Small Package, Big Deal

We’ve looked at the drone and the queen. Let’s look at 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 are 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.

Worker BeeAnatomy 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 in a worker bee’s anatomy and the queen 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.

Queen Cells

Next, they transition into pupa and their cell is be 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 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 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 to 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 at the inside. Workers in the cluster continue in this role throughout the winter.

swarm 1Role 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 intruders face because she can sense the areas that have the most carbon dioxide.

Stinger

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 summer time worker bee will live to the ripe old age of 6 weeks. This bee works 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.

8 thoughts on “The Role of the Worker Bee”

  1. Thank you for this information. I especially liked Ron’s response to Marlin’s question. We need to know all we can about mites and other pests, and diseases.

  2. This is really good and I want to thank the folks at perfect bee for doing it, there is a couple of things said here that are different then what I have read else where the first thing is the drone bee I read that the drone do not fee them selves at all they are at the mercy of the nurse bees all there lives for food. and the sec thing is I have read the bees will go with in a 3 miles of there hive not 5, I also did not know they put the water on the wings of bees to cool the hive that is really neat, I did know they used it to cool the hive any way this is real good thanks and have a wonderful day

  3. OK, wonderful article, I missed the queen and drone article due to other things going on in my life—–is it possible to get a chance to catch up on these previous articles?

  4. In my town they have been cutting trees down, I am wondering could this be a reason that the bee population is gone. Last year in front of my home, the flowers attract bees, and a lot of them. This year all I’ve seen was 2 or 3. That’s it.
    Is this the reason the bug/bee population has gone?

    Very truly yours,

    Si

  5. Worker bees are the laborers. It is amazing how many trips and how long the foragers travel back and forth to the hive all day for days on end. No wonder they wear out and die so soon.

  6. Very interesting article, how are the Fat Bees made so much bigger then normal worker bees as described in the article?

    1. Marlin, In the fall when the colony is pulling down numbers, the nurse bees don’t use up their “fat bodies” because they don’t have larva to feed. (Fat bodies are formed right after bees emerge by engorging on pollen. Foragers have diminished fat bodies.) So in fall the nurse bees retain their “fat bodies”.

      Within the fat bodies is a molecule called Vitellogenin. Vitellogenin is 91% protein, 7% fat and 2% sugar. When Vitellogenin is exhausted in a bee she becomes a forager. Winter bees don’t use up this compound and it allows them to survive only on honey throughout the winter. They have just enough “fat bodies” to raise up the first generation of new bees in late winter.

      Other differences. Winter bees have lower levels of hormones, a greater make up of fat bodies, enlarged food glands and their blood has a higher level sugars and fats. Summer bees are just about the opposite, with higher levels of hormones and lower levels of fat and sugar in their blood. Summer bees live four to six weeks and winter bees live four to six months or longer. The bees that will see the colony through the winter are larger than the normal field bee.

      Its important to keep in mind that bees infested with mites as pupae do not fully develop the physiological features typical of long lives winter bees and may not be able to survive until spring. Consequently, mite treatments made late in the season may kill the mites but the bees colony dies anyway. Its the bees raising what will become the winter bees that must be healthy and therefore mite treatment must occur prior to the time winter bees are raised.

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