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Sweet Spotlight: The Worker Bee

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

These days it doesn't take much of a search to find crafts, clothes, and even home decor, dedicated to the Queen Bee. The term has become synonymous with a woman in charge, the one at the top of the pyramid. And we'll talk about her later, because she is incredibly important. But I want to take this opportunity to sing the praises of the humble worker bee. These gals are born, live, and die nourishing, protecting, and feeding the hive. The queen bee may lay the eggs, but without these amazing multi-talented bees by her side, she wouldn't get very far!

Let's start with how the worker bee is different. For starters, she is the smallest of the honey bees. She sports two incredibly important body parts, the hypopharyngeal gland and the proboscis. The hypopharyngeal gland is located in her head and is used to aid her in feeding other members of the hive, such as larva, drones and the queen. The proboscis is a long tongue she will use to suck nectar from flowers. And while both the queen and the worker bee have the ability to lay eggs, a worker bee is unable to fertilize them. Her unfertilized eggs produce drone (male) bees that may eventually mate with the queen.

The Worker Bee Life Cycle

A worker bees life starts out as a fertilized egg laid by the queen, where she will remain for about 3 days.

Around day three, the egg will begin to transition into a larva. For the next three or so days, a type of worker bee called a "Nurse Bee" will feed the larva royal jelly (a milky-white secretion produced by worker bees to nurture both larva and the queen). Then, for the next 6 days or so, the nurse bees will feed the larva honey and pollen.

Around day 9 the larva's cell is capped with honey and they baby bee is left to grow. An adult worker bee will typically emerge from the cell around day 21 and begin her journey as a caretaker.

Swiss Army Bees

After a worker bee emerges from her cell, she is assigned roles within the hive of increasing importance dependent on her age. Between days 3 and 16, her first job may be that of a "Mortuary Bee". A role that requires her to collect any bee who has died or larva that did not grow and remove them far from the hive (so as not to risk disease).

Or she may become a "Nurse Bee". In this role she will either tend to and feed the male bees who are not capable of feeding themselves until they are older, or she will care for and feed the larva as they grow. Nurse bees have been known to check on the larva in their care over 1300 times a day.

She may also become a "Queen's Attendant". This role requires the worker bee to feed and groom the queen. Worker bees who serve in this role have another important job. The queen bee produces a pheromone called the Queen Mandibular Pheromone (QMP). As a byproduct of her close contact with the queen, a "Queen's Attendant" worker bee will take this pheromone and spread it as she moves through the hive. This is a signal to the other bees that the they still have a viable queen, an imperative feature of a healthy hive.

In the next phase of her life, between days 12 to 42, a worker bee can fill many different roles, all vital to the survival of the hive. She may be responsible for "Pollen Storage", the role in which our beautiful worker bee will store pollen that is brought back to the hive in storage cells for later use. She will place this treasure inside the honeycomb and top it with a bit of honey prevent it from spoiling.

If she has the job of "Sealing", our worker bee will dry honey to the appropriate water content and then cap the cell. She will do this using wax glands she has in her abdomen.

If she is a "Builder", although she can make her own, she will take wax from other members of the hive and use it to build cells used for storage and protection.

She could be responsible for "Fanning", where she would use her wings to evaporate water and help the hive stay cool. Or she could be a "Water Carrier" who will gather water from a nearby source, bring it to the hive, and spread it along the back of the "Fanning" bee for evaporation, to aid in keeping the hive cool.

If she is a "Guard Bee" she will protect the entrance of the hive from unwanted visitors. "Guard Bees" will vary in number depending on the traffic in and out of the hive, or the season. Sometimes this protection detail includes getting rid of the drone bees once they have served their purpose.

Or, she could be a "Foraging Bee". Each of the sweet, fuzzy, pollen seeking cuties you see flitting from flower to flower is tasked with gathering food for the hive. These bees will travel within a 5-mile radius to collect pollen, nectar, and propolis to sustain hive life. (Propolis is a type of resin that serves many functions within a hive. It can be used to repair old hive, build new cells, smooth surfaces to help maintain temperature, prevent invasion, and provides an antiseptic internal environment in the hive.)

How Long Do Worker Bees Live?

A worker bee born during summer months may live to the ripe old age of 6 weeks. She works around the clock to nurture her hive, which dramatically shortens her lifespan.

On the other hand, a worker bee born in winter will be much larger in size. These bees have one major responsibility: keep the Queen Warm! This job is no easy feat. Worker bees will gather around the queen and vibrate their wing muscles to create warmth. They will rotate workers from the outside to the inside of the circle regularly to ensure that no bees on the outer edge become too cold. Because their role is much more limited during this time, winter worker bees can live up to 8 long months.

Did you know that bees can sense carbon dioxide and use that info to target and chase away would be hive attackers? A worker bee may use her stinger on those that she feels are a threat, but her protective instincts can cost her dearly. When stinging a tough surface, such as human skin, her stinger can tear from her body lodging in her victim. If this occurs, her organs will also be ripped out as the stinger disconnects, and she will likely die. She will have made the ultimate sacrifice to protect her hive.

Worker bees are beautiful, complex creatures that expertly balance being soft and gentle caregivers, with being fierce warriors willing to take on creatures 100 times their size to protect their home.

Somebody give these girls some praise!!

*Pictures are courtesy of Rachel Thomas Photography, and various artists of Unsplash*

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