A single bee cannot survive on its own. It is helpful to view the hive as the organism and the individual bees as the cells, tissues, and organs that carry out the tasks needed to sustain the life of the colony as a whole. Understanding how the hive functions is critical to becoming a competent beekeeper. You’ll need to know what “normal” is so that you can recognize an abnormal situation your hive may be dealing with, and think logically through the problem.
The jobs inside the hive are carried out by bees of a certain age. As the bee grows older, they pass through a series of specialized tasks required for hive function, although in cases of necessity bees may regress back to younger tasks. There is no command structure or hierarchy of power inside the hive. The queen is queen in title only, she has no authority or ability to force bees to do her bidding. Honeybee research is still ongoing on how the bees come to a consensus, but it seems that thousands of insects are evaluating their immediate environment and making decisions. Each bee’s decision influences the decisions of the nearest bees, and the collective mass of individual actions gels into a fully functioning hive capable of adapting to a changing environment.
The following ages and associated tasks are generalizations, but if large numbers of bees are performing tasks other than the ones expected for their age, you know you have a problem. An example of this would be if a pesticide spray kills of most of your foragers, which would force young, fuzzy nurse bees to take up the role of gathering pollen, nectar, and water.
Birth to 5 Days of Age
For the first 5 days of life, the worker bees are hygienic workers. They start by cleaning the cells of recently emerged bees, preparing them for a new egg. They use propolis to strengthen comb, seal the hive, and cover any foreign object in the hive that is too large to be removed. They remove smaller debris, spoiled food, and dead or diseased larvae. In a dearth they may also remove or cannibalize some of the brood. About 1% of worker bees become undertaker bees who spend their lives removing dead bees and dumping them outside of the hive.
5 Days to 2 Weeks of Age
From hygiene tasks the bees move on to nurse roles. They are mainly responsible for feeding larvae. Nurse bees have specialized glands in their heads that produce royal jelly. For the first 3 days of life, larvae are fed all the royal jelly they can hold. By the 3rd day the workers begin feeding the larvae a mix of bee bread and honey on an as-needed basis. A comb of brood contains 1800 larvae and required 600 nurse bees to keep them provisioned.
Nurse bees also tend to the queen. Individual bees care for the queen for less than a minute, then return to their other duties. This constant turnover of queen attendants helps spread the queen’s pheromones throughout the hive. Low pheromones are a signal to the nurse bees that the hive is either too large and needs to swarm, or that the queen is failing and needs to be replaced. The nurse bees will begin building queen cups in anticipation of swarming or supercedure. Sometimes a queen is accidentally killed by the beekeeper. Within just a few hours the hive becomes aware she is gone and starts raising an emergency queen.
Nurse bees also have highly active wax glands and are responsible for building comb. The comb is not only for raising bees and storing honey, it is also their dance floor. Forager bees returning from promising forage areas dance in specific patterns on the comb to recruit more bees to the food source.
Young bees also act as heater bees. They appear to be sleeping, but are actually vibrating their wing muscles to generate heat. They need to eat every 30 minutes and are fed by nurse bees who specifically search them out in order to keep them as high functioning furnaces for the hive.
2 Weeks to 6 Weeks of Age
As nurse bees near 2 weeks of age they tend to migrate towards the opening of the hive. There they meet returning foragers who have stomachs full of nectar to offload. They are now known as house bees if they spend their time receiving this nectar and storing it in the honeycomb, or as guard bees if they end up guarding the entrance from intruders. House bees can also be found at the entrances fanning warm, moist air out of the hive. You will mostly see this on crowded hives or on very warm days during the nectar flow. Eventually, house bees are recruited to a nectar source and become foragers. Foraging is difficult work for a bee and usually ends their life around 6 weeks. Winter bees who stay in the hive can live closer to 3 months.