A Bee's Work is Never Done - Part 1

The first long weekend of the summer has finally arrived here in Manitoba, Canada. Yay!!! 😊

Around this time every year, weather permitting, many Manitobans begin to get their gardens and yards ready for summer.

But we humans are not the only ones who will be doing chores this weekend. Did you know that female worker bees actually have different chores that they do around the hive? That’s right, and their chores are particularly important, since they ensure the survival of the entire bee colony.

The chores that the workers do generally depend upon their age. I say “generally” because we must remember that not all worker bees perform all tasks. They don’t have a rigid system.

Some worker bees may completely skip certain tasks as they mature… older bees can do young bees’ jobs… and vice versa. This can be further complicated by the fact that worker bees usually perform multiple tasks at any given age, and that workers spend more time resting and patrolling the hive than doing anything else. (They’re not being lazy. There’s a reason for this which I will cover in a future blog post). Nonetheless, research shows that notwithstanding all these things, we can still see a somewhat chronological order to the multitude of tasks that bees perform, all in the interests of ensuring the survival of their colony.

The average worker bee lives for around 40 or 50 days, and the chart excerpt below does a great job of summarizing the average ages at which worker bees perform the tasks that need to be done around the hive. Since there are so many different tasks that bees do, we’ll only go over the first few in this post. The rest will be covered in future posts.

(Adapted from “The Biology of the Honey Bee” by Mark L. Winston, 1987, p. 93).

Cell Cleaning:

It's important to know that when we say the word “cell” in beekeeping, what we are referring to is, a hexagon-shaped cell in the honeycomb that looks like the ones in the photo on the right.

Cell cleaning is actually a 2-part task. It can be divided into “cell cleaning” and “cell polishing”. The worker bees engage in cell cleaning when they’re about 8 days old, and they do cell polishing once they’re a bit older. (Note that an 8-day-old bee is the equivalent of a 15-year-old human, so they’re kind of like teenagers 😉). Anyway, cell cleaning involves removing cocoons and excrement that have been left over from former cell occupants, that is, former baby bees who have grown up and left their cells. The worker bees begin working from the back of the cell to the front, working their way up the walls of the cell, cleaning meticulously all the way to the entrance. Any adulterations that remain in the cell after the cleaning process is complete, are promptly completely covered over with a thin layer of wax. Bees are very clean creatures.

Capping and Tending the Brood:

When we say “brood” in beekeeping, we are referring to the eggs, larvae and pupae of the honeybees. What happens is, the queen bee lays an egg in each cell of the honeycomb, gluing it to the bottom of the cell as she goes. As the egg hatches, the worker bees (now known as “nurse bees”) feed it “royal jelly”, a highly nutritious substance that comes from glands located on their heads.

For three days the young worm-like larvae are fed royal jelly, and then they are switched over to a diet of nectar or diluted honey and pollen (a.k.a. “bee bread”). The young larvae eat their way through the royal jelly in a circular pattern until they become too big and crowded, and then they stretch out lengthwise in the cell. Soon after that they begin to spin a cocoon, and their older nurse-bee sisters then cap (or cover over) their cell as they enter the pupa stage, hence the term "capped brood." The photo below shows some big, crowded larvae on the left, and some capped brood on the right.

Once in the pupa stage, the immature bees hidden under the cappings lose their worm-like features and begin to look like actual bees. They are for the most part inactive during this time, but they do grow legs, eyes, wings, and eventually little hairs that cover their entire body. After 7 to 14 days in the pupa stage, the newly-formed adult bees chew their way out of their cells and voila! Hello World!! 😊 This video shows the process:

Attending the Queen:

Despite beekeeping being both a long-standing hobby and an occupation, scientists are still trying to pin down the fine details of the queen bee’s life. That's part of what keeps beekeeping so exciting!

The queen bee is very directed and regimented in everything she does, from her mating flight to her regular, consistent egg-laying behavior. Given her central role in the hive and even her name, it’s understandable that the layperson may assume that the queen bee is the "boss" of the hive, but that's actually not true.

She is the star of the hive, for sure, due to her egg-laying ability. But she’s controlled by a bigger boss - the mass of worker bees. The workers have the ability to raise a new queen, or to kill an existing one – whenever they wish. The queen bee is really only in charge of laying the eggs and deciding when she will lay. She uses pheromones to signal the rest of the bee colony when that’s about to happen.

Anyway, the worker bees “attend” the queen by taking care of her. This includes feeding and grooming her. The queen depends very heavily upon the rest of the colony, since she can’t even digest her own food. The worker bees must digest it for her, and then feed it to her. They also clean up any excrement that she produces. The video below shows a queen bee being attended by her court of workers:

Well, that's all for now folks. Stay tuned for Part 2 of "A Bee's Work is Never Done", and keep well!

- Girl Beekeeper and the folks at thebeecozy.com

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