We get this question a lot at this web site!
So, how long do honey bees live? Do beekeepers need to buy new bees every few months?
Answer: Absolutely not! This is one of the great things about honey bees. Unlike other animals (cows, goats, sheep, etc.) which eventually die, the honey bee colony really never dies! Well almost never - in the winter, about 5% of colonies may expire. In the spring, the beekeeper simply catches swarms that leave the good, strong hives that survived the winter - free of charge!
Good beekeepers can keep their bees alive for many years by simply catching those wayward swarms or splitting good hives to replace any losses. Effectively, a beekeeper may never spend money on bees or queens - once the bee business is established.
You have to think of the honey bees' colony - with its queen, drones, and workers - as a single living creature. On its own, a single bee (even a cluster of a hundred bees) is useless for producing honey or pollinating flowers. It takes the team work of the entire hive to make honey. This means a queen (which might live for several years), thousands of worker honey bees (which might live for several months, but continually are being replaced by the queen - she lays thousands of eggs every day!), and some drones to keep the whole enterprise happy. The colony has living organs - a mouth to feed itself (the forager bees); lungs (the bees that fan fresh air into the hive); a reproductive system (the swarms that fly out each spring); growth tissues (the new wax and new honey stored in 'fat cells' of the hive).... You can see, the the hive is alive and it truly may live for many, many years.
So, do beekeepers have to keep buying new queens every year?
No! Queens might live three or four years - or even longer! - but eventually, they might need to be replaced. Beekeepers make their own new queens for themselves. Most beekeepers actually prefer to raise their own queens - it costs no money and the beekeeper can pick the type of stock he or she most prefers. It just takes a few extra manipulations and the beekeeper is producing all the new, extra replacement queens needed. These queens might also be used to increase the hive numbers or replace dead hives of bees by taking a normal hive and splitting the bees among two separate boxes and adding the new queen. Effectively, the beekeeper is doubling the number of hives operated this way.
If you want to learn how to raise your own queens for sale - for free - follow these links:
Mother Earth - How to Raise Queens
Queen Rearing for Hobby and Commercial Beekeepers
The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has a nice website at the Government Research Station in Tucson, Arizona, which shows how you can model the Honey Bee Population of a hive for several years. You can see how the same colony's population grows in the spring, gets enormous in the summer (up to 60,000 individuals), drops off over fall and winter, then grows again the next spring. This government website is a really nice demonstration of how long a honey bee colony may live (years!).
Allow me quote from the government page: A Year in the Life of a Honey Bee Colony
'For long periods of time, life goes on comfortably inside the hive. On long, warm, sunny days, the queen is busy laying eggs. They house bees keep the hive in good working order. They do this by cleaning and polishing cells and packing them with honey and pollen. This honey is produced from the nectar collected by the forager bees. The house bees add enzymes to the nectar to change its chemical composition. As the water in the honey evaporates and the bees respire, the hive becomes humid and warm. The house bees are responsible for fanning in order to cool and freshen the hive. They must also devote considerable attention to the needs of the queen and the queen's egg laying. After the queen lays eggs, the house bees must cap the comb cells, and rear the brood. House bees must also secrete wax and build comb in anticipation of the need for future brood and food storage. In preparation for their jobs as foragers, house bees will take orientation flights. Honey bees can raid another hive as a method of collecting resources. Some of the older house bees are assigned to guard the hive and ward off attacks. During the daylight hours, forager bees are going about the business of collecting nectar and pollen. Drones looking to mate make their daily afternoon flights...'
Beekeeping: The Beekeeper's Home Pages