Throughout history, the work ethic of the bee has been admired. The ancient Egyptians venerated them, and were the first documented civilization to domesticate bees. The Minoans of ancient Greece revered them because of the teamwork a beehive represented. Two bees entwined around a honeycomb served as a symbol for the ancient Cretan city of Gortys, and the same symbol has been found on pendants and earrings in other locations on Crete.
This teamwork is perhaps most evident in the life of the worker bee. As their name implies, workers are the laborers of a beehive or colony. They are responsible for gathering food, protecting the hive and caring for the young bees.
These bees are found in social bee colonies, especially species like the honey bee. In solitary bee species, such as the carpenter or digger bee, females double as both queen and worker, doing the job of both.
Social bee species are organized by a caste system. The queen bee runs the hive. She also lays the eggs for the colony. Drones are next: These male bees exist to mate with the queen and are usually present from late spring to early summer. All worker bees are females and are the smallest bees in the hive. They are the largest group found in the hive, and are responsible for keeping it running smoothly.
A majority voice
Worker bees are found in some bumble bee hives and in the hives of honey bees. Bumble bee hives are small, and may have anywhere between 12 to a few hundred of this type of bee. Honey bee hives, on the other hand, are quite large. Colonies range from 20,000 to 80,000 bees in total, with 98 percent being workers.
In bumble bee hives, the first group of workers are raised by the queen bee, and subsequent groups are raised by the worker group before them.
In honey bee hives, other worker bees raise the younger ones, new queens and drones.
A day in the life
This type of bee has a long tongue for nectar-gathering, strong jaws and wax glands to help build honeycombs and the ability to produce enzymes needed for honey production. They also have legs built for carrying pollen and a barbed stinger for hive defense. The queen bee also has a stinger, but it is smooth and only used to attack rival queens.
Worker bees function in several roles within the hive. They act as nurse bees taking care of the young bees and the queen, as housekeepers who work to clean and expand the hive and as foragers and scouts who bring back food and seek out new hive locations.
As a worker ages, it takes on different roles inside and outside of the hive. Typically, an adult that is less than 1 week old will clean and polish the cells for both food production and egg-laying by the queen. It will also feed the older larvae in the colony. Workers up to 2 weeks old make the royal jelly used to feed the queen and the larvae and also secrete wax to build honeycomb. Beginning at 2-3 weeks old, the bees will leave the hive and collect pollen. Once a bee turns 21 days old, it begins to collect nectar instead of pollen. They are sometimes referred to as house bees and field bees, to differentiate when a worker is inside or outside of a hive.
This division of labor also ensures a higher survival rate for young bees, as they remain protected inside the hive away from predators and the elements until they are stronger.
All worker bees contribute to climate control, especially in the winter when the hive must be kept warm, and in the ongoing production of honey. Depending on the hive’s needs, a worker can fulfill any of these roles at any time during its life.
Despite the fact that all worker bees are female, most of the time they are sterile. The queen lays the eggs, which hatch after three days. The worker larvae are fed royal jelly for two and a half days, followed by a mix of pollen and honey for two and a half days. Afterward they are sealed into their cells for 12 days, during which they spin a cocoon and develop into an adult. The entire process takes 20 days total.
Worker bees take five days longer to mature than queen bees, but have a shorter life span. On average, adults of this type of bee live for five to six weeks in the summer. During the winter months, a worker may live up to six months in order to help sustain the hive through the cold weather, and raise new workers for the spring and summer.
All worker bee larvae can develop into queen bees within the first 48 hours of their life if the conditions were right, and the larvae were fed royal jelly during the entire five-day growth period, instead of making the switch to honey and pollen.
In certain situations, such as the queen bee’s unexpected death or absence from the hive, workers can develop reproductive organs to lay emergency queens. These queens are typically weaker, and smaller than those laid by the queen bee in preparation for her death. Workers can also produce eggs in situations where more drones are needed, though the drone bees will not be as strong as those laid by the queen. In that instance, they are referred to as laying workers.
Worked into the ground
A colony will not survive without an adequate number of worker bees, but the hours of effort take their toll. A worker typically dies from exhaustion or burnout, and its body stops functioning from all the hard work. For example, their wing muscles will give out at about 500 miles of flight distance.
A fatal sting
Worker bees are the only bees that can sting because the stinger is a result of an evolutionary quirk. Drones have no stinger, and queen bees will only sting other queens.
Workers in a honey bee hive are the only type of bees with barbed stingers. This means the bee can only sting once. The stinger will lodge itself in the flesh of the victim, but doing so means it tears away from the bee itself.
Because of this trauma, the bee will die after it has stung, giving its life to protect the hive. These bees are more likely to sting if a person is near their hive, but can also sting if they feel threatened or are handled.
While they only live for a short time, worker bees are necessary for the hive’s existence and for honey production. Often overlooked, they play a big role in the life and survival of a colony.