What Is A Worker Bee? | 13 Jobs Of Worker Bees

What is a worker bee - nurse bees on capped brood

Updated on September 11th, 2022

Honey bee colonies consist of three types of adult bees:  a female queen bee, male drone bees, and female worker bees. Worker bees comprise about 85 – 90% of a colony’s population.

A worker bee is an infertile female unable to reproduce. A queen bee’s pheromones suppress the workers’ reproductive organs. In their 45-day lifespan, workers perform most of the tasks needed in a hive. Workers forage for resources, make honey, nurse brood, and guard the hive, among other responsibilities.

The queen bee handles the significant tasks of laying eggs and producing chemical substances called pheromones that communicate desired behaviors to the colony. A drone’s job is to mate with a virgin queen.

Worker bees shoulder all the other chores required for the colony to grow and survive. Throughout her short life, a worker bee will change roles several times.

This article is part of our series What Are Honey Bees? It covers what makes a worker different from other bees and the various jobs workers perform.

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What Is A Worker Bee? | 13 Jobs Of Worker Bees

How Are Worker Bees Different Than Other Honey Bees?

All honey bees begin as eggs deposited in a wax comb cell by a mated, fertile queen bee.

The queen fertilizes some of the eggs with semen. Fertilized eggs will be female, destined to be either a worker or a potential queen. Unfertilized eggs develop into male drone bees.

Traits Unique To Workers

Besides noticeable physical differences, worker bees have unique traits that differentiate them from queens and drones. These traits allow the workers to perform specific tasks.

Workers have glands either unique to them or highly specialized for specific functions.

For example, only workers have a Nasonov gland which produces a chemical scent. “Bees use the scent to help sisters locate home, food, and water sources. It acts with queen substance in a pheromone concert to keep the bees of the swarm together.”[1]

Other glands process food for brood (including royal jelly) or secrete wax for building comb.[2]

Workers have pollen baskets for bringing pollen back to the hive.

Pollen baskets
Yellow and orange pollen baskets are visible on returning foragers.

The honey stomach, used to convert nectar into honey, is more developed in the workers than queens or drones.

Learn how bees make honey for more information about the honey stomach.

Worker Bee vs. Queen Bee

Different Food For Worker Bee Larvae

After about three days, the egg hatches a larva, the second stage of honey bee development. For the first three days, all larvae feed on royal jelly. Royal jelly is a creamy white, high-protein liquid secreted by worker bees.

Any larvae chosen to become potential queens continue to get royal jelly for the entire larval stage. Late in this stage, they also receive honey and particular hormones.

The diet of all other larvae changes from royal jelly to a beebread. Beebread is a mixture of pollen, nectar, and honey.

Thus, whether a female becomes a worker bee or a potential queen is determined by her early diet.

See our article here for details on the role of a queen bee and how bees make queens.

Bee bread (mostly pollen) for honey bees to eat
Bee bread packed in cells

Worker Bee Reproductive Organs Are Suppressed

Honey bee colonies are notable for the division of labor among their members. Hives usually have only one reproductive female laying eggs – the queen. Having mated with male drones, the queen can fertilize eggs as she chooses.

Worker bees also have female reproductive organs. However, the queen’s pheromones suppress a worker’s reproductive organs.

To help maintain a proper division of labor, “queens produce pheromones that signal their reproductive status” and “inhibit[s] others from developing their ovaries.”[3]

However, if a queen is lost, a worker bee may become a “laying worker.”

What Is A Laying Worker?

If a hive loses a queen, and thus her pheromones, worker bees’ “normally suppressed reproductive organs become larger and active.”[4] After about three weeks, however, a worker cannot become a queen.

Such workers attempt to replace the queen and save the colony by laying eggs (hence, “laying workers”). However, since a worker has never mated, any eggs she produces are unfertilized and can only develop into drones.

In addition, a worker’s egg laying is haphazard. Her body is not designed to lay eggs properly, and she may deposit multiple eggs in a cell.

Unfortunately, a laying worker’s efforts cannot replace the lost queen. Therefore, if your hive has laying workers, then your hive is not queenright, and you need to intervene.

See our article Is Your Hive Queenless? Or Queenright? (How To Check) for more information.

Other Differences Between Queens and Workers

Queens and workers both have stingers. However, unlike a worker bee’s stinger, the queen’s stinger is smooth, straight, and has no barb. Therefore, a queen can sting multiple times without a barb getting caught in her victim.

A queen seldom stings a person—her stinger primarily fights off contenders for her throne.

When you get stung (and as a beekeeper, you will get stung), it will be a worker that gets you.

Once she returns from mating, the queen stays home unless she swarms. She does not even leave to relieve herself as her retinue of attendants removes her waste.

Workers leave the hive to forage, orient themselves to the hive (or re-orient if necessary), relieve themselves, or defend the colony.

Learn more! Check out our article about the role of the queen bee in the hive.

Worker Bee vs. Drone Bee

To begin with, workers are female, and drones are male. In addition, workers are more diminutive than drones.

Workers are built to defend the hive with curved, barbed stingers that inject bee venom in their targets. Drones do not have a stinger. The concentration of worker bees in a colony classifies honey bees as stinging bees.

A drone’s only job is to leave the hive looking for a virgin queen to mate. Few drones accomplish this task, and those that do, die as a result.

Drones have no assigned tasks to help manage the hive. On the other hand, workers can have many jobs throughout their short lives (as described further below).

Learn more! Read about drone bees and their role in a honey bee colony.

What Do Worker Bees Look Like?

All honey bees have a head, thorax, and abdomen. However, worker bees are the smallest members of a colony. They are shorter than both the queen and drones. Worker bodies are wider than the slender queen but narrower than a drone.

Comparison of queen, drone and worker sizes
Comparison of queen, drone and worker sizes

Workers’ eyes are about half the size of a drone’s eyes. Like drones, but unlike queens, workers have a lot of hair on their bodies.

Unlike a queen, whose abdomen is a uniform color, worker abdomens are striped.

A worker’s wings extend far enough to cover almost her whole body.

What Is The Role Of Worker Bees?

The role of a worker bee changes as she ages, and various glands and hormones develop and diminish. Also, her job may become more complicated, which requires some training.

Worker bees perform many tasks, but not all workers perform all tasks. The responsibilities assumed by any worker depend on the colony’s needs and the worker’s capabilities at that time. (I find this stuff AMAZING!)

For most of the first three weeks after emerging, a worker is a “house bee” performing tasks within the hive. However, after that time, “the glands that produce the larval food and wax begin to atrophy.”[5] Thus, house bees head out as foragers and become “field bees.”

JobApprox. Age
(Days)
About The Job
Cell preparation2 - 16
mean 8
Workers clean out cells in the brood nest (beginning with their own). They feed on pollen stores.
Capping brood3 - 10
mean 8
Young bees can secrete small amounts of wax. Combining new wax with existing brood comb, they can cap brood. The use of brood comb is why capped brood is brown instead of white like honey capped with all new wax.
Nursing3 - 15
mean 10
Nurse bees feed larvae. Newer workers feed pollen and honey to older larvae. At about 6 days, hypopharyngeal glands develop so she can secrete royal jelly for new larvae and queens.
Tending the queen3 - 14
mean 11
A retinue of young workers tend to the queen. They feed and groom her and remove her waste. The retinue comes into contact with the queen, picking up her pheromones which they transmit to other bees.
Receiving, ripening & depositing nectar10 - 20
mean 13
Returning foragers (field bees) transfer nectar to house bees. House bees continue the processing of nectar in their honey stomachs, actively evaporate moisture, and store it in cells for further evaporation and curing.
Cleaning debris & hygienic behavior11 - 15
mean 14
Workers remove wax debris and other "trash" including dead bees or diseased brood. (Yes, there are undertakers or mortuary bees). This activity helps reduce pest and disease problems.
Pack pollen10 - 19
mean 15
Field bees deposit pollen directly into cells where workers mix it with nectar and pack it tightly before covering it a little honey. This mixture is "bee bread."
Comb building12 - 23
mean 16
Wax glands are fully developed and most productive during this period. Hence, this the best time for workers to build or repair comb and cap cells with ripened honey. Workers, guided by queen pheromones and knowledge of the colony build comb specifically designed for drones or workers, queen development, or food storage and honey.
Cell cleaning11 - 15
mean 17
At this age, workers are able to restore the condition of cells to be ready for use.
Ventilating the nest2 - 25
mean 18
Fanning their wings, workers help cool the hive, as needed, remove carbon dioxide buildup and evaporate honey. All adult bees help create heat when necessary.
Guard duty15 - 28
mean 2+
Workers guard the entrance of the hive to defend against invaders. They inspect returning field bees to make sure they should be admitted.
First orientation flight17 - 27
mean 23
Foraging and returning with resources requires the bees to know where home is. Orientation flights around the hive is how bees become familiar with the location so they can find their way home again. Orientation flights occur before a bee begins foraging or any time bees sense their surroundings have changed (such as a move hive or being confined inside for an extended period).
First foraging flight18 - 28
mean 24
The final job of most workers is to forage for water, pollen, nectar and plant resins (used to make propolis). Foraging is hard work requiring many long flights that take a toll on field bees. Combined with external risks and hazardous, this stage of a workers life can last from 1 day to a month, ending with the bee's death.
Scouting new homesForaging ageWhen bees swarm from a hive, the queen takes about half the colony to a new home. Shortly after leaving the hive, the swarm will settle somewhere while scout bees check out possible new homes. These scouts need to orient to and from any possible sites inspected.

Primary sources for the above table: The Tasks of a Worker Honey Bee by Jamie Ellis, Gahan Endowed, Associate Professor of Entomology, Honey Bee Research and Extension Lab – Dept of Entomology and Nematology – University of Florida, October 22, 2015, in American Bee Journal. Other sources are included below. 5 [6] [7]

How Long Do Worker Bees Live?

Worker bees that forage heavily during peak season have a short life span averaging 15 to 38 days. These are averages, and some workers may live up to 60 days.

Without the stress of foraging, worker life spans average from 150 – 200 days and possibly up to 320 days. This extended, less stressful period permits colonies to survive through winter and enter spring vigorously.[8]

Conclusion

While the queen bee seems to reign supreme, female worker bees work collectively at daily tasks that assure the colony’s survival.

With an understanding of workers and their tasks, you can spot various behaviors and even assess the age of the bees engaged in those activities.

Additional Reading

Differences in drone and worker physiology in honeybees (Apis mellifera) by Norbert Hrassnigg, Karl Crailsheim. Apidologie, Springer Verlag, 2005, 36 (2), pp.255-277. hal-00892139


 


[1] Communication (Basic Bee Biology for Beekeepers) – Bee Health Extension

[2] The Colony and Its Organization – Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium

[3] Queen Pheromones – Science Direct – Sarah D. Kocher, Reginald B. Cocroft, in Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior (Second Edition), 2019

[4] Laying Workers. It Happens. Fix It by Paul Hizsnyai in Bee Culture magazine.

[5] The Beekeeper’s Handbook, Fourth Edition by Diana Sammatro and Alphonse Avitabile, Chapter 1 – Understanding Bees

[6] Honey Bee Biology and Beekeepingby Dewey M. Caron with Lawrence John Connor published by Wicwass Press, LLC – October 2018 – Chapter 9

[7] Prado Alberto, Requier Fabrice, Crauser Didier, Le Conte Yves, Bretagnolle Vincent and Alaux Cédric 2020 Honeybee lifespan: the critical role of pre-foraging stage R. Soc. open sci.7200998200998 http://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.200998

[8] Remolina SC, Hughes KA. Evolution and mechanisms of long life and high fertility in queen honey bees. Age (Dordr). 2008;30(2-3):177-185. doi:10.1007/s11357-008-9061-4

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