Worker Bee


Duties The worker is an incomplete female in that she can't mate and reproduce, but she does do just about everything else and, if you see a honey-bee collecting nectar and pollen from flowers, it will be a worker. Worker bees pass through various task-related phases as they age. Unlike ants, for example, which have task-related castes (such as soldier ants for defence and so on), honey-bee workers engage in defence or other duties at certain ages (see bellow Image).

On emerging from her cell as an adult bee, the worker begins work by cleaning out brood cells and then by capping brood with wax as they enter their pupal stage. She then tends the brood and feeds them and, after that, she engages in such duties as tending the queen. As the worker becomes older (during the summer months we are talking of an average 15-38 day lifespan), she receives nectar from incoming foragers and places this in storage cells. She also engages in housework, such as hive-cleaning duties that include, for some, undertaker bee duties or the removal of dead bees.

She then engages in ventilation and fanning duties, and produces wax. Workers can synthesize the sugars in nectar and honey into beeswax, which they extrude through glands underneath their abdomens. Each worker has four 'wax mirrors' from which wax is extruded. Wax is employed to build comb that is used as a nursery for brood, as a store for pollen, a store for honey and as a surface on which to live in the hive. In other words, wax is central to the bees' existence. Without it, no food can be stored, no eggs could be laid and no brood reared. The colony would soon die out.

Finally, the worker begins guard and defence duties at the entrance to the hive and will readily launch herself at the beekeeper or strange bees. This guarding stage may last for only a day or two, after which she will fly off and forage for nectar, pollen, propolis or water. Therefore as her various glands develop and then atrophy, her duties change, and she finally works herself to death as a forager if she hasn't previously died in combat, from disease or from having been eaten by a predator.


The colony can, however, alter this progression of duties if it needs to. If, for example, the colony's forager bees are killed by pesticides, then younger bees will become foragers sooner and may miss out an intervening stage. On the other hand, if all the younger nurse bees who feed the brood are removed, older forager bees will revert to being nurse bees, and this is no mean feat: their food-producing glands have atrophied by the time they become foragers and have to become active again in order for them to produce brood food.

One of the pheromone chemicals that regulates this progression of work is ethyl oleate. Possibly spread around the colony by mouth-to-mouth contact, this pheromone slows down the development of younger bees. Older forager bees carry some 30 times as much of this chemical as younger bees do so, if there are plenty of foragers bringing in the honey, there will be plenty of ethyl oleate in the hive, and this will keep younger bees from developing into foragers. However, should the colony run low on mature foragers (for example, due to spray poisoning), the supply of this grow-slow pheromone will dwindle, and young bees will mature rapidly to fill in the ranks. When foragers again abound, a new abundance of the pheromone will slow the replacement process.


The whole colony, therefore, lives in a state of dynamic equilibrium, ready to alter or amend its priorities and population ratios at any given time, but only and always for the colony's benefit and survival. The beekeeper can't change any of this but can work with the flow by helping to ensure that external factors, such as lack of shelter, starvation, disease, queen failure and so on, are minimized and remedied swiftly if they do occur. The worker bee, then, is an immensely complex creature that has given up her right to reproduce in exchange for furthering the cause of her genetic propagation via a single laying queen. This evolutionary trait, however, is apparently not yet complete. If the queen dies and colony attempts to raise another queen fail, then the ovaries of certain of the workers will enlarge and they will begin to lay eggs. However, the colony is doomed because, as workers have no apparatus for mating, the eggs will result in unfertilized drone brood laid in small worker cells.

Competition from other laying workers is intense, and a clear sign of this laying-worker syndrome is the sight of several eggs in a cell. These eggs will often be placed halfway down the cell due to the shorter length of the worker's abdomen. If at this stage another queen bee is introduced to the colony, the laying workers will invariably kill her.