Honey bee colonies are made up of a queen bee along with drones and worker bees. They all play essential roles in the hive, but it’s the workers who take care of the majority of the work. They’re also the most common type of bee in the hive, making up 90% of the colony.
This guide will provide a complete beginner’s guide to worker bees. By the end of this page, you’ll have a good understanding of the role worker bees play along with how to identify them. We’ll also tackle all the most commonly asked questions on this topic.
What is a worker bee?
A worker bee is a female bee that has a variety of roles in the hive depending on her age. These jobs may include housekeeping, queen attending, nursing, guarding, and foraging. It’s the worker bees that you’ll see on flowers collecting nectar and they’re also the ones responsible for making honey.
There may be up to 80,000 worker bees in one hive. Those hatched in summer may only live 30-60 days while winter bees have a life expectancy of 20 weeks.
Worker bees are female but can’t reproduce. Instead, they carry out most of the work and control the inner workings of the hive.
The anatomy of a worker bee
A worker bee begins as a fertilized egg that has been laid by the queen. The egg will lie in a cell for 3 days before transforming into a larva. For the next 3 days, nurse bees will feed the larva royal jelly, then adjust the diet to pollen and honey.
At around day 9, the larva begins its transition into pupa and the cell gets capped. On day 21, the worker bee emerges, weighing 100mg and measuring 15mm.
Worker bees are smaller than drones and the queen, although they have an abdomen, thorax, and head like any bee does. Her six legs are used for walking and cleaning their bodies – while the center two legs provide the main support, the hind legs have baskets for holding propolis or pollen.
- A worker bee is capable of laying eggs that produce drones, but she can’t produce worker bees as the eggs aren’t fertilized.
- The hypopharyngeal gland that’s located on her head is used to feed drones, larvae, and queens.
- Their tongue and jaws are used to collect pollen and chew wax.
- They have a stinger that will allow them to sting insects multiple times or mammals once before dying.
- The abdomen houses wax glands that are used for building honeycomb and capping cells.
To learn more about the anatomy of honey bees, check out this article on the parts of a bee.
The roles of a worker bee
As a worker bee ages, it takes on new roles within the colony. These may quickly change, depending on the needs of the colony. Guards may take up a new role as a ventilator to reduce the inner temperature of the hive on hot days. Let’s take a look at how the roles change as the worker bee matures.
Housekeeping (days 1-3)
When a worker bee is ready to leave its capped cell, it gnaws through the wax capping and enters the world. Her first job is to clean out the cell that she was developed in so that it is ready for a new egg.
Once that’s done, she spends the first few days as a housekeeping bee. This involves finding empty cells and making sure they’re completely clean. Otherwise, the queen will skip the cell and move on to another.
Mortuary Bees (days 3-16)
The worker bee’s next job in the hive is to remove deceased bees, unhatched eggs, or larvae that didn’t grow. To keep disease out of the colony, mortuary bees transfer the dead matter far away from the hive.
Drone Feeding (days 4-12)
A worker bee may take on the role of feeding drones from roughly day 4-12. Drones aren’t able to feed themselves and need to receive nourishment from a worker bee.
Queen Attendants (days 7-12)
From day 7-12, a worker bee may take on the job of queen attendant. She will join other workers as part of a retinue, all working as an aid to the queen, tending to her every need. Work could include removing her waste, grooming, feeding, and hydrating her. As the queen is busy laying up to 2000 eggs each day, she doesn’t have time to take care of everything else.
A queen’s attendant will also be charged with spreading a pheromone called Queen Mandibular Pheromone (QMP) through the hive. It’s crucial for letting the colony know that the queen is still alive and well.
Pollen Packing (days 12-18)
From days 12-18, worker bees may become pollen packers. This is a part of the honey-making process and involves collecting pollen from foraging bees and storing it inside honeycomb cells. To help keep the pollen fresh, it gets mixed with honey. This mixture will be used for feeding the brood.
Wax Mason (days 12-35)
Beehives require a lot of wax, which is where the wax mason gets involved. These bees will activate their wax glands under the abdomen and begin excreting clear wax flakes. This wax is chewed until easy to work with, then molded into honeycomb cells, queens cups, and more.
To produce wax, honey bees need a lot of energy to hit maximum production levels. They’ll consume a lot of honey during peak season.
While most wax masons are around 12-18 days of age, some bees as old as 35 will jump in to produce wax if needed.
Airflow Controller (days 12-18)
Controlling the temperature within a hive is important on warm days and crucial on sweltering days. A worker bee tasked with airflow control will join a line of bees at the entrance of the hive. By beating their wings at top speed, the air will circulate and cool the hive. It will also help reduce the moisture in the hive, which may be at high levels from the honey-making process.
Water Carriers (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. The water is spread over sealed brood and cell rims that house eggs or larvae. Fanning will evaporate the water and cool the interior.
Water carriers also collect water for nurse bees who mix it with pollen and nectar to produce jelly for feeding larvae.
A final use for water in the hive is to help fix crystallized honey. Adding some water to dissolve the solids will make it easier to consume.
Guard Bees (days 18-21)
Guard bees need to be fully developed as they provide security for the hive. Hovering at the entrance, these workers will keep out unwanted visitors like hornets, wasps, and bears. This will include checking each incoming bee’s scent to make sure it is from the same colony. If necessary, a guard bee will release pheromones to sound the alarm.
Foraging Bees (days 22-42)
Forager bees are tasked with traveling within a 5-mile radius of the hive to collect nectar, pollen, and propolis for the hive. These resources will get used for food or to make honey.
The role of worker bees in winter
In the winter cluster, worker bees have one role, which is to keep the queen warm and protect her. They may gather around the queen and vibrate their wing muscles to generate heat within the hive.
The workers will rotate their positions, taking turns to be on the outside of the cluster, where it is much colder. The inside of the hive may reach 80°F while it is a much cooler 40°F towards the outside.
The role of worker bees in swarming
When a colony decides to swarm, roughly half the hive will depart and search for a new location to live. Along the way, scout bees will go ahead, looking for a suitable spot. Once they find one, the bee will perform a scouting dance back at the hive to let the other scouts know. The other scouts will then check out the location and, if they agree, the whole swarm will head there and begin building a new hive.
You can learn lots more about honey bee swarming here.
Commonly asked questions
What’s the difference between summer and winter bees?
Winter bees are larger bees that are 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, usually working day and night. Their lifespan is much shorter, usually around 6 weeks.
What does it mean if a worker bee lays eggs?
If a worker bee lays eggs, it is often a sign that the queen isn’t doing her job or she may no longer be in the hive. A laying worker colony may die out if there is no beekeeper intervention.
How often do nurse bees check their young?
A nurse bee will check each larva about 1,300 times daily. This works out to 10,000 individual checks throughout the development of the larvae.
Do worker bees kill the Queen bee?
If worker bees decide that a queen bee isn’t performing, they will make room for a new queen by killing the current one with their stingers.
Worker bees are amazing creatures that can perform many different roles in the colony. Although the queen and drones are crucial to the colony’s existence, worker bees certainly do the lion’s share of the work.
Keep in mind that while each worker bee has a role to play, this will change depending on her age and the colony’s needs. By the end of a worker bee’s life, she’ll have experienced a range of jobs.