Have you ever thought about how long bees live when humans are not a catalyst in their demise? Let’s step away from the doom and gloom for a minute and explore the natural lifespan of our little friends.
The Lifespan of Bees
The lifespan of a bee will, of course, depend on its species. Female miner bees can live for up to six weeks, but the drones will only live for as little as two weeks. Bumblebees and Africanized honeybee workers could live as long as a month.
Since there are as many as 20,000 different kinds of bees, it would be quite tedious to go through all of them. So, I’ll stick to the most common one: the western honeybee.
The average lifespan of a western honeybee is determined by which type of bee it is. Queens, drones, and workers all lead very different lives and therefore have varying life expectancies.
How Long Do Worker Bees Live?
Worker bees are females, and their lifespan is largely determined by when they were born. If they’re born in summer or in spring, they typically only live for about six or seven weeks. If they’re born in the fall or winter, they get to spend a little more time with us—up to six months. This is because the latter stays huddled around the queen bee to keep her warm throughout the cold months.
Although they don’t live as long as some other castes, workers are busy indeed. They achieve a lot in their short time on earth, and their life cycle is basically a testament to “live fast, die young.”
Worker bees hatch from fertilized eggs, after which they spend six days as larvae. In the first half of that time, they’re fed royal jelly. By day four, their supply is cut off and they are not fed as often.
By day nine, the larvae spin cocoons and begin their pupal phase—when most of their adult bodies (wings, abdomen, legs, and organs) take form. After 21 days, they emerge as callows. For humans, that would be like changing from breastfeeding babies to young adults in the span of about three weeks.
From then on, a worker bee’s life consists of nothing but… well… work. She will spend the first few weeks of her adulthood as a house bee—wherein she will contribute to maintaining the hive. Most of that time is spent attending to the queen, feeding the young, guarding the colony, and packing water, pollen, nectar, and honey into combs.
Once her duties as a house bee have been obliged, she will then become a field bee where she will—quite literally—work herself to death. Field bees either scout or forage for nectar and pollen, but either way, it’s been estimated that worker bees expire after 500 miles of flight.
This time could be cut drastically if the honeybee decides to go in for the kill and sting, but this is only done in defense. It’s also worth noting that honey bees are the only species that die if they do, contrary to popular belief.
Another problem for honey bees is the threat of predators. Birds, bears, skunks, even spiders and other insects could hunt worker bees, and make their lifespan even shorter.
How Long Do Drone Bees Live?
Western honeybee drones usually live for about eight weeks. This may be slightly longer than the average worker bee, but their lives are ridiculously simple.
Drones hatch from unfertilized eggs. As with the workers, they’re fed royal jelly for the first few days. They then spin cocoons and spend roughly the same amount of time growing into their adult bodies. It’s then that the differences between drones and workers begin to show.
Once they emerge from their cocoons, adult drones are babied by the worker bees. Newly fledged drones are incapable of feeding themselves and must rely on the females until they learn how to tap into the honey stores. Even so, they form a strong dependence on the workers for survival—to little avail.
They are not built to forage or scout, they cannot secrete wax or feed the young, and they don’t have stingers to protect the hive. To the females, drones are largely considered a waste of valuable space and resources.
In the winter, or at other times when food supplies might be scarce, workers drive the drones out of the hive and leave them to fend for themselves.
This is because a drone’s only purpose is to mate with the queen—no more, no less. In winter, when the queen hibernates, they serve absolutely no purpose and end up draining more supplies than they can give.
However, since the poor drones are so inadequate at taking care of themselves, they tend to succumb to the cold, or other external factors that they are not prepared, or equipped, to face.
What adds insult to injury to the life of a drone is that once his purpose has been fulfilled, he dies. Upon semination, his endophallus ruptures. The drone, having mated only once and now mortally wounded, does not live much longer after that.
Drones lead difficult lives—perhaps even more so than the workers—because they are disposable. Their purpose is both what keeps them alive and causes their demise. The little guys just can’t win.
Think about it though—colonies wouldn’t exist without drones. They are the ones that enable reproduction and genetic diversity in the hive. They’re not good for much, but without them, bees would die off entirely. I think drones deserve a little more respect. Don’t you?
How Long Do Queen Bees Live?
The lives of workers and drones both revolve around the queen—but the queen’s life is determined by the workers. Queen honeybees can live for up to four years—an unthinkable amount of time in the world of bees. They’re not immortal though, and every so often, queens have to be replaced.
If a queen becomes too old to reproduce properly, workers will begin to supersede her. This also happens when a queen dies or disappears unexpectedly and workers have an urgent need to replace her.
Selecting a new queen is a team effort, and what’s most important is the timing. Only the youngest larvae have any hope of assuming the throne.
In a hive, special cells (called queen cups) are designed specifically to produce queens. Once a larva hatches in a queen cup, she is fattened up on royal jelly and nothing else—to ensure that she will be big enough for the role.
After a week of doing nothing more than eating and growing, the new queen will enter her pupal stage. Where workers and drones take three weeks to mature, a queen bee only needs 16 days before she is a full-fledged adult.
Once she emerges, she fights and kills other potential queens. Within a few days, she will leave the hive to mate with the drones. Once she returns, it’s unlikely that she’ll ever leave again. Her only job now is to bear children.
Although queen bees can live for four years, more often than not they only live to see two of them at the most. Workers will not hesitate to supersede the queen, and once they do, they kill her.
There are also other threats (predators, illness, or even intervention from beekeepers) that could force queens out of their hives (or to their deaths) earlier than what’s average.
What Can Affect the Lifespan of a Bee?
Now that we’ve taken some time to focus on how long bees are supposed to live, it’s time to discuss external factors that have placed them in crisis.
I mentioned that western honeybees—all bees in fact—are at risk of predators, but bears, skunks, and spiders are natural threats to bees. Humans are not. Yet, by our hand, bees have been on a steady decline and, in general, they’re now considered an endangered species.
In less than a decade, more than 10 million bees were lost in the US alone. That’s averaging a million bees a year. Add the rest of the world to that, and you’ll see that bees aren’t just dying, they’re being wiped out at an alarming rate.
So how did this happen? How did we kill off so many bees in such a short amount of time?
Well, firstly, as I’ve explained, bees don’t live that long to begin with. They, like any other creature, require specific conditions to thrive in, but there are a number of external factors that have interfered with their habitats.
Climate change negatively affects the lifespan (and population) of bees in all sorts of ways. The most prominent is that weather changes have caused seasonal plants to grow differently, confusing the bees that rely on them for survival.
It’s also forced certain flowers to blossom earlier than usual, or not at all, and the bees have been unable to adapt. This means that some bees are starving. There just isn’t enough food to go around for all of them.
Climate change has also brought about weather extremes that have hurt bees. Droughts, wildfires, heavy snow, and floods have all helped to eradicate a large number of bees that weren’t able to escape them.
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)
CCD is a somewhat controversial topic because it is vastly misunderstood.
Generally speaking, it’s exactly what it sounds like—harmony in a colony breaks down, so the beehive can’t function, causing the bees to abandon it.
It’s been reported that in 2008, CCD was responsible for 60 percent of winter bee mortality. That number dropped significantly (to 15 percent) in 2013, but CCD is still a threat that can influence how long bees live.
It can be caused by:
- Varroa destructor—a parasitic mite that attacks honeybees
- Insufficient forage, or changes to the habitats in which they forage
- Pesticide poisoning
- Poor management by beekeepers
- Inadequate genetic diversity
- Diseases that infect the colony
To put it simply, climate change and CCD would happen naturally, but very slowly over a very long period of time. Human intervention has meddled with nature and sped up processes we have no business speeding up.
In fact, it’s become so bad that a recent report states our CO2 emissions are likely at an all-time high, projected to have increased by more than 2 percent. It’s even worse considering that our emissions have remained mostly flat for the last three or so years.
What’s sad though, is that evidence shows that these CO2 emissions are wiping out essential pollen for North American bees. The study concludes that this drop in available pollen—a bee’s source of essential amino acids—has “the potential to negatively affect bee health and survival.”
It’s even more problematic considering that the strain of pollen, Solidago, is what bees stock up on to survive the winter. Since there is now a shortage of it, bee populations, and genetic diversity in bees, are dropping dramatically.
To make you even more depressed, this isn’t only affecting bees. Other pollinators, such as wasps, pollen beetles, moths and butterflies are suffering too.
Our carbon footprint has destroyed (and is still destroying) the homes of bees, leaving them with nowhere to go and no food to eat. Our pesticides, as mentioned above, have also caused a staggering amount of damage to bee populations.
Not to mention that we have literally driven them out of their natural habitats to make more room for our civilization.
How Long Will a Bee Live in Solitude?
CCD is an important factor in the survival of western honey bees, but what about bees that live alone?
Solitary bees are exactly that—species of bees that do not rely on a queen or colony to survive. They don’t produce honey, they don’t swarm, and they build their cells in nests anywhere, from underground to your home.
Solitary bees, on average, do not live as long as colony bees. Solitary drones don’t usually survive past a fortnight. Females typically last a month, though they’ve been noted to make it as far as six weeks.
Even though solitary bees live fleeting lives, they work a hundred times harder. A mason bee visits almost 2000 plants in a single day. They’re also much better at pollinating plants because they don’t have pollen baskets. They drop more pollen than they can carry, meaning they get the job done faster.
Their life cycles are different from colony bees. Every solitary female can breed. Once they settle on a nest, they’ll make their own cells from nectar and pollen. This is where they lay their eggs—up to 30 in a lifetime.
They don’t often stick around to watch their young grow, and the young bees will stay in their cocoons through the winter. By the time spring and summer come around, the bees emerge as adults so that the cycle can repeat.
The problems that honeybees face are affecting solitary bees as well, perhaps even more so, since they do not have a colony to rely on for sustenance and protection. Solitary bees are lone wolves, and the trials they have to face must be dealt with alone.
In the case of pesticides, it’s been discovered that the toxicity they cause prevents solitary bees from reproducing at all. This could drastically affect the numbers of these already short-lived bees and cause their populations to dwindle.
Are Bees Dying Out?
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf says “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Bees don’t live long at all, but they do so much in their short lifespans that humans rely on them for survival.
The bee apocalypse may have been a global panic, but their numbers are dropping, and this is as much a threat to them as it is to us. Perhaps we should concentrate less on how long bees live, and more on how much time they have left before they die out completely.