Worker Bees are Busy Bees? Maybe Not that Busy

(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, Spring 2005)

Do you ever spend a long, grueling day at work and then wonder at the end of the day if you have accomplished anything? Compare yourself to a honey bee. In the average worker bee’s lifetime, which happens to be only 4-5 weeks*, she will make just 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey. Only one-twelfth!

But let’s look at this another way. A colony can have 50,000 to 60,000 workers, which together may produce over 4,000 teaspoons of honey during those 4-5 weeks. Now that’s successful teamwork! And yes, the worker bees are all female.

In addition to the worker bee, the residents of a bee hive include a queen bee—just one—and drones. The drones are male bees. We’ll talk more about them later.

There is no rest for the worker bee. In addition to searching for nectar and pollen and then making wax and honey, the worker bee must feed the queen and larvae, build and repair the hive, help keep the hive cool by fanning her wings, and protect the hive against enemies. Worker bees defend the hive with a stinger that becomes detached along with a venom sac after the sting. The worker bee dies shortly after the sting.

Stung by a bee?

If you are stung by a bee, Virginia Cooperative Extension recommends that you immediately remove the stinger and venom sac by gently scraping or flicking the stinger with a fingernail or knife. If removed within 15 seconds of the sting, the severity of the sting is reduced. Do not use tweezers or try to squeeze out the stinger because this pushes more venom into the wound.

Next, wash the sting site with soap and water. Apply ice to minimize pain and swelling. For normal sting reactions, apply a solution of teaspoon meat tenderizer dissolved in 1 teaspoon water (or commercially available sting solution) to the skin to relieve discomfort.

If you experience anything more than a localized, normal reaction, seek medical attention immediately.

What else goes on in the hive?

Some in the worker bee contingent are nurses. The nursing worker bees select a two-day-old larva to be reared as the queen. The queen is the only sexually developed female in the hive and is the largest bee in the colony.

Does the queen get to be large and sexually developed because she was chosen to be queen, or do the nurse worker bees somehow know which larvae is going to turn out to be the big, sexy bee?

The consensus among bee researchers is that while the worker bees may have no reason to choose a particular larvae, they feed the chosen one a special diet of royal jelly. The royal jelly is made of digested pollen and honey or nectar mixed with a chemical secreted from the glands of nurse worker bees. Without the benefit of royal jelly, the queen bee would be no different from an ordinary worker bee and thus would not be queen.

The queen emerges from her cell 11 days later to mate in flight with several drones, the male bees. Remember the drones? There are only 300 to 3,000 drones in a hive.

They buzz aggressively, but they have no stingers. Drones do not collect food or pollen from flowers. Their sole purpose is to mate with the queen. Do the drones get several chances or is this a once in a lifetime opportunity? During mating, the male sex organ remains in the queen bee, so the drone dies quickly thereafter. Each mating drone removes the organ left by the previous drone. Because they are of no use in the winter, surviving drones are expelled from the hive in the autumn.

During mating, the queen receives several million sperm cells, which last her entire life span of nearly two years. The queen starts to lay eggs about 10 days after mating. A productive queen can lay 2,000-3,000 eggs in a single day, which keeps her very busy. Fertilized eggs become female bees; unfertilized eggs become male bees.

When the queen dies or becomes unproductive, the worker bees select a new larva to make into a queen. And the cycle continues.

*Worker bees may live 4-9 months during the slow winter months.

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