How Long do Bees Live?

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Bees are vital members of the ecosystem even though most have short life spans. How long do bees live? There are many insects in the world that are referred to as “bees”. They share similarities in diet, lifestyle and life span- but important differences too.

Older worker honey bee with tattered wings due to age foraging image.

The lifespan of bees is very short compared to mammals. There is a lot of variety within this family. We know a lot of facts about honey bees but even the bees in a single hive live for varying lengths of time.

Understanding Bee Lifespan

Bees represent a wide range of life spans due to the many diverse species represented. The ebb and flow of their populations are all part of the delicate balance of ecosystems worldwide.

One of the most well-known and most study bee species is the honey bee –Apis mellifera. These highly organized colonies have distinct roles for each member of the hive.

A close relative to honey bees, Bumble bees have a very different life span. They do not survive winter as a large family.

Only the queen hibernates during the cold months to start a new colony in Spring. There is no need to store food for thousands to eat.

And, solitary bees are lone individuals who carry on the process of life without the social structure found in honey bees or bumblebee colonies.

Among the many species, some solitary bees live only a few weeks – others much longer.

As we understand the differences among bees, it is easier to realize how they help maintain a natural balance in the insect world. All are important pollinators that have a role to play.

Middle aged nurse bees feeding young inside a bee colony.

The Life Span of Honey Bees

Honey bees are social insects that live in large colonies. With good health and a bit of luck, a colony can continue for years. However, the individual bees in the hive have different lifespans.

All honey bees pass through a life cycle consisting of 4 stages. The first 3 are development (egg, larva, and pupa) and then adult. This is called complete metamorphosis.

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Life begins with the queen laying an egg in a wax cell. Bee eggs are very tiny. After 3 days, the egg become a bee larva and is fed by young adult nurse bees. This little eating machine grows quickly.

At the proper time, the larval stage ends and the cell is capped with wax. Now, the larva transforms into a pupa.

When ready, a fully developed adult bee emerges from the cell. This is why you never see real “baby bees” – they emerge as adults.

Longevity By Type

How long a honey bee lives depends on several variables but the most important is it’s role in the hive.

  • a queen lives 2 – 3 years
  • a worker lives 6 weeks / 6 months
  • a drone lives 2 months or until mating
Large queen bee on comb with workers image.

Queen Bee

The primary role of the queen bee is to lay eggs. The only reproductive female in the colony, she is the mother of all.

Given this important job for the colony, we would expect this bee to live a long time -and she does. The queen bee is capable of living for several years. Yet, she rarely lasts that long in the colony.

As the she ages, her pheromone production declines and egg laying slows. Once the colony senses a failing queen, they will replace her. In a process called supersedure, they kill the old queen and make a new one.

Why the Queen Lives Longer

Why do queen bees live longer than others? There are several reasons for her longevity. One is that her nutrition is supreme. Fed royal jelly and only the most nutritious substances – she does not lack in quality food.

Also, the queen doesn’t have to work outside the hive so her wings and other parts don’t wear out as quickly. But even without hard work in the field, the queen does not last forever.

Workers

Most of the members of a colony are workers. These non-reproductive females develop from fertilized eggs. They are the workforce of the colony and have the most responsibilities.

From collecting pollen and nectar, to feeding larva and defending the hive, a worker’s job is never done. Unfortunately for these hard-working ladies, all this work takes a toll on their bodies.

How long do worker bees live? After emerging from her cell, a worker lives about 6 weeks-during the Summer.

The first 3 weeks are spent on tasks inside the hive. During the last 3 weeks, the worker becomes a forager gathering food.

Flying long distances to collect resources needed by the colony takes a toll on her wings. Workers literally work themselves to death.

Winter Honey Bees Live Longer

Interestingly, workers that are “born” in the Fall have a different life span. Fall bees are physiologically different than Summer workers.

They contain larger fat bodies inside their abdomen. These fat Winter bees spend the cold months inside the beehive. Winter workers can live up to 6 months!

Drones – (Male Bees)

Drone bees are the males in the honey bee family. They develop from unfertilized eggs. Drones are essential for honey bee reproduction as their sole purpose is to mate with virgin queens.

Drones do no other work. Mating takes place outside and well away from the hive in areas called “drone congregation areas“.

When a drone mates with a queen, his reproductive organs are ripped from his body. The successful drone falls to the ground and shortly dies after mating.

If a drone does not mate with a queen, he will live several months during the warm season. Alas once Fall arrives, the easy life of the drone is over. They are thrown out of the hive and left to die. The colony does not want to feed them over the Winter.

How long do bees live infographic image.
Adult age bumble bee on cone flowers.

Life Span of Bumble Bees

Another very popular member of the insect world is the Bumble Bee. Though similar to honey bees, the bumble bee lifespan has some major differences.

The labors of the colony are divided among individual castes. And, you will see overlapping generations due to many brood cycles during the warm season.

However, their colony does not over-winter as a group. Most of the adult bees die in Winter – only the queens survive until Spring.

Colony Cycle

The Bumble bee family begins in the Spring when mated queens emerge from hibernation. After finding a good nest site, she lays a few eggs and cares for them until they are mature enough to take over.

Most worker Bumble bees live from 2 weeks to a couple of months during Summer. They work tirelessly collecting nectar and pollen, just as with honey bees -this helps plants that need bee pollination.

A queen Bumble bee can live for several years if conditions are good. In late Summer, the focus of the colony changes. New queens and drones are produced.

As in honey bees, male Bumbles die after mating. Those that survive until cold weather will perish with the arrival of freezing temperatures. While the queens hibernate in preparation for next year’s colony.

Solitary Bees Live Short Lives

The majority of bees in the world are solitary bees (Mason bees, digger bees, sweat bees etc.) and there are many diverse species within this group.

Generally, females work alone to build a nest and rear young. The males have only one mission in life – to mate.

They have some of the shortest insect life spans ranging from a few weeks to a few months. For some, they emerge from their nests, mate, forage for good and lay eggs in a short period.

One popular type of solitary bee is the mason bee. These exceptional pollinators can live for several months up to a year.

Factors in Bee Life Expectancy

We can only give an average bee lifespan for any insect (bees or wasp) because of the many variables involved. Factors that affect the heath and survival of individual bees, whole colonies or whole bee populations.

Weather extremes can be responsible for bees not living as long as they could. Record cold or heat, drought or torrential rains – all affect the bees and their food resources.

Pesticide exposure in agricultural settings or even neighborhood mosquito spraying affects the lifespan of bees. Sublethal effects that harm the bees but does not kill them impacts their behavior and productivity.

Sick or diseased bees die young and do not meet their potential. In honey bees, varroa mite infestations shorten the lives of many colonies. Beekeeper try to lessen this by performing testing for mites in beehives to head off a bigger problem.

All bees have predators. The unlucky queen who is eaten by a predator on her mating flight will not live to the old age of 3 or 4 years. Even though she is capable of doing so. Predators, such as yellow jacket wasps and even some birds eat bees.

All pollinators – including bees have experienced a decline in habitat. The clean water and varied food sources required for ideal bee habitat grows less and less.

As we see declining pollinator populations, this is a good time to get to know these valuable insects. And strive to understand exactly why bees are so important.

FAQs

How many days do bees live?

This depends on the bee in question. Honey bee queens live up to 2 years or more. Worker bees live approximately 6 weeks during Summer and up to 6 months in Winter.

Why do honey bees have short life spans?

Longevity for honey bees has declined in recent years. Researchers believe this may be a result of exposure to pesticides, parasites, genetics or poor diet.

How long can a bee live after stinging you?

Due to their barbed stinger, most honey bees do not live long after stinging a mammal. Due to fluid loss and having their stinger ripped out of their body – if a honey bee stings you -they usually die immediately or within a few hours.

How long do queen bees live?

A queen bee has the capacity to live for 3 – 4 years (sometimes more) but she is usually replaced before then.

Final Thoughts

As we observe their similarities and differences, it is easy to understand the confusion over how long bees live. You just can not give a solid answer without considering the many factors involved.

Efforts must be made to lessen the negative impacts of pesticides, habitat loss and poor agriculture practices that shorten the lifespan of our important bees.

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