Understanding the Role of the Worker Bee in a Hive
The majority of the bee hive’s population consists of worker bees. Like the queen, worker bees are all female. They are smaller, their abdomens are shorter, and on their hind legs they possess pollen baskets, which are used to tote pollen back from the field.
The life span of worker bee is a modest six weeks during the colony’s active season. However, worker bees live longer (four to eight months) during the less active winter months. These winter workers are loaded with protein and are sometimes referred to as “Fat Bees.”
Worker bees do a considerable amount of work, day in and day out. They work as a team. The specific jobs and duties they perform during their short lives vary as they age. Understanding their roles will deepen your fascination and appreciation of these remarkable creatures.
Initially, a worker’s responsibilities include various tasks within the hive. At this stage of development, worker bees are referred to as house bees. As they get older, their duties involve work outside of the hive as field bees.
Worker bee housekeeping (days 1 to 3)
One of her first tasks is cleaning out the cell from which she just emerged. This and other empty cells are cleaned and polished and left immaculate to receive new eggs and to store nectar and pollen.
Worker bee undertakers (days 3 to 16)
During the first couple weeks of her life, the worker bee removes any bees that have died and disposes of the corpses as far from the hive as possible. Similarly, diseased or dead brood are quickly removed before becoming a health threat to the colony.
Nursing young worker bees (days 4 to 12)
The young worker bees tend to their “baby sisters” by feeding and caring for the developing larvae. On average, nurse bees check a single larva 1,300 times a day.
Attending to the queen bee (days 7 to 12)
Because her royal highness is unable to tend to her most basic needs by herself, some of the workers do these tasks for her.
Collecting nectar for the hive (days 12 to 18)
Young worker bees also take nectar from foraging field bees that are returning to the hive. The house bees deposit this nectar into cells earmarked for this purpose. The workers similarly take pollen from returning field bees and pack the pollen into cells. Both the ripened honey and the pollen are food for the colony.
Fanning the beehive (days 12 to 18)
Worker bees also take a turn at controlling the temperature and humidity of the hive. The workers also perform another kind of fanning, but it isn’t related to climate control. It has more to do with communication.
Beekeepers can purchase synthetic queen bee pheromone and use this chemical to lure swarms of bees into a trap. The captured swarm then can be used to populate a new hive.
Becoming the bee hive (days 12 to 35)
Worker bees that are about 12 days old are mature enough to begin producing beeswax. The wax flakes they produce help with the building of new wax comb and in the capping of ripened honey and cells containing developing pupae.
Some new beekeepers are alarmed when they first see these wax flakes on the bee. They wrongly think these white chips are an indication of a problem (disease or mite).
Guarding the hive (days 18 to 21)
The last task of a house bee before she ventures out is that of guarding the hive. They are poised and alert, checking each bee that returns to the hive for a familiar scent. Only family members are allowed to pass.
Bees from other hives are occasionally allowed in when they bribe the guards with nectar. These bees simply steal a little honey or pollen and leave.
Becoming field bees (days 22 to 42)
With her life half over, the worker bee now ventures outside of the hive and joins the ranks of field bees. You’ll see them taking their first orientation flights. The bees face the hive and dart up, down, and all around the entrance. They’re imprinting the look and location of their home before beginning to circle the hive and progressively widening those circles, learning landmarks that ultimately will guide them back home.
Foraging bees visit 5 million flowers to produce a single pint of honey. They forage a two- to three-mile (four- to five-kilometer) radius from the hive in search of food. So don’t think you need to provide everything they need on your property.