How long do honey bees live?
The answer to this question is that it depends upon the caste of the bee concerned, and also the time of year in which it hatches. There are three castes of honey bees – queens, drones and workers – and all progress through the same four stages of life cycle: egg, larva, pupa and adult. All of the eggs hatch in three or four days, however, the role of each caste is very different, as is their life expectancy.
Sterile, female worker bees comprise the vast majority of the honey bee colony and emerge from their cells as adults after about 21 days. Adult workers progress chronologically through a range of occupations concerned with the daily maintenance of the hive: first cleaning brood cells and warming the brood; then nursing larvae and attending to the queen; next producing wax and building and repairing the comb; and lastly guarding and defending the colony, and regulating temperature. Finally, after about three weeks of service in the hive, the workers will leave to forage for nectar and pollen, along with water and plant resins, travelling up to three kilometres in search of these valuable resources.
Worker bees reared in spring and summer, when the colony is most productive, toil tirelessly and may live for five to seven weeks. During winter, the colony enters a phase of inactivity; there is no brood to tend and the bees will bunker down to keep the hive warm until spring, when they must emerge to resume their labours. Workers raised in autumn may live for up to four to six months.
Male bees, or drones, are almost entirely focussed upon reproduction, although they may assist the workers in regulating temperature within the hive. Drone larvae require the longest period of development, with adults typically emerging after about 24 days. Most drones are produced to coincide with the spring swarming season. They will make a number of flights in search of a virgin queen, but only a small percentage are successful in actually mating. This violent act of procreation results in catastrophic injuries to the drone’s abdomen and almost immediate death. Drones that are unable to find a mate have a maximum life expectancy of about 90 days, however those that persist in autumn may be driven from the hive, particularly in areas where cold winters are prevalent.
Each colony of honey bees normally contains a single queen, whose life is consumed with the production of eggs. Adult queens leave their specially-constructed, enlarged cells after about 16 days and immediately face a hazardous fight for supremacy, as newly-emerged virgin queens will actively seek out and attempt to kill rivals, including those that remain defenceless in their cells. The average lifespan for queens that survive this fratricide is between two to four years, but can extend to as much as eight years. This is dependent on continued fecundity, which is monitored by the colony. Queens that do not perform adequately are deposed in a practice known as ‘supersedure’. Nevertheless, honey bee queens can live far longer than bumblebee queens or other solitary bee species.
Whatever the caste, and however long they may live, there is no retirement plan for these industrious insects, which continue to serve the colony diligently for their entire lives.