From Housekeeper to Forager and Everything Between
Most are familiar with the saying: busy as a bee. But what does “busy” mean in bee terms? What do these industrious creatures do all day?
Like humans, honeybees have careers that progress through different jobs. Bees may hold seven separate positions in their short six weeks of life, each lasting but a few days or weeks.
So, how do bees get jobs? Are they born into a line of work? Do they have mentors?
Scientifically speaking, a change in the epigenome prompts a job change. From the day they emerge from their cells, bees know exactly what to do and when to do it. Behavior is instinctive, hardwired into their DNA. It is also impacted by cues from the environment and pheromones released by the queen and other bees at different times and in different conditions.
Everyone doing their job and working in sync is necessary for a workforce 60,000 strong. And while no job is superior or inferior, bees are, dare we say it, a bit chauvinistic. Gender determines whether a bee falls into one of two castes — queen or worker (female) or drone (male) — and whether it will work itself to death or piddle around most of its life.
The queen is the reproductive center of the hive, mother to every bee in the hive. She is always on the move, hunting for suitable honeycomb cells in which to lay eggs. A productive queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day, birthing a baby bee every 43 seconds.
Drones are the flip side of the reproductive coin. Their sole purpose is to mate with a queen to ensure propagation. Unless you are a beekeeper, you may have never seen a drone as their sisters outnumber them 100:1. They typically hang around the hive or congregate with other drones, always looking for virgin queens. Lest you think this is an ideal life, drones may be terminated in their cells before they are born if workers predict a food shortage. And most are kicked out of the hive when winter sets in.
The other 59,400 bees in the colony are workers that build the hive, maintain it, care for the young and gather and store food. All bees start their careers as housekeepers and end them as foragers. Occupations in between are age-dependent and performed as needed.
Days 1-3: After she is born, a bee’s first job is to groom herself and clean her cell. She tidies the chamber and others nearby so they can be used to raise another bee or store food.
Days 3-16: Undertakers dispose of bees that have died in the hive and diseased or dead brood to prevent disease. They carry their cargo far away from the hive to obscure the colony from predators. I have seen an undertaker carry a dead bee up the side of the hive, pull it through a tiny exit, and fly away, dead bee in tow. Though she be but little, she is strong. This is the epitome of strength training.
Nurses and Nannies
Days 4-12: Nearly every bee has babysitter on her resume. Nurse bees feed and care for their siblings in the larvae stage, checking on each up to 1,300 times a day. Larvae are first fed royal jelly and then weaned to a mixture of honey and pollen.
Days 7-12: Some nurse bees are assigned duties as queen attendants. These ladies-in-waiting groom and feed her, remove her excrement from the hive, and spread her scent to let everyone know “the queen is in da house.”
Days 12-18: Young bees also stash nectar and pollen collected by foragers. To create honey, they transfer nectar to a cell, add a digestive enzyme, and fan it with their wings to evaporate water. The product is officially termed “honey” when moisture is below 18%. Pollen, commonly called bee bread, is stored in cells too. House bees also create propolis from resin collected from trees. This mixture of resin, beeswax, and saliva (aka bee glue) is used to patch small cracks in the hive.
Days 12-18: Fanners are the hive air conditioners. They line the hive entrance during warm weather and rapidly oscillate their wings, pushing air through the hive in a chimney-like effect. This maintains temperature and humidity and speeds the curation of honey. Water bearers lend a hand by providing hydration. Fanners also guide workers home by diffusing pheromones they recognize as being from their home colony.
Days 12-35: Workers can produce beeswax from glands on the underside of their abdomen at about 12 days of age. With the beeswax, they build comb, seal larvae cells, and cap seasoned honey. It is an energy-expensive process as bees consume eight pounds of honey to produce one pound of beeswax.
Days 18-21: A bee may be assigned guard duty when her stinger contains an authoritative amount of venom. She protects the hive from would-be robbers, including other bees and insects, critters, and humans. She uses a sense of smell to determine if a fellow bee is a friend or foe. When she discovers a predator, she emits a pheromone to warn other bees of impending danger. Guard bees are fun to watch ― from afar. Usually, they are lined up, just inside the hive entrance, facing out, always prepared to act.
Days 22 plus: Foragers are the bees you typically see on blooms and near water sources. When they leave the hive for the first time, they perform an orientation flight to become familiar with its look and location. They circle the hive in progressively larger circles, establishing a GPS of sorts that will enable them to find their way back home, even after traveling upwards of five miles. Nectar and water collectors bring their load back in a special stomach called a honey sac. They transfer it to hive workers through regurgitation. Pollen and resin collectors carry their goods in special “saddlebags” on their hind legs.
Honey — Precious as Gold
Honeybees literally work themselves to death. Usually, they collapse from exhaustion in the fields, wings tattered and torn from countless flights gathering supplies.
Over her life, a honeybee makes just 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey. At that rate, it takes more than 1,000 bees to supply the average American with the 1.3 pounds of honey they consume each year. So “bee” sure to savor this indulgence the next time you slather it on toast or choose a natural sweetener for tea.
MICHELE ACKERMAN is an urban beekeeper in greater Columbus, Ohio, and proprietor of Blondie’s Bees and Balms (bees.micheleackerman.com). She writes a blog, The Bad Beekeeper, to keep bee enthusiasts in the loop about her journey with honeybees. She also maintains about 150 different varieties of flowers, shrubs, and trees.
Originally published in December 2021/January 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.