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Worker Bee & Its Role in the Colony

Worker bees are female bees that lack reproduction capabilities. They are the most common cast in a beehive, often making up more than 99% of the entire population.

The worker bee has many jobs in the hive including building comb, feeding larvae and pupae, guarding against intruders, cleaning out dead bees or other debris from cells inside the hive. 

Workers also collect nectar and pollen to make honey for themselves as well as other members of their colony.

In this article, we’ll talk more about the responsibilities of worker bees, their role in the colony, as well as other behavioral traits.

What Is a Worker Bee?

The worker bee is the most common bee found in the hive. All workers are female and hatch from fertilized eggs. They’re typically the smallest in the hive, but also the ones doing most of the work.

The term worker bees are most often used in relation to honeybees, even though the cast is found in all eusocial bee species (bees that show an advanced level of social organization).

The worker bees are the ones pollinating flowers, collecting nectar, and making honey.

bee workers working on beehive

How Many Worker Bees Are in a Hive?

There are about 60,000 to 80,000 bees in a regular hive, where 99% of them are worker bees. There’s only a single queen in a hive, while there may be a few hundred drones.

Related: How Many Bees Are in a Beehive?

Worker Bees Call the Shots

The worker bees are really what makes everything run – without them, there would be no honey, no nest, and no pollination.

A common misconception about bees is, that it’s the queen that controls the workers, while it’s actually the other way around. While the workers depend on the queen for reproduction, they’re the ones making collective decisions. [1]

Worker Bee Tasks

Worker bees are responsible for the day-to-day operations of the beehive. They take care of everything except reproduction, and have different tasks depending on their age:

Caste (role) Age (days)
Mortuary Bees (carry away dead bees) 3 to 16
Brood caring and feeding 4 to 12
Drone feeding 4 to 12
Queen grooming and feeding 4 to 12
Pollen packing 12 to 18
Honeycomb building 12 to 35
Honey making and sealing 12 to 35
Water collecting 12 to 18
Fanning/Thermoregulation 12 to 18
Guard bees 18 to 21
Foraging 22 to 42

Removing Dead Bees

One of these responsibilities is to clean the hive of dead bees; making sure not to leave them there longer than necessary [2]. They keep the entrance to the nest clean, to avoid any dirt or other contamination from being blown into the nest.

dead bees on a hive

Brood Caring & Feeding

Brood caring and feeding is the process of caring for and feeding any existing brood (eggs, larvae, and pupae). 

Worker bees remove purposeless or diseased pupae (dead brood) as well as those that do not belong to the hive. The removal of dead brood helps prevent disease outbreaks by keeping bacteria levels down.

Aside from caring and feeding, worker bees also make sure the hive is at the correct temperature, as brood won’t develop successfully if the hive is too hot or too cold. [3]

bumblee bee workers

Drone Feeding

Worker bees also make sure that drones are fed. Drones are essential for mating but don’t do anything else than that. [4]

Until drones take the flight to mate, they simply stay dormant in the hive. Drones also die after mating, which is why they only live an average of 2 weeks.

Related: Drone Bee

Queen bee

Queen Grooming & Feeding

Worker bees are in charge of grooming and feeding the queen. These are queen attendants, between the age of 7 and 12 days.

An equally important task is spreading the queen pheromone throughout the hive. This pheromone is secreted by the queen, which signals the worker bees, that their queen is healthy.

This queen pheromone, also called Queen Mandibular Pheromone, is produced in the queen’s mandibular glands. [5]

queen bee and hive

Packing Pollen

Packing pollen is a common task among worker bees. Bees use pollen to make beebread, which they then use to feed their younglings, as well as honey. [6]

Bees will pack the pollen on their hind legs, where they have pollen sacs.

Related: Bee legs

honey bee full of pollen on body

Honeycomb Building

The worker bees are responsible for building honeycomb. Honeycomb are cells made out of beeswax, used to store both brood and honey.

They build this honeycomb out of wax secreted by worker bees on wax mirrors, which are located on their abdomen. On the dorsal side of the wax mirror, there is a layer of tissue called the wax gland.

To build a complete comb takes 1 to 3 days. After producing beeswax, the wax is then shaped into the hexagonal cells that make up the honeycomb.

Related: How Long Does It Take Bees to Make a Hive & Honeycomb?

Bees in a beehive on honeycomb

Making Honey

Worker bees make honey with nectar. They turn raw, unprocessed nectar into honey by reducing the moisture content of the nectar from 70% to around 20%.

The bees add an enzyme called invertase to the nectar, which breaks down sucrose (a disaccharide), into smaller sugars, such as glucose and fructose.

Bees are constantly changing “jobs”, as new bees are born. Depending on their age, they have different physiological traits that enable them to do certain tasks, such as making honey. 

Honey producing bees are 12-35 days old.

Related: How Long Does It Take Bees to Make Honey?

bees-on-golden-honeycomb

Honey Sealing

Honey sealing is the way of making honey ready for consumption and storage. After nectar has been turned into honey, the bees will seal it off in honeycombs.

They do this by placing the honey into the combs, whereafter they seal the top of the comb with additional beeswax. 

This way, the honey is properly stored to be consumed during the winter, where the bees can’t make more honey.

Related: How do bees make wax?

bee hive with yellow background

Water Collecting

Honey bees collect water in order to use for the hive’s daily tasks. Water is both used for bees to drink, but also to keep humidity levels and temperature levels of the hive within the appropriate range.

The humidity level of the hive must be between 35-40%. [7]The collection process is long and tedious but must be done by worker bees in order to maintain their hives’ humidity levels [8].

bee on water

Thermoregulation

Thermoregulation is the maintenance of a constant internal temperature in the nest. Bees can both make the hive warmer, as well as cool it down, to reach the appropriate temperature.

Bees keep their nest at 95°F (35°C), cooling it down when too hot, and warming it up when too cold.

If bees couldn’t regulate internal hive temperature themselves, they would all be dead. This is aæsp why beekeepers coat their hives with insulation during winter months to protect bees from cold temperatures outside. 

queen bee on a beehive

Standing Guard

Workers bees also work as guards, hovering or standing near the entrance to the nest. They do this to spot possible threats before they attack the hive. [9]

Bees will excrete alarm pheromones when threatened, which alarms the rest of the colony. During this agitated state, bees are more inclined to attack.

queen bee alone

Foraging

A large portion of worker bees are foragers. They’re the ones who secure nectar for honey production.

Foraging is defined as the act of searching for and acquiring resources necessary to maintain and grow a colony, including items such as food and water.

Foragers do not only look for food; they also collect information on enemies and threats in their area so that they can protect their colony with adequate warning. 

When a forager bee returns after a trip, they communicate information to other bees in the nest. They do so through the “Waggle Dance”, a dance unique to bees, that’s used to communicate distance and direction. [10]

foraging bees

Worker Bee Role in the Winter (Clustering)

Worker bees play a big role in the survival of the hive during the winter. During cold months, worker bees will cluster around the queen to keep her, each other, and the nest warm.

The outer bees work as insulation, while the inner worker bees will vibrate, or “shiver”, their flight muscles, producing heat.

When it is winter, honeybees are mostly dormant. The only activity is the clustering (unless the temperatures rise above 50°F or 10°C, where they’ll once again venture out).

Related: Where Do Bees Go In the Winter?

swarming bees

Keeping the Nest & Queen Warm

Worker bees are responsible for keeping the temperature of the nest above 90 degrees. This is important because if the temperature got too high or low, it could be fatal to both brood and the colony. 

To maintain the internal temperature of the nest, worker bees produce heat by shivering their flight muscles.

Bees can measure temperature with their legs. Receptors on worker bees’ legs, known as “thermoreceptors,” are sensitive to temperature changes.

Swarming Behavior

A natural part of bee behavior is swarming. This occurs when the nest is overpopulated and usually takes place during springtime.

It is an event where one-third to two-thirds of the worker bees in a colony leaves to start a new colony with the queen.

Swarming is often thought to be an instinctive behavior triggered by overcrowding, but it can also be induced by outside stimuli such as poor food supply or lack of proper nest space.

swarming of bees on a hive

What Do Worker Bees Look Like?

The worker bees are between 11 mm to 15 mm long. They’re often black and yellow and have three body parts: head, thorax, and abdomen.

Attached to their body, they have:

  • 6 legs (3 pairs of 2)
  • 5 eyes (2 compound eyes and three ocelli)
  • 4 wings (2 pairs of 2)
  • A pair of antennas
  • A pair of mandibles
  • A stinger

They have long antennae (1/3 to 1/2 their body length) and compound eyes with over 2000 ommatidia. 

The compound eye helps the bee to recognize colors and patterns in flowers, while the three simple eyes help bees to navigate and detect light.

bee anatomy

Stinger

The stinger is a long, thin structure found at the end of the worker bee’s abdomen. It’s barbed, and can only be used once by worker bees, contrary to the queen bee’s stinger, which is smooth.

When stinging, bees inject venom that contains both anti-inflammatory and inflammatory compounds. This venom is held in the venom sac, that stays with the stinger after a sting.

The venom is produced by the venom gland.

How Big Are Worker Bees?

Worker bees are most often between 11-15 mm but can vary in size depending on species or colony.

These strong workers are no delicate flowers. Their bodies are covered with fine, branched hairs for collecting pollen, which they store in pouches on their hind legs called “pollen baskets”. 

bee workers on beehive

Worker Bee Life Cycle

Worker bees start out as fertilized eggs, laid by the queen bee. Female bees all come from the same egg, but some receive special treatment, and will later turn into queen bees.

Worker bee eggs are laid in honeycomb cells. These cells are horizontal, while they’re vertical for queen bees.

A worker bee will stay as an egg for 3 days, whereafter it’ll hatch into larva. It’ll stay like that for 3 days, where the cell will then be capped. After an additional 3 days, they turn into a pupa, and finally into an adult after the final 3 days.

Larvae spin cocoons for themselves which are made out of wax secreted from glands on their abdomens. Inside of these cocoons, the bee pupae develop inside before finally hatching as full-grown bee drones.

Stage Days
Egg Day 0 to 3
Larva Day 3 to 6
Larva (capped cell) Day 6 to 9
Pupa Day 9 to 12

How Long Does a Worker Bee Live?

Worker bees usually live for six weeks, but they may die beforehand if killed by external factors (such as predators, parasites, diseases, etc.).

Conclusion

Worker bees are the foundation of a hive. They do all the work, from collecting pollen and making honey, to caring for brood and the queen. Worker bees are all females without reproductive capabilities.

Worker bees make up 99% of the total bee population in a hive, while there’s only a single queen and a few hundred drones. There can be more than 80,000 workers in a single hive.

About Teodoro Pittman

Teodoro is a nature and animal lover. He specifically focuses on insects, such as ants, bees, and the like. In his free time, he takes care of his own ant farm, where he analyzes their behavior. Teodoro has spent the last 7 years studying the intricate behavior of these small creatures.