As any beekeeper will tell you, the real backbone of any hive is the population of worker bees. Without the dedicated work of tens of thousands of teeming industrious female bees, the hive would most assuredly not survive. Throughout her life, the worker bee will occupy a variety of roles, each vitaly important to ensure the colony’s survival.
The time between when the queen bee lays a fertilized egg to the egg’s maturation into an adult worker bee is twenty-one days. After tearing open the capped brood cell, the worker bee will emerge ready to commit its life to a higher purpose: the sustenance of the hive. Long live the queen! On average, a worker bee will live just six weeks, although the length of their life is largely dependent on the time of year in which they are born. Winter-born bees, sometimes called fat bees, don’t do much more than help to regulate the temperature of the hive, trying to maintain a constant temperature range between 89 and 95 degree fahrenheit. These bees tend to live longer while their spring and summer counterparts tend to live shorter lives due to the increased workload.
Immediately after emerging from the capped brood cell, the new bee will get right to work. The first task of newly emerged worker bees is to clean the cell from which they just emerged. This prepares the cell for a new egg to be laid by the queen, or perhaps for storage of nectar or pollen. After cleaning their own cell, they will clean the surrounding cells to make sure there is no interruption in the queen’s brood pattern. These young bees will also remove any dead bees, or partially developed bees that will not develop to full maturity. Removing the dead and partially developed bees helps to prevent the spread of disease within the hive. In addition to cleaning the hive and brood cells, young worker bees will act as “nurse bees” and tend to the brood of the hive. At this stage in their lives, the hypopharyngeal glands, or royal jelly-producing glands, located on the side of their heads is the most active. For the first three days after an egg has been laid, the egg will be fed a diet of royal jelly. After the period of three days, the brood will be switched to a diet of “brood food” or “bee bread” and continue their development into a mature adult bee. Nurse bees will also care for and feed young drones, or male, bees until they are able to care for themselves.
In addition to caring for the young brood of the hive, worker bees will also attend to the needs of the queen bee. These attendant bees will feed, groom, and clean the queen bee, leaving her free to lay up to 2,000 eggs per day. During the Spring and Summer months, the labor demands of the hive are so high that the queen must fully dedicate herself to producing new workers to replace the thousands of bees that die from over-work each day. Bees primarily communicate through the use of pheromones and patterned dancing, and attendant bees help to spread the queen’s pheromones, signaling to the rest of the hive that the queen is alive and well.
As a worker bee continues to age, their role shifts from that of caretaker to food production and storage. House bees, or worker bees that predominantly perform roles within the hive, will meet foraging worker bees at the entrance of the hive and intercept the collected nectar and pollen. The nectar that is collected from flowers on foraging flights is passed from bee to bee until, ultimately, the nectar is deposited into a honeycomb cell where it will be further processed into honey. During this process, the honey bees add enzymes to the nectar, beginning its transformation process. During this period in the worker bees life, she will help to regulate the temperature of the hive through a fanning process. This fanning is also incredibly important to maintaining their food supply and their winter stores of honey. When it is first collected, nectar is too watery to be stored without the solution fermenting. To process the nectar into honey, the bees will fan their wings over the open honeycomb cells, evaporating water and reducing the nectar until it is finished and stored as honey.
Around 12 days of age, the wax glands of the worker bee are fully developed, and the bee will set to task building new honeycomb and reinforcing the existing structures of the hive. New comb allows for increased storage capacity, and new opportunities for the queen to lay eggs. The last role a worker bee will fulfill in her lifetime is that of a foraging worker bee. It isn’t until the bee is roughly three weeks of age that she will begin foraging for nectar and pollen. On each foraging flight, a worker bee will visit up to one hundred flowers and will fly thousands of miles in her lifetime. The incredible worker bees that make up a hive perform labor the fruits of which they most likely will never enjoy. The bees have one single selfless goal: ensure the survival of the colony. Truly incredible creatures, the honeybee!