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When they said as busy as the bee, they definitely meant the worker bee. The worker bee is the only bee that predominantly handles all the critical chores in a beehive, and this begins from an early age. They will build the hive, and new cells, clean, guard, and take care of the brood and the queen. A beehive would never exist in the absence of the worker bee. The all-female worker bees are easy to identify given their physical and behavioral attributes. They make up 98 percent of a honeybee colony and are the hardest working of all the bee types in the colony.
Physical Attributes of the Worker Bee
The worker bee, unlike other bees, has signature body parts. Some of its unique physical characteristics include:
The worker bees have wax glands that are usually located on the lower abdomen of younger worker bees. These glands begin to produce wax when the worker bee is about 12 days old.
The wax gland is usually useful from age 12 days to 18 days, after which it degenerates and the worker bee no longer does the work of building combs. Wax is produced as a liquid and transforms into hard flakes or scales and is kept in wax pockets.
The worker bees also have royal jelly glands during their early stages of life. This produces royal jelly that is used for feeding the brood destined to be a future queen.
Smaller Body Size
The worker bee has a generally small body that is slender and sleek when compared to the other bees. The drones are much bigger than worker bees but smaller than the queen bee which is larger and longer.
The worker bee also has smaller eyes with a space between the eyes, unlike the drone bee with its huge eyes that are positioned close to each other. The worker bee also has a shorter antenna, with 10 segments, unlike the drone with 11 segments. The worker bee also has hairs on the back which tend to fade off for older worker bees.
Hairy and Larger Hind Legs
The worker bee’s hind legs are hairier and larger when compared to other types of bees. This is attributable to the pollen baskets that are found on its hind legs.
The pollen baskets help the worker bees to carry enough pollen to the colony after successful foraging. The pollen will be used for many purposes in the honeybee colony, with the most critical being the need to disinfect the hive and also seal gaps within.
Worker bees have a stinger and they are the only bees with the stinger for defending the colony. The drones do not have a stinger whereas the queen bee has a stinger that is generally used for killing other queens.
The worker bee stinger is barbed and it can only sting once, after which the stinger remains lodged into the victim. When this happens, the stinger is torn from the body of the bee resulting in her death. On the flip side, the queen bee’s stinger is not barbed and does not have a venom sac.
The worker bee will use its stinger whenever it feels threatened or when an intruder comes close to the beehive. The dislodged stinger leaves behind a strong pheromone that attracts more defense workers leading to a more aggressive attack on the victim.
Behavioral Characteristics of the Worker Bee
The worker bees exhibit certain behavioral traits that include:
Worker bees relay messages using dance and enthusiasm, commonly called the ‘waggle dance’. This is mainly common with worker bees responsible for foraging and scouting. They are the ones that can be seen moving from one flower to the other collecting nectar and pollen.
The scouting bees instinctively focus on one task at a time, seeking new areas to exploit and then flying back to the hive to send new scouts to the field.
The worker bee will use dance and enthusiasm to send a message about the new area. This will encourage more foragers to venture into the new area. The scouting and foraging bees will fly away for the entire day and rest in the hive at night.
Rapid Movement within the Colony
Worker bees are rarely idle when inside the beehive. They are always on the move and busy. That’s probably where the term ‘as busy as a bee comes from’. They could be busy tendering to the young brood or queen. They will also be responsible for cleaning the hive and will defend the beehive in case of an attack.
The worker bees will always be on the lookout for the queen. They monitor her every move and will use their antennae to pick up pheromones that are distributed all over the hive.
Egg-Laying Worker Bees
Queen bees produced by worker bees are smaller in size and tend to be weaker when compared to those laid by a queen bee. The worker bees will also lay eggs when the colony needs to produce more drone bees. This strain of laying workers produces weaker offspring.
The worker bee might be selfless in terms of working for the honeybee colony, with the life of an individual worker bee easily sacrificed for the survival of the colony. Unfortunately, these many hours of work have a heavy toll on the worker bee’s well-being. The majority of the worker bees pay the ultimate price of death as a result of exhaustion and burnout. Their body stops functioning after all the heavy work, starting with their wings, then followed by the rest of their body organs.