The Role of the Worker Bee

Small Package, Big Deal

We’ve looked at the drone and the queen. Now let’s look at the astonishing, amazing, almost unbelievable worker bee!

When we are in our garden or walking through a field, it may seem like worker bees are dainty creatures that simply float from flower to flower, like a cool summer breeze. However, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. These bees literally keep a hive functioning, power the force of pollination and help our world. They are girls on a mission to get a job done and to work all day, every day of their lives.

But the value of the worker bee goes a lot deeper than our eyes might realize.

Importance of the Worker Bee

The worker bee is just that – a bee that works. Depending on her age, she has many different roles in the hive.

When she is young, she will be a nurse bee. These bees nurture and feed bee larvae. They take on the job of processing incoming nectar, feeding the queen, as well as making and capping the honey.

Older worker bees will leave the hive to collect the necessary resources from which the colony survives. They have a dangerous and tiring job, but work from the time the sun is up until sunset.

Sometimes the worker bees will start laying eggs of their own. This is not ideal, and this video explains how this happens, as well as how to handle the issue.

Anatomy of the Worker Bee

The worker bee is the smallest of the honey bees. She is a compact version of the queen and the drone. Like all bees, she has a head, thorax, and abdomen. The most prolific part of her body is the hypopharyngeal gland, which she uses to feed the larvae, queen, and drones. Without this gland (located in her head) the whole hive would be in trouble.

Another essential part of her body is the proboscis, the long tongue that she uses to suck nectar out of flowers.

Perhaps the most important difference between a worker bee’s anatomy and the queen’s is that she is not able to fertilize eggs. A worker bee can, however, lay unfertilized eggs which produce drones.

What does it mean if a worker bee lays eggs?
Workers laying eggs is not a good sign because it indicates the queen is not doing her job (or may not even be present).

Worker Cells and How Are They Fed?

Worker bees begin as a fertilized egg, laid by the queen. She will remain in her cell as an egg for about 3 days, then start the transition to a larva. Nurse bees – also workers – will feed the larva royal jelly for about 3 days, then feed honey and pollen (also referred to as bee bread) for the remainder of their time as a larva.

Next, they transition into pupa and their cell is capped on day 9. Finally, an adult worker bee will emerge at around day 21, being around 15 millimeters in length and weighing around 100 milligrams.

Roles After Birth

The worker bee has several different tasks after she emerges from her cell.

Mortuary Bees (days 3-16)

The job of these worker bees is to take any bees that have died within the hive or larvae that did not grow and remove them from the hive. They will take them far away from the hive, to reduce the likelihood of disease in the hive.

Drone Feeding (days 4-12)

When drones are babies they are not capable of feeding themselves. It is then that they need a worker bee to feed them so they can thrive. However, as the drones get older they can feed themselves and they head straight to the honey supply to stay fed.

Queen Attendants (days 7-12)

The queen’s attendants have a very important job. They take care of the queen by feeding and grooming her. Yet, even more important is their incidental role in spreading Queen Mandibular Pheromone (QMP) throughout the hive. This is a pheromone given off by the queen. After encountering the queen, the attendants spread QMP throughout the hive, a signal to the rest of the bees that the hive still has a viable queen.

Pollen Packing (days 12-18)

When foraging bees bring pollen back to the hive it needs to be stored in a cell. The bee will take the pollen and place it inside the honeycomb. The pollen will then be mixed with a little honey to avoid it spoiling. The pollen is eventually used to feed the brood.

Honey Sealing (days 12-35)

These bees have the task of taking honey, drying it to the appropriate water content, and then capping it. The workers have wax glands in their abdomen that produce sheets of wax which are used to cap the honey.

Honeycomb Building (days 12-35)

Honey bees can produce their own wax but the builders of honeycomb will receive wax from another bee and use it to start building more honeycomb.

Fanning (days 12-18)

These workers fan the hive with their wings, using evaporated water to help it stay cool. Basically, they are the air conditioning for the hive.

Water Carriers

The water carriers go hand-in-hand with the fanning bees. Their job is to carry water to the fanning bees, in order to cool the hive. They will gather water from a nearby water source and spread it along the backs of the fanning bees. This allows them to fan and cool the hive.

Guard Bees (days 18-21)

Guard bees hover at the entrance of the hive to protect it from unwanted visitors. The number of guard bees will vary depending upon the season and how much traffic the hive is having at the time.

Foraging Bees (days 22-42)

Foraging bees gather food for the hive. They will travel within a 5-mile radius to collect pollen, nectar and propolis for the hive.

Interaction with Queen and Drones

Worker bees tend to the queen between days 7 and 12 of their life. During those days she interacts heavily with the queen. Between days 4 and 12 of her life, she is a nurse bee, at which time she will also interact heavily with the drones and other baby bees.

How often do nurse bees check their young?
It is common for a nurse bee to check larvae over 1300 times per day.

Role in Winter Cluster

During the winter, the worker bee has one job, namely to protect and keep the queen warm. Workers will gather around the queen, vibrating their wing muscles to create heat. This produces considerable warmth within the hive.

To ensure the workers on the edge of the cluster do not become too cold, workers rotate from the outside to the inside, on an ongoing basis. The temperatures range from around 46 degrees Fahrenheit on the outside of the cluster to 80 degrees Fahrenheit on the inside. Workers in the cluster continue in this role throughout the winter.

Role in Swarming

When a hive swarms, the older queen will leave with approximately half of the worker bees within the original hive, as a way to combat overcrowding. This is effectively a reproductive process, at the colony level.

The swarm will travel and rest on bushes and shrubs. Sometimes the swarm will rest for a few hours, sometimes a few days, depending on the weather and other factors.

Scout bees will leave their resting spot to find a place for their new home. Once one is located, they’ll come back to conduct their ‘scouting dance’, so the other scout bees can check out the location. If they deem the new location suitable, the swarm will move there permanently and build their new hive.

Use of Stinger and How Workers Die

As all beekeepers can confirm, a worker bee has a stinger! She uses this to defend her hive from any intruder. She will often aim towards the intruder’s face because she can sense the areas that have the most carbon dioxide.

What happens when a worker bee stings?
When she stings something as tough as human skin, her stinger is ripped off and left in the victim. The worker is generally killed since the process rips out her organs as she disconnects.

Death (Summer vs. Winter Bees)

A summertime worker bee will live to the ripe old age of 6 weeks. These bees work day and night, so their lifespan is shorter.

However, a winter bee has a completely different life. They are often called ‘fat bees’ as they are much larger in size. Because these are sturdier bees (and they are needed to keep the queen warm) their life expectancy ranges anywhere from 6-8 months.