The Function of the Worker Bee
In a honey bee colony of thousands of individuals, the most populous member of the hive is the worker bee. The importance of the role of the worker bee is often over-shadowed by the queen bee. But worker bees deserve more credit.
An average honey bee colony can grow into a very large social family. The smaller bee population in Spring can climb to well over 60,000 bees by mid-Summer.
By a vast majority , most of colony members are worker bees. Nature has a very good reason for producing so many worker honey bees.
The colony has many tasks that must be completed for hive life to continue. It is the worker honey bees that must fulfill this role.
The different jobs of performed are varied according the the needs of the hive. The age of the bee also affects which jobs are performed.
The queen bee gets a lot of attention because of her vital role as mother of the hive. But, she is not the true ruler of the colony.
Without thousands of workers to keep hive life moving, the queen bee would perish alone and unfed.
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 worker honey bee fly from flower to flower.
These are the colony foragers. Their task is to look outside the hive to find food and other things that the colony may need.
Foragers serving as scout bees, look for new nest locations when a colony is preparing to swarm.
Foraging worker bees are non-aggressive busy bees. They are focused on the job of collecting nectar or pollen.
As long as you maintain a respectful distance, it is a great time to enjoy watching a bee at work!
Facts about Worker Bees
Well, this should be an easy one to begin with – a worker bee – um.. “works”. All the jobs of maintaining the honey bee colony are performed by the worker bee.
Everything from raising young to defending the hive will be their responsibility. There is a general progression of tasks dending on the age of the bee.
However, bees can do different tasks regardless of age if the colony is in need.
For instance, young worker bees are the best wax producers. However, older worker bees can make wax if there are not enough young bees to do the work.
Do Worker Bees Sting?
Yes, worker bees can sting because they are responsible for protecting the hive. But, a worker bee can only sting once because of her barbed stinger.
The stinger gets caught in your skin and rips from her body. This is why bees sting only when provoked – they give their life for the hive.
Are Worker Bees Female?
Yes ! Worker bees are female. They develop from a fertilized egg laid by a mated queen.
The queen bee also develops from a fertilized egg. Once mature and mated, she lays thousands of eggs during the warm season.
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.
When the colony needs a new queen, worker bees called “nurse bees” select young larva and rear a new queen.
Do Worker Bees Lay Eggs?
We sure don’t want worker bees to lay eggs. In fact, that is the one job normally not performed by a worker bee.
However, she can do that too – but it is not a good thing. Because a worker bee cannot mate, she cannot lay fertilized eggs.
Instead of producing another worker, an egg laid by a worker honey bee will develop into a drone (male) bee.
Laying workers generally only become a problem when a colony has no queen and no young larva to make one. The colony is doomed without beekeeper intervention.
The Role of a Honey Worker Bee -Bee Jobs
The first half of a worker bee life cycle takes place inside the beehive. They do not leave the hive to work outside until they are older.
During this time, the worker bee helps raise brood and perform internal hive jobs.
Day 1-3 First Tasks of the Worker 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. The summer worker honey bee only lives about 6 weeks. There will also be those who die early from disease.
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, a worker bee has developed brood food glands located inside her head and mouth.
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. These attendant bees are only responsible for the queen bee.
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.
Day 12-18 Bees Making Honey
Foragers bring nectar back to the hive. It has been collected from blooming flowers. This watery nectar must be converted into honey.
A returning forager transfers the nectar that she has collected from her honey stomach to that of a younger house bee.
The house bee will add enzymes to the nectar and reduce the moisture content.
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 12 – Worker Bees Produce Beeswax
Worker bees have the ability to make wax. Wax glands are located on the underside of their 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.
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.
Using scent cues honey bees not belonging to the hive may not be allowed inside. This is to prevent robbing by other hives.
Worker Bee Orientation Flights Are Scary
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.
Foraging Worker Bees
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.
Anatomy of the Worker Bee
Both the worker bee and the queen bee are female. They both develop from a fertilized egg. However, the anatomy of the worker bee is different.
Worker bees have stiff hairs on their hind legs. These are called “pollen baskets” and are used to bring pollen back to the hive.
The stinger of the Worker bee is different from that of a queen. (Yes, queens have stingers too.) A worker bee has a stinger with barbs.
How Long Does A Worker Bee Live?
Okay, wait a minute. 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, new worker bees that are 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, to rear your healthy “fat bees” for Winter.
These 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.
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.