The average honey beehive has 30,000-60,000 bees inside. There is usually only one queen, no matter how many bees there are. During the warm weather months, 1-2% of the population are drones, what we can the male bees. The rest are worker bees. They are all female. They are all sisters of each other and daughters of the queen.
Jobs of the Worker Bee
So let’s get into the job of the worker bee
Clean Up Crew
When a worker bee hatches, her first job is to clean out the cell she hatched from. In these first few days of life, she will stay in the hive and take on the role of housekeeper cleaning the cells so they are ready for the queen to lay an egg inside to to be filled with nectar or pollen. Additionally, they will clean the rest of the hive which includes carrying out bees who died in the hive and unwanted debris.
After the role of housekeep has ended, the bee will go on to become a nurse bee. Nurse bees tend to their “baby sisters” by feeding and caring for the eggs and larvae. On average, nurse bees check a single larvae 1,300 times a day. During this stage of a worker bee’s life, her royal jelly gland is actively secreting royal jelly and she uses this to feed the eggs.
Once the worker bee is about 2 weeks old, she will move on to creating honey. In this job, the worker bee meets the bees gathering nectar from flowers when they arrive at the hive entrance. The foraging bee will pass off the nectar to the younger bee where she will put it inside a cell within the hive and flap her wings in order to evaporate the majority of the moisture content, which is necessary in order to make honey.
The next role of the worker bee is to create honeycomb. At this stage, her wax glands have begun secreting wax. She will chew up the wax plates so they become malleable and mold it into the honeycomb.
When the worker bee’s wax gland begins to shrink, she will stop secreting wax and move on to guarding the hive. In this role, the bee’s job is to make sure unwanted visitors do not get into the hive. In this stage of her life, her venom sac is fully developed as well as her alarm pheromone. When a bee stings, she leaves a venom sac which is what causes the swelling and itching after you are stung. The alarm pheromone is release after a bee has stung which notifies other bees that something was stung and where.
The final stage of a worker bees life is the role of forager. As a forager, the bees job is to gather nectar, pollen and water and bring it back to the hive. The bees you usually see outside at flowers are the older, forager bees in the last stage of their life.
According to scientists, the bees brain chemistry changes when she changes jobs. If an older bee has to switch to the job of a younger bee, for example, if a forager bee has to revert back to secreting wax, her brain chemistry not only changes, but it stops aging. Please note that this was one study I read on the topic. Do not take this as fact, but a theory.
The worker bee never mates! However, if a hive doesn’t have a queen, a worker might start laying eggs. Since she isn’t fertile, she lays unfertilized eggs that turn into drones. This is called a rogue queen and a bad situation for the beekeeper. Why does this happen? The queen releases a pheromone that keeps the workers from laying eggs. Sometimes when this pheromone isn’t present a worker bee will start laying. I’m not sure if she even has control over this. You’ll often see 2-5 eggs in one cell, or if it’s a week or more later you will see a lot of drone cells and no worker bee cells.
Traits Only of the Worker Bee
The worker bees have body parts no other bees in the hive have. They are the only ones with glands to produce wax and royal jelly. They also have hairs on the sides of their back legs to carry pollen.
Maybe most importantly, they are the ones making honey. They go to flowers, gather nectar, bring it back to the hive and turn it into honey. The queen and the drones will never ever make honey.
Also the workers have a stinger. Drones do not have a stinger. If you are stung by a bee, it was a worker bee. Queens also have a stinger, but it is really rare to see a queen outside do the hive (since she leaves by herself only once in her life) and it is really really hard to get a queen to sting you. I’ve never met a beekeeper who was stung by a queen and I know beekeepers who have been in the trade for over 30 years. Also, a queen’s stinger is not barbed, so if she stings you, there will be no stinger to remove or venom sac to pump venom into your bloodstream.
Who is in charge?
In short, no one is. It is a democracy with no president. Once the queen is no longer fertile enough for the hive, a pheromone is released by the worker bees that sounds the alarm to kill the queen. They kill the queen collectively by either balling her (vibrating their flight muscles to produce enough heat or cook her) or they will sting her to death. A new queen is made by feeding royal jelly to a fertilized egg throughout its egg and larvae stages. They also build the cell larger for her to grow inside. Any worker bee could have been a queen if she was fed a different diet when she was a larvae and given more room to develop. You can learn more about the role of the queen bee in our blog all about the queen.
Obviously, the queen isn’t completely in charge and can be overthrown at any time. One reason to use a smoker when checking your hives is because if a hive is upset enough, you can get the bees so riled up that they ball their queen. I’ve never experience this myself, but have been warned by other beekeepers.
Watch a Honeybee Hatch!
Another fun bee video!
Although I have read that this is how the bees life cycle goes, some bees have personalities for one specific job and they do not switch jobs multiple times. For example, some bees are more adventurous and they are a scout bee their entire life. A scout bee’s job is to find new sources for food or a new home if they are looking to swarm. This involves charting new territory and can be very dangerous. Alternatively, some bees are more shy and stay in the hive the majority of their life.
Despite how competent worker bees are, they can’t survive on their own! If a bee was taken from her hive, she would die within a day or two if she didn’t find a new hive.
Even though the queen lays all the eggs, she doesn’t care for the young, the worker bees keep the baby bees warm, disinfect the cell the baby grows in, checks in on the baby bee and feeds it constantly.
The workers gather the food and store it within the hive.
They have a stinger so they can defend the hive and yes they die if they sting.
They will attend to the queen and feed her and clean her.
Oddly enough a worker bee is needed to make a queen. As I mentioned already, a queen is made by feeding a baby bee royal jelly. The queen bee also eats royal jelly throughout her life, it is her main source of food. I’ll talk more about this stuff in another podcast, but in short it royal jelly is loaded with nutrients needed for this queen to lay thousands of eggs a day. What is interesting is that the queen cannot produce royal jelly. The worker bees do. Worker bees have a gland in their head that secretes royal jelly, it is the only way to get royal jelly. And so the workers need the queen to lay eggs and the queen needs the workers to feed her royal jelly in order to produce eggs. It is a really beautiful symbiotic system. Everyone has a role and no one is more important than the other.
Fun Facts About Worker Bees
I wanted to share two a more facts about bees that I love. One is that bees can recognize human faces. Like us, they take the different features of a face and put it together to form a person’s face. They see the difference between faces. It is one reason why some people say they don’t like to wear a veil. They want the bees to get to know their face.
Another fascinating fact about bees is that they are great mathematicians! They are THE ONLY ANIMAL WE KNOW OF that can calculate distance. They will go to multiple flowers on a single trip and then calculate the fastest route back to their hive. Not even humans can do this without google maps. How this is possible I will discuss in a later podcast about how bees see.
Listen to our podcast all about the worker bee.
Or search for The Buzz About Bees on your favorite podcast listening app.
Learn more about bees and their role in the hive:
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