A Minnesota resident, Nicole Webinger filmed what seemed to be a funeral procession for a dead bumblebee led by an ant colony with her phone and then posted to Facebook for all to witness this marvel in nature.
“Saw this outside of my work by the garden. There was a dead bumblebee, and we were watching the ants bring flower petals and leaving them around the bumblebee. It looked like they were having a funeral for it.”
The posting quickly went viral raising questions about this spectacle and if it really was a funeral? This led to other questions about animal behaviour and how we can misunderstand so much
Animal behaviour captivates most of us with acts that sometimes seem to be so complicated and complex to fathom, so we tend to put a human ‘spin’ on to them to understand them better.
It is believed by some experts, that a compound called oleic acid is discharged from both ants and bees when they perish. It is quite possible that this bee could just have been in the path of the ants while hard at work carrying petals, and was mistaken to have been part of the colony. Ants are known for carrying the dead members of their colony to a refuse heap.
Another possibility, but just an undocumented theory; was that the ants were just moving the bee from prospective predators and placing is somewhere safely until they were ready to feed upon it themselves
Further comments and theories to shed some light on the spectacle:
Mark Elgar, a behavioral ecologist from the University of Melbourne said; “It’s a great video. I’ll use it for teaching first-year biology next year to illustrate the power of suggestion. The caption tells us that the ants are burying the bee in flower petals — how wonderful is that?”
He clarified that the caption of the picture leads viewers to interpret the scene to imagine a group of ants burying a bumblebee in a flower petal, a lovely thought indeed, but more likely just another natural event taking place.
He continued to explain his understanding of the event; “My guess is that the bee is sitting over the top of the ants’ nest entrance, and that is why there is a number of petals sitting around the bee, including more ants arriving with petals.
Senior Curator of Hymenoptera (the order of insects that includes ants, bees, and wasps) at the Natural History Museum, London, David Notton said; “[It’s] hard to say as the locality and type of ant is not clear, but most probably they are harvester ants (vegetarian) taking petals back to their nest as food, and a dead bee has somehow ended up on top of the nest entrance. That is to say, the bee may be more of an obstacle for the ants if it is preventing them taking food down their burrow.”
Dana N Jesse Kendall after seeing the clip on Ants Canada wrote; “Bees and ants are in the same family (Hymenoptera), so their dead bodies are going to release similar pheromones once they die. Ants protect their nest, and ‘bury’ the bodies of their dead sisters as far from the nest as they can.
They also discard the colony’s trash (insect exoskeletons, hatched cocoons, poop, etc) in the same place that they move the dead bodies to.
Discarding dead bodies and colonial trash in the same area cultivates symbiotic insects called ‘springtails’ and they feed on, and break down, the dead bodies and other trash, which keeps mold and bacteria out of the nest. As ‘cool’ as it is to imagine that the ants have some level of sentience that will allow for altruistic behavior, it’s just not possible.”
A postdoctoral researcher of entomology at Louisiana State University, Thomas O’Shea-Wheller said: “I think it is one of two things; either a ‘rubbish mound’ for the ants, upon which they are stacking various decomposing items (including a bumblebee and petals). Or, a food store upon which they are storing items that they have foraged for. Either way, the key point is that they seem to be treating the bee and petals as the same kind of resource, or waste product, thus the appearance of a ‘bee funeral’.”
Ultimately, nobody is able to definitively give a conclusive explanation of this event, but it will intrigue us and continue to add to yet another secret mother nature holds…