This week, a video of a bizarre scene in the insect world vent viral, prompting a larger conversation about the animal kingdom and how we interpret it. The video appears to show a group of ants performing some sort of funeral ritual for a dead bumblebee - or at least that’s how many viewers interpreted it. Is this evidence of some sort of interspecies cultural rite, or merely a coincidental grouping of objects?
The video does portray an admittedly odd spectacle. A dead bumblebee sits in the center of a pile of pink flower petals as ants appear to be dragging more petals to add to the pile. "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," Minnesota resident Nicole Webinger wrote in a now-deleted post accompanying the original video she took. "It looked like they were having a funeral for it."
Of course, there are many ways of interpreting this animal “funeral,” many of which don’t involve overlaying our human perspective onto what may merely be a random occurrence. University of Melbourne behavioral ecologist Mark Elgar told ScienceAlert that it could be that the ants are responding to chemical signals released by the dead bee and carrying it to the entrance to their nest along with the petals, an act which just so happened to have created the bizarre scene. "Of course,” Elgar says, “it might be a complete set up. Someone actually put the bee there thinking this might happen, creating this lovely image.”
Does this video show something truly remarkable? Probably not, although there is some precedent for thinking it might. Some animals are known to recognize their dead or engage in seemingly symbolic behaviors when some individuals die. Elephants have been observed engaging in “parades” for fallen members of their groups, while many marine animals have also been spotted attending the corpses of deceased individuals. Earlier this month, an orca carried the body of her dead calf for 17 days and 1,000 miles after it died in what has been described as an unprecedented display of mourning in the animal kingdom. But then there's that monkey that ate her dried-out, dismembered dead baby lats year after carrying it around for weeks, so make of these what you will.
As much as we might want animals to walk like us and talk like us, it may be that we are utterly alone on this planet in our emotional and cognitive capacities - whether that means we're subpar or above average is up for debate. Animals behave in ways completely unknown to us, and as much as we might try to understand them and insert our human experience into their world, to do so is to risk making severe errors of interspecies communication and understanding.
Remember: all that stands between your dog and your face is a bowl of food. Don't ever forget it.