Life inside the hive: The worker bee
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Life inside the hive: The worker bee

Jun 10, 2023

The life cycle of a bee

We’ve all heard comparisons to humans and honey bees, and — by far — the most common is the worker bee: a tireless individual who does the hardest work but gets little or no credit. In this article, I’m going to prove that metaphor wrong - at least for bees. Welcome back to learning about the fascinating life cycle of the honey bee hive.

Workers are the smallest member of the hive but comprise its largest population. There can be anywhere from thirty to sixty thousand per hive during the summer. Let's explore the worker bee's life cycle and contributions.

Egg Stage (days 0-3):

The lifecycle begins when the queen bee lays an egg in a hexagonal cell of the honeycomb. The egg is tiny and is attached to the cell's bottom. The eggs are laid in clusters and are difficult to see with the naked eye.

Larval Stage (days 4-10):

Once the egg hatches, a larva emerges. Initially, the larva is a small, white, grub-like creature with no legs and a curved body. The worker bee larva is entirely dependent on nurse bees for its care. Nurse bees feed the larva royal jelly for the first three days. After three days, the larva is fed a mixture of royal jelly and honey or pollen known as "bee bread."

Pupal Stage (days 11-20):

The worker bee larva spins a silk cocoon around itself, entering the pupal stage. The cocoon is attached to the cell's inner wall, and the larva undergoes metamorphosis within it. Nurse bees close the cell with wax. Inside the cocoon, the larva transforms its body, developing legs, wings, compound eyes, and other adult characteristics.

Emerging as an Adult Bee (day 21):

Once the transformation is complete, the fully developed worker bee chews through the cocoon and emerges from the cell.

Young Adult Worker Bee:

After about twenty-four hours from emerging, the young worker bee starts taking on various tasks within the hive. Initially, its responsibilities revolve around hive maintenance, cleaning, and feeding the brood. They care for the eggs and larvae, receive nectar and pollen from foraging bees, secrete wax, build honeycombs, tend to the queen, care for the eggs and larvae, and heat and cool the hive. These young adults have never been outside of the hive.

Guarding and Foraging Stage:

As the young worker bee matures, it transitions to guarding the hive entrance and the foraging stages. These worker bees become responsible for collecting nectar, pollen, water, and propolis from the surrounding environment. They leave the hive and venture out on foraging flights, visiting flowers and other nectar sources to bring back.

Aging and Mortality:

Worker bees have a short lifespan due to the demands of their labor-intensive tasks. The average lifespan of a worker bee during the foraging season is around four to six weeks. However, bees that emerge in the late summer or fall may live longer, up to several months. As a worker bee age, its wing muscles weaken, and its body gradually deteriorates. Eventually, it becomes unable to fly or perform its duties. Old and worn-out worker bees are typically tasked with less demanding hive tasks until they eventually die.

Next time someone compares you to a worker bee, take pride! Without worker bees’ contributions, there would be no food. No pollination. No honey. And certainly no hive.