worker bee

Worker Bees - A Complete Guide

A bee colony would be nothing without its worker bees. They tend to the nest, construct new cells, and take care of the queen and brood, among many other things. Without them, there would simply be no nest for the queen.

Today we’ll explore two types of worker bees—what they look like, what exactly they do, and if they’re dangerous or not. Let’s get started.

What Are Worker Bees?

Worker bees are usually the first batch of offspring from a new queen. Much like the queen, they are all female, but they cannot mate and don’t have active ovaries. This means that, in general, they don’t lay eggs unless a queen is absent and no larvae are present to rear a new queen.

Worker bees are only present in eusocial bee species, such as honeybees and bumblebees. They live in colonies, with different ranks, ruled by a single queen.

The queen is responsible for producing new workers for her nest or hive. She’ll lay fertilized eggs in wax cells. Worker eggs don’t take long to evolve into larvae.

Other workers, known as nurses, tend to these, providing them with the appropriate food to grow. Honeybees will receive a balanced diet consisting of something called “worker jelly” and “royal jelly.”

Bumblebees do it a little differently. The queen uses her pheromones to signal to the workers, telling them which fertilized eggs are queens and which are workers. The worker eggs will then receive less food than the queen eggs.

What Do Worker Bees Look Like?

Telling the workers apart from the queen and drones can become a difficult task. The workers are generally smaller, but how can you really tell if it’s a worker flying around your garden and not a drone?

Honeybee Worker Identification

One of the main ways to tell the difference between a worker honeybee and a drone is the presence of a stinger. Drones are males and they don’t have stingers, whereas worker bees are female and they possess a stinger at the end of their abdomen.

If you look closely at their body, you’ll also notice that worker bees have much more slender, sleek bodies than drones and queens. Queens are very large and fat due to their huge meals and lack of exercise. Drones are smaller than the queen, although larger than workers, although it can be tough to distinguish them without taking a closer look.

Zooming in on the worker bee, you’ll see that its eyes are much smaller than those on a drone. There’s also space between the two eyes which the drones don’t have—a drone’s eyes are huge and sit close together.

The worker’s antennae are also slightly shorter than drone antennae. A drone will have 11 segments on their antennae, whereas a worker has 10.

The worker bee’s legs, especially the hind legs, are larger. This is mostly due to the pollen baskets they carry, which the males don’t have. The pollen baskets are crucial for the honeybee workers so they can carry enough pollen back to the hive.

Bumblebee Worker Identification

Telling a bumblebee worker apart from a male or drone is relatively easy. Males have a longer, thicker body than females. The males actually have seven body segments whereas females only have six.

Much like the honeybee, males have an additional segment on their antennae, making 13 segments in all. Bumblebee workers also have thicker legs, like the honeybee worker, due to the pollen basket.

Males have very slender legs in comparison, so you won’t see them carrying pollen around.

Bumblebee workers can be difficult to distinguish from the queen. They’re both similar in many ways—in fact, the worker is a smaller version of the queen. Workers are fed a different diet during their larval stage, which interferes with their size and, ultimately, stunts their growth.

This is all in favor of the queen, so it’s easier for her to dominate them using her larger size. Other than the size, there aren’t many differences. The queen and workers both sport the same features and colors; however, some species of workers have different colored tails.

How Long Do Worker Bees Live?

Worker bees have a hard life. No matter the species, they have to either tend to the nest, feed the queen and offspring, or fly miles to forage every day. This does have a significant impact on their lifespan.

How Long Do Honeybee Workers Live?

Honeybee workers generally have two jobs during their lifespan. Young workers will stay inside the hive, tending to the queen, building new cells, feeding the larvae, and doing other jobs that contribute to the overall efficiency of the hive.

As the worker gets older, it will take on a new role as either a scout or a forager.

This is also the time when the worker bee will first leave the hive and venture outdoors. Honeybee workers will eventually work themselves to death. The more they fly, the more they are subjected to wear and tear on their wings. Eventually, these battered wings won’t be able to carry them, and the worker will die.

The average lifespan of a honeybee worker during their busy seasons (spring, summer, autumn) is five to six weeks. It really depends on the weather and how far the bee must fly when foraging. Some worker bees may live up to eight weeks.

Honeybee workers live longer during the winter. As the temperature drops, the bees will seal off the hive’s entrance and huddle together at the bottom. They cluster around the queen, vibrating their wings to keep the temperature up.

Because the bees don’t leave the hive and feed mainly on honey at this time, they don’t waste as much energy. Honeybee workers can live up to five months, perhaps even longer, during the winter.

How Long Do Bumblebee Workers Live?

The lifespan of a bumblebee worker depends on two main things: the specific species and its role within the colony. Bumblebees, unlike honeybees, don’t survive the winter. In fact, only the new queens survive, and they do so by hibernating.

bumble bee nest entrance hole
Bumblebee nest entrance

Some bumblebee species, including the Bombus terricola, have workers who only survive approximately 13 days. Bombus terricola is probably the most common species we have here in the U.S., you may know it by the common name “yellow-banded bumblebee.”

There are other species where the workers may live up to the grand old age of five or six weeks old, much like the honeybee workers do. This, however, depends greatly on the role of the individual bee. The workers who tend the nest generally live longer because they don’t have to strain themselves by flying and carrying heavy cargo.

bumblebee nest

Bumblebee foragers have shorter lives exactly for that reason. Sometimes, a determined and industrious forager can take on a load that’s too heavy and will die of exhaustion.

Foragers also face the dangers presented by predators and inclement weather conditions. It’s not uncommon to find a tired bee resting on a flower or another safe haven after it was caught in a rainfall.

The workers who stay home in the hive also face their share of dangers and threats, though. Nests can get infected by a parasite or other diseases, which prove lethal for the colony. All the bees inside then fall victim.

Role of Worker Bees

As I’ve mentioned earlier, worker bees are vitally important for any colony. The queen will produce the eggs, but it’s the workers who take care of them all while tending to the other colony chores.

Role of Honeybee Workers

Honeybees live in very social colonies, and each bee must play its part for the survival of the hive. As much as 98 percent of a honeybee colony will be workers. They have a hard life, and at various stages, they’ll be given different jobs. Let’s start with the youngest honeybee workers.

Young Workers

The young workers will stay in the hive, where their first task is to clean the cells in which the queen will lay her eggs. They’ll usually begin with the one they came from and then continue to other cells used for eggs or honey.

The hive must be kept clean at all time. Disease outbreak could be the end of a whole colony. The workers will, therefore, remove any potential health hazard such as dead bees or larvae. As they grow, they take over new duties such as nursing.

Nursing mostly consists of feeding the queen and providing food for the larvae. The workers must check on the offspring several times a day, bringing them new food and making sure they’re developing.

The workers tending to the queen will groom and feed her, remove waste around her, as well as encouraging her to lay eggs.

Other workers will help to make honey. They’ll receive the nectar from the foraging workers, transfer it to cells and proceed to fan their wings. Nectar is basically honey, except, it contains a lot of water. By fanning their wings, the workers evaporate the excess water, creating thick honey.

honey on hive board

These workers will also produce wax which they’ll use to expand the hive, building new cells for more brood and honey. It’s only worker bees of a certain age who can produce wax since the gland doesn’t develop until later. Different sized cells are formed for the eggs of queens, workers, and drones.

The young honeybee worker’s last task, before being old enough to forage, is guarding. These workers will stand guard at the entrance, protecting it from intruders. This is generally when the bee’s stinger has developed.

Older Workers

Older workers take on the task of scouting and foraging. These are the bees you’ll see flying from flower to flower, collecting nectar and pollen.

Honeybee workers are rather clever, in that they’ll only take on one task at a time. Scouts fly out to find new areas to collect pollen and nectar, return, communicate the location, and send out collectors.

The foragers then follow the directions to the new pollen place to gather the supplies needed. They communicate using dance and enthusiasm. The scout bee who seems really pleased and enthusiastic about the location found will encourage more foragers to go to that place. Foragers and scouts will fly out all day, resting within the hive at night.

If a colony’s queen dies or stops laying eggs, and no larvae are present, the ovaries of the worker can develop, allowing her to lay eggs. Although the exact process remains a mystery, it’s believed that hormonal signals from the queen and larvae normally inhibit the workers’ ovaries from activating. The worker bee cannot mate, however, so these eggs are unfertilized and will only develop into drones.

Role of Bumblebee Workers

Bumblebee workers have one of two tasks, either they tend to the nest or spend their time foraging. Bumblebees aren’t nearly as tidy as honeybees. Honeybees build hexagonal cells, all aligned, whereas bumblebees build theirs in one big cluster.

The worker bees tending to the nest will, however, still clean out waste and dead bees. Diseases are also prone to bumblebees so it’s essential that they clean out the cells.

It’s very common to find dead bees near the entrance to a nest. This is actually a telltale sign to look for when searching for their nest.

The queen will only tend to the first batch of offspring, after that it’s the workers who take over her duty. The forager bees fly out every day to gather pollen and nectar which they bring back to feed to the larvae and other bees.

bumble bees inside some wood
CC Image courtesy of allan_harris

Bumblebees do produce honey, but it’s not the exact same as that which we see from honeybees. Bumblebees sort of skip the process of fanning their wings to evaporate all the water content and will instead store it to be used in the immediate future. As bumblebees either die or hibernate in winter, preservation of the honey is not needed.

Foragers spend a lot of energy flying. The bumblebee forager can fly between 3 and 12 miles from the nest and back to forage. They might take these trips several times throughout the day, storing nectar in their stomachs for fuel.

Some bumblebee workers can also lay eggs. These workers will enter a competitive phase, laying unfertilized eggs, and will attempt to destroy similar eggs laid by the queen and other workers. As with the honeybee, it’s thought that this takes place when the queen’s usually dominant pheromones begin to wear off.

Summary

As you see, a worker bee plays an essential role within her colony. Both the bumblebee and honeybee workers will tend to the nest, guard the colony or fly out to gather pollen and nectar. They take care of the queen and her offspring. Without worker bees, the hive or nest would not be able to function.

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