The Worker Bee

Learn about the intrepid worker bee — the colony member you see foraging for pollen. Find out how and why this little creature’s job changes.

| August 2019

Photo by Tosca Radigonda

Female worker bees make up most of the beehive and perform the various jobs that keep this superorganism up and running. If you’ve ever watched a honey bee on a flower, you’ve witnessed a worker bee carrying out one of her most vital tasks: foraging! But worker bees do much more than visit flowers. In fact, they spend the first half of their lives almost entirely inside the beehive.

Photo by Hilary Kearney

Although they are famed for their hard work, you may be surprised to find that the worker bees inside the hive are not running about at a frantic pace, but instead remain relatively motionless. When I look into a hive with students, they often ask what exactly each bee is doing. The amusing answer is that they are not doing much at all. They work in short bursts with long periods of inactivity in between. They even take naps!

Photo by Hilary Kearney

A Worker Bee’s Résumé

In her 6 weeks of life, a worker bee performs a variety of jobs within the hive, and these change as she ages. First she acts as a housekeeper, tidying up the cells. Then she transitions to a mix of other house tasks, sometimes performing two or more at a time: caring for brood, attending the queen, handling food, building comb, regulating temperature, and guarding the hive. There is even an undertaker bee tasked with removing sick or dead bees from the hive (in fact, only 1 percent of bees get this job).

When they are middle-aged, workers will graduate to the position of field bee and begin foraging for food and other ­necessary materials. They perform this job tirelessly until the day they die, despite the toll it takes on their bodies. When a worker bee begins foraging, her health quickly declines. Her wings become battered, and she even starts to bald! You can actually tell the approximate age of a worker bee by how fuzzy she is.

A young, fuzzy worker bee. Photo by Hilary Kearney  

The colony’s unique labor system allows for incredible flexibility. Although work is generally assigned by age, the needs of the colony can alter the typical workflow. If a hive lacks field bees, for example, young bees will begin foraging prematurely. If a hive is in need of more nurse bees, older foragers will revert back to the task of their youth. The ­plasticity of the honey bee workforce often enables the colony to survive, even when it is faced with disease or environmental stress.

A worker bee foraging in a California poppy. Photo by Hilary Kearney

More from Queenspotting:

More from Hilary Kearney:


queenspottingAt the heart of every bee hive is a queen bee. Since her well-being is linked to the well-being of the entire colony, the ability to find her among the residents of the hive is an essential beekeeping skill. In QueenSpotting, experienced beekeeper and professional “swarm catcher” Hilary Kearney challenges readers to “spot the queen” with 48 fold-out visual puzzles — vivid up-close photos of the queen hidden among her many subjects. QueenSpotting celebrates the unique, fascinating life of the queen bee and chronicles royal hive happenings such as The Virgin Death Match, The Nuptual Flight — when the queen mates with a cloud of male drones high in the air — and the dramatic Exodus of the Swarm from the hive. Readers will thrill at Kearney’s adventures in capturing these swarms from the strange places they settle, including a Jet Ski, a couch, a speed boat, and an owl’s nesting box. Fascinating, fun, and instructive, backyard beekeepers and nature lovers alike will find reason to return to the pages again and again.

Excerpted from Queenspotting by © Hilary Kearney. Photography by © Hilary Kearney, © Tosca Radigonda © imageBROKER/Alamy Stock Photo, © Frank Greenaway/Getty Images. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.



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