Have you ever wondered where the saying, “busy like a bee” comes from? Well, it comes from the worker honey bee – known to be the most active bee of their species, Apis millifera, as they are faced with many different tasks and duties throughout their life cycle.
Within the species, the worker bee is the “non-reproductive” female because the queen is the only female that lays eggs within the colony. However, some worker bees can become “laying workers” if there is not a queen present! Unlike the queen, a laying worker is not fertilized and can only produce drones to help potentially continue the bloodline. Drones usually only make up roughly 3% of the hive and are the male population of the honey bee species. For these male drones, their only purpose is to stay alive long enough to have the chance of breeding with a queen – a process that would occur only once in their life.
In comparison to the other two castes (the queen and the drone), the worker bee is the smallest in size but makes up the vast majority of the colony. Think of worker bees as soldiers fulfilling their duties – getting the job done to keep the hive functioning as “one living organism” and protecting the colony and queen at all costs. The worker bee has a stinger that will only work once. If threatened, the worker bee will use its only defense to sting and take its own life to try to save the colony.
Rather than specializing in one job, each worker bee progresses through the colony tasks and duties in a predictable order based on their age known as temporal polytheism. According to the publication, “The Social Organization of Honey Bees”, “Temporal polytheism is the age-related division of labor that occurs within honey bee colonies.”, meaning the age of the worker bee and/or stressors within the hive will calculate what duty or task they will take on to help the on-going growth of the colony.
Amazingly, it takes only 21 days for a worker bee to develop – and their work begins as soon as they’re born. Each worker bee must first squeeze out of her cell breaking free from the silk sheath and wax capping where she will begin her “house” cleaning duties. She must clean her cell and help clean out the surrounding cells from where her sister worker bees were born and prepare the cells for another set of eggs for the queen to lay in.
Upon completion of her “house” duties, she will then start tending to the hive’s brood like a nurse, assisting in the birthing process of her developing sister worker bees. During this time, worker bees can be observed fulfilling tasks such as feeding larva up to 100 times a day and capping off brood cells of those larvae that begin to pupate (growing legs, wings, eyes, etc.). Eventually, if selected due to her good work ethic, she will be able to tend to the queen who needs constant grooming, feeding, and cleaning while she continues to lay eggs throughout the day.
At around eight to ten days old, the worker honey bee can branch out to more tasks in other regions of the hive, including grooming and feeding her fellow sisters and/or assisting in ventilating the hive. The task of helping with hive ventilation is of the utmost importance and requires the strength of a mature worker to be done successfully. In this process, the hive must breathe in and out maintaining a temperature of 93 degrees which is necessary to keep the brood developing properly. This is known as thermal regulation and the process of respiration is what helps regulate the temperature because what the worker bees do is stay at the entrance of the hive and flap their wings (known as “fanning”) at high speeds against water droplets to help cool the hive during the hotter months of the year. During the colder months of the year, the worker bees will shiver to cause their own body temperature to rise which raises the heat of the hive keeping it at the necessary temperature.
As the worker bee gets older, it is believed their glands begin to develop differently bringing them out of the juvenile state. After about 15 to 25 days, she can either become a forager (due to a possibly catastrophic loss to the foraging bee population) or stay within the hive to help with the storage of nectar and pollen. This is part of the process of making that delicious honey, which serves as a source of energy for the hive. The pollen and nectar are placed strategically around the edges of the brood and outer-most sections of the hive to feed the brood and hard-working honeybees.
As the worker bee grows older, (depending again on the need of the hive) she will develop the necessary muscles in her wings to help carry the additional weight of the nectar and pollen – This is when she can be considered a “forager” and is able to leave the hive to fly great distances in search of these important resources. Not only is she providing valuable resources for the hive to survive, but she also assists in the process of pollination for the plants we humans need to survive.
By this stage in her life, the worker bee can be anywhere between 25 to 45 days old, possibly older. As she ages further, she can continue to help forage and provide for the brood who continue to be born every 21 days. Some of the seasoned worker honey bees can even help with removing dead bees or kick out drones who have yet mated and continue to use up valuable resources. Although this seems to be a very barbaric process, their society decides it is for the betterment of the colony.
The worker bee itself will then reach a point in her own life to decide if the hive is better off without her, causing her to make one last flight into the abyss where she will not have enough energy to fly back and perish. Thus, completing the lifecycle of the busiest of the bees – the worker honey bee.
– Eny-166/IN1102: The Social Organization of Honey Bees, https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/IN1102.