bumblebee life span

How Long Do Bumblebees Live?

The bumblebee, much like the butterfly and ladybug, is a favorite among many. This is mostly due to their gentle nature. Today we’ll go into the little details, and we’ll help you find out how long bumblebees live.

Many bees fall under the name bumblebee, in fact, there are over 250 species. A list on that many different bumblebees would take forever, so today, we’ll concentrate on the most common.

How Long Do Bumblebees Live on Average?

The bumblebee is an important part of the environment. It doesn’t produce as much honey as the honey bee, even though honey is essential for their queen and brood.

Bumblebees are, however, important pollinators. They’re a vital part of the survival of crops for our food. Without them, there wouldn’t be enough insects to carry pollen between female and male flowers.

A bumblebee’s lifespan depends a lot on the specific species and location. The species that we find in tropical climates generally live longer than those in North America where the climate is harsher. It also comes down to the single bee’s role within the colony.

Let’s take a closer look at the different roles and their average lifespan:

The Bumblebee Queen

The queen bumblebee is the creator and mother of the whole colony. Her lifespan begins late summer when she emerges from her cocoon and ventures out to find food and shelter for hibernation.

Once spring comes around, she wakes up and begins her search for a safe nesting place, because soon she’ll start to lay eggs. This could be in a bird box, hole in the ground, or even under a shed.

She’ll guard her eggs closely and sit on them so they stay warm. The first batch is generally comprised of workers who will quickly take over the duties, so all the queen has to do is feed and lay eggs.

The last batch of eggs includes new queens and males who’ll repeat the cycles of feeding, mating, hibernation, and laying eggs. The queen, on average, will live for about one year. This is a long lifespan, but she does spend much of it in hibernation.

bumble bees inside some wood
CC Image courtesy of allan_harris

Worker Bumblebees

The bumblebee worker’s lifespan depends a lot on the species and their role in the colony. There are two types of bumblebee workers, those that look after the nest, and others that gather pollen and nectar. Workers usually live, on average, between two and six weeks, depending on the species and role.

One particular species, called Bombus terricola, generally have a much shorter lifespan. These rarely make it to their three-week birthday no matter their role in the colony. The Bombus terricola, otherwise known as the yellow-banded bumblebee, is native to Canada and east to midwest America.  

The queen bumblebee constantly produces more workers, who take over once the others die. The bumblebee is very different from, for example, the honey bee.

This species carries on the same colony by replacing the old queen, while all remain in the same hive. The bumblebee worker, however, will die before or with the original queen, depending on when it matured.

The Bumblebee Male

The male bumblebee is quite different from the queen and workers. The queen produces them at the same time as the new queens, but the males leave the nest and never look back. Their main purpose is to mate with other virgin queens and then die.

This is, of course, if they even manage to find and seduce a new queen. Not all males are lucky enough to find a virgin queen, the competition is tough and they must outperform the other males.

bumble bee ground nest

Upon maturing, they fly as far away as they can from the nest. This is so they won’t accidentally mate with a cousin or perhaps a sister. The male can fly as far as six miles from the nest in order to avoid interbreeding.

The males who failed to mate won’t go into hibernation like the queens. They will, instead, die within a couple of weeks, much like the workers.

What Can Affect the Lifespan of a Bumblebee?

Diseases, accidents, bad luck — these are all factors that can affect the lifespan of almost any species. The bumblebee is, unfortunately, no exception.

How long a bumblebee lives comes down to quite a few factors. There are those that can significantly shorten their lifespan. Let’s start with the queen.

Factors Affecting the Bumblebee Queen

The bumblebee queen, surprisingly, faces a lot of threats during her lifetime. Her hibernation period is the first phase where she places herself in a vulnerable situation.

Studies on bumblebee queens native to Turkey found that while the queen buries herself underground, she’s susceptible to various parasites. These include types of internal and external fungus as well as external mites. Some of these parasites aren’t fatal, but they may impact her ability to reproduce.

Unfortunately, sometimes it happens that beekeepers find these queens and bring them to their facility. Upon arrival, it’s likely that the parasites will spread to the other hibernating queens.

Her lifespan can also shorten if the workers kill the queen. This is a known phenomenon among honeybees, who readily kill their queen when her production of eggs slows down. It’s, however, less common for bumblebees.

An interesting study revealed that when the lipids in the beeswax changes, it initiates a cue to other females to lay unfertilized eggs. The females can become very aggressive and it’s a period often referred to as the “competitive phase.” Sometimes it does happen that the queen gets overthrown, i.e., killed by her workers.

bumble bee

What Affects the Bumblebee Worker

This depends on the role of the bumblebee worker, whether they’re watching the nest or foraging.

The workers who spend their time inside the nest generally live longer. This is mainly because they’re protected from the dangers of the outside world, such as predators and rain. They feed on pollen and nectar in the nest, while producing the honey they feed to the queen and larvae.

They can also be heavily affected once the competitive phase comes around. The female workers begin to produce only male eggs which, in turn, causes the colony to fall. The nest turns into a massacre, where female workers begin killing each other.

Foraging bumblebee workers face other dangers, such as predators and weather changes, but also themselves. The average bumblebee worker can carry up to 25 percent of its body weight in pollen and nectar.

Sometimes, however, they take on too much and are unable to fly. This could mean the end of the worker.

It’s also a widely known fact that the bumblebee isn’t the best flier. Rain can really inhibit their ability to stay in the air, and it’s not uncommon to find a tired bee in need of a rest.

The Bumblebee Male’s Lifespan Risks

Much like the worker, the males fly out to pollinate flowers as well as to find a queen to mate with. This also puts them in a vulnerable place concerning predators.

The predators most known to feed on bumblebees include bears, minks, foxes, field mice, shrews, among others. These can also make a visit to the nest and take out a whole colony.

bumblebee nest
A bumblebee nest

Summary

The bumblebee is one of the most fascinating insects on our planet. They are gentle and will rarely sting unless provoked. They do, nonetheless, have a very busy life, where they must pollinate, mate, and produce honey for the next generation.

It may surprise you to learn how long bumblebees live. In fact, the queen has a relatively long lifespan in comparison to the other castes. This is mostly due to her spending time in hibernation.

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