A simple question, but with a more subtle and complex answer. The truth may surprise some!
First, there are different classes of bees in a colony:
Let’s start with the Queen. She can live up to 4 years, but the average is about two (which is still a rather long time in the insect world!) Her drones live for about 8 weeks, but they die after mating and regardless of age will be evicted by the female workers in the fall to die of exposure.
The workers, you need to split into two groups: Summer Bees and Fall Bees.
Summer bees will live about 30 to 35 days, and literally wear themselves out. They work their tiny bodies to the limit their entire brief lives, and the last chore they perform is to fly out and die in the grass so that a sister worker won't spend precious energy removing her corpse. These bees provide an extreme example to all of what working to benefit the collective can look like.
Winter bees are produced starting around mid August, and they have a much greater quantity of fat bodies compared to summer bees. These fat bodies among other stored nutrients stockpile vitellogenin (Wikipedia) a yolk type protein that, in a nutshell promotes longevity by modifying behavior and how the bees can metabolize energy. Winter bees can live up to 6 months, roughly six times as long as summer bees and this difference is simply to make absolutely sure that the hive can get through a potentially long winter period to the spring on the other side.
For the bees, lifespans tend to be short and sweet. In reflecting on a lifespan that sees the sun rise only 30 times, maybe we can all find some lessons there.
Editor's note: in the news section of this issue is recent research from the University of Maryland (link to the paper in Nature) that may suggest the average lifespans of American honeybees have become much shorter in the past 50 years. All the more reason to follow their incredible example and make hay while the sun shines ☀️