Wonder and Awe: The Honeybee Worker, Part 2 of 2

bee and flowers

Click here to read the first installment of Donald Studinski’s “Wonder and Awe: The Honeybee Worker.”

In part one of this series, we covered the early days, or about the first two weeks, of a honeybee worker’s life. It’s a time we can think of as adolescence. At the end of the second week, she transitions into full adulthood. There are no hard and fast rules compelling a worker to perform certain duties at certain ages. Some duties can, and must, be performed at nearly any age.

Temperature control in the nursery is a nurse duty. But temperature control throughout the hive is always necessary, and this duty is shared among housekeepers. As the temperature drops, bees create heat. As the temperature climbs, bees haul in water and then fan it—in effect using evaporation to cool off, just like a swamp cooler does for a house. Honeybee breathing and nectar fanning both create moisture that must be ventilated. If moisture condenses on the lid, it can rain on the bees—and wet bees are dead bees, especially when the weather is cool. Workers will line up on one side of the hive to suck air in and the other side to push air out, all fanning in unison (William Longgood The Queen Must Die, 1985, p. 103). Much burr comb is generated to control air flow direction for efficiency.

Housekeepers will sometimes rearrange the location of stored nectar and honey. If nectar has been abundant and stored in an area where brood are usually reared, it must be moved when more brood area is required, or the colony may choose to swarm. Once the hive mind reaches this conclusion, the housekeepers must get the job done.

The hive mind is the collective consciousness of the workers. While there is no assigned leader giving directions, there are clear, shifting priorities that effectively guide worker activities at all times. The hive mind holds all ruling power and determines the magnitude and duration of every task. Once it identifies an emergency such as overheating, overpopulation, or outside attack, it determines and organizes the response and assigns responsibilities, all with an invisible hand. Every colony priority and activity, from food collection to reproduction, is determined by the hive mind. In this, the queen is more like a slave than a boss. The hive mind tells her when and where to lay, determines how much food she may have and when, and even forces her to exercise and lose weight when swarm time draws near.

The queen is surrounded by a group of workers called the retinue, and it’s their duty to feed her, groom her, and remove her waste. The queen is fed royal jelly her entire life, which is probably why she’s the only member of the colony with a multiyear lifespan. Workers spread the queen pheromone throughout the hive by touch, passing the essence from worker to worker such that every member always knows the colony health status.

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The role of mortician is another relatively early duty in the life of a worker. Housekeepers must haul out the remains of the dead and dying (Donald Studinski, Beekeeping Mentor in a Book, 2014). This includes larva, pupa, adult sisters, and rarely, the queen. Sometimes bodies are dropped right at the front door. Other times they’re flown several hundred feet away. Since time outside the hive is involved, this is a transitional duty between inside and outside. At about two weeks, the worker’s flight muscles are fully developed. Now an adult, she’ll perform orientation flights and learn where home is, right down to the centimeter.

Guard duty is also transitional. Guards stay near all the hive openings. This is the most aggressive time in a worker’s life. If necessary, she’ll “sound the alarm,” so to speak—but it’s actually a pheromone. She’ll give her life by stinging to defend the colony and its stores from any danger. When she chooses to use her stinger, which is barbed like a fish hook, it will stick in the victim and tear the venom sack from her abdomen. As with most living creatures, when an organ is torn away, the end of life is near.

After roughly two full weeks as nurse, housekeeper, and mortician, plus a third week of guard duties, the worker is a hardened warrior ready to face the dangers of the outside world. Her soft, downy young exterior has been worn away. She’ll spend her remaining days foraging for nectar, pollen, water, and propolis. As a scout, one of her duties is “performing the waggle dance, alerting their nest mates to the location of nectar and pollen in the landscape” (Mark L. Winston, Bee Time, 2014, p. 3).

The propolis is tree resin with medicinal properties. It’s antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral. Workers spread the propolis throughout the inner surface of the hive’s outer walls, creating a propolis envelope. This is an important element in the colony’s immune system. What resins are hauled in varies with the health of the colony—workers are literally performing pharmaceutical analysis and prescription.

The older worker will toil throughout the day, as long as the temperature is near or above 50ºF. Before long, her wings are tattered to the point that she cannot fly. Thus, at about six weeks of life, she’s doomed. The worker will generally die away from the hive. She tries not to be a burden to her family, even in death. However, if she runs out of steam while still within the hive, her sisters will remove her—dead or alive—with no apparent gratitude or ceremony. When her useful service comes to an end, she’s no longer welcome within the healthy colony.

An impressive array of occasional duties come and go over the course of a normal year in a colony. It may seem as if bees progress through their maturing duties systematically, but the ebb and flow of the colony’s needs actually dictate what responsibilities the workers take on. Younger workers may be required to assume duties normally handled by their older sisters. Older workers may need to step in to handle duties they thought they’d left behind. In any given emergency, workers may immediately be called to a certain task, whether it’s defense, temperature control, or ripening honey. It’s not as chronological as we might wish it was.

In the fall, guards drive away any remaining drone population—there’s no need to feed the boys through the cold season. When spring comes, the colony will simply make new boys.

When the hive mind determines the colony is healthy and food is abundant enough to allow for reproduction, they will begin preparations for issuing a swarm. A swarm—the birth of a new colony— consists mostly of young workers and the old queen. To prepare, workers perform brood nest adjustments, set the schedule for producing new queens, run the old queen to ensure she loses weight in preparation for flying, and finally, on a warm sunny low-wind day, choose the moment the swarm will issue.

After the swarm leaves the old hive, it will cluster on a branch or something similar. Then scouts must leave the cluster to find a new home and report back to the cluster on the new hive candidates. When the hive mind comes to a consensus on the best candidate, the entire cluster launches into flight, following the scouts to the new hive.

Workers can sometimes be seen using their Nassanoff gland, in combination with fanning, to issue a “Here we are!” signal to their sisters. This is especially likely during a disturbance, such as when the beekeeper is working the hive or the swarm is just arriving at their new home, but they can also be seen making the signal at the entrance for no obvious reason (Beekeeping for Dummies, 2002, p. 28).

Workers have more hostile duties as well. When a queen grows old and unable to perform her job, they may replace her through a process called supercedure. The latter part of this process involves terminating the elder queen through an act called “balling.” Many workers surround the victim and then vibrate, bringing the queen’s inner temperature up beyond the survival point. This may also happen to fellow workers who become infirm. Sometimes the aggressors will use their mandibles to tear the body apart (The Queen Must Die, p. 99). Should an alien queen appear, such as when a beekeeper is trying to requeen, she may be dispatched in the same manner. It depends on the colony’s notion of whether to accept or reject the new queen.

It amazes me that we question whether insects qualify as sentient beings. Do we really believe that the massive variety of decisions made by a honeybee colony is driven entirely by instinct or programming written in their genes? I think not. The bees have taught me that all living creatures are not only sentient but also needed. As such, they deserve my respect.

Photo by Steve Kennedy: An early spring forager approaches a crocus with tongue extended.

Don Studinski

Don Studinski, dba Honeybee Keep, is a permaculture enthusiast and member of the board of directors at Living Systems Institute (LSI) where he applies permaculture philosophy to beekeeping. Honeybee Keep manages Colorado’s first Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) apiaries: LSI in Golden and Cottonwood Farm in Boulder. As a beekeeping mentor, Don provides advice and counsel for students throughout the United States, teaches classes and performs public speaking events. He authored Beekeeping Mentor in a Book and writes extensively about beekeeping on his own website and for a variety of others, including Bee Culture magazine, Peak Prosperity and Honeybee Haven.

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