Each honey bee colony is comprised of thousands of individuals, the majority of which are worker bees. All of these individual bees perform a variety of tasks within the hive in what seems to be a perfectly organized system.
How do worker bees divide labor within the colony? The division of labor within the hive is a complicated system, and even scientists are not completely sure exactly how each bee knows what to do at any given moment. However, we do know that a bee goes through several stages in the course of it’s life, during which it performs different jobs. Young bees start by performing the tasks within the hive such as nursing the larvae and building the comb while in the second half of their life the worker bees start making trips into the outside world to gather pollen and defend the hive. While the main factor that determines the job a worker bee will perform is its age, various other factors such as hormones and environmental cues can also have an important role.
In order to understand how honey bees divide labor and organize themselves, we need to go over the various jobs worker bees need to perform. Let’s dive in!
Division of Labour in Honey Bees
A beehive containing a colony of bees appears like a well-organized society. If one were to take a closer look, he would notice that some of the worker bees work on cleaning, repairing, or building the cells inside the hive, some busy themselves providing food to the larvae, while others go out to look for pollen. Moreover, all of the worker bees seem to know somehow exactly what their task is at any given moment.
When we think of bees in this way, it’s hard to not compare the hive to a human city on a small scale, with different individuals specializing in different professions to form a functional whole. However, there is something special about the way bees are organized. Even though there is a large number of individuals within a colony, there never seems to be any conflict or confusion within the beehive. There are no traffic jams and no misunderstandings.
There are two essential differences that make a society of bees different from a human society. First of all, there is no authority figure that regulates the division of tasks between the worker bees. Even though the queen bee is named, the queen, she is not only responsible for laying eggs, and not responsible for telling worker bees what to do.
The key difference here is the fact that bees don’t specialize to perform one role throughout their lifetime.
Instead, “they pass through one after another of all the various professions which have been laid down for them in the bee community — each bee starting her career as a cleaner and ending it as a forager”, as Karl von Frisch nicely put it as far back as in 1927 in his famous book titled “The Dancing Bees”. But what exactly are the stages and “professions” that worker bees go through? Let’s see.
Stages in the Life of the Worker Bee
The lifespan of the worker bee can be roughly divided into three distinct periods or stages in regards to the tasks that a worker bee will perform. However, we should keep in mind that these are not rules set in stone. In standard conditions, the worker bee will live it’s life by going through these stages, but experiments have shown that a bee will move on to the next stage faster if there is no adequate work for it to do.
Stage 1: Working Inside the Hive and Tending the Brood
When a bee first emerges from it’s cell, it looks much like a bird after a bath. The tiny hairs on her body are stuck together, and it will take a couple of days for her exoskeleton and wings to harden completely. The first activity that a newly born worker bee performs is the cleaning of the cells. It can be the same cell from which it has emerged, but it might also be any other cell. The cells from which young bees emerge need to be cleaned and prepared for the queen to lay new eggs in them.
After a young bee has cleaned a couple of cells, it will move on to performing various other tasks inside the hive. These include feeding the larvae, tending to the queen, shaping the comb, and sometimes even grooming and feeding the nest mates.
Stage 2: The Transition
According to Karl von Frisch, the second stage of a bee’s life begins when her wax glands are fully developed, which means she is ready to start producing wax and building the honeycomb. However, Lindauer and Watkin, for example, have shown that this progression of tasks is not necessarily clear-cut, and a bee might start building the comb while still feeding the larvae. In other words, she can switch between different tasks.
In any case, the second stage of a worker bee’s life begins when she is about a week and a half old. At this time, worker bees start leaving the hive for the first time in their life and this is a big transition. They start by performing the smaller tasks that don’t require going too far away from the hive. For example, they receive nectar from the bees that gather it. Some of the bees in this stage of life also hang around the entrance to the hive, keeping watch in case there are signs of danger. Moreover, the hive needs to be cleaned, and this task usually belongs to the bees going through this transitional period.
Stage 3: Foraging
Only when she is about three weeks old, a worker bee will start looking for food sources. These “grown-up” bees go looking for flowers, and when they come back they perform the “waggle dance” to inform their colleagues of the location of the food source. Bees that leave the hive during the spring and summer usually live about five weeks, but the bees that emerge from their cells during the autumn usually live throughout the winter.
How Does a Worker Bee Know What to Do?
The tasks that a worker bee performs are greatly influenced by a phenomenon known in the world of biologists as genomic plasticity. In short, as different groups of genes become activated, the bees start performing different roles. However, if we want to avoid discussing genomics, it is sufficient to say that the main factor determining the role a bee performs is it’s age.
However, some other factors can affect the bee’s behavior, Some of these are lipid levels and hormone levels. Moreover, bees are quite adaptable, and it is shown that they will instinctively perform the work that needs to be done. If there is no need to clean the cells, a bee will move on to another task. This trait also allows the bees to keep the colony functioning even in critical times as a bee will always adapt to the existing conditions. She will always perform the task that is necessary for the good of the community. In any case, we can conclude that bees are exceptionally good at organizing themselves, and there might be quite a few lessons to learn from the way that they behave.
What do worker bees do?
As their name suggests, worker bees perform most of the work that needs to be done in the hive. They perform a variety of tasks. First of all, they are responsible for building the honeycomb and cleaning and preparing the cells in which the queen lays eggs. Moreover, the worker bees also act as “foster mothers”, providing the food for the larvae until they are old enough to feed themselves. Only in the last stage of their lives do the worker bees move on to perform their most well-known task – gathering nectar.
What are the different types of honey bees within a colony?
There are three types of honey bees within every colony: the worker bees, the drones, and the queen. There can only be one queen within the hive, and there must be a queen at any given moment. The worker bees can sense this, and they can create a new queen by feeding a larva with royal jelly in case the old queen is gone. The drones are the male bees – they are usually around only during the spring and summer and their only role is fertilizing the queen. Finally, the largest number of individuals within a colony are worker bees.
Elizabeth Capaldi Evans and Carol A. Butler, Why Do Bees Buzz? Fascinating Answers to Questions about Bees, Animal Q & A (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2010).
Karl Von Frisch, The Dancing Bees: An Account of the Life and Senses of the Honey Bee (Harcourt, 1961).
M. Lindauer and B. Watkin, “Division of Labour in the Honeybee Colony,” Bee World 34, no. 4 (April 1953): 63–73
Nowogrodzki, Richard. “Division of labour in the honeybee colony: a review.” Bee World 65.3 (1984): 109-116.
WCSU Science Communication Station: How is Labor Divided in Honeybees?