Viral Video Shows Ants Covering a Dead Bee in Flowers. Is This an Interspecies Funeral?

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Are ants holding a funeral for this dead bee?.

A video (shown below) that was originally posted by Minnesota resident Nicole Webinger depicts some truly bizarre animal behavior that experts say they've never seen before: ants carrying flower petals to the body of a dead bumblebee.

"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," she wrote in a post accompanying the video. "It looked like they were having a funeral for it."

Funerals, of course, are complex behavior; something only really seen in humans and a few select other mammals, like elephants. To attribute that explanation to ant behavior is highly speculative, to say the least. But so far, experts have struggled to come to a consensus about what else this behavior could possibly be.

That doesn't mean that there aren't any hypotheses, however. One leading theory points out that both bees and ants release a compound called oleic acid when they die. This allows these social insects to identify when one of their brethren has passed away, so that the body can be dealt with. Bees have a habit of throwing out the bodies of their dead from the hive, but ants tend to transport their deceased to a midden heap.

So it's possible that these ants have stumbled upon the body of this dead bumblebee while transporting flower petals, mistaken it for a dead ant, and dropped their petals to instead attempt to drag the bee to their heap. It's an interesting theory, but unlikely to be true given the fact that this behavior has never been seen before. If ants had no way to distinguish the oleic acid released by dead bees from the acid released from their own kind, you'd expect to see ants carrying dead bees all over the place.

Another theory suggests that the ants might be burying the bee in flowers to mask its smell, to hide it from potential predators. This way the ants can chow down on it themselves without any competition from other scavengers. It's an interesting idea, but its also one that attributes some pretty complex and novel behavior to ants that has never been witnessed before.

Yet another theory attempts to explain the scene in the simplest way possible. Maybe the bee just happened to die right on top of one of the ants' nest entrances, and the ants, confused by the abrupt end to their chemical trail, are mistakenly dropping the petals that they're transporting at the foot of the bee.

"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," explained behavioral ecologist Mark Elgar to Science Alert.

Elgar also points out that the simplest explanation might just be that some humans have set the whole thing up themselves; that it's a hoax.

Whatever the explanation, it's an intriguing video, and one that we probably won't ever have a definitive answer for so long as the behavior is never witnessed again.