Honey bees do a lot more than buzz around in flowers and make honey.
In fact, they have a very complex social structure within the hive, and the ones who make it all happen are the worker bees.
Keep reading to learn about what a worker bee is and all the amazing things they do in service of their colony.
What Is a Worker Bee?
A worker bee is a female honey bee, and she is a very busy member of her hive.
Workers have the classic honey bee appearance of golden yellow with black stripes. Their color can vary depending on the subspecies. They also have a fuzzy back, or thorax, that wears smooth as they age.
Workers are smaller than their queen and the drones. They have barbed stingers that they’ll use in defense of their hive if they need to. They can only sting once, and using their stinger is fatal for the worker bee.
While the queen is the matriarch of the honey bee colony, it’s the workers who truly control the hive’s activities and productivity.
On a daily basis, they do everything from nursing brood and building comb to defending the hive and gathering resources. The hive truly could not function without the workers diligently doing their part.
Worker Bee Behavior
Honey bee colonies function as a “superorganism,” meaning that the colony as a whole is more important than the individuals. Worker bees are generally docile and industrious, focusing all of their energy on the task at hand.
While they’re capable of stinging, they’re unlikely to waste a sting (and lose their life) when out foraging. They’ll become more protective inside the hive, so stings will usually happen when they feel their hive is under threat.
Worker bees are female, which means they can lay eggs. However, since workers can’t mate and their eggs won’t be fertilized, they will only become drones.
Usually, the queen takes care of making the drones in a healthy hive, and her pheromones keep her workers from laying. The presence of only drone brood is a sign that the hive is queenless and can’t create new workers.
Worker bees will make a new queen if they need to as long as they have fertilized eggs from the previous queen. They’ll even kill the current queen and supersede her if she isn’t laying well.
If a beekeeper introduces a new and unrelated queen, she’ll have to be accepted by the workers. If they don’t like her for any reason, she won’t survive very long.
Worker Bee Lifecycle
A worker bee starts out as a fertilized egg laid by the queen. The egg will hatch after three days.
Now a larva, nurse bees will feed and care for the growing worker until around day nine. They’ll cap the cell to let her finish developing.
The pupa will continue to grow until about day 21. Once she’s ready, she’ll chew the cap off her cell and emerge into the hive.
From the moment she joins her colony, she has a job to do. Workers start out by cleaning their own cells and then progress through all necessary hive duties throughout their lives.
In the spring and summer, workers will live for around 30 days. Winter worker bees can live much longer, around 60 days on average.
All the Tasks of a Busy Bee
Worker bees constantly make sure the entire hive is functioning properly. Aside from mating and reproducing, it’s all up to them.
As workers age, their jobs change so that everyone has something to do and is familiar with all necessary roles in the colony.
Works always start as nurse bees and end as foragers, with the tasks in between being a bit more flexible.
After a newly emerged worker bee has finished cleaning out her own cell, she becomes a nurse bee. She’ll focus her efforts on the brood, or cells that have any stage of developing bees.
These cells are typically grouped together, taking up the center of the frame. Resources like nectar and pollen are stored around them on the edges.
This means she’s responsible for tending to the brood comb and feeding larvae. She’ll also identify diseased or inbred brood and remove it.
Building Out Comb
Comb is necessary for brood, resource storage, and making honey. The workers have to build it all out of wax to have the space they need.
Worker bees secrete flakes of wax from the underside of their abdomen, which they then use to build and repair comb. Making wax is very energy intensive for them, and it can take a long time to build fresh comb.
They’ll also use sticky propolis to fill in any gaps they find, such as small spaces between boxes that don’t fit perfectly together. This seals the hive for better protection and temperature regulation.
This is what makes hive inspections a bit tricky sometimes. Propolis is strong and the workers will constantly replace it after the hive is closed back up. Beekeepers have to use a special hive tool to get enough leverage to separate hive boxes that have been sealed together with propolis.
Making sure everything is in its place to sustain the colony is a major part of worker bee life.
Designated workers will receive nectar and pollen from foragers to put into cells. They also keep it organized and can rearrange it as needed.
Pollen is their primary source of protein, and each cell it’s packed into will only contain pollen from the same plant. Nectar is mixed with digestive enzymes when the forager gathers it, and this is what will eventually evaporate into honey. Each worker only makes about 1/12 teaspoon of honey in her entire life.
Honey stores are necessary for surviving winter when workers can’t go out to forage, and this is what the colony survives on. Beekeepers should only harvest extra honey, leaving enough for the bees to consume.
Protecting the Hive
Workers are most likely to sting when they’re on guard duty inside the hive. They’ll attack intruders looking to eat their honey or brood, and they keep an eye out for potential threats.
They also release pheromones for foragers to help guide them back to the hive.
Attending the Queen
The queen always has workers around her. She’s constantly being fed and groomed by her attendants.
Sometimes the best way to locate the queen is by watching how the workers are moving. They’ll usually surround the queen, all facing inward toward her as she lays eggs.
The workers know what needs to be done because the queen communicates with them using her pheromones.
Honey bees are extremely hygienic and spend a lot of time keeping their hive clean.
In addition to maintenance cleaning, they manage pests, remove dead bees and brood, and use propolis to cover anything that might be hazardous. This might be a mouse that found its way in but never made it out. The workers will seal it up to make it safe.
Worker bees, sometimes with the help of drones, need to make sure they maintain the right temperature range at all times.
When it gets really hot, they’ll fan their wings to cool off. They’ll also sometimes hang in a big cluster out of the front of the hive, a behavior known as “bearding”.
In the winter, the entire colony will spend cold days clustered together with the queen at the center. They can also shiver to generate more heat.
A worker bee’s final job is to forage for nectar and pollen to feed the colony.
When they first start, they take an “orientation flight” so they know where their hive is once they fly off. They can fly as far as 5 miles away from the hive and will visit one type of flower at a time, pollinating as they go.
Foragers pick up pollen on their back legs so they can carry it back to the hive. This is affectionately referred to by beekeepers as “pollen pants” because it looks like they have pockets stuffed with brightly-colored pollen.
When they find nectar, they suck it up through their proboscis or tongue. It will mix with their digestive enzymes, and they spit it back up for waiting workers to receive and store.
Upon their return to the hive, they let other foragers know where they found flowers to visit. This is done using a “waggle dance,” which indicates both the direction and distance from the hive to the flowers.
Worker bees will continue to forage until they die of old age. You can typically identify an older worker because her thorax won’t be fuzzy anymore, and her wings may start to look ragged.
Worker Bees Define Girl Power
Worker bees perform so many necessary tasks in the hive, and they work together as a team to get it all done.
Honey bees are matriarchal. They are not only ruled by a female, but it’s also females who do all the work in the hive. They’re highly organized and function like a well-oiled machine, all thanks to these dedicated workers.
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!