Most of the insects that you see around have rather short lives. Many insects only have a lifespan of a few days, up to one year. We don’t notice it, because insects are soon being replaced by the next generation. Besides that, we often only see the adult stage of the insect: flies, mosquitos, beetles, and butterflies — all have a larval stage that is often longer than their adult lives. However, some insects have extremely long lives compared to the average lifespan of insects. What are the longest-living insects?
The longest-living insect that we know is the Golden Buprestid, which can live up to 51 years. Most of his life they live in their larval stage burrowed in wood. Other long-living insects are termite queens (30 years), ant queens (28 years), and periodical cicadas (17 years).
Some insects have an incredibly long lifespan. To know that there are some insects now that are older than you! That is quite astonishing when you realise that most insects generally live only for 1 year. But how can they live such long lives? The way they live will surprise you!
The general lifespan of insects
Insects have typically a lifespan of one year or less. Actually, oftentimes it is less than one year. There are also many insects that only live for several days. However, many times this is only the adult stage, but including the other life stages, an insect lives much longer — but still rather short compared to many other animals.
Insects have generally three life stages. It starts off with an egg (not included in the lifespan). When it hatched it has a worm-like shape called a larva. These larvae are quite small and white, yellow, brown, or coloured somewhere in between. These larvae will eat continuously and will slowly grow — although some larvae will grow rather fast.
When it is fattened up, it is time to turn into a pupa. From there, an adult insect will emerge (imago). With many insects, it will live in its larval stage for around 50% up to 95% of its total life span.
5 insect species that have an extremely long lifespan
However, some insects have taken it to the extreme regarding total lifespan. They evolved to live extremely long. This takes up strange ways they live, and in many cases, it is still not fully understood. We will talk about 5 insect species that are exceptionally long living (at least compared to other insects).
Periodical Cicada (Magicicada spp.): 17 years
The Periodical Cicada is long believed to be the oldest insect species in the animal kingdom. There are three species that live for 17 years — M. septendecim, M. cassinii and M. septendecula. Or maybe I can better say: they emerge every 17 years. Millions of them in a single night.
Nearly all cicadas live for many years burrowed in the ground as larvae. They have a synchronized life where they all emerge at once. They will climb the trees with millions together. There they will have their final moult into a winged adult, and have a short adult life where they breed and lay eggs. Then, for 13 years or 17 years (depending on the species), they live as larvae again until the next time they emerge all at once.
The video below shows what this strange natural event looks like. But what is the purpose of this lifestyle? It is still not fully understood why these cicadas emerge at the same time with such a long time between the events.
Sleeping Chironomid (Polypedilum vanderplanki): 17 years
This animal is a rather strange one on this list. Actually, its normal lifespan is not so long at all. Under normal circumstances, the Sleeping Chironomid will live for around 1 to 7 days (and have around 2 months of development before becoming an adult). But, this species can live in extreme environments.
This particular animal can survive complete desiccation. They live in small pools in Africa, where the pools dry up during drought. But these can revive after the water becomes available again with the next rain. Well, you might think that this is not that special. But they can even survive desiccation for 17 years, and still, revive!
This phenomenon is so unique that scientists did a lot of research on the environmental tolerance of this animal. They looked at the survival of this species under different extreme environments. The results are astounding:
- It survived 18 months of exposure to outer space.
- It survived after boiling at 103°C for one minute (some even survived boiling at 200°C for 5 minutes).
- It survived after keeping it at -190°C for 77 hours.
- It survived after 168 hours into 100% ethanol.
The secret is that it has a special state where it can survive such extreme environments called ‘anhydrobiosis‘.
Black garden ant queen (Lasius niger): 28 years
The black garden ant, also known as the common black ant, can be found in many backyards in Europe, North America and Asia. In Europe, it is one of the most common ant species. Nothing special about it. Except that the queen can live up to 28 years!
Yes, this queen can survive for almost three decades producing eggs to grow the colony. Although queens of all ant colonies outlive the sterile workers, this queen is one that lives the longest.
What is more unique, is that most insects survive long in a larval stage, dormant and waiting for the right time, slowly growing and eating. Ant queens instead are productive all its life. It produces masses of eggs to keep the number of workers in the colony, or even to let the colony grow.
Black garden ants can also be kept as pets at home. Here you can see the beautiful structure and cooperation within an ant colony. But now you know, it is a pet that takes a long-term commitment!
Western subterranean termite queen (Reticulitermes hesperus): ~30 years
Termite queens can even live longer than ant queens. Although there are some contradictions written about the lifespan of termite queens, we know for sure that they can live at least up to 30 years. Some reports even tell that they can live up to 50 years, but some scientists believe they can live up to 100 years. Yes, you read that correctly. They think that they can live for a century, which means outlive most humans.
Termite queens are quite helpless and need continuously care of their sterile workers. Workers feed and care for the queen, and carry the eggs produced by the queen to special chambers. And that is quite a job!
100 or 1000 eggs a day is quite normal for insects to lay. But it is often with intervals or once in their life. With a termite queen, it is a whole different story. Some termite queens can lay up to 30.000 eggs a day. That means almost 11 million eggs a year. And when you realise they live for at least 10 years, they produce over 100 million eggs in their life! ‘Egg producing machine’ gets a whole new meaning.
Golden Buprestid (Buprestis aurulenta): 51 years
The story of how they initially found the lifespan of the Golden Buprestid is quite peculiar. At first glance, this splendid beetle looks like many other beetles. It is beautifully coloured, but nothing more special than that.
However, people noticed that they sometimes appeared from old wooden furniture or wooden floors, some build 40 years ago. Where their normal lifecycle only takes 2 to 4 years, in some processed wood the larval stage is delayed and may take up between 26 and 51 years.
The Golden Buprestid is the oldest known insect in the animal kingdom that we know for sure it reaches such old age. It is astonishing that an insect can reach such age, although it is mostly dormant and sleeping for years. Some even believe that these beetle larvae can live up to 60 years.
How about the lifespan of pet insects?
How about the lifespan of insects commonly kept as pets? Most of them don’t live that long. The age of 1 or 2 years is most common for that of pet insects.
Are you looking for a pet insect that lives longer? Then you should keep an ant colony. Ant colonies can easily survive for 10 or more years. Although workers don’t live that long, it is the queens that live quite long and keep producing new ants if you take good care of them.
Although not insects, giant millipedes also have a long life span. Most of them live between 5 and 10 years. They make great pets and are easy to care for.
There are some bugs that live quite long. Head over to the article about how long pet bugs live and find the different lifespan of bugs that are commonly kept as a pet.
Want to know more?
That some insects have taken it to the extreme, such as with their lifespan, will be clear by now. But why are insects such a successful species? Why do insects dominate the world in biomass and diversity, and why are we so depended on them. You can find it all in the article ‘Why are insects the most successful animals‘.
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