There are many different kinds of insects known as bees in the world. Some live for only a very short time. No type of bee has a long life expectancy-at least compared to mammals. This applies to honey bees too. Queens can live for several years but the other members of the honey bee colony are not so lucky. But even within the hive, when you consider how long do bees live, you must consider the type of insect and the role in the nest or hive.
The Life Span of Bees
We tend to think of every type of flying insect that stings as a bee. However, this is not true. In addition to the many bee species (honeybees, bumble bees, solitary bees, etc) there are other insects to consider.
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Our world contains wasps, hornets and many others that are closely related but different. Though they are not member of the bee family – they are often confused as such.
Some are social insects that live together in families. But, the majority of them are solitary individuals that raise a family alone.
How can these amazing insects get so much accomplished in so little time. Also, how do they differ from other similar insects?
Variables in Life Expectancy
We can only give an average bee lifespan for any insect (bees vs wasp) because of the many variables involved. The term is not only subject to the genetics of the insect but other environmental aspects too.
As living things, bees sleep, eat and reproduce. The species, sex, health and location all play a role in the time it is expected to survive. But, even in the best of conditions – there is no guarantee of a long life.
Weather extremes, pesticide expose (such as mosquito spraying) and other environmental pressures cause many early deaths. Sick or diseased bees die young and do not meet their potential. In honey bees, varroa mite infestations shorten the lives of many colonies.
How Long do Honey Bees Live?
Of course, I must start with one of the most well-known insects on the planet! 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 inside the hive will not live for years.
The unlucky queen who is eaten by a bird on her mating flight will not live to the old age of 3 or 4 years. Even though she is capable of doing so. Wasps and other insects prey on each other.
Months or even weeks of daily work define the life of the honey bee. And, as some grow old and die, they are replaced by new members of the colony.
During the warm months, the colony must have a constant supply of workers to collect nectar and pollen. Winter survival depends on this. That is why the queen is so important.
Life Cycle of Bee Development
All honey bees pass through a life cycle consisting of 3 stages of development. These are : egg, larva, pupa and adult. This is called complete metamorphosis.
The period of time in the larval stage varies a few days between the different types of colony members. At the proper time, the larva transforms into a pupa inside a capped cell. A fully developed adult will emerge from her cell when mature.
All members of the colony go through this process – Workers, Queen and Drones. But, the lifespan of a honey bee is related to their colony role.
Honey Bee Life Expectancy By Type
- queen lives 2 – 3 years
- worker lives 6 weeks / 6 months
- drone lives 2 months or until mating
How Long Do Queen Bees Live?
Her majesty the queen bee is the most important individual in the hive. The primary role of the queen is to lay eggs.
The only reproductive female in the colony, she is the mother of all. Given this important job for the colony, how long do you think queens live?
A queen has the capacity to live for 2 or 3 – 4 years (sometimes more). Yet, she rarely lasts that long in the colony.
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.
Most of the members of a colony are worker bees. These non-reproductive female bees develop from fertilized eggs. They are the workforce of the colony and have the most responsibilities.
From feeding larva to defending the hive from predators, 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? Well, in the case of the honey bee it depends on when she was “born” – or emerged from her cell.
After emerging from her cell, a worker lives about 6 weeks-during the Summer. The first 3 weeks are spent inside the hive. During the last 3 weeks, the worker becomes a forager.
Flying long distances to collect things needed by the colony takes a toll on her wings. Worker literally work themselves to death.
Winter Workers Live Longer
Interestingly, workers that are “born” in the Fall can expect a different life style. 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 hive. Winter workers can live up to 6 months!
How Long Does a Bee Live if it Stings You?
Workers are the defenders of the hive. They have barbed stingers. When the stinger is embedded in skin, the barb prevents the bee from pulling the stinger out.
The stinger and poison sac are ripped from the bee’s body. She will usually die soon after. If a honey bee stings you, she has given the ultimate sacrifice to protect the colony.
Drones – (Male Bees) Have Shorter Lives
Mating takes place outside and well away from the hive. This lessens the likelihood of drones mating with their own mother queen.
Drones do no other work. They laze around the hive and eat. On warm afternoons they go out to look for virgin queens. Life is good – until.
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. Worker bees will throw the drones out of the hive and leave them to die. The colony does not want to feed them over the Winter.
How Long do Bumble Bees Live?
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.
Like the honey bee, the labor or tasks of the colony are divided among individual castes. And, you will see overlapping generations due to many brood cycles during the warm season.
However, the Bumble Bee colony does not over-winter as a group. This means that only some individuals will have a life that “spans” over Winter. Only a queen survives to the new year.
The Bumblebee 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.
Once these “worker” bumbles mature, they take over many colony activities leaving the queen to lay eggs. Most worker Bumble bees live from 2 weeks to a couple of months. A queen Bumble bee can live for several years if conditions are good.
In late Summer, the queen lays eggs that produce drones and new queens. The males do not have a very long life. Like the honey bee drones, male Bumbles die after mating. Those that survive until cold weather will perish then.
Bee Lifespan Chart
As we observe the similarities and differences between different types of bees, it is easy to understand the confusion over how long bees live. And no bee is guaranteed to reach its potential, predators such as yellow jacket wasps and even some birds eat bees.
And even within each species, local conditions and environmental pressures play a role in their longevity. It often seems that the more we know about bees…. the more questions we have about these fascinating insects.
Perhaps you would like to become a beekeeper, or maybe not. You may just want to know more about these wonderful insects. This is one of the best general books I have found on bees – check it out if you want to learn more.