Worker Honey Bees

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Inside any healthy beehive, thousands of worker bees bustle here and there in a busy frenzy. They are carrying on the many daily tasks needed for colony survival. These hard working honey bees combine their efforts for the greater good. The role of a honey bee worker is important from her first day until her last day.

Female worker bees entering a honey bee hive.

The vast majority of bees in a beehive are worker bees. It is not unusual for their number to reach 50,000 to 60,000 during peak season.

Why Worker Bees are Important

Worker bees are female honey bees. They develop from fertilized eggs laid by a queen bee. The major function of worker bees is to perform all of the daily tasks of hive life.

They are not capable of reproducing because they can not mate. But, the continuation of the colony (long term) depends on the efforts of these ladies.

Though a hive may build up into a very large social family, colony population grows and shrinks throughout the year.

Seasonal changes, food conditions, swarming and general health all play a role in how many workers bees are in the hive.

Numerous Worker Cells in the Hive

Each sheet of honeycomb in the hive contains thousands of hexagon shaped wax cells. Some of these cells will serve as the nursery for the colony (the place where baby bees develop).

Naturally, many are worker cells, dedicated to rearing worker bees due to their vital function in the colony.

The queen fulfills her role by laying fertilized eggs that will develop into female bee larvae. The larval phase is the second stage of the honey bee life cycle.

Larvae from fertilized eggs are female and can become a worker bee or a queen bee. Unless the hive needs a new queen (or is planning to swarm), these larvae are destined to spend their lives in service to the colony as workers.

Close up of specialized parts of worker honey bee.

Specialized Anatomy – Parts of the Bee

The anatomy of a worker bee is just a bit different than that of a queen. Well developed physical structures aid worker bees in their role in the hive.

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

Pollen Basket

A major function of the worker bee is to collect hive resources. One important resource is pollen-their only protein source. They must have pollen in order to rear young or bee brood.

Fact – they are not really baskets but stiff hairs on the hind legs of worker bees (bees also have knees by the way). These “pollen baskets” help carry balls of pollen back to the hive.

As a beekeeper, I enjoy trying to guess the pollen source when I see bees returning to the hive with colorful balls on their hind legs.

Honey Stomach

Bees visit millions of flowers to collect plant nectar. How do they bring all this liquid back to the hive? A special organ inside the worker bee’s abdomen (called a honey stomach) is used to carry nectar.

The honey stomach is not part of their regular digestive system. (Honey is not bee vomit).

Stinger for Defense

Another function of worker bees is protecting the hive. Why do honey bees sting? They sting to defend themselves and their home.

Unlike the smooth stinger of a wasp, worker honey bees have a barbed stinger that embeds in the skin of mammals and injects a full load of venom.

Wax Glands

Another important job performed by worker bees is the building of honeycomb. Using flakes of wax secreted from glands on their abdomen, they shape thousands of wax cells. This comb provides storage space for food and room to rear young.

Young adult bees cleaning the comb surface inside a hive.

Age Related Tasks of Worker Bees

From the day an egg is laid by the queen to emergence of adult worker bees is about 21 days. Now, begins their life of servitude.

While there are many different tasks performed by worker bees, their job assignments change over time. They do not perform the same jobs for their entire lives (contrary to what the Bee Movie may tell you.)

Chart with jobs of worker honey bees image.

In a normal colony, the first 3 weeks of adult life involves jobs inside the hive. Though we see a general age division among these jobs, the needs of the colony can have a big effect.

If a hive loses a large portion of their field bees due to poisoning, disease, etc. younger adults will be advanced to foragers regardless of their age. This transition of job assignments is necessary to best meet colony needs.

Therefore, any timetable of jobs worker bees do must be considered an average rather than a hard fact.

Cleaning and Polishing: Day 1-3

Upon emergence, the young worker’s first task is to clean and polish the her cell. The next couple of days will see the worker bee doing general comb maintenance.

She cleans and polishes all of the brood nest area – including sanitizing surfaces with bee propolis collected by field bees.

Worker honey bees inside hive making cleaning, feeding young and storing pollen.

House Duties: Day 3-16

Cleaning and polishing the hive continues during this period. The actual timing of these chores can vary but worker bees at this stage may serve as undertakers.

Honey bees do not live very long and every day some bees die. It is the job of an undertaker bee to dispose of the bodies far away from the hive. This promotes cleanliness inside and nearby.

Nurse Bees: Day 4-12

By the end of the first week, workers are ready to function as nurse bees. Their brood food glands (Mandibular and Hypopharyngeal) have developed.

Royal jelly and other nutritious brood food are fed to growing larva. A visit to an individual cell can last a few seconds or up to 20 seconds. Each brood cell is visited about 1,300 times a day during the larval stage.

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 bees with a retinue of bees.

Queen Attendants: Day 7-12

During this period the role of a worker may include taking care of the queen. The queen’s attendants (her “retinue”) feed her, groom her body and clean away any wastes. The queen bee can fulfill her role as egg layer without distractions.

As colony members clean the queen and each other, bee pheromones (chemical messengers) are spread throughout the hive. It lets everyone know that the queen is in residence.

Beeswax Production: Day 12 -18

Worker bees make wax using special glands located on the underside of their abdomens. But, they must consume a lot of honey for maximum production.

They are most productive at wax production between the age of 12 days and 18 days. Though older bees can produce wax if needed.

This time period (days 12-18) is also the age where there is more overlap of tasks due to the needs of the colony.

Making Honey: Day 13-18

Stored honey keeps the colony alive over the cold Winter months. Worker bees are responsible for making honey.

Field bees return to the hive with honey stomachs full of nectar. It is transferred to house bees who add more enzymes and reduce the moisture content. The water content of ripe honey must be low or it will spoil.

The process of making honey increases the moisture levels inside the hive. Workers at this age are also responsible for fanning the hive to reduce moisture and control internal hive temperature.

Ripe honey is stored in honeycomb cells and capped with a layer of wax. 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 for workers is that of guard bees. This is the initial line of defense at the hive entrance. As beekeepers, these are the ladies we meet first when we go to do hive inspections.

Guards keep various bee predators (wasps, hornets, beekeepers) out of the hive. They also inspect incoming bees and turn away those that are intruders. This is to prevent bee robbing behavior by other hives.

Work Outside the Hive

During the warm season, the last half of a worker bee’s life is mainly spent on tasks outside the hive. These older forager bees are the ones that we actually see most often.

This is a dangerous and demanding time. Bees travel several miles from the hive to find the materials they need.

In addition, a small percentage of them participate in special tasks such as that of scout bees. Their job is to seek out new food sources. Then, return to the hive and perform special bee dances that inform others of the location.

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

Summer Bees vs Winter Bees

The average life expectancy for a worker bee in Summer is 6 weeks. However, those “born – hatched” in late Summer/early Fall are capable of living much longer.

They are physiologically different than their Summer sisters. These healthy “fat winter bees” will live on average up to 6 months.

Why is this? Special fat bodies inside the bodies of workers reared late in the season help them achieve this long life.

Also, they are not having to work as hard as the Summer foragers. This strategy makes it possible for a colony of cold-blooded insects to survive over Winter.

Role in the Winter Cluster

Healthy longer-lived fat bees and good stores of honey are both required for honey bees to survive Winter. They do not hibernate but cluster together in the hive to stay warm.

Worker bees can unhook their wings and generate heat by vibrating their wing muscles. It is not quite “bee spa” temperatures in there but enough to keep the colony alive.

The Winter cluster of bees resembles a ball with a tight band of bees on the outer surface. Those inside the perimeter are more loosely spaced. Rotation of the colder bees on the outside of the cluster to the inside – keeps everyone alive.

Worker Bees and Swarming

The remarkable worker bees are responsible for just about everything related to bee swarms. How do thousands of ladies agree on what to do? Beats me. But, they work together for the greater good instinctively.

Worker bees clean the cells where the queen lays eggs. They select some cells to become queen cells to rear a new queen. They reduce the food of the current queen and urge her to move more to slim her down for flight.

When the proper time comes, they rush the queen out of the hive and thousands take off for the new home they previously scouted out. Upon arrival, comb building and all the normal bee household tasks begin anew.


Do worker bees sting?

Yes, worker honey bees do sting for defense. But, they can only sting once. Their stinger is barbed at the end – similar to a fish hook.

Are worker bees male or female?

All worker bees are females with 32 chromosomes (16 from the queen and 16 from the drone).

Can worker bees lay eggs?

Worker bees can lay unfertilized eggs in certain situations- we call these “laying workers“. However, they can not mate and are unable to lay fertilized eggs that become workers.

What is the main difference between a queen and worker bee?

The most important difference between a queen and worker bee is that the queen can mate and lay fertilized eggs. Thus, her function in the hive is that of egg layer – not hive jobs.

Can a worker bee become a queen?

No, a worker bee can not become a queen. Only very young female larvae can be fed to develop into new queens.

Do workers bees make honey?

Yes, young workers called house bees do indeed make honey from the nectar collected by field foragers.

Do worker bees clean away queen wastes?

If the queen bee poops, her attending workers clean it away. However, her nutritious diet results in few wastes.

How long do worker bees live?

Worker bees produced during the warm months live about 6 weeks. Those produced in late Fall for Winter can live up to 6 months.

Final Thoughts

The role of worker bees is to do just about everything. Used as an example of industriousness, it is easy to see why our culture has hundreds of cute quotes about bees.

But, this is nothing new. An appreciation for bees dates back thousands of years, even unto the mythology of bees and gods. Yet, they are not locked into one job for their whole lives. The functions of worker bees change with age and more importantly needs of the colony.

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