​Applaud Worker Bees on Labor Day (And Every Day)

A lot of labor goes into maintaining such an elaborate insect society of tens of thousands of citizens -- building, cleaning, foraging, feeding, protecting, and raising young. There are numerous tasks that need to be accomplished efficiently and at precisely the right time for a hive to thrive.

But what bees have what jobs? And how to do they know what they’re supposed to do? On this Labor Day, let’s take a closer look at why those little ladies are called worker bees.

It’s interesting to note that all worker bees are female and they do all the jobs in the hive at one point in their lives. Worker bees aren’t born into a certain job—they’re born to serve the hive and the queen, and they do that by moving through the ranks from one activity to another.

Division of labor in the hive was once thought to be on a fixed schedule directly related to a bee’s age; however, it has been determined that nutritional intake and overall needs of the hive have some effect on what bees do what jobs and when.

That said, there is a typical career path most honeybees follow:

1. Nursing: When worker bees first emerge into this world, they complete their first job—cleaning their own birthing cells and preparing it for another egg to be laid. Then they’ll go about doing the same to other cells. After a few days of this housekeeping activity, the workers begin nursing their unborn sisters developing in the other egg cells. They feed the larvae, clean their cells, and keep them warm. These are the bees who produce the royal jelly for the queen and very young brood to eat. (Brood other than the queen are switched to a mixture of pollen and honey after a few days). Once they are no longer able to produce the royal jelly, these bees move on their next job.

2. Maintaining the Hive: At about 12 days old, worker bees transition to general chores around the hive. That might include making wax and building the comb, maintaining the optimal temperature in the hive, storing nectar and pollen, fanning nectar to dehydrate it into honey, removing the deceased bodies of hive-mates and intruders, and guarding the entrance to the hive. During this time, the workers will also take care of the queen and the drones.

3. Foraging/Scouting: At about 20 days old, workers then become the foragers of the hive. That means they go out into the world and gather all the things the colony needs to survive, including nectar, pollen, and resin from nearby trees to make propolis. Scout bees will also go out on missions to find new nectar and water sources and report back to the hive so the other worker bees know where to go to get the good stuff. These are the workers who return to the hive and do their little waggle dance to tell the other bees where to go. During this last stage of life, a worker bee will accumulate up to 500 flight miles, until her wings give out and she dies.

So how do they know when it’s time to transition from one job to another?

You notice I didn’t mention anything about a manager bee who goes around the hive assigning jobs to workers (I don’t think they make clipboards that tiny). Actually, it’s pheromones in the hive that tell the workers when it’s time to switch from one job to another. The pheromones produce coordinated activities and developmental processes that move the hive members through the stages of life.

Primer pheromones are released by the queen and brood to keep the social order of the hive in line. They urge the workers to do their various jobs, not raise any more queens, and not lay any eggs themselves. (Workers actually can lay eggs but do not have the biological means to fertilize them, which means the eggs would develop into an abundance of drones who would just lie around and use up hive resources).

The queen releases the pheromones at different times, depending on what needs to be done in the hive—there is no set timetable. If there is a need for more foraging and gathering bees out in the field, the queen will use the pheromone to mature younger bees into their new positions. This pheromone also draws workers to her in instances when she needs to be groomed or fed, or during a swarm to keep the hive together.

It is when the queen becomes too weak to release this pheromone that the workers stop doing their jobs and the hive becomes disorganized. The workers must begin raising a new queen from the brood cells to ensure the survival of the hive.

Workers themselves produce releaser pheromones in response to certain events. The most common type of releaser pheromone is the alarm, which happens when a worker prepares to sting an intruder in the hive. This attracts more bees to the scene of the attack to kill the intruder and protect the hive. If a worker bee stings a mammal once, the bee will die, as the stinger and a large part of the worker’s body is left behind in her victim. However, workers are able to sting other insects over and over when they are protecting the hive. Workers also give off orientation pheromones at the entrance to the hive to direct workers back home.

A word about winter workers

Worker bees only live about six weeks during the warmer months of the year and, in effect, work themselves to death during that time. Bees born in late fall or early winter can live up to five months. This is because instead of exhausting themselves flying around gathering nectar, worker bees assemble close together in the hive to keep brood warm and help the queen (who can live several years) survive the cold months. Since plants aren’t blooming in the winter, bees live off the stores of honey they’ve gathered in the warm weather and form a protective layer of vibrating bee body heat around the queen to help ensure she makes it until spring. Workers cycle from the inside to the outside of the cluster and back again, so each worker has her turn braving the cold winter elements.

On this Labor Day, remember all the hard workers in your hive whose many contributions make your home or workplace buzz along smoothly.