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.
Honey Bee Suite