The length of a honeybee’s lifespan depends on which role they have in the colony. Male drone bees live about 2 months, spring worker bees live about 4 to 6 weeks, fall worker bees live about 4 to 6 months, and a queen bee’s lifespan is about 3 to 6 years.
How Long Does a Worker Bee Live?
Worker bees begin as fertilized female eggs laid by the queen into brood comb. It takes around 21 days for an egg to go through the larvae and pupa stages and hatch into a worker bee. As soon as they hatch, worker bees go into action as house bees, also known as nurse bees, and begin caring for their younger unhatched siblings, their queen, and cleaning the hive.
The amazing thing about worker bees is that each one will fulfill all roles in her lifetime. This means if the hive ever swarms to a new location, all the worker bees will be able to take on whatever role is needed to keep the colony alive.
After 3 weeks as a house bee, a worker bee graduates to being a field or foraging bee. It’s the forager’s job to collect pollen and nectar and deposit it back to the hive. They also collect water and propolis, a sticky substance from trees that bees use to seal up their hive. Foraging bees also build honeycomb with their wax secretions, make beebread, and guard the hive.
Worker bees have a limited enzyme system that helps them to fly. For busy foraging bees in the spring, their enzymes run out more quickly than in the fall when they are huddled up around the queen. Consequently, worker bees live about 4 to 6 weeks in the spring, when they are quickly replaced by the queen who is laying up to 2,000 new eggs per day at this point. In the fall and winter when the bees seem to disappear and are less active, worker bees can live between 4 to 6 months.
Worker bees have barbed stingers and because of this their stinger will pull out of their bodies after use and they die. Worker bees will use their stingers to defend the queen, guard the hive, and protect themselves from predators while foraging.
Can Bees Live Up to Five Years?
Queen bees can live up to five years, but worker bees and drone bees do not. A queen can actually live up to 6 years, but a lifespan of around 2 to 3 years is more typical. As the queen ages, her egg-laying abilities and the strength of her pheromone which is spread through the hive both diminish. When the colony senses that the queen is not up to the task of laying heavily enough, they will plan a supersedure where a new queen is raised up to replace the old queen.
There is a direct correlation between the queen’s ability to lay prolifically in the spring, and the colony’s ability to forage and produce honey. To keep the colony at its most productive, particularly if you are looking to make money through beekeeping, many beekeepers replace the queen themselves every 1 to 2 years. This ensures a strong genetic pool and excellent production in the hive.
What makes a queen bee special is her diet. A queen bee begins as a fertilized egg and is fed royal jelly for the first three days like all other eggs. Royal jelly is a milky substance that is produced from glands on the head of nurse bees. Queen bees however will never stop eating royal jelly while the other bee eggs will instead be fed bee bread. This royal jelly allows the egg to grow to reproductive maturity and allows her to lay eggs. The queen is much larger than the other bees in the colony and is easy to spot.
Queen bees do not have barbed stingers, so she can use her stinger without dying. Though she rarely uses her stinger unless it’s to kill another developing queen bee pupa in its cell so she can be the queen. Learn more about Queen Bee Facts.
How Long Do Drone Bees Live?
Like all roles in a hive, if a bee is not useful, it is eliminated. This is especially true for drone bees whose sole use to the hive is mating with a newly hatched virgin queen. Drones are males that begin as unfertilized eggs. They are slightly larger and stouter than female worker bees, but not as large as the queen bee. They have no stinger, and also cannot forage for food so they are completely dependent on the worker bees for survival.
Drone bees are raised in the spring and summer months in case a new queen needs to mate, but by late fall and winter, they are kicked out of the hive where they either starve or freeze. Drones are unnecessary mouths to feed in the winter, so they are allowed to die. In the spring new drones will be raised in case they are needed. The average lifespan of a drone bee is 2 months.
If that’s not bad enough, drones have another terrible way to die, by mating with the queen. Very few drones actually get to mate with a queen, who only takes one mating flight soon after hatching and mates with about 10 to 15 drones. The sperm from the drones will supply her for the rest of her life. Drones will fly to DCA or Drone Congregation Area to mate with any local queens and ensure the genetic pool is varied and strong. For the lucky few that do mate, the forceful ejection of their mating appendage during mating rips it out of their bodies and they die soon after.
Honeybees are a superorganism that thinks almost as if they were one, hence the name “hive mind.” All the bees work for the greater good of the colony even if it means death. They are truly incredible creatures!
How Do Bees Usually Die?
The vast majority of colony deaths happen in the winter. Specifically at the end of winter going into early spring before the nectar has really started flowing the bees can starve to death or succumb to a varroa mite infestation. It has been reported that about one-quarter of all hives will die in the wintertime. In some respects, this natural selection is a positive for helping only the genetically strongest hive survive.
However, there are many steps a beekeeper can take to lessen the impact of winter hive death. Most importantly a beekeeper should monitor and treat Varroa mites, as they are the single biggest cause of winter hive death. Beekeepers can also take steps to make sure their hive has enough honey for the winter.
Click here to learn more about treating varroa mites and preventing winter death, and check out our article on planting a bee garden for the healthiest bees.
How Long Do Bees Live Without a Queen?
The average lifespan of a worker bee is four to six weeks in the spring through fall, so without a queen to lay new eggs, the hive will die out in a few weeks to a month. In the wintertime, a queenless hive can last longer, but they will likely be so weak come spring they will die anyhow.
Beekeepers can watch for signs of a queenless hive by observing the bee’s demeanor. A queen will release pheromones into the hive so the bees will know within 30 minutes if she is gone. A lack of queen pheromones will cause the bees to be cranky and listless. Rapidly dropping bee populations and an absence of eggs and brood are other sure signs of a queenless hive.
Often when a colony appears to be queenless, it actually has a virgin queen who is not yet laying. A virgin queen is harder to spot because she is smaller and can fly more quickly. The easiest way to tell if you have a queenright colony (a colony with a queen) or a queenless colony is to place a new queen in a queen cage on top of your frames and watch how your bees react to her. If they react aggressively, you most likely have a queenright colony. If they stream towards the caged queen, you likely have a queenless colony.
What Do Bees Do With Dead Bees?
The majority of dead bees die while foraging. The enzymes that keep them flying will eventually wear out and they will drop in a field somewhere. Though drones don’t forage, they are kicked out of the hive and starve or freeze to death and die on the ground. When bees do die in the hive, which is very few, the worker bees wait until their bodies are dry and carry them out of the hive and drop them on the ground about 100 feet from the hive. Bees are actually very hygienic creatures and take great care to keep their hives clean, and even will groom each other.
How Do You Know if a Bee is Sleeping or Dead?
During the coldest part of winter, bees may appear dead, when actually they are in a state of hibernation called torpor. Torpor helps the bees to conserve precious energy and need less honey in the wintertime. To check for torpor you can bring a few dead-looking bees inside and gently blow warm air on them in your hand. If they are alive they will begin moving slightly in a few minutes.
Aside from wintertime torpor, bees also sleep year-round. Worker bees will forage in the daytime, and come back to the hive at night and sleep. When bees sleep their antenna, wings, and abdomen all noticeably droop. The younger house bees that stay inside the hive will nap frequently. If you find a very slow-moving bee away from the hive, they may be exhausted from foraging. You can offer it some sugar water or let nature take its course.
What Can We Do to Encourage Bees to Live Longer?
Using organic practices on crops is one of the best things we can do to keep our bees healthy. Even if you don’t grow crops yourself, you can buy organic to support the market demand and greatly benefit your health as well.
Honeybees are responsible for pollinating 3/4th of all the food we grow, which is one-third of the total food we eat. Without the bees, humans wouldn’t thrive. Planting a bee garden is a wonderful thing you can do to feed your local bees as well as provide you with a beautiful flower garden.
If you decide to keep bees, use more natural methods such as foundationless frames, dusting for varroa mites with powdered sugar, and not overharvesting their honey.
What about you? What steps have you taken to encourage healthy bees, and what has worked best for you? Let us know your experience in the comments below.