A simple question...
As a nature interpreter at the Insectarium, I’m often asked this question: “By the way, how long does an insect live?” It’s impossible for me to keep from smiling a little at this, given how broad the answer has to be, because in entomology, generalizations are risky. Still, when you learn the distinctive features of certain species, you get a more nuanced portrait of these animals’ longevity. So let’s together debunk the myth that insect life is short.
...that reveals more than it would seem!
To begin with, the case of the mayfly leaves its mark on our imagination. These insects live for barely a few hours. A species from the southeastern United States, Dolania Americana, lives as little as five short minutes. However, here we’re concerned only with the longevity of the adult. When we consider their complete life cycle, we find that an insect at the immature stage can live as long as a year or two. Mayflies aren’t so ephemeral, after all.
A species of Arctic butterfly, Gynaephora groenlandica, is also interesting. It develops for seven years as a caterpillar before becoming a chrysalis and then transforming into a moth. Impressive, no? However, given the harshness of the northern climate, it’s active only three weeks out of the year ‒ meaning it lives for seven years, yet sleeps for six and a half of them.
But the longevity prize belongs to certain ant and termite queens. Depending on the species, they may live as long as ten, twenty or even thirty years. Bearing that in mind, you’re likely to treat the next ant queen you come across with respect!
A diversity of nuances
In light of these examples, it seems obvious that a single short answer is impossible to provide. But that’s a good thing, because it reflects the immense diversity of insects. With roughly one million species identified to date, they account for half of all the biodiversity on the planet. And each of these species has its special features with respect to life cycle and longevity.
N.B.: For the curious who like butterflies, here’s a piece of information that might make you happy. An adult butterfly on average lives for between two weeks and two months. Obviously there are plenty of counterexamples.