Have you ever watched a bee buzzing around your garden and wondered exactly how long they could live?
With their tiny size, active lifestyle, and the physical demands of their very important role in the ecosystem, one would think this would take a toll making it difficult to support themselves for more than a few days.
Honey bees depending on their caste can live between 6 weeks and 5 years. In Summer worker bees live about 6 weeks, drone bees up to 3 months, queen bees up to 5 years but typically around 2 to 3 years as their efficiency fades they are replaced. Some factors that may end their life early are seasonal changes, weather events, predators, and availability of food.
Below we will discuss in detail how long different types of bees live and the variables that affect their lifespan.
The Life Cycle of a Honey Bee in a Nutshell
How honey bees reproduce consists of three main stages:
- The larval stage
- The pupal stage
- The adult stage
Even from the early stages in life, there are differences in how the bees are raised, and therefore can be seen as to why their lifespans differ.
All three subspecies are fed royal jelly for their first few days, but going forward only the queen larvae will continue feeding on it.
The other two types of bees will start to feed on Bee Bread. This is a mix of pollen and honey, rich in protein from the pollen and sugars from the honey.
During the pupal stage, bees begin to form wings, legs, internal organs, and hairs on their bodies.
The complete metamorphosis into adulthood takes around 21 days for workers and 24 days for drones. The time is generally shorter for queens due to their rich royal jelly diet and will be completed in approximately 16 days.
The Life Span of Drone Bees
Adult drones are a strain on space and resources within a hive. They do not forage for food, care for the young, or create wax. They do on occasion help fan the hive using their wings to help the worker bee regulate temperature and ventilate the hive
The only true purpose of a drone bee is to mate with the queen.
After only 6 – 12 days into adulthood, drone bees will leave the hive in search of a new virgin queen to mate with. These drones will only return if they were unsuccessful in their quest.
When it comes to the average lifespan of a drone bee, there are various sources and opinions.
According to Puget Sound Bee Keeping Association, drones live an average of 20 days, while another source claims that according to Fukuda H, Ohtani T. Survival and lifespan of drone honey bees drones can live between 3 weeks and 3 months.
The reason these insights are so varied is because of the factors that are involved.
New drones that are matured during early spring and summer months tend to live longer than new drones towards colder seasons.
Because the drones do not have a purpose other than reproduction, when colder months arrive, worker bees kick them out of the hive which causes them to either starve or die from the cold.
Successfully mated drone bees will also die shortly after mating with the queen.
In some instances, a drone may be able to stay in the hive during winter. If the hive is well stocked then worker bees could ignore their existence.
Whatever the reason for their survival, one thing remains true: the longest living drone bees are the unsuccessful individuals. They did not find a virgin queen to mate with and therefore did not carry on their genetic line.
In most cases, it can be agreed upon that the average lifespan of a drone bee is 8 weeks.
The Life Span of Worker Bees
Making up the largest part of a hive’s population, a worker bee spends its adult life in two parts: Inside the hive, and foraging.
For the first 1 to 3 weeks of adult life, the worker bee tends to tasks around the hive.
These duties include caring for larvae, cleaning the hive cells, building the comb, guarding the hive, accepting pollen from foragers, as well as storing, curing, and packing pollen.
After approximately three weeks, the workers change their duties and leave the hive. From here they are tasked with foraging for nectar, pollen, water, and sap for propilos.
The life span for a worker bee will vary between seasons due to their activity.
In summer months, worker bees tend to live shorter lives because of their high activity levels.
According to the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium during summer months, workers will live an average of 6 weeks.
Worker bees born in the fall tend to have longer lives. When the hive winters and activity slows down, worker bees feed off their stored honey. Their focus at this time is maintaining hive temperature through the cold of winter.
During this time they are significantly less active which allows them to live throughout the winter, as well as support the hive through the beginning of the spring months.
A late-born worker bee can live up to about 6 months.
The Life Span of Queen Bees
The queen, being the biggest in the colony, and perhaps the most important (because there is only one) has the longest life span by far.
After approximately 6 days from hatching, the virgin queen bee will mating flight in order to mate with drones.
After mating with between 5 and 20 drones, with her sperm sack full, she will return to the hive and remain there for the rest of her life (unless swarming takes place), laying at her peak up to 2000 fertilized eggs a day.
The queen will live an average of 2 – 5 years, however, in some rare cases this time could extend up to a 7 year period.
There are two cases that have a major effect on a queen bees life span.
The first is how the hive winters. During winter months, worker bees pay close attention to the queen, keeping her fed and regulating her temperature. They do this by forming a cluster around her with worker bees rotating to the outside of the cluster to share the exposure to the cold.
The worker bee cluster will tend to move around the hive living off their stored honey. While they have good stores of honey they will survive the winter.
If the hive is not well prepared for winter, the queen may die, which will likely result in the loss of the colony.
The second factor is the productivity of the queen. Worker bees will slave away for a queen until she begins laying too much drone brood. Drone brood is from unfertilized eggs. When this happens the workers will start to raise a new queen, with the intention of replacing the old one.
The new queen will be given all the attention while the original will be neglected and either killed by the stinger of the new queen or the worker bees will ball around her generating heat which will kill her. When dead her body is discarded out the entrance of the hive.
Factors Affecting Honey Bee Life Spans
Now that we have discussed the difference in life spans between drones, workers, and the queen. In the following paragraphs, we will talk about the colony and its individual bees. and not the difference between the castes.
The life span of each bee comes down to not only their natural genetic structure but is affected greatly by external factors.
Some of these factors include:
- The time of year and climate
2. Food sources
4. Human interference
1. The Time of Year and Climate
As mentioned previously, the time of year, particularly in a seasonal climate, will affect the longevity of an individual bee. Individual being a keyword as the life of the colony will differ according to other factors.
A mathematical model by Yasuhiro Yamada, Toshiro Yamada & Kazuko Yamada looked at the estimated seasonal change in apparent longevity of a bee colony and its individuals and concluded the following:
Honey bees have a higher life expectancy during colder months. This expectancy is at its peak in winter and at its lowest point during Summer.
This model is an average of workers and drones, but as mentioned before, drones will live longer in the summer months, while the opposite is true for the workers.
The study also found that honeybees living at a higher altitude (970m) compared to a lower altitude (200m) were expected to have nearly double the life span.
2. Food Sources and Bee Longevity
A colony’s diet has been found to affect the life span of each bee.
Of course, starvation due to a lack of sufficient food is a factor, but beyond that, the type of protein that the bees feed on directly relates to their life span.
In the Journal of Biological Sciences, the quality of protein in a diet was discussed and found that the protein content in the larval diet was directly related to worker longevity.
As an example, honeybees fed from red gum pollen had the highest longevity, and those fed from invert sugar had the shortest.
Other dietary effects were also found from monoculture diets, GMO crops, pesticides in pollen, and sugar.
As with everything in nature, the big tends to eat the small. Because bees are so tiny, they have a number of natural predators.
The most common predators that honeybees face are skunks, bears, and hive beetles.
Skunks are insectivores and feed on the juices inside the bees. Once a skunk has discovered a hive, they will return each night to feed on large quantities of bees.
If you think that a skunk has discovered your beehive, there will often be remains of bees on the outside of the hive. This is because the skunk will suck out the insides of the bee and spit out the solid parts.
Bears can be destructive to a have and will return repeatedly to get the honey that they desire.
Bears are known to completely demolish a hive, sometimes smashing it to bits in order to get to the bees and honey inside.
The hive beetle poses another major threat to bee life as they will lay their eggs on the comb of the hive so that their larvae can feed off the larval honey, comb, and pollen.
Although these insects do not feed on the bees themselves, due to a decreasing brood, the dynamics of the hive will change in order to increase population and therefore change the expected life span of each bee.
Parasites and disease, although not strictly predators can be devastating to a hive.
Usually, mites, fungal or bacterial disease will feed on either the larval of the hive, the bees themselves, or both.
Some of these include the varroa mite, honey bee tracheal mite, chalkbrood, bee parasitic mite syndrome, and more.
4. Human Interference
Perhaps one of, if not the biggest threats to bee survival is human interference.
Humans fall into each of the above categories which is why they pose such a danger.
Climate change is a hot topic when it comes to bees. Not only directly changing the temperature that bees can survive in, but climate change has an effect on pollen production, which results in the starvation or malnutrition of bees.
Once again, affecting food availability, the destruction of natural habitats due to agriculture and industrialization threaten bee survivability.
As mentioned previously, not only does agriculture remove variations of pollen for bees to feed on, but adds pesticides to the environment.
Pesticides do not differentiate between insects and can result in a pollinating bee dying.
Some pesticides are “bee-friendly” however there is no long-term research on the effects that they may have on the health of the bees life span.
The Life Span of Other Bee Species
The above article is based on honey bee longevity and the effects on their life spans.
However, you may find many different bees in your garden and although the threats to them will remain mostly the same, the natural life span of each species may differ.
The table below represents the expected life span of various bee species.
|Bee Type||Female (weeks)||Male (weeks)||Queen (Years)|
|Honeybee||2 – 45||3 – 12||2 – 7|
|Bumblebee||2 – 6||2||1|
|Mason Bee||4 – 6||1 – 2||Same as female|
|Carpenter Bee||1 + (years)||1 (years)||Same as female|
The Wrap Up
The life span of a bee is variated when it comes to the species of the bee as well as the type of bee.
Bees can live anywhere between a few days and a number of years.
Queens generally live the longest, and male bees tend to have the shortest expected natural life spans.
The cycle of bees is, however, affected by many external factors such as climate, time of year, the environment (food resources), predators, as well as human interference.
Therefore, it is difficult to determine precisely how long a bee will live for but we hope this article has given you a better idea of how long bees might live for.