When you open your hive and look at the busy moving mass of tiny golden bodies, it is but a mere snapshot of the working hive. The bee colony is constantly regenerating itself. In fact, every 6 weeks or so you essentially have a new hive. Any bees that were born two months ago have died of old age and the constant hatching of young bees have replaced those older bees.
The average life span of a worker bee in the summer is 6-8 weeks. Bees live longer through the winter because their bodies are not working as hard and they’ve built up food stores in their body. Because of this, winter bees are often called “fat bees”.
Within those short 60 days a bee takes on many roles within the hive.
I found this timeline in the article Learning About Honey Bees, published on The South Carolina Mid-State Beekeepers Association.
Period of service as house bee
1 – 2 Days cleans cells and warm the brood nest
3 – 5 Days feeds older larvae with honey and pollen
6 – 11 Days feeds young larvae with royal jelly
12 – 17 Days produces wax and constructs comb, ripens honey
18 – 21 Days guard the hive entrance and ventilate the hive
Period of service as field bee
22 + Forage for nectar, pollen, propolis and water
From the second her wings dry a worker bee begins her devotion to the well being of the hive. Her first task as a new bee is to clean her own cell from which she emerged. She prepares it for the storage of honey or for the queen to lay a new egg.
From there, she works her way around the hive adopting new roles as she ages. Young larva needs to be checked and fed approximately 1300 times per day which keeps a nurse bee busy around the clock.
As new bees are being born, old bees are dying. It is a constant revolution. House bees also adopt the role of undertaker; removing the dead bees from the hive.
Some of her other roles include retrieving honey, pollen and nectar from returning field bees. Like an organized collection she “puts away” the stores of food in the correct cell designated specifically for each item. These cells have been prepared for her by younger bees.
Her body will also change as she ages. Around day 12 she will begin producing wax. Her wax glands will begin converting sugar into delicate flakes of wax. She will collect wax in her mouth, and much like chewing gum she will chew it until it is mold-able and can be added to the hive comb. (For more reading about comb building check out my post How Do Honeybees Make Comb?)
When her life is approximately half over, she will leave the hive and forage for nectar and pollen.
The system of younger bees taking the role of house bee and older bees taking the role of field bee is essential to the hive’s success.
Young, healthy bees take care of the new generation. The success of new members will ensure that the hive will continue.
Older bees are more expendable which makes them better suited to the job of collecting in the field. Leaving the hive as a solitary bee is a dangerous endeavor. She faces, weather, predators, and lacks the protection of the colony. If she dies in the field, the younger generations will have benefited from her days working as a nurse bee and will be there to replace her when their time comes to leave.
The South Carolina Mid-State Beekeepers Association. Learning About Honey Bees http://www.scmidstatebeekeepers.org/honeybeelifecycle.htm
Understanding the Role of the Worker Bee in a Hive by Howland Blackiston http://www.dummies.com/home-garden/hobby-farming/beekeeping/understanding-the-role-of-the-worker-bee-in-a-hive/