A woman, Nicole Webinger, posted a video from her garden, showing ants bringing flower petals and leaving them around a dead bumblebee is going viral.
Webinger likened it to a funeral. Yet, it has quickly gotten millions of views and puzzled many. What are the small ants doing? Is it possible they are performing some kind of funeral, mourning the death of a friendly bumblebee?
We are probably just applying a lot more human attributes than the situation warrants.
Behavioral ecologist Mark Elgar from the University of Melbourne said that he liked the video and it will serve him for teaching first-year biology the power of suggestion.
Yet, even though the video caption said that the ants are burying the bee in flower petals, he explains that even though “thinking outside of the box is always really helpful, what the person is suggesting is that the ants are behaving in a completely different way in anticipation of something that hasn’t formed part of their experience.”
It turns out, “that’s a big ask for an ant.” Ants do not have funerals, humans do. As Edgar notes, “concealing them with the odor of petals, it’s a possibility, but it would really have to form part of the ants’ repertoire.”
He believes the truth is more boring than this- he thinks the bee is sitting over the top of the ants’ nest entrance, which explains the number of petals sitting around the bee, including more ants arriving with petals.
David Notton, Senior Curator of Hymenoptera (the order of insects that includes ants, bees, and wasps) at the Natural History Museum, London, agrees, claiming they are most probably “ 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. ”
Therefore, the bee is an obstacle for them if it is preventing them from taking food down their burrow.
One theory floating online is that the ants are actually looking at a pretty spectacular dinner, so they are using the petals, which, as they decay, give off a pungent smell, to disguise the chemicals given off by the dead body, and discourage other scavengers from discovering their prize.
While this is an interesting idea, it is also one that attributes some pretty complex and novel behavior to ants that has never been witnessed before.
On the other hand, Thomas O’Shea-Wheller, a postdoctoral researcher of entomology at Louisiana State University, had two further theories, one claiming that the place is a ‘rubbish mound’ for the ants, upon which they are stacking decomposing items, 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’.”