Workers are female honeybees. They make up the majority of the colony.
They hatch from fertilized eggs but are infertile.
They live for 6 weeks in the summer and 4-6 months in the winter. The larvae of the bees that are bred to last the winter have been fed more protein than carbohydrates thus allowing them to live far longer than six weeks.
Workers hatch with a certain amount of venom in their barbed sting. They conserve this venom until they are 18 days old and able to defend the hive. Honeybees only sting to defend their colony or themselves if they feel threatened.
A bee can sting most animals or other insects several times but will often die when they sting a human as the barbed stinger is left in the tough skin along with a poison sac which carries on pumping venom. Of all the bees, wasps and hornets, only the honeybee has a barbed stinger.
Genetically, a worker bee does not differ from a queen bee and could lay eggs. However as she is infertile she would only produce only male offspring and thus the colony would ultimately die out. A ‘laying worker’ sometimes comes into action if the old queen dies or disappears. Tell tale signs are and irregular laying pattern and multiple eggs laid in cells. Bit of a nightmare for the beekeeper!
Workers perform all the tasks in the hive from caring for the brood to foraging for food. Tasks change as they get older when younger bees come along to take their place but they could do any of them, any time, if needed. The well defined progression of tasks is as follows – cell cleaning, nurse bee, wax producer, honey sealing, drone feeding, queen attendants, pollen packing, propolizing, mortuary bees, fanning bees, water carriers and ultimately, foragers.
Until bees are old enough to venture outside they are called collectively ‘HOUSE BEES’.
Young bees begin their tasks by cleaning cells which are used for brood. These cells will be inspected by the queen and if unsatisfactory will not be used.
Worker and drone larvae hatch out from eggs after three days then ‘NURSE BEES’ feed them, for a brief period, with brood food (a protein-rich pollen, mineral and vitamin substance secreted by worker bees) then with a honey and pollen mixture known as bee bread. Brood food is also known as Royal Jelly because of its crucial role in converting larvae into queens. However, for a new queen, the workers will add much more sugar to this food plus a juvenile hormone. The hormone triggers the worker larvae to become a fertile female. Queens are overfed royal jelly all their life.
When larvae are ready to undergo their metamorphosis into pupae, ultimately adults, then worker bees seal the cells with air permeable wax.
‘HEATER BEES are responsible for keeping the brood chamber temperature at 35deg C (+ or – 1.5deg). These bees vibrate their wing muscles (without moving their wings) and raise their temperature higher than other bees in the colony then they crawl into empty cells in the brood nest and transmit heat to the surrounding cells where the bee pupae are developing.
‘WAX BEES’ build and repair cells. They form different size cells in the brood chamber according to whether they want more workers, drones or a new queen. They also use their front legs to measure size of the cell required. For new workers they would build 25 cells per sq. inch.About 95% of the brood cells will be workers. For new drones they would build 16 cells per sq. inch.
Timescale between egg laying and adult bees emerging
Queen 16 days
Drone 24 days
Worker 21 days
CLEANLINESS IN THE HIVE
Hives are kept scrupulously clean and to help with this cleanliness, ‘outside bees’ collect resin from various trees, mainly conifers. They blend the resin with wax flakes thus turning it into a complex chemical mix called propolis. This has antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties.
They also use it for sealing small gaps, to reduce vibration, to inhibit bacterial growth and to make the hive more defensible by sealing alternate entrances.
The insides of brood cells are lined with propolis, then polished, in preparation for the queen to lay eggs. Over time this discolours the comb.
Failed larvae must be removed from the hive to prevent disease and allow the cells to be reused. These will be carried some distance from the hive by ‘MORTUARY BEES’ . They also clear out dead bees and other debris.