The animal kingdom is a wondrous place, as is the world of insects.
Through hundreds of millions of years of evolution, insects have developed startlingly different lifespans – from 50+ (possibly 100+) years for queen termites to hours or even minutes for other adult insects.
It’s all part of the tapestry that nature weaves around us every nanosecond of our existence on Planet Earth.
Today, we will look at the insects with the shortest lifespans. We start with ones that live for a few months as adults, then gradually go down to those lasting weeks, then days, and finally hours.
What Determines Lifespan for Insects?
There are a number of factors that determine the life span for all animals. Insects are no different, though they have one additional factor (which we discuss at the end) which tends to set them apart a bit.
Some Common Factors
Some of the common factors are:
- Brain to body ratio
- Metabolism rate and changes in the same
In addition to the factors mentioned above, there exist a slew of unknown ones – some of which may be known for certain species, but many which are not – and which cannot be generalized across all types of insects.
At Least One Distinguishing Factor
The thing that may distinguish the “life span” of insects is that when we talk about the time animals spend on earth, we typically do not count the period when they are in the womb, and their childhood, adolescence, youth and adulthood are all spent as independent creatures – they are typically not cocooned or within some other organism.
Most insects are different. Insects that experience complete metamorphosis go through four stages of development, namely:
- Pupa, and
Then there are insects that undergo incomplete metamorphosis, with only three stages of development:
- Nymph (young insect), and
There are numerous insects, especially some with short life spans, that spend a lot of time as a larva/pupa or a nymph and much less time as an adult.
Here, when we talk about insect lifespans, we are counting the days they live only after they emerge as adults.
This is consistent with normal understanding; since people don’t consider the caterpillar or the subsequent pupa to be a moth or butterfly.
We will introduce the unlucky 13 shortest-lived insects in three categories, those that live (a) between one to four months; (b) a few weeks and (c) a few days, down to hours and even minutes.
Category A – Insects that Live a Few Months
The insects in the list below typically live up to 3-4 months as adults, though in a couple of cases, their time on earth may be extended by an additional month or two.
The Dragonfly (Average Life Span – 4 months)
Dragonflies and their cousins the damselflies belong to the order Odonata, and the former belong to the infraorder Anisoptera.
This includes some 5,000 species around the globe.
There is a popular myth of dragonflies living for a day, but that is not true. If nothing else goes wrong, dragonflies live for 4 months on average.
The catch, though, is that something usually does happen! Dragonflies have many natural enemies and predators (birds, frogs, spiders and lizards to name a few), and often do not survive their natural lifespan.
Another problem is that they often face harsh climates with high winds.
The latter is particularly harmful to young dragonflies; since it takes their wings a bit of time to become strong enough to fly after they emerge from the larval stage. This makes them sitting targets for predators.
Damselflies, which are often mistaken for dragonflies but are a distinct infraorder, live longer.
While it could be as little as a couple of months, they have been known to stretch their time to several years. Dragonflies do not last that long even in the most favorable conditions.
The Carpet Beetle (Average Life Span – 2 weeks to 2 months)
Carpet beetles are a common household pest that can damage furniture, carpeting and clothing.
While their natural habitat is in Europe, North Africa and North Asia, they are also present in South America and the deep southern coastline of the US and Mexico, as well as parts of Central America.
Carpet beetles live significantly longer as a larva and other stages, which is when they also tend to do more damage.
An adult varied carpet beetle (Anthrenus verbasci) could be as short-lived as two weeks.
The Fruit fly (Average Life Span – 1 month)
The fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), also known as the lesser fruit fly or the vinegar fly, is an extremely common insect in and around human habitation.
Given their brisk life cycles, the fruit fly is often used as a test subject for lab experiments that have paved the way to many scientific findings (for example, they were used in the experimentation to determine if insects feel pain).
D. melanogaster is considered a pest in any place where food is served, given its propensity to spread diseases.
There are other species, such as the Mediterranean fruit fly or medfly (Ceratitis capitata), that are also called fruit flies in their local regions and causing some confusion. Medflies are pests that cause damage to crops.
During their short existence, fruit flies are a nuisance, since they are attracted by rotting fruit and spoiled food and vegetables.
The Cicada (Average Life Span – 1 month)
Cicadas belong to the superfamily Cicadoidea and are part of the same suborder as grasshoppers and leafhoppers.
The main branch of the family is the Cicadidae, which consists of some 3,000 species around the globe, barring Australia (who have their own branch with two species). While cicadas do eat tree sap, they do very little actual damage to trees.
There are two types of cicadas – the periodic (Magicicada in North America) – that live underground as nymphs and emerge in a swarm every 13-17 years, and the annual cicadas that come out annually.
While they have long life cycles, cicadas only last for a month when they emerge above ground as adult insects.
Category B – Insects that Live a Few Weeks
The insects below typically live up to 4 weeks as adults.
The Worker Honeybee (Average Life Span – 2 to 5 weeks)
In any hive built by honeybees, you would find the queen, along with drones and workers.
In the typical case for both western honeybees (Apis mellifera) and eastern honeybees (Apis cerana), you would typically find the queen mating young, being fed and living for years at a time.
The drones live for 20 to 40 days and the ones who do all the work, and die relatively quickly, are the workers.
The younger and middle-aged worker honeybees typically work within the hive, while the adult workers go on many (up to 10) hour-long foraging trips a day.
Besides their active life which wears them out, worker honeybees also die from diseases and are often attacked by predators, including hornets.
The Housefly (Average Life Span – 2 to 4 weeks)
The common housefly (Musca domestica) has been around over the past 66 million years or so and has developed in habitats close to humans.
Thought to have originally come from the Middle East, these common household pests live longer in safe, domestic settings than they do out in the wild.
The adults typically live up to four weeks, but their life cycle can expand a bit when they hibernate during the winter.
Houseflies are notorious for spreading diseases, due to their carrying pathogens around on their hairy legs and appendages and their propensity to squat in unsanitary spots.
The female housefly, which mates only once on average, still manages to lay batches of 100 eggs – one reason that the infestation seems to continue despite the adults being short-lived.
The Drone Ant (Average Life Span – 3 weeks)
The male members of an ant colony (family Formicidae), drone ants don’t do much except for the one time they are useful – when they mate.
They die quickly after they do their bit to perpetuate their species.
During their lifetime, drone ants laze around and rarely leave their nests. Within and outside the colony, all the work is done by female worker ants in most cases.
The workers can live for a longer period of time, stretching up to a year.
On some occasions, the queen lays eggs on the backs of winged alates, which can be both male and female ants. Then, the alates swarm out of the nest and carry themselves and the eggs to form a new colony.
Once there, the drone ants perform their mating functions and perish. A few of the female ants may become queens, the others continue as workers.
The Powderpost Beetle (Average Life Span – 2 weeks)
Powderpost beetles are second only to termites in terms of the damage that they can cause to your house and furniture. They have the capability of reducing woods to a powdery residue, hence the name.
The three most destructive groups of powderpost beetles happen to be lyctids, anobiids, and bostrichids, each as deadly as the others.
It is hard to know in advance whether you have powderpost beetles, since the adults are active only at night. If you come to see the evidence of the damage, though, you better act fast.
Category C – Insects that Live a Few Days
The insects below typically live up to 4 weeks as adults.
The Indianmeal Moth (Average Life Span – 5 to 13 days)
The Indianmeal moth (Plodia interpunctella) is a common housing pest in North America.
It was named due to its pervasive presence in American households and grocery stores, where the larva is reputed to devour maize or “Indian corn” meal.
Of course, it is equally adept at eating cereal, grain products, spices, seeds and even dog food. In truth, most of the damage this insect causes is due to the infestation, rather than what it eats.
While the entire life cycle can last from 1 to 10 months, most of it is spent in the larval and pupal state.
An adult Indianmeal moth typically lays hundreds of eggs within three days after they emerge, and do not last for more than 10 days past that point.
The Midge (Average Life Span – 3 to 5 days, one species lives a few hours)
Midges (family Chironomidae) are small aquatic insects, also called non-biting midge, gnat or chironomid.
Even though they look like mosquitoes, aquatic midges typically live their few days long existence without bothering humans, since they do not bite or draw blood.
One of the scientific uses for the species comes from observing whether midges are proliferating in a water body, while mayflies, caddis flies, stone flies etc. are absent. This indicates poor water quality.
A harmful species of the midge is the barley midge or Hessian fly (Mayetiola destructor), so named because they were apparently transported from Europe to North America in the luggage of Hessian soldiers who came over to flight in the American Revolution.
They are a significant pest to cereal crops such as wheat, barley and rye. The Hessian fly lives for roughly 4 days.
One category of midges, the gall midge of the genus Rhopalomyia are the shortest-lived among the midges. They emerge as adults in the morning and are typically dead by midday.
The Acmopolynema hervali (Average Life Span – Less than 3 days)
The Acmopolynema hervali is a species of parasitic wasp, one among thousands of species of such insects – there are 6,000 species in the UK alone.
During its short lifespan, the Acmopolynema hervali wasps perform a service that is very beneficial to farmers.
These parasites attack the egg, larva and pupa of insects that are harmful to crops and keep their populations under control.
As an example, the parasitic wasps bore into the skin of the caterpillar as soon as it is hatched, laying eggs under their skin. The host is kept alive, but the parasitic wasp keeps drawing nutrients as the caterpillar eats.
When it reaches a certain stage of growth, the parasites will release chemicals that paralyze the caterpillar, then use its saw-like teeth to bore through the skin. The wounded caterpillar may perish, or never emerge into the adult insect.
The Mayfly (Average Life Span – Less than 5 minutes (!!) to 1 or 2 days)
Mayflies are aquatic insects that belong to the order Ephemeroptera, which in turn is part of an ancient group (Paleoptera) that also includes dragonflies and damselflies.
They are also known as shadflies or fishflies in the US Midwest and Canada, and up-singed flies in the UK.
Mayflies are widely reputed as the shortest-lived insects on the planet, though (as we will see shortly) the female of the species definitely takes the cake in terms of a lack of longevity. The average mayfly lives for a day.
Due to their observed, fleeting lifetimes and the name of their order, the words “ephemera” or “ephemeral” were coined to denote things that do not last for a brief moment.
As far as the female mayfly species Dolania americana goes, their time as an adult is less than 5 minutes!! That’s not a typo. They spend a very long part of their lifecycle in their nymph state.
After their final molting, they emerge as an adult, mate, lay eggs in the water that they emerged from, and then pass away. Talk about ephemera!
We hope you have enjoyed learning about the vagaries of life on this planet, and the myriad paths that evolution takes to get to the current state of the insects discussed above.
Going from the adult insects to the female mayfly, that is often born without a mouth since they have no use for it in the few minutes it survives, the imprint of nature is everywhere – and it is as wondrous as our Earth.
Alright, that’s it for this article, here are a few hand-selected articles that you might also find interesting reads:The Top 10 Strongest Bugs – This surprised me!
Top 6 Most Beautiful Insects in North America
Top 10 fastest flying insects in the world
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