Then Comes the Undertaker Bee
from the book, "Petrified Lightning"

Petrified Lightning

Then Comes the Undertaker Bee

On any normal summer day, each of the 20,000 to 60,000 workers in a colony of honeybees will, obsessively and cheerfully, go about the specific job to which it has been assigned. In the meantime, the queen is busy laying 1,500 or more eggs per day and depositing them in wax cells. She cannot take care of her young and is herself totally dependent on the workers for food and care. The eggs will hatch into larvae in three days, at which time the job of the worker bee begins in earnest. The helpless larvae must be fed approximately 1,300 times a day (54 times per hour) during their period of growth. During the six or seven days it is developing from egg to pupa, a single larva will gain up to 1,500 times its birth weight.

The task of each worker (all infertile females) is determined by its age, for it is physically equipped to handle different specific duties at different stages of maturity. The moment that an adult emerges from the pupa, its first assignment will be to clean out the brood cells and make them ready for the next batch of eggs. Within a few days the worker has developed food—secreting glands and becomes a nurse bee ready to feed the hungry larvae. Nurses pass nectar back and forth, adding essential enzymes, and they wean older larvae to a diet of pollen and honey.

By the time the worker is 12 days old, the nurse glands dry up and wax—producing glands develop. The bee is now able to build and repair the comb, make and store honey, clean, protect, and regulate the temperature of the hive. After about 10 days the wax glands cease to function and the hive workers are ready to venture outdoors to forage for nectar, pollen, water, and resin (for sealing cracks in the hive)—the only materials needed to keep the colony thriving.

In a single summer day, the foragers may collect nectar from over 250,000 flowers, making about 3,000 trips to fetch a pound of nectar. This involves a combined flight distance of at least 300,000 miles. Small wonder this is described as "the killing job of the worker bee." By the end of three weeks of foraging, at the age of 42 days of adulthood, the worker, with tattered wings and a worn—out body, will die. For this anticipated event, the hive is prepared.

In the highly efficient organization within the bee colony, there are many specific subdivisions of labor. Among the nurse bees are those specially selected to attend the queen, grooming and feeding her. The few hundred drones, who wait in a kind of stupor for some vague future nuptial flight, must also be cared for. The foragers collect all of the essentials needed by the colony, careful not to mix pollen and nectar. Those that become familiar with the neighborhood scout around for the best food sources and communicate their findings by an elaborate bee dance, which identifies distance and direction as well as how sparse or spectacular the crop. The house workers also share many divisions of labor within the hive. One of them is the undertaker bee.

Most bees will ignore the body of a dead hive mate, but within a short time after a honeybee dies, the specialized undertaker bee arrives on the scene. She will grasp the dead body and carry it about 400 feet from the hive. If the dead bee is not removed, disease—bearing vermin will quickly arrive, or, worse, the decaying body could attract predators that would decimate the community.

Researchers are not sure how the job of undertaking is assigned to specific bees, but all are two— to three—week—old workers. Although the queen produces hormones that control various aspects of bee behavior, the workers seem to decide which among them shall do the undertaking. Only a small number of bees share the responsibility for removing dead bodies during the summer season, but when autumn sets in, other work crews will join them. This is when the hive is readied for winter. There will be no place and no food for a nonproductive bee.

Only a few of the drones will have fulfilled the mission of mating with the queen (after which they die). The rest will have to go. Because autumn is a slow season for the wax—producing workers, they can join the undertaking and cleaning bees in removing useless debris from the hive. The remaining drones fit the category of useless debris, so they are turned out of the hive. They will die of cold or starvation, and the colony will continue to prosper through another season.