Home » Bee Farm Blog » Bees » Worker Bees : The Hive Workforce

Worker Bees : The Hive Workforce

Inside any healthy beehive, thousands of insects bustle here and there in a busy frenzy. They are carrying on the daily tasks needed for colony survival. These are the worker bees – hard working female colony members that combine their efforts for the greater good. Worker honey bees have an important job to do and they are equipped to meet the challenge.

What is a Worker Bee?

Female worker bees in a honey bee hive image.

A worker bee is a female (eusocial) bee that is not capable of reproducing. The function of worker bees is to serve as the workforce of the colony.

May contain affiliate links. Read my privacy and affiliate disclosure policy for more info.

They perform all of the tasks needed for daily life except reproduction. Without them the honey bee colony would not be able to survive.

Worker bees develop from fertilized eggs laid by a mated queen honey bee. The vast majority of colony members in a beehive are workers. It is not unusual for their number to reach 50,000 to 60,000 during peak season.

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.

Worker Bee Characteristics

  • develop from fertilized eggs
  • have special anatomical features
  • do all the jobs in the hive
  • tasks performed vary due to age

Develop from Fertilized Eggs

Honey bee reproduction is rather fascinating. After mating with several drones, the queen bee stored semen in a special structure in her abdomen. Now, she can choose to fertilize the eggs she lays – or not.

A fertilized egg becomes a female larvae. She can develop into a worker or a queen. If the colony is in need of a new queen, some of the young larva will be fed a special diet to make them become a reproductive queen. But, most will complete their lives 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).

Join Our Beekeeping Community

Free "Secrets to Successful Beekeeping" plus weekly newsletter with info about bees, beekeeping and more...

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.

Role of Worker Bees in the Colony

Like all insects, worker larvae go thru complete metamorphosis. From the laid egg to hatch (or emergence) from the wax cell is a span of about 21 days. Now begins the quest of the worker bee to fulfill her role in the hive.

They perform many different tasks. But, individuals do not perform the same jobs for their entire life. For the first 3 weeks, her tasks are performed inside the hive.

Later, the jobs of a worker switches to a foraging bee.  She travels several miles from the hive to find food and returns to perform dances that inform her sisters of the location.

But, there can be a small variance in the age of task change. This depends on the needs of the colony. If a hive loses the foraging bees due to poisoning or any problem, house bees will be advanced to that task regardless of their age.

Cleaning and Polishing: Day 1-3

Upon emergence, the young worker bee takes a sip of honey from another house bee or an open honey cell.

Then, she will clean and polish the cell that she just emerged from. Now it is ready for a new egg, 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 all of the brood nest area.

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

House Duties: Day 3-16

Cleaning and polishing the hive continues during this period. The actual timing of these chores can vary (as can all of them) but worker 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 promotes cleanliness inside and nearby the hive.

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 bees image.

Queen Attendants: Day 7-12

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

One of the most important contributions to the hive is the spreading of queen pheromone. As colony members clean the queen and each other, these chemical messengers are spread throughout the hive.

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 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. This is why care must be taken when combining two hives with different bee families.

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.

Foraging Workers

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.

Lifespan of Worker Bees

On day 21 (after egg lay) the worker bee emerges from her cell – fully grown. Her first few weeks are spent inside the hive performing the various tasks. 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 bee orientation flight.

Summer Bees vs Winter Bees

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 on average up to 6 months.

Special fat bodies inside 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.

FAQs About a Worker Honey Bee

Are worker bees male or female?

The workers of the colony are all female. They have have 32 chromosomes (16 from the queen and 16 from the drone).

Can 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 unfertilized eggs in certain situations if the colony is without a queen. We call these “laying workers“.

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.

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

The most important difference is that a queen can mate and lay fertilized eggs. Workers are not able to mate therefore they can not lay fertilized eggs.

Can a worker bee become queen?

No, an adult female worker can not become the queen. Very young female larvae however can become new queens.

Do workers bees make honey?

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

Similar Posts