A video doing the rounds online at the moment shows an unusual event – it’s either the loveliest thing you’ll see today, or a rather dark ritual.
The video in question features a sadly-expired bee surrounded by pink petals. As you watch, you realize the petals are rustling, and are actually covered in ants. As you continue watching, you see that the ants are the ones dragging the petals over to the bee and placing them in a circle around it.
It’s probably about now you are reminded of the scene in The Hunger Games when Katniss creates a makeshift funeral for Rue with wildflowers. Is that what is happening here?
Well, social insects like ants, bees, and wasps are the only creatures – apart from humans – that have a complex behavioral strategy for the disposal of their dead. Like most things, they do this for the good of the group; the group comes first.
And, like in any colony or hive, the insects are divided into groups by whatever their main task is. These divisions of labor include those tasked with the removal of the dead or the dying to prevent disease and infection spreading among the rest of society. And yes, they are called undertakers.
For ants, once they have detected a dead or dying comrade by the chemicals released from them, the undertakers will carry the dead outside the colony and take them a safe distance away, often to the same place – an ant cemetery if you will. For bees, it's not quite so romantic. The undertakers drag them out of the hive and then fly off and dump them, which could be what happened here.
It may be a nice thought that the ants found the discarded body of the bee and felt it should have the funeral rites befitting its important stature in nature – and the world. However, that's highly unlikely unless we're in a Disney movie.
One theory floating online is that they’re actually looking at a pretty spectacular dinner, and 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.
However, David Notton, Senior Curator of Hymenoptera (the order of insects that includes ants, bees, and wasps) at the Natural History Museum, London, has another suggestion.
"[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," he told IFLScience. "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, had two further theories.
"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," he told IFLScience.
"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'."
So not actually romantic or sinister, just life.