Honey bee (Apis mellifera) workers live longer in small than in large colonies

Olav Rueppell, Osman Kaftanouglu, Robert Page

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations


Social insect colonies are highly integrated units that can be regarded in some respects as super-organisms, with colony size and individuals analogous to body size and cells in unitary organisms. In both, unitary organisms and super-organisms, the relation between body/colony size and lifespan of the constituent units (cells/individuals) is important for understanding systemic aging but remains to be explored. Therefore, this study compared the life-history and longevity of individual honey bee workers between a large and a small colony social environment. We found that individuals in large colonies were consistently shorter lived than individuals in small colonies. This experimental effect occurred in both principal life history phases of honey bee workers, the in-hive and the foraging stage, independently of the age of the workers at their transition between the two. Nevertheless, this age of first foraging was a key determinant of worker longevity, in accordance with previous studies. The large colonies raised more brood, built more comb, and foraged at higher rates. Our results do not comply with the idea that social group size has a positive effect on individual longevity. Instead, our findings suggest that large and small colonies follow different demographic growth trajectories, trading off longevity of individuals for overall colony growth. Similarly, multi-cellular organisms might sacrifice maintenance and repair of their individual constituent cells for enhanced metabolic activity and organismal growth, leading to the widely-observed negative correlation between longevity and body size within species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)447-452
Number of pages6
JournalExperimental Gerontology
Issue number6-7
StatePublished - 2009


  • Ageing
  • Biodemography
  • Colony growth
  • Mortality dynamics
  • Social insects
  • Sociality
  • Super-organism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Aging
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Endocrinology
  • Cell Biology


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