Honey bees have an average lifespan of around two months. However, this varies depending on the role of an individual honey bee within a colony. In every colony of honey bees during the summer, there will be just one queen, approximately 200-300 male drones, and the rest will be female workers. Queens can live for several years, but drones and workers are much shorter lived.
The queen is responsible for laying every single egg for the colony. She is the only reproductive female, and therefore the other bees are instinctively driven to protect her.
Drones are the males of the colony and their purpose is try to mate with a queen. Every autumn, all of the hive’s drones are driven from the colony, and the population is replenished in the spring, with drones hatched from unfertilized eggs.
Workers bees that are hatched in the spring and summer live for six or seven weeks. This is when the colony is most productive, and they generally lead short but busy lives collecting nectar and pollen to feed the colony. Since the queen stops producing eggs before winter, workers hatched in late autumn will live much longer, up to six or seven months, keeping the hive warm and caring for the queen.
Making up most of the hive, worker bees are responsible for most of the duties in maintaining the colony, and their duties change depending on their age. As with many insects, worker bees undergo three different stages of life:
- the larval stage, in which they are cared for by adult worker bees;
- the pupal stage, in which they undergo a metamorphosis while sealed in the honeycomb; and
- the adult stage, when they’re most active in caring for the hive.
Together, the larval and pupal stage consist of more than half of a typical worker bee’s lifespan. Fifty per cent of her life, after emerging from her cell, is dedicated to nursing other larvae, tending to the queen, building the hive, managing the storage of food, guarding the entrances and ventilating the hive. Only in the last 50 per cent of her adult life does she leave the hive to forage for food. Most honey bees will only live a short time after leaving the hive to forage for the first time.
It’s a short but productive life, and the majority of a worker bee’s time is spent preparing for the winter and sustaining the generations that will come after her.