bee biology

Dead in 5 weeks: Why honey bee lives are so short

Honey bee carrying pollen. Pixabay photo

Honey bee workers live from 4 to 6 weeks, or so they say. But the true lifespan depends on many factors, beginning with how we count.

Twenty-one days pass from the moment an egg is laid until adult emergence. That’s three weeks. After emergence, adults can live about 5 weeks more. But even that number varies wildly from bee to bee.

Bees as universal prey

Size is a pesky problem for bees because most animals are larger. Because bees offer plenty of nutrition in a small package, many creatures treasure them as food, including larger insects.

Insects pose an enormous risk for bees. Predatory wasps, robber flies, dragonflies, praying mantises, centipedes, and many others eat adult bees. Spider species by the thousands enjoy them, too. Small hive beetles and varroa mites attacked bees that haven’t even reached adulthood.

Other critters that enjoy a bee snack include birds, skunks, mice, lizards, frogs, toads, and snakes. Even my dog eats them. Hungry living things are everywhere, but that’s just the beginning. The bee’s world includes lawnmowers, high-speed traffic, pesticides, rain, wind, and flyswatters. That any survive is a miracle.

When a worker bee flies out of her nest for the first time and gets picked off by a bird, her adult lifespan is toast. Those brief honey bee lives—scads of them—bring down the average lifespan, meaning some individual workers live much longer. Beating the odds, those long-lived individuals keep “beeing” despite tattered wings and nearly hairless bodies.

Lots of insects prey on honey bees, like this robber fly. Pixabay  photo.
Lots of insects prey on honey bees, like this robber fly. Pixabay photo.

Caste and sex affect lifespan

Drones: Drones remind me of firecrackers. A mating drone goes off with a bang, then fizzles and dies. But an unlucky drone that doesn’t mate may live about 55 days. Since so few mate, those that get lucky probably do not influence the average drone lifespan.

Because drones don’t forage, the greatest threat to the lifespan of a virgin drone is mass fratricide. Burdened by other problems, their siblings oust them from the nest at the end of summer. Once booted from the hive, they die from exposure, predation, and starvation.

Queens: Queens live a different story. Once upon a time, a queen’s life spanned several years, perhaps five. But now, a queen’s life rarely exceeds two years. Various theories for the shortened lifespan include pesticide exposure, genetics, a shift in parasite loads, and dietary deficiency.

In addition, workers will commit matricide when they decide the queen isn’t up to their standards. If they sense she is not laying properly or her hormone levels are low, they will simply raise a replacement queen and off the old one.

Summer workers: A worker’s lifespan depends on her job description. Workers go from job to job as they age, a process called temporal polyethism. The jobs get more dangerous as the worker progresses through the list. Jobs such as cleaning, nursing, and comb building happen inside the hive, away from danger. Later jobs such as undertaking and guarding are more hazardous.

The most perilous duty—akin to flying a fighter jet in a war zone—is foraging. Not only is it hard on the body, but attacks come from all directions: above, below, and from the side. A summer worker’s life is a rollercoaster of treachery, so she has an average adult lifespan of 15-38 days.

Winter workers: So-called winter bees have a cushier life because they spend most of it inside the hive, tucked away from danger. Their bodies have extra fat storage and they spend their time nursing brood and keeping the colony warm. Winter workers live an average of 150-200 days, although individuals have approached nine full months.

Both summer and winter bees will die from stinging a thick-skinned foe like a mammal. But the number of bees that die from stinging is quite small, and not a significant cause of bee death.

Bees die, colonies survive

Despite all the brief honey bee lives, a colony can survive for years because of the queen’s extraordinary ability to lay 1500 to 2000 eggs per day. Although it seems to defy logic, nature finds it easier to keep many bees alive for a short time than one bee alive for a long time.

Rusty Burlew
Honey Bee Suite

Foraging is dangerous work. Honey bee lives are threatened by rain, wind, predators, and humans. Pixabay photo.

7 Comments

  • Everything is more complicated than we learnt in beginner class. Thanks for your ongoing efforts to teach this advanced class. : )

  • You post reminded me of a wonderful book, “The Queen Must Die”. Interestingly enough every cast in the colony is working for the ultimate self sacrifice for the colony’s sake.

  • Not a comment but a question! Which type of lawnmower is the least dangerous to foraging bees?
    Both mine have a front shell set before the blades, like those oblique grates on the front of old railway engines in the Far West to push cattle out of the way. It seems to do fine with birds, mammals and reptiles, but what about bees? And what about strimmers? I am doing my best to do no damage… Thank you!

    • Silvia,

      I don’t know which kind is best. Most bees get out of the way when you get close, but some will fly in at the last instant and get killed. I think it helps to mow and trim either early in the morning or later in the evening instead of mid-day.

  • I am not a beekeeper, but a habitat. In the last couple of years, we have seen a large increase in bees on our land. Last year we had three large swarms and this year one so far. The one this year was by far the largest of all. In the spring we have a tremendous dandelion lawn and then by July it is covered in clover and our gardens have many kinds of perennial flowers.

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