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Members of the Colony



Not all the sisters in a colony are related to the same degree because their mother has typically mated with several drones. Those with the same father are called super-sisters, those with different fathers are called half-sisters. Sisters can tell the difference, partially via scent and this seems to influence the roles (forager vs guard for instance) they occupy.


In whatever fashion she spends her time, the life of a worker (usually thirty to forty days), though a good deal shorter than a queen (who may live four to five years) is infinitely more varied. Beginning as a primordial germ cell, this female bee-to-be, divides and grows to become an oocyte (immature egg cell), that makes its way, growing ever larger on the journey, to an ovary, from whence it passes into an oviduct, is bathed in spermatozoa, and ultimately is deposited, into a waiting cell. Here the embryo feeds on yolk for three days, then ecloses, (less like hatching and more like melting) to reveal a creamy C-shaped larva. During this stage (often referred to as the milk-brood stage because the larva is surrounded by the creamy first royal and then later worker jelly) which last for five days, the growing larva is fed continuously (between one hundred and fifty and eight hundred times a day) and molts six times to accommodate her rapidly increasing dimensions.


By day eight, the larva appears to be practically bursting from her cell. On day nine her cell is capped (with perforated wax to allow for gas exchange) and on day ten she molts again.  Using her formerly sealed excretory tubes she defecates for the first time and then spins a silken tube made of fibers produced in her salivary glands and drawn forth from spinnerets in her mouth.


Now a pupa, her body undergoes an astounding metamorphosis (triggered by juvenile and ecdysone hormones) during which she develops the articulated organs and appendages of an adult honey bee. Prior to her final molt (on day twenty-one) her cuticle begins to harden and darken, and her eyes turn purple. Once she has molted for the last time, she must wait a few hours (during this period she is referred to as a callow bee) for her cuticle to harden completely. Then she moves to the lid of her solitary cell and chews herself out into the bustling world of the colony. Often several baby bees will emerge simultaneously in proximity, as they were (twenty-one days prior) laid in cells next to and within seconds of one another.


From emergence hence the worker preforms a series of increasingly complex tasks corresponding to her development and the needs of the colony. This progression is termed age polytheism and describes the predictable promotion from relatively basic chores to those requiring the sophistication gleaned by experience, learning and memory.


For her first few days post-emergence, the worker cleans recently vacated brood cells of feces, cocoons and exuvia (exoskeleton remains from molts). Starting around day three, she transitions to feeding older larvae, tending the queen, grooming nestmates and capping brood. Around day six she begins feeding younger larvae. It is during this time (approximately day three to day eleven) that she produces the greatest quantities of royal jelly and is most correctly referred to as a nurse bee. Days twelve through eighteen see the worker transporting food within the hive, producing wax (this is the time when her wax glands are most generative) and building and repairing comb.


Starting around day twelve workers may also act as guards and defenders. Guard bees stand sentinel (their hind legs planted, and forelegs raised) and patrol the hive entrance checking that returning foragers are hive members who thus be allowed entrance. Non-hive members are generally turned away unless they are pleasingly encumbered with pollen or nectar, in which case they are granted passage. Defenders (also called stingers) go the extra step of giving chase to intruders (such as hornets and humans) and stinging if necessary.


By around days eighteen to twenty-one, the now middle-aged worker’s wax and hypopharyngeal (where royal jelly is produced) glands begin to atrophy. She now starts taking short orientation flights (usually around midday) during which hovers above and circles the hive to learn its location relative to geographical landmarks. While transitioning from being a house bee to a forager her brain increases in size and complexity, just as her world, formerly quite small now becomes vast and challenging.


Foragers scout for and collect nectar, pollen, honeydew, water, and plant resins (which they make into propolis). They take note of where these resources are located and what time of day specific blossoms secret nectar. The percentage of foragers gathering a specific resource depends on what is available and what the colony needs. Strongly influenced by positive reinforcement, foragers return, over and over, visiting up to forty flowers a minute, to blossoms they have found most fruitful (a tendency called flower constancy). Honey bees prefer to forage close to home and if resources permit generally stay within a mile radius of their hives but if pressed can fly as far as eight miles afield.


When a forager returns to colony weighed down with goods, she is usually greeted by sisters curious about where she’s been and what she has gathered. She is smelled and touched countless times as she either heads to a cell to deposit her loads of pollen or allows herself to be unburdened of nectar, water, or resin by house bees. Sometimes she divests herself completely by transferring the nectar held in her crop to sisters who take it to a cell to begin the process of refining it into honey. Other times she shares samples with many individuals who glean information by tasting and smelling her offerings. By gauging the attitude of the receiver bees, the forager ascertains how in-demand a resource is and using this intelligence makes decisions about what to do next. Additionally, pollen and nectar sources, the abundance and quality of their offering, and directions to them are communicated in the precise and nuanced language of dances.


Foraging: making from five to fifty round trip voyages, flying twelve to fifteen miles an hour, through unpredictable weather, while fending off and fleeing predators, is a high-risk occupation and takes a mighty toll on the bees’ body. Not every minute of a worker’s day is spent working and in fact honey bees seem to spend a great deal of time resting and possibly sleeping. During these periods of repose, the bee’s body temperature drops, her reaction time increases, her muscles relax, and her antennae droop.


Most foragers live for thirty to forty days with the exception of winter bees, also called fat bees. Larger and with more fat reserves, winter bees are raised at the end of summer to carry the colony through winter and can live up to six months.