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To save a dying bee

A bee lifespan is difficult for people to comprehend. I know this because of the endless stream of mail I receive asking how to save a bee that appears to be dying. People who care about bees, or pollinators in general, are often empathetic with distraught bugs and sincerely want to help.

However, if a bee appears to be dying, it probably is, and there is nothing you can do about it. Perhaps you can extend its life a few hours or a day, but it that the best thing for the bee? Might it not be better to let it go? I can’t answer these questions, but I can explain a few things about bee lifespans.

Beginning with an egg

A bee begins life as an egg. Eggs destined to be females are fertilized and male eggs are not, but it’s logical to begin calculating lifespan just after the egg is laid. In a honey bee colony, the egg goes through the first three stages of metamorphosis—egg, larva, and pupa—very quickly. The whole cycle takes about three weeks, give or take, or about 20 to 21 days. At the end of that period, all of which occurs inside a brood cell, an adult worker bee will emerge. A honey bee queen develops more quickly, on the order of 16 days, and the drones take longer, about 24 days.

Most worker bees—those born in spring, summer, and early fall—will have an adult lifespan of about four-to-six weeks on average. Some won’t make it that long and others may go another week or two, but four-to-six weeks is a good average number. Basically, worker bees toil until they drop, so their name is apt.

As with most animals, the bee lifespan is predetermined by genetics and influenced by environment. A good, healthful environment may maximize its lifespan, while a poor environment may shorten it. I say “may” because the world is full of threats and misadventures. A healthy bee may get eaten by a bird, run into by a car, or stepped on by a deer. Pesticides, too, are a problem, as are lawn mowers, bee wolves, and fly swatters. The world is a perilous place.

Honey bees are not unique

As for timing, the adult or active portion of a honey bee lifespan is similar to that of most other bees. Most solitary bees, for example, emerge as adults and have that same four-to-six weeks to build a nest, mate, and produce the next generation.

The primary difference is that many of the solitary bees survive for an entire year. However, the large majority of that time is spent as a larva or a pupa—or sometimes as a hibernating adult—within the confines of the nest. In fact, some species hibernate for two years before emerging. This is a hedge against bad weather, draught, or a lack of forage. If some of the brood emerges after one year, and some emerges after two years, the species as a whole has a better chance of long-term survival.

Queens and winter bees

Some honey bee adults do live longer than the average spring and summer workers. Honey bee queens have been known to survive for upwards of five years, although for reason we don’t completely understand, long-lived queens seem to be less common than in decades past.

Winter bees, also known as diutinus bees, are those individuals that are raised to carry the colony through to spring. They have special physiological features, including increased fat stores, which allow them to live longer and produce brood food into old age. This subset of workers may live eight or nine months if conditions are good and their hive is safe and warm with plenty of food.

Variation is common

The vast number of bee species, about 20,000 worldwide, allows for lots of diversity and plenty of exceptions. For example, some bumble bees, especially queens, live longer than the four-to-six week average, and I’m sure other examples exist.

Bees in general, not just honey bees, work themselves to death. Old bees are easy to spot because they often have little hair, tattered wings, and even missing appendages. They just go and go until their bodies give out. They have no sick leave, no retirement, and no relaxation. They finally just up and die.

When their time is up

By calculating egg-laying rate, colony population growth, and life expectancy, beekeepers have estimated that an average-sized honey bee colony during the nectar season loses about 1000-1200 members per day. We don’t realize how many bees this is because we don’t see them dead in a single pile. They are the missing that got eaten, smashed, mangled, poisoned, or trapped and those that simply dropped from old age.

Some of those bees were working flowers when the weakness of age took over. The same applies to bumble bees and solitary bees. Some just wink out, some rest until the end comes, some struggle to keep going but can’t. On any given day, I can find dead bees in my pollinator garden, my driveway, or the eaves of my house. In fact, I have a shoebox full of them that kids like to play with.

Of course, some bees, especially those you may see tucked inside a flower on a cold morning, are not dying but only sleeping. This becomes apparent when the sun warms their bodies and they take off, sometimes foraging right where they left off the night before. These bees are seemingly unperturbed by the cold interlude that grounded them for many hours.

Should you help a bee?

Every time someone writes to me and explains how they found a weakened bee and fed it, kept it warm, transferred it to safety, or provided water, I wonder if that’s the best thing. I believe that most of the time these weakened bees are at the end of their lives, having done what nature intended for as long as they were able. Now is their time to let go, but then we come along and prolong that life.

Do bees feel pain? I don’t know. Do bees realize they’re dying? I don’t know. What do they want? I don’t know that either. But I can tell you that my inclination is to let them go, to let them die naturally without a lot of interference.

I don’t always walk away. If I see a bee struggling after its head is severed, for example, I mash it immediately. If I see a bee writhing as if poisoned, I dispatch it. Does my decision-making process make any sense? Probably not.

I can’t explain why I will kill a bee that appears to be in pain and walk away from one that looks to be dying peaceably. Which is why, in the end, I try to answer the questions people ask without giving advice or passing judgement. We each do what we feel is right, but where that decision comes from is anybody’s guess.

As I explained in an earlier post, we can’t save individual bees. If we want to do our part to “save the bees” the one thing we can do is save their environment and protect their habitat. With that, species can thrive, but without it, they are doomed. For those of you trying to save individual bees, I say do what you must, but never forget the bigger picture.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

This bumble bee was motionless for hours, but after the sunlight found him, he simply started to forage as if the night never happened.
This bumble bee was motionless for hours, but after the sunlight found him, he simply started to forage as if the night never happened. Photo by Rusty Burlew
This truly is a dead bee. It got tangled in a web and then was bitten by the spider, a tiny thing only as long as the bee's head.
This truly is a dead bee. It got tangled in a web and then was bitten by the spider, a tiny thing only as long as the bee’s head. Photo by Rusty Burlew

Comments

Peter Borst
Reply

Hi Rusty

Another great post! The subject of insect lifespan is fascinating, and as you say — the range is wide. Some insects live only days, long enough to mate. In fact, some flies have no mouthparts and can’t eat. On the other hand, some insects live a very long time:

Information on lifespan was found for 54 ant species and 10 termite species. The most striking pattern emerging from these is the very long lifespan of queens, with values higher than 20 years in some species. Most data come from queens reared in the laboratory, typically with only a few colonies studied. Hence, these lifespan estimates should be regarded as approximate and only reflect lifespan under laboratory conditions. — Keller, L. (1998). Queen lifespan and colony characteristics in ants and termites. Insectes Sociaux, 45(3), 235-246.

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Pete!

Kathy Grassel
Reply

A friend and I doing an inspection lifted out a honey-filled comb which fell off the bar. Honey poured out and bees were drowning. We scooped the honey and the bees and spent at least an hour picking struggling bees out of the honey. Would this be an exception to leaving them be? Or were we just assuaging our guilty feelings about going ahead with an inspection when it was too hot?

Rusty
Reply

Kathy,

Those kinds of accidents can be so upsetting. If a honey-soaked bee can clean herself up, she’ll be fine. So I think yes, it’s an exception.

Bill
Reply

Both bottom boxes are full to the max, I have added a new super about six weeks ago and nothing. No cells, no honey, nothing. I check for the queen actively and saw some eggs but they were scattered around. There were many cells with multiple eggs. No shortage of bees. Yes, I’m new at this!

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

Are you sure you have a queen? Scattered eggs and multiple eggs are indicators of laying workers.

Gary K
Reply

“Winter bees, also known as diutinus bees, are those individuals that are raised to carry the colony through to spring. They have special physiological features, including increased fat stores, which allow them to live longer and produce brood food into old age.” This part of “winter workers” was something I did not know at all. Being new to bees, one more thing I get to stash away, thanks. And now the question: Is it known what triggers workers [I assume workers] to know it is time to raise them, rather than just plain ol workers?

Rusty
Reply

Gary,

I’ve got a post on winter bees that might help. Also, what triggers the production of winter bees is still being argued, but some people think it’s a dearth of pollen coming into the hive, others think it’s related to decreasing hours of sunlight.

Rusty
Reply

Gary,

It’s also interesting that some biologists consider winter bees a separate caste because they are so structurally different from regular workers.

Dr. Joe Chimento
Reply

Rusty,

I absolutely love your writing style! You have a unique way of conveying your written thoughts in a way that makes the reader feel like they are engaged in conversation rather than reading a scientific passage. Your writing style strikes a chord with me and I wanted to take pause and say thank you for your outstanding work.

Rusty
Reply

Dr. Joe,

Thank you so much!

Paul
Reply

I’ve witnessed worker bees that emerge from the hive (just completed a delivery), fall down, hop … hop … hop, wings in tatters – she obviously just made her last trip. However, not turning around licking her wounds looking for the comfort of the hive, but continuing on to that last great forage spot she has been working until now … never to be able to reach it again, or return from it – but not from lack of trying. Inspiring …

Rhonda Thiele
Reply

Thanks Rusty, I’ve come to many of the same conclusions as a new beek. I squish those injured and try to let others take a natural course. I first experimented quite a bit when temperatures widely fluctuate and some seem chilled. I have found if they respond to warm temps within a minute or less, they may have misjudged their time outside the hive as they warm and march right back in, but others I have “revived” probably shouldn’t have been revived. I get super attached to all creatures and I very much appreciate your wisdom.

Bob Redmond
Reply

Hi Rusty, thanks for the post. Maybe you can say more about the “work themselves to death” situation. I remember reading in some reputable source, but can’t recall where, that honey bees spend some time of their day, maybe 10%, just loafing. Have you any info on that? Also, as you must know, bumbles and other wild bees will start work much earlier and end later than honeybees. I find HB’s a little lazy in comparison, not to mention their preference for only the sweetest nectar. Industrious, yes, but I’ve heard plenty of folks in the “bees are magic” camp extol their “selfless sacrifice” and I look at my bees and see a more judicious approach to time and effort.

Noelle
Reply

Poignant and short—like the life of a bee. Wonderful photos also. I’m not a beekeeper, but a gardener. I see more bees asleep, than dead. “Taking time to smell the flowers” means noticing the bees and feeling sadness at the brevity of their valuable lives. Take care!

Frederick L Heim
Reply

Rusty,

Great writing as always, I file your observations under “Learning”.

Our one “Overwintered” hive is doing ok. The other 3 are producing more. Time will tell which if any will survive the coming winter (seems a long way away, with yesterday’s dewpoint in the ’80s.

Thanks again.
Fred

Ana
Reply

Hi! I’m a bit distressed cause I just found a dead bee in my garden. I have been trying to stop the slugs from coming to the veggies and I put some coffee around some. Also, I had used soapy water for other infestation but none on flowers. The plants it was next to had only the coffee. I’m wondering if I have made a mistake with my infestation solution choices. Do bees come to leaves on other plants without flowers? It makes me sad it might happen again.

Rusty
Reply

Ana,

The coffee won’t hurt the bees, and soap will only hurt them if you spray the bees with it. A soap film on the leaves won’t matter.

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