The worker bee is an industrious little creature that seems to work tirelessly for the good of the colony! The dynamics, culture, and social structure in a beehive is an interesting concept, and the role of the worker bee is crucial to the success of the hive. Learning more about the worker bee will help us better understand our bee colonies and how to care for them.
Worker bees are female bees bred to do the hard work to keep the colony alive. Worker bees have a short busy life but perform crucial tasks in the beehive. Their work role changes as they get older. Worker bees raise young bees, attend to the queen, protect the hive, and forage for food.
The worker bee is the driving force behind the success or failure of a bee colony. Their hard work shortens their lifespan but ensures the survival of the colony. To be a better beekeeper, it is important to understand the role, functions, and diversity of work that the worker bee performs in the hive.
The Important Role Of The Tireless Worker Bee
The worker bee plays a pivotal role in all aspects of a bee colony’s lifecycle. It is quite amazing to discover the amount of work that these small creatures can perform!
As we investigate the selfless effort that worker bees put into the survival of their colony and the production of the yield from the hive that we enjoy, we will come to appreciate what we gain from these insects.
Worker Bees Are Female Bees
Worker bees are all female bees, each with a specific job function within the hive. There are two types of female bees in a bee colony; the queen and the worker bee.
At the beginning of a queen bee’s reign, all the worker bees in her colony will be her sisters, but as the worker bees die off, she will replace them with her offspring.
Once a new queen has been in charge for some time, most of the worker bees in the colony will be her daughters.
How To Tell Which Bees Are Worker Bees
The worker bee is easy to identify when encountering bees outside the hive. When you see a bee flitting around from flower to flower in your garden or gathering pollen and nectar, it is a worker bee.
The worker bee is the bee we will most likely encounter outdoors, as the queen mostly remains inside the hive laying eggs and only ventures out of the safety of the hive to mate in the early stages of her life.
Male bees or drones do not have any pollination function, and their only role is breeding, which occurs in flight, making it unusual to encounter a drone.
Since the worker bee is the most common we encounter, it is also the bee most likely to deliver a sting.
A worker bee is the busiest but the smallest bee in the colony, measuring 0.47-inches long or 12mm long, and the black and gold or yellow coloring make it unmistakable.
Worker bees are equipped with physical features to make the tasks they perform in the colony easier.
- Long tongues. They extend their long tongue into flowers to siphon nectar from the depths of the flowers.
- A honey stomach. The worker bee stores collected nectar in a specialized “honey stomach” for transport back to the colony for storage in combs.
- Pollen rakes on their legs. Worker honey bees have combs or rakes on their legs to collect pollen from flowers.
- Pollen baskets on their legs. Worker bees have a special structure on their hind pair of legs called a pollen basket. They cram all the collected pollen into these baskets to transport this important resource back to the beehive. Even though pollen grains are small, you can see the bundle of pollen on the back legs of worker bees who have been foraging for pollen.
- Wax glands. Worker bees have a special gland on their bodies that produces a waxy substance, which becomes beeswax when chewed by the bee and combined with saliva.
- A barbed stinger. The worker bee has a stinger which it uses to defend itself and the security of the hive.
Worker bees have similar coloration to the queen bee but are noticeably smaller than the queen and have an abdomen that is more rounded than the queen’s longer tapering abdomen.
Worker Bees Outnumber Other Bees In The Colony
Worker bee numbers in a colony will fluctuate throughout the year depending on the queen’s health, the availability of resources in the area around the hive, and the season of the year.
When the seasons change and there are fewer flowers and food resources for the bees, the colony enters a dearth period. This is the off-season, where the colony will not be productive but will rely on their stored honey and bee bread to survive till the next production season.
During this time, the number of worker bees will reduce in the colony as the older bees die off and the queen slows down her egg-laying regimen. At this time in the colony cycle, there will be between 5000 and 10 000 worker bees in the colony, depending on how established the colony is.
As the new productive season approaches, which is spring in most locations, the queen will increase her egg-laying quota and boost the number of worker bees in the colony to make the most of the emerging flowers on the plants.
The number of worker bees will grow continuously till the peak of the productive season until the colony contains between 60 000 and 80 000 worker bees.
Generally, there will only be 1 queen in a colony unless new queens are raised to replace her. There may be no drones present in the hive in the wintertime at all. At the beginning of the productive season, the queen will produce drones, but their number will generally be less than 15% of the total workers in the colony.
At any time of year, or even when the numbers of worker bees drop, the worker bee will always be the most numerous type of bee in the colony.
The Life Cycle Of A Worker Bee
A worker bee goes through 4 distinct developmental stages during its lifespan; egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Worker bees start their busy life as small white, elongated eggs.
The eggs are quite small, between 0.04-inches to 0.06-inches or 1mm to 1.5mm long. This measurement is about half the size of a grain of rice as a visual reference.
The queen lays eggs in hexagonal wax cells sized for the type of bee she is producing at the time. Worker egg cells are the smallest cells, while drone and queen cells are considerably larger to provide space for developing the larger bee types. All eggs intended to become worker bees or queen bees will be fertilized eggs.
As a beekeeper, you can tell how old the egg is by its position in the cell. A newly laid egg will be standing almost vertically in the cell. The egg will have fallen over to about a 45° angle to the vertical on the second day. On the third day, the egg will be lying flat on the bottom of the cell.
The developing larvae only remain in the egg for these 3 days. Consequently, eggs laying flat in the bottom of the comb cell are about to hatch.
On the fourth day, the larvae inside the egg secrete a substance that dissolves the eggshell, freeing the larva from the confines of the egg. This is the hatching process for the larval bee.
Once the larva hatches, the adult nurse worker bees will feed the larva for a period of 4 or 5 days. For the first day or two, depending on the bee specie, the new larva may be fed a little royal jelly, but the new larva is fed worker jelly in most species.
Worker jelly differs from royal jelly in protein and vitamin content. A larva destined to develop into a queen is fed exclusively on royal jelly.
On the third day, the diet for the worker larva is changed to a clear secretion and a combination of bee bread and honey. Adult worker bees feed the larva for between 4 to 5 days. After this time, the cell is filled with a food store, and the brood cell is capped with a waxy cell cap.
The larva will continue to feed on the food store and begin to pupate. Once the larva becomes a pupa, it will no longer eat. The young bee will take a further 11 to 12 days to develop in the sealed cell and emerge as a young adult bee.
The young bee will chew its way through the cell’s wax cap and emerge in its adult form. The working life of the worker bee begins immediately after the young bee emerges as an adult from the brood cell.
What Jobs Do Worker Bees Do?
Bee colonies are a hive of activity, pun intended! There are many duties for a worker bee to perform in the beehive and out in the field.
Most of the duties inside the hive are performed by newly emerged adult bees, and their role will change as they become older. This changing role with age is known as polyethism.
The jobs that worker bees perform in the hive include the following.
- Housekeeping. One of the first roles a worker bee will undertake are tasks to clean the inside of the brood cells and keep them clean.
- Nursing. Your bees will be responsible for feeding other bees still in the larval stage of development.
- Queen attendants. Young bees progress from feeding the larvae to tending to the queen bee.
- Cleaning. Once the bees are over 6 to 13 days old, their task is to keep the hive clean.
- Security. These bees stand guard to protect the hive entrance, fight off intruders, and investigate disturbances around the hive.
- Environmental control. The temperature and humidity in the hive must remain constant
- Scouting. This is part of the duties of older field bees. They locate new food resources and hive locations for the colony.
- Foraging. The foraging duty involves the collection of pollen and nectar to sustain the colony.
Housekeeping Worker Bees
Cleaning is the first role of the young worker bee, and they will start this role immediately after emerging from their brood cell.
The emerging bee will clean out the cell from which it emerged, remove feces and leftover food, and repair any wax cell damage. They will help other newly emerged bees with this cleaning task and repairing the brood cells. This task prepares the cells to receive new eggs from the queen bee.
These young adult bees are also responsible for capping the cells of larvae that are ready to progress to the pupa stage.
Nursing Worker Bees
After a few days of life working as a housekeeper and cell repairer, a worker bee will be promoted to feeding the older, more developed larvae in the brood cells.
Once the young bees reach between 6 and 13 days of age, they will be responsible for feeding the very young larvae and feeding the queen. The young bees are only given these tasks at this age because the glands necessary to produce the royal jelly are only fully developed at this point.
Older nursing bees become exclusive attendants to the queen. They are dedicated to caring for her and feeding her.
Her entourage hovers and walks around her guiding her to the empty cells for egg-laying and bringing her food so she does not need to stop her work to feed. Her attending bees will also clean and groom her.
Cleaner Worker Bees
These bees are responsible for the cleanliness of the hive. They remove debris from the hive, dead bees, help forager bees offload their pollen, pack food into cells and convert nectar to honey.
The older cleaner bees aged between 10 and 20 days are tasked with building new comb structures to expand the capacity of the colony. They will also still perform cleaning duties from time to time and build the wax comb.
Guard Worker Bees
Hive security is an important role for worker bees before they graduate to become field bees. Guard bees will guard the entrance of the hive and will investigate disturbances around the hive.
If a guard bee discovers a threat, it will buzz the offending creature and bump into it as a warning to move away. If the animal does not move away, the guard bee will sting the threat. If the threat is deemed to be too close to the hive, the bee may forego the warning and go straight to the sting!
The pheromones released in the sting will attract other guard bees and other colony members in attack mode to defend the hive against the threat.
Young adult bees between 13 and 25 days old are tasked with the security function of the colony. They may operate in the security role or the environmental control function when at this age.
Environmental Control Worker Bees
The internal environment of the hive must remain constant to ensure the survival of the bees, the development of the larvae, and the ripening of the honey.
Worker bees between the age of 13 and 25 days are tasked with environmental control of the hive. They will also perform security or guard duty for the colony at this age and may do shifts in each role.
The internal temperature of the beehive must remain at an average of 94.1°F or 34.5°C to keep the bees warm and to keep the larvae warm enough to promote development.
The internal hive temperature range the bees maintain is between 91.4°F and 96.8°F, or 33°C and 36°C. They will maintain this internal temperature range throughout the year, but in the coldest parts of the year, the queen will reduce her laying quota to reduce the strain on the environmental control.
The bees flex muscles in their legs and bodies to generate heat to raise the hive’s temperature. They will often cluster on the brood comb while they do this, so the developing larvae get the most benefit from the warmth.
The bees will fan their wings to cool the hive down by driving hot air out of the hive and introducing clean, cooler air. Water will be brought into the hive and used to cool the hive by evaporation.
Bees that have adapted to cold winter conditions may use additional methods of retaining warmth in the hive, such as clustering.
The humidity in the hive must be maintained to ensure the honey ripens properly. Too much moisture in the beehive will result in the honey fermenting and becoming unusable for the bees.
Scout Worker Bees
Scout and foraging bees are called field bees since most of their functions are outside and away from the hive. The worker bees graduate to become field bees when they are between 18 and 28 days old.
Scout bees will travel in many directions from the hive to locate new food and water sources. They will also scout out new hive locations if the current location is becoming too small for the growing colony.
When the scouts find new resources, they return to the colony and communicate their findings to the foraging bees with several clearly identifiable dances. The dances communicate instructions regarding distance and direction to the new resource.
Forager Worker Bees
As with scout bees, forager worker bees are bees that have reached the age of 18 to 28 days. Forager bees will navigate to flowers and other resources communicated to them by the scout bees.
The forager bees will then collect pollen and nectar and, in some cases, water to transport back to the colony.
Forager bees can fly long distances, sometimes up to 5-miles or 8km or more, to retrieve resources for the colony. These are, however, extreme cases, with the average forage distance for a bee being about 2-miles or 3.2km from the hive.
How Long Do Worker Bees Live?
A worker bee can be about 3 weeks old before she begins foraging. Considering that the lifespan of a worker bee is a maximum of about six weeks in the productive season, one can see how the hard work shortens their life.
In the dearth or unproductive season, the worker bee can live up to 20 weeks or more, more than three times their lifespan, during the hardworking, productive season.
This high turnover of workers requires the queen to constantly lay eggs to replenish the worker community in the colony. In the busy season, the queen can lay between 2000 and 3000 eggs per day to ensure a constant supply of worker bees of varying ages to perform all the necessary tasks n the colony.
What Do Worker Bees Eat?
Worker bees whose duties keep them inside the hive will survive off the honey stores gathered in the combs. They will also consume some of the bee bread made from pollen that the foraging bees have collected.
Field bees such as scout and forager bees will fuel up on honey before exiting the hive on their forays out into the environment. If they need refueling while out in the field, they will consume nectar from flowers to sustain them for the return journey to the beehive.
Do Worker Bees Mate?
Worker bees are female bees, and they have female genitalia. However, the diet the worker bee larvae were fed does not allow for the full development of the reproductive organs.
As a result, worker bees, though female, are unable to mate with male bees and unable to produce fertilized eggs.
Can Worker Bees Lay Eggs?
Even though worker bees cannot mate, they still have the capacity and ability to lay eggs. A healthy, active queen in the hive emits a pheromone in the colony that prevents the worker bees from laying eggs.
If a queen bee becomes old and her pheromone is not sufficiently strong, worker bees may start to lay eggs. This will also be the case if the queen bee dies and no longer produces the pheromone.
These eggs laid by worker bees will be unfertilized since the worker bee cannot mate. Unfertilized eggs will only produce male drone bees, which will not benefit the colony in any way. If the colony remains queenless, the colony will die out.
Worker Bees Can Produce New Queens
If a queen bee is ailing or dies, the nurse bees can raise a new queen if they have newly laid eggs less than 3 days old in the cells.
When these new larvae hatch, the nurse bees will feed them a diet exclusively of royal jelly, stimulating the development of the larvae into a new queen. Multiple “emergency” queens may be raised in this way.
When the first virgin queen emerges, she may locate other queen cells in the hive and kill the developing queens. If another queen has emerged before she can do this, the two queens will fight till one is killed. The surviving queen will take over the rulership of the colony.
Worker bees are a fascinating part of the culture and society within a beehive. The organization and division of labor in the colony ensure that all tasks crucial for the colony’s survival are taken care of by workers of various ages.
The worker bees are the industrial workforce that keeps the bee colony functioning like a well-oiled machine!
Writer’s own experience as a beekeeper