I look out into my flower garden and the honey bees I see in our flowers – probably from our hives – are all worker bees.
What is a worker bee? Worker bees make up 90% or more of the bees in a beehive and do every job in the colony except lay fertilized eggs and, because they are female, they don’t mate with the queen. They do all the work and run the hive.
Those short sentences don’t do worker bees justice. They are fascinating little creatures who begin their multiple roles in life as soon as they emerge from their brood cells.
Who Is Who In The Hive
A hive has three types of bees: a queen, drones, and workers.
In a colony of 20-60,000 bees, there is one queen. She lays the eggs and emits a pheromone that tells the bees that all is well. The largest bee in the hive is the queen.
There are a few hundred to a thousand male bees known as drones. The males are the next largest in size.
Their job is to fly to an area known as the drone congregation area to wait for the chance to mate with virgin queens from any colonies in the area. They mate once and then die.
Everyone else in the colony is a female worker bee and the rest of this article is about these amazing girls and what they do. And, yes, we refer to our worker bees as “our girls”, so you may find me interchanging that with the term “worker bees”.
Making A Worker Bee
During the first three days, any fertile egg in the hive can become a worker bee or a queen.
During days one through three, all egg cells are given royal jelly.
Eggs become larvae by day four and workers in the hive begin to feed what is known as “bee bread”, a mixture of pollen and honey, to the worker larvae in the brood cells. Plant chemicals in the bee bread effectively sterilize the growing bee, so she will become a worker, not a queen.
On the sixth day, the larval cell is capped with wax and the pupa continues to develop until it emerges from its cell on day twenty-one and takes its place as a worker bee in the colony.
What Are The Roles Of A Worker Bee In The Hive?
The roles of the worker bees are many. Here is a list of about two dozen jobs.
Workers in the summer live about six weeks or 42 days. I’ve made a note of the approximate times some of these jobs take place.
- Cell Cleaning
- Hive Cleaning
- Cleaning Other Bees
- Mortuary Bees
- Nurse Bees
- Drone Feeders
- Queen Attendants
- Wax Production and Comb Building
- Hive Repair
- Foraging Bees
- Nectar – Receiving, Fanning, and Honey Capping
- Fanning Bees
- Guard Bees
- Winter Bees
Even though there are no drill sergeants and no house mothers with lists, all the jobs in a hive get done. Bees are very tidy creatures, and housekeeping takes several forms.
1. Cell Cleaning
The first one or two days.
As soon as a young worker bee emerges from its brood chamber, its first job is housekeeping duties. It cleans out brood cells, including its own so the queen can use them again for egg laying.
2. Hive Cleaning
Besides cleaning out cells, workers clean out all debris from the hive. There are bits and pieces of wax, dead bees, pollen, dirt and things that the beekeeper has left in the hive that need to be cleared away.
3. Cleaning Other Bees
Bees may have stray bits, dust and other things on them. They may have nectar of sugar syrup that needs to be cleaned off.
4. Mortuary Bees
In the first two weeks.
Most bees die as foragers while they’re out in the fields. Some bees do die in the hive. Some larvae don’t grow to maturity.
Bees like to keep their homes clean. Dead bees are debris that can potentially become moldy or cause diseases. They are pulled out of the hive and flown a distance away.
5. Nurse Bees
The first two weeks.
These girls take care of the eggs and larvae. They examine the egg or larva and then feed it royal jelly for the first three days. After that, worker and drone larvae are fed bee bread.
Queens, on the other hand, are fed only royal jelly, which is made by the nurse bees in their hypopharynx gland. They are fed royal jelly for their whole lives.
Queen eggs and larvae are fed for 5.5 days before being capped with wax. Drones for 6.5 days and worker bees for 6 days.
6. Drone Feeding
Up to first two weeks.
Young drones are fed for several days after emerging from their wax cell. According to Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium, the drones can feed themselves after four days, but they prefer to be fed.
7. Queen Attendants
The second week.
A retinue of six to ten bees attend the queen, feeding and grooming her. The queen can lay up to her own body weight in eggs in a day, so the more eggs she lays, the more the attendants feed her.
Another essential task happens as the workers tend the queen.
The queen releases what is called a “queen mandibular pheromone”, QMP. This scent is transferred to her attendants as they groom and feed her. In turn, it is transferred to other workers and spread throughout the colony. The strength and quality tell the hive that the queen is alive and well.
8. Wax Production and Comb Building
Wax production occurs around the third week.
Worker bees have eight wax glands, four to a side, on the underside of their abdomens. The wax produced comes out in little scale like pieces.
Comb building can occur from the second through the fifth weeks.
Worker bees seem to be very efficient at delegating. The bees who produce the wax aren’t the builders. Other worker bees take the wax from the producers and they build the wax comb in the hive.
9. Hive Repair
Whether the honeycomb builders also do repair work, I do not know, but repair is another chore done by the house bees.
10. Foraging Bees
Worker bees spend the last three weeks their lives foraging.
Bees will go as far from the hive as five miles. Three miles is the usual extent of their range and if there is good forage, they will stay within a mile of home.
The four main items foragers collect and bring back to the hive are:
- nectar – for making honey
- pollen – protein supplies
- tree resin – from buds and sap
- water – for cooling the hive
Nectar is collected through a straw-like tongue called a proboscis. It is stored in a “honey stomach”, a crop in the foregut, for the return to the hive. Enzymes in the honey stomach begin the process of turning nectar into honey. Water is also carried in the crop.
Pollen is collected in “pollen baskets”. These are areas on the back set of legs where stiff hairs hold the pollen until it is delivered to the hive. Pollen baskets are also used to carry resin for making propolis.
A worker bee will collect only one of these four items during a trip. Bees in the hive indicate by their eagerness to take the cargo whether more is wanted or something else is needed.
Another house chore is collecting resin from forager bees. They mix this with stomach enzymes, wax and honey to create propolis, sometimes known as “bee glue”. Propolis fills cracks and is used to contain pathogens that intruders have brought into the hive.
From a beekeeper’s perspective, propolis is used to coat everything we want clean and to stick everything together that we want to separate, including the fingers of our gloves. I usually manage to get it on my cell phone when I’m taking pictures of our beehives. It is exceptionally sticky.
12. Nectar – Receiving, Fanning, and Honey Capping
Honey capping is on the chore list during the third through fifth weeks.
Workers receive nectar from foraging bees. They “chew” it for up to a half hour, adding enzymes, and then spread it out in honeycomb cells where it can dry.
Nectar is about 70% water and honey has about 17% water content. To evaporate the water in nectar that has been deposited in honeycomb, workers fan their wings.
When the nectar has converted reduced to honey, it is capped over with wax.
The third week.
Foragers bring pollen back to the hive and workers take it from them. It is mixed with a bit of honey to keep bacteria from forming and packed into cells in the wax comb. Pollen isn’t capped over the way honey is.
14. Fanning Bees
The third week.
Temperature control is vital in the colony. If it gets too hot, water carrier bees will gather water in an internal water crop and bring it to the hive.
Once there, the water carriers deposit the water on the backs of bees who will fan their wings, using evaporation to cool off the hive.
15. Guard Bees
The third week, after the stinger and venom are fully developed.
These girls stay near the entrances to the hive. They are few in number, a dozen or two, but if pheromones announcing a significant threat are released, more workers mobilize. However, if minor threats call them away from the entrance, they aren’t immediately replaced. There is no roster of back-up bees. They check bees entering the hive and protect from intruders, and their number will vary, depending on the season and hive activity.
We can vouch for their diligence. Occasionally both of us have had to run when we were checking the entrances and weren’t in our beekeeping gear.
When a colony decides to swarm, it is the workers who make the call. I’ll talk about that under a separate heading.
17. Winter Bees
Winter bees have a different life from the workers that live in the hive the rest of the year. They get a section to themselves below.
What’s The Waggle Dance And Why Do Worker Bees Do It?
Worker bees do what is known as the waggle dance. It’s a form of communication between forager bees.
If a forager finds a good source of nectar or pollen, inside the hive she tells the other forager bees where that location is. Human interpretation of the dance is that the number of circles or figure eights, the vigor of the waggle, and the angle of the dance on the comb indicated the direction and quantity or quality of the food source. There has also bee some discussion of transference of an electrical charge from the forager to her fellows.
Worker Bees And Swarming
When bees decide to leave home in a swarm, it is the worker bees who have made the call.
Swarming, when half of the bees in a colony fly away with the queen to find a new home, is the way bee populations spread and increase.
Before swarming, the workers prepare the hive, the queen, and they prepare themselves.
Workers build what are called queen cups. These are large brood cells where queen bees are created. When eggs have been laid, fed royal jelly, and have reached the stage where they are capped, then the colony is close to ready to swarm.
Workers feed the queen less and less in days before the flight so she will be light enough to fly with the swarm. On the other hand, the workers eat more, storing it in their bodies, as fuel reserves for the days they fly and set up a new hive.
Before swarming, scouts will find a suitable temporary place for the swarm to land.
When swarming begins, the bees fly out in large numbers, pushing the queen out along with them. They fly to the temporary location, where they mass around the queen, while scouts fly out to find a new permanent location for the colony to live. The scouts fly back, do waggle dances to indicate the location and type of place they have located, a decision is made, and the bees fly to their new home.
Workers Bees In The Winter
The job of the worker bee in winter is to protect the queen from the cold and to preserve the colony of bees so the hive survives through to the spring.
The worker bees going into winter are known as “fat bees”. They differ from the workers in other seasons because they have eaten large amounts of pollen and stored it in their bodies instead of feeding it to brood because in the winter there is no brood.
The food reserves are more nourishing than the summer diet and lead to a longer life and a more robust bee. These girls can live up to 6 months because they are well fed and don’t wear themselves out with daily foraging flights.
Unlike many insects, worker bees can generate heat and maintain a high body temperature. They do this by rapidly flexing their flight muscles.
During winter, the bees form a cluster surrounding the queen within the hive. They disengage or disarticulate their wings from the flight muscles and shiver or vibrate to create warmth. The center of a cluster will reach temperatures of 85 ° F when there is no brood to warm. In late winter and early spring when the queen has begun to lay eggs, the workers will heat the center of the cluster up to 95° F.
The outside of the cluster will be around 48° F, which is too cold for bees to survive long. The workers rotate position, with the colder bees on the outer edges of the cluster moving toward the center as the warmer center bees move toward the outside of the cluster.
Can A Worker Bee Lay Eggs?
A worker bee is sterile, but, yes, she can lay eggs.
A colony that has a healthy, active, laying queen is known as “queen right”.
When a colony is not queen right, that usually means the queen is dead, ailing, sterile, or not laying eggs properly. The workers sense that all is not right with the health of the colony and they will begin to lay eggs when their queen does not.
The eggs workers lay aren’t fertilized, so all they can produce is drones.
With our very first beehives, we knew that something was not right with one of the packages of bees we installed. Within two weeks, the hive had drone brood and no worker brood. A quick check with our mentor confirmed that we had an unmated or sterile queen and either she or the workers were laying drone eggs. Fortunately, we caught this within the first two weeks and a new queen set the hive right.
Can A Laying Worker Bee Make A Queen Bee?
Someone asked if a laying worker can make a queen. The answer is no. Workers can, however, make a queen but not from their own eggs.
If workers sense that they need a new queen, they are the ones deciding when and which eggs are to become queens. They need to have eggs no older than three days that have been laid by a fertile queen. Given these, they will enlarge the brood cells and feed the future queens a diet of only royal jelly.
We once collected a swarm that had no queen. We took a frame with eggs from another hive and placed it in with the swarm bees. We did this three times at intervals of about five days, and finally on the third frame, the girls made a beautiful necklace of queen cells with the eggs that we provided them.
What Is The Lifespan Of A Worker Bee
The average life of a worker bee is about 6 weeks.
When they become foragers, they fly every day until their wings become tattered and they wear themselves out. Or they find themselves too far from home and the weather to cool to make it back to the hive.
In winter, workers have eaten more pollen and honey and are more robust bees and they rarely fly far from the hive. They can live up to six months.
If a worker stings you, it will die. The stingers are barbed so the bee can’t pull it out to fly away or to sting again. Separating the bee from the stinger rips off the end of its abdomen, killing the bee.
Why Are Worker Bees Important And What Do They Do For Us?
Foraging worker bees pollinate plants by carrying pollen from one flower and one plant to another.
A third of our food crops are fertilized by bees and other pollinators. Up to 90% of wild plants are fertilized by pollinators. Our world would be very barren without bees.