Imagine living in a small space with 50,000 to 60,000 sisters, a handful of brothers and your mother. That is what honeybees do. For most of us, a small town may have this same population and we do not even know and never see half the people we share the town with, ever.
When we fly on an airplane and prepare to disembark, many of us feel claustrophobic when everyone stands up all at once to get off. We do not like to be crowded. Contrary to human behavior, honeybees love living in tight quarters with their hive mates, and each bee works for the common good of the whole hive.
When it comes to worker bees, different bees perform different roles inside the hive, so everything runs smoothly.
During their adult lives, each female worker bee functions in a variety of different roles within the colony. The roles of winter bees are somewhat different and less intense. Here we shall look at the roles of spring and summer bees.
Days 3-16 Undertaker Mortuary Bees—This job requires young worker bees to remove dead bees and dead larvae from the hive, so pests are not attracted to the hive. They instinctively carry the bodies far away, at least several hundred meters, to remove potential disease.
Days 4-12 Male Drone Feeding—The young drone is helpless when it comes to feeding himself, so it falls to young worker bees to feed them until they get old enough to feed themselves.
Days 5-14 Nurse Bees—These worker bees nurture the hive’s brood. They produce ‘bee milk’ or Royal Jelly from hypopharyngeal glands in the head and salivary glands in the mouth and then nurture and feed larva with this rich nutrient-dense food (protein, vitamins, fats (lipids), sugar). A nurse bee may check larvae over 1,300 times in any given day.
Groomer Bees—Worker bees groom each other of dust, debris, stray hairs, excess pollen, and even mites, then the clean bee returns the favor. Some bees are more prone to clean other bees.
This 2:10-minute video by DIYDad shows guard bees in action as they repel an intruder robber bee trying to enter the hive:
Days 7-12 Ladies in Waiting to the Queen Bee—This involves feeding and grooming the queen bee, who is so preoccupied with laying eggs that she does not take care of herself. This may sound like an easy job, but it is quite intense and demanding.
Days 7-12 Pheromone Carriers—At the same time as they attend to the queen bee’s needs, worker bees spread her Queen Mandibular Pheromone (QMP) around the hive, so all resident bees know that there is a viable queen in charge and identify with her scent.
Days 12-18 Food Storer Bees—Nectar Processing and Pollen Packing—Incoming pollen and nectar that foraging bees bring back to the hive must be properly handled. This worker bee takes the pollen, mixes it with a bit of honey so it will not spoil, and stores it in a honeycomb cell. This pollen becomes brood food. When foragers fly in with nectar for processing, they rely on food storer bees as well, and do a ‘tremble dance’ to alert them to stop and switch tasks to process nectar.
Days 12-18 Fanning Air Conditioning Bees—These worker bees use evaporated water to keep the hive cool by flapping their wings. Air currents are created that evaporate the water. This is particularly necessary to keep a particular amount of humidity in the brood nest area. If the hive gets too hot it will endanger the resident bees.
Days 12-18 Water Carriers—These worker bees work in coordination with the fanning worker bees. They collect water from the closest external sources and spread it along the backs of the fanning bees so they can use it to cool the hive. Water is also used for other purposes in the hive, and of course bees drink water. Like other animals, their bodies are mainly water.
Days 12-35 Honey Sealing—Once honey has been produced, dried to the appropriate water content, the honey cells are full, the moisture content is right, then the honey must be capped. These worker bees have 8 wax glands on their abdomens that produce sheets of wax. These young bees chew the wax and manipulate it into place. This is what is used to cap the honey.
Days 12-35 Honeycomb Building—Honeycomb builder bees use the same type of wax to build honeycomb as the wax used to seal honey. They soften the wax and then bond large quantities of wax into the individual hexagonal cells of the honeycomb. Imagine, these worker bees must consume 8 ounces of honey to produce 1 ounce of wax, so it is a costly and time-consuming process.
Clean-up or Janitor Bees—These bees keep the hive clean as well as helping with cell building. They are hygienic and clean all cells before they are reused to store honey or new eggs. This job overlaps somewhat with the Mortuary Bee because they will also remove anything dead or dying. Bees do not poop in the hive normally, except for the queen bee, so her attendant worker bees clean that up.
Hive Repair—Worker bees use propolis to seal up cracks, repair any tears in the hive, and even to cover up foreign particles that are too big or heavy to remove. This keeps the integrity of the hive solid and fresh.
Days 18-21 Security Guard Bees—These are security-oriented bees that hover near the entrances to the hive. They protect the hive from unwanted visitors and alert the collective if there is an invasion. If there is a threat to the hive, these guard bees emit an alarm pheromone to alert all bees.
Days 22-42 Foraging Bees have the toughest and most tiring job of all. They fly from sunrise to sunset gathering nectar, pollen and propolis for the hive, usually within a five-mile radius. Foraging for nectar and pollen is done by the oldest bees because it is dangerous and tiring work, from sunrise to sunset. Worker bees have a long proboscis, or long tongue, for sucking nectar out of flowers. They have a second ‘nectar stomach’ for carrying nectar back to the hive.
It is simply amazing how many different jobs these worker bees carry out in any given day during their short life spans. It is no wonder that all spring and summer worker bees die quite young. They literally work themselves to death. These remarkable insects are an inspiration to us all.
We will look at the chores of winter worker bees, queen bees and drones in other blog posts soon.