In a hive of honey bees, each individual has an important job to do. The colony is very organized, and there’s no shortage of work to get done.
One of the jobs a worker will take on throughout her life is the role of nurse bee. These worker bees are a crucial part of raising a healthy colony, and there’s a lot that goes into their job. Without them, there would be no future generations of bees.
Read on to learn all about what nurse bees do to help keep their hive going.
What Is a Nurse Bee?
A nurse bee is a young worker honey bee who is one of many responsible for the general maintenance of brood or different stages of developing bees. This is a worker’s first real job in service of the colony.
These bees are able to tell how old each larva is and what it needs at any given moment. They also know if any brood is unhealthy or inbred and needs to be removed from the hive.
Which Bees Become Nurse Bees?
Every worker bee – all female – that lives in the colony will be a nurse bee after she emerges from her cell.
Before the Nursery
Once a worker bee finishes developing in her cell, she chews through the wax capping and emerges to join the hive.
Before she moves into the role of nurse, she will clean out her own cell to prepare it for new eggs, pollen, or nectar.
Once that’s taken care of, she will immediately start tending to brood to ensure the health of any developing honey bees.
After the Nursery
When each nurse bee is ready to move on to her next role, she’ll take on a new job, and newly emerged workers will take her place.
She might build comb, seal up the hive with propolis, defend the hive from intruders, store pollen, or act as undertaker to remove dead bees. There are so many other things to be done, and there’s no time to waste!
Main Tasks of Nurse Bees
Just like their title suggests, nurse bees are primarily tasked with taking care of the eggs, larvae, and capped brood in their hive.
They feed all the baby bees and inspect the cells to see if anything is wrong or requires attention. Nurse bees make many visits to each cell and are constantly monitoring the health of the brood.
Tending to Brood
Each worker bee will usually spend about a week in the nursery, tending to worker and drone brood as well as any developing queens.
Feeding larvae with bee bread, a combination of honey, pollen, and worker jelly, appears to be the main priority.
For the first few days, nurse bees give each larva more food than they can eat. The growing larvae will be suspended in the milky white substance while workers check the level within each cell to maintain a certain amount for them to consume.
As of the third day, the larvae eat everything as soon as it’s given to them and are too large to float around.
Nurse bees carry out regular inspections to catch any issues quickly and determine what each cell needs, visiting each developing bee about 1,300 times a day.
These can be longer or shorter visits depending on what needs to be done, and each growing bee receives a lot of attention over time. The average visit is usually just 2 to 3 seconds but sometimes can last 10 to 20 seconds for a quick check-up. Feeding can take anywhere from 2 seconds to 2 minutes or more.
It’s believed that eggs and larvae emit different signals, so that nurse bees know what they need to do for each one. Brood pheromones likely play a role as well.
When the larvae are ready to become pupas, nurse bees will visit twice as many times as usual on the last day. Then, they will cap the cell with wax to let the larvae finish developing on their own.
It will take about eight days for each bee to finish growing until they emerge.
During their regular inspections, nurse bees will identify and remove any diseased larvae to protect the hive. This is important because it can help prevent the spread of illnesses throughout the hive and make them aware of any potential issues as soon as possible.
Rearing a Queen
Nurse bees help raise new queens by feeding the larvae royal jelly in a specially built cell.
These developing queens can be attended by a single worker bee, but more likely, there will be several bees who tend to them. There doesn’t appear to be a dedicated group of nurse bees that only attend to queen larvae, and all nurse duties are shared.
However, queen cells are usually visited more frequently than worker cells, and these visits typically last longer. As the queen larvae get older, they are visited even more often as they grow larger and need more to eat.
Nurse bees need to make sure the queen doesn’t fall out of her cell since it faces downward rather than sideways like other brood.
Queens are sometimes able to seal off their own cells to finish developing, but it’s typical for nurse bees to do this for them.
Once the first queen emerges and destroys any other queen cells, workers will immediately start to groom and feed her. They’ll also clean up after her and generally fuss over and attend to her.
Raising the Hive
Honey bees are very adept at dividing up all the jobs that need to be done to keep the hive functioning properly.
Nurse bees are responsible for helping raise the next generation of bees, who will eventually take over nursery duty once they move on to other tasks. They not only raise each individual baby bee, but they also make sure that only healthy brood makes it to adulthood.
Interested in learning more about these miraculous pollinators? Visit my bees page to learn all about the different roles within the beehive, different bee species, beekeeping, and more!
- About the Author
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Hope Schwartz-Leeper is an avid reader, writer, and lover of all things nature with degrees in English and Philosophy.
Born and raised in the Northeast, Hope has always had an affinity for spending time outside. Growing up and attending college in New York, then living on Cape Cod and finally settling in Rhode Island has given her plenty of experience with the climate and environment of these areas.
She loves growing her own food and plants and is always trying to grow something new. She’s hoping her apple trees will one day bear fruit, but for now she’s excited about anything that comes from the garden.