Nature is enchanting, diverse, dynamic, and mysterious. Animals behave in ways that are often too complex for us to understand, so we tend to insert our human experience into their world.
While this might prove successful at times, it might also lead to errors of interspecies communication and understanding.
One day, a woman called Nicole Webinger was surprised to see a strange phenomenon in nature: an ant colony seemed to create a funeral rite for a dead bumblebee.
She quickly took her phone and filmed the entire event, and posted the video on Facebook.
The Minnesota resident wrote:
“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 clip went viral, with thousands of people asking if the ants were really holding a funeral for the bumblebee, or it was something else in question.
The video prompted a larger conversation about the animal kingdom and how we interpret it. Is this some kind of a cultural rite, or it is just a coincidental grouping?
A behavioral ecologist from the University of Melbourne, Mark Elgar, 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?”
Edgar explained that just because of the caption, we think we see a group of ants burying a bumblebee in flower petal, while in fact, the scene is most likely a natural occurrence of a different sort.
“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.
Of course, it might be a complete set- up. Someone actually put the bee there thinking this might happen, creating this lovely image.”
Some experts believe that as both, ants and bees release a compound called oleic acid when they die, the ants must have found the bumblebee while transporting flower petals and thought it was one of them. Ants have a practice of transporting the deceased members of their colonies to a refuse heap.
Another theory is that the ants were trying to hide the scent of the bee from potential predators, so they can snack on it themselves. Yet, such behavior has not been seen before in ants, so this theory has not been accepted, just like the first one.
Another possible reason is that they are creating a trash heap.
After seeing it on Ants Canada, Dana N Jesse Kendall 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.”
According to David Notton, Senior Curator of Hymenoptera (the order of insects that includes ants, bees, and wasps) at the Natural History Museum, London:
“[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.”
Thomas O’Shea-Wheller, a postdoctoral researcher of entomology at Louisiana State University, 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’.”
While no one could definitely explain the event, the video keeps fascinating netizens, showing one of the numerous secrets of the natural world.