized eggs. She can however lay eggs in certain situations. This is not a condition that any beekeeper wants to see in the hive.
Because a worker bee cannot lay fertilized eggs. Any egg laid by a these infertile workers will develop into a drone bee (male).
Laying workers generally only become a problem when a colony has no queen and no young larva to make one.
If a long period passes with no queen or fresh brood in the hive, the worker bees are stimulated to lay.
The colony is doomed unless the beekeeper assist 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, the guard bees can only sting once.
The stinger of worker bees is barbed at the end – similar to a fish hook. The stinger gets caught in mammal skin and rips from the bee body.
This is why bees sting only when provoked – they give their life for the hive.
What Does a Worker Bee Do?
The life of a worker honey bee consists of an endless list of tasks to complete. Their 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. As that point, she has become a foraging bee.
What do Foraging Worker Bees Do?
Worker bees are the ones that we actually see most often. In fact, almost everyone has enjoyed watching a honey bee fly from flower to flower.
These are the colony foragers. Their task is to go outside the hive and find food and other things that the colony may need.
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.
They also have a special organ inside their abdomen called a honey stomach – it is used to collect nectar for the colony.
Scouting Tasks are the Responsibility of Worker Bees
In addition to searching 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.
Foraging worker bees are non-aggressive busy bees. As long as you maintain a respectful distance, it is a great time to enjoy watching at them work!
Role of a Worker Bee -Hive Tasks by Age
The newly emerged worker bee begins his life long mission right away. For the first 3 weeks, her bee jobs will be performed inside the hive.
The last half of her life will be spent in supporting the colony with work outside 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.
Day 1-3 First Tasks of the Worker Honey Bee
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.
Day 3-16 Worker Bee House Duties
The actual timing of these chores can vary (as can all of them) but bees at this stage serve as undertakers.
Each day some bees will die of natural causes. Bees do not live long. Summer worker honey bees only live about 6 weeks.
And, disease or mite infestations can cause early bee death. The job of the undertaker bee is to dispose of the dead far away from the hive.
Day 4-12 Worker Bees Serve as Nurse Bees
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 Hypophrangel 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.
Day 7-12 Workers Serve as Queen Attendants
During this period the role of a worker 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.
Day 12 – Worker Bees Produce Beeswax
The worker bee makes wax from special wax glands located on the underside of her abdomen.
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.
Day 13-18 Worker Bees Make Honey
Foraging workers collect nectar from blooming flowers and bring it back to the hive.
The returning forager transfers the nectar that she has collected from her honey stomach to that of 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, she will store the honey in cells and cap them with 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.
Day 18-21 Guarding the Hive Entrance
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 inspections.
Their important job is to 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.
Last Half of Worker Bee Life Cycle
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.
But, the last half of a worker bee’s life involves foraging outside the hive. Workers continue to look for food and resources for the colony until their wings wear out.
The average life expectancy for a worker bee in Summer is 6 weeks. 3 weeks are spent working inside the hive and 3 weeks are spent as a foraging bee.
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.
Another reason to have healthy nurse bees in late Summer, is to 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.
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”.
They perform all the activities of the hive. But, the bee does not perform the same job for her whole lifetime. Bee jobs change are the bee matures or the needs of the colony changes.
Now, you know the story about the “unsung hero” of the honey bee world- the worker bee.
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 the worker bee.