How Long Do Bees Live?

Honey bee Apis mellifera on Japanese anemone.Honey bee Apis mellifera on Japanese anemone.


"How long do bees live?
"

The answer to this question depends on the type of bee referred to (honey bee, solitary bee or bumble bee), and the role of the bee within the colony.  

The lifespan of bees, can of course, also be affected by extraneous factors such as weather, availability of forage, human intervention, and use of insecticides as well as prevalence of diseases and parasites.

Below is a general comparison of species.

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How long do honey bees live?


The life span of honey bees varies, depending on the role of an individual bee within the colony. Honey bees live in sophisticated, well organised colonies - they are 'superorganisms'. A honey bee colony could comprise between 50,000 and 60,000 bees, performing different roles in order to help ensure the smooth running and success of the colony.

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The role of a bee, as well as the time of year in which it was born (spring/summer or autumn), is also a factor in the lifespan for worker bees in the colony. Worker bees born in spring/summer have shorter, busier lives, whilst those born in autumn may live longer, but they must survive the harsher winter conditions to emerge from the hive the following spring.

In summary:

Queen Honey Bees

All being well, a honey bee queen could live for 3 to 4 years, as long as she is free from disease.  It can even be longer - some beekeepers report queen survival of up to 6 years (1). This is much longer than bumble bee queens or the solitary bee species. 

However, a queen that is no longer favoured by the colony may be removed by the workers. In such a case, a new queen will be produced, and the old queen replaced. This is called ‘supersedure’.  In some beekeeping practices, the queen is replaced by the beekeeper after one or two years. To learn more, see my page about the Honey Bee Queen.

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Workers


Workers raised during the spring or summer months may live for 6 or 7 weeks. Their lives are especially busy, with lots of hungry larvae to feed, and honeycomb to be produced. This is when the colony is at its most productive, with workers busy collecting nectar and pollen for feeding the colony.

Workers raised in the autumn have no brood to care for, since the queen stops producing  eggs. These workers, together with the queen, comprise the remains of the colony for the year (part of the colony may have left in a swarm, in order to form a new colony elsewhere), and they must huddle together around the queen in order to keep warm during the winter, ready to emerge the following year to begin foraging again in the early spring.  They may live 4 to 6 months.

Drones

At the most, drones may live for up to 4 months, however, they may survive for just a few weeks. Note, that upon mating with the queen, drones die immediately.

How long do bumble bees live?

Bumble bee on restharrow.Bumble bee on restharrow.

Information about the lifespan of bumble bees tends to vary between different studies. Additionally, in the tropics, where colonies may thrive for longer, the lifecycles and lifespan of colony members may be quite different.

There are other anomalies - for example, even in the UK, climate is believed to be having an impact on bumble bees, with some colonies continuing to be active during the winter in the south of England. However, typically…

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Queen bumble bees

Tree bee Bombus hypnorum - queen (dark form) on bramble.

All in all, providing a bumble bee queen is successful and is not harmed by disease, pesticide or predators, she may live for about a year - part of this time being spent in hibernation.

New queens emerge during the late summer or early autumn. After mating and feeding to store fat reserves on their bodies for the winter, they will then hibernate.  During early spring the following year, the new queens emerge to establish new colonies of their own. 

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Worker bumble bees

Accounts of how long bumble bees live, do vary between species and studies. For example, Bombus terricola workers were observed to be 13.2 days on average – around 2 weeks, but in other studies, workers were observed to live for up to 41.3 days – about 6 weeks. 

It is believed that workers engaged in nest duties live longer than bumble bee workers whose main duty is foraging. These bumble bees are of course more prone to predator attack, and are also exposed to varying weather conditions.  It is not unusual to find a bedraggled looking bumble bee needing to rest and revive itself, having been caught in a shower.  For advice about what to do if you find such a bumble bee, read my page advising what to do if you have found a bee. 

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Male bumble bees

I have not read any information giving the lifespan of bumble bee males. However, they, along with the new queens are the last to emerge from the colony, but they do not hibernate. Therefore, it is likely that they live only for a few weeks.

You may wish to read more on my page about bumble bees.


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How long do solitary bees live?

Given the many species of solitary bees, it's difficult to provide a single summary.  

For a few examples, take a look at my pages about the different solitary bees, where their lifecycles are explained: carpenter bees, mason bees, leafcutter bees and mining bees.


'How long do bees live?' and the life cycle of bees:

The bee life cycle has 4 key stages, but even the length of time between those stages varies, depending on species and role within the colony. To read more, see may page about the bee life cycle.

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Some bees hedge their bets!

According to book, The Bees In Your Backyard, some bee larvae wait in their nests before emerging, with only some of the larvae developing and emerging from their nests the following year - and this is called 'bet-hedging'. 


For example, not all larvae of the Habroda species emerge from the nest in the same year!   Whilst some will emerge, others may remain in the nest for up to 2 years.  However, the book also points out that some will remain in the nest, but delay emergence for 7 or even 10 years!

It's thought that hedge-betting behaviour in bees is especially beneficial in challenging conditions such as the desert.  If only some of the bees emerge the following year (whilst others remained behind), then not all of the bees will perish if there are insufficient flowers upon which to forage.  

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This is the case with the desert bee, Perdita portalis.  In a study by Cornell University: "Emergence dynamics and bet hedging in a desert bee, Perdita portalis":

".....according to new research by Cornell entomologist Bryan N. Danforth, not all the viable larvae emerge in any one year of diapause, and their "coming out" is triggered by rain.

Writing in the October issue of The Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Danforth notes that by spreading reproduction over several years, desert bees can keep catastrophic losses of their kin to a minimum in very bad drought years."

Read more here.

Refs:

(1) UK beekeeper, Roger Patterson reports seeing queens of Apis mellifera mellifera continuing to rear productive colonies at 6 years old: http://dave-cushman.net/bee/supersedure.html

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