The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861

Field Guide to Beekeeping

The Tasks of a Worker Honey Bee

- October 1, 2015 - Jamie Ellis - (excerpt)

Worker honey bees are marvelous creatures. These females could have been queens, had their older sisters simply fed them more food while they were developing as larvae. The amount and quality of diet they were fed while young were the only things separating them from royalty. If they had been a queen, they could have laid eggs, maintained the colony’s homeostasis, and lived up to a few years. Yet, they were born workers, destined to work their lives away in just a few short weeks.

Many worker bee equals in other social insect colonies, such as ants or termites, are born into a caste system, with a designated task that they perform their entire lives. Not so for worker honey bees. Worker honey bees subscribe to temporal polyethism, or “time related” (temporal) “many” (poly) “behaviors” (ethism). This simply means that worker honey bees perform a number of tasks over time and the performance of these tasks is age dependent. Beekeepers called this phenomenon age-related division of labor. The end result is simple: worker honey bees are not born into a task in which they remain their entire lives. Instead, they progress through a somewhat predictable series of tasks as they march toward the day that they can work no longer.

Interestingly enough, not all workers perform all tasks. Some workers may skip certain tasks altogether as they mature. Furthermore, the task system is not rigid. Old bees can perform young bee tasks and vice versa. This can be exacerbated further given the fact that a worker bee usually performs multiple tasks at any one age. Regardless, enough of a pattern exists in worker task performance that we can discuss these tasks in somewhat of a chronological order, as long as one remembers (1) workers may skip tasks, (2) workers perform many tasks at each age, and (3) workers spend more time resting and patrolling the nest than they do anything else.

Emphasizing point 3 above, I find it quite interesting that workers bees are even called worker bees at all. They spend the vast majority of their lives resting in the nest. Resting, of course, grants a worker needed respite. After all, who does not benefit from a little R&R? Things are not always as they seem, though, as bees are not always resting when they appear to be. Workers may remain immobile while secreting wax, producing brood food, etc. Thus, the period of immobility may simply be times of preparation to perform a given task. Worker bees also spend quite a lot of time patrolling the nest. The performance of this behavior seems to be a worker’s attempt to find out what needs to be done in a colony, with the idea that they are looking for something to do.

Though there is considerable overlap in the tasks that workers perform, there is an overall pattern to where and when they perform the tasks. Young worker bees engage in nest-based tasks while older worker bees perform tasks near the colony entrance or outside of the colony. Generally speaking, the tasks follow this natural progression: (1) cell cleaning and capping, (2) brood and queen tending, (3) comb building, cleaning and food handling, and (4) outside tasks.

Worker progression through their tasks probably is regulated physiologically, hormonally and by colony need. For example, certain glands in workers must develop before the workers are able to perform a given task – after all, they cannot feed larvae without being able to produce brood food. Given that worker honey bees perform the vast majority of essential tasks in the colony, their activity ensures that the colony has all of its needs met. The local environment around the colony also likely plays a role in worker task allocation, given that colony requirements vary based on a variety of environmental conditions and that workers respond to colony needs by doing jobs that must be done to ensure colony homeostasis.

I am going to spend the rest of the article introducing you to the tasks performed by worker honey bees. I will do my best to present the tasks to you in the order that they typically are performed, though admittedly I found this really hard to do given the massive variation in the timing and duration of tasks that workers perform. Keep in mind, bee progression through these tasks varies; only very loose conclusions can be drawn about the order and performance of worker tasks. Much of what I share will be based on the information provided by Winston (1980) and Seeley (1982). The books they wrote are masterpieces of bee biology and ecology. They are worth being in every beekeeper’s library. I provide full citations in the reference section of this manuscript in the event that you wish to explore these books further. The order that I discuss the tasks are the approximate order in which they are preformed, as noted by Winston (1980). I list the common age ranges and the mean age of workers performing each task.

Age-related tasks
Cell preparation (about 2-16 days of age, mean age about 8 days old) – This is the first task that workers perform when they emerge from their cells as adult bees. This task can be split into two subtasks: polishing cells and cleaning cells, with the latter happening later in the bee’s life. For the former, the workers begin cleaning a cell from the back of the cell, working their way up the walls of the cell and to the entrance of the cell (Figure 1). They will remove the remains of cocoons and excreta left by previous cell occupants. They will cover any remaining adulteration in the cell with a thin layer of wax.

Capping brood (about 3-10 days of age, mean age about 8 days old) – Young worker bees are able to secrete wax in small amounts. This allows them to