The animal world never stops surprising us. Recently an orca whale moved the whole world by accompanying the body of his dead companion for 17 days, and now another animal funeral rite has been making a buzz on social networks. And for good reason, this time it was a ceremony organised by ants around the remains of a bee!
The video was put online a few days ago by Nicole Webinger, a resident of Minnesota in the United States, and it shows a bee being surrounded by flower petals by a group of dedicated ants.
‘I saw this outside at work in the garden, there was a dead bee, and we were watching the ants bring flower petals and put them around the bee,’ says Nicole Webinger. ‘It looked like they were holding a funeral for him,’ says the witness of this amazing scene. This was certainly a surprising event, which nonetheless has a more rational explanation.
The scent of death?
After the publication of the video several theories emerged, one of which surrounds smell. Ants and bumblebees share the same power, which is releasing a smelly substance known as oleic acid after their death. This is a warning signal that relays the message to the workers of the colony that there is a body needing to be transported.
‘They may be responding to [the call] of the oleic acid, and some of the more careless workers are trying to pull the bee to the nest,’ says Mark Elgar, an animal behaviour ecologist at the University of Melbourne, Australia, who still somewhat doubts this first hypothesis. ‘It's not that crazy, but I think it's rather unlikely.’
A scavenger’s appetite?
Another theory put forward by some to explain this astonishing scene is that the ants have a deliberate need to hide the smell of the corpse. The theory then is that they are trying to protect the body from other possible scavengers so that they have exclusive access to the meal. This explanation however was also swept aside by the Australian specialist. ‘[This] suggests that ants act in a completely different way in anticipation of something that they are not used to. This is a lot to ask of an ant…’
A more rational explanation
Mark Elgar finally manages to stamp down the enthusiasm generated by this viral video. ‘In my opinion the bee is above the entrance to the ants’ nest, and that is why so many petals are around the bumblebee, and why the ants keep bringing more petals.’
These floral petals are one of many ants' favourite foods, and they also use them, among other plant materials, to meet the current needs of their nest. Viewed from this angle, the magic of the scene which was interpreted as a funerary rite now seems quite farfetched. But Mark Elgar still retains some of his enthusiasm.
‘It's a great video, I'm going to use it to teach first year biology next year, to illustrate the power of suggestion.’ There is such a big buzz surrounding a little bee, who unfortunately won’t be doing any more ‘buzzing' of his own!