Bee Basics – the Worker Bee

The function of the worker bee is to work. If the queen is the ovaries of the hive then the workers are the body – and perhaps the brain. The tasks they carry out can be divided into two main categories:

  1. House bee
  2. Forager

Guard bee is a role intermediate between the two and is one which is enthusiastically embraced by all if and when needed.

But the workers have another function – it is the workers who decide when to replace the queen and when to swarm. As such they preserve the vibrancy of the colony as a whole and prevent its senescence. This last has been outlined in Bee Basics – the Queen Bee under ‘Pheromones and Social Cohesion’.

Throughout the course of their life, workers will progress through many or most of the tasks involved in the day to day maintenance of the colony but in a specific order and for a specific reason. A worker hatches from a cell near the middle of the colony and is gradually pushed away outwards by wave after wave of hatching bees so it becomes employed in tasks which take place further and further away from the brood nest.

House Bee

The jobs within the hive are many and varied but the first jobs to attract the attentions of a newly hatched and hardened-off worker bee are those within the brood nest. These include cleaning out cells and polishing them with propolis in preparation for the queen to lay another egg, feeding larvae with bee milk which is exuded from glands in the head, capping the cells of larvae, comb-building and repair. Between these jobs the bee walks through the hive passing food about with the other bees and sometimes sleeping. The almost constant food passing ensures that all members of the colony eat exactly the same mixture of honey and pollen and therefore smell the same. This is another facet of social cohesion but it also makes it easier to distinguish intruders by their different smell. In their spare time worker bees sleep.

As more bees hatch, our bee will leave the brood nest to take part in more far-flung house-bee jobs such as getting together with other bees in hot, wax-making clusters for the drawing out of super frames or sections, unloading foragers and ripening, fanning and packing honey.

From about the fifth day, worker bees begin to go out in their spare time, when days are dry and sunny, to learn how to fly. They leave backwards so that they can memorise where they came from.

Guard Bee

The final job the worker bee takes before becoming a forager is that of guard bee which could be considered as a transitionary position between house bee and forager. Bees may skip becoming guards if the needs of the colony are such that more foragers are needed immediately ie if a honey flow is in progress.

Guards are summoned from other house duties in response to a perceived threat such as a hearty rap on the roof, gusts of human breath wafting offensively through the varroa floor or entrance (!) or rows of curious cattle a-rubbing and a-snorting at close proximity. Or if robbing by bees from another colony is detected.

Once mounted, the colony is in a state of amber alert, guards will check the credentials of all returning foragers whose bona-fides reside in their familiar smell. Unfamiliar bees will be roughed up and this is observable on the landing board or around the entrance, but there is an Achilles heel in the defences here because if they are not immediately ejected the guards will often become distracted and the unfamiliar bee will pass into the hive perhaps to take up robbing.

Humans and cattle, if they persist in their rapping and snorting and their coarse heavy breathing, will be threatened. Guard bees seem to know instinctively which end of an intruder is which and will go straight for the head which is why beekeepers wear veils – stings on the face are very painful and a sting on the tip of the nose can result in black eyes.

When it comes to marauding wasps, these are challenged and here if the guards are not distracted, fights may result, ending with the death of one of both if the sting is used. If robbing by wasps continues long term – it is as if the bees seem to recognise them as comrades and allow them to enter unmolested – presumably because they have taken on the odour of the hive.

Forager

Foragers bring in water, propolis, nectar and/or pollen. Foraging is the glamour end of the worker bee’s career but despite this it is desperately hard work and workers mostly die in the field.

Generally water is required in those times when bees are living off stores and need to gather the water to break it down. Most often this is in winter but it could also be during times of dearth or foul weather in summer.

Propolis is used to glue down anything that moves, to waterproof the hive and to varnish the insides of cells. It is gathered from the sticky buds of trees and shrubs or from oozing knots in wood but the bees will gather any other suitably sticky substances they find such as wet paint, caulking or chewing gum. Bees recruited to propolis-gathering tend to stick with it for the rest of their lives.

Nectar and pollen are gathered during the spring and summer. In spring foraging bees will gather nectar and pollen from any and all flowers they find but as more flower species come into bloom later in the year, bees begin to specialise exclusively on the flower to which they were recruited. Recruitment occurs when foraging bees return laden and dance excitedly to communicate the quantity and location of a certain nectar or pollen source to the colony. Bees at a loose end often become spellbound and will follow the directions until either they find the source of the excitement or they find something else. If the flower they were recruited to runs out they become receptive to re-recruitment.

Then one day they just don’t come back.

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