11 Critical Worker Bee Jobs In The Colony

Worker bees at the entrance to a hive

Worker honey bees are responsible for most of the work within a colony. Observing a hive may look chaotic, but duties are meticulously allocated based on the bee’s age and hive needs.

This guide examines the various worker bee jobs and their distribution within the hive. Remember that ages mentioned are an approximate guide.

Quick summary: Worker bee roles

Housekeeper1-3 daysCleaning out cells.
Undertaker3-16Removing dead bees.
Nurse4-12Feeding and caring for brood, feeding drones.
Queen attendant7-12Cleaning, feeding, protecting the queen.
Pollen Packer12-18Packing pollen into cells.
Wax mason12-35Producing wax to build and maintain the hive.
Airflow controller12-18Beating wings to cool the hive.
Water Carrier12-18Collecting water for hive needs.
Guard18-21Keeping unwanted visitors out of the hive.
Forager22-42Searching for and collecting pollen, nectar, and resin.
Scout22-42Searching for new hive locations and foraging areas.

The jobs of a worker bee  

Work like guarding the hive, and foraging requires fully developed adult bees. Simpler tasks get assigned to newly emerged bees, like cleaning hive cells.

1. Housekeeper (days 1-3)

Worker bees leave their capped cells by gnawing through the wax capping. They start by cleaning their cells in preparation for a new egg.

Once complete, they spend the first few days as a housekeeping bee. This involves finding empty cells and cleaning them thoroughly. Otherwise, the queen will skip the cell and move to another.

2. Undertaker (days 3-16)

Undertaker bees (mortuary bees) remove dead bees from the hive. This behavior maintains colony hygiene, helping prevent the spread of diseases and keeping the hive clean.

3. Nurse (days 4-12)

The primary role of a nurse bee is to check each larva about 1,300 times daily. This works out to 10,000 individual checks throughout the development of the larvae.

Top down image of a nurse bee tending to a hatching baby bee.
A nurse bee tending to it’s brood.

A worker bee may also feed drones from roughly day 4 to 12. For the first few days, drones completely depend on workers for subsistence. They soon begin to self-feed while still receiving some worker assistance.

At one week, they no longer require food from workers. Source.

4. Queen attendant (days 7-12)

From day 7-12, worker bees may join the retinue, working to aid the queen. Typical tasks include removing her waste, grooming, feeding, and hydrating her.

The queen lays up to 2000 eggs daily and needs help with other time-consuming activities.

Bird's eye shot of the retinue circling the queen bee.
The queen’s retinue are extremely attentive.

A queen’s attendant also spreads pheromones called Queen Mandibular Pheromone (QMP) through the hive. It signals to the colony that the queen is still alive and well.

5. Pollen packer (days 12-18)

From days 12-18, worker bees may pack pollen, a part of the honey-making process. They collect pollen from foragers and store it inside honeycomb cells for brood feeding. The powder is mixed with honey to maintain freshness.

6. Wax mason (days 12-35)

The wax mason plays a vital role in the colony, building and repairing the colony’s home.

They activate wax glands under the abdomen to excrete transparent wax flakes. This substance is chewed until easy to work with, then molded into honeycomb cells, queen cups, and more.

Wax masons need a lot of energy to produce wax, so they consume a lot of honey during peak season.

While most wax masons are around 12-18 days of age, bees as old as 35 will produce wax if needed.

7. Airflow controller (days 12-18)

The internal hive temperature can impact brood development, honey production, and general colony wellbeing.

On hot days, some bees will join a line of bees at the hive’s entrance. They circulate cool air by beating their wings at top speed.

Airflow controllers also help reduce the moisture in the hive, which may be at high levels from the honey-making process.

8. Water Carrier (days 12-18)

Water carriers forage for water and bring it to the hive. They closely partner with airflow controllers, creating a type of evaporative cooling.

Water is spread over sealed brood that house eggs, pupae, or larvae. Fanning evaporates the water and cools the interior.

Water collector bees having a drink on a leaf.
Bees collecting water for the hive.

Carriers collect water for nurse bees, who mix it with pollen and nectar to produce jelly for feeding larvae.

Water also helps fix crystallized honey. It helps dissolve the solids and makes it easier to consume.

9. Guard (days 18-21)

Fully developed worker bees provide security for the hive. Hovering at the entrance, these workers use their size and numbers to keep out unwanted visitors like hornets and wasps.

Guards check each incoming bee’s scent to ensure it is from the same colony. If necessary, they release pheromones to sound the alarm.

10. Forager (days 22-42)

Forager bees travel within a 5-mile radius of the hive to collect nectar, pollen, and propolis for the hive. These resources are used for food or to make honey.

As worker bees age, they transition to the role of foragers. This usually happens in the last few weeks of their life, during the active season.

A foraging honey bee collecting pollen and nectar from a flower.
Foraging is one of the riskier jobs on offer.

In a healthy and active hive during peak foraging season, up to about one-third of the worker bee population may be engaged in foraging activities. Source.

11. Scout (days 22-42)

Scout bees are tasked with finding new food sources and potential nesting sites. They explore vast areas, evaluate the quality of resources, and communicate their findings via the waggle dance.

Scouts also guide and coordinate the colony swarming to a new hive.

Commonly asked questions

What is the role of worker bees in winter?

Worker bees have one primary duty in winter: to keep the queen warm and protect her. In cold weather, they gather around the queen and vibrate their wing muscles to generate heat within the hive.

Workers rotate their positions, taking turns on the cold outside of the cluster. The inside of the hive may reach 80°F while the outside is a much cooler 40°F.

What’s the difference between summer and winter bees?

Winter bees are larger bees tasked with keeping the queen warm and safe. They have a life expectancy of 6-8 months. Summer bees are smaller and have a wide range of roles. Their lifespan is much shorter, usually around six weeks.

Do worker bees kill the Queen bee?

Worker bees may kill their queen bee under certain circumstances, known as “supersedure” or “balling.” This typically occurs when the queen’s productivity declines due to age or health.

An vertical infograohic illustrating the roles of a worker bee.

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