The Role of the Worker Bee

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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 females that combine their efforts for the greater good. A honey bee worker has an important job to do and she is equipped to meet the challenge.

What is a Worker Bee?

Female worker bees in a honey bee hive image.

In a beehive, a worker bee is a female (eusocial) that is not capable of reproducing. The function of worker bees is to perform all of the small tasks of daily life – except reproduction. The continuation of the colony (long term) depends on the efforts of these ladies.

The vast majority of colony members in a honey bee hive are workers. It is not unusual for their number to reach 50,000 to 60,000 during peak season.

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 hive population.

The late Winter colony may be quite small. But, as Spring approaches, the population begins to grow again.

While it is still cold out, the queen begins her role of laying eggs that will develop into foragers. The colony must be ready when Spring nectar and pollen are available.

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 (male bees), the queen stores semen in a special structure in her abdomen (spermatheca). Now, she can choose to fertilize the eggs she lays – or not.

A fertilized egg becomes a female bee larvae. It is capable of becoming a worker or a queen. Most of them will spend their lives in service to the colony as workers.

But, if the hive needs a new queen (or is planning to swarm), some of the young larva will be fed a special diet that causes them to develop into new queens.

Adult worker honey bee image.

Specialized Anatomy

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.

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

One of the major roles of the worker bee is to collect resources needed by the colony. One important resource is pollen. Pollen is the only protein source for the colony. They must have pollen in order to rear young or bee brood.

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Foragers have stiff hairs on their hind legs. These are called “pollen baskets” and are used to bring pollen back to the hive. We have all seen bees flying around with colorful balls on their hind legs.

Nectar must be gathered too. Millions of flowers are visited to collect plant nectar for honey production. The worker bee has a special organ inside her abdomen called a honey stomach.

It is used to carry nectar back to the hive. The honey stomach is not part of their regular digestive system. (Honey is not bee vomit).

Workers are responsible for protecting the hive and they have the tool to do the job- a stinger. Unlike the smooth stinger of a wasp, the bee has a barbed stinger. It becomes embedded in the skin of mammals and injects a full load of venom.

Another important job performed by worker bees is the building of honeycomb. Beeswax production is a main function of younger adults.

Using flakes of wax secreted from glands on their abdomen, they shape thousands of hexagonal wax cells. This comb provides storage space for food and room to rear young.

Forager bees gathering pollen from pink flower image.

Age Related Tasks

Like all insects, honey bees go thru complete metamorphosis (egg, larva, pupa, adult). 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 to do, the actual jobs performed changes. Worker bees do not perform the same jobs for their entire life.

In a normal colony, the first 3 weeks of her life involves jobs inside the hive. Later, her responsibilities switch to outside work. This is a dangerous and demanding time. Bees travel several miles from the hive to find food.

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 foraging bees due to poisoning, disease, etc. younger adults will be advanced to foragers regardless of their age.

Cleaning and Polishing: Day 1-3

Upon emergence, the young worker bee takes a sip of honey. For her first task, she will clean and polish the cell that she just left. Now it is ready for a new egg to be laid by the queen.

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 but worker bees at this stage may serve as undertakers.

Bees do not live very long compared to mammals. Each day some colony members die of natural causes. 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, they 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 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 the queen bee poops inside – who would have to clean it up? You can guess the answer.

The colony uses bee pheromones – chemical messengers as a form of communication. 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. It lets everyone know that the queen is in residence.

Despite their care of the queen, workers also have some hard choices to make. Do Worker bees kill the queen? Yes, sadly they can kill the queen bee.

A sobering fact about queen bees – she could be removed from her role. If the colony detects a diseased of failing queen, they may kill her.

Queen cells are immediately started for her replacement. Bee life is hard – a strong egg laying queen is vital.

Beeswax Production: Day 12 -18

Worker bees make wax from special glands located on the underside of their abdomens. They 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. This 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 in complete control of making honey.

As field bees return to the hive with honey stomachs full of nectar, it is transferred to a young house bees. The house bee adds enzymes and reduces the moisture content. The water content of ripe honey must be low. Excess water will cause it to spoil.

The process of making honey increases the moisture levels inside the hive. Workers at this age are also responsible for fanning the hive. This wing fanning activity helps to cool the hive and reduce moisture.

When the process is completed, 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 is that of guard bees at 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 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. In addition to foraging for food, water etc, a small percentage of them have a special task.

These are the scout bees. Their job is to seek out new food sources. Then, they 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 time of swarming.

Chart with jobs of worker honey bees image.

Lifespan

Young workers spend most of the first few weeks of life inside the hive. 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.

Compared to humans and some other life forms, bees do not live very long. Even among the same species – their life cycle varies. In the honey bee, it is better to be born in late Summer or early Fall.

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 physiologically different than their Summer sisters. These healthy “fat 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 systems allows a colony of cold-blooded insects, survive from one warm season to another.

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.

Mankind has always used the work ethic of the honey bee as a role model for being industrious. This is easy to see in our culture from the hundreds of cute quotes about bees that we see on greeting cards etc.

But, this is nothing new. An appreciation for bees dates back thousands of years, even unto the mythology of bees and gods.

FAQs About Honey Bee Workers

Are worker bees male or female?

The workers 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.

They 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 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.

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