How Long do Bees Live?
There are many different species of insects in the world that we call bees. Some live for only a very short time. In fact, no bee has a long life expectancy-at least compared to mammals. This variance applies to a honey bee colony too. A queen can live for several years but the other members of the colony are not so lucky. So, how long do bees live? Well that depends on the species 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, bumblebees, 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. Each type has a different lifestyle and lifespan.
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 that long.
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.
A bee’s life begins with the queen laying an egg. After 3 days, this egg becomes a larva and is fed by young adult nurse bees.
At the proper time, the cell is capped and the larva transforms into a pupa. A fully developed adult will emerge when mature. All members of the colony go through this development process.
How long a honey bee lives depends on several variables but the most important is it’s role in the hive.
Honey Bee Life Span By Type
- a queen lives 2 – 3 years
- a worker lives 6 weeks / 6 months
- a 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. Her primary role 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. A queen has the capacity to live for 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.
As the she ages, her pheromone production declines and egg laying slows. Once the worker bees sense a failing queen, they will rear a new one. This is called supersedure and they kill the old queen.
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 collecting pollen and nectar to feeding larva and 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? 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. Flying long distances to collect things needed by the colony takes a toll on her wings. Worker literally work themselves to death.
Winter Bees 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!
Drones – (Male Bees) Have Shorter Lives
Drone bees are the males in the honey bee family. They develop from unfertilized eggs. Drones are essential for honey bee reproduction. Their sole purpose is to mate with virgin queens.
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 – for a while.
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. 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 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.
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.
Solitary Bees Live Short Lives
The majority of bees in the world are solitary bees (Mason bees, digger bees, sweat bees etc.). The female works alone to build a nest and rear young. The males have only one mission in life – to mate. Their adult lifespan is only a few weeks.
Variables in Bee Life Expectancy
We can only give an average bee lifespan for any insect (bees or wasp) because of the many variables involved. The term is not only subject to the genetics of the specific insect but other factors too.
- climate change
- disease , pests and predators
- loss of habitat
Weather extremes, pesticide exposure (such as mosquito spraying) and other environmental pressures cause many early bee 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.
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.
As living things, bees sleep, eat and reproduce. They need good bee friendly habitats to do all these things.
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.
How Long Does a Bee Live if it Stings You?
Workers are the defenders of the honey bee colony. Their barbed stingers become embedded in skin.
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.
As we observe the similarities and differences between different types of bees and insects, it is easy to understand the confusion over how long bees live.
Even within each species, local conditions and environmental pressures play a role in their longevity. And no bee is guaranteed to reach its potential, predators such as yellow jacket wasps and even some birds eat bees.
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.
As we see declining pollinator populations, this is a good time to get to know these valuable insects. This is one of the best general books I have found on bees – check it out if you want to learn more.